You don’t seriously think…”man’s rules” matter, do you?

“You don’t seriously think…” is a format for responding to reader’s questions in more depth.

All traditions are not created equal.

All traditions are not created equal.

Snark Meter Sorta Snarky.002Greg, responded to this week’s “Why I dropped church” post on his blog thependulumeffect. He writes:

I AM a traditionalist…I traditionally believe that we should love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength…we give Him our lives in faith. THAT is tradition. The rest is just man’s rules…Jesus…teachings are devoid of anything dictating whether or not we have stained glass windows, acolytes, liturgies, music, organs, guitars, pews, coffee, candles, multimedia and light shows, or even church buildings…Christians should test everything we believe and practice against Christ’s teachings. If anything doesn’t pass the test, do we have the courage to abandon such beliefs?

Hello Greg,

Thank you for responding to my post in your blog. It is a great complement when others write to you, even more when they blog in response to your ideas. The simple answer is: “No and Yes.”

I  am right there with you, Greg, when you say that the main thing is to “love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength.” However, faith as the main thing was not in question in my post. It was assumed. My purpose was the search for a deeper discipleship.

All Traditions are NOT created equal

Your argument, in essence, is: Since faith is what matters, traditions do not. From your list of “traditions,” you appear to mean “practices in historic worship.” I am curious as to why you view those as categorically opposed to faith? Traditions might be irrelevant. However, “traditions” that teach faith, shape faith, and form faith matter specifically because of what they accomplish: the building of faith. To say anything else is to say that the actions of a Christian DON’T matter, something I am pretty sure you would not say.

Any faith practice can be perverted, subverted and elevated beyond recognition. They can distract or bury the Gospel…this is true of modern “traditions” as well as ancient ones. “Traditions” can also be used as they were intended – to cause a greater surrender to Jesus, a growth in grace and mercy and as deep discipleship to send Christians into a lost world to bring the Good News of Jesus.

The “Rules of Men”?

There is a big difference between “the rules of men” (rabbinical teachings added to the Law), and “the practices of Christians in worship.” Let me use one of your examples: acolytes. I have never met anyone who would say that an acolyte is a worship necessity. However, many would say that the procession in which acolytes march is edifying: The Cross of Jesus is brought into the place of worship, reenacting the consecration of pagan Roman sites for the worship of the Lord, Jesus Christ. It is the reclamation of Roman processions in which Christians, forced to bow before the emperor when he came through town, were now able to bow before the emblem of the real King who had come to establish God’s new Kingdom. That is a “tradition” about a new citizenship in a new Kingdom-one for the benefit of “men” but most definitely not about “men.”

In thegospelside I try to get people to question uncritically held assumptions about the way we do things and where they lead…the backsides of every coin. Everyone can see the downsides of dead tradition. Although we are beginning to see a change, people are still embracing unquestioned mega-multisite-evangelical virtual-popery.

Preferences. Schmeferences.

I do not write about preferring one style over another. I point out two essentially different visions for Sunday worship: One is worship as “an experience for the unchurched.” In this model, the Sunday worship “environment,” is “church for people who don’t like church,” as Andy Stanley and North Point Church articulate quite compellingly. In the relevant model the Christian exists as an “inviter” for the high-horsepower preacher and the sanctuary exists to evangelize the lost. In the ancient model, church was to “equip the saints for the work of service,” to quote Paul in Ephesians 4, in order that individuals would each go to the world to evangelize it. The relevant model utilizes the gifts of the gifted to accomplish what the gifts can accomplish. My assertion is that use of gifts in the sanctuary to do the ministry rather than to equip others to do it is a new “tradition,” one divorced from 2000 years of Christian tradition…and one that will not help us in the long run.

Historic Christian worship was to accomplish the purposes of building faith and equipping the believer through things such as having us kneel before our Savior in the public confession of our sins…come to the Lord’s table with outstretched hands to receive rather than “take communion.” Humans take nothing in grace. It is all receiving. In The Church of the Great Tradition one bows before the cross and at Jesus’ name, not out of legalism or tradition, but out of a reminder that there is a Lord, and he is not me.

Greg you asked: “Christians should test everything we believe and practice against Christ’s teachings. If anything doesn’t pass the test, do we have the courage to abandon such beliefs?” I ask you the question back. How much of what your church does on Sunday is in Scripture? The worship pattern of popular evangelical Christianity is bound by song and sermon. The pattern of the early church was Scripture and Supper-based on synagogue and Temple. Those elements were narrative based, and symbol rich. They had a purpose, purposes we lose if we subtract the symbols and narratives.

So, Greg, I thank you for reading and also for keeping the main thing the main thing. That does not mean, however, that all roads to the main thing are equally biblical or equally formative in their effect. And that was my point.

