Tradition

“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'” (Matthew 15:1-2, NKJV).

Few things are more polarizing and divisive than tradition. One group will say, “That is our tradition so we must do it.” Opponents will counter, “That is just your tradition, it has no validity or authority.” To conservatives, traditions seem sacrosanct. To those of a more liberal or progressive nature, to label something as “tradition” is to condemn it to obsolescence and irrelevance.

Those working in other cultures may often be frustrated by unbreakable traditions. An Asian woman may cook with unhygienic and inefficient methods, but if that is the way her mother and grandmother cooked, good luck with getting her to change. In every nation, things continue to be done in accordance with time-honored principles which are rarely or never examined critically. It is simply “the way we do it here.” That attitude is often a barrier to constructive change.

The scribes and Pharisees of New Testament times were by no means the first traditionalists, nor were they the last. I once was a part of a congregation which closed every service with a song following (not preceding) the final prayer. They had no concept that this was a mandatory order from Scripture, but it was their habit and they had no need or desire to change it. Neither did they insist that other congregations adopt their practice.

In Bangladesh most (maybe all) congregations will pass the emblems of the Lord’s Supper, with each participant holding his or her piece of bread or cup of juice until all have been served, then they will eat or drink it together at the same time. There is a sense of fellowship which accompanies that shared partaking that gives special meaning to the observance. That is a local tradition which I can appreciate without any necessity to bind it upon anyone else.

Frequently, however, traditionalists have confused their preferences with eternal truth, as did the Jewish leaders who complained to Jesus. I once encountered a family which had ceased attending the services of the Church because the congregation had changed the order of worship. To them, things should proceed in a certain order without variation. Anything else was wrong.

The Pharisees had elevated the opinions of former Rabbis to the status of Law. Part of their commitment to the Law was to follow all of the traditions (written applications) of the elders (scholars of the past) as perfectly as was possible.

Their zeal for the Law was admirable; however, they took it even further. They used their own devotion to the traditions as a standard by which to judge others. It was no longer enough to state, “God says;” one must also be aware of what the elders had said on any given subject. To violate their interpretation was to sin, whether that interpretation had clear Scriptural authority or not.

Jesus responded emphatically to their criticism of his disciples. “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition” (Matthew 15:3)? He then gave an illustration which proved his accusation true (cf. verses 4-6).

Tradition or habit is ethically and doctrinally neutral. A thing is not right or wrong just because it is or is not traditional. Sometimes change refreshes us and helps us to focus on what we are doing. Sometimes familiarity generates comfort and security, enabling us to endure difficult circumstances.

One should not continue to do the same things in the same ways only because “that is the way we do it here.” Neither should one change “just for the sake of change.” Let us live thoughtfully, with purpose, embracing those things from our past that are true and helpful, while also accepting new ideas and methods that are the same.

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Michael Brooks

Since 1988 Mike and his wife Brenda have been involved in foreign missions in South America, Africa, and South Asia. Beginning in 1999 they devoted full time to missions, primarily in Bangladesh and Nepal.

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