If we want people to come to our church, “traditional” is one of the last words any of us would use to describe us. Nowadays, the word “traditional” is only positive if it’s used to sell Cornish pasties, advertise country pubs, or describe a recipe. Otherwise, it’s off-putting. Advertisers will run a mile from the word. A “traditional” church sounds like something dull, dusty, and dying. If people see a church describe itself as a “traditional” church, they will expect it to be out of date, stuffy, and play organ music.
Now, I have no interest in using this label to describe us at All Nations Church Ilford. But I do think it’s useful to question our own reaction to “tradition” as Christians. Why do we feel so negative about tradition in church? Is that a biblical reaction? Is it a fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives? Or is it, rather, something that we’ve been trained in by our world?
A healthy suspicion of tradition
Well, there is a healthy suspicion of tradition in the evangelical church. Jesus spoke some very strong words against the tradition of the Pharisees. He says the Pharisees rejected God’s commandments and made void God’s word by their traditions (see Mark 7:1-13). I’m sure the Pharisees could give persuasive arguments about why their phylacteries should be 4 inches not 2 inches wide (Matt 23:5). I expect paying money for the upkeep of the temple rather than your parents had a spiritual-sounding rationale. But Christ shows the very real danger of religious tradition cancelling out the Scriptures. This kind of bad tradition involves adding our own ideas and practices to what God’s revealed in the Bible.
This bad tradition is what the evangelical doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture is designed to defend us from (also known as sola scriptura). For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith I.5 reads: “nothing at any time is to be added [to the whole counsel of God revealed in Scripture], whether by new revelations of the Spirit or traditions of men”. So, if we love our Bibles, we’re right to be suspicious of bad tradition (i.e. things we’ve added to the Bible); it will blunt the Bible, and muffle and, even strangle, the good news of Jesus.
A superficial reading of tradition
But this healthy suspicion of tradition can easily morph into something unhealthy. Sadly, many evangelicals simply equate “tradition” with “old-fashioned”. They think “tradition” is easy to identify and can be used to describe and dismiss anything they find a bit boring or formal in a church service. This is a caricature, but it makes the point:
- Singing Hillsong – contemporary
- Reciting the Apostles Creed – tradition
- Playing the drums – contemporary
- Confessing our sins – tradition
- Giving via contactless card – contemporary
- Singing ‘Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah” on a piano – tradition
- Projecting words on to a wall – contemporary
- Giving a benediction with raised hands – tradition
But this seriously underestimates the psychological pull and power of bad “tradition”.
For example, the Roman Catholic Church has the tradition of praying to Mary, the mother of Jesus. This tradition is very powerful. On Jan 1st, 2018, the pope said: “Devotion to Mary is not spiritual etiquette; it is a requirement of the Christian life”. Roman Catholics are encouraged to regularly thank Mary for all she’s doing for them. The shrine to Mary at Lourdes in France receives 5 million pilgrims annually. There’s a shrine to Mary in the Tamil Nadu state of India, which receives roughly 2 million pilgrims each year. If you were to interview those pilgrims, I’m sure you’d find some who could testify to the spiritual power and excitement the pilgrimage and prayers to Mary produced. It’s clearly a very powerful tradition that grips the hearts and minds of many Roman Catholics. But it is a wicked tradition. It cancels out the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as our only mediator with God (1 Tim 2:5).
The trouble with equating bad “tradition” with being “old-fashioned” or “dull” is that it seriously underestimates its deadly attraction. You can’t measure the “deadness” of a tradition by its (lack of) popularity or the “power” of the experience it produces. It must be measured by how much it adds to the word of God. Ironically, a “contemporary”, “informal”, “relaxed” church can be filled with as many soul-sapping, man-made traditions as a “traditional” church. The pull of a PA-system, and amped up instruments, to induce a certain spiritual experience is a very addictive tradition for many. In contemporary churches, it may not be Mary, but music that’s become our mediator.
So, we need to break the simplistic equation in our minds between negative “traditions” and the list of “old-fashioned”, “awkward”, “boring” things that happen in church services. Jesus calls us to be ruthless with traditions that we’ve added to Scripture, no matter how gratifying or popular they might be.
A love of good tradition
But, at the same time, it can surprise evangelical Christians to find positive statements about tradition written in their Bibles. For example, in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 Paul tells the church to: “hold to the traditions that you were taught by us”. He commends the church in Corinth “because you… maintain the traditions” (1 Cor 11:2). It’s hard to think of many evangelical churches patting themselves on the back for that in a church audit. It’s probably a question rarely asked in church annual reviews: “did we maintain the traditions in 2020?”. Paul clearly didn’t think that a church branding itself as “new” and “cutting edge” was a hallmark of health.
Now, the “traditions” Paul is talking about are summed up in Scripture. This isn’t a command to sing 16thcentury hymns, or preserve 19th century church architecture. But this command should get us to question our knee-jerk negativity towards “tradition”. There is such a thing as good tradition. Good tradition is not an addition to Scripture, but an extraction from Scripture. It’s the wisdom and insight of other believers in the past as they read Scripture.
So, tradition, when used well, is about teachability. When I listen to the voice of others from the past, I’m admitting I’m not a know-it-all. This is particularly what suggests that our current negativity towards “tradition” is not a fruit of the Spirit, but a work of the flesh. Respect for tradition is actually a form of obedience to the 5th commandment; it’s a way I honour my father and my mother. When we reject good “tradition”, we’re acting like the ultimate teenager. It’s the church going through puberty, thinking we know best and that we’ve got nothing to learn from our parents. It’s fundamentally a lack of teachability.
So, can good tradition turn bad? Yes! Can good tradition be used badly? Yes! That is what the doctrine of sola scriptura is there to tell us; but let’s not confuse sola scriptura with solo scriptura. Interpreting the Bible was never meant to be a solo project; I need lots of help from others. So, what’s “successful” and what instantly gratifies me isn’t the measure of worship. Our individual “likes” and “preferences” will get squashed and squeezed at church. We probably need to drop labels like “traditional” and “contemporary” to describe our churches. It is as the church fiercely maintains the traditions which the apostles gave us, that we will be most relevant and contemporary to 21st century London.