A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask ‘Why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous?’ Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition! Traditions, traditions. Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as, as… as a fiddler on the roof! Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything: how to sleep; how to eat; how to work; how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl that shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, “How did this tradition get started?” I’ll tell you! [Pause] I don’t know. But it’s a tradition… and because of our traditions… Every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.
Teyve was a man with many traditions and three daughters who, to varying degrees, challenged them. They forced him to think through important questions. Which traditions could be relinquished without compromising what the Good Book says? Which were contrary to truth? Which must be held onto tenaciously lest he deny everything he believed in? We, too, are like a fiddler on the roof trying to keep our balance as we pursue faithfulness to God. We can fall off one side of the roof at great peril to our souls by holding fast to our traditions even if they are contrary to Scripture; on the other hand, we may tumble down the opposite side and break our necks by rejecting the wisdom handed down to us through two millennia of New Testament church history.
Faithfulness to our heavenly Father involves both being like the Bereans — receiving the Word proclaimed with great eagerness and examining the Scriptures daily to be sure what we have heard is true; and, at the same time, keeping the fifth commandment by honoring our fathers in the faith (both dead and alive). We are always to be about the work of reformation (standing on the shoulders of giants), but never revolution (slaying the giants with a single pebble). Thankfully, Christ has gifted His church for just such a calling as our text (Ephesians 4:11-16) teaches.
Teachers & Hucksters
Christ bestows particular and diverse gifts to men (v. 11). All aren’t gifted in the same manner, nor are all called in these ways (“And He gave some…”). Of these gifts some were but for a time, and those that remain are but for a few. He gave apostles and prophets to lay the foundation and continues to bless us with evangelists and pastors/teachers to enable us to complete the building process — “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (v. 12). This is not for a season only, but until we are united in the faith and knowledge of Christ, mature and conformed to the image of our Savior (v. 13). The result is evidenced by steadfastness in sound doctrine as opposed to being led astray by hucksters intent on tickling the itching ears (v. 14), and love in speech and conduct as we follow our Head (v. 15). Though few are called to be equippers in a verse eleven sense, all believers are gifted in Christ. Because of this, or, more accurately, because of Him, we each contribute to the needs and growth of the body in love (v. 16).
Humbly Receiving Traditions
In our day it is especially important to remember that Christ gave these gifts to men when He ascended into heaven (v. 8). For two thousand years the Son of God has been at work building His church. To mix metaphors, we find ourselves well down the stream of this river of Christ’s love for His bride. Among other things that means we must have gratitude and humility for the wisdom passed down to us. Gratitude for the battles fought and won, for the doctrine studied and clarified. Our humility is to receive what they have given us unless and until we can be clearly convinced from Scripture that they were mistaken.
Easily Tossed by Waves of Doctrine
Notice I wrote: “unless or until we can be clearly convinced.” The Bereans, not Joe the Berean, were recognized as noble-minded. They, as a community not individuals, searched the Scriptures to validate Paul’s teaching. In our day we dishonor our fathers (not to mention Acts 17:11 and God who inspired it) by rejecting what they have taught armed only with our own personal “wisdom,” Bible and concordance. We are like arrogant teenagers who think they have no need for the wisdom of their parents because they and their peers are the fount of all knowledge (cf. 1 Kings 12:1-14). How childish. No wonder so many in our day are “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine…” (v. 14).
Are the grey-headed always wise? Is the theology of a bunch of dead guys without error? Are the four ecumenical creeds inspired and infallible? Is the Reformed faith finished being reformed? Of course not.
Christian Traditions Subordinate to God’s Word
All councils, creeds, and catechisms, theologians, evangelists, pastors and teachers, are subordinate to the ultimate authority and only infallible source of truth — the Holy Scriptures. We must not allow anyone or anything to usurp the Lord Jesus Christ, regardless of intellectual brilliance, theological acumen, pious life, long practice, or cherished beliefs. Yet, to a degree few of us realize, we know who we are and what God expects us to do because of those who have gone before us. Balance is the key. It isn’t easy, but without it we will break our necks. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: “Tradition!”
This article was first published in Every Thought Captive magazine, 2009.