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Exploring the Roots of Church Traditions

Ignorance. Mud. The plague. When Rome fell to barbarian tribes, the civilization that the caesars had created fell apart. The Mediterranean Sea had been transformed into a Roman Lake as the Empire stretched across the known world, but 500 years after Augustus took the throne, a feeble Rome wallowed in gluttony and laziness. Waves of invasions from Germanic tribes left the Western Roman Empire in disarray. Trade routes were disrupted, infrastructure fell into disrepair, and education was abandoned in the interest of mere survival. The once-mighty empire took its final gasps of dissipated greatness and succumbed to a dusty collapse. Thus, began the Dark Ages, a time known historically for warfare and misery as illiterate hoards overran Europe. During this time of uncertainty, the religious leadership of Rome stepped in to fill the enormous power vacuum.

In many ways, the Roman Church alone preserved the civilization of the dissolved Roman Empire, protecting ancient manuscripts and promoting clerical learning. Church leaders provided direction for fearful populations reeling from an undefined fate. Yet, as the power of the church increased, so did the draw of high church positions. Lingering corruption from pagan Rome seeped into the religious hierarchy, and while there were good popes and bishops devoted to morality and righteousness, there were some really corrupt ones as well. As time went on, the church of Christ looked less and less like Jesus and more like any other human institution. In all times of church history, there have been those who sincerely sought to follow God in Christ Jesus and this is true in the Roman Catholic Church. Conversely, there have been those who used the church to pursue their own self-aggrandizing agendas, to the harm of all.

They were dark times. The Word of God was sucked into the religio-political whirlwind of the Middle Ages and copies of the Bible became scarce. Few people could read anyway, and they had to depend on church leaders to teach them God’s Word. But, in the mountains and scattered villages of Europe, even the clerics lacked a Bible and most were not up to the task. It was in this medieval petri dish that many church traditions were cultured. Ideas that seemed very reasonable were adopted into law as if they had floated down from God on gossamer wings. But without testing them against the whole counsel of God, practices found nowhere in the Bible became commonplace. Slowly, slowly these traditions from the creative minds of men came to replace simple biblical teachings. Some of these have incited centuries of heated deliberation, raising the serious question: which church traditions are organic to God’s intended purposes and which were promoted long ago by men with agendas? That’s the primary question.

We have traditions in our churches, and nobody even knows where they came from! We find that a number of traditions crept into the church during the Middle Ages, during a time when people did not have the Bible readily available to read themselves. Confusing ideas crept in, ideas that pointed people in every direction except closer to Jesus Christ. People added their own ideas as additions to the Bible, and we find that’s a very dangerous thing to do.

The warning we find in the last words of the Bible should ring alarm bells in the souls of each one of us:

For I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

Revelation 22:18–19

We need to heed these words in Revelation and be careful not to put our own words in God’s mouth.

Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.

Colossians 2:8

It is easy to find books that present a hyperbolic history of the Middle Ages with an end game of Catholic bashing. That is not my purpose here. The history of the Roman Catholic Church is the history of the Christian church in the West. It belongs to all of us. What’s more, the situation today is light years from the times when popes sanctioned the mass killings of Christian minorities and Jews and any others considered heretics. No more fathers are being dragged from their homes to town squares to be burned alive in front of their children. The screams for mercy have been replaced with calls of “that was then and this is now.”

Roman Catholic ministries today practice acts of love that stand across the universe from the abuse of those nefarious times. Roman Catholics perform countless charitable relief efforts in some of the most dangerous and inhospitable places on earth, and these men and women today deserve respect for their devotion to humanitarian acts of feeding the poor and relieving widows and orphans.

Our world looks completely different today than it did during the Spanish Inquisition or the Reformation. Protestants and Catholics have aligned together on many common areas of interest, on morality and family and faith in Christ. There are still profound disagreements and still stark divisions, but we also find a lot of common ground.

As Christian believers, we need to work together to honestly discern what is true. Too often, we find that the unbending faith of those around us is based on nothing more than what their parents told them, without question or biblical justification. We should all dare to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11, who were called “noble” because they searched the Scriptures to see if the things Paul was teaching them were accurate. God pleads for us to test Him, because through testing comes ultimate truth. Remaining faithful to church dogmas is only commendable if those dogmas are based on the intentions of the Bible’s writers.

I find it remarkable that some — not even active in their churches — will defend their particular denomination against challenges even though they may not have a remote clue what the Bible actually says on the matter. Many can quote one verse or another from the Bible, but they have no idea about the multitude of other verses that add perspective to the issue. This is a very thin and dangerous tightrope on which to walk into eternity. If a tradition is from God, we will be able to find it already lodged in the pages of God’s Word. If not, we are letting a democracy of the dead guide us into the unknown.

Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?

Matthew 15:3

To get some answers to this most challenging subject, I determined to perform a historical autopsy on the medieval times for the purpose of finding the roots of common church traditions. These include both those within the Catholic and Protestant faiths. I wanted to know where these doctrines originated and how they came to be so tightly wedged in the public consciousness. I wanted to see if they were justified by the Bible or whether they contradict the words of Jesus Christ. It was a far more difficult task than anticipated as I hacked my way through the thick hide of historical misinformation and past gobs of distortions. I eventually ended up deep into the marrow of those moldering old bones of church tradition, and what I found there left me absolutely stunned.

