part 2

So, yesterday, I tried to show that tradition in and of itself is neither a good nor a bad thing. I discussed the ahistoricism and anti-traditionism (Leonard Allen has very cleverly referred to cofCs as the “anti-tradition tradition”) of Churches of Christ, i.e. our belief that our history is ultimately irrelevant to who we are as Christians, that it doesn’t shape us at all. I asserted that that belief has had very definite consequences and I gave one example.

Today, I want to go a bit further. I intend to look at another consequence of unexamined tradition: it blinds us to the fact that many of our beliefs have changed over the years. Ironically, change in belief occurs even as we assert that our beliefs and practices have never changed, that they are undeniably based upon the NT.

I’ll raise several examples specific to NI cofCs (and, somewhat, to ‘mainstream’ cofCs):

1) I’ll start with an easy one, from an NI angle. I probably won’t get any kudos on this one from my ‘mainstream’ readers. Anyway, Churches of Christ have argued over issues of inter-congregational cooperation on two different occasions in their history. The first time, the argument centered around the Scriptural validity of what were then (late 19th century) called ‘missionary societies.’ The missionary society, in brief, was a parachurch organization to which individual congregations would send money for the purpose of recruiting and supporting foreign missionaries. Disagreement over the acceptability of such an arrangement (along with other issues such as instrumental music) led to the first major rupture in the Stone-Campbell Movement (officially dated to 1906), resulting in two separate communions, the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ.

Half a century later, Churches of Christ argued over the question of inter-congregational cooperation again. Why? Our inherited ahistoricism is largely responsible. I believe it was Gore Vidal who once referred to America as a nation of “historical amnesiacs.” What is true of America is true of Churches of Christ generally. In a mere 50 years, Churches of Christ by and large had forgotten that they had ever disputed with anyone over issues of cooperation. Fanning Yater Tant, in his opening affirmative in the Tant-Harper Debate (1955), points this out:

“Some may ask: ‘Why a discussion at this late date over church cooperation?’ May I call this to your attention: During the last twenty-five years how many sermons have you heard on instrumental music and why the churches of Christ do not use it? I will guarantee that in nearly every gospel meeting you will have heard such a sermon. If not a sermon, at least considerable teaching. And how many churches do you know now that are having trouble as to whether they will, or will not, introduce an organ into their worship[?] You don’t know any. Now, in these last twenty-five years how many sermons have you heard on what’s wrong with the Missionary Society? In all probability, you have not heard any until the last year or two. And what do we see? All over the nation, people are distressed and disturbed and apprehensive and uncertain over the question of how churches can and can not cooperate, which is the problem of the Missionary Society. Why do we have these problems? Because the teaching has not been done that should have been done…”

There are many factors at work in this citation. I’ll start with general concerns and move to more specific ones. First, a mere 50 years after the first dispute over congregational cooperation, Churches of Christ completely reversed themselves on the question. Without a sense of historical continuity, within a couple of generations, the commonly-held doctrine (right or wrong) had changed. What’s more, this took place without any recognition that a change had occurred. Tant’s sparring partner on this occasion, E.R. Harper, flatly denies that any change has taken place and goes so far as to say that CofCs have always cooperated in this way. It’s astounding really.

One final observation on this point. Toward the close of the debate, Tant returns to the point (although I doubt he would express it in this way) of historical memory.

“I quote here from Dr. A.T. DeGroot, who is one of the leading scholars in the Christian Church, and who has been for years connected with Texas Christian University. He has written a little booklet entitled “Detour from Unity,” in which he describes the efforts of certain conservative Christian Church people to withdraw from the Christian Church denomination. He says this:

‘Certainly the Church of Christ will offer no welcoming hand of fellowship unless the “Church of Christ, Number Two” (i.e. his conservative brethren — F.Y.T.) forswear instrumental music. They might not be obliged to renounce missionary societies; for the Church of Christ is developing the first forms of these very rapidly, one of which spends over a million dollars annually on broadcasting sermons. But fellowship with the Church of Christ would not mean unity, for that body is actually in many disfellowshipped fragments. In April and June 1955, one Church of Christ minister will debate another at Lufkin and at Abilene on the subject of Missionary Societies which have emerged in the Church of Christ.’

