When Tradition Trumps Truth

“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.

Never Confused

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.

  • dead reckoning

    What happens when tradition protects truth?

    “The New American Standard Version reflects the emphasis of most translations when it renders the passage this way:

    “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is not further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.”

    “From this translation, it may be inferred that the fetus is not considered human life since the loss of the fetus by miscarriage is punished only by a fine while lex talionis, (a life for life, an eye for eye) would be expected penalty in the death of a human person. This interpretation has the support of many respected evangelical scholars [including] Bruce Waltke of Dallas Seminary.”

    -Dr. Bruce Waltke, OT Scholar and NASB and NIV translation committee member.

    The definition of personhood depends on how your scholars translate and interpret the text.

    Thankfully, Dr. Waltke has since repudiated this position.

    However, this is a passage from the earliest NT commentary:

    “1:1 There are two ways, one of life and one of death! and there is a great difference between the two ways.

    “1:2 The way of life is this: First, you shall love God who made you. And second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you.”

    If Dr. Waltke and the SBC had considered this early traditional interpretation of Scripture, they wouldn’t have advocated for abortion in the 1970s and 80s. Tradition matters. And in this case, tradition would have even protected life.

  • Jonathan

    Great article. Write another one about how Tradition shouldn’t trump reason and logic!

  • Daniel Broaddus

    I don’t think American Christianity takes seriously what tradition actually is. Tradition should not be held above or below Scripture in some kind of systematic theology. It’s used with Scripture as any other gift from God (your reason, logic, teachers, etc…). No amount of argument can do away with the fact that it was through the guidance of the apostolic traditions that the Scriptures were canonized. Also, now that we do have a canonized Scripture, we still need the help of tradition (and the Holy Spirit) to shape our understanding of what Scripture is telling us.

    It’s absurd when someone says that everything has to be compared back to Scripture before we can determine if it’s true. Why is that absurd? Because it’s what everyone else is doing. Everyone uses a tradition of some sort, they have to. I’m sorry, individualism is a modern concept. The early church didn’t support individual interpretations of Scripture, and the same applies to the medieval church and churches of the early Reformation.

    A tradition is a conduit for truth. If you have people saying they value the tradition, but aren’t receiving the truth, then they aren’t truly valuing the tradition or they are rebelling against it. A lot of the problems that people have with tradition can be solved through education. When hubris and ignorance prevail people forget why they have their traditions and eventually they become hostile towards it and the truth.

    • Daniel Broaddus

      *Sorry, used with in the sense it is used with the other tools given by God to interpret Scripture*

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      Your statement about scripture is false. Scripture was given to us by the Lord Jesus, who affirmed all of the Old Testament (but not the apocrypha) and appointed the Apostles to write the New. The church only recognized the canon; it did not create it. To say the church (or tradition) is responsible for the Bible is like saying Columbus is responsible for America.

      Your opening reasoning about tradition is also false. When scripture and tradition conflict (as they often do), one must decide which to follow. If one follows tradition, then one has supplanted the Word of God and has made an idol out of tradition.

      The Bereans were “more noble” because they subjected even the Apostle’s teaching to scripture. The Apostle Paul tells the Galatians that even if he or an angel were to preach another gospel other than they one they heard (which we now have in scripture), let he or the angel be anathema. It is not absurd to say that we should subject every teaching and tradition to the Word of God. It is what the Word of God tells us to do.

      • Daniel Broaddus

        John Carpenter,

        Do you believe that Presbyterians subject their understanding of teaching and tradition to the Word of God? Do you believe Lutherans do? Do you believe that the Baptists do? Do you believe the Assemblies of God do? How about Sovereign Grace? How about the Salvation Army? My point is: if you think that simply asserting “we subject our teaching regarding the Holy Eucharist to Scripture” validates your position on the matter displays a high level of ignorance, arrogance, or a deadly combination of the two. You do understand there are great divisions over Holy Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, Confession and Absolution, Law and Gospel, etc… in Protestantism, right? They all claim the authority of Scripture, though, so how do you discern which one is correct?

    • http://www.lambblood.com Rick Owen

      I believe it is helpful and important to distinguish between authoritative apostolic traditions (2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6) and man-made traditions which stand in conflict with or supplant God’s word (Mark 7:8).

