On the Merits of Mere Traditions

Note: This article was originally posted December 21, 2005.

Traditions get picked on occasionally by Bible-believing people. I have done some of that picking myself and don’t regret it. Traditions are, after all, things handed down and honored by time, repetition, and the sharing of them by groups of people, and they are not necessarily rooted in any authoritative expression of the will of God.

But attitudes toward tradition tend to be polarized in an unedifying way. We have our unabashed tradition defenders and our unabashed tradition bashers. Those in the former group have rarely met a tradition they didn’t love, and those in the latter group feel quite the opposite. But perhaps both groups are missing something. Maybe the best course is to side with the tradition defenders in presuming traditions innocent until proven guilty but also to side with the bashers in aggressively putting traditions on trial. (I’m speaking metaphorically here, not joining the ACLU!)

There are good reasons to believe that a mere tradition, that is known to be just that, can be a very powerful thing for good and that those who run madly in the opposite direction of anything that looks or sounds old are doing themselves a great disservice.

What Mere Traditions Are Good for

One of the first things God did when He was forming a people for His name was command them to establish traditions (Scripture quotes are from the New King James Version).

… you shall seek the place where the LORD your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place; and there you shall go… . and there you shall eat before the LORD your God, and you shall rejoice in all to which you have put your hand, you and your households … (Deut. 12:5-7)

Observe the month of Abib, and keep the Passover … in the place where the LORD chooses to put His name. You shall eat no leavened bread with it … (for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste), that you may remember the day in which you came out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life. (Deut. 16:1-3)

Granted, these were not mere traditions. They were traditions handed down by God Himself and designed to convey particular meanings in powerful and beautiful ways. Nonetheless, what God chose to hand down were special places, special days, and special activities to be carried out the same way over and over again by generation after generation. In theory, God could have said “keep this feast this way, in this place, this year, but next year I’ll have you do something else, something fresh and new and exciting.” But that isn’t what God chose.

The fact that God, in His wisdom, chose to give His people traditions implies something of value in traditions in general, even many of the mere traditions He has not handed down.

Good for Gluing

People often speak of traditions in the possessive, as in “this is our tradition.” They are claiming that what they do and how they do it (and perhaps when and where) is unlike what many others do. The result is that those who share in the tradition have something distinctive in common that not only sets them apart from others, but also binds them more closely and more tightly together with one another. Surely this was one of God’s intentions for the traditions He gave to Israel.

… I am the LORD your God, who has separated you from the peoples. You shall therefore distinguish between clean animals and unclean … you shall not make yourselves abominable by beast or by bird, or by any kind of living thing that creeps on the ground, which I have separated from you as unclean. And you shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine. (Lev. 20:24-26)

Since God later declares all foods to be clean (Acts 10:15, possibly Mk 7:19b), God cannot have meant, in the Law, that there was something inherently unholy (or unhealthy) about these foods. Rather, God was giving His people distinctive traditions that would bind them together and set them apart.

This is also evident in God’s emphasis on location.

But when you cross over the Jordan and dwell in the land which the LORD your God is giving you … then there will be the place where the LORD your God chooses to make His name abide. There you shall bring all that I command you … (Deut. 12:10-11)

Only the holy things which you have, and your vowed offerings, you shall take and go to the place which the LORD chooses. (Deut. 12:26)

The law also established regular repetition of this coming together.

Three times a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Tabernacles … (Deut. 16:16)

The traditions we establish on our own do not have the authority or illustrative power of those God directly ordained for Israel, but they are often powerful tools for binding a group of people together and distinguishing them from others.

Provided a tradition does not hinder our pursuit of the revealed will of God, “this is something we do, it’s our tradition, and we like it” is really not a weak defense. A time-honored custom does not necessarily require a biblical mandate. Consequently, tradition bashers who consider the job done after pointing out that a tradition is not biblically prescribed are being a bit hasty. And tradition lovers who distort Scripture in an effort “biblicize” their tradition are taking on an unnecessary burden (not to mention the affront to God’s Word).

There is really no shame in saying of some things, “We do it this way because it’s part of who we are, and it’s not what others do.”

Good for Elevating

The best of mere traditions not only create a horizontal distance from “what everybody else does” but also create a vertical distance, an elevation above “what we ourselves usually do.” Nothing creates a deep awareness that “today is not like other days” as powerfully as a good tradition.

