Editorial: July 2009
In any society, traditions develop as beliefs and practices are handed down from one generation to another. People, in general, are comfortable with traditions and dislike change. Therefore, community life is often moulded, consciously or unconsciously, by certain traditions.
Traditions can be viewed positively or negatively. They are helpful in showing what truths have stood the test of time. However, they can also hamper faithful interpretation of the Bible if traditional interpretations are adopted without adequate scriptural justification. Unexamined propositions often function as blinders; restricted vision distorts what is seen.
Jesus Christ has laid down some important principles regarding traditions: namely, they are of human origin and are subordinate to Scripture. He warned us that traditions can sometimes loom larger than Scripture and so, we should examine continually what we communicate to our children. Apostle Paul urged the Thessalonians to "stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or letter" (2 Thess.2:15; 3:6).
Religious leaders were constantly looking for some reason to bring charge against Christ. They accused Christ's disciples of violating the traditions of Jewish elders by not going through the ceremonial washings when they ate. This ritual had nothing to do with hygiene; it was purely ceremonial washing to get rid of whatever defilement the Jews accidentally picked up from the Gentiles. The confrontation was not over a question of sanitation, but over a matter of religious ceremony, in which Christ was opposing the bondage of man-made religious requirements. No amount of washing can remove defilement on the inside (Psa.51:6-10). The real source of all impurity is within; a matter not of the hands, but of the heart.
The Pharisees honoured their traditions above the written Word of God. "It is a greater offence to teach anything contrary to the voice of the Rabbis, than to contradict Scripture itself," says the Mishna, a collection of Jewish traditions. The binding force of these 613 rules, designed to regulate every aspect of life, was popularly considered greater than the Law itself. Some traditions actually violated the Law. Rabbi Eleazar went to the extent of saying: "He who expounds the Scriptures in opposition to the tradition has no share in the world to come."
Christ condemned their washings. "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may be clean also" (Matt. 23:25-26).
Christ repudiated "human traditions" (Matt.15:3, Mk.7:9, 13) as distortions or even contradictions of God's law. Christ always used the Word to silence these hypocrites. He pointed out their disobedience to Exodus 20:12 and 21:17. The fifth commandment was violated by the callous strategy of calling whatever might have been used for assisting one's parents a gift to God, and thus beyond the realm of the parents-as if God wants from a man what belongs to his parents! By "dedicating" their possessions to God, the Pharisees released themselves from their obligation to care for their parents. The Pharisees managed to rob their own parents of help by hiding behind their traditions!
Jesus told them: "You have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition" (Matt.15: 6). He continued: "Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted" (Matt.15:13). This is the test for all human teachings, however well-intentioned. If it is not based upon and rooted in the Word of God, or if it departs in any degree from the true intention of that Word, it is to be rooted out. We should try our traditions, customs, habits, rules and regulations by this test. When man adds to the simple things of Divine revelation, he is always in danger of destroying the very thing he desires to safeguard. Starting with a passion for the Law of God, Pharisaism attempted to preserve and enforce it by the addition of rules and burdens, which were intolerable, and in many applications, destroyed the sanction of the original law. Christianity suffers from the same malady. We are in danger of being in bondage to human opinions, interpretations and requirements. It is the duty of every Christian to break away from all such efforts to distance us from the will of God.
There are many "religious" people even today who carefully keep traditions, yet openly disobeying the Word of God! Christ quoted Isaiah 29:13 to show that their religion was not of the heart, but was merely external actions. They missed the main lesson of the Sermon on the Mount: true religion comes from within. We believe with the heart (Rom.10:9-10); love from the heart (Matt.22:37); obey from the heart (Rom.6:17); give from the heart (2 Cor.9: 7); and pray from the heart (Psa.51.10, 17).
Jesus Christ openly declared that the Pharisees' traditions are null and void. He used plain logic to show their errors. How can foods defile a person when they do not go into his/her heart?
However, Jesus' explanation was not clear to the disciples. Peter called Jesus' plain teaching 'parable.' It shows how hard it is for men to break away from human traditions and believe God's simple truth! It is difficult for people to disengage themselves from religious traditions that have become so much a part of their lives! Holiness is a matter of what comes of the heart. It is necessary to constantly remind ourselves that true religion comes from the heart. Christ blamed the wickedness of the human heart. This is the reason why people must be born again and have new hearts.
