Christian traditions: the commendable practice of things not forbidden

“Here I stand. I can do no other.” So said Martin Luther, the 16th century German monk now considered the father of the Protestant Reformation. When it came to doctrine, particularly the doctrine of salvation, he stood boldly before Church councils, insisting on the supremacy of Scripture. On Luther’s correct reading, only the Bible can show us how to be saved. Pardon of sin and reconciliation to God come only through faith. We can do nothing to earn heaven’s favor.

While Luther was clear that the Bible is the basis for theology, he was less clear when it came to the question of Church tradition. Traditions are time-honored practices that have grown up in the community of faith. One example is the practice of Lent, the forty day period preceding Good Friday and Easter. While some Christians wanted to eliminate this annual period of solemn reflection, since Scripture does not mandate it, Luther argued that it should be maintained as a practice that strengthens faith. Luther was willing to keep as part of worship or the life of the Church meaningful practices that – while not taught by the Bible – neither were they forbidden.

Such a debate is not relegated to the 16th century. Sitting around a table with some fellow ordained ministers, one told of his recent visit to a church. At the beginning of the service, the pastor lit candles before giving the opening prayer. My colleague bit his tongue at the time, but insisted to us that such a practice was a meaningless ritual not only out-of-step with the ethos of the pastor’s chosen denomination, but doing nothing to commend the Gospel.

I said little to my friend, since it wasn’t the place to get into a protracted debate. On further reflection, however, I believe that we in the Wesleyan-Holiness camp would do well to admit that we likewise have our own set of traditions that – while not taught in Scripture – have historically proven helpful.

Exhibit A is what some Christians call the “altar,” but was originally called the “mourner’s bench.” This innovation of 19th century American revivalism gave a place for the repentant sinner to come to meet with God. Now the altar has been transplanted to many countries and found useful. Shall we discard the mourner’s bench simply because the Bible speaks nothing of it, or shall we embrace it as a helpful tradition, an aid to the prayer life of the community of faith?

And this begs the question: If the mourner’s bench has proven meaningful for the last hundred years in some quarters of the Church, shall I lightly discount the tradition of lighting candles that may be meaningful for those in other Christian traditions, and which has been practiced far longer? Sometimes rituals point beyond themselves to bad theology,  and if this is so, we should be careful to correct it. For example, if a lit candle is meant to symbolize the worship of a saint, then Protestant theology would reject such a practice as idolatrous. But lighting a candle at Advent time to focus our attention on the first coming of Christ is a helpful tradition that violates no biblical injunction. In one congregation that I visited, they lit a candle each week when someone new came to Christ. It was a meaningful ritual for that church, one that reminded them to be constantly praying for the lost. Can one find Scriptural support for lighting a candle in that circumstance? Of course not, but that need not rule-out a faith-affirming practice.

Another unquestioned tradition is closing our eyes during prayer. Scripture portrays Jesus lifting his head to heaven at Lazarus’ tomb (see John 11), addressing an open-eyed prayer to the father. We can find other prayer postures in the Bible, including kneeling and laying prostate before God. However, closing eyes during prayer is not one of them. Shall we on that basis forbid it? Surely that would be an over-reaction! Years of experience have taught us that closing our eyes when addressing God shuts out distractions, allowing us to focus our thoughts on Him. It is a helpful practice not forbidden by Scripture, and as such, should be kept.

Besides the mourner’s bench and closing our eyes during prayer, a third tradition that many Christian churches practice is the use of harmony during congregational singing. Interestingly, John Wesley discouraged the singing of parts as distracting, encouraging everyone to sing melody only. But long practice has overridden Wesley’s objection, and Scripture gives us no word one way or the other. Hymnals are printed with soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Worship teams include singers for each of the parts. In short, the tradition of harmony in church music more often than not produces a richer texture, greater beauty ascending before God’s throne.

Jesus tells us to see the beam in our own eye before we extract the speck from our brother’s eye. When it comes to Christian traditions, it’s easy to criticize other faith communities, remaining blind to our own community’s idiosyncrasies. In any case, let’s guard against practices that subvert clear commands of Scripture, all the while giving thanks for the helpful communal practices that point us beyond ourselves to Christ.

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