Traditions are the heritage of a church’s historical interpretation of Scripture and the practice of its faith. That’s not a bad thing, that’s a very good thing, and it should be celebrated. Traditions do not develop willy-nilly out of thin air. They are the interpretations and normative practices of a church that enter into the life and exercise of that church over time. And none of those things make their way into church life without having first been given to prayer, meditation, and debate by godly, Spirit-filled men. It is for this reason that we would do well to deliberate as earnestly over the modification or removal of a tradition as was done by our predecessors at the time of its installation.
Traditions, whatever benefit they may provide, do have the potential to impede obedience and enslave. Jesus was not anti-tradition but he did warn his disciples to beware of the traditions of men. We know that Jesus was not utterly opposed to all tradition, because we see that he did observe some of the Jewish traditions of his day.1 What he was against, then, was not tradition, but the elevating of tradition to a level and authority reserved only for God-breathed Scripture (Matt 15:9);2 and the abuse of invoking otherwise innocuous and beneficial traditions to create loopholes in the law so that transgressions might be without consequence (Mark 7:1—13). Like Jesus, we should not repudiate tradition, but we must be aware that we too have the potential, like the Pharisees, to over prioritize our traditions. I don’t think that any of us is in danger of flat-out suggesting that our way of doing things is equal in priority to what the Bible teaches, but we may unwittingly hold so tightly to traditions, that speak where the Bible has remained silent, that we run the risk of binding consciences and stymying the Church’s disciple-making mission.
Assessing the value of a tradition
Traditions, as has already been noted above, are developed and integrated into the life and practice of a church over time. Some of these traditions are temporary and often theologically and practically insignificant in the overall scheme of a church’s purpose in the world. Traditions such as these might range anywhere from the order of worship for a church’s service, to the spot where the welcoming team sets up their coffee and donut table on a Sunday morning. There are other traditions which are much older and long-lasting, and which serve a greater theological and practical purpose in the life of the church. These might range from the hymnal a church has been using for the last fifty years, to the Sunday School program that has been running since the church was planted a hundred and fifty years back. Each of these examples of tradition was made with some specific purpose and goal in mind. That is as true for the location of where the donuts and coffee are set up, as it was for establishing the Sunday School program. Donuts and coffee were placed in the foyer to encourage conversation and mingling between members as they walk in, and to provide a welcoming treat for visitors. And the goal of that decision was to create an atmosphere for community among members and to bless visitors. The Sunday School program was originally designed to provide an additional training opportunity for the church to grow in their knowledge of the Bible in an age appropriate setting. And the goal of that training was to develop and mature disciples through a comprehensive study of God’s word.
All traditions begin with a noble mission-oriented purpose and goal in mind. But some traditions, because they were originally designed to operate within a particular cultural context, no long provide the same benefit to the church and the mission that they once did.3 The form and function, which were once very effective no longer work well today. And in some instances, the culture may have gone so far afield from the cultural conditions which were in place when the tradition was originally installed, that the continuing practice of that tradition actually works against the goal for which the tradition was originally designed. We must be willing to examine why we do what we do, continually.
In my next article, I will give some examples of this.
1 Matt 23:2—3, 5 — Jesus endorses the authority of the Pharisees who sit on Moses’s seat, which is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament, but is in the Mishnah, Tractate Avot. He also appears to subscribe to the wearing phylacteries which was never commanded by God, but rather is a tradition that developed out of literal interpretation of Deut 6:8—9, 11:18.↩
2 cf. Col 2:20—23; Titus 1:13—14↩
3 Dan Kimball. "When Tradition Obscures Mission." OutreachMagazine.com. n.p., [6 June 2012. cited 13 May 2013]. Online: http://www.outreachmagazine.com/features/4760-when-tradition-obscures-mission.html↩