Outward forms of human traditions bring bondage, whereas inward faith brings liberty. The letters of the law are trifling rules, whereas the spirit of law lays down basic principles. Man-made laws can only exalt men, whereas by God-breathed words, man is humbled. Human traditions produce religious piety, whereas God's truth results in true holiness.
All traditions are not necessarily bad, but they are wrong when they have more authority than the Word of God. Some of them facilitate the growth of the Church in worship and witness. Jesus was not opposed to all Jewish traditions. In fact, He kept some of them (Lk.4:16, Jn.10:22-23). But, He was opposed to the teaching of human traditions as binding on people, as if they are God's commandments. Hence, we should maintain traditions which are helpful and discard those which hinder. We must stick to the teachings passed down from Jesus through the apostles and recorded in the Bible. We should not borrow the traditional festivals of the communities around us, while sticking to our traditional hospitality to all. We should learn to exercise the traditional Christian love for building relationships in everything we do. Jude exhorts us to "contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints." We should be flexible only within the limits of Scripture.
Colossians 2:8 warns us against man-made traditions. The traditions must ever be tested against Scripture and can never possess an independent apostolic authority over or alongside of Scripture. Moreover, the Word of God is for universal application, and cannot be limited to a particular place or culture. Only when the church transcends culture, it can transform culture.
We should heed the traditions God has handed down to His people (1 Cor.11:2, 2 Thess. 2:15; 2 Tim.2:2). Jesus pointed out that the great danger was hypocrisy; we obey the traditions with words and deeds, but fail to serve God from the heart. "These people draw near with their mouths and honour Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandment of men" (Isa.29:13).
It is interesting to note the downward steps: first, we lay aside God's Word (v.8), then we reject the Word (v.9), and finally we rob the Word of its power in our lives (v.13). Then human traditions, not God's truth, control us. The human heart is "deceitful above all things and desperately wicked" (Jer.17:9). The 60+ items in the lists of sensual, religious and temperamental sins in the Bible (Mk. 7:21-22, Rom.1:29-32, Gal. 5:19-21, I Tim.1:9-10 and 2 Tim. 3:2-5) should convince any one of this truth. Only the blood of Jesus Christ can cleanse our hearts of sin and make us new creations.
The Word of God is the revelation of God's way of life for men. Its statutes, judgments and commandments deal with every phase of human life from cradle to coffin and beyond. They condition all its attitudes and activities-personal, social and religious-of food, raiment, health, dwelling places, sanitation and relationships. There is nothing that is not dealt with. Yet Paul declared that the whole Law is fulfilled in one word-love, both Godward and manward.
The great Church Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries distinguished traditions and Scripture clearly. The Scripture remained fundamental and the Church was alive with its witness. Some of them recognised that certain matters were not clearly, or even remotely, prescribed in Scripture and ascribed these separately as traditions; e.g., to pray facing the East, to baptise infants, to immerse three times, to fast on certain days, to pray for the dead, to pray to the dead (Isa. 8:19,20), and the like (1Tim.4:1-3). With time, more such practices have crept in unnoticed in the form of holiness into the Church. For example, rejection of ornaments, wearing only whites, prohibition of TV and non-use of medicines are recent additions to this long list. Some of them may be good for individual use, but are not to be imposed on every one; simply because they are not prescribed in God's Word for general consumption.
Quite often, we cling to some traditions, as if they are as binding as Scripture, even as our motto is Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). This causes severe problems in the churches-some even try to find scriptural basis for the traditions; moreover, they stick to set patterns and are unwilling to accommodate any other view; sometimes, tradition becomes an excuse for not obeying the Word of God. Such crises not only present an immediate challenge, but also provide opportunities to address long-term problems arising from established traditions and conventions.
A tradition needs to be maintained or modified under the rigorous authority of the Scripture. Interpretation of Scripture should be rigorously under the authority of the Scripture. Our experiences must also be interpreted by the Bible; not interpret the Bible by our experience. The authority of the interpreter is derived; only the authority of Christ through His Word is absolute.
How foolish can people be when they resist the clear teaching of God's Word? Test every high-sounding religious system by asking, "Does it give Christ the pre-eminent place?", "Does the Word of God clearly stipulate this?", "Am I governed by Christian love in what I am saying and doing?"