If you’ve ever seen Fiddler on the Roof, you’ll remember our ol’ lovable Jewish friend Tevya belting out that song. With Christmas just behind us and Easter just ahead of us, and with some discussions I’ve been having with friends recently, I’ve found myself thinking about traditions lately. What are they, where do they come from, why do we do them, and why do people have such strong feelings either for or against them?
So, what ARE traditions, exactly? According to the definition I’m after in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, a tradition is:
2. The delivery of opinions, doctrines, practices, rites and customs from father to son, or from ancestors to posterity; the transmission of any opinions or practice from forefathers to descendants by oral communication, without written memorials. Thus children derive their vernacular language chiefly from tradition. Most of our early notions are received by tradition from our parents.
3. That which is handed down from age to age by oral communication. The Jews pay great regard to tradition in matters of religion, as do the Romanists. Protestants reject the authority of tradition in sacred things, and rely only on the written word. Traditions may be good or bad, true or false. (http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,tradition)
And, being a Christian, I’m most interested to see what the Bible has to say about traditions. We find passages on both sides of the issue. For example:
Matthew 15:3But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?
2 Thessalonians 2:15 Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.
There are several other verses regarding tradition, but most of them are along the lines of one or the other of the above. So apparently, traditions in and of themselves are neutral sorts of things – they’re just a medium for conveying a message, like art. (Don’t even get me started on art right now, that’s a post for another day.) So, it basically boils down to this: traditions are okay as long as the meaning behind them is there and is remembered and is something good. The Bible doesn’t condemn all traditions. So, in observing them (or not observing them), we need to examine our motivations and make sure we are doing it for the right reasons.
The Bible makes it very clear that if traditions are to be observed, they are to be supported by Truth and should point us to some truth about God or His plan. Jesus criticized the Pharisees many times for being consumed with the acts of traditions and laws but completely missing the spirit that was behind them. They became empty rituals for them, and they were missing out on the meaning that God had put behind those traditions.
However, the Bible DOES encourage us to keep traditions PROPERLY. The Jews were commanded to observe several different Feasts throughout the year, such as Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Trumpets, Feast of Booths, etc. And when God told them to keep these feasts, He was very particular about what they should do, and how it should be done. The point of all of this was not only to make them remember all the things God had done for them (such as delivering them out of slavery and sparing their firstborns in Egypt during Passover), but also to point them to the Redemption story of Christ (He is our Passover lamb).
Our Bible study group just finished a study on the Feasts of Israel, and if you begin to study them, you will see so many amazing parallels to Christ in them – they all point to Him, His life, His First or Second Coming. It’s truly amazing and encouraging when you begin to see the parallels, and I strongly encourage you to study it on your own. (The study we did was The Feasts of the Lord DVD series by Mark Biltz – listen online or order DVD set here: http://elshaddaiministries.us/audio/feasts.html).
We also observe the tradition of Communion. Communion is a blessing to us – not the physical action of it – but because it serves as a visual reminder that Jesus’ body was broken and his blood shed for us. He told us to do it to REMEMBER that. So we receive Communion to help us remember His sacrifice on a regular basis, and it also gives us an opportunity for self-examination, confession, and reconciliation with God and our brother.
The problem with traditions comes when we lose sight of the meaning behind them and do them just to do them (or when we make up our own meaningless ones that take away from the true message of the real traditions – can anyone say Easter Bunny and Santa Clause???). It’s very much like the Law and Grace. Galatians 3:24 tells us, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” The purpose of the law is to lead us to Christ! It’s to point out our guilt and complete inability to keep it, and thus to show us how much we need a Savior! The Pharisees became so caught up in trying to keep the law that they became full of self-righteousness and pride and rejected Jesus when He came. They completely missed the point and purpose of the Law, and thus the Law became useless to them. And Jesus criticized them for it. Traditions are much the same way. When we do them just for the sake of doing them, but have no idea why we are doing them or what the meaning is behind them, then they become useless and vain rituals.
(Image borrowed from Despair, Inc.)
So then, how should we, as Christians and as the Church, deal with choosing and observing traditions?
First, we need to examine the ones we ARE observing and make sure that they are founded on Scriptural truth. If they are, we need to make sure that we are explaining the meaning behind them to younger believers and our children as they grow up doing them. This is a key point. I once heard a story about a church that nearly split over a communion cloth. No kidding. This church had been following the tradition of keeping a particular embroidered cloth over the communion elements before the service. When it came time to serve the communion out, the elder would pick up the cloth, fold it, and lay it on the table. After years of doing this every Sunday, someone proposed that they get rid of the cloth since it was getting very tattered. Many people in the congregation were aghast that anyone would suggest eliminating what they saw as a very vital part of their communion service. During a congregational meeting about it, someone finally asked, “Why do we even have a cloth covering the dishes?” No one seemed to know, until an elderly woman spoke up and said, “Well, before air conditioning, we used to keep the windows open in the summer, and the cloth was to keep the flies off!” Needless to say, this particular tradition had no Scriptural truth behind it, the meaning was unknown, and there was no real edification in the observance of it. There’s no point to empty traditions like this, and we need to eliminate them.
Second, we need to make sure that we are observing meaningful traditions, because they serve as wonderful visual reminders of the things that God has done for us, or the things that He will do for us. I’ve never understood churches that only observe communion on infrequent occasions because they’re afraid it will become meaningless if they do it too often. Communion isn’t meaningless. It has an incredible amount of meaning and symbolism behind it. Shouldn’t we, rather than eliminating the tradition, just make sure that we are remembering what Jesus did for us when we partake of it?
There is a trend today in which churches are trying to get away from traditions that are done for traditions’ sake, and that’s probably a good thing in many ways. But in our zeal, let’s make sure we’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water. We must be careful not to throw something out just because it is “traditional.” Many traditions DO have wonderful meaning, such as the communion service, many of the old hymns, and good, solid, gimmick-free Biblical preaching & teaching. It might even be a good idea to adopt some traditions we’re not used to observing, like celebrating the Jewish feasts – not for the “religious” ritualism of them, but because they remind us of Jesus. So let’s keep and add some traditions, but let’s make sure they are scriptural, meaningful, and pointing people to Christ!
("Fiddler on the Roof" image borrowed from a stock photography website.)