The famous English author G.K. Chesterton loved tradition. “Tradition,” he wrote, “means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. . . . Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
These sentiments apparently are resonating with an increasing number of American Christians. While evangelical churches with contemporary services continue to grow, ancient churches are growing, as well. In fact, the number of U.S. Orthodox parishes grew 16 percent over the past decade. And reportedly, the draw is tradition.
“Most people come for the stability,” says Father Richard Petranek of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. “The same thing that is taught today in the Orthodox Church was taught 500 years ago, was taught one-thousand years ago, was taught 15-hundred years ago.”
Similarly, Lana Jobe – a Baptist convert to the Orthodox Church – says, “You see churches today splitting over doctrinal issues. . . . There are controversies over Biblical truths or inerrancy or homosexuality . . . and the church wants to vote on it. We don’t have to vote on anything because it was settled from the very beginning.”
Of course, we evangelicals generally don’t like anyone deciding doctrinal issues for us. We hail from a fiercely independent lot, tracing all the way back to the three Great Awakenings. Those revivalist preachers taught believers to reject historic churches, ancient creeds, and theological scholarship. As Nancy Pearcy writes in “Total Truth,” many evangelicals embraced the Revolutionary Spirit and then applied it to Christianity. Some even taught that individual Christians had an “unalienable right” to interpret Scripture for themselves – even if that led them away from orthodoxy.
Despite this rhetoric, evangelicals, over the years have retained Christian orthodoxy. We’ve simply added an emphasis on personal conversion and Christian living – something mainline denominations often neglected. But, now that’s changing. And, I think many evangelicals, myself included, are wondering if detaching ourselves from the anchor of tradition has simply left us adrift in uncharted waters.
As a result, some evangelicals are jumping ship – moving to Orthodox and even Catholic traditions. Tragically, many young evangelicals seemingly are jumping into the sea – dropping out of church altogether. And, then there are the rest of us, who remain in the evangelical church, but feel she needs reform. This time, however, she needs to move toward tradition, not away from it. We need to recapture the wisdom of the creeds, the discipline and rhythm of liturgy, and the accountability of ecclesiastical structure. In Chesterton’s words, we need to “reject the arrogant oligarchy” of the living and submit to the discernment of those who have gone before us.