Many sincere believers have a vague idea that tradition is always wrong. They suppose that tradition in itself is contrary to the Word of God. Others lean heavily on tradition. Indeed, the great majority of Christians probably lean more heavily on tradition than on the Bible itself.
We received a letter some time ago from an advocate of a religious practice which is all but universal in Christendom. He wrote: “It has been the regular practice of the Church for centuries of time. Is it possible that the Church has been wrong all this time?” Our answer is—certainly it is possible that the Church has been wrong all this time. Man can always be wrong—and generally is!
Can the Church be wrong? Look at the sad history of Israel, God’s covenant people! And shall we say that we are less prone to err? Can we claim that the Church under grace has done better than Israel under the Law? Not one whit. The history of the Church in this age of Grace does not make any better reading than the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures. Whatever may be the virtues or vices of tradition, let us put it down as a fixed principle never to depend on man—not even the Church. We can depend only upon the written Word of God.
TRADITIONS TRUE AND FALSE
The word tradition merely means that which is handed down from one to another. It is not necessarily false.
In I Corinthians 11:2 Paul writes: “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances (Gr. paradosis, traditions), as I delivered them to you.”
In this case what Paul had handed down to the Corinthians was most assuredly true, for he had received it by divine revelation. Concerning the Lord’s supper he says: “FOR I HAVE RECEIVED OF THE LORD that which also I delivered unto you” (I Cor. 11:23), and a few chapters farther he says again: “For I delivered unto you first of all THAT WHICH I ALSO RECEIVED” (I Cor. 15:3).
Twice in his second letter to the Thessalonians he emphasizes the importance of these traditions.
“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle” (II Thes. 2:15).
“Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us” (II Thes. 3:6).
But let us not forget that Paul was chosen of God to proclaim a particular message some years before the Scriptures were completed. Notice carefully that he does not instruct his readers to follow tradition in general, nor even the traditions of any particular group. He speaks only of that which he had himself received by revelation to proclaim to them.
Those traditions were, of course, absolutely dependable, but the Scriptures have since been completed. No man today can say “Thus saith the Lord,” unless he quotes the written Word of God. Therefore human traditions, as such, are wholly unreliable. They may be true or they may be false.
THE DANGERS OF TRADITION
Because some traditions are true men soon confuse tradition with revelation and begin to depend on it. Since God uses men to proclaim His Word we are prone to confuse the words of men with the Word of God. Tradition is the more dangerous because it is not necessarily false.
Error when mixed with truth is the more difficult to discern. Furthermore, our adversary often uses personalities to lead sincere believers into error. Dr. So-and-so’s hearers know him as a godly man. They cannot believe that he would preach anything but the truth and accept all he says in simple faith! But this is a perilous mistake.
The very best of men are only men at the very best. Even the most godly men fail. They fail even in handing down the Word of God to their hearers, and so the truth is corrupted. Let us illustrate:
Suppose my computer printer is down and I decide to type out twelve copies of the eighth chapter of Romans on my old typewriter. How should I go about it? Suppose I make the first copy, then copy the second from the first, the third from the second, the fourth from the third and so on to the twelfth.
Do you see the danger? If I should make an error in the second copy there is the danger of repeating that error in every successive copy—and the more such an error may seem to be correct, the greater the danger. If I make two more errors in the fourth copy, one in the fifth and another in the seventh, the errors will multiply and the last copy may well contain them all! The correct way would be to make all twelve copies from the original. So it is with the Word of God.
Men, even godly men, err and their errors are transmitted from generation to generation. Almost every time another error arises it is passed on to following generations; as a result, almost every imaginable heresy is taught in the name of Christ. That is the extreme danger of depending on tradition.
Therefore, even if our fathers copied from their fathers, let us not copy from our fathers. Or, to put it another way—even if our spiritual leaders copied from their spiritual leaders, let us not copy from our spiritual leaders. Let us go to the original—to the Word of God itself and be safe. Before Paul was saved he made much of the traditions of the fathers. He says in Galatians 1:14:
“And [I] profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.”
But with all this tradition behind him he still did not recognize his own Messiah; indeed, he became His greatest enemy on earth. And Paul was not the only one thus blinded by false traditions. Some years after his conversion he wrote to the Romans:
“Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.
“For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge.
“For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Rom. 10:1-3).
They were so steeped in tradition that they could not see anything else. This casts light on Peter’s statement to the believing Jews of his day:
“Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things such as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers,
“But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (I Pet. 1:18,19).
If Paul had continued in the traditions of his fathers he would have been lost. If these Jewish believers had continued in the traditions of their fathers they would all have been lost, as the nation was. What peril there is in following tradition! What multitudes have been lost because they depended upon tradition instead of the Word of God!
OUR LORD AND TRADITION
The Lord Jesus was hated and persecuted for openly opposing the traditions of the Pharisees. However, His answers to them were most significant. When the Pharisees came from Jerusalem and found the disciples eating with “unwashen” hands, “they found fault” (Mark 7:2).
“For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders.
“And when they come from the market, except they wash [Gr. baptizo, baptize] they eat not. And many other things there be which they have received to hold, as the washing [Gr. baptismos, baptism] of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables.
“Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?” (Mark 7:3-5).
Matthew’s record tells us that He began to answer by saying: “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?” (Matt. 15:3). But Mark continues with His answer:
“Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, this people honoreth Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.
