“I come to church for tradition, not this,” a visiting women told me as she vigorously pointed at her Bible. I had just finished preaching Jesus’ denunciation of the rabbinical teachings that had come to overshadow and even contradict God’s law (Matt. 9:14-17). I had exhorted Christians to not allow anything, even helpful forms and traditions, replace Christ in their hearts.
Naturally, I was dumbfounded. Unsure of how to respond, I mumbled something vaguely pastoral as she brushed quickly past. As I reflected on her words later that afternoon, I realized what was so unusual about her statement. This lady said something almost no evangelical would explicitly affirm but many nevertheless confirm in their practice. We love our traditions. And sometimes (in ways often imperceptible to us) we value them more than God’s Word.
The average Christian church runs largely on tradition. Everything from the time we meet, to the shape of our meetings, to the clothes we wear, to the music we use, is guided by tradition. And that’s a good thing. Traditions provide order and structure that enable us to function well in community. They connect us to our heritage and deepen and strengthen our worship. Indeed, the apostle Paul commended the Corinthian church for holding firmly to the traditions he had taught them (1 Cor. 11:2), and he admonished the Thessalonian church to do the same (2 Thess. 2:15). Christians ought to nurture an appreciation and respect for their various ecclesiastical traditions.
But traditions must never be invested with the authority of God’s truth. Traditions change with time and culture, while God’s Word is eternal, timeless, and unchanging. Blurring the line between the two (tradition and truth) can have devastating results. Jesus continually denounced the Pharisees for precisely this error.
Healthy tradition flows out of truth and enhances the ministry of the truth. Our sinful tendencies to absolutize our traditions will only serve to hinder the work of the ministry. “The conscience can be needlessly condemning in areas where there is no biblical issue,” John MacArthur says. “In fact, it can try to hold you to the very thing the Lord is trying to release you from!”
So how can we guard against elevating tradition to the level of biblical truth?
(1) By recognizing our traditions for what they are—necessary, helpful, and man-made. Doing so allows us to embrace traditions, while at the same time holding them loosely.
(2) By attending a church that regularly preaches the main themes of the Bible, exalts Christ and his gospel, and conscientiously avoids placing application on the level of scriptural truth.
(3) By embracing the function of tradition as servant, not master. The newness of the kingdom demands the wineskin of humble flexibility. Our traditions exist to serve the ministry of the gospel, not the other way around.
(4) By faithfully applying God’s Word personally and corporately, while recognizing where God’s truth ends and our application begins, and then relating to other Christians accordingly.
You may not be as explicit as the lady I encountered after the service that Sunday, but perhaps you’ve raised preference to the level of truth. Perhaps you have begun to filter Scripture through the lens of an ethnic tradition, or simply loved a liturgical pattern more than the Savior it was designed to help you worship. Maybe your Christian fellowship has been hindered because other believers don’t fit your expectations.
Let us repent of where we have loved our forms and traditions more than Christ. And let us measure all things in light of Scripture, remembering that the substance and heart of our faith is Christ, who alone is worthy of our worship.