Teaching vs. Tradition
I think most of us are familiar with the idea that different congregations do things differently. For example, in our congregation at the Sunday morning service we usually serve communion to everyone in the auditorium about midway through the services. Our order of worship is the following:
At the Sunday evening service, however, we do things differently:
- Communion in the fellowship hall for those who were not in attendance in the morning.
The reason I'm highlighting this difference in the order of worship between Sunday morning and Sunday evening is because I want to talk about the difference between teaching and tradition.
Teaching and Tradition
In Acts 2:42 Luke says that the early disciples followed diligently the Apostles' teaching. Jesus summarized His teachings when He said,
"Teach them to observe all that I have commanded you"
- Matthew 28:18, 20
When Jesus spoke these words there were no church buildings or programs or television or expensive seminars. His teaching was simple to understand but so complicated for those trying to obey.
- Love your enemy.
- Love your brother.
- Preach the gospel to the lost.
- Be faithful to your spouse and be faithful to Christ until death.
His disciples formed congregations where they were taught by the Apostles and others in how to obey these things and grow in the ability to live the Christian life. Remember, the initial goal was to remain faithful to Jesus until He returned. In the first century most of the disciples thought that He would return within their lifetimes.
For this reason the structure of the church was fluid and mostly consisted of groups that met in homes and rented places. As it became apparent that Jesus was not necessarily coming sooner; that, in fact, He could return at any time, even in the distant future, churches began to become organized. Paul, the Apostle, provides more structured information about church organization and conduct in his epistles of I and II Timothy and Titus. Historically we see an effort to collect and preserve the writings of the Apostles in the second century. Christians start building and maintaining church buildings in the third century. Certain traditions concerning the hierarchy of the church and its practices begin to take on "doctrinal" status in the fourth century.
That there is structure and organization is a good thing, it's biblical.
I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth.
- I Timothy 3:14-15
What is not biblical is when we take our traditions or ways of doing things and elevate these religious "habits" or "customs" and make them equal to God's commands. This is what the Pharisees did and were condemned for (Mark 7:7).
Casting the First Stone
When Jesus faced the angry mob of men who wanted to stone a woman to death who was guilty of adultery, He said to them, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone", and no one dared to do it because they realized that they were all guilty of something! (John 8:7) We're guilty of this sometimes. We tell our Roman Catholic friends that there's nothing in the Bible about their now discarded rule that Catholics were not to meet on Friday; we said that this was simply Catholic tradition unfounded on any Bible teaching. Or we say to our Protestant friends: there is nothing in the New Testament that supports the use of instruments of music in worship, just your church's tradition. We need to be careful when we say these things (even if they may be true) because others can accuse us of the same type of thing. For example:
Sunday evening service
Most of our congregations have a Sunday evening service in addition to a morning service. This is a tradition, not a teaching of the Bible. We have a Wednesday evening service; a tradition, not a teaching of the Bible. Now there may be good reasons for these traditions and they serve a good purpose but they are traditions nevertheless.
We meet in a "church" building
We don't need a church building to be a church. Early Christians met wherever was available and convenient. Church buildings are convenient, but convenient traditions.
Sunday morning worship
Early Christians (especially Gentile slaves) met on Sunday evenings because they had to work seven days a week and could only meet when their workday was over. The teaching is to meet on the Lord's Day (Acts 20:7) but the time is a tradition.
- That we sit in rows facing the front.
- That we use songbooks.
- That song leaders, prayer leaders stand in front.
- That we have a table with the bread and wine in special containers.
- That we sing a song before and after communion and have men distributing trays.
- That we make a collection after we take the bread and wine.
- That the sermons last thirty minutes, after communion, and there is an invitation song after.
- That the worship lasts one hour.
All of these things are traditions that we've invented or copied and imposed on ourselves, and perpetuate each week. And I've not named them all, just the most obvious ones.
Why Traditions are Good
I'm not saying that traditions are bad in themselves. Traditions can be good if they are ways that we organize and perform spiritual activities based on Bible teaching. They help us do things in a decent and orderly way, which Paul the Apostle says we must do in the church (I Corinthians 14:39). They also help us identify our spiritual tasks and enable us to train others in the activity of worship and church activity. So long as tradition is squarely based on biblical teaching, it has value.
When Good Tradition Goes Bad
Tradition runs into problems in three ways:
1. When we create a religious tradition without biblical basis.
For example, no meat on Friday or priests can't marry. There is no command, no example, and no logical conclusion that suggests that this teaching is from the New Testament. It is a "religious invention" by human beings and usually leads to trouble and confusion.
