Are Traditions Holding Back the Assemblies?
“Tradition, tradition… tradition”
I can’t ever think about the topic of tradition without these lyrics reverberating in my head. With proper Tevye gusto, of course. Here’s Tevye’s monologue…
“Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything… how to eat, how to sleep, even, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl… This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you – I don’t know. But it’s a tradition… Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
“Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as, as a fiddler on a roof.”
How did it start? I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.
In assembly circles we often react like Tevye when it comes to our traditions. We have little understanding of their origin, let alone their scriptural basis. But, we cling to our traditions because we are afraid that church life would be rather tenuous without them.
Tradition is not fundamentally bad. Our traditions form a rich tapestry of almost 2000 years of history and heritage. Our traditions celebrate the commonalities between current believers and believers of centuries past. Traditions provide continuity and connection.
For thousands of years believers have met in similar simple practice like the assemblies of today. Little pomp and circumstance. Just the bread and wine, scripture and saints. Singing, praying, reading, sharing.
It is beautiful.
We make tradition synonymous with conservative/spiritual thinking and practice. But it can be the easy way out. Instead of digging into why we do what we do, and what scripture says, we just float along on the tide of what we’ve always done.
This tends to cause some issues with the younger set. Because young people want to know why.
Why do we only sing these certain hymns from this specific hymnbook, when these new hymns are sound doctrinally and musically?
Why do we sing a cappella, or only with a piano, when the Bible is full of references to other instruments being used in praise and worship?
Why do we categorize hand raising as charismatic when Solomon, David, Ezra, and Paul all mention and practice it?
Why don’t we corporately kneel to pray? Why don’t we do more ministering to the physical needs of the poor and needy? Why don’t we have pastors and deacons? Why don’t we immediately baptize people who get saved?
Why do we focus on weekly breaking of bread in a certain format (of which very little is said in the Bible) and ignore other just as Biblical truths and practices?
Too often our answers to these questions boil down to tradition. Not scripture.
The result is that young (and older) people are leaving the assemblies in droves because we can’t or won’t honestly answer these questions from scripture.
What does the Bible say about tradition?
We’d like to think these traditions show our constant devotion to God, but what if instead they indicate ignorance (I don’t know!) and laziness (because of our traditions everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do!).
What if they indicate mediocrity or unspirituality?
Much is said in scripture about things God commanded that evolved into empty practice.
God commanded fasting but in Zechariah 7 the captives were wondering if they should continue this practice of fasting. God had commanded it. They’d done it for years. It was tradition.
This is God’s response to their query.
“Say to all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?
“Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.”
Justice, kindness, mercy. That was what God was looking for. Not empty obedience to His commands.
“But they refused to pay attention and turned a stubborn shoulder and stopped their ears that they might not hear.”
A similar idea is brought out in Isaiah 58.
Ah, but that is the Old Testament, you say. Different dispensations, different grace.
The pharisees were paragons of tradition. Hand washing. Praying. Big ceremony. Long fringes. Lots of scripture. Splitting hairs over the preeminence of the altar or the gift.
In Matthew 23, Jesus delivers a scathing rebuke of the pharisees. He calls their practices “heavy burdens, hard to bear.” Jesus calls them blind and hypocrites. They cared more about being seen than seeing and practicing God’s truth. (Matthew 23:11-12, 23)
Jesus urged his listeners to practice what the pharisees preached, not to follow their example. The answer was not to neglect the tradition but to also practice mercy, humility, justice and faithfulness.
But, just in case we think that the Pharisees don’t fit either into our particular dispensational box, let’s look at the 7 churches. There really is no getting off the hook.
Ephesus…doing the right things, but lost their first love. Repent.
Sardis…I know your works, your reputation of being alive-but you are dead. Remember what you’ve received and heard. Repent.
Laodicea…you aren’t hot or cold. You say you are rich, prosperous, need nothing. You don’t realize you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, naked. Repent.
Where do we go from here?
All is not lost. All is not despairing.
The answer is not to throw out all of our traditions.
The answer is to dig into scripture and prayerfully discern which of our traditions are Biblical and which are not.
The answer is to ask the Holy Spirit to shine light on where we are relying on our tradition to please God and for direction, instead of doing the hard work of figuring out what the Lord desires of this generation.
The answer is to repent.
Micah 6:8 is a great starting point.
He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?
Why does it matter?
I’m writing this as a mom of four-a 15 year old, a 13 year old, a 10 year old and a 6 year old. It matters because I want my kids to be in the assemblies in another 10-15 years. But, the answer, “we’ve always done it this way,” is not going to suffice for them, any more than it has for the eons before them.
For the sake of my kids, I want to ask the hard questions and dig for the hard answers.