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Who Needs Tradition?

by Tim O'Hearn

Every day on the way home from almost anywhere I pass a church marquee. Most days it has something new on it, so I have to read it daily. Often I agree with the short sayings on it. Sometimes I disagree, either because I misinterpret what the person who put up the sign is trying to say, or because their understandings differ from what I read in the Bible. I recently passed by and read one such sign which I know without a doubt does not agree with what the Bible has to say. It said, “Who needs tradition when you have the Holy Spirit?”

My first thought was probably that they had a different understanding of the Holy Spirit than I do. My second thought was that it did not matter how they understood the Holy Spirit. This quotation does not stand up to scripture, regardless.

There are times when tradition can be unnecessary, or even counterproductive. Any time tradition replaces the Holy Spirit, the word of God, then the tradition is bad. It may not be wrong, just improper. “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” (Matt 15:6) Is washing hands before eating wrong? Certainly not! Is helping to support your parents evil? Certainly not! These things were not wrong in and of themselves. It was only when they took precedence over, or served as an excuse for violating, God’s law that they become wrong. When washing became more important than saving or sustaining a life it became wrong. When giving to the church became an excuse for not supporting parents, it became wrong.

There are other times when traditions are neither right nor wrong. In the United States Navy (and other navies) when a ship crosses the equator those who have not previously been so honored go through a ceremony to make them “honorable shellbacks.” Without revealing too many details about this ceremony, I may say that it is full of tradition. From the green food to the trial by Davy Jones every aspect of the ceremony is touched by tradition. It has nothing to do with salvation, and nothing need violate any religious scruples. In the Navy this is an important and necessary tradition. The need for this tradition has nothing to do with the Holy Spirit. Whether a sailor has the Spirit or not, he needs the tradition.

More to the point, though, Paul told the Christians in Thessalonica that tradition in religion was necessary and good. When faced with the question “Who needs tradition when you have the Holy Spirit,” Paul would have answered, “You do.” “Brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” (2 Thes 2:15) Moreover, he says it is so important that we need to watch out for those who don’t follow certain traditions. “Withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.” (2 Thes 3:6)

In the middle nineteenth century, some of those who led the movement to restore New Testament Christianity proposed that there were three sources for authority for anything religious. The three were specific command, necessary inference, and apostolic example. The commands are obvious. There has been much debate over what inferences from scripture are necessary or not. Most notably, there has been a century of argument over whether the command to sing necessarily eliminates the use of musical instruments. In that case, though, there is no doubt that apostolic example (tradition, if you will) demands that instruments not be used in the assembly of the church. In other cases, though, many will question to what extent apostolic example applies. Even though Paul specifically advocates following tradition where the Holy Spirit has not spoken, some go to great lengths to try to make even specific commands into mere tradition, and thus disregard them.

If that congregation truly believes their sign, why do they have the traditional church building, or assemble for the traditional Sunday worship? No, even with the Holy Spirit, we need tradition. The hard part is figuring out what is truly the tradition of the apostles, and what is our own.