We like traditions. They remind us of the past and give us a sense of having a distinctive place in history. We become custodians of the cultural treasures passed down from previous generations, making us a vital link between the past and future. Traditions give us a shared identity and a sense of value. Maintaining them becomes an important task, and we sometimes pride ourselves on how carefully we preserve and promote them.
This is often the case for family traditions, but it can be true for religious ones also. Historically, human beings have valued the wisdom of our forebears. This takes on special significance when it involves religion. Believers perceive religious traditions as something more than personal preferences; over time, they begin to assume it carries the force of divine authority and approval. It should come as no surprise that Jesus spent considerable time during his ministry battling those who had done this very thing in elevating traditions of men to the same status as the Word of God.
Religious Traditions in the Time of Jesus
In Matthew 15, a group of Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem ask Jesus why his disciples did not wash their hands before meals as required by sacred custom. His opponents use the phrase “tradition of the elders” (v. 2), which became a kind of technical expression referring to the interpretations of Scripture made by respected rabbis of the past that had been transmitted orally. These rules seem to have appeared shortly after the Babylonian captivity, but many believed Moses himself had received the oral law at Sinai and passed it down to Joshua, the biblical prophets, and then to Ezra ad his contemporaries (m. ’Abot 1.1).
Some of these traditions appear to have developed from biblical commands that evolved into something else. The example of washing before meals in Matthew 15 seems to have been inspired by regulations concerning ceremonial cleanness for priests (Ex. 30:18-21). Although intended specifically for an ordained priesthood, the Pharisees had turned the practice of washing into a common ritual display of piety. They took a biblical requirement, developed it into something more than what God had given, and weaponized it against those who did not hold to the same standards.
Some of the Pharisees’ practices involved outright defiance of explicit biblical commands. In Mark 7, Jesus tells members of the religious elite that they have rejected God’s commandments to keep their traditions (Mk. 7:6-9). He cites the example of corban, a custom by which the Pharisees could dedicate their possessions to the temple treasury. By making this formal vow, they could exempt themselves from financial obligations to aging or needy parents. This circumvention of responsibility violated the Mosaic command to honor one’s parents (Ex. 20:12; cf. Eph. 6:2). They no doubt believed they had discovered a clever loophole. Jesus quickly disabused them of that notion.
Tradition vs. Truth
In his exchanges with the religious leaders of his day, Jesus teaches that manmade traditions and God’s commandments are mutually exclusive (Matt. 15:1-9; Mk. 7:9). His conversations reveal that the elites had pitted tradition against God’s commandments. We see this in the practices of the Pharisees, which went beyond God’s revealed will.
As with traditions that had arisen before the time of Jesus, we can see other examples appearing throughout church history, such as baptism and an ecclesiastical hierarchy. The New Testament teaches that baptism is an act of faith in which a believing adult is immersed for the forgiveness of sins. The understanding of the practice became more pliable as centuries passed, admitting other methods and allowing children to be baptized. The same may be said for the development of bishops, which began in the second century and developed into the organizational structure we see in the Roman Catholic Church today.
Careful readers will note that the apostle Paul occasionally uses the term “tradition” positively (1 Cor. 11:1-2; 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6). However, we must understand that this reference is not to human traditions but apostolic teaching. Although the term is used in the gospels to refer to customs created by human beings (cf. Gal. 1:14; Col. 2:8), Paul more often uses it in the sense of “handing over” teachings that he had received, such as the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor. 15:3-4) and what Jesus said during the Last Supper (1 Cor. 11:23-24). In this usage, Paul was merely transmitting the truth, not creating new content.
Religious Traditions Today
The Bible is clear that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). This is not the fanciful postmodern notion that individual “truths” are real and that wildly disparate viewpoints can all be true at the same time despite making mutually exclusive claims. “You have your truth, I have my truth” may be the mantra for people living in the 21st century, but it is logically incoherent. The idea that God’s truth can co-exist with manmade traditions is likewise absurd.
Traditions can appear virtually anywhere. A common feature is that they evolve into something that becomes a test of fellowship, as with the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Examples might include the insistence that a congregation only use one cup for the Lord’s Supper (based on a peculiar interpretation of Matthew 26:27), forbidding eating on the church grounds, or proscribing Sunday school classes because we read nothing about them in the New Testament. All of these create restrictions that go beyond biblical teaching.
If the Bible is God’s truth, then believers must dedicate themselves to following it as the only guide for Christian faith and practice. By definition, to go beyond the clear teachings of Scripture is to engage in speculation. We would do well to remember the words of Jesus when he says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14). Christians are not called to be independent content creators or rogue theologians but faithful practitioners of God’s Word.
Dewayne is a minister at the New York Ave. Church of Christ in Arlington, TX.