That is not a member of the church speaking. That comes from a very astute student of church history, a professor in Texas Christian University, who is totally objective and unconcerned about this. To him it is a big joke; it is fun to him. But from a wholly objective point of view, he says that Missionary Societies are rapidly emerging in the church of Christ. He is exactly right.”

hat to do with this? Well, as a good anti-tradition Church of Christ thinker, the only thing to do is to ignore it, which is what Harper does. It’s irrelevant. He’s figured out a way to interpret the Bible to make it say what he wants it to say. It just didn’t matter that his results don’t fit with what CofCs had consistently taught up to that time.

2) My second example is pacifism. This has actually been pretty well documented in the past few years, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice it to say that, in the late 19th century, Churches of Christ were overwhelmingly pacifist, by the middle to late 20th century, they had overwhelmingly rejected that stance. The testimony of our spiritual forefathers is virtually unanimous (Campbell, Stone, Lard, McGarvey, Lipscomb, Harding, John T. Lewis, Homer Hailey, et al.). But none of that mattered. There’s that ahistoricism again! One might say the same, really, for any doctrine held among Churches of Christ. No matter how intensely it was held at a given time (take, for example, the large numbers of conscientious objectors from Churches of Christ during WWI), within a couple of generations it’s likely to be superseded by some new understanding. That is exactly what happened to pacifism in the CofC.

While I’m thinking about it, this holds true with respect to our attitude about certain teachings. In Churches of Christ, individuals over several generations can hold to a certain doctrinal understanding (X) with absolute freedom, that is to say that no one will argue over the issue or make it a test of fellowship. Often, a wide variety of views will be tolerated. Then, quite suddenly, the acknowledged leaders in a particular generation will loudly declare X to be heresy and attempt to proscribe it. Examples of this include, but are not limited to, premillenialism (which just wasn’t an issue until the 1910s and 1920s), MDR, and various understandings of the creation account. Among ‘mainstream’ cofCs, the list is longer: the work of the Holy Spirit, the name “Church of Christ,” rebaptism, etc.

3) One final issue, just to get in everyone’s craw :): the head covering.

First, hear me carefully. I am not coming down one way or the other on this issue. I raise it simply to make some historical observations.

Among NI Churches of Christ, it used to be quite common for most, if not all, women to cover their heads in worship (based upon a literal reading of 1 Corinthians 11). My own grandmother, to this day, will not be caught dead in church without a headcovering on. Tracts were written outlining the position and it was taught with conviction among women in these churches. This was true, if I had to guess, until roughly the middle to late 1980s (my memory, admittedly, could be faulty). But this has changed quite drastically. Many preachers who once spoke in favor of the covering have publicly changed their teaching, as have many women. Those preachers now say that the injunctions in 1 Corinthians 11 are specific to Hellenistic culture and are not meant to be universal.

Why the change? Because of our ahistoricism, as a people, we are mostly unaware that any change has taken place. Thus, any discussion of the question is moot. But I’ll close by asking a question that I, as a young boy, heard countless preachers ask: if it was wrong then, why is it right now?


One final case struck me just as I was about to close this post: arguments over contemporary vs. traditional worship in ‘mainstream’ cofCs. Over the past decade or more, there has been a heated discussion over worship style in ‘mainstream’ Churches of Christ. At Lipscomb, I’ve run into a number of people (faculty and students), bright and intelligent people, who question contemporary, praise-and-worship music and who retain a great deal of affection and respect for the traditional a capella, shape-note singing that has predominated in cofCs.

I agree with them (given my high-church predilections) that the older style has great merit to it. What is funny to me is this: they make their argument based upon tradition. How ironic! Given CofC ahistoricism, they don’t have a leg to stand on. In a very real sense, those who have rejected traditional shape-note singing and embraced praise and worship stuff are just doing what their spiritual forefathers taught them to do, i.e. rejecting the tradition (nay, completely forgetting that there ever was a tradition) in favor of something new. How sad.

