Obviously honoring traditions is not always a bad thing, because Paul commended the church for remembering and observing them: “Now I praise you that ye remember me in all things, and hold fast the traditions, even as I delivered them to you,” (1 Cor. 11:2). Sometimes adhering to traditions shows our respect for those gone before, who carefully worked out scriptural and expedient methods of complying with God’s commandments. But, our observing of these traditions must never be done merely because our forefathers did so, but because they are grounded in God’s word.
For these reasons, we must not advocate “change for change’s sake,” that is, the somewhat arrogant tendency to “mix things up,” just because they have long been done a certain way. Sometimes there are good reasons why things are down a certain way. Rather than fostering a knee-jerk antagonism toward established practices, we should respectfully consider why things are being done as they are. This accompanies “searching the scriptures daily to see whether these things are so,” (Acts 17:11). And if established practices violate no scriptural principles, and are themselves expedient in carrying out God’s commands, why should we be quick to discard them?
The church of Thessalonica was also commended for “holding fast to the traditions” which they were taught, “whether by word or by epistle of ours,” (2 Thess. 2:15). So important were these traditions that they were commanded to “withdraw” themselves from “every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which they received of us,” (2 Thess. 3:6).
Still, there are traditions which develop in religion which do not coincide with God’s will. Jesus frequently rebuked the religious leaders of his day because they honored “their traditions” above the will of God, (cf. Mt. 15:1-20). These traditions had taken on a life of their own. They had gradually grown and developed, and they were enforced by zealous religious leaders of the Jews.
When Jesus healed the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, it appears he intentionally did so on the sabbath day. After the healing, he commanded the man to arise, take up his bed and walk, (Jn. 1:5-9). This triggered an objection by the Jewish leaders, because their traditions dictated that he should not have taken up his bed and carried it on the Sabbath day. Their overly-restrictive interpretation of God’s prohibition against working on the sabbath day (Ex. 33:13, 14; Num. 15:35) add led to the construction of detailed and elaborate traditions. They had eventually come to the conclusion that a man could not pick up anything on the Sabbath, or he would be working! Such extremes are characteristic of people who prefer their own reasoning to God’s, their own traditions to God’s word.
Could we be guilty of the same mistake? Yes, if we bind our own traditions rather than God’s word, and assume a superiority or condemnatory attitude toward others who do not recognize our traditions. But notice an important distinction here: There is a vast difference between honoring traditions which expedite and carry out God’s will, versus man-made traditions which contravene it. Examples of the former would include the extending of the gospel invitation after our sermons, the standing and singing of an invitation song, the mingling after services in warm communication and fellowship, etc. These are scriptural traditions which advance the Lord’s will in the local church. But on the other hand, the employment of women preachers, the use of mechanical instruments in worship—practices which have become traditional in some places—represent a departure from God’s will in preference to man’s. Many other examples could be mentioned. Some congregations have adopted man-made traditions of observing unauthorized holidays in the worship services; using choirs, praise teams and other “traditional” modifications in worship; the raising of funds for special projects in ways traditionally used by the denominations; etc. etc.
Tradition per se is not a bad thing. But we need to be very careful that we are honoring God’s word, not leaving it in the dust of our own traditions.
-by Robert C. Veil, Jr.