Tradition can be good. Traditionalism is bad.

Ecclesiastical Winds (7)

Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?”
Matthew 15.1-3

The inescapability of tradition
The apostle Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thess. 2.15). He was reminding the Thessalonians of their calling to seek the Kingdom and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, according to the Gospel he taught them. He said that, while he was among them, he taught them many things, some of which are recorded in his first epistle, others which consisted only in his teaching (“by word”), but were not written down as Scripture.

Each of these – Paul’s spoken words and his written words – amounted to “traditions” which the Thessalonians must hold to if they were to fulfill their calling. Not everything we need to know is written in the Scriptures. The Scriptures are the indispensable foundation of our faith; but there are matters of everyday Christian faith and practice which are not directly written in the Scriptures, but which derive from the Scriptures and therefore can be very important to growing in and serving the Lord.

What might some of those traditions be?

The Scriptures command us to gather with other believers for worship, and to use certain forms and elements in worshiping the Lord (Heb. 10.25; Ps. 50; etc.). We must use those forms and elements to arrange our worship and pursue it according to the Word of God, in the Spirit of God, for the praise, honor, and glory of God (Jn. 4.24; Ps. 115.1).

But the Scriptures do not tell us what time to gather for worship, or how long a service of worship should be, or what style of worship we should follow. Each church has its own traditions, and holding those traditions makes it possible to worship fruitfully, when worship traditions are according to the Word of God.

The Scriptures command us to glorify God in our eating and drinking (1 Cor. 10.31). But they do not instruct families as to when they should gather to eat, who should set the table and clean up after the meal, or what kinds of conversations are appropriate at dinner. Family traditions direct us in such matters, and they can obviously be very important, when done for God’s glory.

Similarly, the Scriptures command us to pray and read God’s Word daily. But they don’t tell us what to read, how long to pray, or when during the day we should engage these disciplines. Each of us should seek patterns and practices that will allow us to be consistent and fruitful over time in pursuing these important disciplines. These become our own traditions, and as long as we hold them – or some form of them – we may expect to benefit.

There are traditions surrounding the holy days of the Church – Easter, Pentecost, and Advent – which vary from one Christian community to the next. These traditions have Scriptural grounding but no specific Scriptural guidance; thus, we are free to adapt and adjust such traditions over time, if it is spiritually profitable for us to do so.

In short, traditions are inescapable, and they can be very helpful in enabling us, as individuals and churches, to fulfill the requirements of Scripture for our sanctification. The problem comes in when traditions stop serving the requirements of Scripture and begin to replace them. At such time, the ill wind of traditionalism has begun to fill the sails of our soul.

Traditionalism defined
Jesus confronted the problem of traditionalism in the religious leaders of His day. Over the years, they had developed ways of doing things that had taken the place of Scripture as the way God’s people should follow. They tried to enforce those traditions as litmus tests of true faith; thus, they set the Scriptures aside as the normative guide to faith and life, and they clung to their traditions above all. Whenever it seemed to them that Jesus was encouraging change in their traditions, they went after Him publicly.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines traditionalism as “the upholding or maintenance of tradition, especially so as to resist change.” So strong were the Jewish traditions of Jesus’ day that, even after many Jews had become believers, they clung to their traditions, and even tried to make Gentiles take them up as well (cf. Acts 15.1). Paul labored against such traditionalism throughout the course of his ministry.

Traditionalism can be difficult to spot, since it usually begins in traditions that are, for the time, helpful. But helpful traditions that become more important than the plain teaching of Scripture, or that become oppressive rather than enabling and edifying, have devolved into the ill wind of traditionalism.

Problems with traditionalism
We can know that we have lapsed into some form of traditionalism when any of four processes is discovered to be at work within us or our churches.

First, traditionalism obscures Biblical teaching. This was Jesus’ complaint against the Jewish leaders. They misled the people they served into thinking that their view of Scripture in certain matters was more to be relied on than the plain teaching of God’s Word. When we prefer our own ideas and practices about Christian faith and life, morality and culture, worship and church growth, to those which are taught in Scripture, we are following traditions that make it difficult for us to embrace the plain teaching of God’s Word.

Second, and this follows from the first, traditionalism adds to Biblical revelation by making words and ways of practicing the faith Scriptural add-ons. Scripture says believers should be baptized (Matt. 28.18-20). The tradition of the Church over the centuries has acknowledged various views of how that practice is to be observed. For a church to insist that its practice is the only proper way to baptize is to add to Scripture in a way the Church for two thousand years has been reluctant to do.

Third, traditionalism can lead to practices that are neither fruitful nor God-honoring. This was the situation in the 15th century when, both within the Roman Catholic Church and among Protestant theologians, Church traditions were stifling full and abundant life in Christ rather than nurturing it. Both the Catholic Reformation and the Protestant Reformation sought to clear those ill winds from the Church’s sails.

Finally, traditionalism unnoticed or unchecked invariably leads us into the doldrums of near-Christianity. By clinging to traditions rather than Scripture, following inherited protocols and practices rather than the Wind of God, we end up with a “form of godliness” that lacks the power for fruitful Christian living (2 Tim. 3.5).

We must always seek to pursue the life of faith – as individuals and churches – according to the Word of God. Where traditions can help us in doing that, we must not be reluctant to adopt them. But we must take care lest our cherished traditions morph into traditionalism. And we can only do this by holding fast to the teaching of God’s Word, and reviewing our lives and practices regularly to make sure that the Wind of God, and none of the ill winds of the world, the flesh or the church, are directing the course of our journey.

For reflection or discussion
1.  Give some examples of helpful traditions that you hold to. How do these help you in fulfilling the teaching of Scripture?

2.  How might you be able to tell when a tradition is calcifying into traditionalism?

3.  How does maintaining strong traditions of Scripture reading and prayer keep you from falling into traditionalism?

Next steps – Preparation: In prayer, review as many of your traditions as you can. Make adjustments where needed, to make sure your traditions are serving you according to the Word of God.

T. M. Moore

At the website
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
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