Tradition Versus Truth (Matthew 15:1-3)

Photo by T. Selin Erkan on Unsplash

Almost every part of our culture is tradition, because the very definition of   tradition is the transmission from generation to generation of a widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time. The same can be said of the church. Every church and every denomination also has traditions. Cultures overlap, meaning that you might have the culture and traditions of a Canadian, but you also have the culture and traditions of your particular denomination and church, your sports club and your family line. 

Like culture, traditions are rich with meaning, and different people within the culture attach different levels of importance to those meanings. For some, the fact that hymns are played on the organ is a deeply meaningful fact. For others, the fact that hymns are played is far more important than what they are played on. But for both, that hymns are played is an important tradition. 

But while tradition may be important to us as individuals and a key part of our shared culture, it must not supplant what God has commanded. Jesus once challenged the Jewish authorities on this very point, “Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?”

Jesus’ question conveys His deep displeasure. For Jesus, it is obvious that God’s commands are in a completely different category than man’s tradition. That is because tradition by its very nature is not mandatory. It cannot be mandatory to all people, because only some people created them. God’s commands are mandatory to us as people because He created all of us. So it is a grave misjudgment to put our tradition – whatever its form and whatever the subject – above God’s specific and written direction.

As a function of fact and rational thinking, that is much easier to agree to than to actually practice. The practice of putting God’s commands first obligates us to regulate the deeply personal meaning of our tradition; Our feelings must not have priority above spiritual truth. As rational beings, we get that. As emotional beings, we struggle with it. 

Just how much of a struggle that can be is revealed to us every time our church changes its music style!

The command of the Lord is, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs,” and while definition of “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” leaves a lot of room for interpretation, the intent is clear. Our worship must lift up the Name of Christ and edify those who participate in it. If it truly does that objectively, it fulfills God’s command. If it does not, no matter how much we enjoy it or how long we’ve been enjoying it, it is at best mere tradition; meaningful to us, but not to all. Subsequently, as new people come into our church and older ones leave, it is inevitable that much of our shared tradition slowly decays into personal spiritual baggage – things that are unhelpful in leading the next generation into deeper relationship with God.

We …who confess this doctrine [of the inerrancy of Scripture] often deny it in life by failing to bring our thoughts and deeds, our traditions and habits, into true subjection to the divine Word.

R.C. Sproul

APPLICATION: Intentionality

To love tradition is not error. To love tradition above truth is error. What do you love?