The Snare of Human Tradition

March 12, 2019
Warren Henderson

Whether we like to admit to it or not, we all are prone to mindless rout in much of what we do. From our morning routine, to matters of hygiene and dress, we act habitually. How many of us sit in the same pew or park our vehicles in the same spot each Sunday? It is easier to do what we have always done rather than rethink what is customary.

While such habits are not necessarily wrong, we should be aware that this ingrained tendency can create unprofitable traditions that adversely affect the local church. Church tradition (i.e., speaking of apostolic truth; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14) must be obeyed, but for the good of our local churches we should spurn humanly-devised customs.

A Biblical Example

King Saul’s actions in 1 Samuel 14 illustrate the damaging nature of man-made rules. The Philistines were threatening Israel with an enormous army. Israel’s army was small and only Saul and Jonathan had swords. The Lord used brave Jonathan and his armor bearer to defeat a Philistine garrison and instigate a great victory for Israel. Unfortunately, self-focused Saul diminished God’s blessing by uttering a rash oath. He placed a curse on anyone eating before evening to better permit him to avenge himself of his enemies (1 Sam. 14:24). Jonathan rightly recognized that the Philistines were the Lord’s enemy (1 Sam. 14:12), but Saul wanted to vindicate himself of his enemies to preserve his own honor. Saul’s rash vow was crafted in pride, as shown by his willingness later to sacrifice the man of faith (his own son) to save face.

Saul’s rule caused the Lord’s people to suffer in two ways. First, the loss of God’s blessing occurred because of the reduced agility of famished Jewish soldiers. The soldiers deserved sustenance while battling the enemy (Deut. 25:4). Additionally, while Saul was wasting time casting lots to see who had broken his decree, the Philistines were able to further retreat. Second, Saul’s tradition displaced the importance of observing God’s Law and led God’s people into sin. In the evening, Saul’s men quickly killed the animals to eat their flesh without letting them bleed-out first, as per the Law. Saul’s tradition reduced God’s blessing to His people, eventually led them into sin, and put God-ordained authority (Saul) to public shame.

A Practical Evaluation

One of the beautiful aspects of Church truth is that local assemblies adhering to Scripture and following the New Testament (NT) pattern will still be diverse in practice. While such diversity is expected, the challenge for each assembly is to continually review its practices to ensure humanism is not displacing Christ’s headship. Let us think through three reasons for such an evaluation:

First, realizing our tendency to traditionalize things we should be careful about judging others for having differing meeting formats. A statement such as, “You are not a NT assembly unless you have a Sunday evening Gospel meeting and mid-week prayer meeting” cannot be supported by Scripture. Each assembly should review and adjust accordingly as to what format/schedule best accommodates the needs of those in fellowship. For example, if a number of the saints live at a distance, it may make sense to have all the meetings of the Church at one time and then gather in small groups at several locales during the week. Additionally, although the believers in the NT all gathered in one place to hear God’s word taught (1 Cor. 14:23), it may be helpful to have a special program if a number of unsaved children were visiting the assembly on Sunday.

Second, realizing our tendency to slide into ritualistic worship we should continually evaluate if what we are doing is scriptural or practically necessary, as opposed to a developed tradition. It was once suggested that our assembly should be covering the emblems after they were passed at the Lord’s Supper. When I asked why? The response was, “We do it at our church to show completeness.” There is nothing wrong with covering the emblems with a cloth, but to say it is wrong not to – is wrong. Covering the emblems to keep the flies away would be a practical reason for doing so, but adding a symbolic meaning to such a practice forges a tradition.
There are certain practices that we all do, that may be permissible, but we become uncomfortable if they are not observed. Examples for the Lord’s Supper would include: the placement of emblems on the table, opening/closing the meeting the same way, the procedure for taking/passing the emblems, the use of a preferred hymnal or one Bible version, standing or sitting on cue, or the wearing of formal attire. On the latter point, we should remember that the Lord is present and presides over all meetings of the church, not just the Lord’s Supper.

Third, we should realize that we often develop unbiblical terminology which leads us into traditions. For example, when examining Scripture, we find that “worship” is not used as an adjective (e.g., “worship leader”). The few nouns that are rendered “worship” do not directly relate to the believer’s worship, but there are an abundance of verbs in the NT confirming that “worship” is something that we do. It does not describe what we have done for God, nor does it describe who we are (i.e., titles belong to the Lord not His servants)! It is the pagan that works to induce or force worship (Dan. 3), but the Holy Spirit leads believers in joyful worship without regard to meeting labels. The moment we begin to worship our worship it ceases to be what God appreciates!

A sister once informed me that she was only going to cover her head during the “worship meeting” (a wrong reference to the Lord’s Supper). Embracing unbiblical terminology had caused her to put a premium on one church meeting over another, which she thought justified her revision of the headship practice commanded in Scripture.

Incidentally, the same verses that state the what also tell us when headship is to be observed (1 Cor. 11:5-7): whenever we are in God’s intimate presence to speak to Him in prayer or He is speaking to us through His Word. At such times, there should be the visible salute to His authority and glory (as a respectful soldier salutes a higher ranking officer). Paul speaks of Creation Order in 1 Corinthians 1:2-16, and then switches specifically to Church Order in verses 17-34 to address the local church gathering for the Lord’s Supper. Sadly, many traditions have developed to constrain the what and the when of the headship practice to something other than what Scripture states.

Take the Challenge

It is our nature to want to slide through life as carefree as possible; this propensity prompts many mindless routines. In these wicked days we cannot afford to quench the Holy Spirit through vain religiosity. The next generation of believers needs to see the real thing, not empty formality. As children of God, we must continually “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom. 12:2). Seeing that human traditions often limit God’s blessing and lead us into sin, we should verify that our church practices are honoring the Lord and not ourselves. May the Lord help us all to spot those pride-appealing traditions that would hinder us from experiencing the fuller joy of the Lord. •