Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Recognizing Traditions And Customs

Old stories can still do the job of illustrating the point. I was thinking today of the mother teaching her daughter how to bake a ham. As she prepared to cook it, she took a kitchen knife, cut off the end, then put it in the roasting pan. The little girl said, "Mama, why did you cut off the end of the ham?" The mother replied, "Because that's the way my mother taught me how to cook it, so I always cut off the end." "But why?" pressed the daughter. They decided to give grandma a call to clear up the issue. "Grandma, why do you cut off the end of the ham before you cook it?" asked the girl. Grandma said, "Oh, honey, when I first married, I didn't have a pan big enough to put the ham in, so I always cut off the end to make it fit. I guess it just became a habit."

One generation had a good reason to do what they did, and succeeding generations followed suit, but they did not have the same reasons. What for one was merely an expedient to baking a ham became for the next, "The way it's done."

I wonder if that's true when it comes to things like worship traditions, or other activities associated with "church." Whenever I have suggested that today's Christians practice things that are little more than traditions or customs, it always seems to bother some who hear it said. It's as if the idea that every single, minute thing we do isn't totally biblical is a savage heresy. Yet, the truth is that our assemblies are driven by social norms, architecture, personal likes and dislikes, and more. That does not make them good or bad, it's just a fact. Some of these things are very good, and others less so. The fact that something is a tradition or custom does not make it automatically wrong. It doesn't make it automatically right either.

I think the ability to acknowledge our traditions and customs is liberating. A lot of people seem to operate under stress and guilt because they know they can't qualify everything they do, nor the way they do it, from clear biblical teaching. If we could just acknowledge that some of our practices are traditions, it would relieve us from a defensive posture we can't support.

Let me give you an example of traditions that I believe to be moved more by social norms and architecture than by anything particularly biblical. Several years ago, my family and I were part of a congregation that met in house churches on Sunday nights. It was an absolutely great arrangement, but we discovered that we had a problem.

One Sunday evening, the fellow, whose house we met in, asked if anyone would like to take the Lord's supper. There were two or three who did. He turned to one of our ladies who was sitting in a chair in front of the stereo system, on which sat the plate with the bread and the tray with the cups of grape juice. He said, "Brenda, would you pass the plate to so-and-so?" Brenda did just that, and then repeated the action with the juice.

The next week it was all over church that we had women serving communion! My first reaction was something like, "What?!" Then it hit me. We certainly did. We had one woman who served the bread and the juice to the two or three people taking the Lord's supper. Guilty as charged.

Then I was hit again, "Wait a minute! This is a problem of architecture and social custom." At the church building, in our "official" auditorium with the table down front, behind which four to six guys would line up to pass the trays, this was viewed as a "leadership" function. Thus, we wouldn't dare to give the job to the women. But sitting around a living room, the most natural thing in the world was for the person sitting in front of the stereo to reach around behind herself, pick up the trays and pass them to those taking the supper. In fact, her action was not different at all from the way she participated every Sunday in that church auditorium. There she just didn't make the first pass. It seems to me the problem here is largely social custom and architecture that determines our practice.

I've heard people say that women don't serve the Lord's supper because it's the job of men to lead. Let's assume, for a moment, the male leadership argument is correct. Somebody still must explain how serving bread and fruit of the vine becomes something other that just that: serving. And, if it is serving, then how does it become a forbidden activity to women?

Lest you think I'm saying that we ought to put the women up in front and let them serve communion, you've missed the point at least slightly. Perhaps we shouldn't have a problem with women doing that at all. However, remember that I started all this by saying we need to acknowledge how traditions and customs determine our actions? It's not always wise nor profitable to dump traditions on the spot for different ones. Traditions and customs, by definition, do not come to be overnight. It takes time. And, one of the ways traditions change is by first recognizing exactly what we're dealing with.

If you want to continue cutting off the end of the ham before you put it into the pan to cook, you wouldn't be wrong to do so. But, neither would you be wrong to leave the end alone. It would probably be easier to change behaviors by first understanding why it was done the way it was done to start with, and then determine whether the same reasons still exist.