Jesus rebuked the Pharisees of his day for elevating their traditions above God’s word. He cited several examples of how their time-honored customs had subtly undermined, perverted, and even outright contradicted many of God’s commands. The Pharisees were, of course, deeply offended by this accusation. In their own estimation and by all outward indicators, they held God’s word in the highest regard. I think the poison that Jesus noted in the Pharisees' twisted traditions, however, often manifested without them even being aware. It’s easy enough to see the Pharisees as a group of men who simply set out to twist the word of God with their traditions, but I think this is a dangerous oversimplification of who they were (and, by extension, who we are). It’s truly astounding how self-deluded our sin-stricken human hearts can be, even effectively keeping us in the dark when it comes to our own deepest motivations and intents.
I want to be clear from the start that traditions alone aren’t the problem here. Jesus wasn’t waging a war against the human practice of making and keeping traditions (On the contrary, he utilized several existing traditions and even instituted a few of his own). I'm not with the overzealous crowd of Christians who dogmatically reject any tradition unless it’s explicitly outlined in Scripture (ultimately out sola scriptura-ing even Luther himself). That’s certainly not the drum I’m beating. There are numerous extra-biblical traditions that have been crafted by the Church with the intent of magnifying God, declaring his good news, and edifying his people. And in many cases they accomplish just that. Our Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, as examples, rely heavily on tradition within their particular expressions of the Christian faith. Protestants, despite our reputation as being anti-tradition, hold fast to numerous extra-biblical traditions as well. And though tradition doesn’t carry the same weight as Scripture in our dogma, it certainly does at times in our actual practice. That’s where the problem lies. But if we can’t even distinguish between our human traditions and the word of God, we’re likely to cross this dangerous line without even realizing it.
Many Christ-followers, I think, fail to see the prevalence of identity politics and extreme nationalism, which have long found a home within the American Church (especially among evangelicals), as potentially the same sort of Scripture-stifling traditions that angered Jesus. It’s as American as apple pie, for example, for “Old Glory” and the “Old Rugged Cross” to share the same space in our church gatherings. So long have the two narratives (the story of our nation and the story of God) been made to walk together that many Christians can now no longer separate the two (and both get warped as a result). It’s easy to see how our pro-slavery, Christian ancestors blatantly misrepresented Scripture in their attempts to defend their traditions (just as the Pharisees had a mountain of proof-texts for their hypocritical nonsense), but hindsight is 20/20. It’s infinitely more difficult to see how our current Christian traditions, which inevitably intersect with notions of patriotism, individualism, economic theory, self-defense, immigration, race, gender and sexuality, healthcare, foreign policy, and environmental conservationism, are often at odds with God’s heart for kingdom loyalty, community, generosity, sacrificial non-violence, hospitality, justice and reconciliation, grace and truth, compassion, mercy, and responsible stewardship. Sociopolitical allegiances often come with deep seated traditions. If we’re not careful, these partisan values will skew the way we read Scripture, and our stubborn hearts will willingly devise all kinds of Pharisaical “explanations” for why the sacred text condones our present course.
Every church community (no matter how fresh and contemporary) will inherit, and likely create, traditions. As mentioned, this is to be expected and perfectly fine to a point. But we need to be able to properly name our traditions as such so that they don’t inappropriately find their way into the wrong category. No doubt there are some explicit biblical instructions regarding church structure and practice, but our traditions often come in just where the command leaves off. It can become understandably difficult to distinguish between the two.
The “sinner’s prayer” is a good example of a cherished, and somewhat recent, tradition that has become in many Christian communities the exclusive way in which one is ushered into the kingdom of God. I’m not saying that the common practice of leading someone in a prayer, as their first response to the Gospel, in which the new believer is encouraged to acknowledge their sin and ask for God’s forgiveness on account of Jesus’ death and resurrection is a bad thing or that it should be abandoned. The tradition is after all rooted implicitly in passages like Acts 2:21 and Romans 10:9-10. But I think we’re hard pressed to find the contemporary practice of what we now know as the “sinner’s prayer” explicitly modeled in Scripture. Let me reiterate: That doesn’t mean it’s a problem, but it probably means that it’s one of our traditions, and it should be treated accordingly. We don’t see Peter, after preaching the Gospel to the Pentecost crowd, saying “now with all heads bowed, and with every eye closed, can I get a show of hands for who would like to accept Jesus into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior?” Likewise, Phillip, after declaring the Gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch, didn’t lead him in a prayer to “get saved.” And Paul, after preaching the Gospel to the Philippian jailer and his family, didn’t have them come to the front and repeat after him to receive Jesus.
