Community and Tradition

I was not raised in the Christian religion. Like many from the First World, I was raised in a Christian culture, but I was not raised in the church or with a knowledge of the Christian religion. I spent most of my childhood as an agnostic with some Buddhist flavor, and when I was exposed to the Bible, it was through a children’s storybook. As a result, I associated the Bible with fairy tales. This would eventually come to change as I felt the desire to actually study religion. Part of it due to my brother’s influence.

My brother was like me. He was not raised in Christianity, but later converted to it as a teenager. He originally came to Christ through the Pentecostals, then he became an Evangelical. It was when he was attending an Evangelical Free church that I first came to truly appreciate Christianity again. It was also during this time that I got my first Bible, which was the New Living Translation. I did not believe in Christianity during this time, but it was something interesting to study and do on the weekends.

One thing that I learned from Evangelical Protestantism was that everything is personal and private. We are supposed to have a personal relationship with Jesus. We are supposed to personally convert to Christianity, and salvation was all about personal redemption from sin and death. Even the Bible was to be read and interpreted privately. Even in economics, Evangelicals tend to stress capitalism and enterprise over community and charity. Then, I began to study Catholic theology, and I started to use a New American Bible.

When I started to study Catholic theology, I learned that the Evangelical emphasis on privatized religion was not part of the historical church. Many of the things that are considered fundamentals for Christian faith emerged through communal discernment and debate among Christians. A good example of this is the the doctrine of the Trinity, which is still debated among Christians. Another big one is the Bible. The Evangelicals taught me that the Protestant Bible was the Bible, and that there was no other. Then, when I started using the Catholic Bible, I noticed some extra books. I then learned that they were not extra at all, but were removed by Protestants. It turns out that the Bible has never been set in stone, but different communities of believers, over hundreds of years, have developed different Bibles (see the complete list). The Bible is fundamentally a communal project, and even the books of the Bible do not address individuals, but mostly address nations and churches.

This revelation within community is known as sacred tradition in Catholic theology. Many early Protestants also had a similar notion, and the Protestant confessions, as well as traditional Anglican, Lutheran, and Methodist teaching, show this. Many Protestants, however, and especially Evangelicals, have lost this in favor of strictly private interpretation. It was such discoveries that pushed me away from an Evangelical style of Christianity, but I was not pushed into Catholic Christianity, but Anabaptism.

Inspired by the New Testament, Anabaptists have always emphasized community. With the Anabaptist tradition, there is a communal way of reading the Bible. For many, this leads us to focus on the communities that we are a part of, but I think the Anabaptist communal discernment process can be much more. Community is not just those who live among us in the present. It is also what is passed down to us from previous generations and what we give to the generations after us. Chesterton wrote that, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” I think that the Anabaptist communal approach is similar. For example, the Anabaptist vision is especially oriented around the New Testament, which was written by communities that are long dead.

As Anabaptists, I feel that we should not disregard church tradition. There are periods that we would like to overlook, and there are times when the church needs to be whipped back into shape. Nevertheless, these moments make up our past and have affected how we see the world. Tradition is not about having an authority in addition to the Bible or Christ, but it is the living story of how our ancestors lived and believed in their following of Jesus. Tradition is community, but it is a community that takes into account those voices which have been forever silenced by death. We should not forget tradition, as Protestants often do today, but see it as an extension of community.

Kevin Daugherty