Why Traditions Matter

“Now we can see what, fundamentally, tradition is. It does not consist primarily of the beautiful forms of the past, of theological systems, or Romanesque and Baroque churches…It is that we accept what God has handed over to us, that we receive, carry, cherish, and bring it to birth, nourishing it with our own substance and bringing it up. Everything else, human and historical tradition, comes later. It has significance in its own place, but only if it is an expression of the prior sense of faithfulness to tradition, that is, to the task that we have received from God.” Hans Urs von Balthasar

“The only alternative to tradition is bad tradition.” Jaroslav Pelikan

The Bible speaks of tradition in both a positive and negative way. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees when they use tradition to get around obeying God’s commands (Matthew 15:1-9). Paul praises the Corinthians for maintaining the traditions that were handed down to them (1 Corinthians 11:2), and he commands the Thessalonians to “hold to the traditions…” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Although this may seem confusing, it’s really not. Traditions are a necessity. Every church has them. Whenever you do something more than once it becomes a tradition. Some traditions are a week old, whereas others might be hundreds or thousands of years old. Traditions cannot be avoided.

The question we should be asking is not, “Do we hold to traditions?” but “What traditions do we hold to?” From there we need to examine the purpose behind the tradition. The intent should be worthy. We should not follow traditions just because they are old or everyone else is doing them. The traditions we hold to need to point us toward God. They should bring glory to his name.

If a tradition stands between us and God, then it should be rejected. Still, there are many other traditions that might not stand between us and God, but this does not make them good. When a group of people reject tradition, they never get rid of it. One tradition simply replaces another. As Jaroslav Pelikan has pointed out this often leads to bad tradition. One must be careful when rejecting a tradition because he may find himself practicing a tradition that is not any better than the one he left.

Although traditions are a necessity, they can also be dangerous. People cling to traditions. Often the purpose of a tradition is forgotten and people are left clinging to something that has no meaning. Obedience to a human tradition alone is not pleasing to God. He is not pleased simply because we show up on Wednesday night, but do nothing to glorify him. The traditions of men are not equivalent to the commands of God. Although we may make it a tradition to wear nice clothing to worship on Sunday morning, this is not as pleasing to God as feeding the poor.

We must also be careful not to be hypocritical when it comes to traditions. We may want to point out the absurdity of another person’s tradition, while clinging to our own absurd tradition. It is foolish to say one church is wrong for requiring a preacher to wear a robe, when at your own church he is required to wear a suit and tie. Both are requiring a preacher to adhere to a dress code. They are simply different dress codes. The fact of the matter is that God has not given us a dress code to follow and both are traditions.

Traditions should be a blessing to the church. They connect us to the past. For 2,000 years not a Sunday has passed where the church has not broken bread and drank the fruit of the vine. They bring glory to God. Although the Bible never mentions the day on which Jesus was born, many have made it a tradition to celebrate his birth on Dec. 25 just as the angels and heavenly host celebrated his birth on that day (Luke 2:13). This tradition is observed by secular nations. It points people to Christ who may not normally spend time reflecting on the Son of God. They help us in our Christian walk. Traditions are there to remind us of God and help us draw near to him. Practices such as fasting, silence, and pilgrimage have been used by God’s people for thousands of years. These traditions have helped numerous people as they strive to imitate Christ.

It is important that we think about the traditions in our midst. If we never reflect on our own traditions, then we may be holding to traditions that are unhealthy or do not benefit us in anyway. Here are three things to remember as you reflect on tradition.

Look Back – Take a look at history and study all the traditions that Christians have benefitted from over the years. You may learn something and your exploration of these traditions may very well shape your own.

Examine Your Own Traditions – Ask, “Why are we doing what we do?” If you do not know the purpose behind a tradition, then you need to find out. Sometimes traditions become outdated and need to be replaced. This does not happen often, but it does happen. It does the church no good to hold to a tradition everyone has given up on.

Allow Tradition to Have a Voice – Tradition is the voice of the past. It is observing something that our ancestors thought was important. It is not wise to easily abandon a tradition that has been significant for many years. Remind yourselves of why people have observed the tradition for so long.

May all that you do bring glory to God and his Son.

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Scott Elliott is a graduate of Oklahoma State University and Austin Graduate School of Theology. He lives in La Grange, TX and is the minister for the La Grange Church of Christ. He is married and has two sons. He enjoys writing about the Christian faith and posting the occasional film review. His articles and reviews have appeared in RELEVANT magazine, Englewood Review of Books, and other publications.

  1. Reply
    Lori B January 8, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    Mr. Elliot, while I appreciate your article on tradition; there was one thing that wouldn’t leave my mind alone. (like the hair on your head that seems to stand up on your head refusing to go the same way as the rest-ha).
    When you spoke of us not being Hypocritical-about the “dress code”. I disagree with your stand on that matter. As those standing before the congregation in whatever position they are filling at that time-they should be respectful and dress appropriately that they are able. When you say robe, (possibly hypocritical of me) I think of a priestly robe, choir robe, etc. In this manner I don’t believe it is “simply a dress code” that would be comparison to a suit. The robe’s I refer to would be very much an attention getter-as though holding a position higher or should I say different than the others in the congregation. Many wear suits in the church that doesn’t hold that position as a preacher-
    I welcome your comments.

    • Reply
      Scott Elliott January 8, 2015 at 3:04 pm

      Lori, thank you for commenting. Allow me to offer a few thoughts. I do believe a minister should dress nice. I wear a suit and tie every Sunday. I don’t do this because I enjoy it. I feel much more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt, but I do believe appearance is important. My point in the post above is we should be careful of criticizing other traditions when we ourselves hold to a very similar tradition. Robes and suits and are both forms of dress. The Bible never gives us a dress code. We are free to wear whatever we like as long as it is decent and modest. Requiring a certain dress code is a tradition and I think it is unwise to criticize one dress code while holding to our own.

      Why do people wear what they wear? I cannot answer for others, but I will say that a person could wear a suit to be flashy just as they could wear a robe to be flashy. I do not know the specific history regarding the wearing of robes, but I suspect that it has something to do with respectable people in certain positions are sometimes required to wear a robe (e.g. judge). This was more common in the past than it is now, so it is strange for us to see someone in a robe. Still, I do not believe judges wear robes to be flashy. They wear them because that is what is expected of them, just as we would expect a lawyer to wear a suit.

      I do think you raise a good point regarding setting ourselves apart from one another. We are a priesthood of believers, and we should strive to be unified in everything we do.

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