Ever heard (or said) any of these: “I have my special seat in the chapel.” “We expect a Christmas or Easter message on those holidays.” “The communion must use a certain bread or cup(s).” “Church meetings must be held in the chapel building.”
Traditions—everyone has them but we don’t often discuss them. After all, doesn’t everyone know that “the way we do things must be the right (only) way”?
Tradition or custom which is universal among human beings can be a great servant or a cruel master. Many sayings and songs have described the joys and sorrows of life’s repeated behaviors. One old saying goes: “Tradition all mankind to slavery brings; That dull excuse for doing stupid things.”
In the hit musical drama, “Fiddler on the Roof,” the main character struggles with major family decisions in the light of tradition. In Bible times, the Lord Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of His day for preferring their own traditions to the commandment of God (Mark 7:9 KJV). As a child I remember how often one would hear in the assembly those two well-worn expressions: “We’ve never done it that way,” and “We’ve always done it that way…”
Yet tradition has its favorable side as well. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, “Therefore brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epistle.” (II Thess 2:15).
The subject has profound implications for the life and health of the church. The word literally means “the handing down of opinions or practices from generation to generation.” A story will illustrate. There was a little boy who asked his mother why she was cutting the end off the ham before cooking it. “I don’t know, but your grandma always did it when I was a girl,” was the reply. When visiting grandma, the boy again asked his question. “Well, dear, I don’t know why, but I learned it from my mother. Why don’t you run upstairs and ask great grandma?” Once again the boy posed his question to a very old lady. With a twinkle in her eye she replied: “Oh, that was just because I couldn’t afford a pan large enough for the whole ham, so I cut the end off to make it fit.”
In order to shepherd people effectively, elders should keep some basics in mind about this whole matter of custom and tradition. From various Scriptures, we can make some deductions:
1) This subject has the potential to evoke some very strong emotions; e.g. Gal. 1:13-14.
2) Scripture never declares that traditions in themselves are evil. In fact they seem to be an inevitable part of cultures, families, churches and individuals.
3) God’s word must always take priority over human traditions (Mark 7:13).
4) When based on or designed to honor Biblical principles, traditions can be helpful to the spiritual life. (One should study the closely related subject of the strong and weak brother in Romans 14).
5) When elevated to a status of equal authority with Scripture, traditions become a snare. (Mark 7:7) (This is exemplified in many groups, like Roman Catholicism).
6) Enforced traditions can become legalism. Legalism is commanding what God has not commanded.
What can a church do to keep traditions in their right place, that is, to keep them in the place of servants, and not allow them to become masters? Traditions can sometimes give us a false sense of comfort that all is well, that we are doing the right thing, when we have predetermined that the “right thing” is what is convenient for us to do. Traditions can also prevent us from thinking too deeply about things which might convict us if we thought about them more deeply. They can become idols if we begin to trust them for our security. Idols take the place that rightfully belongs only to God as the One who keeps His people secure.
Every theological opinion or action in our lives must be subjected to the light of scripture, especially those that are repeated throughout life. We may have strong desires to practice things that we have received from our fathers, and we have liberty to do so under grace. But we must always be watchful lest our liberties be misused. We may become so taken with our traditions that we impose them on others and so, in effect, bring the church under law—our law! Or they may become “set like cement” in our thinking, thus making us unapproachable or unable to change and so quench the Holy Spirit’s work among us.
No matter how many times we have done something, and no matter how many years we have done it, it cannot be changed from tradition to God’s word. It cannot increase in authority, or be enforced upon others. And believers who express their obedience to the unchanging principles of God’s word in ways different from ours cannot be judged as less spiritual or less pleasing to God.
One of the glories of the NT church is having the liberty that comes from autonomy. Most denominations are replete with traditions which are binding upon all of “their” churches. Can it be that many of our local churches who claim to be based solely on Scripture, are making the same mistakes by withholding fellowship from true brothers over things that are really just traditions? Has the living Spirit of God Who would breathe life and vitality into our local fellowship become so restricted by our rules that our meetings are little more than “the whirr of religious machinery” and, in effect, rendering us to be like a rigid denomination?
Someone will say, “But aren’t we supposed to separate from evil in order to maintain fellowship with God?” Yes, but we must be sure that the evils from which we are distancing ourselves are specifically designated as such by the Scriptures; not simply practices that go against something we have embraced for years and have become comfortable with.
Think of the benefits of knowing the difference between God’s commands and man’s traditions, and then having the freedom to change with regard to the latter. Christians far and near can be truly loved because they belong to Christ—we can have fellowship with them. Of course we may not be free in our conscience to join them in every project but that is something very different from accepting them as brothers and sisters in the Lord.
To be open-minded, flexible and able to see things through someone else’s eyes—these are marks of grace as we mature. Churches that grow have learned the lesson of Proverbs 14:4, “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean; but much increase is by the strength of the ox.” Working with spiritual babes can be messy work. As people are saved and added to the church, they bring all sorts of baggage (including many traditions) from the past. How wonderful if they find in the assembly a spiritual home that doesn’t just tolerate them but really accepts them. And who knows, we might just learn something from them in the process!