For some reading this, “tradition” might be a four-letter-word. Even thinking about the word makes your skin crawl, just like the terms “doctrine,” “systematic theology,” or “plan of salvation.” And in some sense, your distaste is warranted.
For others, the word “tradition” gives you the same reaction as a big plate of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and macaroni and cheese. It’s a source of comfort. It gives you ties to a beloved past. And in some sense, your comfort is also warranted.
Jesus has some interesting things to say about traditions of men, especially when it comes to the church.
There are some who think that traditions were made to be broken. Traditions are stifling, restrictive, boring, and out of touch. They want to move forward in a direction that seems best to them, leaving the past (and the missteps of prior church-going generations) far behind. They want to take Christianity and their faith into the 21st Century and beyond.
But there are those for whom tradition has been an anchor for their faith through some harsh seas. If it weren’t for those traditions and “doing the same old same old,” their faith may have been swept out from under them. When all around them life was chaos, tradition brought order and peace. And now to say that we should just do away with all these things and stir the pot…it’s essentially saying that those truths they held onto for so many years are just an illusion, a lie. They experience God in the way they know how, and to say that it is wrong would be detrimental.
So who is right?
The answer seems to be…Yes.
Tradition: The Good
Traditions are set in place for a reason. Even those who want to break away from what they consider to be outdated traditions will for themselves create NEW traditions – which will eventually become outdated and discarded.
But those lasting traditions – those events and rituals you can count on week after week, year after year – those actually give a sense of continuation from one generation to another. They preserve family history. They promote identity and community. They are the grounding wire in an electrically charged world.
For the Jews, traditions were not everything, but they played a HUGE part in preserving Israel as a nation throughout the times of exile and oppression. In fact, some of the “traditions or the elders” (Mark 7:3) were instated by the Pharisees to bring people closer to God. For instance, the first dispute in Mark 7 is over ceremonial hand washing. In the Jewish Law the only persons commanded to wash were the priests. The priests were expected to keep their bodies, eating utensils, bowls, cups, and food pure. The Pharisees expanded this command to apply to all of Israel. In doing so they were reminding the population that they were indeed a kingdom of priests and that the average Joseph can approach God during the course of an ordinary day.
Traditions can be good and healthy. There is no teaching explicitly against traditions. Were it not for the traditions and the rituals set in place by the Pharisees, the Jewish religion may have all but vanished well before Jesus came onto the scene.
Tradition: The Bad
Traditions can have a dark side to them. If we let them, our traditions can begin to divide people into groups – who’s in and who’s out. WE follow these traditions that we believe are right. THEY follow other traditions were are directly contradicting what we know. Tightly held traditions can begin to build walls instead of bridges because other people do things differently.
You may begin to hear, “This is how we’ve always done it;” “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it;” or even “It’s always worked in the past.” When traditions begin to block people out instead of inviting people in, they can begin to surpass Scripture itself in importance.
When this begins to happen, Jesus gets very angry. We see some of his harshest words yet in Mark’s gospel on this very issue.
He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’
Traditions, which are intended and implemented to keep us grounded and united, can easily become sources of bitterness and divisiveness if not kept in check. And this is a most unfortunate reality in the church.
Back in Mark 2, Jesus tells a short parable about wine. He says that you can’t put new wine in old wineskins, otherwise the skins would burst and all the wine would be ruined. Instead, you should put new wine into new wineskins.
Christianity has taken many forms throughout the centuries and throughout the world. A worship service in the US looks vastly different from a service in Africa or India or China. I don’t think it’s too far of a stretch to say that in the parable, all wine comes from Jesus who Himself is the True Vine (John 15:1). New wine, old wine, it’s still wine! And wine (from what I hear) only gets better with age if stored properly.
Forms and traditions come and go, but the wine stays the same if it is indeed wine from the True Vine. Sometimes it just needs a new wineskin.