The sinner’s prayer has risen to prominence within evangelical circles in the last few centuries and seems to initially have been adopted for the sake of well-intentioned expediency (particularly so that large crowds of people could be readily welcomed into God’s kingdom at big tent revivals). However, baptism, the new believer’s Scriptural first response to the Gospel, has been somewhat sidelined or even replaced by the rise of the sinner’s prayer. Baptism almost feels redundant within this new arrangement. We usually get around to it (Jesus commanded baptism after all), but it’s something like an afterthought, especially in many non-denominational, evangelical traditions. We sometimes have a waiting period on baptism (as if you’re buying a gun or something), maybe even with a prerequisite class before getting in the water (to be sure you understand what you’re doing, I suppose). I’m all for knowing what you’re getting into (“counting the cost” and so on), but you should have already been brought up to speed with an accurate presentation of the Gospel. If it wasn’t the invitation to be united with Christ in his death so that we may partake in his resurrection (as illustrated in baptism) then it wasn’t the Gospel we heard to begin with.
If someone insists they’re “Heaven bound” simply because they raised their hand or repeated a prayer—even though there’s no evidence they’ve been born of God, truly repented, are filled with God’s Spirit, and Jesus is now their King—then their faith is not actually in Christ and his “new creation” project but in a human tradition. Traditions are best used to point us to God, to magnify Christ in our lives and in others. Only a fool would put their faith in a human tradition, expecting it to act as a golden ticket, lucky charm, or a magical incantation, as if it could undo or supersede the word of God. That’s the backwards thinking of the self-deceived men who conspired to murder the Author of Life.
It’s difficult to really even know how many human traditions we each, and collectively, subscribe to. As I’ve suggested, many of our human traditions are intertwined with Scriptural traditions (i.e. the specifics of how we observe baptism and the Lord’s Supper, organize our Family gatherings, carry out communal worship, and structure church leadership). I think there’s room in the diverse body of Christ for our various distinct traditions (so long as our traditions know their place). When our human traditions become divisive or elevated above God’s word, we've gone too far.
We’re following dangerously in the Pharisees’ footsteps, then, when our preferred traditions become dogma. Many Christians take dogmatic stances on everything from teaching styles to carpet colors (growing up in the church, I feel like I’ve heard it all, every arbitrary position declared with the same zealous conviction as Stephen the Martyr). It’s perfectly normal to have opinions, but recognize that many of our subjective preferences are simply rooted in human traditions and not Scripture.
The main objective of this post is to encourage the reader to faithfully examine all dearly held human traditions. We must be ready to reject—with extreme prejudice—any traditions that undermine or contradict the commands of Christ (or he simply isn’t our King). It’s shocking how many of our political and religious traditions attempt to render Jesus’ commands to love our enemies, care for the poor, and take up our cross (as only a few examples) completely meaningless.
Our next step is to critically examine the traditions we hold to that don’t directly oppose the word of God (This can be the more difficult task of the two). Are these traditions ultimately helpful in achieving what they’re designed to accomplish (In other words, do they draw us and others closer or further away from Jesus)? Is there perhaps a better more effective way to pursue the same goal? Has our tradition in its current form outlived its usefulness? In this category, the conversation revolves around how helpful or unhelpful a given tradition is rather than declaring its inherent “wrongness” or “rightness.” Cross-cultural ministers of the Gospel are often more attune to this important process (with perhaps a clearer vantage point of typical American syncretism) as they seek to plant a pure seed in a foreign context. I’ve raised some of these questions elsewhere regarding the widely accepted building-centric nature of our gatherings. These are hard questions that we should have the courage to passionately discuss in Spirit-filled community (with grace and humility). If our goal is truly to glorify God by sharing the good news of Jesus (and not simply to maintain our own preferences) then our traditions should readily bend to that aim. None of our human traditions should be beyond the possibility of the chopping block. And if we feel that they are, then we know for sure that our traditions have become idols to us.
“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition” —Jesus (from Mark 7:8, 13a)