The word tradition can have two meanings, one secular and one religious. The secular understanding is that tradition is a long-established ritual, custom, or belief that is passed down from one generation to the next. For example, families have certain traditions in the way they celebrate holidays, birthdays, or vacations. Family traditions can be a healthy and positive way to maintain family cohesiveness. Social traditions can help create a sense of belonging within a community. A school may have a tradition that each year the incoming freshmen are escorted to the first football game by the seniors. Following those traditions builds unity and helps maintain social norms. In the religious arena, however, tradition can blur the line between God’s truth and man’s invention, thereby confusing many. Christians should view religious tradition with caution.
Religious tradition was in full force during Jesus’ earthly ministry. He often scolded the religious leaders, saying, “You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:13). The scribes and the Pharisees had added so many of their own ideas to God’s Law that the common people were confused and felt helpless to obey it all. In Mark 7:6–8, Jesus quoted from Isaiah to reprimand the religious leaders, saying, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” Notice that the “commandments of men” were being taught as if they were divinely inspired “doctrines.” And that was the problem.
One of the many traditions kept by the Pharisees of Jesus’ day involved a ritualistic hand-washing before meals. The observance of this tradition had nothing to do with cleanliness; the Pharisees’ concern was ceremonial purity. Once, when a Pharisee invited Jesus to eat with him, Jesus bypassed the tradition: “His host was amazed to see that he sat down to eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony required by Jewish custom” (Luke 11:38, NLT). Jesus had broken no law—nothing in the Mosaic commandments required such hand-washing—but the Pharisee expected conformity to the custom nonetheless. Jesus’ outright disregard of that manmade tradition sets up a clear distinction between what is binding (God’s commands) and what is not binding (human tradition).
Religious traditions that supersede or displace God’s law have been around since the earliest days. They are still in full force within every religion as well as most Christian denominations. The liturgical branches of Christianity have the most obvious traditions, but more relaxed worship venues can have them as well. Most of us have our favorite style of music, method of preaching, organizational structure, and serving routines that we accept without question. When faced with change, we might even feel a sense of moral outrage, as though changing the service format or adding a bass guitar were a direct violation of God’s commands. What we’re really doing, perhaps without even realizing it, is guarding our own pet traditions, just as the Pharisees did. We can even become offended at Jesus, as the Pharisees did, when He disrupts our traditional view of what we think Christianity should look like (see John 9:16).
Scripture has layers of meaning. The more we delve into God’s Word, the more we learn about God, and it often upsets our own ideas. Just when we think we have things figured out and we are certain that we are theologically, morally, and socially right about it all, we uncover another layer that shatters those confidences. When we cling to tradition—whether denominational, theological, or structural—as if it were God’s Word, we keep the door closed on God’s revelation of truth to us. He wants to keep surprising us with Who He is as we continue to pursue Him (Jeremiah 29:13). But religious tradition is often in the way. “That’s not how we’ve always done it,” is the battle cry of the traditionalists. Breaking tradition can be uncomfortable for many, just as it was for the Pharisees (Matthew 5:33–34; Luke 6:26–27). But when we can clearly see the dividing line between our own traditions and God’s truth, we stay humble and pliable as God continues to transform us into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29).