The idolatry of tradition

Why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3).

The distinction between law and tradition in religion is a perpetual struggle. My feeble attempt to illustrate my understanding is not without flaw, but I hope it will be of some help.

A law is something with a definitive boundary. You can put a circle around it. If something is authorized by God, then it is law. To make no attempt to conduct oneself inside that circle is to sin. To draw a new circle and do something different is to sin. To function within that circle, but with the wrong attitude, is to sin.


Additionally, everything involved in the accomplishing of that command resides within the circle of authority. It is authorized by virtue of the law’s very existence, unless otherwise condemned or specified.

In the instance of singing, for example, there are various things that also reside in the circle: a song book, a pitch pipe, a song leader, or some other visual aid to the singing, like projected words and music on a screen, and even proper lighting.


So long as nothing impedes a person’s heart, nor their ability to execute the command to sing, they are functioning within the circle of authority. Furthermore, singing is meant to teach and edify saints and praise God (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16-17). So the circle expands further to include elements of attitude, purpose, and direction.

This helps us understand what does and does not belong in the circle. Performance choirs and instrumental music are additions. These are not law, nor are they traditions; they are in an outside category: violations. They should be drawn into a separate, man-made circle:


A tradition is an interesting thing. We draw another circle, this time encompassing the circle of authority:


This circle constitutes things that are lawful in the sense that they are neutral. They are neither law nor violation.

A tradition can reside in any of the three locations. They can reside inside the circle of law, helping us to fulfill it. They can be outside the law, yet not violate it. Or, they can become violations:


To the point of Jesus’ words above, when his disciples were rebuked for not adhering to the elders’ tradition of washing hands before eating (cf. Mark 7:1-5), Jesus demonstrated how human tradition had trumped divine law, thus constituting idolatry.

The law required one to honor father and mother (Exodus 20:12).


Jesus knew that the rabbis who had accused his disciples (and by implication, him) of breaking tradition had done something far worse.

They engaged in a self-imposed practice called “Corban.” This refers to the practice of  earmarking funds for the temple. Corban was neither specific to the law, nor was it an intrinsic violation. It was a tradition.


As long as these two remained in their respective places, there was no problem. However, the tradition of Corban was being used to excuse themselves from monetary obligations to their parents. It was sort of like an envelope system, but skewed for their own purposes. They had an envelope marked “parents,” but they never seemed to have enough left over to put any in it. It was all taken up by the temple fund. Too bad.


By adherence to tradition, the inner and outer circles became juxtaposed, and God’s law was actually excluded. Tradition became the essential.

Of course, the problem is more serious than it sounds. The practice of unlawful things, the substitution of unlawful things, and the juxtaposition of man’s traditions over God’s law are all forms of idolatry, even today.

We must learn to recognize the distinctions and correlations of laws, expedients, options, and violations.

I am less and less surprised to read John’s final warning: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).

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