Of those traditions kept by my conservative Mennonite church, a foot-washing ritual was one of the more notable. It is a practice based in the example of Jesus who washed the feet of the disciples and then instructed them to follow his example:
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17, NIV)
So, twice a year with communion, after a sermon about some aspect of the sacrifice Jesus made, after partaking of some bread and grape juice together and then another short reminder of why we were doing the stuff we did, the men would be dismissed to the basement (leaving the women the upstairs to do their symbolic washing) and on the way down we men would pair up with the guy beside us or another guy that we selected for whatever reason.
We would remove our shoes and socks, then proceed to one of the plastic basins arranged in front of folding chairs, then take turns solemnly splashing water on each other’s feet and dabbing them dry again with a towel provided. Once finished with this ritual procedure, most would shake hands (those less inhibited would kiss) and engage in awkward small talk or make a comment about keeping their washing partner in prayer over the next few months.
In our time, this act of foot washing is little more than a symbolic act of service. But when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, it was something of practical value to those traveling the dusty roads in sandals and a task typically reserved for the servants. In that context, it was a very significant gesture and represented a whole new approach to leadership. In the Mennonite context, this practice is sometimes nothing more than a ritual and tradition.
Is reinvention of orthodoxy the answer to dead faith?
People often equate ritual and tradition in the church to dead faith. As a result, those disgruntled with dead faith swing in the direction of innovation and spontaneity, hoping to find something authentic and real. Unfortunately, while the first generation of those discarding established tradition often experience the excitement of something new, their children do not get a temporary emotional bump from the change. It should be no surprise when these children continue down the same path and throw out practices that their parents considered to be sacred and essential.
The idiom, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” (derived from a German proverb, “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütte”) is a warning against destroying something good in our zeal to be rid of what is bad. This saying was first recorded in 1512 and right before Martin Luther touched off a revolt against the established church. It is a phrase, frequently used by Luther himself, perhaps worried people would take what he started too far. It remains a very popular expression with Protestants (including Mennonites) who are trying desperately to retain their own children.
There is much in Scripture about the sins of fathers being transmitted to the next generation (Ex. 34:6-7, Lev. 26:39, Deut. 5:8-10) and seems to apply to our own circumstances today. Children, through genetics or behavioral patterning, often acquire the strengths of their parents. A parent’s good example can lead their children to good habits. And, in the same manner, children often also inherit the defects, blind-spots and weaknesses of their parents as well. Children build both on the success and also on the sins and/or shortcomings of the prior generation.
So, it should not be a big surprise that the children of Protestants continue down a path of independence, reinterpretation of Scripture and departure from what was established. Protestantism, with the inordinate focus on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, has led to further division, ever-increasing individualism, and significant loss of Christian character. Many Protestants, following the example of their forefathers, assume that the path to spiritual life is found in throwing off of traditions and rituals — but I believe they are terribly mistaken.
Orthodox tradition and ritual is not at fault for abuses of the institutions of the church.
What is the basis for tradition and ritual in the church?
Many seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew and faithfully kept the Jewish religious tradition. Jesus did speak against those who “let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8, NIV) or, in other words, those who prioritized religious rituals over love for others.
Yet Jesus did not dismiss ritual and tradition as completely unimportant either. Jesus and early Jewish converts to Christianity (while ranking the substance of faith higher than the religious symbolism) did not totally disregard the traditions that had been established.
To truly love Jesus means to follow his example and keep his commands. This, according to the words of Jesus, is requisite to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:15-21, NIV)
Many church rituals (like baptism, communion and foot washing) are directly from the Gospels and given as instruction to the disciples by Jesus. And, it is in the Gospels that we read that Jesus gave authority to his disciples. He told Peter and the disciples this:
And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matt. 16:18-19, NIV)
The early church clearly had a hierarchy with real authority and one that built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. It is the writings of these early church fathers that contain their witness to the life of Jesus and also provide their reader with further divinely-inspired instruction. This is what they said:
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thess. 2:15, NIV)
Scripture didn’t just drop out of the sky written on golden tablets. No, rather it is a collection of inspired writings compiled and later canonized by the authority of a church council. The Bible, is the written tradition of the church (or “letter”) and is a source widely accepted as authoritative. However, in Protestant churches, because they reject any authority besides their own, the “spoken word” of church tradition has not been firmly held — it is neglected and forgotten.