      However, not all man-made traditions are bad just because they are technically ‘unbiblical’ (not found in or commanded by Scripture). For example, by Jesus’ time, the Passover meal included elements not originally dictated by God to Moses, such as the procession of four cups throughout the dinner. In fact, drinking wine (or anything else) was never mentioned in the original instructions about Passover. Drinking ‘something’ was apparently a given and wine happened to be a common, daily drink. Jesus does not balk at this. Presumably, the expanded first-century tradition was in keeping with the original intent of the Passover meal. Instead of objecting to this, Jesus makes use of it as He creates a new tradition for His followers (the Lord’s Supper) and its accompanying commandment: “Do this unto My remembrance.”

      More reflections here on church traditions. This article highlights “Four Tragic Shifts in the Visible Church” which introduced detrimental perspectives and traditions that still influence many churches today: http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/4tragic.htm

  • Nick

    @ Neo — apparently you know not history, nor have you read any real defenses of the covenantal baptist position. Your post is long on verbiage and short on Scripture. I could equally assert — “Man, those Baptists, their position is biblically indefensible and they don’t even realize they are following the traditions of radical anabaptists who were heretics.” Your argument doesn’t hold water because it isn’t an argument; it’s just a bunch of cliche assertions strung together.

  • mel

    This is really weird because I was pretty sure the article was about not dividing over unessentials like which music to sing, ancient hymns or Hillsong newbies, organ or bands, passing the plate or having a box in the foyer, pews or theater seats, KJV or NIV. Or maybe even just the order everything gets done. I didn’t know it was an opportunity to trash other people over what they believe the gospel to say. I thought it was an opportunity to examine ourselves.

    I was personally convicted over how annoyed I can get if they change the speed of a particular song so that we have to sing it in a way that I’m not accustomed. I get annoyed at a lot of silly little things. I’m so glad that we have a Savior that could live among us annoying people perfectly to the point of dying for us.

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      An excellent, gospel-centered thought from you! Thanks.

  • http://trainingleadersinternational.org Ethan Larson

    Great article David, thank you. It seems to me that #1 is often the hardest: Recognizing.

    Ironically, the woman who scolded you was able to discern a difference that many cannot, or will not; the disparity and perhaps contradiction between their personal church tradition/culture over against the claims and imperatives of Christ seen in scripture.

    For most who grew up in the church, tradition and true Christianity are often equivalent. Sometimes by ignorance, sometimes by obstinance.

    Before the willingness to analyze ones own tradition and act, must come the actual awareness and acknowledgment that there is a difference.

    Tradition is identity. Questioning tradition, and attempting to discern and divide Christianity from culture/tradition threatens on multiple levels, and provokes complex resistance. That first crack in the monolith can sometimes be the hardest to make.

    On the range or possible traditionalist push-back, your “scolder” seems a rather simple variety (she perhaps even came “pre-cracked”). Tradition rarely self-identifies so easily and clearly!

  • Tim Aynes

    Good thoughts, Dave. Helpful points to reflect on. Thanks for the contribution.

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  • http://www.lambblood.com Rick Owen

    Great article — thanks! Church traditions are useful as long as they support and serve, rather than skew or supplant, the true spiritual nature and diverse, edifying ministries of Christ’s church. We need to look to our Savior as our Guide, as we see Him building His Ekklesia and modeling His methods in the NT by His Spirit and apostles.

    This brief blog-post applies this idea to one longstanding tradition and perspective which has made American Christianity lopsided and weak: http://frankviola.org/2011/01/22/guest-article-the-new-testament-is-plural-not-singular/

  • http://www.lambblood.com Rick Owen

    Closely related to the preceding article by Jon Zens is this one by Steve Atkerson: “Worship at All Times, But Meet Primarily to Edify” – http://www.ntrf.org/articles/article_detail.php?PRKey=4

  • http://www.lambblood.com Rick Owen

    As a follow up to the two preceding links I shared, this blog post, “One Man Pastors, Just Say NO!,” bears down more pointedly on an unbiblical tradition: http://newreformationreview.org/pastors.htm

    Good leadership is not ‘lectureship’ in the church — or anywhere else, for that matter, including business, the home, and the community. Church leaders mentor (disciple) others to become involved and participate as mature and responsible members in serving the body of Christ and bearing witness to the world. As Gregg Harris has said, “Elders are to be overseers not ‘over-doers.'”

    • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

      Just so everyone knows, Mr. Owen functionally rejects the authority of scripture (e.g. in his twisting of 1 Corinthians 9, his rejection of the NT church membership, the Biblical role of leaders, etc.) He replaces that with his traditions which essentially turn the church into a dinner-club. He commonly comes to blogs like this hawking his articles and with the cult-like assumption that he, though without a theological education, has discovered something new which everyone else is missing. Trying to engage him is impossible as he is a self-appointed expert who is sure that he has the truth. Note here, as typical for him: three posts, mostly irrelevant to the original article, each with a link trying to proselytize, looking for every crack to get his idiosyncratic thoughts in but never interested in learning.

      • http://www.lambblood.com Rick Owen

        John Carpenter,

        Your criticisms are inaccurate and don’t appear to reflect the NT’s command to speak only what is good for edification, much less to practice sacrificial and forbearing love toward Christ’s brethren. The view of Scripture articulated by our website is evangelical and Reformed. We identify with and recommend the Gospel Coalition and dozens of other similarly-sound ministries and blogs to people who visit our site.

        My view of membership in the body of Christ and leadership in the local church actually aspires to a high biblical standard. The following article explains. Readers can discern and decide if they believe this is a biblical perspective. http://www.bible-researcher.com/knaub.html

        • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

          As I’ve said before, I think it is poor stewardship of time and energy to try to engage you. I don’t think you’re open to reason or scripture. My comments are good for edification in that they show innocent people who maybe taken in by you to be careful. I’ve seen you be repeatedly confronted with clear, unambiguous scripture which you reject, and in the same way that the feminists and homosexuals do, who also claim to have an orthodox theology of scripture.

          Again, I note that although you didn’t bother to take the time to get yourself theologically trained and learn exegesis, theology and church history, that you are continually proselytizing for your idiosyncratic views.

          • http://www.lambblood.com Rick Owen

            John Carpenter,

            You’re showing yourself to be a poor sport to say the least. The only person I’ve been engaged by on this blog, in a disagreeable way, is you and only regarding a couple of topics from what I can remember (salaried pastors and mandatory church-membership covenants). The views I shared about those things have been held by other believers throughout church history. I didn’t invent them.

            According to Paul, if one does not practice love, his gifts, talents, knowledge, formal education and credentials are worthless. If you thought my original posts on this thread related to church traditions were irrelevant, then how far afield have yours wandered?

            My posts were not intended to draw attention to myself but to challenge fellow believers to search and obey the Scriptures. I hope you will cease from focusing on me in such an uncharitable way and pursue the “more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31) of which Paul wrote (1 Cor. 13).

            • http://www.covenantcaswell.org John Carpenter

              It’s not uncharitable to notify others that while you say you believe in scripture (as do supposedly evangelical “feminists” and homosexuals), when a scripture clearly is contrary to your tradition, you ignore the scripture.

              Again, it’s a waste of time to try to reason with you. And I’m sure you’re even more compulsive than I am about having to have the last word and very prolific in offering it. My purpose is for others here who may get taken in by you. For them, the loving thing to do is expose you. For you, it’s not unloving to challenge you, and I note that you seem to define “love” as what makes you look and feel good.


  • Bruce Morgan

    I read with interest the article “When tradition trumps truth”.
    We do indeed love and cling to our traditions.
    When faced with a tradition that conflicts with the Word of God, do we follow the word of God or continue with our traditions?
    The practice of observing the first day of the week as the Christian sabbath has no basis in God’s word.
    It is said that the apostles kept the first day in the early years of the church, however, Paul who was the apostle to the gentiles never did this himself, nor did he teach this.
    When Paul stood before Felix, he said in Acts 24:14 that he believed ALL things written in the law and prophets.
    Had he been observing the first day of the week, he could not have said that.
    When Paul arrived in Rome and spoke to the leaders of the Jews in Acts 28:17 he sated that he had done nothing against the customs of their fathers.
    Teaching and observing the first day of the week would absolutely violate their beliefs.
    In Revelation 1:10 the first day of the week is never mentioned, it is assumed that this is referring to the first day, however in Isaiah 58:13 God calls the seventh day His Holy day.
    Therefore doesn’t Revelation 1:10 refer to the seventh day and not the first?
    Is the observance of the first day of the week simply a tradition that violates God’s Word?

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