There is a principle in the U.S. legal system called “precedent.” It’s a rule of law where a court defines a set of principles in deciding a case that can be referred to by other courts in deciding similar cases in the future. Its official name is the Latin phrase stare decisis et non quieta movere – “to stand by and adhere to decisions and not disturb what is settled.”
I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me to be a bit of a legal shortcut. Jurists standing on the work of others instead of thinking things through for themselves. And I’m not the only one. Justice McHugh of the High Court of Australia once remarked about precedence, “That is the way of the common law, the judges preferring to go from case to case, like the ancient Mediterranean mariners, hugging the coast from point to point, and avoiding the dangers of the open sea of system or science.”
My question is this: What if the precedent, the original decision, is wrong? What if subsequent courts are basing decisions based on erroneous reasoning? I wondering how many courts upheld the legality of slavery simply based on the principle of precedent?
I wonder also, how much of the faith we call Christianity is based on precedent? How much of what we practice has little or no basis in scripture, but instead in “how it’s always been done?”
Christianity is not like the court system. Precedence doesn’t exist. Just because something has been practiced for centuries doesn’t make it right, permanent or holy. Just because you’ve been told something is a certain way for your whole life doesn’t make it so.
The only precedent that is absolutely essential to the follower of Christ is Scripture. The Bible. The words of God’s prophets. The doctrine of the Jesus and His Apostles. And that Scripture is clear: the Holy Spirit is able to lead YOU into all truth. You don’t need centuries of popes and preachers telling you what the Bible says. You only need the Bible and a willingness to hear the voice of God for yourself. There is only one head of the church, and that is Jesus. He said, “My sheep hear MY voice, and they know me.”
Let me be clear. I am not telling you that everything you have ever been taught is wrong. I am not telling you that all the doctrine of the church is wrong. Tradition and doctrine are an important part of our faith. But they are meant to guide us, not dominate us. They are meant to provide a blueprint, not a mandate. Doctrine is not the end, it’s the means. All too often doctrine has been used as a club to beat people into submission or eliminate those who disagree.
Too many of us are like those ancient mariners, clinging to the coast, hopping from port to port, too afraid to launch out to the danger of the open sea. It has been easier to let others tell us what to believe than to search the scriptures for ourselves. It has been easier to allow traditions, rules and dogmas dominate us than to strike out into uncharted territory, following the words of Jesus as heard by our own ears and not by the ears of others. Religion doesn’t like rebels. It prefers those who are willing to accept the box into which God has been neatly placed.
But the Bible is full of examples of men and women who broke with tradition to follow God: Abraham leaving his father’s house, Gideon tearing down and burning his father’s idols, the prophets who spoke against corruption in the house of God. All were called to abandon the safety of the status quo in favor of a new thing God wanted to do through them. There are many heroes of church history, like Martin Luther, Jan Hus and George Fox, who were willing to break off from the pack in favor of God’s truth. Our Lord Himself is our greatest example of one who had the courage to stand against tradition when it was immoral, arrogant and destructive.
Do we have the fortitude to follow their example?
In these days, God is looking for a people who are willing to strike out with boldness for His kingdom. He is looking for those with the courage to reject the selfishness and materialism that has gripped so much of modern Christianity. He is looking for men and women who are willing to follow His lead and show mercy instead of judgment, love instead of hatred, grace instead of condemnation.
There’s a vast ocean out there, but you have to be willing to leave the shore to explore it.