The tradition of hating tradition is a phenomenon found in abundance among many Christians today. Having spent 19 years in the independent Evangelical movement, I know the dizzying freedom one feels when he rejects “religious tradition” in the name of “having a personal relationship with Jesus,” as if the two were mutually exclusive. In my case I was never exactly sure what I was rejecting (tradition was a sort of undefined, religious boogieman for our Charismatic group), but it gave me the sense that I had conquered the evils of a bygone era and retained the pure faith. I found that simply saying I was a follower of Jesus, free of all tradition, gained me immediate applause and acceptance with hordes of like-minded “independent” Christians.
Indeed, when one is involved with independent Christianity he will find common agreement on almost nothing except this odd unexplored hatred for tradition. A generation ago, when the independent church thing took off, many had good reasons for leaving traditional Christianity. This was a time when a mass exodus from “organized religion,” in particular Roman Catholicism, was happening in America. Countless people flocked to the newly established independent churches, which had set up shop on every corner and mini-mall in the country. A common recollection of abusive religious school teachers of the cloth, armed with knuckle-cracking wooden rulers, helped forge a common loyalty to the idea of “Jesus without tradition.”
I get that. But what troubles me about the exodus is not that people left whatever church they were a part of, but that they decided to take the far more disastrous path of autonomous Christianity (which, in reality, doesn’t exist), mirroring an already established cultural norm of radical individualism.
The main issue with wanting a “personal relationship with Jesus” without tradition is that it is not possible. Why? Primarily because Jesus calls his followers to his “body” and delivered a tradition through his apostles which is a necessary concomitant of preserving the truth throughout the ages. “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he said, indicating that there is a way to follow him. And not just any way will do because he is also the truth, and truth does not lend itself to every path, but to a Person. Furthermore this Person does not dwell in the cover of darkness for all to wonder at what he may be; rather, his way and truth is found in his life. Where is his life revealed? It is revealed in the apostolic tradition, i.e. the life of the Church.
Many are unfamiliar with the last part of this reasoning because they have been taught various ideas about how one comes to know Christ. The common objection is that the Bible alone is the source which reveals Christ (based on the misguided assumption that the Bible and holy tradition are in conflict, rather than intrinsically united). But this rebuttal always strikes me as ironic since it is the Bible which makes the case for following the apostolic tradition as a sure guide in the faith. If one listens to the Bible he will find that it warns of how easily it can be manipulated by people who are untaught in the faith (2Pet 3:16). What method does Scripture offer for becoming “taught” in the faith?—a careful following of the tradition delivered by the Apostles (1Cor 11:2, Phil 4:9, 2Thes 3:6, 2Tim 3:14). Lastly, Scripture says it is the Church, and not an individual with his private understanding of Scripture, which stands as the “ground and pillar of truth” (1Tim 3:15).
If that doesn’t do it, consider the fact that Jesus left behind a Church with a set of texts, leaders, sacraments, prayers, a mission, etc., which has not changed for 20 centuries. That, friend, is a tradition if there ever was one. It is not incorrect to say that Jesus wants a personal relationship with individuals, what is wildly incorrect is to say he wants a relationship with individuals without the Church. The Church is his very body which one must be “grafted into” in order to become united with him (Rom 11:17).
There is also a humorous side to the “Jesus without tradition” claim, in that everybody comes to the faith via someone’s specific traditional understanding. Those who claim to follow no tradition are often the one’s most deeply entrenched in a tradition, however unwittingly their entrenchment is. For example, the Word-of-Faith movement prides itself on a tradition-free Christianity. From their perspective, they are merely following the Bible and imitating the ancient Church found in the book of Acts (as all churches claim, really). But if one is careful to connect the dots he will find this movement is heavily doctored by the teachings and examples of folks like James Seymour, Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin and a host of others. One would not be in error to call it the “Seymour-Roberts-Hagin tradition.”
The “dizzying freedom” I found in making myself the arbiter of Christianity—which is what it amounted to—was not a positive experience. It turned out to be the internal vertigo of walking a spiritual tight rope far higher than I could ever prepare for on my own. Perhaps in the background it was also the American cult of individualism that helped me realize how incompatible “independent Christianity” is with the historic faith. We Westerners have enough isolation in our daily lives, the last thing we need is more of the same in the Christian faith, which is communal at its core.
Those who are appalled at this idea of a personal relationship with Jesus being contingent on community and a tradition containing centuries of continuity in thought and worship will find historic Christianity a colossal disappointment. I find it beautiful beyond words.
Thanks for reading.