Welcome to another week. Today’s topic is something that we’re all familiar with – traditions. We all have them, whether we like them or not. We learn them, adjust them, abandon and create them throughout life. If you’re at all like me, you grew up with two sets of traditions for things like holidays, birthdays, and family gatherings. And then, if you married someone like my husband, you added in two more sets of traditions that were not only completely different from each other, but also completely different from the two you grew up with. They can be based on your ethnic background, religious beliefs, regional differences, and personal preferences. They can be mainstream or extreme, but either way, they are the main rules of “how we do things in this family”. And then, if you grew up in church, any church (or mosque, synagogue, or temple), you have a set of religious traditions that you carry around as well. Some of you have a very limited set, others (like myself) have a more “confused” bag of church traditions. For example, I was raised in a variety of evangelical churches, but I had family members who were Catholic, I attended a Baptist college, but then spent several years teaching at an Episcopal school. So I’ve had the full range of worship from pew kneelers to hand-raisers, environments from school gyms to stained glass, and sermon series based on popular movies as well as morning worship guided by the Book of Common Prayer. Eclectic doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Traditions are a crucial part of human culture and psychology. Our brains thrive on having a predictable framework for life. This is true at work, in the family, and in religion. Even those who reject what they see as “organized religion” still form their own traditions, rituals, and beliefs. Traditions help us connect with others, and help us bridge gaps in time and space. Traditions help the transmission of history and wisdom. Many traditions are enjoyable or comforting.
Traditions can have a negative side as well. They can be restrictive. They can be burdensome. They may be irrational, obsolete, or irrelevant. Traditions can keep people at a distance and create confusion. Some traditions may cause people to completely dismiss God or the church because they are too difficult to understand, too hard to follow, or too uncomfortable.
The thing about traditions is that they are only a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Too often, we become attached to a tradition, and force ourselves and others to “follow the rules” because it is tradition, rather than holding to a tradition because it is inherently valuable. An extreme example of this would be the extended segregation that was practiced in the southern United States even after the Civil Rights Act was passed, long after the myths about African Americans being sub-human or diseased or violent had been dispelled. White people didn’t want to associate with black people, but they couldn’t give a good reason why, they just knew that it wasn’t done: their grandparents and parents had avoided contact, and so should they. It was just the way things had always been, so it was they way they should be. That’s the biggest trap of traditions. Somehow we fall into a belief that tradition is more important than truth; that traditions should be followed because they are traditions, not because they serve a purpose or have sacred importance. We fear changing or discarding any traditional practice or position because we have so strongly linked “the way it has always be done” with “the way God wants us to do it”.
We seem particularly prone to this in religious and moral matters. We sometimes put more importance on the way our culture, church, or family has done things than on what God actually says (or doesn’t say) about many issues. (Please note, I am not saying that all moral positions are just traditions; I believe in moral absolutes, but only where God has made it clear that something is an absolute. Many of the things we hold tightly to are really interpretations and traditions, and we need to extend grace to each other, not judgment.) I witnessed an amusing example of this several years ago. My husband and I were still be living in the town where we attended college (a relatively conservative Baptist school). The college had very strict rules against any type of drinking, smoking, or other substance use, and most of the students had grown up in homes and churches that likewise took a very dim view of such things. However, at that moment, there happened to be a conference of Episcopal bishops and clergy meeting at the Episcopal school I taught in. Episcopalians have no tradition that frowns upon drinking or smoking in moderation. I had become used to this in my time working at the school, but many of the students attending my alma matter did not have the benefit of that experience. One evening during the bishops’ conference, we were enjoying dinner at a local pub and coffee shop, which was very popular with students (and which happened to be run by the rector of the local Episcopal church). The bishops and clergy had all decided to meet there as well. One of the men, with his purple shirt, clerical collar, and large cross, stepped outside for a smoke. At the table next to us, a young man, obviously from the Baptist college, was talking with his friend, and they could not reconcile in their minds how someone who was obviously a Christian minister could also be an unashamed smoker. Now, I’m not saying smoking is a good idea. We know that it is a serious health risk. However, it’s not expressly addressed in the scriptures, and so I can’t say that the smoking bishop was any less of a Christian, any less obedient to God, just because he smoked a cigarette and I did not. We must be cautious about letting our traditions cloud our views of other sincere, God-fearing, people.
