Tevye, the whimsical patriarch in the movie Fiddler on the Roof explains the definition of a tradition perfectly. Speaking of Jewish tradition in Tsarist Russia, he declares: “You may ask, how did his tradition get started?” Then he pauses before answering his own question: “I tell you why: I don’t know.”
Young people (I was young once, too) like to ask the question, “But why do we have to do it this way?” Those of us who are older have to do better than to simply say, “Tradition!”
The Lord had a great deal to say about traditions (Mark 7:6-13). His major concern seems to be the contrast between God’s commands and the commands of men.
Many teach “as doctrines the commandments of men,” he observed, adding that as a consequence, they rendered worship “vain” (7:6,7). He adds, “You leave the commandment of God,” with the result that they “hold on to the tradition of men” (7:8). “You have a fine way of rejecting the command of God,” he declares, “in order to establish your own traditions!” (7:9), Clenching his case he declares, “Thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” (7:13).
The stronger human traditions persist, the weaker the word of God appears, at least in our own estimation. Some things to note about tradition:
- Traditions are not harmful in and of themselves. They can even make sense when first instituted.
- Some traditions might be useful, even greatly helpful, so long as we do not defend them as if they carry the force of biblical teaching.
- Traditions, like barnacles on a boat, build up over time and usually when we are not aware of the danger.
- It would be unwise to assume that while other fellowships are blinded by tradition that we suffer no such impairment. To assume we have no traditions is precisely to open up the possibility of collecting traditions.
- Traditions should never push aside God’s commands.
- The key is to be able to distinguish between human tradition and God’s word.
- We must guard against confusing tradition (ours) with God’s word.
- The real problem comes when we treat our traditions on the same level as God’s word.
It appears that the dilution of human thinking renders God’s word completely ineffective. Human thinking muddies the waters; Divine thinking clarifies; human thinking deflects our attention, divine thinking corrects our vision. When a practice is biblical, unlike Tevye, we can say with confidence, “That’s no tradition; God’s word teaches that.”