Monday, March 25

How traditions often trump Jesus' teachings

One of my favorite Vance Havner quotes says, "The church is so subnormal that if it ever got back to the New Testament normal it would seem to people to be abnormal." So true! And yet this 'subnormal church' continues to sail along with few daring to ask the difficult question, why.

Why do we do what we do? How have we managed to stray so far from New Testament practice and teaching, yet think we are being Biblical in our way of doing things?

Years ago I discovered a series of free downloadable audio teachings entitled The Tradition of the Elders by Beresford Job at This series of teachings brought to light many of the perplexing questions that have haunted me over the years. The series is in six parts* (TR1-TR6) and takes a while to listen to, but it is a most enlightening trip through early church history showing how we got from 'there' to where we are today.

It was in this series that I was first seriously introduced to the writings of the early church fathers. I now possess a large quantity of these writings and have spent many a fascinating hour pouring over their words. For me these early church fathers are the key to understanding how we managed in such a short amount of time to shift from the practices and teachings of Christ and the apostles into what we have today.

Take for example, Ignatius the second bishop of Antioch. Here is a direct quote from his epistle to the church in Smyrna written only a few years after John the Apostle died...
See that ye all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. --The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, Chap. VIII:22b-25.
The whole concept that the pastor/bishop/elder is God's chosen servant to lead the church, and only the pastor can do certain holy functions does not originate with the teachings of Christ, nor the Apostles, but with bishops (pastors) like Ignatius. It is Ignatius who says that only bishops can baptize and officiate the Lord's Supper, not Jesus or the Apostles. Yet the practice that prevails today is that of Ignatius. His words have been elevated to those of Holy Scripture!

It is Ignatius who opines that bishops/pastors/elders are in separate spiritual classes. His order is clearly...

-God the Father
-followed by Jesus the Son
-then the local bishop
-the presbytery
-the deacons
-the common lay person (you and me)

How does this reconcile with Jesus' own teaching to his disciples in Matthew 20?
But Jesus called them to Himself and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. (26) "It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, (27) and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; (28) just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."
To be fair, the Canon of Scripture as we have it today, was not in their possession at the time these and similar words were penned. I don't doubt the good intentions these early church fathers had in writing these kinds of things for the churches of their day. These were difficult days dealing with heresy, persecution, and things we cannot even imagine. There was no Bible to guide them like we have today. What is amazing to me, though, is that these aberrations were not corrected once they did have the complete Canon of Scripture in hand!

Few are aware that many of our church traditions, practices, and commonly accepted teachings we have today do not come from Scripture. Instead, they originate with things taught by the early church fathers, like Ignatius. These traditions have been passed down to us over the centuries. Any one questioning the traditions is suspect. But shouldn't it be the other way around?  Shouldn't we judge our traditions and practices by what we find in Scripture?

What are your thoughts?

*If you don't have time to listen to the entire series you might consider starting by fast-forwarding to TR3 and TR4 to get at the heart of the series.


Eric said...


Thank you for posting this. I've struggled through some of these same questions, wondering how we got where we are as the church.

Beresford Job's book, entitled "Biblical Church," contains much of the information from the videos you've pointed out in this post. Beresford and I have been in email contact for a while now. He graciously sent me a copy of the book to read. I highly recommend it for anyone who might prefer a book to videos. The book can be ordered here:

God bless.

Arthur Sido said...

In spite of centuries of "reformation", the basic functioning of the church has changed very little and still looks not terribly much like what we read in Scripture.

J. Guy Muse said...


Yes, I see on the website the series on "Biblical Church" and tried to download just the audio to no avail. Something this long, I prefer listening to on my MP3 player and will continue to try to "rip" the audio from the video. Thanks for the tip on the availability of the book.


So very true! Theology was reformed, but not church structure or practice.

Tim A said...

Beresford has part of the answer in Ignatius. The other part is the power of traditions of men and our human flesh winning the battle against the Spirit.

I have appreciated Biblical Church but it is very sad for me to hear from NTRF that perhaps Mr. Job has gone off a cliff of sorts.

J. Guy Muse said...


Thanks for the link. I had not heard about this. Regardless, I still found the Traditions Series helpful.