I imagine many of you recently observed Christmas and/or New Year’s traditions. If so, what were they, and why do you observe them year after year? Do you joyfully participate or grudgingly cooperate, or have you simply accepted them as just “something I do”? Regardless, just as you have traditions, Christmas or otherwise, the Church has traditions as well – sometimes the same across denominations, sometimes different from church to church. What should we as Christians do with such traditions? Are they necessary / authoritative (telling us what we must do), optional / suggestive (recommending what we can or should do), or pointless / irrelevant (adding little, if any, value to what we currently do)?
For our first class this week, consider the questions in the following article: “Why Tradition in a Church is Good and Traditionalism is Not.”
Before deciding what to do with traditions, we need to understand the meaning and value of tradition itself. The Oxford Languages Dictionary defines tradition in two ways: (1) “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way,” and (2) “a doctrine believed to have divine authority though not in the scriptures.” Both are helpful and pertinent to the current discussion. The first definition is broader, more generic (e.g. Christmas traditions) and the second more specific (religious traditions).
Notice the underlying assumption of both definitions. Traditions are not just “something we do” but are developed with purpose and intent. The goal of all traditions should be to pass along knowledge, beliefs, values, etc. To continue any tradition (or to abandon it) without knowing the reason for the tradition defeats the purpose. At some point, someone initiated a tradition for some reason. What was it?
Many silly and trivial traditions exist, such as Groundhog Day or the presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey. Nevertheless, the point still stands because even those traditions initially had some reason, purpose, or intent.
Sadly, for many (most?) Christians today, “tradition” has become a pejorative term. “We as Christians are not bound by tradition(s)”; so goes the thinking. In fact, Jesus’ own words are often cited as support for abandoning tradition(s) in the name of Christian liberty…
And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘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.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” ~ Mark 7:5-9
At first glance, it might seem Jesus was opposing tradition. But after studying the text (and context!), one will find Jesus was not opposing tradition itself; Jesus was opposing man-made tradition that was not clearly stated in or implied by Scripture. By opposing the Pharisees, Jesus freed his disciples, and us today, from unnecessary, burdensome, man-made, and sinful traditions (“your tradition”).
But did not Jesus also tell people to listen to what the Pharisees taught (cf. Matt. 23:1-12)? Although Jesus’ words in those verses might at first glance appear to be a contradiction, they are actually a clarification. In light of the present discussion, Jesus was telling the crowds and his disciples (and us!) that the wrongful use of tradition does not negate its proper and legitimate use (and purpose). The thing itself (i.e. tradition) was not the problem; the problem was sin.
For a helpful explanation of what the Pharisees were actually doing with their man-made, non-biblical tradition, see Ryan Biese’s article, “Beware the Latitude of the Pharisees.”
Rather than throwing away tradition, the Apostles (and Jesus himself) depended upon tradition – biblical, God-revealed tradition – for knowledge of God’s promises. Jesus, as God’s anointed Messiah, inherently possessed God’s authority (in his divine nature) and had received / been delegated full authority (in his human nature, cf. Matt. 28:18-20). Jesus did not stand under the traditions of men but instead (re)established proper tradition(s) of faith and practice (Matt. 12:1-8). Just as he redeemed humanity from the corruption of sin, so too did he redeem tradition itself from the corruption of sinful men. In other words, tradition was good and necessary in the beginning but, like the rest of creation, was corrupted by man’s sin after Adam’s fall. Man-made (sinful) tradition, not God-given (righteous) revelation, was passed from generation to generation after the fall (cf. Rom. 1:18-32).
The tradition Jesus redeemed / renewed / reestablished through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension was then passed on to his hand-picked Apostles. They then passed it along to the next generation, and that generation to the next, and so on, in a continuing pattern (until the return of Christ). This redeemed / renewed / reestablished line of authoritative tradition is called Apostolic Succession (e.g. 1 Cor. 11:2, 23), passing from the Apostles through the elders of succeeding generations.
This line of authoritative tradition continues today in the officers of the Church, who can trace their delegated authority (not inherently possessed) all the way back to the Apostles, and thus to Jesus himself. This does not mean that the Church’s leaders have perfectly, sinlessly preserved what Jesus taught (contra the Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibility). Admittedly, the Church’s leaders (both then and now) are capable of corrupting Scripture, like the Pharisees. Nevertheless, all Church leaders in the line of Apostolic Succession must neither treat lightly nor (even worse) thoughtlessly abandon the tradition(s) of those who came before them without having clear biblical warrant for doing so.
Perhaps you have never thought of this before, but each Sunday when I lead worship and preach, I do so under the weight of more than 2,000 years of tradition that influences (or, at least, should influence) everything I do. By no means is this a negative thing (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15; 3:6) – quite the contrary! It gives me humble confidence that others who stand in the same line of authoritative teaching have given to me what they received from the prior generations of the Church. By God’s grace and calling, I am what I am – and you are what you are! – because God has sovereignly preserved the tradition of the gospel of Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God!
With regard to the Church today, a choice to follow tradition(s) should not automatically be viewed negatively; it might actually be wise, faithful, and profitable. Simply to cast off the restraints of long-held Church tradition(s) without first understanding reasons, purposes, and intent is downright reckless. (See my last series of posts for the similarity of this type of thinking and the “I have a right to…” thinking of American cultural Christianity.)
For your reference, here are two images to trace the line of authoritative teaching / tradition in the Church. The first is a family tree of the whole Church, and the second is of American Presbyterianism. (I know they appear overwhelming and confusing at first glance, yet they are necessary for understanding the Church – upward, inward, and outward.) As we progress through the current teaching series, I will more fully explain how such teaching / tradition shapes so much of what we do here at CPC…