Monday, January 17, 2022

Anonymous Asks (180)

“How important are traditions observed by other Christians?”

One Sunday afternoon in my early teens I was craving a snack. That posed a problem: my father did not permit us to go to the stores on Sunday.

“Dad,” I said, “why can’t we go to the store on Sunday?”

“Because Sunday is a day of rest,” he replied.

“That was the Sabbath,” I responded, “and we are not under law, we are under grace.”

Guess what. I got to go to the store.

A Visceral Reaction

Another example: I was visiting my brother’s church a few years back on a Sunday morning. The time came to break bread together. A man and his wife came forward. The husband broke the loaf into two smaller pieces and placed them on two plates. His wife took one, he took the other, and they made sure everyone in the congregation had the opportunity to partake.

But I literally had a visceral reaction to the sight of a woman carrying a plate full of bread through the congregation. My stomach lurched at the perceived “violation” of a tradition I had grown up with in which only men did such things. I had to stop and ask myself why I was reacting with such intensity. It certainly wasn’t that a biblical principle or precept was being savaged. This woman wasn’t taking a prominent place or teaching men in a church meeting. She was simply performing a service.

So what was the problem? I concluded the problem was me. I just plain didn’t like change, that was all.

Hand It Over, Hand It Over

The Greek word most commonly translated “tradition” in most of our English Bibles is paradosis, meaning a precept or rule of conduct, literally something “handed over”. A quick glance at how that word is used by the writers of the New Testament shows us that what gets handed over from one generation of believers to the next can be either a good or a bad thing.

In Matthew 15, the “tradition of the elders” about handwashing before a meal was an addition to the Law of Moses, not a command of God but an application of a principle devout men thought they saw in the Law. Jesus commented that the Jewish elders had developed a bad habit of using such traditions to make void the commandments of God. In this case, tradition had become the enemy of the truth. The apostle Paul uses paradosis this way in Colossians, warning the recipients of his letter to “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” So tradition may become the vehicle for unproductive teaching that is contradictory to the spirit of Christ himself.

That’s bad tradition. But Paul also uses paradosis in a good sense, writing to the Corinthians, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you,” and to the Thessalonians, “Stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.”

So then, religious routines and rules of conduct are either good or bad depending on their relation to the word of God as taught and practiced by the apostles. If traditions accurately reflect the teaching of scripture, then they are valuable and worthy of preservation. Indeed, turning from the right sort of tradition (for example, Paul’s established tradition of working hard and providing for his own needs) may result in a Christian “walking disorderly” and displeasing the Lord. On the other hand, if a tradition no longer accurately reflects the teaching of scripture, like the traditions of the Pharisees, becoming enslaved to it can result in the ruin of a congregation, poor testimony, and Christians ceasing to do and be what they should. At very least the wrong sort of tradition can waste a great deal of time, money and spiritual energy.

Analyzing Our Traditions

In the case of treating Sunday like the Jews were taught to treat the Sabbath, the tradition that had developed in the churches in which my father grew up was inconsistent and potentially misleading. Inconsistent, because they were perfectly fine with a Bible teacher “working” on a Sunday, and perfectly fine with Christian housewives slaving over a fine dinner for the family after church, but not at all fine with a leisurely trip to the market. Potentially misleading, because we really are not living under the Law of Moses anymore. There are plenty of things we can learn from Moses, but one of the things we are best not to learn is to apply the principles we deduce from scripture rigidly, undiscerningly or legalistically.

I never asked my dad why he pivoted so quickly on this issue, but I believe it was because I appealed to scripture for my position, and he wanted to encourage that sort of thing in me. Possibly he also realized that his own position on the issue had developed by default rather than being a product of Bible study. In demonstrating that he was more concerned about following the teaching of scripture than following the accepted practices of his own generation, my dad was a fine example, and one I strive to emulate.

Slipping Down the Slope

On the other hand, in the case of the couple passing around the bread (and I believe they did the same with the cup), no biblical principle was being violated or poorly applied. This was simply a case of encountering a tradition I was not used to. It was actually a very productive exercise to observe my own very strong reaction to something I initially found distasteful for no good reason at all. It made me realize my reasons for preferring this or that way of doing things are not always biblically-based.

Now, there is a slippery-slope argument to be made that allowing women to participate in such a “public” role might lead to confusion about the biblical women’s role in church meetings and eventually to disorder and disunity. I just don’t think it’s a very good argument. As a matter of fact, critics of this church’s new “tradition” only had to wait ten years or so before their worst fears were confirmed: their church had slipped into allowing women to lead from the platform in a new form of “worship” sometimes referred to as liturgical dance. However, I don’t think we can say with certainty, as some might, that the one led to the other. Rather, I suspect there was a laissez-faire attitude among the church’s elders that permitted both changes, one of which was perfectly fine, and the other of which was not. If each new “tradition” had been independently tested against the word of God, there would be no slippery slope for the church to descend in the first place.

The problem was that, like the “traditions of the elders” in Matthew, some traditions were adopted without sufficient consideration for the teaching of scripture.

The Importance of Tradition

So how important are traditions observed by other Christians? Well, it totally depends on the tradition.

When a tradition is biblically based and accurately applied, it is timeless. We should cling to such traditions tenaciously, whether in the family or in the church. However, extra-biblical traditions that hinder public testimony because they are outdated, esoteric, confusing or misleading — and especially those which are being applied in ways that invalidate the teaching of scripture — need to be reassessed and phased out, to be replaced by traditions that better serve the needs of the current generation.

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