*Greg has an interesting and well-written blog: thependulumeffect


The Church is Christ’s Bride, Not His Baby Mama.


In case you are not up to speed on the last decade’s slang, a baby mama is someone with whom you made a baby, but have no commitment to and little contact with.  In other words, someone objectified, used, abandoned, and now mocked for being dumb enough to think the guy would actually be faithful to her.[1]

If you are a Christian does that remind you of anything?

I hear similar attitudes towards the church expressed in Starbucks every week. People waxing eloquent about how into ‘Jesus’ and ‘spirituality’ they are, but not so much ‘religion’ or the ‘Church.’ It is why 24 million people watched Jefferson Bethke’s spoken word video “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” last year.

I am most amazed when I see Christian leaders encouraging people to use the church as their ‘baby mama’ –  for their own desires and preferences, and when she no longer ‘does it for me’ to ditch her for a younger, sexier model. What I am whining about exactly? Here are a few examples:

  • Checking to see if the “good preacher” is on before going.
  • Having one church for worship, one for small groups, and one for preaching.
  • Changing churches because you just aren’t “feeling it” anymore.
  • Driving so far across town for a church you like that your unchurched friends would never think of coming with you.
  • Picking your church, not on beliefs, but simply because your friends all go there.
  • Criticizing the church you didn’t go to from Starbucks on Sunday morning.

For the love, have we lost our ability to pick something and stick with it!

The church has played right into our preference driven world by featuring ever-hotter, better packaged versions of itself.[2] And, as with a baby mama, after we have used her, we stand back and mock that she is hurting from our lack of commitment and fidelity. It is the height of fashion to stand close enough to the church to criticize it…sort of like standing close enough to a fire to urinate on it. …and just like people who have had too much beer on a camping trip, everyone laughs and no one asks the obvious question, “Helping or hurting?”

I get that the church has earned its negative reputation. We have often behaved badly. I get that the church has been irrelevant, unloving, unhelpful and invested more in carpet than cast-offs. Surely the church has often behaved as Hosea’s harlot wife, but even so, she is still Christ’s bride and the mother of believers. To quote Tony Campolo’s misquote, “The church may be a whore, but she’s my mother.”[3] Even gangsters have their mother’s backs. It is why “mama” jokes don’t play in the ‘hood. But the church isn’t a baby mama, even with her all her problems she is the spotless bride of Christ.

Bridal imagery, by the way, is all over the New Testament.[4] The church as Christ’s bride was a common image in the early church and remains such to groups with higher ecclesiologies (like Catholics, Orthodox and Anglican). The other feminine image of the church, the church as our mother, is largely from the early Christians, although it too has  roots in Scripture.[5]

What we have done, perhaps as an unintended consequence to the Reformation meets American pragmatism and individualism, is created a religion of me, by me, and for me. Our most holy Trinity of me, myself and I.

The historic vision of the church universal (catholic) is the Church as agent of salvation (proclaiming the Gospel), mediator of salvation (baptizing us into new birth in our spiritual mother, the Church), and means of sanctification (Word, Sacrament and service). It is also this bride for which Christ will some day return.[6] As Cyprian said, “If one is to have God for Father, he must first have the Church for mother”[7]

The motherhood of the Church, showing her as a birthing and nurturing institution, bearing fruit in many “sons of God,”[8] and the bride-hood of the Church, portraying a union with her bridegroom, are not just nice metaphors.  They are necessary to understanding our right place in the cosmos as God’s children.

The Reformers may have removed the direct mediation of the church from salvation, but they still had a very high view of the church. John Calvin, for example, wrote, “The Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.”[9]

The church needs us. It needs us to repent of our philandering and commit to her. It needs us as insiders, not as onlookers; As her children, rather than a cheap and unfaithful lover ever looking to move on to his next conquest.

[1] There is a name for people with the most baby mama’s: Big Poppa’s. Here is a website devoted to the professional athletes with the most children by the most women: Enjoy watching New York Jets, Antonio Cromartie try to remember all of his kids names.

[2] A friend, Dave Wright blogged about this recently at The posts are under “Youthministry and church” 3 posts about a field trip to an exceedingly cool church sporting 1970’s psychedelic secular rock and very funny preaching.

[3] Wrongly attributed to Augustine by Tony Campolo in Letters to a Young Evangelical.

[4] See, for example: 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:21-33; Rev 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17.

[5] Passages such as Galatians 4:26, 2 John 1,4 and 5 and Revelation 12

[6] Rev. 21:22

[7] Cyprian, Letter 74.7.2, in Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation

[8] Gal 3:26

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vols. 20-21