We are creatures of habit. We figure out how to do things and then usually that’s how we do things. It’s our tradition. Here I now picture Tevye in the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof: “Tradition!”
As Christians there are various traditions that many of us follow today. We hold tightly to our traditions. It’s how we grew up. It’s how we do church. We believe in our traditions so strongly that they sometimes lead to conflicts, disunity, and church splits. So how do we choose a tradition? Is there a right tradition?
What does scripture says about tradition?
When Jesus walked the earth he was shaking things up. The first century Jews, especially the Pharisees, were sticklers for tradition. There are numerous occasions in the Gospels where Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees challenging him on why he or his disciples did not follow the tradition, that is the tradition that their fathers and their fathers before them had followed. For example in Mark 7 the Pharisees asked Jesus why his disciples did not “walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with [non-washed] hands”. Jesus’ response was to quote the prophet Isaiah:
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Mark 7:6-7)
His response was basically calling into question their true motives in following their tradition. Was it to honor and worship God? Or was it just for the sake of doing it because….that’s just what they do? Was their behavior actually coming from the heart in worship to God? Jesus follows this in verse 8 by saying “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” Their traditions from man had replaced the commandments from God.
This is the danger we can run into today with our own traditions. Putting our tradition ahead of Jesus’ instruction. Our tradition needs to point back to Jesus and be in line with what he commanded, not become an idol in itself. This is a risk no matter how we organize our churches, sermons, services, buildings, and worship. If our answer for doing something is “because that’s just how we do it”, then we need make sure that we’re doing these things for the right reasons and go back to scripture with fresh eyes and mind to reassess.
Did Jesus have a tradition?
So what were Jesus’ commands? What are we supposed to be following? In Matthew 28, after Jesus was resurrected from the dead and before he ascended into heaven he instructed his Apostles to
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
In John 16, Jesus also explains that the Holy Spirit would continue to reveal his instruction to the Apostles after he was gone:
“I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper [Spirit] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:4-15)
Ok, so Jesus commanded the Apostles in things that they were to teach others and the Spirit would declare what Christ would continue to teach them. Is this teaching written down somewhere?
- In 1 Corinthians (a letter to the churches in the city of Corinth), Paul, an Apostle of Jesus, says “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” (1 Corinthians 11:2)
- In 2 Thessalonians (a letter to the churches in the city of Thessalonica) Paul again says “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15)
- and again in 2 Thessalonians “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.” (2 Thessalonians 3:6)
- In 1 Timothy (a letter to Paul’s apprentice, Timothy, who was overseeing the churches in Ephesus) Paul instructs Timothy to keep a close watch on the ‘teaching’, something that must be measurable in order to keep watch or protect it:
- “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
- “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.” (1 Timothy 6:1)
- “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness” (1 Timothy 6:3)
There was a tradition or a teaching that was handed down from Jesus to the Apostles which were then handed down to the churches and reinforced through the letters of the New Testament (Romans through Revelation). Through studying the New Testament we can accurately reconstruct this teaching.
In conclusion, tradition can be a good thing! But we must make sure we follow the right tradition. That is the tradition that was taught and inspired by Jesus and handed down through his Apostles and recorded in the New Testament for us to follow. Otherwise we run the risk of following the tradition of “our fathers” and “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men”.