We fall into this trap in missions and evangelism too. We think that part of converting people to faith in Christ is making them like us. This was clearly the case in the early years of world missions, when missionaries from England and America would go to Africa and Asia and not only preach the Gospel, but also try to change the clothing, language, and the social and family structure of the people they had been sent to, as if making them Christians also meant making them English-speaking Westerners. At this point in history, we have gotten much better about being culturally sensitive, but the belief that changed hearts necessarily mean changed traditions still holds on. If we want to continue reaching people, both at home and abroad, we need to be more conscientious about to what extent we are asking people to obey God, and to what extent we are asking them to follow our own traditions. We need to not be afraid to confront and change tradition where it is no longer serving its intended purpose, and is instead serving to keep people farther from God.
I found a wonderful quote about this very thing in my leisure reading this week. I had just begun re-reading Charlotte Bronte’s classic, Jane Eyre, one of my very favorite books. I always have appreciated the philosophy and theology that Bronte weaves throughout her works, but I found this gem in her preface to the novel. She says, speaking of tradition,
“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns. These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines for the world-redeeming creed of Christ.”
We are not the only ones to struggle with this balance between tradition and truth. The Jewish community in Jesus’ day had a very strong culture of traditions. Some where merely cultural, while many of them were based on the laws and regulations that God had given to Moses and the Israelites. In the end, however, they did not serve to help people cultivate their relationship with God, but to keep people from having that close, loving relationship with Him. Jesus himself chastised the religious leaders of the day, saying “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” (Luke 11:46) Jesus often disregarded Jewish custom, tradition, and regulation when it served his purpose of drawing people to himself. He healed on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-3, Luke 13:9-11), and allowed his disciples to pick grain on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-3). When confronted by the religious leaders of the day, he rhetorically asked them whether it was better to do good or evil on the Sabbath (Luke6:9), basically turning the question of what observing the Sabbath meant back on their own heads. In Matthew 15, Jesus took part in a debate with the religious leaders about the value of traditions. He summed up his indictment of the religion of the day by saying, “Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.” (Matthew 15:6b) To Jesus, the one person who perfectly fulfilled all of God’s law, the point was not the act of observing a ritual or of maintaining a tradition, but of living with one’s heart tuned to God.
Early church leaders also cautioned against those who professed to be Christians but insisted on new believers following the old Jewish customs in order to be saved or to be a part of the church. This is what he had to say: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1) In Acts 15, Paul, James, Peter and other leaders of the early church determined that there was no point in making new believers (especially those from outside the Jewish culture) follow the traditions of Judaism, but to instruct them to obey the core of God’s law. Peter pointed out that the old traditions and rules had been too much even for centuries of faithful Jews. (Acts 15:10) In his letter to the Philippians, Paul warned the church not to be led astray by those who would seek to enforce Jewish customs in the name of salvation in Christ, because we are not saved by outward acts, but by inward belief. (Philippians 3:1-3) Disagreements about traditions often threatened to tear the early church apart, but the Apostles wisely intervened and taught their followers to put their focus on honoring God, rather than honoring man’s traditions.
Traditions can be useful and enjoyable, but they do not tell us much about how we really must live as children of God. Fortunately, the Bible is very clear on what really matters. The prophet Micah gave a clear description of a life lived rightly when he wrote, “No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Jesus summed up all of God’s laws in two simple (yet still not easy) requirements: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39) Outwith those few things, the rest is just window dressing. The design of your church, the order of service, the style of worship music, the fashion of your clothes, the way you celebrate holidays, the rituals you do or don’t observe – they may help you personally in your relationship with God, but they must not ever take the place of that relationship.
How do you feel about traditions, especially within Christianity? Are there any you find particularly valuable in your walk with God?