The complete disregard for the oral tradition of the church is no different from cutting a chunk out of Scripture. Sure — as a person can refrain from applying the instruction Paul gives in regards to veiling (and not veiling) in 1 Corinthians 11 and still be Christian, these things aren’t necessary to be saved. However, this represents the deterioration of church tradition and a serious problem. At some point, we cannot claim to be following after the example of Jesus and continue to abandon the practices of the church he established.
There is a real loss when the established tradition is tossed in favor of a more “contemporary” program. Moreover, those leaving their religious tradition often continue to benefit from the values it helped to instill in them. However, the real cost is often only felt in subsequent generations who didn’t have the unappreciated benefits of the old tradition — the children raised without tradition have lost the helpful reminders given to their parents and also an important stabilizing tie to the historic church.
What makes tradition and ritual important?
The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” contains the following monologue:
“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That, I can tell you in a word — tradition!
Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything — how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you — I don’t know! But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
Tevye’s character is a Jewish father standing at this intersection of religious tradition and compromise in the name of progress. He points to one of the reasons why traditions are formed and that is balance. Traditions and rituals are established to help provide stability and order to our lives.
Rituals also help reduce anxiety and increase confidence even for those who do not believe they are beneficial:
Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses — from loved ones to lotteries — do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks — like singing in public — do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. (“Why Rituals Work,” Scientific American)
At practice and before games, my high school football team went through the same “warm up” routine. Some of the reason for this was to physically prepare us to prevent injury through stretching and get us warmed up. But the other part, perhaps even the larger and more significant part, is what this ritual did psychologically to calm our nerves and get us mentally prepared. This practice and pre-game ritual made us better individually and also helped our cohesiveness as a team.
Beyond that, it is what Jesus taught and showed by example. Jesus did not entirely do away with his Jewish rituals and traditions. In fact, he added to them, going as far as to give the disciples a template for a simple prayer (given in contrast to the arrogant public prayers of religious elites and “babbling like pagans”) and this “Lord’s prayer” is still practiced — even in Protestant churches. If one understands the value of baptism and communion, then there should be no argument. Rituals are important to help to pattern, influence and shape our minds.
Traditions provide us with a structure that helps us to navigate our lives. When Paul urges believers to conduct their worship “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Cor. 14:40), it is not intended to stifle their freedom or individuality. It is rather to free them from chaos and confusion. We are creatures of habit; we do not do well in a constantly shifting environment, and therefore ritual is even more important in these tumultuous times.
As Tevye said, they are reminders of who we are and what God expects from us.
So what to do with dead orthodoxy?
It is fairly obvious that people can continue in religion long after they’ve become spiritually dead. Ritual and tradition, while a benefit to the faithful, cannot preserve faith. Christianity is not as simple as checking the right boxes. As Jesus told the perplexed Nicodemus “you must be born again” and about how the Spirit works like “wind” that “blows wherever pleases” (John 3:1-21), there is a profound mystery in this that goes beyond a religious program and all human rationality.
Protestants, of all people, should know this. Every generation there is a new method that comes along, another “remnant” group sharing their own version of the gospel, the next author trying to pump the purpose back into Christianity or yet another list of fundamentals, ordinances or doctrines, and all these movements eventually seem to end up in the same place again. Often these re-inventors end up leaving their children even more ignorant of church history and with even less to grasp onto. Some might declare themselves to be the more pure, but they are also void of any tradition with staying power and the proof is in the legacy they leave.
Dead orthodoxy is a result of dead faith. And, in the same manner that new window dressing won’t help to stabilize a wooden structure weakened by termites, reinventing traditions and rituals will never bring spiritual life back where the church has fallen off its foundation. The foundation of faith is Jesus, his faithful church is constructed upon that foundation — with the traditions it has passed on both in written and spoken form for our benefit — and there is no spiritual life gained in throwing this legacy out.
In fact, it is arrogant to think that we would be better to start from scratch and create our own new orthodoxy rather than draw from the experience and wisdom accumulated over many generations. It is basically to say that we today are better than all those faithful Christians of the past two millennia who kept these traditions and saw fit to pass them on to us.
Does the ritual of baptism ever take away repentance?
Can our communion practice come at the expense of our love for Christ’s body?
Should we stop celebrating Christmas and Easter because they aren’t found in the Bible and have been corrupted by American culture?
Our ridding ourselves of these established and orthodox Christian practices will not draw us any closer to God.
Yes, the foot-washing tradition practiced at my Mennonite church is worthless if the act does not truly represent our heart. The veiling is often associated with the failures of Mennonite men to lead in the example of Christ, and thus the practice of the veil is often discarded by ex-Mennonite women. But both represent cases of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is not the ritual of foot washing or the imperfect application of 1 Cor. 11:2-16 that is at fault. Tradition and ritual should never be blamed for our lack of those things that should come from the heart.
