A story is told of a woman who would cut the ends off the roast before cooking it. When asked for her reason for doing so, she replied that she did not know — she had learned the procedure from her mother. The mother was approached and asked also. She did not know either — she had learned it from her mother. The grandmother was subsequently asked and supplied the information. “Oh,” she said, “my roasting pan was too small so I had to trim down the roast.”
Traditions have a way of taking hold. Once they take hold, they take over. This is true even if taking over means that the Word of God is supplanted. Jesus was very specific about how the Jews had replaced the commands of God with the traditions of men (Mark 7:9-13).
A tradition is a belief or practice that is handed by one generation to the next. Religious traditions are almost invariably handed on by means of a religious organization. It is the purpose of this article to examine the corrupting influence of any human religious organization, and to contrast this influence with God’s purpose for His people.
By religious tradition, I mean any religious system of doing things that is not derived from the Bible. Some traditions are neutral in themselves while others are evil. Those which are neutral, nevertheless, have a tendency to supplant the Word of God. Those which are evil simply rebel against the Word.
As mentioned above, traditions are perpetuated by means of organizations. The longer the organization exists, the more it will generation and pass on traditions, both neutral and evil. The end result is religious institutionalism, far removed from biblical principles.
None of what follows is directed at the biblical church. God’s church is an organism, not an organization. It is invisible and universal, consisting of all people who have been brought into a relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ.
The local church is visible and limited to a certain location. It, too, consists of all the people who have a relationship with the Father through Christ, in that particular community. The local church should also be treated as an organism, rather than as a organization.
But because the local church is visible, it can be organized. It is possible to organize the vitality right out of the body. The result of this organizing process is various denominations, para church organizations, and so forth. It is this type of organization which has a corrupting influence.
These human structures cannot kill the body of Christ. The organism remains. But they can,and do, hinder the effective operation. They hinder it with their traditions which are generated in various ways. Let’s examine some of these hindrances.
There is a difference between principles and methods. A principle is an abstraction, a method is a practical way of implementing that abstraction. All principles require some method but do not require any particular method. The principle is accepted or rejected on the basis of its truth or falsity. The method is accepted on the basis of its practicality.
For example, it is a principle that Christians should share their faith. Methods of evangelism vary considerably. It is the tendency of organizations to promote their methods to the rank of principle.,a nd then to hand that method on to the next generation as though it were the principle. Indeed, in the minds of the faithful, the method becomes the principle, and the true principle is lost.
The reason an organization has this tendency is because organizations organize around their methodology. That is what makes the organization distinct from other organizations. Thus, in order to perpetuate the work, the methodology is pushed. The more it is emphasized, the more the principle recedes in the background.
This is why loyalty to a particular method often outlives an understanding of the principle. We quibble over methodological details and totally forget the principle. We strain at gnats and swallow camels.
A religious organization tends to give spiritual leaders a temporal power that God did not mean for them to have. The leaders is tempted to build an empire — and authority, respect, and power come with the freshly conquered territory.
Jesus forbade giving titles of spiritual respect to any human leader (Matt. 23:8-11). We are to respect them (Hen. 13:7), but not in a reverent fashion. He mentioned the titles of “Rabbi” and “Father.” I would like to add “the Reverend” and “Doctor.”
An organization creates such titles and the power that goes with them. The larger the organization becomes, the more the power increases and the more the titles produce an ungodly awe. Popekins become popes, and people who render such unbiblical respect have thoroughly lost their way.
As an organization grows, scriptural discipline becomes increasingly difficult and finally impossible. As a result, the organization outgrows obedience. This is true of both followers and leaders.
If a pastor or pastors are responsible for the spiritual well-being of thousands of people (church members, or staff), the task is clearly beyond them. So they settle for organizational well-being instead of true spiritual health.
Conversely, when an organization grows past a certain point, the leaders are removed from the people. Consequently, it becomes impossible to require t hem to meet the scriptural standards for the ministry found in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3.
If I desired to, I could fill a long list with names of evangelical leaders whose personal and family lives are train wrecks. Yet they will continue to lead because the size of their ministry allows them to remain disobedient. Indeed, the size of the organization demands the disobedience. Buyt to listten to that demand is to disobey God.
An organization is frequently created in order to meet a particular need. But organizations do not just meet needs, they create needs of their own. After a certain amount of time, an organization loses the original vision of meeting needs outside the organizational structure, and begins to meet the needs inside the structure. As it grows older and bigger, it no longer has to justify its existence with reference to its success in meeting those original needs. In fact, it no longer has to justify its existence at all.
People begin to think that the organization should be here because it is here. The tradition that is handed on is one of blind loyalty. The original objectives have been abandoned, denied or overlooked, and still people remain faithful to a faithless institution. Why? “My grandfather went to this church.” Yes, and if he could see it today, he would be the first one out the door.
It has already been mentioned that organizations instill the wrong kind of respect for its current leaders, those who are reputed to be pillars. It also does the same thing for its historical founders and leaders. The popular desire for hagiography is intense — and idolatrous.
One of the indications we have that the Bible is God’s Word is that this tendency to clean up the historical record is utterly absent. Abraham, David and Peter are accurately portrayed, warts and all.
This is reversed in the popular understanding of the various figures who played any role in the establishment of the organization in question. These saints cease to be saints and become demigods that walked for a time among us. Needless to say, this type of portrayal is revisionist history — history as it did not happen.
This tradition of venerating the dead becomes a means for an organization to bolster its own authority. “We stand in the tradition of . . .” Any attempt to recount an accurate history is treated as blasphemy, which it is, blasphemy against organizational myth.
In conclusion, we may say that organization provides a short term solution to the problem of disorder. But in the long run, it introduces a new kind of disorder, an order that does not conform to God’s way. This tendency must be recognized and resisted. When resistance becomes futile, the best thing to do is leave the organization.
We may at the same time be thankful that God’s purpose for the body of Christ remains firm. The problem we have with our organizations do not apply to His organism.
“. . . and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27).
This article was originally published in The Hammer (Vol. 4, No. 1) in the Spring of 1985. The Hammer was published by Community Christian Ministries in Moscow, Idaho. While standing by the central ideas of this article, I would like to note that I hope I would phrase them today in a completely different fashion.