When Ezra and Nehemiah were restoring covenant living in Jerusalem and celebrating the rebuilt walls, they planned a series of public new beginnings. For one of these Nehemiah organized a large thanksgiving choir.

I brought the leaders of Judah up on the wall, and appointed two large thanksgiving choirs. One went to the right hand on the wall toward the Refuse Gate… . The other thanksgiving choir went the opposite way, and I was behind them with half of the people on the wall … (Neh 12:31-38)

The choirs were dramatic and new but also part of a grand tradition. David had assembled special choirs centuries before for bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem (1 Chron. 15:15), and Solomon used choirs and instruments on the occasion of the Temple dedication (2 Chron. 5:12-13). A major reason for choirs on these occasions was to elevate the events above the level of the ordinary by linking them to special events of the past.

The music the people heard at these times was both traditional in that sense and also unusual in that it could not have been music they heard every day. Everyday music could not communicate “this is a special day.”

On a smaller scale, God’s people had used choirs to elevate worship at the Tabernacle for many years even before David’s Ark celebration or Solomon’s Temple dedication (1 Chron. 6:31-32). While the music of the Levitical choirs would have been heard at least weekly on the Sabbaths, it is unlikely that people heard the Levitical choirs roaming the streets at mealtimes or out in the fields while they worked or at ordinary social gatherings of friends and families. The Levitical sound would have been an elevating tradition, a sound people heard only at certain times and places and which told them at an emotional level, “This is not every day; this is something special.”

To the best of my knowledge, God didn’t command Israel to use choirs in this way. It was mere tradition.

Perhaps what this says about our times is that we do not need a biblical defense of a particular musical style (or a biblical case against all other styles) to justify using worship music that is noticeably unlike what we hear every day. If we simply say ,”We aim to use music you do not hear in the shopping malls or on television or even on your MP3 players every day of the week,” we’re saying plenty. To put it another way, there is no disgrace in simply admitting “We want to elevate the occasion above the every-day, and we think what is not trendy does this best.”

Good for Anchoring

In the constantly and rapidly changing landscape of our information age, there is a lot to be said for something that has been around longer than last week.

This anchoring purpose is also apparent in the traditions God gave to Israel and some they formed on their own. In many of the passages I’ve already cited, there is more than a hint of interest in linking people solidly with their own history.

Observe the month of Abib … that you may remember … all the days of your life. (Deut. 16:1-3)

When your son asks you in time to come, saying, “What is the meaning of the testimonies, the statutes, and the judgments … ?” then you shall say to your son: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand …” (Deut. 6:20-21)

Joshua seems to have had the same goal. The tradition he was creating was a casual one, but still a tradition. Whenever people passed a certain way, they were expected to see, remember, and connect with their history.

And those twelve stones which they took out of the Jordan Joshua set up in Gilgal. Then he spoke to the children of Israel, saying: “When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, ‘What are these stones?’ then you shall let your children know, saying, ‘Israel crossed over this Jordan on dry land …’” (Josh 4:20-22)

There is nothing wrong with defending some of the things we do and the ways we do them on the grounds that they are old ways, time-honored ways, traditions that connect us with those who have gone before and remind us that neither the human race nor God’s people began the day we were born.

Not Good for Doctrine

In the interest of balance, it’s important to review, at least briefly, what mere traditions are not good for. In short, they are not good for doctrine. Jesus rebuked the religious authorities of the day for this error.

“And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men- the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do. (Mark 7:7-8)

It isn’t clear which came first, teaching mere human traditions as doctrines or laying aside the Aaron with son Joelactual instructions of God. But the two went hand in hand. So those of us who love some traditions, and especially those among us who love traditions in general, must be warned. We are always in danger of canonizing the traditions we love, propping them up and encasing them in what we hope is an impenetrable biblical shield, when in reality they are merely traditions.

When we do this, we twist beautiful, time-honored things into hideous idols. Let’s let mere traditions be mere traditions and love them (or not) for what they are.

Aaron Blumer, a native of lower Michigan, is a graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He, his wife, and their two children live in small-town west Wisconsin where he has pastored Grace Baptist Church (Boyceville, WI) since 2000. Prior to serving as a pastor, Aaron taught school in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and served in customer service and technical support for Unisys Corporation (Eagan, MN). He enjoys science fiction, music, and dabbling in software engineering.

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