In Matthew chapter 15 and Mark chapter 7, exchanges take place concerning the commandments of God, and the traditions of men that have been added to them. The Lord Jesus Christ saw the emphasis upon tradition as fulfillment of a prophecy of Isaiah:
"This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me." (Mark 7:6b)
It is not uncommon for a teacher covering this text to focus upon the rules added to the commandments of God under the Jewish system and stop. They do not go the next step and explore the application to the Christian church today.
The use of the Greek word for tradition in the exchange that takes place can quite properly be applied to Jewish traditionary law, which is the context within which the conversation takes place. But, the word is broad enough to include the precepts or traditions that have grown up within Christendom. The question then arises about whether or not we might be in danger of rejecting the commandment of God, so that we might keep our own tradition? (Mark 7:9)
Within Christendom some organizations raise tradition to a level on a par with Scripture. An example of this is to be found in the Greek Orthodox Church. This is a dangerous position to be in because men invent tradition, but the Scripture was communicated through men to men by the working of the Holy Spirit. The next step into error is to raise tradition above Scripture. Examples of organizations that do this are the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic faiths. Other organizations would reject such a formal status for tradition. But they invent traditions that sneak into their doctrines all the same. It is not uncommon for a unique tradition to become established within an individual evangelical church that will mark it as different from even a church of like faith and order just down the road.
Some tradition grows up that is unique to a particular culture. The church society often gets to the point where they think this is how church ought to be and any other way would be unchristian. The problem with this attitude is that it often hinders the spread of the Gospel. We have seen this happen many times as missionaries have reached out to different cultures. The Gospel message is Good News and applicable to all men. Traditions are of men and often hinder the spread of the Gospel. Wisdom is in knowing the difference between traditions that are of men and actions that are consistent with the Gospel of Christ..
Tradition of Men
"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ." Colossians 2:8
There exists an obvious point of concern anytime that the Scripture warns against a thing that can do you harm. We can be assured the danger that was real when these words were written is still present with us today. The word translated "spoil" in the Authorized Text has within it the ideas of seduction and being lead away as the prize taken in a battle. Dr. Strong referred to this as booty. There is a warfare taking place in the area of tradition that is very serious indeed. The prize is the true believer that falls into its snare.
The method of attack is broken down into three categories: The first is philosophy; the second is vain deceit after man's traditions and is connected to the first category; the third is through the rudiments of this world. An understanding of each of these three methods can help the believer to recognize an attack but it does not necessarily make him immune from it.
The philosophy and vain deceit that snares in this text begins with arguments that are not based on sound reason. They can include cunning tricks or just conclusions that are not reached based on sound logic. One of the biggest arguments for doing something in a church is that "we have always done it this way." No thought is given to why a practice might have been necessary in the past. Let's just keep doing it, even though it might be harmful in the present.
Practices after the rudiments of the world are particularly repulsive. That is because the practice was never founded in any desire to serve the Lord to begin with. The foundational principle or principles that lie behind the tradition are firmly rooted in the world system. They serve the designs of the creature and not the creator. Examples of what I am talking about range all the way from infant baptism to the practice of putting an offering plate or plates at the front of the church and having people go forward an announce who they are and how much they are giving.
Unfortunately many such practices still exist in churches until this day. Many churches so afflicted with tradition are filled with people who do honestly desire to serve God. It is a difficult task indeed to pry people away from the traditions that they have known and grown comfortable with even though they might no longer serve a worthwhile purpose. The shame is when people are resistant to change when a particular practice was neither scriptural nor useful to the Gospel message.
Contrary to Tradition
Paul who was raised in the Jewish tradition contrasted the Gospel of Christ with the traditional practices of the Jews: "But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my conversation in time past in the Jews religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it. And profited in the Jews religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly jealous of the traditions of my fathers." Galatians 1: 11-14.
In his zeal for the tradition of Judaism, not the promise and message of God delivered to the Jews, Paul was willing to see not only Stephen stoned to death but also a great many others of the Hebrew lineage. He thought that in persecuting the believers in Jesus Christ he was doing something God approved of. When he was converted and learned the truth he would preach a message that was consistent with all that had been given by God to the Jews and contrary to the tradition they had developed.
Today people in their zeal for the traditions of their particular church or denomination are willing to see people hurt or even go to hell rather than to modify the tradition to meet changing situations. We are not talking about compromises with things that are sinful such as condoning adultery. We are talking about changing practices that hinder the teaching of the Gospel message both to the believer and the unbeliever.
What this hindering tradition might be can be different from situation to situation, but an example does come to mind. Some churches maintain a practice of turning away people from their door that come in inappropriately dressed for church. They are expecting lost people to dress like saved people ought to in a culture that has lost its perspective about what appropriate and inappropriate dress is. In another time, people who showed up unkempt were likely to be people who had come to disrupt a service, not people earnestly seeking after God. But in the time that passed the practice became one of elitism rather than defense.
In recent times, I have had occasion to counsel with people who were walking wounded from churches that expected a new convert to behave and have their house in the same order that might be expected of someone who has been a Christian for some time. Discipleship helps people get their lives to function within a Christian context. Tradition can often discourage the new convert before they have scarcely begun the Christian walk. Like a baby traumatized when it took its first steps they are often reluctant to begin to try again.
