Can Calvary Chapel's Tradition Be Defined

I have an exercise for you...

But first, let me give a little background. In 1998 A man named James Sullivan wrote a book called Baptist Polity: As I See It. This book was to the Southern Baptist what Calvary Distinctives is for the Calvary Chapel pastor. It summarizes the history and traditions of the Southern Baptist. Or in Mr. Sullivan's words; "The book shows how the denomination functions and why." It is full of opinions and thus the subtitle "As I See It."

The copy on my shelf is well worn. I've underlined and starred paragraphs on most pages. Why? Because the Southern Baptist wrestled with their own organizational structure a century before Calvary Chapel did their own wrestling. Many of the internal battles Calvary Chapel is facing were already fought and won for the Southern Baptist.

If you are not familiar with the Southern Baptist you might be surprised by the numerous points of similarity between them and us. In fact the Southern Baptist have ripped off many of Calvary Chapel's hallmark attributes and made them their own. But I digress...

I want to draw your attention to one specific quote from chapter four:

“There are three basic elements in the development of polity for a secular organization, but there are four when polity is being determined for a religious body. The three elements that go into the building of polity in a secular organization are tradition, law, and sound organizational principles. All have been proven valid and necessary. The additional element that goes into the development of polity for a religious body is theology”

Tradition, law, organization and theology.

He defines tradition thus: "We do certain things in certain ways because our forefathers did them that way. We seldom pause to ask why."

When he refers to law he is talking about the laws of the land which govern the organization. In the US this would include laws dictating non-profit organizations, employment law, building and fire codes. These laws play a subtle role in defining polity.

The word organization refers to the practical organization of church life: who is responsible for what, schedules, procedures for new volunteers, the dissemination of information. This is another distinct aspect of church polity.

And finally, theology. Theology is the shared belief of the church about God, the Bible, people, creation and eternity. The theology of a church isn't just the primary doctrines that must be believed for salvation. It also includes secondary issues such as eschatological timelines, and the literal or figurative days of creation.

These four arenas - tradition, law, organization, and theology - are what make a church unique.

For Calvary Chapel the first one, tradition, is the x factor. What are our determined traditions? Now there are some bozos who have made tradition and theology synonymous but I'm not here to rescue them from their stupidity. Of course tradition should be rooted in a biblical framework, but to elevate tradition to the level of inerrant scripture would be much to Roman Catholic for me.

So here is the exercise.

Write out three lists. On the first list write out what you understand to be the defined traditions of Calvary Chapel. This is a list of what you believe to be Calvary Chapel's dogmatic traditions... they are unalterable.

On the second list write out what you understand to be the traditions with limited options. In other words, what has been defined as a tradition with multiple options. One of my items on this list was the church facility. Calvary Chapels typically have a gathering space for corporate worship but there is a huge variety in the types of buildings used for worship.

On the third list write out other church aspects of ecclesiology that Calvary Chapel has not defined. For example on my list was leadership transitions. There is no set tradition on how Calvary Chapel's make leadership changes. We do it, but don't have a tradition.

Once this is done, do the same exercise for theology. Three lists with the first being dogmatic theological points of Calvary Chapel, the second is theological points with options and a third list is undefined theological points.

Remember the value of the exercise hinges on you writing down what you perceive to be Calvary Chapel's teaching and not your own personal opinion. It is as if you are writing your own "Calvary Chapel: As I See It."

Here is a google doc templates of what you might start with.

I found this exercise very insightful and I came away with a few observations.

First, the number of clearly defined traditions -- traditions that are believed and practiced by 100% of Calvary Chapels -- is pretty small. And it is very possible that my list is different from yours, which would make both of our lists smaller...  

Second, the things I've written down in my first list (Defined Traditions) are not exclusive to Calvary Chapel. There are thousands of churches that have identical sets of traditions. It is my opinion that Calvary Chapel has set a good example in a number of these areas and others have followed suit.

But sometimes Calvary Chapel acts as an exclusive organization that cannot fellowship with other groups. The underlying premise behind that snobbery is that Calvary Chapel does church right... unlike everyone else.  

Third, my longest list was the third one: undefined traditions. On that list I have things like the church's relationship with culture, the role of small groups in the life of the church, church discipline, discipleship and so on. If there are so many aspect of our ecclesiology undefined by tradition what does that mean for education and replication in the future?

Fourth, how are we going to handle the second list of items: traditions with options? What happens when a senior leader in Calvary Chapel tries to move an item off of that list and onto the first list; stating that there really are no options but one?

When leaders talk about "stay the course", "core values" "roots" "foundation" or "DNA" one has to wonder if their list is like yours. An actual definition of these things has been conspicuously absent. It is conveniently assumed that Calvary Chapel's defined traditions are numerous and defined. Neither are the case.

Oh, but you say "We have Calvary Distinctives." Sure, but does that book define our tradition. If it does, why is there an outcry for defining our tradition better and identifying our core values. The dirty little secret is that half of Calvary Chapel pastor's do not feel like the book defines boundaries where they wish there were boundaries. The other half of Calvary Chapel pastors wish it said less.

My challenge to the leaders who are championing a stay-the-course theme is this: write out clearly what you mean. Those definitions should not be an evolution of Calvary Chapel's historic practices and they must accurately represent a majority view. There is a difference between the decisions you make for your own church and the definition you want to give to a couple thousand churches.

That is not an easy task and it probably doesn't produce the desired result of exclusivity and eclesialogical uniqueness that the stay-the-course crowd so desperately wishes were true.