What Matters Most? Church Traditions, NT Practices, or the Commands of Christ?

church tradition

Can a layperson or woman baptize? Are baby dedications important or should we baptize the babies of Christian parents? Do pastors need to wear a tie when they preach? These and many other questions we face have a lot to do with church traditions. When we go to the Word of God, on many of these things, we find little (if any) specific guidance.

How do you sort out what to do in your Disciple Making Movement effort? Is it helpful to follow your own denominational tradition? Or do you need to embrace a different way of doing things if you want to see a DMM?

To answer these questions, many practitioners find it helpful to identify the difference between:

  • Jesus’ commands,
  • New Testament Apostle’s practices, and
  • Church/Human traditions.

While each of these carries weight and importance, we must apply them differently.

With Christ’s commands, we simply obey. Many New Testament practices of the apostles are also very helpful for us to follow. In the case of church traditions, we have a lot of freedom about whether or not to apply them in our situation. It depends on the culture and context. We also must look at the impact on the rapid spread of the gospel as we decide these things.

George Patterson, the founder of Train and Multiply, was an early church multiplication pioneer. He wrote about these three levels of authority in his Church Multiplication Guide (Church Multiplication Guide, Patterson and Scoggins, pg. 29).

Before we dive into more details, let me share an illustration.

Red or White? Who Can Baptize?

While church planting in Nepal, a question arose around weddings. Was it mandatory that a bride wear white in a wedding? Was that the “Christian” thing to do?

The wearing of white had important cultural meaning for Nepalese people. When someone in Nepal’s father dies, the son shaves their head and wears white for one year. It is the color of mourning. So, should we use white in weddings or not?

The traditional color for Hindus in a wedding is red. Would it be okay to wear red? Or was that bad to do?

New Nepalese believers came to us with these questions.

We tried hard not to give answers. Instead, we taught them the difference between the commands of Christ, the practices of the apostles, and church traditions.

We asked the young believers “Is wearing white in a wedding a command of Jesus? Is it a practice of the apostles? Or is it a church tradition?”

They searched the scriptures and came to the conclusion that it was not a command of Jesus. It wasn’t even a tradition they saw evidence of in the New Testament. It must be a Western church tradition they decided.

Having come to that conclusion, we considered further questions.

Could wearing white create an obstacle to Hindu friends and family to understand the gospel? Would it make it feel foreign to them to see you wear white in a wedding? Or like you had adopted a foreign religion?

Again, they discussed this for some time. “That might be a problem,” they concluded. “Most Hindus see white as a color of mourning. They will say we are following a bideshi dharma (foreign religion).”

But if we don’t wear white, some of the other Nepali believers will think we are doing things wrong. They tell us that the Christian wedding color is white!

That would be difficult for you,” we agreed. “Who is more important to help? The Christians, or the millions of Nepalis who still don’t know Jesus?”

We tried to help them understand that if they wanted to see a DMM, they needed to be careful about creating barriers for Hindus to come to Christ. This was especially true related to things that were non-essential like what color a bride in a wedding wears. They were free to choose how to do weddings in their own context because this was not specifically outlined in the Bible.

Other questions around baptism also arose.

My friend’s pastor told us that only ordained ministers are allowed to baptize,” Bir Bahadur reported. “What should we do?

We decided to look at scripture together. Once again we asked the question, “Is baptism a command of Jesus, an apostolic practice, or a church tradition?”

“What about who can baptize? What does scripture command?”

The disciples of Jesus were told to baptize in the Great Commission,” they said. They concluded that this was something they must obey. There was nothing in scripture that said only ordained people could baptize. There was a command by Jesus telling us to go and make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey!

It was important that we not tell them what to do, but instead help them understand the difference between these three categories. Then they, the local believers, made wise and prayerful decisions about what to do according to the Word of God. They would obey Jesus, not necessarily all the human traditions.

Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

Acts 5:29 NIV.

The following is an excerpt from Kevin Sutter’s book, Keys to Church Multiplication.

3 Levels of Authority for Church Activities

1. New Testament Commands

Jesus Christ requires His disciples to obey His commands. We practice them under all circumstances; we never prohibit them. Examples include: repent, believe, receive the Holy Spirit, be baptized, love God and others, break bread, pray, give, make disciples, forgive, witness for Christ, etc.