It’s true that faith is not established upon religious rituals or traditions, and they certainly can be corrupted. The apostle Paul had to sternly warn early Christians against the abuse of the Lord’s Supper and had to further define the practice in an effort to prevent them from abusing it. But what he didn’t do is throw his hands up and say: “Okay, no more Communion; let’s go back to the basics and just show our love for each other through charitable acts!” No, he urged them to rediscover, not reinvent, and that is what the faithful do.
The solution to dead orthodoxy is not reinvention. The solution to dead orthodoxy is to address the real problem and renew the heart of faith that makes the tradition meaningful and allows the ritual come alive.
What tradition should we keep?
Every denomination has rituals and traditions. The format of a plain Mennonite service, for example, intended to be a bit less formal, can be very dry and predictable. The song leader leads some songs, men argue our pet issues in Sunday school class while women sit in stoney silence in theirs, the deacon (after pleading for us to think about the meaning of the hymns we just sang) goes through the laundry list of activities and repeat prayer requests, after another song the preacher does his thing as some doze in the pews, and finally the congregation is dismissed to talk about farming, hunting, sports or politics.
At some point all new “movements” end up creating a new ritual and tradition. John and Charles Wesley introduced a radical new “methodical” approach to study and life. This eventually became the “Methodist” denomination. Mennonites take their denominational name from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest who became caught up in the Anabaptist movement, and now are mostly an ethnic church known for a “peace witness” and shoo-fly pies.
Not all religious rituals and traditions are equal in history or value. Sunday school, revival meetings, VBS, “sweetheart banquets,” Mother’s Day celebrations, Bible schools and church retreats are part of the Mennonite church calendar, but they are certainly not the equivalent of Ascension day, Lent season, Paschal feast or many of the other long-established orthodox practices that some have abandoned in the past few centuries. I would rather we started to look at what was established early and has worked for many generations than try to create a dumbed-down, less historically grounded version.
The tradition of many Protestant churches has become so watered down there is little left to reinvent besides the Bible. As a result, those seeking an emotional high through change are running out of options, and when their current experience isn’t satisfying anymore, some decide to toss the Bible next. That is the progressive approach. That is the approach that confuses their own temporal feelings of pleasure with spiritual gain.
Faith is not created by ritual and tradition, nor can it be increased by discarding them. Spiritual life comes through obedience and is also a mysterious work of God. We aren’t saved through our religious devotion. A person can go through the motions of baptism, communion, foot washing or any other orthodox Christian practice without ever having a change of heart.
That said, the truly faithful do benefit from the reminders, the structure and patterns for behavior that orthodox rituals and traditions provide. In my own experience, it has helped me to worship in a manner that has been established over many generations. To join together with that “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) and to worship as Christians did for thousands of years has been a tremendous experience that cannot be duplicated with a new light show and smoke machine.
People who burn down their houses because they don’t like some of the decorations on the walls might be momentarily free. But the enjoyment and empowerment of this new-found simplicity and freedom will soon be a desperate struggle to protect themselves from the elements. And the same goes for those who think they gain through taking an eraser to the rituals, traditions and established orthodoxy of the church. The benefits are fleeting, and the cost of trying to restore what was lost is great.
Yes, some necessary structure can be built back in a generation or two after the full loss of the change is felt, but not without slavish effort to restore it — and where is the freedom in that?
A life unfettered by any established ritual and historical tradition might seem ideal for the freedom and simplicity that it promises. However, not all is as advertised; the freedom is an illusion and the reality created is often quite complicated. Taking a wrecking ball to established order often leads to only chaos and more confusion. Worse, it robs the next generation of their religious inheritance and leaves children worse off than their perpetually dissatisfied parents.
Our faith should be founded on Jesus, our religion grounded on the truth of his word, our life lived in obedience to the Spirit — and that means keeping the traditions passed down by his church. Spiritual life is restored through genuine repentance and not by abandoning ritual. Renewed faith comes with our humble obedience and not by reinventing traditions.
Jesus did not discard all ritual and tradition, nor should we. There is a place for both in the church. It is a connection that we need now more than ever in the shifting sands of our time. Perhaps it is time for some reflection, rediscovery and restoration?
Joel Stoltzfus of Milton, Pa., grew up in a Keystone Mennonite Fellowship congregation and now attends an Eastern Orthodox church. He blogs at Irregular Ideation, where this post first appeared.