Paul writing to the Thessalonians to "…stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word or our epsitle." (2Thessalonians 2:15) The word used for traditions in this case is exactly the same word used in the negative mentions of tradition in Scripture. The answer to the difference is found in the context of the message. It is the source of tradition and whether there is an unaltered continuation therein that makes the difference between whether tradition is good or bad.
A study of the references to Timothy in the Scripture also reveals that he was raised in the good part of the tradition of the Jews, even though he had a gentile father. And what is the good part of the tradition? That a man should live holy and without blame before God in obedience to the Scripture. His mother Eunice and grandmother Lois were both women of faith. (2 Timothy 1-5) He had learned to both love and fear God at a woman's best pulpit, her knee.
Here we can see the source of valuable tradition. You have the Word of God, and the living out of that Word, the very spirit of the word, by faith. The best tradition, the worthwhile tradition is founded in the conduct of the believer that places God's Word and therefore His revealed will above all else in the their lives.
It has been said that the church is the sounding board by which a single believer keeps his doctrine straight. This is true only so far as the church has continued in the doctrine found within the Holy Bible. Individual churches can grow so far from God that other churches about them ostracize them. But in this age of the Laodicean church, whole denominations are slipping farther and farther away from God. The final appeal has to be to what saith the Scripture?
Both the church and the individual that wishes to serve God must in these last days try all their practices and ideas by the simple rule of what the Scripture says. If there is no mandate for or against a practice found in the Holy Text it must answer to the question does it help or hinder the cause of Christ? This seems like it would only be a matter of common sense, but I would remind the reader that common sense is often an uncommon commodity. People can become awfully tunnel visioned when it comes to hanging on to their pet practices and ideas about how churches and believers should function.
Some Common Practices of Tradition
Found in Evangelical Churches
Order of Service- People get into a mode of thinking that a service should follow a prescribed pattern. Scripturally the way a service is conducted should promote worship and therefore be open to the activity of the Holy Spirit. The proclamation of the Word of God is central to a Holy Convocation. The time of its conclusion should be controlled by the Spirit of God, not the stomachs of men.
Worship of Tithes- The practice of tithing should be a distinct act of worship. It has grown more and more simply just a matter of supporting the church than an act of gratitude to God. Those who serve the people as they worship with tithes should be reverent in their appearance and conduct and unobtrusive in the manner in which they pass the plate.
The Lord's Supper- This reverent service has deteriorated to a quarterly ritual when it was originally the frequent observance of the first century church. The problem lies in the fact that the people who are active in the ritual frequently do not know why they perform the ordinance in a particular manner and they often look like a slapstick comedy as they go about it. Frequent observance requires more work from those who minister about the table to make it meaningful to the people. Laziness has more to do with the infrequency of the practice than any useful function served by failing to be obedient to the command to observe it.
Observance of Baptism- Baptism is the identification of the new believer with the Lord Jesus Christ's death burial and resurrection. It is an act of obedience that should not be delayed if at all possible since it is frequently the first testimony of faith the new convert has. People should not be considered as being baptized into church membership. This is unscriptural. Baptism is a responsibility in its ministration. Church membership is a privilege. The two often go together, but there are times when they must be separately decided upon.
Pastoral Authority- The pastor is the first member of the body. As the chief elder who looks after your souls as one who must give account before God, he is to be obeyed. His leadership should be followed in matters of faith and practice as long as he remains faithful to the Word of God. Within this man the vision that is given by God for the future of the church should reside, not in a board.
Concluding the Discussion
The careless reader might think that I denigrate the value of some observances that have been given to us in Scripture particularly Jewish observances commanded by God, I do not. What I have contempt for are the contrived observances and methods of men that they think they cannot change when these things have fulfilled their purpose.
As far as the Jewish feast days and holy days are concerned, these events are teaching tools God gave to the world. Events will happen in the fulfillment of prophecy and the conclusion of God's plan for this world consistent with what these things teach. Like studying the appointments of the Tabernacle for a vision of Christ, knowledge of these days to be observed teach much about coming judgements and more.
The observances given to us in the Christian church in God's Holy Word are equally valuable, and they should be observed far more frequently than they are in all too many denominations today. They should also be approached with all the awe and reverence that these things are worthy of. These are the two points of contention concerning those things we are told to do.
What men initiate to meet the needs of worshipping God in a particular set of conditions or setting I have no argument with as long as what is done is not contrary to Scripture. Man has a lot of leeway in going about his service to God. But I am dead set against establishing for an unchangeable rule something that is a contrivance of men. Men ought to know better, but either through ignorance or bullheadedness it often appears they do not. I think it is a dangerous thing to contrive a way of acting and promote and teach it to others as if it came down on tablets of stone.
Finally there is a danger in change for the sake of change. That is a common phenomenon today. When we go to change the way we conduct ourselves let us be sure that we understand why a practice was put in place in the first place and what will be affected by changing or altering our way of doing things.
Men have a tendency to go off the deep end one way or another. If we walk in the Spirit and follow His leadership, we will not do such things. We need the wisdom to change the things we need to change and keep the things we need to keep. A man who walks in the Spirit when often file himself in confrontation with those who do not. Often when it comes to a confrontation about tradition, the way you tell who is walking in the Spirit and who is not is by observing who appears angry. Anger is not of God and it never sees to accomplish His will.
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