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Is Tradition A Bad Word?
By J.R. Ensey
The Greek word paradosis is used 8 times in the New Testament. It is always translated as “tradition(s)” in the KJV except in I Corinthians 11:2 where it is translated “ordinances.” In other translations, the word is most often rendered “teachings” (NIV, etc.), while some have “instructions,” or even “doctrines.”

The word is in a negative context three times in the Scriptures, once in a neutral setting, and four times used in a positive sense. Jesus used it once in Matthew 7:8 when he was rebuking the Pharisees for holding their Jewish customs in greater esteem than the clear commandments of God (Matthew 15:3). He was not speaking of their moral law of Moses, or even the clear commands of the ceremonial laws. He was targeting the Hebrew commentators who were expert at adding stipulations and speculating with interpretations that were never intended. Many such stipulations and interpretations eventually found their way into volumes we know as the Mishnah, the Talmud, and other Jewish tomes.

In Colossians 2:8, the apostle Paul also puts the term in a negative connotation: “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men [“human tradition” NIV], after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.” He doubtless had in mind the Judaizers and Greek philosophers, but may have included any religious ideas which were irrelevant to Christianity.
Paul, in addressing the Christians in Galatia who were being bombarded by their Jewish friends to return to Judaism, or at least certain dearly held practices, confessed that he also had once been zealous for the Jewish “traditions” of his fathers (1:14). In the Matthew and Galatians references, the term applied to extreme Jewish loyalists who did not want to relinquish their heritage in order to embrace the new covenant.

The other references, however, do not use the term in a negative way. They encourage us to hold fast to the traditions and ordinances which we have received from the apostolic teachers. The thrust seems to be that we cannot esteem any commentary or private interpretation to supersede the clear expressions of the Word of God. We should refrain from putting a certain “spin” on a passage to make it fit our own philosophy or traditional practice. Peter called that “wresting the scriptures” (II Peter 3:16).

That is often the way the word is used in some Christian circles today. It is hailed into the conversation when someone wants to condemn a lifestyle practice or holiness standard which they disdain. It is not unusual to hear someone comment about women’s hair, or unisex clothing, or certain forms of entertainment and call them “men’s traditions.” Are they?

What might be classified as non-essential traditions in which we request conformity? How about not chewing gum in church, wearing seamed/seamless hose, particular hairstyles (such as up for married women, down for singles), hugging in place of a “holy kiss,” gender specific prayer rooms, certain service order, etc., etc. While some may express preferences on such things, they are not generally considered to be essential to salvation or made a test of fellowship. You will rarely hear anyone say, “Do this and you will go to heaven,” or “Do that and you won’t go!”

Those who disdain such “man-made rules” are apt to curl their lip and call them “man-made traditions” in order to make them sound abusive and overbearing. That attitude gives all traditions a bad rap. What about the traditions of not marrying outside the faith, avoiding cosmetics and ornamental jewelry, men keeping their hair short and women keeping theirs long (uncut), insisting on proper gender-oriented clothing, tithing, and other biblically supported practices? Those are “ordinances” which are requirements for Christians, not mere preferences of a particular local leader. Leaders are, however, obligated to steer believers away from unnamed, but potentially fatal, spiritual pitfalls: “and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine...and such like” (I Timothy 1:10; Galatians 5:21).

Someone might think: “Wow! You must force people to conform to your demands.” On the contrary, one doesn’t have to quit anything to come to our church—alcohol, drugs, illicit sex, whatever—but such persons may feel uncomfortable at times, and the privileges of membership won’t be extended. Further, Christian leadership should be a cut above what may be required for the average member. Participation requires an exemplary life, but no one is “forced” to make any commitment. Righteousness is not “legislated,” only fellowship and position.

So when you hear someone knocking “traditions,” take it with a grain of salt. Put their words through the sieve of your understanding. As leaders, we are obligated to pass the traditions and ordinances on to our children and “to faithful men who shall be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:2).

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