by Chaplain Don Moldstad (Bethany Lutheran College)
Christ in Media Institute Board Member
According to the Bible, God does not want us to base our beliefs on the traditions people have developed, or treat them as if they are on an equal par with Scripture. It is through His Word alone that we will know the truth. We are not to add any new teaching to what the Bible says (which is called Legalism). Consider these passages:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? … This way you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
– Matthew 15:1-9
To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you continue in My Word, then you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
– John 8:31-32
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.
– Rev. 22:18-19
Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.”
– I Corinthians 4:6
According to Scripture, the authority for establishing truth should not be found in the traditions of men, nor in the leadership of the Church (which may fail), but only in the Word of God itself. Jesus was upset that some of the teachers of the Law had burdened people’s consciences with things God had not commanded.
Having said this, the Church has developed some wonderful traditions that help to uphold the truth of the Bible, shine a spotlight on it, or protect it. When a tradition has served to teach and display what God has said in His Word, it is good and right to keep it. For instance, many of the traditions of the Pharisees and rabbis were kept by Jesus and His apostles because they served the truth, such as their form of worship, the use of Psalms, singing hymns, preaching, etc. (Luke 4:16-21; Acts 17:1-4). These were retained by Christ and His disciples since they were in place to serve the truth found in Scripture.
The Apostles are very comfortable staying inside the parameters of the synagogue order of worship (liturgy) as they present the Messiah who has come (Acts chapters 13-18). Though there would be a great division among the Jews over Christ, nonetheless we see no getting rid of traditional Jewish worship practices by the apostles. Even though Jesus, Paul and John will condemn the false teachings of some of the Jewish spiritual leaders, we never find them criticizing their traditional worship practices, but rather continuing in them. Early writings of the second century indicate that John, Peter, Mark and James are credited with some of the early orders of worship. Many of the Old Testament traditions are brought into the New Testament church.
The word leitourgi;a (Greek for “liturgy”) denotes a special service performed through an office and ministry – God’s service to man – primarily in the context of what we call the ministry. It is a word also used to describe the work of Christ, “We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister (Liturgist) of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.” (Hebrews 8:1-2) The primary function of the leitourgo;s (liturgist) is to serve people in the place of Christ and by His command – in other words, to stand in His place to proclaim His Word. Jesus told His disciples, “He who hears you, hears Me.” If you look at the traditional liturgy used by so many in the church through the centuries it is mostly words from the Psalms. Paul writes, “Let the Word of Christ dwell in your richly as you teach and counsel one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your heart.” (Colossians 3:16) Again he writes to the Ephesians regarding their worship, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” (Ephesians 5:19)
If there was ever a time in the history of the church to get rid of what had been handed down by tradition, it would have been during the Reformation. However, Dr. Martin Luther wisely kept all that was good and edifying in the church, and took away only those things that got in the way of the Gospel.
St. Paul writes that there is a proper place for tradition: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.” (I Corinthians 11:1-2) To the Thessalonian Christians he writes, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings (traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (II Thessalonians 2:15)
The author of Hebrews also writes, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the Word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.” (Hebrews 13:7-9)
If you are like me, doing something over and over again can sometimes cause me to not pay attention. Sad to say, the same thing happens at times when praying the Lord’s Prayer. However, the problem is not the prayer (which Jesus Himself composed) but rather my sinful mind. Despite potential drawbacks, there can be wonderful blessings that come from doing something over and over again. It imprints these important truths in our hearts and memories, just like the words to “Jesus Loves Me.” May we learn to treasure our traditions, and find out why they are used before we throw them aside. Rather, let us use them wisely, but at the same time not elevate them to be equal with or above the Word of God.