Tradition! Part One

Go ahead… sing it if you need to…. I’ll wait.

Traditioooooon! Tradition!

In our home, my wife often sings that line when our conversation veers into the topic of “tradition”. Most of us, even if we weren’t raised on “Fiddler on the Roof” know the reference, and certainly know and use the word. Tradition. Foods served, gift exchanges, or even jokes or stories that get repeated at holidays or get-togethers become “family traditions”. We all know the canon of “traditional Christmas carols” that get played during the holidays. At the store we can even buy “traditional chips” or “traditional pasta sauce” (I’m not always sure what exactly makes a chip traditional, but hey, if they say so). In faith communities, “tradition” can be used to distinguish something, a hymn or a worship service, from “contemporary”. Sometimes in the faith context “tradition” is used in the pejorative, identifying it with “traditions of man” vs. the “commandments of God” (see Mark 7:8). The latter use is often levied at the ‘keeping of rules’, ‘adopting of worldly practices’ or worse ‘unquestioning submission to authority’. This negative perception is often connected to assumptions about practices in “traditional  faith confessions” like Roman Catholicism, or, like the Church I joined thirteen years ago – The Orthodox Church.

Tradition is a big deal in Orthodoxy. Yes, we put it right up there with Scripture. I’ll try to explain in a later post the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, which is really more of a “dance” or “marriage” than a categorical primacy of one to another.  I also hope to talk about what “Tradition” is as it is understood in the Orthodox Church (oh, and we also have the whole big “T” and little “t” tradition thing – that’s yet another topic). Finally, I will touch on some misunderstanding and misuse of the word “tradition” and the curious phrase “traditionalism” (preview: beware of “isms”! Run away! Its a trap!).

But first I want to tell a bit of the story of my own relationship with “tradition”.

When I first began looking into Orthodoxy, I have to admit, “tradition” was still a foreign concept, at least as the Orthodox understand it. I still associated it with a certain rigidness. Yes, part of me still had hang-ups with the thought of joining a “traditional church”. However, by the time I actually joined the Orthodox Church, the word “tradition” began to take on a very different light. I don’t know how else to say it, but it came alive and broke out of the old assumptions I had. In a word, “tradition” became comforting. It became not a cold structure, but rather, a life-preserving shelter.

You see, my wife and I’s journey to Orthodoxy began with a crisis. It wasn’t really a crisis of faith, but rather a crisis of church. In our young adult life we witnessed or heard about quite a few ‘churches’ splinter and even split. The reasons for these divisions really boiled down to differences. One could argue differences in “tradition” even in communities that claimed to not espouse it. Differences in leadership styles, in the ‘focus’ or ‘order’ of Sunday services,  even differences in preference of what music should be used at services caused serious problems for these communities. What became even more of a crisis was that churches we had been in and around all claimed to be ‘Holy Spirit led’, ‘Bible based’, and ‘Christ-centered’, yet would preach and proclaim some very different things about very important issues. We had been through, and even become proficient at “proof-texting” our beliefs. But others could do this too. Some of them would come to very different conclusions.

Our question was not about the reality of God or the veracity of the claims of Jesus Christ as being the very Son and Word of God incarnate. I didn’t (and don’t) question the sincerity of belief of any particular pastor or congregation member. I had (and have) nothing but gratitude for people and congregations that helped raise and strengthen my life in Christ through many formative years. But there was still a question lingering there that remained unfulfilled. The more we thought about it, It really came down to the question”What is the Church?”. If you ask that, then you are quickly led to the question “Where is the Church?”

That question helped me to learn about tradition in a way I hadn’t before.

To be continued…

NEXT UP: Tradition! Part Two: “By word or by letter” (2 Thess. 2:15)

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