That’s enough for now.


6 responses to “part 2

  1. Chris,

    The early Church that you spoke of in your part 1 post (1st to 5th century or so), I think, would have said that Tradition was both (1) good, and (2) necessary.

    It is also necessary to distinguish between the various sorts of tradition. There are “traditions of men,” those traditions that come between man and his obedience of God’s commands. But the traditions which St. Paul and the early Fathers spoke of most often were considered to be of divine origin.

    When St. Paul said to “mark” those who did not hold to the “traditions” delivered by the apostles, he was obviously speaking of a tradition that was both good and necessary.

    In fact, the New Testament canon itself is a tradition. Divine, or human? More and more are arguing the latter. Unless we are to admit the necessity of some extrabiblical tradition, necessary to the point of it being part of “The Faith,” we cannot with certainty impose one man’s canon over another’s. I would think that the Bible itself would be the first Tradition that we might consider necessary to our Faith.

    Your posts have done an excellent job in pointing out the fallacy of one group in thinking itself to be “non-traditional.” But the alternative, “just doing what the Bible says,” is equally fallacious. First, as I’ve already pointed out, one cannot “know what the Bible is” without extrabiblical tradition. It simply cannot, in any logical or coherent manner, be done. Second, even knowing the boundaries of Scripture does not solve the problem of the meaning of Scripture. Thus, churches that “follow the Bible only” number in the hundreds, if not thousands.

    I think I might narrow my question for you a little now by asking specifically: Is it necessary for the Church today to follow any Tradition of Christianity other than the Canon of Scripture? And, if not, how would one justify their Canon, or their choice between the Canons of the older Churches (Catholic & Orthodox) and the younger ones? Beyond that question, how would one determine what Traditions of the early Church are necessary and which ones are not? And, can this be determined with any finality or authority for a faith community today?

    Enjoying your posts.

  2. Thanks for chiming in, Kevin. Perhaps you had begun, after these two admittedly lengthy posts, to despair that I would actually address the early Church. Not to worry, I’m coming to it.

    I simply felt it necessary to say the things that I’ve said in these first two posts (and to say them in the way that I’ve said them) to address a part of the intended audience of this blog.

    At any rate, the things that I’ve said about tradition here are a necessary preliminary to what I’ll be saying about the early church over the next few days.

    Hope this helps,


  3. Sounds good, Chris. Looking forward to it. But I’ve enjoyed what you’ve posted already, too.

  4. sometimes appeals tradition are made, but ususally with the provision that they could be changed if we wanted to.

    the latest change I’ve seen is the “believing children” as a qualification for appointed elders. There was a big dispute about that our church last year. Eventually, some people left because they couldn’t accept the redefinition to “faithful (trustworthy) children”. That was sad, but the most telling part was when we had a meeting about it the preacher handed out a sheet about the qualifications made by a previous preacher almost 20 years ago and one of the qualifications was “believing children – children who believe that Jesus is the Son of God”.

  5. Also tradition may be “hidden” for some time until a controversy crops up. For instance, I’m sure MDR wasn’t a discussed alot simply because there was wide spread agreement as to what constituted a proper marriage. When the divorce laws changed in the U.S. then the controversy started and people like Homer Hailey became more dangerous to the orthodoxy of the movement.

  6. Good point about MDR, Ken. What infuriates me about that whole argument (besides its pointlessness) is this: it points up how we as a group are (to use a couple of shameless, pop psychology terms) reactive rather than proactive. We don’t watch societal trends; we seem to think that’s a waste of time. Therefore, no one among us saw it coming and did anything constructive to address the issue. No one, oh I don’t know…. preached about what marriage is and how to have a successful marriage. Instead, we get yet another issue to argue about and to cheapen through endless polemics.

    Now, when we’re in the midst of an argument about MDR, we just reach back into the “tradition” (there’s that word again) and pull a few quotes from our forefathers out of context and apply them to the current (and completely different) situation. But mostly we don’t even do that; we’re content to twist the living daylights out of Matthew 19, etc.

    Rant over.

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