Tradition and Truth

Brad Horton

white book on table

Jesus asked many questions. One was asked of the Pharisees concerning their traditions: “Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition” (Matthew 15:3)? Tradition can exist in churches of all sizes, whether rural, city center, or suburban. The “we’ve always done it this way” crowd generally exists in smaller churches and is often deep in family ties. Tradition is not evil in and of itself. Defined, it means “something given or handed down over an extended period of time.” According to Mounce’s Expository Dictionary, “paradosis refers to keeping the traditions of men with the ultimate effect of disobeying the commands of God” (Matt. 15:2, 3, 6; Mark 7:3, 5, 8, 9, 13). 

When referring to his traditions as he was being schooled in Judaism, Paul said in Galatians 1:13,14,

And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions. But when God, who had set me apart even from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, was pleased.

The Pharisees had a niche for adding to the law and elevating it above Scripture. Paul wrote in Colossians 2:8,

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

Not all tradition is bad. 2 Thessalonians 2:15 states,

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.

Likewise, 2 Thessalonians 3:6 says

Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received from us.

It appears that whatever these traditions were, they were spiritually beneficial and did not exceed the authority of Scripture. 

The word “transgress” in Matthew 15:3 means “to go aside, to go beyond,” and men’s traditions do this. But what exactly was this tradition that went beyond the command of God? Matthew Henry comments

That people should often wash their hands, and always at meat. This they placed a great deal of religion in, supposing that the meat they touched with unwashed hands would be defiling to them.

Is it a good idea to wash your hands before you eat? Yes. But the Pharisees had elevated this tradition above the commands of God. 

If you have been a pastor for any length of time, you know the traditions of a church can create some tension. The key to managing these traditions is making a wise assessment—do they elevate above the commands of God? Often, they do not, but in some cases, they do. A rural church will often have traditions handed down by generations of men, and the current generation does not even know why they do it. 

Standing on the truth of Scripture exceeds all of men’s traditions, and that is exactly where we need to be—on the side of Scripture.

Here are a few examples that I learned from. My first church I took as pastor did not have any services on any fifth Sunday throughout the year. I wanted to have morning worship because that is what you do on the Lord’s Day. The reason for canceling church on the fifth Sunday, I was told, was to allow the members to visit other churches. What? For several generations, this has been handed down. I made a move to change this, and the war was on. A handful of people rallied some members on the church role who otherwise never attended the church services to shut down the potential Lord’s Day worship on a fifth Sunday. Thankfully, in the end, the tradition was done away with. 

At the second church I pastored, the church had a “third Sunday in May” designated as “Homecoming.” I considered if this was something that needed to stop, but the overall tradition was not against the commands of God, such as not having service on the Lord’s Day. Another occasion was a tradition that was attached to baptism. I was told I needed to “charge” the candidate. We were not ordaining anyone, so this tradition came to an end. There were other traditions that continued because they were not in violation of Scripture. 

We need to be wise in what we do. Is the tradition an elevation above Scripture? We can get tangled in the weeds and lose the real focus of shepherding. As 2 Timothy 2:23 admonishes, “But refuse foolish and ignorant speculations, knowing that they produce quarrels.” I admit, I have been tangled in foolish traditions before, and it was not fruitful. 

Standing on the truth of Scripture exceeds all of men’s traditions, and that is exactly where we need to be—on the side of Scripture.