Traditions make great servants, but terrible masters. Church traditions fall into two categories. Some are honorable, beneficial and timely. Others are outdated, unproductive and restrictive. Some traditions, like wings, allow you to soar. Other traditions, like anchors, drag you down.
By their nature, traditions are not Scriptural or doctrinal. For most of us, Scripture truth is orthodox, binding, and unchanging. Traditions, though, in the beginning, are convenient, helpful and designed to serve, never to rule. But when mere traditions are revered and elevated to the level of divine revelation, they become harsh masters indeed. Traditions then have the power to dictate actions and alter activities—even Bible-authorized events.
The enemies of Jesus continually attacked him over His disregard of human traditions. Their contentions with Him came to a boiling point as recorded in Mark chapter 7. The Pharisees accosted Jesus because His disciples failed to wash their hands before they ate. Hand washing before a meal is a healthy habit, but not a scriptural demand.
Over the years, hand washing, which had nothing to do with the spiritual man, had been elevated to religious significance. How did this occur? It came about because, over time, a tradition was raised to the level of Scripture authority, thus making it binding and necessary in order to please God, who, in His Word, had said nothing about it.
The Pharisees challenged Jesus, asking, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” (Mark 7:5). The Lord answered the question about tradition with Scripture: “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (verses 6-7). Jesus drove the point home when He said, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men” (verse 8). Think about what Jesus said. He rightly accused them of being more interested in keeping man’s traditions than in keeping God’s commandments.
In summing up His argument with the Pharisees, Jesus pointed out the greatest harm of which tradition-keepers were guilty: They were “invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down” (verse 13). Inflating the importance of traditions resulted in deflating the value of Holy Scriptures! As their allegiance to tradition rose, their commitment to the Word of God declined. And that is always the way it works.
The “traditions” Jesus condemned were rituals, sayings and teachings based on the Oral Law of men, not the written Law of God. According to Jewish historian, Josephus, the Oral Law illustrated and expanded God’s Written Law, and was given equal reverence and expected obedience, though it was the product of men, not of God. A whole system of law-keeping writings came during the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments. The Oral Law was a giant superstructure overshadowing God’s inspired Word. During those years, books like the Halachoth, Mishna, Gemara, Midrashim, Hagada and Kabbala, were produced, which supposedly explained and applied teachings of Scripture. But in fact it minimized and replaced Scripture.
In the midst of the Oral Law, somewhere down there, God had spoken! But between the mystical interpretations of the reasonings on the Scriptures, and the sacred legends with decisions about technical questions of rituals—God’s Word got lost! So, when Jesus came on the scene and spoke God’s Words to God’s people in simple, understandable and applicable terms, they were viewed as strange.
So, what does this have to do with us? Simply this: We too, are prone to allow long-held traditions to become too demanding and authoritative, almost to the level of biblical directives. If we honestly evaluate our church practices, it may be that we too are guilty of exchanging our duty to obey God in order to keep man-made traditions.
It is unsettling when the new convert asks, “Why are we doing this?” and we hear ourselves answer, “Because we have always done this.” Paul warned the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). He urged them, and us, to make sure we are sold out to Christ and not side-tracked by lesser things, and not major on minor things.
Now, some traditions are good and serve a useful purpose. If a tradition in church is a good servant, let it serve. But if that mere tradition seeks mastery, becomes unalterable or unremoveable, beware! Traditions are good only as long as they help meet needs and serve a clear purpose in a church’s duty to Christ and obedience to the Word. Traditions should be changed or removed when they cease to help the true objective of the church.
We don’t want the message of Christ to be derailed by the method of delivery. We do not want to be so in love with traditions of the past that we miss reaching people of the present—More enamored by the way we do church than by the people who need Christ.
I think Ed Stetzer said it best: “Churches are to be biblically faithful, culturally relevant, counter-cultural communities that reflect God’s kingdom for His glory among the people around us at all times.”