“Howbeit in vain do they worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
“For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups and many other such like things ye do.
“And He said unto them, full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition” (Mark 7:6-9).
How dangerous, then, to follow tradition!
There is always a tendency to place spiritual leaders upon pedestals. How often Christians settle doctrinal questions by appealing to “authorities!” That is how tradition grows. It is always puzzling to us to note how most believers see this clearly in the case of the spiritual leaders of Jesus’ day, yet fall into the same trap themselves.
Most believers roundly condemn the spiritual leaders of Jesus’ day for having set themselves up as authorities and condemn the people of that day for having followed these leaders so blindly. Yet these same believers play “follow the leader” as seriously as those of Jesus’ day! They have such implicit confidence in their spiritual leaders that they can hardly believe that any of them are guilty, actually guilty, of unfaithfulness to God and His Word. When men arise to call Fundamentalist leaders to repentance, their followers gasp with astonishment.
But is the Church in any better condition than Israel was in the days of Christ? Are the masses any less confused than the Jewish multitudes? Is the Church any less divided than Israel was? They forget that our greatest Christian leaders are but men and that our fathers were but men as we are, and as prone to err as we. Indeed, those who occupy the highest places, ecclesiastically, are often most used by Satan to keep men from seeing the truth and rejoicing in it. And Fundamentalist leaders are by no means exempt.
The Pharisees were the Fundamentalists of Jesus’ day, yet our Lord called them “blind leaders of the blind” (Matt. 15:14). And though our Fundamentalist leaders preach salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, do not suppose that many have not been lost by following their traditions. They have given their hearers the impression that water baptism has some essential value in this age of Grace, especially since it has been made the rite of initiation into the company of God’s people.
Let young Christians fall into worldliness or sins of the flesh and they are frowned upon for their waywardness, but these are not the greatest sinners in the Church. The greatest sinners are the Fundamentalist leaders who are idolized by the throngs who drink in their every word and whom they keep in darkness as to the most glorious truth in the whole Bible—the mystery of God’s purpose and grace. They know there is something wrong with the Church and they know what that something is, but they love the praise of men.
They well know that they ought to repent, but they are as determined to be “orthodox” and defend their traditions as the Pharisees of old, even if it means they must reject the written Word of God. Though they have seen something of the glory of the finished work of Christ and the believer’s completeness in Him, they are determined to defend a baptism ceremony which is far more unscriptural in this age of Grace than the Pharisees’ traditional baptisms were in the age of Law. They would be glad to preach the clear, unadulterated “gospel of the grace of God,” but that would be too costly—the people would not take it! And all the while they are too blind to see that the reason the people would not accept it is because the people have been following them!
We acknowledge, of course, that the same degree of guilt does not rest upon all who practice water baptism. Some sincerely believe that baptism is an ordinance of the Church. But woe to men who go back on the light they have received! Our Lord said: “If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matt. 6:23).
Many of our Fundamentalist leaders need to repent. Our correspondence files bear abundant testimony to this fact! They are so self-satisfied that they ignore the sad condition of the Church, over which God has made them overseers. Just because they are popular and throngs flock to hear them, they suppose that the Church is strong, while in reality it is sick and weak and exerts so little influence on the masses that the world laughs. And while it is supposed that the Church today is spiritually advanced (whatever intellectual advances may have been made) it is filled with children who need constantly to be entertained to keep them coming to the services.
But the Church would soon see and rejoice in the Mystery which Paul burned out his life to proclaim if it were not for the spiritual leaders. This is why we appeal to every reader: Do not depend upon men. The traditions of men have wrought as much folly and shame in the Church as they ever did in Israel. How many souls have been lost because of traditions! And if Satan cannot keep them from being saved he will rob them of their blessings as believers. This is why Paul wrote to the Colossians:
“Beware lest any man spoil [rob] you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
“For in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
“And ye are complete in Him, which is the Head of all principality and power:
“In Whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.
“Buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him, through the faith of the operation of God, Who hath raised Him from the dead” (Col. 2:8-12).
Circumcision and baptism spoke of death to the flesh and cleansing from sin. How Satan has robbed those who do not see that this is all accomplished for us by the finished work of Christ—that believers are complete IN HIM, already crucified with Christ and raised to walk in newness of life.
OUR ATTITUDE TOWARD TRADITION
In closing, what should our attitude be toward the words of men, even the best of men?
Acts 17:11 tells us about the Bereans to whom Paul preached. They were broad enough to listen to Paul respectfully, and carefully consider what he had to say even though it must have shocked them, but they were narrow enough to refuse to take even his word for granted.
“These [Bereans] were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word [Paul’s word] with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures [God’s Word] daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11).
They received Paul’s word but they did not immediately believe it. They gave him an interested hearing, but then put his words to the test of Scripture. We wonder how many of our readers are really Bereans. How many are spiritually big enough to listen to the words of men, but who are also big enough to test the words of men by the Word of God. It is by this method alone that we can be kept in the truth and delivered from error.
These are the characteristics of the spiritually great. If you have been depending upon some man or men to lead you into the truth you may be very far from the truth, but if, like the Bereans, you will search the Scriptures daily, with an honest desire to know the truth you will stand, in God’s sight, among the nobles of the Church.