Tradition: A custom, opinion, or belief handed down to posterity, whether orally or by practice. In theology it is often regarded as a particular doctrine claimed to have divine authority without documentary evidence.[i]
When Martie and I left the Dutch Reformed Church in 1996 in search of the truth (after some 44 years since childhood), we found the journey through the Pentecostal and later Charismatic environments exciting. Our studies in biblical counselling further enhanced our experiences. With time, however, we could not remain blind to many excesses and Scriptural abuses we saw. Trying to talk about it with some leaders (fortunately not all) immediately resulted in branding as a rebel who refused to submit under authority. “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” is not an uncommon remark by perceivably insecure and sometimes spiritually abusive leaders. Dupont made a similar observation in his book on Toxic Churches.[ii]
One seminar we attended among many today stands out for its amusement factor. The presenter opened every day’s activities with prayer, during which all kinds of demonic spirits were addressed and instructed what they should do or not do. And so, without fail, he would also come against and “bind” the reformed tradition spirit. Yes, and we eagerly ‘amened’ him in the process. Today we can only grin foolishly at our sincere amens of that time, for our eyes have opened to the fact that every denomination has its own set of traditions which dictate what the Bible and their doctrines “really” say.
Over the past five or six years we have come to realise more and more just how powerful church traditions are and how effectively it keeps Christians captive in wrong doctrine. Even sincere believers whose lives testify of a love of Christ, battle to shake of the shackles of their traditions. Many times it is due to a lack of knowledge. Research that I undertook among members of various denominations for an academic dissertation found that only a small minority of church members had been taught principles of Bible interpretation. And of course even that is no guarantee of accuracy in biblical accuracy interpretation and understanding.
As Martie and I study the Bible anew, as if for the first time and without using the writings of great names to tell us beforehand what the bible says, we share our understanding with family, friends and acquaintances. Today we have a website where we add our articles and other material, but previously we used the email only to share our views with a small group of people. The reaction has followed a predictable pattern throughout: The majority (probably 90% or more) reacted simply with silence. From a few we would receive constructive feedback, whether they agreed with us or not. In these cases we could follow-up and enjoy responsible discussion. Most who did react, however, did so by sending us some wellknown person’s material on the topic, without adding any insights, concerns or disagreements of their own.
There have been a number of not-so-friendly reactions as well, and I am glad to say they were few. What has been grounds for great concern though, has been the reaction of some pastors. In his reply to a newsletter explaining our understanding of some core end-times concepts, one stated that: “…there are over 300 references to the end times. Every major Christian religious group (except for the Witnesses) believes there will be a rapture…”. Apart from the fact that his statement on religious groups that believe in a coming rapture was factually inaccurate, it was also clear that he had not made any real study of the 300 so-called references to the end times. The traditions handed down by his teachers were enough, it seems. Another friend’s reply was that he desperately needed Jesus to return (and one can surely sympathise with his sentiment). It is highly improbable, however, that he closely studied and considered our biblical understanding in this regard.
I do not write this in an unkindly fashion, for I was there once – teaching and preaching end-times doctrines handed down to me by my teachers and preachers, and of course those dynamic, charismatic televangelists. And it all sounded so well, so biblical – until one puts the books of popular authors aside and start to study the Bible with the Berean approach found in Acts 17:11. In a treatise of Matthew 24, Ovid Need Jr. shared the following example: “Several years ago, I raised a question regarding a favorite ‘end time’ passage to a very close pastor friend. I asked him what he was going to do with the clear teaching of the passage. I was surprised when he said, ‘This is the way I was taught by men I respect. This is the way I have taught it, and I am not going to change now.’ He admitted that the passage did not say what he had been taught, yet he was willing to reject the clear teaching of the passage in favor of what he was taught by men he respected”.[iii] There was a time when I may just as well have been that pastor friend of his.
When one considers the fact that there are reportedly more than 38 000 denominations in the world, using the Bible as their foundation, but each with its own measure of peculiar traditions, I can understand the growing discomfort of the world with Christendom. But let’s face it: if the return to doctrines that are biblically sound does not start with the church leaders and teachers, we will need a miracle from God to turn this ship of traditions around. Traditions are seemingly cast in concrete and have an ability to lock up God’s word in favour of religion instead of revealing the kingdom truth.
The principle expressed by Yeshua MiNatzaret still holds true today:
Is it any mystery why the modern church has become so powerless in the world? I conclude with the following observations of A.W. Tozer: “It would be impossible to overemphasize the importance of sound doctrine in the life of a Christian. Right thinking about all spiritual matters is imperative if we would have right living. As men do not gather grapes of thorns nor figs of thistles, sound character does not grow out of unsound teaching…All a man, a church or a denomination needs to guarantee deterioration of doctrine is to take everything for granted and do nothing. The unattended garden will soon be overrun with weeds; the heart that fails to cultivate truth and root out error will shortly be a theological wilderness”.[viii]
[i] Tulloch, S. (editor-in-chief). 1995. The Oxford Dictionary And Thesaurus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[ii] Dupont, M.A. 2004. Toxic Churches: Restoration From Spiritual Abuse. Kent: Sovereign World.
[iii] Need, O. 2000. Matthew 24, Facts And Fiction. http://www.preteristarchive.com/Books/2000_need_matthew-24_facts-fiction.html
[iv] Stern, D.H. 1998. The Complete Jewish Bible. Clarksville, Maryland: Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc.
[v] Green, J.P., Sr. 2nd ed. 1986. The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew, Greek, English. Hendrickson Publishers.
[vi] Holman Christian Standard Bible. 2003. Nashville, Tennessee: Holman Bible Publishers.
[vii] NET Bible. 2006. www.bible.org.
[viii] Tozer, A.W. Chapter 37. The Importance of Sound Doctrine. Man – The Dwelling Place of God. www.worldinvisible.com/library/tozer/5j00.0010/5joo.0010.37.htm.