Doctrine Ch.2 - The Role of Tradition

All churches accumulate traditions—even those that claim to have done away with them! Can they help us to interpret the Bible, or should we challenge some of them like Jesus did?

I recently met some traditional Salafi Muslims at their bookstall in a shopping center. Keen to dissociate themselves from extremist offshoots such as ISIS, they are part of a back-to-Qur’an movement that pays little regard to later Islamic traditions that rule most Muslims. I realized with some surprise that they are the Islamic equivalent of Christians like me who regard the Bible alone as authoritative and give little weight to later church tradition.

       Other branches of Islam can also be compared to similar Christian traditions. Shi’ite Muslims have a hierarchical system similar to Catholics and Orthodox churches, with an ayatollah ruling like a pope or patriarch. In contrast, Sunni Muslims are more like Protestants because every mosque can be independent, though most are banded together into groups like Christian denominations. Sufi Muslims are the charismatics of Islam, worshiping with lots of music and often enthusiastic dancing. The Ahmadiyya sect believe that the Islamic Messiah arrived in 1835, rather like Jehovah’s Witnesses, who think the second coming started in 1914.

       Muslims follow not only the Qur’an, but also the Hadith—the traditions of leaders after Muhammad that were written in various collections. A few early collections are accepted by most Muslims, but others are specific to Shi’ites, or the various branches of Sunni Muslims, who all follow their own different traditions. The Salafites don’t accept these traditions as authoritative guidance and rely only on the Qur’an. They follow principles such as refusing to vote in elections, because there are no elections mentioned in the Qur’an. They are like Christian groups who use the Bible alone for theology, without the addition of historical church traditions. Such groups include the Brethren, Baptists, or those Church of Christ congregations that refuse to use musical instruments because the New Testament does not mention them being used by any church. However, the Salafites, like these Christian groups, have gradually accumulated their own traditions.

       These parallels aren’t merely coincidental, because we see a similar pattern in other religious traditions, and these groups certainly aren’t trying to copy each other. Jews in Jesus’ day illustrated the same patterns. Like Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans, Sadducees had a hierarchy topped by a high priest, while the Pharisees were like many Protestants in that they were independent while being grouped in denomination-type schools. The Pharisees originated because they rejected the historic Sadducean traditions, choosing to regard the Scriptures (the Old Testament) as their only authority. However they soon started accumulating their own traditions, and when these were finally collected together as a written text (the Mishnah, at about AD 200) their traditions had already grown to about the size of the Bible. Subsequent generations treated the Mishnah as if it had almost scriptural authority and wrote commentaries on it called Talmuds. In reaction to this, the Dead Sea community (and later Karaite Jews) started new back-to-the-Bible movements that rejected the Pharisees’ traditions. However, these movements too started collecting their own traditions. Of course, another person who rejected the Pharisees’ traditions was Jesus.

       Christians in the New Testament era based all their teachings on the words of the Old Testament as interpreted by Jesus, but soon after New Testament times they too started accumulating their own traditions. When the church thought—and argued—about what was in the New Testament, they wrote up their decisions as creeds and summarized doctrine and Bible interpretation in other documents. Eventually, various churches produced complete legal systems of canon law, and prayer books that determined what should be said in church services.

       So we can see that all Christian groups accumulate traditions—even those that think they don’t. All church movements soon find the need for creeds or statements of faith. Sermons and prayers soon settle into recognizable styles and phrases, so you can literally tell what kind of church you are in with your eyes shut. And every church starts amassing a body of traditions that can be encapsulated in the statement “We’ve always done it this way.”

5-minute summary

(More videos here)

Jesus was angry

Jesus appeared to be vehemently against human traditions that become more important than the Bible. One of his loudest condemnations of the Pharisees was “You nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:13). On that occasion his disciples were eating without having washed their hands. The rabbis had added this rule because Old Testament priests had to wash before eating in the Temple, so it was clearly what God wanted. A nice interpretation, but it wasn’t very practical when farm workers had a lunch break. Jesus pointed out that these human rules don’t just make life difficult but can even undermine God’s law. He gave the example of a corban oath (popular at the time) that was equivalent to “I’ll be damned if you ever get a penny from me” (Mark 7:11). You might say this kind of thing when you are angry and then take it back. But the Pharisees said that you’d made an oath, so it was made before God and it must be carried out: they must never again get any financial support from you. And, once people knew that this was how it was interpreted, it would be an easy way to get out of a financial obligation: you would simply “accidentally” make a hasty vow like this, and then you couldn’t reverse it, so you had no further obligation. Therefore, if someone spoke an oath like this to his parents, he legally couldn’t give them any financial help again. The Pharisees taught that the law of oaths trumps the law of honoring parents (Num 30:2; Exod 20:12), so even elderly relatives could be left stranded as paupers by their family. Jesus rightly pointed out that this human tradition undermined Scripture—the commandment to honor your parents.

