Is The Bible Against Tradition?
Growing up in a church that was more “traditional”, I have had my fair share of soul searching regarding its usefulness. I have wavered back and forth throughout the years going from anti-tradition to tradition super freak and then back again countless times. I am finally at a place of stability after years of prayers and study. Growing up my family went to a United Methodist Church. Why there? Well my mom made the decision and she grew up Southern Baptist in the 60-70’s…I think that pretty much sums it up. She wanted something different for herself, she wanted something different for her kids, and so we went to the Methodist Church down the road. We attended there for 5 years going to Sunday school and services and at moments hating it. We sang hymns, which were boring, and then we went to children’s church. In the Methodist church children of a certain age can serve as Acolytes. As an acolyte your job was to bring in a flame on the end of a long wick, light a candle and then walk back down the aisle. At the end of the service, we would go back up, catch the wick on fire again and then walk out of the sanctuary. The meaning of the tradition was lost on me, but it was fun because, well, I got play with fire and I was a boy, and if you didn’t know this, little boys LOVE fire. I did this for a number of years until we moved to Michigan. We attended a Methodist Church there and then my mom began looking somewhere else again. In time, we found a non-denominational church and were introduced to contemporary worship. The moment I heard Rich Mullins, “Our God is an Awesome God,” I was hooked. Worship went from a dull exercise to enjoyable and soaked it up. This was my first real experience of God and I couldn’t get enough of it. Listening to people tell their stories a consensus became very apparent, “tradition is bad.” Having my experience and remembering my boredom, I agreed and for 10 years went on a crusade against church tradition. I felt justified in this because I felt scripture defended it. Jesus himself went after Pharisees and Scribes because of their religious tradition…and if Jesus was against them than surely he was against religious tradition as well.
All of this changed for me in my third year of my undergraduate degree when with time I began to see the significance and richness of religious tradition. Once understood, many of the traditions of the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and other traditional churches I began to see their value and studies their meaning with exuberance. I began to recognize that tradition was not all bad and that in many ways it was incredibly useful. A couple of examples of this would be the writing and singing of hymns. In the early church, the majority of the songs sung in worship were the Psalms set to a harp or a lyre or acapella. Beginning with Origen (184-254 AD) Christians began writing hymns to teach and popularize orthodox teachings within the church. To this very day we practice this when we sing worship songs (although much has been watered down over the last 10 years) instead of Psalms. It has been a practice of the church for over 1800 years and yet…would we say that the tradition of writing songs in worship to God that don’t come directly from the bible as “sinful”. No, not most of us, most of us are perfectly ok with this tradition and even believe it to be important to how the church practices and lives in community. Another example is from the one I shared earlier regarding acolytes. This symbolism is practiced in many different traditions and in all of them the coming and exiting of the light symbolizes the presence of God among His people. It is a beautiful practical picture of God entering into a place where His name is to be worshipped and revered with awe and astonishment. I wish that I had completely understood this tradition while practicing it because after I learned the traditions meaning…it made a deep impact on me and made me regret that more churches do not practice this tradition. These are only two examples of how traditions can actually improve communal worship, and there are more, but I think I’ve made my point.
Some will point to Jesus and protest what I’ve just stated (Mark 7:3-9 is a good test they could point to). Some will point to his teachings where he absolutely lays to waste some religious person for their hypocrisy. But…is Jesus really stating that tradition is bad…or is he stating that the love of tradition above the love for God and people is bad? You see, this is what I think Jesus is really dealing with here. When we love tradition more that God or people, we forget the purpose behind the tradition. No religious tradition was put in place in the past just for it to be there. In every instance, there is a practical/ theological reason for that tradition to exist. Some explanations are valid…and some are not…but to make sweeping declarations as to the evils of traditions is to miss Jesus’ point. Jesus takes issue with traditions being spoken of in Mark 7 because they are manmade traditions that men have lifted up as if they are the law of God. This is a flagrant lie and this is where Jesus took issue with the Pharisees and religious leaders. We cannot make tradition more important than people and God. Tradition exists to assist humanity to remember, worship, and serve God. When a tradition ceases to perform this function, unless specifically commanded within scripture (like communion and baptism), they become defunct and a burden to the faith community.
Is this affirmed in scripture…well yes…it is. Paul on two separate occasions (1 Cor. 11:2 and 2 Thess. 2:15) tells the audience to “keep the traditions” that he has given them. Paul didn’t seem to feel the need to talk about what those traditions were, but all the same, members of the early church were commanded by an apostle to keep a tradition as they had been taught. If Jesus then is against tradition in any form…then Jesus and Paul have a conflict…which in honesty is ridiculous. Paul taught traditions that enforced Christian faith, improved discipline, and were meaningful to the audience they were given to. Jesus himself tells his followers in Matthew 23:2-3, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” It is interest…because Jesus isn’t condemning the traditions themselves…but the people who are failing to live in the light that those traditions were written. So…the next time a church tradition comes your way, don’t be so quick to throw it away. Think and pray on it and ask these 3 questions;
1. Is there Scripture to justify it?
2. Why was the tradition put into place to begin with?
3. Does it still carry true meaning to those who practice it?
If all three of these come back as a yes…then step away and do not cause an unneeded divide, in the end you’ll be thankful you did. Some are going to call foul on this, they will call for the need to defend truth. I agree we need to speak truth in fact we are called to truth…but we are called to truth in the light of love. Going around poking people because you don’t like their traditions isn’t helpful…and it certainly isn’t going to score you any points with God. When tradition doesn’t outshine God and helps people understand and worship Him in a deeper more authentic way…this is a good thing. A tradition that leads to a deeper knowing of God in the person of Jesus is never a bad thing. So the next time you moan at a hymn, or roll your eyes at a processional, or shake your head at some other tradition you don’t understand…be careful…because your dislike for tradition…could be the tradition that seats you in sin. Peace and blessings everyone, and as always thank you for reading.
With Love in Christ
Justin (AKA The Nerdy Theologian)