A Biblical View of Tradition

It seems that in recent days, traditions have been held in a negative light. We don’t have to look far to see that traditions are being cast by the wayside. Activities that have been happening for decades are being labeled as “old-fashioned” before being thrown out the door without a second thought. Though I am speaking generally within our culture, there seems to be a major trend even in Christianity of always inventing something new, and forsaking anything that has been taking place for more than a couple of years.

As Christians, you and I have the responsibility to base our entire lives on God’s Holy Word. This includes activities labeled as tradition. With that in mind, let us take a look at what the Bible says about traditions.

Traditions in the Bible

The word in Scripture gives a different connotation than what we think of today. A tradition today is basically this: a reoccurring activity. It is a custom passed on from year to year, generation to generation. However, in the Bible tradition is a truth or supposed truth that is passed on.

The literal words tradition and traditions show up a relatively few times in Scripture only 13 times, only in the New Testament. Matthew and Mark record a parallel account in which the disciples ate some food without washing their hands. One mention of the word by Mark is purely for narrative, explaining that the Pharisees held a tradition that they would not eat without washing their hands. Then each of the parallel accounts records a question asked by the Pharisees concerning why the disciples did not follow this tradition. However, this was not just a casual question. The Pharisees asked that they might accuse the disciples, revealing their heart. The Pharisees asked because they had elevated their tradition of washing of hands to such a degree that it was sin to eat without washing. Jesus then, in both accounts, uses five more instances of the word when He rebukes the unsaved Pharisees for holding their tradition as equal with God’s Word.

Paul uses the word one time (Galatians 1:14) in reference to his zealous devotion to the tradition of the Pharisees before his conversion. As we look through the writings of Paul, we understand that Paul trusted in Jesus and Jesus alone for salvation. He counted his life as a Pharisee as dung because he wanted to know Christ. His life as a Pharisee heavily involved these elevated traditions.

Peter also uses the word in the first chapter of his first epistle as a reminder to the believers that they were not redeemed with corruptible things like material possessions, nor from vain actions like the traditions from their fathers. These traditions were the traditions that Paul forsook for Jesus. These were the beliefs that the Pharisees had elevated above the level of the Word of God.

Paul also used the word twice in the Book of Second Thessalonians. These usages were not negative like the other eleven. Unlike the references to supposed “truth,” Paul was talking about God’s Word that he had written to them. These were the words that Paul wrote to them while he was gone and preached to them while he was there. He mentions one time to hold fast to those traditions, or truths; and another time to withdraw themselves from those who forsake those truths.

Then the question still remains: what do we do about traditions? While I am certain no one would say they think their church traditions are equal with God’s Word, we need to have a Biblical view. But if every person’s traditions were mentioned in the Bible, we would have world’s full of books. So we must use Biblical principles to guide the way we live, and especially our traditions.

Here are a few principles and guidelines that we need to remember.

  1. Not all traditions are bad.
    It seems as though many people are throwing actions to the wind for the sole reason that they are traditional. People get turned off to an idea or activity or method simply because it has been done before. However, just because something is a tradition does not necessarily mean it needs to be reevaluated. Canceling a tradition for the sake of canceling a tradition is frankly a terrible reason that doesn’t hold much weight.
  2. Some traditions do need to be reevaluated.
    Lest whoever reads this article think that I blindly follow any tradition because it is labeled as such, let me clarify. Some traditions are not helpful. Some traditions that worked in the past should be re-evaluated to ensure that we are being good stewards of the Lord’s time and money. We also need to evaluate our motives and purpose for having the tradition. For instance, does your current Wednesday night kid’s program fulfill the mission of the church? Does the annual church potluck (or “Dinner on the Grounds” if you’re in Texas) still achieve whatever purpose it had at its inception? While canceling for the sake of canceling isn’t wise, having for the sake of having isn’t wise either. Each tradition or method needs to be evaluated to ensure that we are actively seeking to honor the Lord and reach as many people for Christ.
  3. Traditions are not God’s Word.
    This is the very thing that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for. They had equated the ideas that their fathers set up with God’s Holy commandments. They went as far as to say that those who disobeyed their oral traditions were sinning against God. I say this with all due respect: you and I cannot get upset at people who disagree with your traditions. They are our own ideas and not equal with God’s Word. When the church in the next town decides that they won’t participate in the city parade like they have done for the past ten years does not mean they have forsaken the faith and have become heretics. It’s simply a tradition that they decided would not be a good fit for their church, whether temporarily or permanently.

Traditions can be good as long as they are still effectively bringing God glory. While, they must be evaluated periodically to ensure good stewardship, there is no reason to cancel them just because it is labeled a tradition.

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