4/10/2020 [Thematic Message 116] www.lifechurchmissions.com
Truth Principle or Traditional Custom? <1 Co 11:4-5, 8-10>
Prelude: The Bible exhorts that we correctly handle the word of truth <2 Ti 2:15>, because God’s word does not only talk about the truth of salvation, but it also provides instructions on how a saved person can follow the Lord throughout his lifetime in all things. For this reason, we must go against a belief that knows God through sensory experience. In addition, we also go against teachings that do not follow the system of the whole Bible and thus give baseless explanations of the scriptures, in particular word-faith movement and the like. Today, we have to face a very pressing problem, which is, in obeying the word of God, saints have divisions because of different interpretations of certain verses. In particular, there are obvious differences in discerning what constitutes truth principles and what refers to traditional customs. Because of the continual changes in man's culture and changing times, more and more people from different countries believe in the Lord, and churches of various denominations emerge. Among these churches, different customs and practices also form, for example, sisters covering their heads, baptism by water immersion or by sprinkling of water, the consecration of infants to the Lord via dedication or infant baptism, the type of hymns church sings, whether drums can be used during worship, even sisters preaching on stage, etc. Some church denominations adhere to some of these practices as though they are strict requirements, otherwise it is equivalent to not observing the truth in the Bible. Some churches, however, think that those are some traditional customs which can be adjusted with the times and culture. Of course, the diversity of people is a fact, and also a beauty created by God. However, in the matter of faithfulness to the truth, the diversity of people also brings much discord. In fact, when the Bible draws people to God through the gospel, what it brings us is not a message of discord, but an answer in unity. But how can we achieve unity while staying faithful to the truth? In some regulations of the Christian faith, some people think that it is essential, while some people think that it is optional. How do we convince one another in such matters? Of course, this is not easy. But we can try to understand what are considered principles and what are considered customs from the Bible. We must not be so rigid in customary or secondary matters that result in placing an unbearable burden on a person and causing him to fall. It is typical that some church denominations also emphasize too much on certain translations of the Bible and regard other versions as unorthodox. But we should also be careful not to look down upon the principles set by God's truth just because we must meet the requirements of our own culture and the majority. Sometimes what we see as appropriate may not necessarily be seen as appropriate by God. Especially in the past few decades, when liberalism and post-modernism spread throughout the world, people start to create beliefs and customs that suit themselves. This includes the hymns we sing, or the activities that we carry out in our meetings, which gradually enter into a faith that is centered on emotions. We cannot be ignorant in such matters, but we also must be careful. Otherwise, we will accept without discernment customs introduced by the new faction into the church, and even ignorantly go against what the Bible requires of us. In this way, we will suffer losses. Therefore, when we see some of the styles advocated by the church today, we have to at least ask: is this a truth principle, or is it a traditional custom? Of course, when it comes to beliefs and styles, there are many different forms, and it is difficult for us to generalize. Maybe sometimes we started wrong and have to adjust gradually. If we are clear it is right, how can we gradually convince everyone else? This is an area where we need to rely on the Holy Spirit. We need to know that when a style and custom can survive in a church, there must be some longstanding beliefs behind them and the masses have become accustomed to them and are not greatly affected. If there is a better way, how good is it? If it is really good, how do you convince everyone? For example: the hymns sung, the baptism ceremony, the form of worship, etc. These are not things that can be changed immediately if they need to be changed. If you do not rely on the Holy Spirit, it will definitely bring about counterproductive effects. Even if it is excellent, we should consider how to do it. A brother in a Reformed Church once told me that the reformed theology is very good, and that I, as a pastor, could consider preaching the reformed theology series on the church pulpit weekly. My view is that believers need to understand the correct doctrine, but at the level of their understanding, their concept of faith all these while as well as the timetable of their entire life. What we have to pray for is not the question of “teach or not”, but “how to teach”. There is God's providence in 2000 years of church history. The pure gospel truth can survive today because God’s servants do not compromise when teaching God’s truth, but it is also because they know how to be guided by the Holy Spirit to introduce the inerrant and unchanging truth to different races, cultures, backgrounds, and traditions. Today, we must at least distinguish between principles and customs.