2. New Testament Practices (not commanded)

The things the apostles did serve as examples for us, which we might or might not follow, depending on what is best for local circumstances. Examples include: holding possessions in common, laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit, celebrating the Lord’s Supper frequently in homes and using one cup, baptizing on the day of conversion, Sunday worship, etc.

3. Human Customs (not mentioned in the New Testament)

They have only the authority of a group’s voluntary agreement. (Which God recognizes as binding; Matt 18:18-20). Human customs should be followed with caution. Problems come when we fail to see such traditions as man-made and temporary. We cannot force them on other congregations; we must prohibit them when they hinder obedience. Examples include: church buildings, pulpits, public invitation to raise hands or walk forward to “accept Christ”, lecture-type sermons, Sunday School, preparing leaders in an academic institution outside the church, professional paid church staff, etc.

Patterson warns: “Most church divisions stem from power-hungry people who emphasize a human tradition or an apostolic practice that was not commanded, in order to secure a following. They place it on the level of a command by the force of their personality or the organization’s bylaws. Painful divisions and discouragement grow out of a dogmatic attitude toward non-biblical requirements for worship, church procedures, membership, baptism, dress, ordination, pastoral training, and a dozen other things. We cancel spontaneous, loving obedience to Jesus when we confuse His authority with man-made rules.”

From: Church Multiplication Guide, Patterson and Scoggins, pg. 29 used with permission

Make a List With 3 Columns

This is such an important issue for the multiplication of disciples and churches! Take 10 or 15 minutes this week. On a sheet of paper make three columns. Give each a heading “Jesus’ commands,” “New Testament Practices,” and “Human Customs/Church Traditions.” List various activities under each column. Which fit under which column?

Share your list on the DMMs Frontier Missions group, or ask questions of your peers if you are unsure about a particular activity.

Let’s be sure to obey Jesus and His commands above all human traditions! Amen?

Comments

  1. David M

    Thanks for the engaging article. Lots to commend here! By way of friendly critique, I would offer that Scripture sees a fuller-orbed authority than the 3-tiered structure you offered. This has massive implications for methodology. For example, “Jesus’ Commands,” the top tier of your system, seems to indicate that we are bound only to Christ’s commands. This is a dispensational and/or modern baptistic way of viewing the law of Christ. In the context of the historic and global church this is a fringe view, although currently rather popular in the West. But that is itself a hermeneutical perspective you’re bringing to the table and exporting to the nations. Again, I appreciate your article but am saddened by the tendency in modern missions circles to make some of the hermeneutical and exegetical moves demonstrated here. My intention is to discuss in the context of a united family of brothers and sisters where we can be both lovingly critical and charitable towards one another. All blessings to you.

    1. Post
      Author
      C. Anderson

      Thanks David for sharing your perspective on this. I can accept that this is not a complete treatise on the topic and leaves some things out. Nor is it saying as you felt was indicated that we only need to obey Jesus’ commands. What we are saying is that they should be our top priority and that not all things are equal in weight, and some things we have freedom and flexibility in. Blessings!

      1. David M

        Thanks for the reply! Why would you say New Testament commands are weightier than the creation mandates (Gen. 1:28) and the Decalogue (Ex. 20), for example? I ask this to highlight the point that how we stitch together the testaments (or more precisely, covenants) has practical implications for field methodology among the unreached. There are presuppositions about how Scripture sees itself fitting together to arrive at the conclusion that New Testament teachings are weightier than others. Since mainline Western evangelicalism has dispensational leanings, we tend to elevate the New Testament as “weightier.” I am afraid that we unintentionally export our Westernness to the nations in this way. How might you respond to this?

  2. Ronald Mangalindan Pena

    Thank you for your observation for the church practices. And we should follow Jesus New Testament commands. Although we respect other practices.
    I was reminded not to be too dogmatic to those practices not included in New Testament Commands.
    But to always oversee if the New Testament Commands follows.

    1. Post
      Author
      C. Anderson

      Great to meet you Moses. Many people join our community and “work with us” in that way though we have only a handful of full-time volunteers. Keep making disciples!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.