Last week we had some good discussion about this thing called “tradition”. Your questions, and your answers to my questions, helped me to refine what I plan to say in the remaining three weeks.

Here is my main point, plain and simple: There is a proper, and necessary role for tradition in the life of the church. This thesis may seem self-evident, and not in need of defense, especially to those of you who are accustomed to worshiping in this church, which is not afraid to wear its traditions on its sleeve. But trust me on this: the majority of the modern evangelical church in America needs to hear this message.

The most difficult part of arguing this position is explaining exactly what I mean by “tradition”. I offered a working definition last week: tradition is “that which is handed down, or delivered, from one generation to the next.” Notice in this definition the first word “that” which can include a whole bunch of stuff!

What I have in mind when I think of the role of tradition in the life of the church is twofold: First, doctrine derived from Scripture alone, and secondly, practice (that is, the corporate living out of that faith) which is informed by, and therefore flows from that doctrine. The order is critical: we are taught what to believe, then we act in accordance with those beliefs, not the reverse: we should not practice our faith in a certain manner and then after the fact seek to justify our actions by creating a doctrinal rationale.
In short, faith comes before works. If the Christian life is presented to you in the reverse order, you should smell a rat (to borrow a Rayburn saying).

In terms of practice, I wish to consider briefly corporate worship. We have time only for a bird’s eye view, that is, what are—or rather, should be—the constituent elements of that worship? We will not be considering any of the individual elements in any detail. You may recall a prior Sunday school series given by Pastor Rayburn on the subject of church music. We also received a sermon series last year on the Lord’s Supper. So over time we have received excellent and detailed instruction on the different elements that constitute our corporate worship, and no doubt this instruction will continue in the future, Lord willing.

The second point that I will be making is this: all churches have traditions, whether they recognize it or not. This includes both doctrinal beliefs and ways of organizing those beliefs (sometimes referred to as a “system of theology”) and practices which may, or may not, be rooted in those beliefs. To claim, as we saw in the case of the Cyber-Church last week, that a church can free of religious rules and tradition only reflects an ignorance of the fundamentally historic nature of Christianity.

Consider this fundamental axiom concerning our Christian faith: it is an historic faith based on events that occurred a long time ago. Yes, it has a forward looking aspect, to be sure, but the body of doctrine that constitutes our faith—sometimes referred to in the Bible simply as “the faith”—was laid down centuries ago. Listen to what Jude says: “Dear friends…I felt I had to write and urge you to contend for the faith that God has once for all entrusted (delivered) to the saints.” (Jude 3).[1] Our business is not to invent new doctrine, or wait for new revelation, but rather to contend for the faith that God has once for all delivered unto the saints. The faith that has been handed down to us is like a precious family heirloom. Each generation of Christians must take care to preserve and protect this family possession.

As Christians who are living almost two millennia after the final events of salvation history recorded in the Bible, you and I have a choice, as do believers in each generation, and that choice boils down to this: Do we associate and assemble with a body of believers which is pro-traditional or anti-traditional in its orientation? The simplest way to judge a church on the tradition spectrum is to consider the content and structure of its corporate worship. We call this “liturgy”. Another way of stating the question is this: Do I want to be part of a liturgical or non-liturgical church? To help grasp this distinction, consider the following excerpt from D.G Hart’s article entitled “Why Evangelicals Think they Hate Liturgy”:

“One of the common ways of configuring the world of American Protestantism is to divide it along the lines of worship practice. Accordingly, there are liturgical and non-liturgical churches. What makes communions liturgical is their use of prayer books, set forms for worship, ministers dressing in garb different from the congregation (gowns or robes), and occasional processional and recessional to begin and end the service, the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and generally a sober and dignified mood in worship. Most typically we think of evangelicals as having perfected the non-liturgical worship service. Evangelicals are non-liturgical because they refrain from those very elements that characterize liturgical worship: prayers offered extemporaneously, the avoidance of routine or prescribed orders of worship, ministers dressed in suits or sometimes even more informally, no special festivity to mark the beginning or end of the worship service, a lengthy sermon , the occasional celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and a casual atmosphere.”[2]

Last week we looked at two extremes on the tradition spectrum: the Cyber-Church, with its self-avowed renunciation of tradition, and at the other end of the spectrum I pointed to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches which embrace tradition, but alas, tradition that is not always derived from Scripture. I consider these two extremes the Scylla and Charybdis between which the cautious Christian must navigate. Recall from Greek mythology that Scylla was a beautiful nymph who was turned into a sea monster, part woman and part fish, with heads of dogs growing our of her waist. She lived in a cave above the Strait of Messina opposite Charybdis, the whirlpool. She seized and ate sailors who came too close. (In Homer’s epic tale “The Odyssey”, Odysseus lost six men to Scylla.)

