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
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
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).