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A Tradition of Tradition

by Tim O'Hearn

“How do we keep our balance. That I can tell you in one word: Tradition.” Tevye, in “Fiddler on the Roof,” understood that tradition is a vital part of human existence. If “three times is a tradition,” then much of our lives consist of traditions We may have a traditional route to work, a traditional meal on one or more days, or even a tradition of what clothes to wear. We cannot escape our traditions.

Throughout this series of articles on traditions in the churches, of which this is intended to be the last, the thought has been repeated that traditions are neither bad nor good, unless one places tradition over the word of God. When we make the commands of men equal to the commands of God, then we overstep our bounds.

And yet, as has also been mentioned, the churches of the Restoration Movement that began in America in the middle 1800s have often expressed a three-fold standard for doctrine. It is usually worded as “direct command, necessary inference, or apostolic example.” Direct command is often pretty simple; it is not tradition, it is law. Necessary inference is a little more nebulous. What is a necessary inference, and what is one inference among many or none? Still, one should be able to prove that an Some like to say all traditions are wrong. Jesus reserved his disapprobation for specific traditions.inference necessarily follows the facts in question. Apostolic example, however, can be expressed as “tradition, but only if the tradition goes back to the first century.” This view says we can follow Paul when he says, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” (2 Thes 2:15)

Even the phrase “apostolic example” is sometimes inaccurate. We pick and choose which examples we want to consider authoritative, and which traditions we want to reject. Is Sunday assembly truly an apostolic example, a practice of the church which an apostle adapted to his own purpose, or simply an assumption on our part based on more recent tradition? Which traditions of the first-century church are apostolic examples and which are mere congregational examples? Thus the difficulty in determining whether a tradition is doctrine or not.

An older tradition of tradition

While the Restoration churches insist on the validity of certain traditions, they often look down upon those who follow older traditions. The rabbis speak of the written Law and the oral Law. The written Torah is found in the Books of Moses (the Pentateuch). But, they say, when Moses was on the mountain, God gave him much more than the written law. He also gave him interpretations of the law, some of which we even see in Deuteronomy, beyond what was written. These interpretations, the Oral Law, were handed down from priest to priest until it was eventually written down as Talmud about 200 years after Jesus.

Actually, this is not a bad way of doing things. When I was in high school my one and only foray into political action was as part of a group called “Students for a Constitutional Convention.” The constitution of the State of New Mexico had grown cumbersome and needed simplified. Unlike the United States constitution, which still fits in a small pamphlet even after its several amendments, the New Mexico constitution had grown very specific. On many issues the constitution had been amended rather than a law simply being passed. Laws that should have been part of the New Mexico Code were incorporated as amendments to the constitution such that the document consisted of a thick volume rather than a small pamphlet. Our argument was that a constitution should be the basic law of the land, and that the details of how that constitution was administered made up the various laws. Not only was a simpler constitution less cumbersome to read, the laws were less difficult to modify. It is sometimes easier to get the legislature to change a law than it is to get the populace of the state to approve an amendment.

Similar arguments are proposed for the Oral Law. One could read the law of sabbath in general. Most people could understand and follow that. But if finer points of the law needed to be enforced they could rely on the oral law. Some may argue that subsequent rabbis legislated where Moses had no idea of the need for legislation. Examples cited often include not turning on an electric light or not starting a car on sabbath, or whether an electric razor is a razor or a scissors. Nevertheless, God did not include all the fine points of law in the Bible.

Where Jesus balked on the matter was when traditions were obviously developed or used to transgress clear commandments. Some like to say all traditions are wrong. Jesus, however, reserved his disapprobation for specific traditions. There were two times (actually one incident) the gospel writers quoted him as saying, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Matthew and Mark quote that in relation to the practice of not supporting parents by dedicating what would have gone to their support to the Temple. (Matthew 15, Mark 7) The underlying discussion in both gospels was the tradition of washing before eating even the smallest morsel. Jesus was not objecting to many traditions, but to those that countermanded the teachings of God. In fact, he regularly participated in the tradition of the synagogue.

The danger in advocating for doctrine based on the Restoration triumvirate is that someone might call it hypocrisy. To accept specific traditions of one time period but to reject older or younger traditions leaves one open to question. Why, for instance, are the Amish ridiculed for traditions of dress dating to the 1800s, but we expect not to be ridiculed for traditions much older? Why do some ridicule Mosaic example but insist on following apostolic example?

Example or instance?

Which apostolic examples are we to accept and which reject? If the apostles could be shown to have practiced foot washing as part of their worship, would we accept that as a required tradition? (Although we have direct command from Jesus to the apostles to wash each other’s feet, any example of it being practiced in the church would come from outside the Bible.) Do direct commands from the apostles bear the weight of command, or of example? (Since Jesus gave them the power of binding and loosing, it appears that they bear the weight of command.)

The real difficulty, though, lies in determining what is a binding example and what is a singular instance. Paul regularly travelled by boat. Is that a binding example? Or is it simply an instance based on the available modes of transportation of the time? If there had been air travel at the time and Paul insisted on going by boat, that might be a binding example or it might be a case of aviophobia. So it is with a number of things we read in the New Testament. Does Acts 2:47 serve as a binding example that Christians should meet in the Temple (if the Temple were still standing) and eat together (or possibly take the Lord’s Supper) in each other’s houses every day? Or is it simply a statement of what the Jerusalem church did at the first? When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, was that binding on us or is it merely an example in the specific of a hospitality we are to practice in a more generic form? How much of what we read in the New Testament is based on the culture of the day, and how much is binding across cultures? How much is binding on us as a whole, and how much was based on a single congregational practice.

Throw them all out

This might lead one to say that we should throw out all traditions outright; nothing for which we do not have direct command or necessary inference should be part of the church. Such an idea is practically impossible. Traditions are such a natural part of life it might be difficult to even separate tradition from command.

Furthermore, it is such an emotional issue. As soon as you try to establish that Sunday assembly is purely a tradition, someone will dig in and present (traditional) arguments that it is an absolute requirement. If a church of Christ failed to offer the Lord’s Supper once a week, or attempted to offer it more often in a week, how many people would change congregations? If we said that a sermon was a tradition we could dispense with, how many (other than the preachers) would jump on that bandwagon? We like our traditions, and defend them, while denigrating those traditions we don’t like. Perhaps the emotional aspect is what kept Jehu from fully following God. “But Jehu took no heed to walk in the law If a command, to whom? If an inference, is it necessary? If an example, is it universal?of the LORD God of Israel with all his heart: for he departed not from the sins of Jeroboam, which made Israel to sin.” (2 Kings 10:31) He successfully rid Israel of one group of idol worshippers, but continued to allow people to worship at the golden calves Jeroboam had set up. After all, that was the representative of God with which he was familiar; destroy another tradition, but don’t mess with mine.

As previously stated, we cannot eliminate all traditions. The triune formula for evaluating doctrine is still valid. It just needs some practical application. If it is a direct command, to whom was it given? Was it expected to be universal? (Not everyone needs to make an ark of gopher wood, whatever that is.) If it is an inference, is it necessary? Is it the only logical conclusion to draw from the entirety of scripture, or is it one possibility among many? If it is an apostolic or first-century church example, is it universal or only practiced by a small number of congregations? Can that even be determined through scripture or ecclesiastical history?

“Tradition. Tradition. Without our traditions our lives would be as shaky as…as a fiddler on a roof.” But sometimes our traditions are just as shaky.