1. Using a well-known example: Women covering their heads when worshipping
1）Regarding women covering their heads, is it a truth principle or traditional custom?
Nowadays we rarely see this, but 40-50 years ago, brothers and sisters were seated separately in most churches. Sisters wore a veil on their heads covering their faces, or they would wear a hat or scarf, a sign of submission to authority – wives submit to husbands, sisters also submit to brothers in church. Of course, Paul mentioned this principle not because he was influenced by the culture of the patriarchal (male-dominated) society at that time. In the beginning, God created man and woman as equal, just that woman has her specific role. Even if she has many gifts and talents, God created her in a role to submit and to help. Thus, she can glorify God most and her most proper image is when she submits to man. If a woman orders man around, shouts at him, or lord over him, her life will certainly give a foothold for the fallen angels. Therefore, it is a general principle for women to submit to their husbands, or to respect brothers. Today, many women leaders are unwilling to be restrained or guided by brothers, thus bringing about many strange teachings to the church. Then, in terms of this submission, is it necessary to practically wear a symbolic head covering? By wearing a symbolic item on the head, is it truth principle or traditional custom?
2）Throughout history, the Lord’s church has 4 forms of accepting the command for sisters to cover their heads
(1) Head covering is purely a traditional custom. Thus, believers with such interpretation of the Bible will have no regard for the act of covering the head, eventually, they will also disregard the need for women to submit to men, thinking that is brought by feudal society of the past. They think that women nowadays are already equal with men, and should be the same as man in all aspects, possessing the same status. Therefore, as long as they have talents, gifts, zeal, anointing, etc, women can also be the leader of a nation, and be treated as equal with men, or they can also be leaders in a church context. In fact, the modern society is moving toward this direction, and the church is also silently accepting such an idea.
(2) Head covering is completely a truth principle. Whether it is women submitting to men, or wearing a veil during worship, that is a truth principle, which transcends all races, nationalities, cultures, denominations. Furthermore, what the sisters use to cover their heads during worship must be the veil used by women of the early church, it cannot be substituted by head scarf or hat. Only by doing this can the strictness of this command be preserved.
(3) It is a custom to cover head, and a principle to submit to authority, but the symbol of submission to authority can be based on our current culture. Perhaps, in certain cultures, this can be demonstrated by women’s decent dressing. Or after some sisters have children, they voluntarily become less involved in work, even putting down their job to wholeheartedly take care of their children. Or taking care of most household chores at home, or take care of children full-time. Or let the brothers have more opportunities to speak in public. Of course, everyone’s situation and cultural background are different, but no matter what, there must be a visible proof. Because what is unseen is revealed from what is seen, if a woman says she submits to authority, but in her relationship with her husband, or her interaction with other brothers, there is no practical display of submission to authority, that is not very convincing.
(4) It is a custom to cover head, and a principle to submit to authority, but the sign of submission to authority must be displayed on the head. Thus, some denominations (such as: brethren church, and some more traditional denominations) demand that sisters must wear a symbolic item to cover their heads during worship. It may not be a veil, it can be a head scarf or hat. No matter what, such a symbol is needed, because it shows that this woman is one who is willing to submit to authority.
