On Traditions

To most people family traditions are important. Afterall, they define who the family is. It is the same in the religious world. Traditions often define what a religious organization teaches and practices. In fact, there are some religious organizations that have no trouble accepting tradition over the scriptures.

Do not misunderstand, traditions are not necessarily good or bad. The Apostle Paul on at least two different occasions deals with tradition in service to God.

“Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2; see also 2 Thessalonians 2:15).

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8; see also Matthew 15:3,6).

As you can clearly see, one speaks favorably of tradition and the other unfavorably.

To understand this topic better, let’s begin by thinking about the word tradition.  Webster defines it as; “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom): a belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable.” It has a neutral significance, neither good nor bad. The first and most obvious question to consider is the source of the tradition. From whom was it “handed down,” God or man? The New Testament speaks in a pejorative sense of the “tradition of the elders” (Matthew 15:2), the “tradition of men” (Mark 7:8), and the “traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14).

So, we ask the question, “Can we conclude, then, that traditions from God are good, and traditions from men are bad?” It would be nice if things were that simple, but they are not. In fact, in my judgment, it would be impossible to conduct the work of God without some human input. To put that another way, the making of human traditions is necessary.

For example, God has given us very few instructions about conducting church meetings. He has told us what to do: take the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week, give of our means on the first day of the week, pray, sing, and study the Bible.

Yet, there is next to nothing about HOW we do these things together. Must they come in a certain order? If so, what should it be? Granted we must assemble on the first day of the week, but may we assemble at times other than the first day of the week? Is the meeting to take place indoors or outdoors? May we borrow, rent, or buy a meeting place? Is it required that our time together begin and end with a prayer? How many songs may we sing? Can we conclude with a song? Would it be acceptable to put our contributions in a box located at some convenient place in the building, rather than passing a plate or basket? Can a preacher’s sermon be interactive? I.e., could he pause at various points and ask if there are any questions? True, we must pray through Jesus, but must a phrase such as “in the name of Jesus’ be appended to every prayer? Instead of having our pews in a row, could we put them facing each other, with, say, half on one side of the auditorium and half on the other, with the preacher standing in the middle? Can we make announcements during these assemblies? Must they come either before an “opening” prayer or after a “closing” prayer? Could we ever announce anything of a social nature?

We could continue with almost limitless other examples and question. And God didn’t give us the answers to these and countless others. He does require us to meet on the first day of the week. He established the principle of decency and order in our assemblies (1 Corinthians 14:40). He forbids “a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12). But beyond these things, God has specified little else about our assemblies. To make a practical observation, we can change most things about how we conduct our meetings, since we are the ones who arranged them.

The point is this leaves us mainly to our own judgment and makes it impossible to avoid some human traditions. So, getting a handle on tradition is not as simple as determining whether they come from God or man. Is there other Bible teaching that can help us in understanding the place of tradition in our spiritual lives? If the making of human traditions is necessary, can they ever become wrong? If so, when? A look at Matthew 15 and Mark 7 will be particularly helpful in answering this question.

A Human Tradition Becomes Sinful When It Breaks a Command of God

Jesus asked the Pharisees and scribes, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:3)? He had reference to their tradition of corban (given to God). In this practice, the Jews permitted the dishonoring of parents (in violation of Exodus 20:12) by neglecting them in time of need. This was done by telling them, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban (that is, given to God)” (Mark 7:11). But Jesus is pointing out that was no excuse to neglect one’s parents (it still isn’t), and to do so is to disobey God.

A Human Tradition Becomes Sinful When We Make it as Binding as a Precept of God

“The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands’” (Mark 7:1-5)?

I do not know if they were washing their hands as a matter of good hygiene (mothers demand it whether God does or not). But it became sinful when they decided to bind it as a law of God, and then judge others as unfit servants if they did not do it.

One other danger associated with tradition bears mentioning. That is contempt for each other among Christians. I believe this is the sin that Jesus condemns in the Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matthew 5:21-22).

When we speak scornfully of each other as traditionalists or progressives could it be that we are guilty of the above? It is right to study together and to try to correct errors we see in each other. It is not right to be full of contempt for each other. Contempt is only a step away from hatred.