"Out with the old; in with the new" is an apt description of our age. From politics, to social ethics, to individual morality, all of the old assumptions are being challenged and abandoned. There is a subtle "Bias of the New" that influences us to think that anything "New and Improved!" is automatically better than anything that has been around for a while.
Religion is also caught in this sweep. Once, things were time-honored as traditional. Now, tradition is a pejorative, an insult, and the kiss of death for anything branded as old and not new. Spending their time telling or hearing something new, many Christians automatically reject long-held doctrines and practices. They have been led to believe that tradition is automatically wrong.
This article is written as study of the New Testament word tradition. What we will find is that tradition is neither a good word nor a bad word by itself. What makes tradition good or bad is the source of the tradition we follow.
In A Word
As found in the English New Testament, tradition is taken form the Greek word paradosis, meaning "things handed down." Just as one generation hands teaching down to the next, succeeding generations pass along the things that have been learned to following generations. Paradosis specifically refers to "a body of religious precepts." This process is solemnized in passages like Deuteronomy 4:9: "Teach them to your children and to their children after them."
If Mark 7 (see also Mt. 15) was the only New Testament passage that mentioned tradition, we would have a generally negative view of tradition. But, as is always the case, we must make sure that we understand what we are reading before we make too broad an application. Jesus said,
- "Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men" (V:8).
- “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition" (V:9).
- "(Thus you are) invalidating the word of God by your tradition" (V:13).
Instead of condemning tradition in general, Jesus spoke against a certain kind of tradition. What is the bad kind of tradition? Bad tradition causes us to neglect God's commands in order to follow religious traditions that originated with men. This passage rejects every man-made religious teaching (see Col. 2:8), but this passage reinforces God-made religious teaching.
A much more positive view of the good kind of religious tradition is put forth by Paul in II Thessalonians. In two passages, Paul reinforces God-made religious teaching that is handed down generation after generation.
- "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us" (II Thess. 2:15).
- "Now we command you...keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life not according to the tradition which you received from us (II Thess. 3:15).
God and not man is the source of what is described in these two passages. The Spirit-inspired Apostles spoke and wrote, thus creating a body of doctrine and practice. This collection of teaching did not die with the Apostles but is to be repeated by faithful Christians as they "teach others to teach others also" through every generation (see II Tim. 2:2). This tradition not only possesses the authority of God's authorship, but also possesses the honor of centuries - some refer to the "Historical Christian faith."
As anti-traditionalism sweeps through society and through some churches, faithful Christians need to cautiously pick and choose. Churches of Christ have traditionally rejected the man-made religious traditions of the denominations and have traditionally embraced the God-made religious traditions started by the Apostles, confirmed in the scriptures, and continued through the generations. Instead of being an insult, traditional, in this sense of the word, is the highest form of praise.