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Between the Kingdom of Christ and Wacky Land
As we look at scripture and the commands to obey the traditions of the apostles, knowing where to draw the line is just as confusing as it is important. Years ago, in the Army, during DMZ patrols in Korea, we were warned about the Demarcation Line, the actual border between North and South Korea. The signs on this line were in English and Korean on the south side and English and Chinese on the north side. We were told stories of patrols thinking they were on the wrong side of the border because the North Koreans had turned the signs around. Units that didn’t take time to verify their position could run across the border into what they thought was safety, only to find themselves taking North Korean fire on the wrong side of the border. The same applies to New Testament practice. Knowing what side of the line is binding tradition and what side of the line is simply cultural norm is just as important as knowing the safe side of an international border. It is very easy to find ourselves “majoring on the minors” and off into dangerous territory.
Recently, I attended a house church conference in which the New Testament model was being presented to denominational and church leaders. During the final session in which apostolic tradition and its binding nature were being expounded one person asked about the holy kiss. “If meeting in homes, Lord’s Supper as a meal, servant leadership, consensus decisions and interactive meetings were all binding parts of apostolic tradition, why isn’t greeting each other with the holy kiss also binding? This question threw us all for a loop and, considering the other questions this person asked, it was easy to chock it up to contentiousness. But after thinking about it I saw it as an important question, just the sort of question that I had to answer for myself when studying house church.
My own search for God’s model for church was on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana. For over a century efforts to reach these people were thwarted because being a Christian was equated with acting, speaking and dressing like a white person. I began to wonder what church would look like if Christ had come to the Cheyenne: the Church and Christianity devoid of anything that was simply European and Middle Eastern culture. What parts of his church model would be binding even if they started in other regions and cultures? Such things as clothing, greetings, marital ceremonies, furnishings and home styles are cultural. Accepted practices of one culture when planted among different people, in different locations, speaking different languages, can be problematic. For example, in the days of Paul, dining was done on a triclinium, three couches around a small table. Diners would lean on their left elbows and lift food to their mouths with their right hands. Is this room arrangement binding? Was it ever? Perhaps the room arrangement is not, but what about reclining to eat? How about utensils? The fork had not been invented, so are we forbidden by apostolic traditions from using forks or even chopsticks? These questions may seem petty or that I am picking on some, but I wrestled with them during my search and I have met others who ask the same questions. They must be answered.
Anyone accepting house church as the New Testament model has probably accepted the binding nature of apostolic tradition found in the following scriptures:
1 Corinthians 11:2NIV, “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the teachings (traditions), just as I passed them on to you.”
2 Thessalonians 2:15NIV, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.”
Another passage, equally beneficial, is Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to follow the practices accepted among the other churches:
1 Corinthians 14:36-38NIV, “Did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anybody thinks he is a prophet or spiritually gifted, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. If he ignores this he himself will be ignored.”
This last one should not be confused with the Catholic doctrine that Mother Church has the power to define doctrine and salvific belief. This is recognition that the Corinthians are part of the universal church, not the whole of it. Neither are the previous two verses an apology of the false doctrine in which the long held practices of the church are seen as equal to scripture. The traditions spoken of are the accepted standard practices of the churches. They were modeled by the apostles and the earliest churches and their practice is to continue.
So how do these apostolic traditions and cultural practices interact? How do we know where the line is? The line becomes much more obvious when we look into what practices defined them. For example greeting with a kiss was practiced by many of the ancient cultures but in many others a kiss would be highly offensive. The point for us to take from it is that we greet each other as family. A kiss was a greeting of kin, it showed either true family or a what is called a fictitious kin relationship—unrelated people seeing each other as brethren because of their group identity (Jews, Christians and many other groups for example). It is important to take away from this, not the method of greeting, but the familial identity—to greet each other as true brothers and sisters rather than as strangers. If I find myself in a cultural setting where a kiss is the accepted greeting among brethren then a kiss is appropriate, but if I find myself in a setting where a kiss is going to offend, cause discomfort and divide then I should greet in another way.
In a society where garments similar to apostolic times is the norm, wearing such would be appropriate, but preaching on main street dressed like John the Baptist would not be. It would do more harm than good because the way it is delivered and the package through which it comes is as important as the words we use. Hudson Taylor was despised by older English missionaries but loved by the Chinese for his practice of wearing Chinese clothing. Sadhu Sundar Singh, when called to preach throughout India, Nepal and Tibet clothed himself in the traditional saffron robes of an itinerant holy man to open the people to his message. The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:20f, speaks of practicing similarly: “To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law.”
If a practice of the early church is defining then it is binding. If it is not defining then liberty is the rule. The early church meeting was meant to be an interactive time where everyone contributed, within certain limitations, to mutually edify one another. To take this away redefines the purpose of the meeting. The Lord’s Supper was a full meal shared among the body to demonstrate certain facts of the Lord’s first advent, current presence and promised return. To strip away all but a swig of juice and a crumb of cracker is to change its purpose and to hide these beautiful demonstrations. Servant leadership shows the priesthood of the believer—every believer serving God and ministering to a lost, hurting world. To take this away and impose an authoritarian structure with clergy over the laity is to redefine church leadership and rob God’s people of a gift second only to salvation—universal coequal priesthood.
Greeting with a kiss, how we dress, reclining to eat, and what we eat rather than defining us are reflections of culture. These can be weighed and utilized or laid aside as the local body sees fit. What is important to keep in mind about is that we are to treat each other as family, that we are attired appropriately to our culture and that we value times of fellowship together with a meal.