The “Rolling in their Graves” Argument

Although we like to say that tradition doesn’t carry authority for us like it does in the Catholic church the truth is, in practice, many times it does. How many times have you heard an idea rebuffed because either “We’ve never done it that way” or “The people who started this church would be rolling in their graves if they knew about this!” Ok. But what pleases God? Not what have we done. Not what did our ancestors do. What pleases God?

We aren’t animists. We don’t have totems or shrines to our ancestors but sometimes church buildings and their contents seem to operate just like them. That is unfortunate and although we don’t like to admit it it is often the case.

Here are a few thoughts to help put that thinking to rest.

First, this line of thinking isn’t healthy doctrinally.  You don’t base doctrine sheerly or maybe merely based on what others before us did. That is never a good criteria in and of itself. There were many things they got wrong and we don’t have to be doomed to make the same mistakes again. There are other things that just don’t matter.

Second, it isn’t healthy psychologically. We need to have better self-differentiation and less enmeshment with the past. They were more than their traditions then and so are we today.

Third, it doesn’t have an adequate appreciation for generational or cultural differences. If those church founders from the 1940s or 50s were born when you were born they wouldn’t think like people born in the 1920s. They would think more like people born in our generation. They might still have their pioneer spirit and still want to start a church. But the way they would do it had they been born when you were born wouldn’t be the same as how they did it then, for better or for worse. In other words, when we make these statements we are comparing apples and oranges. We are comparing a frozen past to a dynamic present. The present will always lose that contest. But take them out of the past and project them 50 to 75 years into the future and take their pioneer spirit and consider how they might apply those same motivations and dreams today and I believe you would find they would not roll over in their graves for what is going on in many instances but would in fact applaud much of it. Innovators of the past would be innovators of the present. It was in their DNA.

Now, this doesn’t work with everything. There are some things that don’t need to change cross-generationally. There are some things I would hope they would hold onto that our culture no longer holds on to but maybe some of them would have flexed on those as well (just as they did in their day) – remember, they were human too. Somehow we miss that point. When our belief is that they are automatically right and anything new is an innovation and therefore automatically wrong we box ourselves into a corner we created. What they did when they did it was innovative so I can only imagine they would do the same if they were alive in our generation.

So don’t worry about who is rolling over in their grave. If we are going to make up what we think they might do we could just make up that they are smiling at our attempts to do things in ways that fit our context and culture just like they did.

5 Responses to The “Rolling in their Graves” Argument

  1. John says:

    Today we hear from many in the Church of Christ, “What do you think your parents, or grandparents, would say if they knew what you believe now?…the very question that the CoC criticized when said by those in other churches to their own who were “converted”.

  2. Mark says:

    Some of the people in the 1950s were more moderate than they are given credit for being. History also has selective memory.

  3. Dwight Haas says:

    Every time I hear a lesson against “traditions and following them”, it always comes down to “but what we are doing isn’t wrong so why change?”. In other words we admit tradition and then admit and bow to its hold on how we do things in spite of any other possible way. In fact tradition has such a strong hold that we argue we do things exactly like the early saints did and yet we when we read about them worshipping in their homes and gathered around a table for the Lord’s Supper, we argue that this is just semantics. Ironically to do exactly what they did would be against tradition and be closer to what we argue for, but for many a change would be wrong or seen as wrong, simply because we are doing it “right” and once you argue that, then anything else is wrong. It becomes a cyclical argument that binds us to the very things we argue we aren’t to be bound to.
    One of the worst proofs of this is when we get up on the Lord’s Supper and say, “the elders have decided that we take up the contribution at this time”, but it’s really tradition. It was decided many generations ago.

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