2. When we elevate our traditions to the level of biblical teaching.
In other words, when our traditions begin having the same authority as the Bible teaching that they're based on. This leads to legalism and dogmatism, and then leads to arguments and division. Imagine, Christians breaking fellowship over the use of cups for communion!
3. When we fight over competing tradition.
Liberal versus conservative. Mainline versus progressive. When there's competition, Satan is at work (James 4:1-3).
How to Avoid the Extremes
We need to organize ourselves and have an orderly way to worship and serve God; this will invariably lead us to creating traditions and religious habits. How can we make sure that we remain the masters of our traditions and not be slaves?
1. Know the teachings of Christ
Paul said to Timothy,
Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the Word of Truth
- II Timothy 2:15
If we know exactly what the Word teaches, we will not let anyone impose anything on us and will not make this mistake among ourselves.
2. Know the difference between teaching and tradition
We need to understand that the teaching is that we meet together on the Lord's day to share the Lord's supper and to surround this with praise, prayer, teaching, fellowship, encouragement, and support. This is the teaching (I Corinthians 11-14, Acts 2:42-47). Where we do this, when we do it, the order we do it in, how much praise compared to prayer or teaching - all of this is tradition. When we make the building a sacred place and the order we do things into a sacred order, then we become slaves to our traditions and as a consequence our WORSHIP (the main thing) becomes dry, boring, and ineffective both in heaven and on earth.
3. Obey the main teaching
The main teaching in Christianity is to love our brother.
But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart...
- I Timothy 1:5
In the church there is always a lot of wrestling over how to do things. How to set the tradition. Why not to change the tradition. This is the basis of much of the eventual division in the church and the hurt feelings that result. If we remember that maintaining my loving relationship with my brother and sister is more important in God's eyes than any of our traditions, it will help us to be patient with each other when differences come. Jesus didn't come to die for the traditions of the church, He came for the people in the church. Let's not forget that in our zeal to protect tradition.
With this in mind, let's remember that what makes our "traditions" acceptable is if they are based on the "teachings" to begin with, and if they enable us to carry out those teachings in an orderly way while maintaining the Spirit's purpose with the teachings. For example, we do things differently on Sunday evenings for the communion, however, the way we do it is orderly, respectful, and maintains the spirit of Jesus' teaching to remember Him by sharing these emblems. The tradition changes from Sunday morning to Sunday evening but the obedience to the teaching does not.
So let's keep this in mind when we see various traditions being changed or new ones being added. Ask yourselves, what teaching is the tradition based on, and is it accurately helping us to respond to or carry out that teaching? Surely we need to speak out if not. Unfortunately many times division occurs when brethren take exception to traditions that they are not used to, even if they are in perfect harmony with Bible teaching.
Well, there is one tradition that is evident at every service and based on the clear teaching of Scripture: that is the invitation. Jesus invited all who had ears (understanding) to come to Him for He would give them rest (Matthew 11:28). Peter exhorted the crowd more than once to respond to his message.
And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation'.
- Acts 2:40
Ananias encouraged Saul to obey the gospel once he had preached it to him.
Now, why do you delay? Get up and be baptized and wash away your sins; calling on His name.
- Acts 22:16
In each instance the people, location, and circumstances were different but what remained the same was the fact that God required an answer concerning certain matters, especially when the teaching involved salvation. Our tradition is to ask, encourage, and exhort the congregation to respond to God in faith, repentance, and obedience every time we teach His Word. We've chosen to use different words each time. We've decided to do it at the end of preaching at each service, but not in the classroom. We ask those who respond to come down front to speak to an elder, perhaps fill out a card. This is the tradition we've built upon the teaching we have in the Bible. I've seen it done differently in other places. For example, in some churches folks meet with the elders privately after services or only fill out a card, or as in Haiti, the deacons call on you personally to repent after the sermon.
What is biblical is that we need to encourage people to respond to God's Word with faith and obedience, what is tradition is how we organize ourselves to do so. When brethren learn the difference between teaching and tradition there is more harmony and less division in the church.
And so, according to our tradition based on God's Word, I invite those who have not obeyed the gospel in repentance and baptism to do so today rather than tomorrow. I also encourage those who may be guilty of judging others because they did not recognize the difference between teaching and tradition to repent and become more gracious in spirit.