Is there Room for Traditions in the Church?

I received this question from the question box in the foyer: “Is there room for man’s traditions in the church?” This is an important question to consider, and although I don’t know the context that spurred this question, I will answer this from the angle that I see things and hopefully, it will cover the inquirer’s perspective on their question.

Is there room for traditions in the church? The short answer can neither be yes nor no, for many variables and conditions should be considered for every tradition kept by any local church. First, every local church follows traditions; there is no such thing as a tradition-less church. Even in the first century, the new testament church followed many traditions. Consider what Paul said to the Corinthians: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” (1 Corinthians 11:2). And what he said to the Thessalonians: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). So then, the new testament church followed traditions from the onset, granted these were very new traditions in the first century, but traditions must start somewhere. Let’s take a closer look at what Paul said about the traditions that the church must maintain. To Corinth, Paul told them to maintain the traditions “as I delivered them to you”. As an apostle of the Lord, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul instructed the church about the practices of the church that must be kept, i.e. the traditions of the church. Likewise, to the Thessalonians, Paul wrote that they must “hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” The church was to carry on the traditions that were taught by Paul and the other apostles, whether these things were delivered to them by spoken word in person, or by epistles. We still have the words of the Lord’s disciples today in the new testament documents. This means that we still have the traditions they gave the church to participate in. However, the traditions of the church are not traditions of men, but the traditions of God. For example, one tradition that the Corinthians were to maintain was the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). But the Lord’s Supper is not a tradition of men, but a tradition started by Christ (1 Corinthians 11:23). We find in the new testament many other traditions that we have received from God, such as the gathering of the church on the first day of the week, contributing to the work of the church, singing praises to God, distributing to the needs of God’s ministers and needy saints, etc. Even the order of our lives as Christians has been handed to us as traditions to be maintained. Biblical traditions are therefore the patterns laid before us for the work of the church and the Christian. But as these traditions are not the traditions of men, this doesn’t answer the question of whether there is room for man’s traditions in the church.

As God gave the church the tradition to assemble together on the first day of the week, he did not direct us in how to accomplish that. For some local bodies, this could be accomplished in a member’s home. Most of the time, local churches are too large to be accommodated by a house. In the new testament, some churches were small enough (at least for a season) to gather in a home, but the tradition of the church in the first century quickly became a designated building set apart for the work and worship of the church. It is evident that the church at Corinth was not meeting in a house (1 Corinthians 11:22), and James writes to a great many Christians scattered abroad, and refers to their “synagogues” (often just translated as “assembly” in English translations) which they assemble in (James 2:2). Now, could a local church maintain a tradition of meeting in a house or even in an open field and still fulfill God’s command to assemble for worship? Absolutely. Consider another example; when we sing together, we fulfill the tradition of God (Colossians 3:16), but one local church may traditionally use songbooks to accomplish this, while another will use a projector and screen to view the songs. So, in simple ways like these, there will always be room for traditions within each local church. However, in matters of doctrine, there is no room for traditions of men. Jesus spoke out against this very thing in Mark 7:1-13, saying to the Pharisees, “’in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” Many traditions of men have made their way into various churches, conflicting with what God has instructed the church to do or how to carry out certain commandments. These traditions either add to or take away from what God’s word instructs. To be a sound church that loves the will of the Lord, we must be careful to not allow such traditions of men to slip in unnoticed.

One final thought to consider. Back to the simple example of churches traditionally using songbooks over projectors and vice versa, we established that there is nothing wrong with either of these habits, but sin will certainly enter when a church binds a tradition as the right way that things must be done. This is precisely what Jesus had addressed to the Pharisees. We don’t want to be like the Pharisees, binding traditions upon members of the church, adding to the word of God, and casting away the truth so we can have our traditions. When it comes to traditions, everyone has their own opinions, but to bind our own opinion on the rest of the body will certainly lead to strife among the brethren, weak souls falling away, and a Lord who is most displeased with his church acting in self-will.

Article by Tanner Campbell