New Testament Traditions

Notes on Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck’s
Why we Love the Church:
in praise of institutions and organized religion

Chapter 5 : The Historical (One Holy Catholic Church)

For the first two parts of my notes on Chapter 5, check out Traditional or Restorationist? and How Church Oughta Be

Question 3: What is the role of tradition in the church?

I hail from a contemporary congregation in which tradition is viewed with deep suspicion. No word is perceived as more dangerous than “ritual” or “routine”. Far from doing things “the way we’ve always done them”, we like to do things differently–all the time. The only thing constant is change, right?

**Please recognize that the attitude does not always equal reality. We have plenty of unwitting routines and rituals–the progression of a typical worship service, the way the elders greet the congregation or give announcements, the warning not to take communion as “routine”. But these routines are the result of habit rather than willful decision to adopt or retain a certain action or order as beneficial.**

If asked to defend this wariness towards tradition, a few congregants might be able to produce a few New Testament proof texts: Colossians 1:8 “Beware lest anyone cheat you…according to the tradition of men…”, I Peter 1:18 “knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers”, or Matthew 15:1-9 and Mark 7:1-13 in which Jesus sharply rebukes the Pharisees and scribes for “making the Word of God to no effect through your tradition which you have handed down.” (Mark 7:13)

Some might take from these passages that tradition has no place in the New Testament church–that we have been saved from tradition and that tradition is necessarily in opposition to the Word of God.

Scripture, I believe, says otherwise.

In I Corinthians 11:2, Paul praises the brethren that they “keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you”, implying that tradition was important, even in the earliest New Testament churches. Likewise, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15, the brethren are exhorted to “hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” On multiple occasions, Paul encourages the church to follow his pattern, or to be a pattern to others (Phil 3:17, I Tim 4:12, II Tim 1:13, Tit 2:7). Clearly, tradition is not seen as unequivocally negative.

What, then, is the proper role of tradition in the New Testament church? How is one to determine whether tradition is appropriate or inappropriate? I believe Scripture gives us some guidelines for understanding the proper role of tradition in the church of God.

Tradition is not commandment

Quoting Isaiah 29:13, Jesus says in Matthew 15:9 of the Pharisee’s and scribes’ traditions: “And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Tradition is not the commandment of God. This should be made perfectly clear. Nowhere are we commanded in Scripture to follow a certain liturgy or church calendar. Nowhere are we commanded to worship in a specific location or using certain words. To place these traditions on the same level as the Word of God is foolish and unBiblical.

God’s commandment is given precedent over tradition

In Matthew 15:1-9 and Mark 7:1-13, Jesus rebukes the scribes and Pharisees, not for keeping traditions but for “transgress[ing] the commandment of God because of [their] tradition.” They were attempting to nullify the commands of God regarding honoring parents by religiously stating that people could give the money that would have supported their parents in their old age to the temple instead. “Sorry, Mom and Dad, I already gave it to the temple–you wouldn’t be so selfish as to take from the temple?” Jesus makes clear that God’s commandment is given precedent over tradition–and that any tradition that would nullify God’s word is to be discarded.

Tradition is not gospel

Paul speaks to this in Colossians 2, where he warns the Colossians against those who would forget Christ and cling instead to the commandments of men: circumcision, food, festivals, and angel worship. Paul says that these things have the appearance of wisdom—but that they are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh (Col 2:23). All that is necessary for salvation is complete in Christ. “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.” (Col 2:9-10) Tradition is neither necessary nor efficacious for salvation.

We were saved from aimless tradition.

I Peter 1:18-19 states that “you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” Before we believed, all our conduct was aimless, attempting to achieve salvation through our own works, whether by tradition or otherwise. We have been saved, redeemed by the blood of Christ, from the aimless groping for salvation passed down to us by man’s traditions.

Traditions are good.

Recognizing that tradition is not commandment, tradition cannot be used to nullify commandment, tradition is not gospel, and that we have been saved from aimless tradition, Scripture affirms that tradition is nevertheless good. I Corinthians 11:2, in which the Corinthians are praised for keeping the traditions as Paul delivered them, is preceded by the words: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” Paul places himself as an example, setting up a tradition, if you will, of imitation. The Colossians 2 passage, which warns against empty tradition that seeks salvation through works, is preceded by exhortation to follow a better tradition “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving.” (Col 2:6-7)

In 2 Thessalonians, the believers are actually urged to withdraw from any brother who does not follow a specific tradition passed down from Paul: “But we command you, brethren…that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.” (II Thes 3:6) This tradition Paul speaks of is that of tireless good works, quietness, and self-sufficiency (that is, not mooching off of the believers, but working for their own bread).

I love the way DeYoung speaks of tradition:

“Although there’s much talk these days about our lack of Christian community and the need we have to do our exegesis in the community of faith, the one community we seldom look to for wisdom is the community of the dead.”

The traditions of the church are neither gospel nor command, but they are an opportunity by which modern (or post-modern) believers may follow the example of and learn from the generations of Christians who have gone on before us, and they are an opportunity to join in worship with believers throughout the ages, all proclaiming the great works of God in salvation.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.