Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral has a rich history within our nation’s capital. Since its charter was signed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1893, the church has hosted a number of important events, including President Wilson’s thanksgiving service after the end of World War I, the funerals for Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford, and the national prayer services for a number of presidential inaugurations. It’s in the news today, however, for a different reason.
Like so many other churches and buildings of prominence around the country, the National Cathedral recently announced that it would remove the Confederate flags from its intricate stained glass windows. The flags currently adorn a relatively small portion of the eight-by-four foot windows that honor the Civil War generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, though the church decided to leave those Confederate figures up for the time being in order to help facilitate a broader discussion on race and racial justice.
As the Cathedral’s former dean, Rev. Gary Hall, described, the windows were created in 1953 to “foster reconciliation between parts of the nation that had been divided by the Civil War.” And while the decision to remove the images is not without its detractors, those who want the windows to remain unchanged are left in the rather difficult position of arguing against the very reason they were created.
In a cultural climate where so many associate the Confederate flag with hatred and oppression, its inclusion on the Cathedral’s windows is simply incapable of fostering the kind of reconciliation for which they were originally intended. As such, the primary argument to leave them unchanged is necessarily based on tradition rather than reason, and that is a dangerous foundation for any belief.
Unfortunately, the same error is found far too often in other aspects of our culture as well. We see it in politics, for example, when people support either the Republicans or the Democrats because that’s simply the way they have always voted rather than because they agree with the party’s beliefs. We see it in business when innovation is avoided and the same practices, even when ineffective, are tirelessly defended because they might have worked in a previous era. And we see it in our churches when worship styles seem as sacred as Scripture and change is viewed more as a threat than an opportunity.
In many cases, change may very well be unnecessary and counterproductive. However, if tradition rather than reason is the primary determinant of that decision, then the situation will seldom end well.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry, his greatest opposition came from those who couldn’t understand his message because it seemed to clash with their traditions. The fact that Jesus came to fulfill the Law rather than to abolish or alter it (Matthew 5:17–18) was incomprehensible because the religious leaders never stopped long enough to examine their own practices.
For the church to fulfill its God-given purpose in the world around us, we cannot afford to make the same mistake. That doesn’t mean altering what we do, or much less what we believe, simply so that we might better fit into the culture around us, but it does mean taking the time to examine which of those practices and beliefs are based on Scripture and which are based on tradition.
Understanding the difference between those two foundations is vital to carrying out our kingdom mission and defending our faith on those occasions when God does call us to stand against what’s popular.
So the next time some aspect of your faith is challenged, instead of immediately defending it, take a moment to pray and ask God to help you understand why you hold to that understanding. Most of the time, we believe as we do for good reason and change is unnecessary. However, those occasions that warrant a different course can have a profound impact on the vitality of our faith and message to the world around us. Let’s not waste them.