When I was in grade three, my parents took us to see the movie musical, “Fiddler on the Roof”. At the start, there was a man playing a fiddle up on a house roof, and the main character talks about this tradition of a “fiddler of the roof”. Before long he says, “You may ask: How did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!” And he goes on to talk about the importance of tradition to them, even though they don’t know how most of their traditions got started.
This reminds me of that story about the newlywed who was preparing a roast to cook, and cut off the end of the meat. Her curious young husband asked her why she did that. She had to admit that she did not know, except that it was the way her mother had taught her. It did get her wondering, so later she rang and asked her mother why she cut the end off the meat before roasting it. She also did not know why, except that it was the way her mother had taught her. The next opportunity she had, the mother asked her mother why she had taught her to prepare a roast this way. The aged mother stopped and thought a moment, then said, “Well, do you remember our oven in those days? It wasn’t quite wide enough…”
Traditions are important, but sometimes they outlive their purpose—and sometimes we don’t realise it. In Mark 7, Jesus points out that traditions can be elevated well beyond what they should be. Read verses one to thirteen to see what he says about it.
There is nothing wrong with the tradition of washing your hands, and washing cup and bowls. But Jesus understood those rules about washing were man-made rules. He didn’t treat them as though they were sacred, like they were commandments of God. They were good traditions — a good purpose, well-intentioned — but just that. So when some religious experts suggested that it was a sin to transgress them, Jesus pointed out their hypocrisy: they themselves set aside and invalidated commandments of God, for the sake of keeping their traditions. And these people were the ones leading and teaching God’s people in their day!
What had gone wrong, that the religious establishment had come to the point where people were taught to nullify God’s commandments? How had it come to this, that the commandments of men had usurped the commandments of God? Rather than digging up the historical story of how it happened with the Jews, we can look at today’s religious world and see that this problem was not unique to first century Jews. Apparently it is a problem common to humans. We often get so used to our traditions, that we forget to recognise their place, and limitations. They can come to rule us, instead of the traditions God’s apostles and prophets gave his people.
Yes, it’s true: there are traditions from God. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 says we must “stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our letter.” The “traditions” those Thessalonian Christ-followers received were from the apostle Paul, given in person and by letter. Today, we have the apostles’ teaching solely in writing, so we can still be “devoted to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), and it is a tradition to which we must hold firmly if we are to follow Christ today.
So when we examine our own traditions, we must assess whether they are from God or from man. If they are from man, we must see if they in any way hamper our obedient and effective service to God. We need to be able to examine the scriptures and discern the difference between human and divine tradition. For example, consider the following questions. Are these matters of human tradition or God-given tradition?
• Why doesn’t your church have a church?
• What’s your church’s name?
• Why don’t you have a priest or pastor?
• Why do you gather to have the Lord’s Supper every Sunday?
• Why do/don’t you pass a collection plate around on Sunday?
• Why is your singing purely vocal? (or “Where’s the band?”)
• Why don’t your women lead prayers and teach in your assemblies?
• Why don’t you recite the Lord’s Prayer?
• Why don’t you have a Christmas service?
Human tradition affects just about any area of doctrine taught today, from the nature of God, and who Christ is, right through to subjects like the nature of the church and its assemblies, the Lord’s Supper, the use of money, the Holy Spirit, marriage, divorce, or matters about elders. We don’t need to look too hard to find examples where human traditions (whether our own or someone else’s) have sullied people’s understanding in these areas. Perhaps even our own.
God’s people in every generation are faced with choosing between man’s ways and God’s ways, human tradition and divine tradition. Today, we live amidst a range of human traditions, both secular and religious, including those accumulated by centuries of institutionalised religion. Then there’s our own human traditions—the way we’re used to doing things.
So, now just as then, we’re faced with the choice of whether we will be bound to human traditions — the creeds and traditions of people — over and above apostolic tradition; or whether God’s commands will be our prevailing priority. Every generation faces this choice, and no generation should think it is immune from the dangers of elevating human tradition at the expense of keeping God’s commands. God must come first.
*Picture from Fiddler on the Roof courtesy of Mirisch Productions, Inc.