Surprise! God actually wants Christians to follow traditions. Here’s the biblical proof:
Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you (1 Cor. 11:2, emphasis added)
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us (2 Th. 2:15, emphasis added).
Best not to argue with the apostle Paul. He expected his converts to stand firm in the traditions he taught them. So…are you a “Christian traditionalist”?
When people think of Christian traditions, they often think of religious rituals and liturgies that have been practiced for hundreds of years within historic Christian denominations. Those traditions could fill an encyclopedia. But those are not the traditions Paul was referring to when he wrote to the Corinthians and Thessalonians, because none of those traditions had been hatched yet. Those “old traditions” aren’t old enough.
The truth is, if you can’t trace your “Christian” traditions back to Paul (or Jesus, Peter, James, John or Jude), your traditions aren’t old enough either. You may think you are a Christian traditionalist, but actually you are really just a faddist who is following the latest fads—even though your fads may happen to be hundreds of years old.
This being so, some churches that offer “traditional” and “contemporary” Sunday services would be more accurate if they actually switched the names of their two gatherings. Or perhaps they should rename the traditional service to “Fad Followers,” and their contemporary service to “Truer Traditionalists.” The reason is because many “contemporary” church services bear more resemblance to truly traditional services—biblically traditional that is—than do modern “traditional” services.
Some “Christian” traditions date back 1,900 years, but that is still not old enough. I have friends who are devoted students of the “apostolic fathers”—ancient church leaders whose writings post-date those of the apostles by just a generation or two. Some (not all) of those friends subscribe to the theory that all of the apostolic fathers were 100% faithful to the tradition of the apostles. Therefore, if those apostolic fathers mention in their writings some teaching or tradition that can’t be found in the New Testament epistles, it must reveal what the apostles allegedly taught them. To those friends, the Bible is not the “all-sufficient rule of faith and practice.” Rather, one allegedly can’t rightly interpret the New Testament apart from the apostolic fathers.
Although I think that reading the apostolic fathers can be a valuable exercise—and one that can help open the eyes of those blinded to biblical truth by human theological tradition—I don’t buy into the idea that the New Testament cannot be rightly understood apart from the writings of the apostolic fathers.
First, because the apostolic fathers were fallible humans. Like all other humans, they had the capacity to drift from truth.
Second, because anyone who reads the apostolic fathers will notice that some of what they wrote contradicts the writings of the apostles, thus making them early, but partial, faddists.
And third, it is clear that even before the apostolic age was ending, not every church was holding firmly to apostolic traditions, which is why Paul’s letters, for example, contain so many corrections, and why John transmitted Jesus’ rebukes to seven churches in Asia.
All of this is to say, even if your traditions can be dated to A.D. 100, they still aren’t old enough. The only legitimate Christian traditions are those that are 100% biblical. Every other “Christian” tradition is just peer pressure from dead people.
The “No Free Lunch” Tradition
One biblical tradition is the tradition to not be burden on others:
Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example, because we did not act in an undisciplined manner among you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with labor and hardship we kept working night and day so that we would not be a burden to any of you; not because we do not have the right to this, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you, so that you would follow our example. For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread (2 Th. 3:6-12, emphasis added).
Being a burden on others, or expecting them to give me something for nothing, is a violation of the Golden Rule and the commandment to love my neighbor as myself. Those are two very basic, biblical traditions.
And this lends itself to my main point—that true Christian traditionalists focus on biblical traditions, and they focus primarily on the major traditions, like (1) loving God, (2) loving people, and (3) making disciples. Any time we focus primarily on minor things—whether they be minor commandments or unbiblical (man-made) traditions—we reveal that something needs to be adjusted in our heads or hearts.
You may be surprised by my mention of “minor commandments,” thinking that grading God’s commandments is heretical. It isn’t my idea, however. I got it from Jesus:
One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40, emphasis added).
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others (Matt. 23:23, emphasis added).
All of God’s commandments are important, but some are more important than others. God gave 613 commandments to the people of Israel, but ten of them He highlighted, inscribing them in stone with His own finger (Ex. 32:18). There was a reason for that.
Show me a Christian who is focused primarily on minor commandments, and I will show you a Christian who may well be transgressing God’s greater commandments, often manifested by his disdain for other Christians who aren’t quite as holy. (And the same is true—but even worse—regarding Christians who focus primarily on man-made traditions, whether those traditions be 20, 200, or 2,000 years old.)
I suppose that there are potentially hundreds of examples that I could use from contemporary Christian groups to illustrate an unbalanced emphasis on minor commandments or man-made traditions. But let me risk angering a few readers by mentioning just one example. And, tragically, the anger my example will elicit from some readers will serve as proof of my point!