In the interest of gaining some navigational skills, let us turn our attention now to the Bible, specifically the New Testament use of the word “tradition”.

The New Testament captures the meaning of the word “tradition” with the use of the Greek word παράδοσις. In writing to the church at Corinth, Paul praises the Corinthian believers for “holding firm to the traditions (παράδοσις) just as I delivered them to you.” (1 Cor.11:2) This Greek word literally means a handing down or over.[3] In fact, the Greek verb used for “delivered” in the above verse is a cognate to παράδοσις , hence the noun and verb echo one another and thus give emphasis to Paul’s point. One could translate 1 Cor.11:2 in this way: “…hold firm to that which was delivered over to you, just as I delivered them to you.”

A word very close in meaning to tradition is “custom”, which appears in the Greek New Testament as έθος (ethos in English). In Acts 6:14, for example, we find this word used in a construction identical to 1 Cor.11:2, but here it is customs, rather than traditions, which have been delivered, and not by Paul but by Moses. In context, Stephen has been seized and brought before the Sanhedrin on trumped up charges. Among the accusations is the following found in verse 14: “For we have heard him say this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.” Christians on the one hand were exhorted to hold fast to the traditions handed down by Paul, while at the same time condemned by the Jewish leaders for altering the customs handed down by Moses.

Clearly, both parties valued traditions/customs, but the Jewish leaders believed that Jesus and his followers were guilty of altering the Law of Moses. And not only the Law of Moses, but also the traditions of the elders, which at times were antithetical to the commandments of God as revealed in the Law of Moses. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day failed to see this, and for this reason Jesus accused them of being hypocrites.

In parallel passages found in Mark 7 and Matthew 15, the Pharisees and scribes are seen attempting to entrap Jesus by asking the question “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition (παράδοσις) of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” (Mk 7:5) Jesus used this question to expose their hypocrisy:

“And he answered and said to them, “And why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, “He who speaks evil of father and mother let him be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever shall say to his father or mother, “Anything of mine you might have been helped by has been given to God,”[4] he is not to honor his father or his mother,’ and thus you invalidated the word of God. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” (in NIV, “their teachings are but rules made by men”)

Suffice it to say that for the religious rulers of his day, Jesus concluded that man-made tradition, or rules, trumped over the commandments of God. “When the εντολή [commandment] and the παράδοσις[tradition] clashed, the former was sacrificed to the latter.”[5]

Following Jesus’ death, the situation only grew worse, as oral traditions (interpretations of the Law) multiplied and eventually were recorded in the Talmud, which was revered by some over the Scriptures themselves. The Talmud of Jerusalem says, “The words of the Scribes are more lovely than the words of the law; for the words of the law are weighty and light, but the words of the Scribes are all weighty.”

Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees and Scribes, and the subsequent development of the Talmud, are examples of abuses of traditions, which Jesus condemned in no uncertain terms; this is in contrast to the proper use of traditions that Paul commends in his first letter to the Corinthians. The main difference between the two is that one derives from the precepts of men, as Jesus said, and the other derives from the commandments of God as revealed in Holy Writ, and never places the traditions above those commandments.

The Scriptures, as well as the annals of church history, are replete with examples of both the abuse, and the proper use, of traditions. Are we to conclude that because some people, at certain times, have misunderstood the role of traditions and have elevated them above the commandments of God, that we are to repudiate the role of traditions altogether in the life of faith? Or are we to conclude that because other people, at other times, have properly understood the role of traditions, and have allowed their exercise of faith to be informed by those traditions, (are we to conclude) that traditions are never susceptible to abuse? I say “No” to both. Traditions can be valuable to a believer’s growth in grace and maturity, but the Scriptures and church history teach us also that traditions gone awry can corrupt the spiritual life of the church. It is between this Scylla and Charybdis that the faithful believer must navigate.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What is the basis for Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7?
  2. Calvin wrote “Worship is the most important matter with which we have to deal.”
    What do you think he meant? Do you agree with him?
  3. D.G. Hart claims that “the elements or forms of worship revealed in Scripture are the reading and preaching of the Word, prayer, singing of praise, and the administration of the Sacraments. But these forms are not satisfying to evangelicals, hence their hostility to liturgy.” Do you agree with his assessment?


[1] The word translated “entrusted” in the NIV and “delivered” in KJV is from the same root word that means “tradition”.

[2] D.G. Hart, “Why Evangelicals Think they Hate Liturgy,” Modern Reformation, Jan/Feb 1996

[3] Also means betrayal, which is a handing over

[4] Corban

[5] Alan Hugh M’Neile, The Gospel according to St. Matthew, p. 222