3）In fact, whichever form we choose, it is inadequate
In such matter, we will very easily consider what our own church is doing now as what is right, but we do not realize the limitations within. If we advocate (1), then we will easily commit the sin of compromise. When we reach a stage where we feel something is not doable then we abolish it. As a result, we even abolish the truth principles, just as the rise of feminist movement led to much destructive work in the churches. Then if we advocate (2), that it is something which churches of every era must obey, then we must obey it fully, unlike some denominations which cover the head but substitute veil with hat or head scarf, this will be self-contradictory. Furthermore, we know that some of what the Bible records must be based on the cultural background at that time, such as when Jesus instructed the disciples to go and preach the gospel, He told them not to greet anyone <Lk 10:4>. Based on the culture back then, this was meant to highlight that the matter was “very urgent and could not be delayed”, it does not mean that believers should obey those words at face value. If we advocate (3), we must also be careful. Because if sisters choose their signs of submission according to their respective cultures, then will they choose by their own convenience? Perhaps in our culture, we feel that sisters should at least stay at home to take care of children, so that brothers can advance their careers without any worries and bear all the household expenditure, but under certain circumstances, the sister is also not willing to do so. Perhaps her salary is too high, or she is not good at looking after children. If we advocate (4), we may also commit the error of selective submission. Some sisters only wear a symbolic item to cover their heads, but after they go back home, they do not truly submit to their husbands. Also, we should ask why do we only choose to be insistent on the matter of head covering? How about Jesus washing the feet of His disciples? <Jn 13:1-17>. We all know that not only did Lord Jesus do this, but the early church also did it, until the 18th century, then the church ceased this custom. Nowadays, besides the Roman Catholics, no other denomination is doing this. Modern churches treat this as a spirit to serve humbly, instead of a faith ritual that has to be practically done. Thus, no matter which way we advocate, it has its limitations. We only have to ask ourselves uprightly, are our faith and actions working together?
2. Five guiding principles to face such matters
1）Consider what the Bible and early church permit as changeable traditional customs as reasonable
The Bible was written over a period of approximately 1600 years, by around 40 writers from different eras, cultures, backgrounds. If during this period, the Bible allows flexibility, why can’t we permit it today? Here, we can mention a few areas as reference. (1) Language. We know that the Old Testament was recorded in Hebrew, Lord Jesus used Aramaic to teach, and the New Testament Bible was recorded in Greek. Thus, when the New Testament cites words of the Old Testament, it is in a different language. Not long later, the Bible was translated into Latin, it was only translated into English in the 16th century. Today, certain denominations emphasize that a certain version of the Bible must be used, otherwise some essence will be lost and cannot be deemed as orthodox Bible. In fact, if God allows humans to translate the Bible beyond languages, we should not be too insistent on this. (2) Dressing. Was what Abraham wore different from what the apostles wore during the times of the Romans? Yes, of course. Thus, God permits dressing to change with times. However, the principle the Bible gives concerning dressing is that it must be modest, decent and proper <1 Ti 2:9>. There was ever in one era where it was improper for a sister to expose her ankle. Thus, in our culture, we must seek out what is considered modest, decent and proper? If sisters’ dressing reaches a stage where it is too revealing, is that modest and decent? If brothers dress too fancifully, or pierce an ear hole, is it appropriate? (3) Currency system. During the biblical times, shekels or ancient Roman currency were used, we are using the Singapore currency here. However, the principle is, we should offer the rightful tithes to the Lord. This does not change even if times or the currency system have changed.
2）Must pay attention to the principles of creation
No matter how times have changed, how different cultural backgrounds are, the principles of creation are universal. For example: The principles of creation tell us that we humans are created to submit to God, God has also set the Sabbath day for man. Human has body, as well as, spirit. Man cannot simply worship online at home just because times have changed and technology has advanced. The spirit worships God, the body also should gather with all saints and worship together. Furthermore, humans are created with the roles of man and woman. There is male and female in mankind, one is to lead, another to help. God has determined that one man and one woman should be united, not one man and many women, or one woman and many men, and definitely not two men, two women. These principles of creation clearly spell out what marriage is. Moreover, when God created man and woman, they are equal, thus no one should ever value the man above the woman, or vice versa. People err in this because of the fallen human culture, not because of God’s word. In fact, in God’s creation, we will know that God has already determined unchanging principles, which humans should obey. Those cannot be viewed as human traditional customs.
