Tradition and Tradition

     The scribes and Pharisees of the first century believed mightily in adhering to what they called “the tradition of the elders” (Matthew 15:2). Jesus rebuked them because of their hypocrisy which they utilized to contradict God’s will: “Thus you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition” (Matthew 15:6). The Lord continued His rebuke with a quotation from Isaiah 29:13: “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain do they worship Me teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:8-9).

     These passages help us to understand that we must not elevate our own will and judgment to the level of the revealed will of God. The world of denominational or historical Christianity has done this as is evidenced by the fact that much of what is called Christianity today is far removed from the pattern revealed in the Biblical text. In this sense the idea of “tradition” in religious practice is negative and contrary to the Lord’s will.

     As we read Paul, however, we see that there is another way to look at this word. He used the word we translate “tradition” in the negative sense of the traditions of men (as in Colossians 2:8) but he also used the same word in a positive encouragement to faithfulness (2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:6). The word itself means “a handing down” or a “passing onward.” We shall see that the context determines whether tradition is a bad or a good thing.

     Consider 2 Thessalonians 2:15: “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” Note also 2 Thessalonians 3:6: “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.” These are clear examples of the use of the word “tradition” as a good and positive thing. In the first instance Paul told the church to “hold” the traditions and in the second instance the matter of rejecting tradition was grounds for withdrawal.

     What then is the difference? In each instance the word is the same, having reference to a set of teachings handed down from one person or group of persons to another. A careful examination of the passages makes it clear that the difference is the source of the tradition. So the essential question is “where did the tradition come from?”

     When we look back at the Lord’s interaction with the scribes and Pharisees it is easy to see that the traditions these men practiced were not from God but from their own invention. It is generally good to wash one’s hands before eating bread. To bind the practice of handwashing as a ritual in one’s religion, however, is wrong. It does not originate with God. As Jesus pointed out, these fellows followed the traditions that suited them in the moment. Indeed, they used their traditions to avoid taking care of their parents by saying they had given the necessary funds as a pledge to God. Their traditionalism was contrary to the will of God because their traditions were of their own creation.

     On the other hand, in 2 Thessalonians we see that Paul had the positive use of the word “tradition” in mind. In the context of the passage quoted above we find these phrases: “belief in the truth,” “He called you by our gospel,” and “establish you in every good word and work.” When Paul told the people in Thessalonica to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” he was encouraging them to learn and practice traditions that flowed forth from the Word of God. These traditions were most assuredly not the traditions of men. These traditions were passed down from God through the Holy Spirit to Paul and thus to the people of that church. By extension, these good traditions also come down to us today (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

     Tradition, like one’s heritage, can be an everyday blessing. But only if our tradition is rooted and grounded in the Word of God.