Friday, June 29, 2012

Questioning the "Tradition of the Elders"

By George W. Sarris

Are Evangelical Christians allowed to think for themselves and question the “tradition of the elders” in their pursuit of truth?
According to Christian Post Reporter Napp Nazworth’s article about theologian Peter Enns’ observation that Young Evangelicals Want to Rethink What it Means to Be Evangelical, the answer may actually be an emphatic “No!” – at least, not without being called a heretic . . . or a wolf . . . or a false teacher.
Many within the Evangelical movement today – and not just those who are young – have honest questions about what the Bible actually teaches on various issues. Many within the movement, however, are extremely reticent to engage in any significant form of dialogue on those issues. They feel they have received a tradition from the elders that should not be questioned.
But, honest questions need honest answers. And, honest questions that are not answered satisfactorily never go away.
Humble Responses
Historically, sincere Christian believers have been persecuted, defamed, tortured, and sometimes put to death by other sincere Christian believers who didn’t agree with their positions on baptism, election, church government and authority, and a host of other issues. If history has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that we should be humble enough to realize that there are many theological issues within the faith that are legitimate subjects for debate.
When engaging in that debate, we would do well to keep two very important Scriptural principles in mind:
First, Christians are to be known primarily by their love for one another. Jesus was very clear about what would be the characteristic mark of His disciples –
By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Jesus did not say that we would be known by our agreement with one another on all issues of theology. He said we would be known by our love for one another – and love is patient . . . it is kind . . . it is not rude.
Calling other members of the body of Christ names and refusing to dialogue with them is not a form of love for one another. Being gracious with those who disagree with you on a theological issue is not compromising your faith. Answering with kindness the questions of an honest skeptic is not giving the devil a foothold.
Second, God wants us to pursue truth. Scripture tells us that God’s Word is truth . . . Jesus is the truth . . . the Gospel is the word of truth. Truth always wins out in the end, for only truth will bear up under the closest scrutiny.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not pursuing truth. They were seeking to defend the “teaching of the elders” that had been passed down to them . . . and they were not open to the possibility that they might be wrong. They were defending teachings that had been formulated by men. Their minds were made up and they did not want to be confused with facts.
An Issue for Today
A little over a year ago, Rob Bell’s controversial book, Love Wins, challenged his readers to “rethink” Hell. Bell voiced the concerns of a great many people within the Evangelical community by asking provocative questions about the nature and duration of after-death punishment. He even suggested that God’s punishments may be kinder and more purposeful than is traditionally thought.
Before the book was even published, however, Bell was attacked. A leader within the movement labeled him a “universalist” – as if that was all that was needed to clue the faithful into the fact that Bell must be a heretic. Another tweeted, “Farewell Rob Bell!” – alerting any who might think it okay to question the traditional belief that this was not to be allowed. And, prominent Evangelicals began to go on record affirming that there is clearly no legitimate basis for questioning the established view.
What was sad was that the questions Bell raised were honest questions that sincere believers are honestly asking. Unfortunately, not only did many of the responders simply repeat what the “tradition of the elders” had passed down to them without putting forth any significant effort to look more deeply into the issue, they also disputed the right of Bell and others to question that teaching – even though there is much about that tradition that has been and should be questioned.
Keeping Our Faith Sharp
Proverbs 27:17 tells us –
As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. 
Sharp instruments like knives or swords often get dull not because the edge wears down, but because the extremely thin edge actually bends over to one side or another. When that happens, the edge needs to be straightened by using an instrument called a “sharpening steel.” Similarly, when our views on an important theological issue err to the right or to the left, God often uses the questions and challenges of others as a sort of spiritual “sharpening steel” to make sure that we don’t defend something that is not in keeping with the truth of His Word.
I have been very grateful over the years to have friends who have challenged my thinking on a variety of different issues by asking me piercing questions. Some of those who questioned me have been more conservative than I am. Some have been more liberal. In each case, however, I have seen my thinking sharpened as a result of the dialogue.
When people ask honest questions without trying to be malicious, we should respect them enough to consider their questions carefully and give a thoughtful response. If we are unable to do that, perhaps it’s because we need to think through our own beliefs more carefully.
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