Let’s say you are a man living in 13th century Europe. Fear is an ominous dark cloud following you for your entire life. Yes, you will love, have children, drink, dance, sing and pray, but lingering behind your every step will be the dread of detrimental mischief from God and the Devil.

From as long as you can remember, you have been taught that cunning demons can occupy just about anything. Animals, spiders, dust, the trunk of a tree, or even a stranger, all might be the abode of the Devil himself. As a child, you listened to your grandfather tell scary stories in front of the embers of late night fire. In that flickering glow, you clung breathlessly to every word, imagining frightening things prowling just outside the mud walls of your humble dwelling. You sat, eyes wide open, as the old man told of dracs which could grab inattentive lads and drag them, screaming, into the maw of a nearby cave. Then there were the stories of ghouls walking along the village edge, creeping in and out of moonlight shadows in search of freshly dug graves.

Medieval plowman and ox (c. 1300).
Medieval plowman and ox (c. 1300).

Fear is everywhere; and sadly, the church seems to add to the problem. The common people know they will suffer God’s vengeful wrath if they divert from the priest’s words. They fear the church, purgatory, hell, mass, confessionals, torture, war, plagues, witches and all manner of superstitions. A woman might stand vigilant over a shrouded body until burial, fearing a black cat will scamper across the corpse, transforming the deceased into a vampire. To prevent a recently dead man from drowning in the afterlife, ladies hurriedly dump all the water from the flower vases, pots, and bowls in the home.

Despite these things, your small village has always been your home and you know nothing better than the cramped cottages separated by rain rutted lanes and weedy rock walls. Outside your front door, razor backed hogs grunt and wallow in the puddles. Geese and nervy chickens squawk and cluck about the streets. Your yard is piled high with corn cribs, pigeon pens, and a dung mound taller than your front door. Soot from a thousand fires blackens the rafters inside your home, where rats scamper about under the rustling thatch of your roof. The floor beneath your feet is moist from spilled beer and spit. Dried fish skin is stretched over a small window opening to keep out the rain while allowing a few light beams to penetrate the smoky haze.

The church is the most important building in town, although the parapets of the castle poke high above the canopy of trees. Your neighbor serves as a scullery maid in the castle kitchen, and she tells your wife of bountiful feasts, where tables groan under the weight of pigs and mutton, pies and puddings. Lords and ladies gather around the massive fireplace while their meat roasts to perfection. You don’t know whether to believe these descriptions, but you don’t envy the superiors who are granted such wonders. God has made you what you are. Who are you to question God?

You have seen snooping busybodies hanging about under the eaves of your roof, listening to your conversations in the evening. You know that a lonely neighbor woman was overheard talking to herself in her cottage. It was determined she had been communicating with an evil spirit, and she was summarily put on trial. They tortured her horribly until she confessed to being a witch. She was then burned alive at the stake while the other villagers cursed her wickedness. You fear that somebody will find evil in your wife or daughters, and you keep them quietly inside at night.

It’s a world of constant anxiety, and there is little comfort from God the supreme Judge. It’s not that God is absent. The whole village knows that God is watching and closely observing the daily village activities. When a gust of wind flings open a door, all those present hurriedly make the sign of the cross. The large timbered cross in the square reminds all that God casts His long shadow over their business dealings. God is He who shoots bolts of lightning from the rain gorged clouds, sending many to the church altar to shudder in teeth-grinding terror.

Sunday is a compulsory day for church. If you work in the field on Sunday you fear God will be irritated and perhaps kill you or make your next child malformed. There is no option to remain at home; you will attend church or spend Monday on a wooden cucking stool in the town square to face the jeering of all who pass by.

In the church, there are no pews — just straw scattered to lightly pad the hard ground. A neighbor has carried in a small, hollow metal sphere with a few smoldering coals to add some warmth to the cold, damp room. The village priest dutifully recites the Mass, but neither he nor those in the room can understand a single word of the strange, tortured Latin. It is an exercise in patience to sit silently until the prescribed words come to their end, a stream of little more than mumbled incantations.

Nobody in town owns a Bible. Bibles are rare, carefully copied out by monks in distant monasteries, and lay people aren’t permitted to own them. They are especially not free to own Bibles in the common language. A Bible translated into the vernacular is considered contraband, and an unthinkable crime punishable by imprisonment or death.

This was the religious life of the common man in the 13th century. He was required to trust the church leaders for his religious instruction, but too many of the church leaders themselves were ignorant of the Bible’s words. Today we question how innocent people were killed for their faith in the Middle Ages. How could such brutality take place in the Christian lands of Europe? To get our answers, let’s go back to a time when the official church leadership decided to toss out the Bible as the basis for the Christian faith. It was in the maelstrom of isolation and fear that the light of God’s Word was bent into an ethereal abyss and replaced by church traditions that favored those in control. It was also a time when heretics were hunted and killed.

… To be continued. Part 2 will appear in the Aug. 2018 issue of the Personal Update.


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