I have often heard the quote attributed to theologian Karl Barth, “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” This week, I wondered if there might be a time when it is appropriate to hold the Bible in one hand and the history of the church in the other. When facing challenging times, perhaps there are ways in which our own history can inspire us, reminding us of times in the past when we have navigated changes with grace and strength.
This past Sunday, our gospel reading included Mark chapter 7 verse 8: “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” This is what Jesus said to the Pharisees when they criticized his disciples for not following the religious tradition of washing their hands before eating. Jesus pointed out that sometimes adherence to the religious tradition actually leads people away from following God. The example Jesus used is found in verses 10-13 of Mark chapter 7. Apparently, some people were avoiding the obligation of caring for their parents by claiming that they were giving those resources to God instead. Jesus criticized this practice, accusing them of disobeying the 5th of the Ten Commandments, in which God instructs, “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12).
The devotional guide Reflections for Tuesday, February 18 offers further thoughts on this passage, recounting a story of a pastor meeting with someone seeking baptism and wondering what the church bylaws would say about this situation. The pastor writes, “The bylaws, just one of the layers of human tradition that stand between us and the living God, get you every time.” (Daniel Headrick, Reflections Daily Devotional Guide, Jan – April 2020).
This reminded me of a passage from our own church history booklet: “Another first! When deacons were nominated in 1975, the names of several women appeared on the ballot. What a surprise! Lucy Orr was elected to serve a regular three-year term on the Deacon Council. It was necessary to amend the By-Laws to be able to elect women.” (page 14 of A History of the First Baptist Church Pendleton, South Carolina).
I see this as an inspiring example of this church not allowing our tradition to stand in the way of following God. The church elected women to serve, and then later revised the by-laws to reflect our practice. We followed God first, we responded to the leadership of the Holy Spirit first, rather than letting tradition stand in the way.
As we read the Bible, we may hold the newspaper in the other hand, being aware of what is going on in the world. We may hold the history of the church in the other hand, helping us remember how the church (this particular church and the universal church) has been faithful to God in the past. But I would suggest that we consult the by-laws later. Our traditions have value and can be helpful, but may we never let them replace the Living Presence of God. May we be attentive to the Holy Spirit. May we be obedient to God, even if that requires us to revisit, to rethink, and to revise our traditions.
— Pastor Jennifer Rygg, 2/18/2020