Even the most modern and “hip” churches rely on tradition in some capacity. Of course, the exact extent depends on the church leadership and members, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any church that didn’t incorporate traditional activities or methodology somewhere. But just how much of this tradition is a good thing?
It’s important to remember that much of what we think of as a “real” church service is not described in the Bible, but rather developed from centuries of changes and attempts to reclaim what the early church practiced. While these new traditions aren’t necessarily bad, it’s important to remember that they are just traditions. If the church service itself is dependent upon tradition, where else does this come into play in the church? Let’s take a look.
Biblical vs. Unbiblical vs. Harmful Traditions
Some traditions in the modern church do trace their origins back to the Bible. For instance, the Lord’s Supper (or communion as some prefer to call it) comes directly from the Bible’s record of Jesus’ Passover meal. This tradition is absolutely biblical.
Some traditions may be called unbiblical, but that doesn’t mean they’re anti-biblical, just that they don’t appear in the Bible. These traditions might include lighting candles at the start of a service, using only vocals in worship songs, or other minor differences between denominations or individual congregations. While these traditions may not have a biblical precedent, they in no way contradict biblical doctrine and are thus benign.
However, it’s when tradition begins to add requirements to God’s word that we begin to have problems. For instance, the family-integrated church known as Boerne Christian Assembly, along with other similar churches, would not allow women to take communion. Instead, they had to wait for their husbands to bring it to them, and if their husbands didn’t feel like it or decided their wives didn’t need to take communion, she didn’t get it. This places the husband as a mediator between God and his wife and is absolutely anti-biblical since a man restricts her access to God. This is an example of a harmful tradition.
Benefits of Tradition
For many churches, tradition is a comforting thing since it’s what we grew up with and it’s what our forefathers grew up with. Tradition fills in the gaps left by the Bible’s teachings on certain things, allowing us to maintain a standard. And in many cases, that tradition is perfectly fine.
For instance, think about what an Eastern Orthodox or Catholic service looks like compared to a typical Baptist church service. The differences are pretty striking. However, contrary to what many Protestants say, this isn’t because the Protestant church doesn’t observe traditions in their service. It just means the Catholic and Orthodox churches have different traditions. Just as you can expect a Catholic service to follow a formula of prayers, blessings, and communion, you can also expect a typical Protestant service to follow a pattern of songs, prayer, and a long sermon. These traditions provide a bit of security for anyone visiting different churches since they largely know what to expect. However, at the end of the day, they are still largely man-made traditions.
Pro Tip: The Bible says not to completely turn our backs on the church, but it doesn’t say to attend weekly as many modern Christians expect each other to. That’s another tradition that we’ve placed on ourselves.
When Tradition Becomes an Idol
In the early days of the Reformation, there were two opposite attempts to restore the true church. One philosophy threw out everything that wasn’t biblically mandated (though by necessity, this philosophy developed plenty of its own traditions to fill in the gaps left behind). The opposite approach only abandoned the explicitly anti-biblical practices while retaining many of the less problematic aspects of Catholic worship. Both philosophies had their pros and cons, but ultimately, both strove to base their new tradition systems on the Bible.
The best way to see if a tradition you or your church observes has become an idol is to suggest changing it. For instance, how many Protestant churches claim to be governed only by the Bible in their services, but would balk at the suggestion of shortening the sermon or placing it mid-service instead of as the focal point and final portion? That’s not to say every tradition should or will necessarily change. However, it’s absolutely crucial to remember that at the end of the day, these are just traditions, and we break no biblical teaching by choosing to observe or ignore them.
The Word of God is Superior
Tradition is so familiar to most modern Christians and so ingrained into our worship that it seems nearly heretical to question some of these beliefs or practices. After all, who are we to say that the worship music doesn’t have to be the first thing in a service, or that a particular way of interpreting a verse may be incorrect? However, it’s important to keep two things in mind. First, if the Bible doesn’t explicitly spell out a requirement or counsel for the church, then any additional practices are just that–additions that won’t gain us favor with God.
Second, believers are all equally priests before God, requiring no mediators other than Jesus and no spiritual head other than God Himself. Any tradition that denies or minimizes your rights and responsibilities as an independent person before God has no scriptural basis and will cause harm where it is implemented. God will guide your conscience to the truth through diligent study and prayer. Don’t let any Christian tradition tell you otherwise.
Join the conversation to learn more about early Christian tradition and how it applies (or doesn’t apply) to the modern church.