       Although they got things so wrong, I’d like to put in a good word for the Pharisees because their hearts were often in the right place. The motivation behind all these rules and regulations was a desire to please God. If God gave a commandment, they reasoned that they should make sure they never got even close to breaking it. For example, God said they shouldn’t work on a Sabbath by laboring to gather wood or getting a fire started, and they obeyed this.

       They also protected this command with a “fence”—that is, they decided to put strict rules in place to make sure no one accidentally broke God’s command. The fence in this case was an additional rule that on a Sabbath you shouldn’t light any fires at all, however small—not even lighting a lamp from an existing fire. They wanted to remove all the questions about how much labor was involved—was this an easy fire to light, or was it moderately easy, or did it in fact involve “labor,” which was forbidden? They reasoned that the way to make sure no one did any labor lighting a fire was to forbid them lighting any fire at all. This fence was a protection that kept people from walking too near the cliff edge of actually breaking God’s law. As a result, some modern Jews won’t even use a light switch on a Sabbath because this creates a tiny spark. So if a Jew returned from synagogue on Friday afternoon to find his wife had forgotten to light the lamps before sunset, they had to spend the whole evening in darkness—probably arguing about traditions!

Only human

Traditions are a part of being human. In every church community, worship follows an order (even if it is theoretically without any specific order), dress code is predictable, and many people probably look up doctrines in creeds or statements before turning to Scripture. Recently I was shocked to see a man wearing a flat cap while leading worship. Then I realized that in most churches today we don’t make women wear hats, so we shouldn’t demand that men be bareheaded, seeing as both customs are based on the same text (1 Cor 11:2-7). However, I was uneasy when I heard of an Australian church barbecue having communion with burgers and beer instead of bread and wine. I realize that Jesus used normal food for this meal, and normal food is now different, but it still seems wrong for one big reason: it isn’t traditional!

       Most traditions are useful, or at least convenient and comfortable, but they become toxic when they are used as barriers to necessary change. If we base our beliefs on traditions rather than Scripture, we won’t realize when our interpretation of Scripture has been colored by an old culture. The ascetic movement of the early church was a reaction against the sexual and materialist corruption in the increasingly depraved and declining Roman Empire. But that tradition continued long after the original reason for it was gone, and we have only recently reversed it by allowing exuberant worship and relaxed clothing back into churches.

       All of us will read Scripture through the lens of our traditions—we can’t help it. But we should be aware that we are doing this. We must accept that Christians are influenced by tradition as much as Muslims, Jews, and people of other faiths. And, of course, tradition isn’t all bad—being wary of change can save us from being swayed by every novel idea. But our tradition can also “nullify the word of God” when it blinds us to the true meaning of the Bible simply because it is different from what we’ve “always” done.

       In the end, Scripture always has to trump tradition if we want to live our lives according to God’s revelation rather than a human-made religion. And that means that sometimes we have to admit that we’ve been reading the Bible through lenses colored by our traditions. We need to reexamine the text through the lenses of the original readers. It might lead us to revise some of our traditions … but I’m still not sure about communion with beer and burgers. I think I’ll keep my tradition-colored shades on, for that situation at least.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

Your comments can start a discussion

Share this page on social media and your comments could start a discussion among your friends. Any link you create this way will continue working even after this month when the topic will no longer be available on this site. So new visitors to your discussion will still be able to read the discussion topic so long as they use your social media link.
  • On Facebook the topic, then go to your Facebook page to add your comment.
    If you want me to see your comments, mention "David Instone-Brewer"
  • On Twitter tweet the topic, then go to your Twitter account to read it.
    If you want me to see your comments, mention "@DavidIBrewer"

Subscribe to each new monthly release

● To follow on Twitter: 
● To follow by Email:        
● On Facebook, first "Like" it:
Then, to ensure you see the post each month, in "Following" tick "See first"
("Default" means Facebook decides whether to show it to you or not).