3）Even if the church must make adjustments, should also not neglect some biblical traditional customs left behind
Sometimes, because of the change in times, the church needs to make certain adjustments, but it is also not good if customs passed down by church traditions are treated too loosely. Example: Some people are already influenced by the modern culture, so they do not pay much attention to the worship order or hymns, but flatly reject earlier traditional customs. Some denominations have worship segments twice the duration for sermons, or they collect offerings before the sermon. What is the meaning behind all these? This is clearly replacing God’s will with the human will, to fulfill some human aims, thus replacing the spiritual with the non-spiritual. Some praise and worship leaders only select songs completely based on the touching melody of modern songs, and then discard traditional hymns which are very beautiful and rich in spiritual meaning. These are all very foolish ways. Some people also too quickly view some principles as customs, such as in interpreting <1 Co 11> concerning women covering their heads, they say that at that time in the city of Corinth, the prostitutes all did not cover their heads, thus Paul wanted sisters to cover their heads so that the church sisters would not appear like prostitutes. In fact, such saying is not adequate, because the reason why Paul mentioned about head covering in the Bible was not this, but Paul wanted sisters to understand what was meant by submitting to authority. Therefore, such interpretation reverses the order of importance, leading people to misunderstand the dignified meaning of the biblical truths.
4) Do not view differences in sacraments as a doctrinal problem, but examine deeper into biblical teachings to obtain a balanced view
The doctrine of Trinity and redemption are fundamental truths, and churches should be in agreement on this. However, differences in sacraments can be permitted by God. Furthermore, every church and denomination has already established a long history in their sacraments, so they should be accepted and respected. Today, the most contentious sacrament is perhaps whether baptism should be by immersion or sprinkling, and whether there should be infant dedication or infant baptism. Some denominations think baptism must be done through immersion, then it can be considered as baptism. In fact, water baptism is a ceremony, but the meaning the Lord wants to bring out is the cleansing function. Indeed, water cannot cleanse our soul, only the Holy Spirit can do that. Therefore, water is just a symbol, immersion or sprinkling are the same. Some denominations also feel that it is more meaningful to partake the Holy Communion together with everyone after baptism by sprinkling. For infants, Baptists will only do dedication, Presbyterians will do infant baptism. The biblical basis for dedication comes from Lord Jesus being circumcised on the 8th day, and then when the time came for the purification rites, he was presented to the Lord at the temple <Lk 2:21-22>. However, when Pentecost came, Peter said to the people, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” Here there is a promise of individual, family and world gospelization. After that, when Paul was spreading the gospel in Philippi, he met a jailer who wanted to kill himself, but in the end, he believed the Lord. He and all his household were baptized that night <Ac 16:33>. Did it include his children? We cannot say yes or no for sure. However, the Bible says that his whole family was baptized. In the Old Testament, God also instructed Abraham that the males in his household, whether his descendants or those bought with money, must be circumcised. Therefore, for infant baptism, although it is not explicitly spelt out in the scripture, it does not contravene what the Bible taught about God’s covenant. When God establishes a covenant with a person, He also establishes a covenant with his or her family. In that case, an infant who is baptized does not mean he is immediately saved, he has to go through a confirmation ceremony to confirm his faith. This is in accordance with biblical principles. If a person is over-insistent that only his own sacrament is the right way, it could mean he does not understand spiritual and life matters, and may easily cause divisions and conflicts amongst believers over such things. He does not get the priorities right in his faith. Another thing is the matter of having woman preaching at the pulpit. Many who advocate against that mention <1 Ti 2:12>, which says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet”, but they do not consider <1 Co 11:5>, where it says, “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head—it is the same as having her head shaved.” Here it does give a leeway for women preachers. The condition for an anointed and gifted woman to preach is that she must submit to the authority of a brother who is the leader, and cannot have the absolute leadership in church.
5) If there are still doubts, still submit first
Here, we must also understand a person’s conscience. Because <Ro 14:23> in the Bible says, “everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Especially, some traditional customs cannot be put down in a day. For some sisters, they need to wear a head-covering as they attend the service, in this, the church does not object. During worship, some may want to raise their hands, the church does not object either. But remember that in doing so, do not condemn others who do not do likewise. Furthermore, in the matters of sacraments, because God is a God of order, if He leads in a certain way in a church, it is most ideal that the brothers and sisters in the church can align with the church’s ways. If there are really some sacraments that you cannot accept, you can let church leaders know. After the overseers of the church pray, they will see how to make the best arrangements by the principles of the Lord’s righteousness and love.