by Doy Moyer
Tradition is basically what has been handed down for the next generation to believe and practice. There is nothing wrong with that. Teachings and practices are meant to be passed down. Indeed, tradition is necessary and unavoidable, and no one is without traditions of some kind (including any who claim to dislike tradition). Since we need to be careful in our thinking about it, let’s distinguish three types of tradition. Any tradition can fall into these basic categories:
- Truth. This is a tradition that is to be accepted as truth, and truth is to be passed down through the generations. This is one reason why the Lord wanted His people to teach their children diligently “when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The purpose of teaching is to pass along the truth to others. Paul wrote, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (II Thessalonians 2:15; cf. 3:6). We are not at liberty to set aside apostolic tradition because we prefer something else. Tradition as truth should be upheld and practiced, for failure to do so will put us out of line with God’s revealed will.
- Error. Erroneous traditions can also be passed down, but the standard for judging this is not subjectively determined. A tradition is not right or wrong based on whether I personally like or dislike it. If a tradition runs counter to God’s expressed will, it needs to be abandoned. Jesus chastised the Pharisees for setting aside the word of God “for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:6). Not all traditions are biblically defensible and if what we accept as traditions neglect, alter, or deny the Spirit’s word, they need to go away.
- Choice. Many, if not most, traditions are neither necessary on the one hand nor wrong on the other, and we must allow for variance. These traditions do not violate God’s word and fall within what is authorized generally, though they are not to be seen as required either. When we require what is not necessary on the one hand or deny choice on the other, we divide God’s people and elevate ourselves to the status of the Lord. The choice must be recognized while, at the same time, respecting the consciences of others. There are limits, but, again, these limits are not defined by personal likes and dislikes.
Let’s stress this point. We must be careful to make sure that traditions fall under the authority umbrella of God’s revealed will as given by the Holy Spirit. No matter how old or new the traditions are, they are not autonomous and free from critique. The recognition of the word of God as the sword of the Spirit is important here (Ephesians 6:17), for people often conflate personal feelings with the Holy Spirit. Once that door is opened, anyone can claim any feelings as coming from the Spirit. Yet the word of the Spirit does not indicate that personal feelings are the test of whether something comes from Him. Even if the feelings did come from Him (and how would we prove that?), they would not be in violation of His written revelation, for God does not lie or contradict Himself. There is a reason God gave a standard that can be evaluated without the personal feelings and desires of one or a few being the final standard for all. Think of Paul’s point here: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed!” (Galatians 1:9) Any tradition, teaching, or feeling ought to be evaluated by what is consistent with the revealed word. Not quenching the Spirit or despising prophetic utterance is tempered by examining everything carefully and holding fast to that which is good while abstaining from every form of evil (I Thessalonians 5:19-21). Feelings are not the proper judge of what is good and evil, for they are often fickle and selfish.
Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees shows that Scripture and tradition are not to be equated. No tradition, no matter its age, has the power to set aside the Holy Spirit’s given revelation. If the Pharisees could make “void the word of God” for the sake of tradition, so might we if we elevate tradition to the same status as the Holy Spirit’s word. When tradition is elevated to the same status as Scripture, it probably will not be long before the tradition is elevated over Scripture — tradition swallows Scripture if it operates autonomously. However, tradition does not limit Scripture, but Scripture limits tradition.
Scripture is primary as a revelation of God’s mind (1 Cor 2:9-16). We cannot say that a tradition is given by the Spirit if that tradition negates what the Spirit Himself has revealed. Let us never “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:8), for unbound tradition, free from the restraints of God’s word, reflects our will, not God’s.