In my last post, I discussed some of the dangers of tradition. In the attempt to maintain points of doctrine or practice, it’s easy to lose sight of the Biblical reasons we hold our beliefs in the first place. Even when issues are correctly understood, they can be militantly defended and prioritized in an unwarranted way. Needless bickering over unimportant issues is far too common. All of this starts to beg the question: why do we need tradition? Shouldn’t we all develop our personal convictions, rooted in Scripture, instead of relying on established church ideas or tradition?
In theory, this is a great idea. As Christians, we constantly seek to grow in our relationship with Christ. It is commendable when believers are engaged to study and rightly process Scripture.¹ This pursuit of a personal revelation of God’s will through His Word is essential for spiritual survival. We recognize that Christianity is much bigger than paying lip service to old creeds. It is the desire for an intimate relationship with Christ that drew us to God in the first place. So, one might ask, can’t a sincere believer learn all he needs to know through communion with Christ and reading the Word? Does all the tradition and practice we see around us in the church merely distract us from truly knowing Christ?
These are questions we’ve probably all heard before; perhaps we’ve asked them ourselves. They are fair questions, but I fear they are an oversimplification of reality. In an attempt to get at the root of the issue, I want us to take a look at what tradition really is.
Straight from Webster’s: an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom)
There is nothing about the word itself that suggests anything inherently good or evil. But let’s think about this for a moment. Is it possible to go through life without patterns of thought, action, and behavior? Clearly not. We‘re constantly making traditions, usually subconsciously. When you wake up in the morning, do you deliberately think over the fundamental reasons for your existence, then carefully analyze how each action you take during the day will fit into that? Probably not. Before you’re fully awake, you’ve already brushed your teeth! Ironically, if you set about to live a life free of tradition, the very actions you take will turn into a new kind of tradition.
A quick look at Scripture shows strong words used both for and against following tradition. Jesus reprimanded the Pharisees, saying that their tradition made the Word of God of no effect.² But on the other hand, Paul tells the Thessalonians that they are to withdraw from those who do not walk after the tradition they received.³ In the first case, the Pharisees were adding requirements to the Word of God that went against the heart of God, merely to stoke their own ego. But when Paul speaks of tradition, he is clearly referring to the words the Thessalonians have heard directly from God’s chosen apostles. In essence, if traditions are rooted in Scripture, they are to be commended. Otherwise, if they claim to be necessary for spiritual well-being but are extra-Biblical, they run a great risk of being detrimental. (There are many traditions that aren’t rooted in the Bible and don’t claim to be a matter of spiritual importance. I’m not referring to these.)
So let’s say you’re in a church setting where you see a lot of tradition that isn’t accompanied by sound Biblical teaching. There are loose appeals made to some basic concepts (simplicity, separation from the world, etc.), but the arguments aren’t convincing. It seems most of those following the tradition are doing so mindlessly, just to ensure things move smoothly, not due to any real conviction. But you want to be intentional about your life and your convictions. You wonder why your church can’t be excited about serving Jesus instead of getting distracted by unimportant details. What is the point in defending ideas that have no solid support in Scripture? In frustration, you want to break free. You’re tired of following mindless tradition; instead, you’re only going to follow things you see clearly laid out in the Bible.
There’s a problem, though. You’re running the risk of misdiagnosing the issue. Your wish for true conviction and Biblical understanding behind practices is most commendable. In theory, it’s a nice idea to only follow things you see clearly laid out in Scripture. But most likely, when you react against the lack of conviction behind practices, you are also reacting against the practices themselves. This, my friends, is what’s so dangerous. As you try to find your way, you will naturally have a distaste for anything you associate with mindless tradition. This is a risky game. There will certainly be cases when bad ideas are carried out mindlessly. But there’s also a high chance that it’s a good idea that’s being carried out mindlessly.
How can we tell the difference? First and foremost, we must search Scripture for guidance. But a large number of our everyday practices are not specifically covered by Scripture. These are matters that are open to a wide range of legitimate interpretation. While it would be nice if we could sit and quickly map out the best path for making these decisions, it’s not nearly that simple. As finite humans, some of our best ideas contain flaws that we’ll only come to see after years of experience and growth in Christ. It’s quite egotistical to think we can step back from our tradition and be better off following our own thoughts and instincts. “Well”, you say, “I’m not doing this by myself; I’m being guided by the Holy Spirit and the Word.” But our Christian experience is a journey of continual sanctification. It would be dangerous to think our relationship with Christ ensures that all of our choices are correct, even if we’ve carefully considered and prayed about it.
This puts us in a difficult position. If we rigidly adhere to our traditions without question, we risk becoming stale, unable to receive new ideas. But if we try to break free and reach our own conclusions on all issues, it’s an incredibly daunting task. How do we move forward?
I think the first step is simply acknowledging that there is no quick fix. These are issues that require years of prayer and seeking. It’s important that we prayerfully consider our past and traditions, not mindlessly repeating the same things year after year. But mindlessness can happen in the other direction just as easily, when we cast aside tradition without deliberate consideration. Acknowledging our human tendency to veer into the ditch on either side of the road can keep us from making sudden, rash decisions. As we wrestle through these issues, there are a few points that I think we’d do well to remember.
1. Biblical principles and tradition will overlap, but they are not the same thing.
If you attempt to follow a Biblical command or principle, this will create a kind of tradition, at least for you and your family. Some traditions will be more connected to Biblical values than others. These are the ones that need to be carefully guarded. But if there is a better way of following the initial principle, then there is no need to maintain the same details of tradition. The principle comes first, then the application.
2. If there should be a good reason to follow a tradition, there should also be a good reason to end it.
Is there a compelling case to be made for how your brothers and sisters could grow in Christ if certain practices were terminated? If so, then by all means feel free to make a respectful case. But if not, is it worth worrying about? Perhaps it seems others are too obsessed with things they shouldn’t be. You’d be much better off drawing their attention to higher things. Don’t waste your time on things that don’t matter.
3. You are limited and probably don’t know what’s best.
It’s easy to be critical of practices and guidelines in your church. While you don’t want to blindly assume they’re correct, it’s even more dangerous to think that you know best. It’s good to ask questions and seek for a personal understanding on issues, even if it leads you to a different conclusion than others. But be the most critical of your own ideas.
4. Beware of your reactionary tendencies.
I’ve seen this play out in my life multiple times. When we are trying to escape one form of extremism, we often resort to the other extreme. We can’t always control our natural instincts, but we can be aware of them and keep them from running out of control. If you’re swallowing everything you’re fed without chewing, you’d do well to ponder and ask more questions. But if you’re questioning everything around you, look for things to value that you might be missing. By not giving into every whim, a lot of difficult lessons can be avoided.
As we try to make responsible choices on difficult issues, life can easily seem overwhelming. But let’s not forget that we don’t need to wrestle with these questions alone. David’s prayer in Psalm 25:4-6 is one that we should make our own:
Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths. Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day. Remember, O LORD, thy tender mercies and thy lovingkindnesses; for they have been ever of old.
¹ II Timothy 2:15
² Mark 7:13
³ II Thessalonians 3:6