I’m sure you are aware of the emphasis that some Christian groups place on head coverings for their women. They have some scriptural backing of course, namely Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. No one can argue that female head coverings are an apostolic, biblical tradition. (I quoted 1 Cor. 11:2, focusing on the word tradition, in this teaching’s introduction.) Christians have been arguing, however, about the specifics of that tradition ever since the days of the Apostles.
Some claim, based on 1 Cor. 11:15, that a woman’s long hair is a sufficient, biblical covering. (And for that reason, some very conservative groups don’t allow their women to ever have their hair cut.)
Others claim, based on 1 Cor. 11:5, 13, that female head coverings are only required when women pray or prophesy.
And then, within groups that require female head coverings (either full- or part-time), there is much diversity regarding acceptable styles, from tiny skull caps to elaborate bonnets, none of which resemble anything that Corinthian Christian women wore. Head covering style requirements obviously cross over into the realm of man-made tradition. Among the numerous Amish sects, for example, there are scores of style variations for head coverings that outside observers might never notice, but that every Amish woman knows are so important that any slight, unrepentant deviation will result in excommunication.
In spite of what the New Testament teaches, however, my wife will never wear a head covering, and I will never want her to wear a head covering, at least as long as we live in a Western culture. And the reason for our conviction is because of other apostolic, biblical traditions that are far greater, and are referenced many more times in the New Testament, than are head coverings. They are the commandments to (1) love our neighbors as ourselves and to (2) make disciples of all nations.
In regard to the combination of those two commandments, if my neighbor, whom I am commanded to love, is not born again, the greatest act of love I can show him is to attempt to lead him to Christ, also commanded by Jesus. Thus, I would certainly not want to do anything to erect a wall that might prevent him from coming to Christ. In Western culture, female head coverings would do just that. Christian groups that focus on female head coverings have a difficult time persuading even their own children to follow in their footsteps, much less persuade any “outsiders” to join them. They’ve erected a barrier to the gospel, which is one reason such groups attract so few, if any, converts.
One does not need a PhD to grasp this, but rather, just common sense. Any unbelievers who are exposed to the gospel by a Christian wearing a head covering (or a man whose wife always wears a head covering) intuitively know that, if they accept their message, they will be expected to conform to the practice. So they close the door of their minds and hearts to a message that offers them eternal life. How tragic!
The Biblical Support
Is what I’m advocating biblical? Indeed it is, and one supporting biblical reference is found in the same epistle in which Paul wrote about female head coverings:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some. I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it (1 Cor. 9:19-23).
Among Jews, Paul kept the Mosaic Law, lest he erect a barrier that would prevent Jews from believing the gospel. Among Gentiles, Paul did not keep those parts of the Law of Moses that were not included in the law of Christ, lest he erect a barrier that would prevent Gentiles from believing the gospel. That is what love for neighbor dictates.
If my wife and I lived in a Muslim culture, for example, where all the women wore head coverings in public, and we hoped to win Muslims to the Lord, my wife would wear a head covering in public. But living in a culture where the large majority of women don’t wear head coverings (and the few who do are often Muslim), my wife will not be wearing a head covering, lest we hinder the gospel.
Of course, some will undoubtedly accuse me of “compromise” and “caving in to culture.” But I’m willing to stand before Jesus on this issue. Loving my neighbor as myself includes becoming “all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). And I’ll bet there will be folks in hell (as well as heaven) who wore or promoted the wearing of head coverings.
Surely someone will write to challenge my logic with the question, “If you wanted to share the gospel on a nudist beach, would you do it naked in order to “become all things to all men’?”
There is, of course, a vast difference between being naked in public and not wearing a head covering. The former is immoral while the latter is not. And I think it is safe to assume that nudists would more likely receive the gospel from a Christian without a head covering than a Christian with a head covering since all nudists do wear clothing at times, but none ever wear head coverings!
In any case, I’m only advocating that loving my neighbor as myself dictates that I—without my transgressing any moral imperative—defer to my neighbor’s customs so that I don’t put a stumbling block before the cross of Christ. And my larger point is that Christians who put minor commandments or man-made traditions before major commandments are not true Christian traditionalists. They are faddists, just as were the Pharisees:
Then some Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.” And He answered and said to them, “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say, ‘Whoever says to his father or mother, “Whatever I have that would help you has been given to God,” he is not to honor his father or his mother.’ And by this you invalidated the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites, rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teachings as doctrines the precepts of men.'” (Matt. 15:1-9; see also 23:23).
Jesus’ quote from Isaiah (who was actually quoting Jesus) pulls back the mask of human religious tradition. It is a cheap substitute for a genuine, living relationship with God. When people want to fool themselves into thinking that they love God when they really don’t, man-made religious tradition can prop up their self-deception—all while they continue ignoring God’s major commandments, proving how far their heart is from God.
May the Lord help us to be true Christian traditionalists, focused on loving Him, loving others, and making disciples! — David