The Trouble with Tradition

Tradition is a beautiful thing, even sacred to some, whether it be a family, religious or cultural tradition. Our customs bring security, a sense of identity, and comfort to us. Tradition have a transforming influence on the circles where we live, handed down from those that were before us, and confirmed by those around us.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines tradition as an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behaviour (such as a religious practice or a social custom); the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction; cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions; characteristic manner, method, or style.

While these traditions certainly are a beneficial factor that contributes to finding one’s place in the world, we must take a fresh look at some of our dearly held Christian traditions. Believers have traditions that are practised individually, in families or in church affiliations. Some of these are good and worthy to be recommended, such as we read about in the Bible:

Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. 1 Corinthians 11:2

Paul taught those new Christians, who came out of idolatry and carnal lifestyles, to live godly lives by establishing healthy habits among them. Habits eventually become traditions, however, it must not be forgotten that traditions cannot save us, and upholding them don’t make us holy. The real reason for our Christian faith and growth in Christ does not exist in upholding traditions, but by holding onto Christ Himself in a personal relationship.

Any tradition sets you on autopilot so that you live your life without thinking, and that is where some caution is advised. As times change and new information or fresh truths are revealed, one must be free to follow what is relevant and beneficial, instead of continuously rehearsing outdated old rituals. The apostle Peter saw this trend even in his day:

And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. 1 Peter 1:17-19

We must know where our salvation comes from, and how it carries us from day to day. It is always Jesus, and you must be careful about things that are added to that life-giving relationship to make you feel secure in your salvation – things that are done to earn points with Him. Salvation is anchored to faith in Him, His substitutionary death on the cross, and in His unconditional love for us. He is not moved by our colourful ceremonies, liturgies, rituals and such things that we do.

The trouble with tradition is that it steers our lives in a direction determined by others that started the customs that we follow, without considering the possibility that we might be blind followers of the blind. This is especially true when it comes to religious traditions. There is so much that happens in churches that have no roots in Scripture. Traditions often lead believers down a path where they follow without thinking or receiving anything from it. Rituals that have been been repeated just a few times lose their impact on people; they automatically check out and set their minds on something else because there is no point in droning on while your mind is not engaged in the happenings of the moment.

Just as our bodies were designed to crave fresh food, the inner man of the spirit longs for fresh manna from heaven. Nobody has an appetite for yesterday’s stale bread. When every service is different, people look forward to see what will happen, and they pay attention because they are engaged as things unfold.

The Jews in Jesus’ day were steeped in traditions that had no foundation in the Word of God. Those traditions became so sacred to them that they actually viewed them as more valuable than the Word itself. They actually confronted Jesus about this very thing one day:

Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?” He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men–the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.” Mark 7:1-8

Those Pharisees esteemed their ceremonial washings so highly that they were willing to start a confrontation about it, yet they neglected some instructions that the Word actually commanded them to do. The law determined for them to look after their aging parents, but instead of obeying, they took what benefit their parents were entitled to, and declared it corban – a benefit dedicated to God – and in this way sidelined God’s command in a religious way.

For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”–‘ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.” Mark 7:10-13

Tradition renders the Word of God “of no effect,” and that is the trouble with tradition. God requires obedience from His children because His Word is designed to bless and prosper our lives. There are reasons for His commands, principles and spiritual laws.

And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth, for I have hoped in Your ordinances. So shall I keep Your law continually, forever and ever. And I will walk at liberty, for I seek Your precepts. Psalm 119:43-45

Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Your word. Psalm 119:67

It is hard to admit that those who went before us, and started the traditions that we follow, were not perfect. There can be no doubt that they were sincere, but that doesn’t make it true. It may be that it was relevant at the time, but things change constantly. Truth never changes, and since only the truth makes us free, it should be the quest of our lives.

Lastly, but by no means the least, tradition has a way to grind on through generations, doing things the same old way, and producing the same results. It frowns upon new ways of doing church, shuts the door on creativity, it has limited flexibility, and leaves little room for improvement. Tradition’s destiny is set in stone by somebody of the past. It stands in sharp conflict with the Lord as He continues to build His church; He restores, adds new insight, brings fresh revelation, increases knowledge and understanding, and opens new possibilities to advance His Kingdom. It is a never ending process. Tradition, on the other hand, has already arrived as the final product. Consider the words of Jesus to Nicodemus:

Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:7,8

How do you live like the wind if your path is cut out for you? Limiting the Holy Spirit by sticking to set ways is a sure way to reduce the church to a cultural institution with no life in itself.

Let us set the Lord free to have His way. Allow the wind of the Holy Spirit to blow freely without trying to manage Him. It makes church services exciting and something to look forward to. May Jesus build His church the way He wants to. Paul identified this hindrance centuries ago when he wrote to the Colossian church:

Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8
He also gave good advice in his closing remarks in his letter to the Thessalonians:

Rejoice always
pray without ceasing
in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophecies.
Test all things; hold fast what is good. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-21

Discernment between the leading of the Holy Spirit and the ways of man is crucial to the survival of the church in an increasingly secular world. We desperately need the fire of the Holy Spirit to fall on us again, and ignite in us the zeal to take the gospel to those on the outside. The church started with a baptism of fire on the day of Pentecost; may it be so again before we are called up to meet the Lord as this age comes to a close.