“Then from Jerusalem came scribes and Pharisees and said, Why do Your disciples transgress and violate the rules handed down by the elders of the past? For they do not practice [ceremonially] washing their hands before they eat. He replied to them, And why also do you transgress and violate the commandment of God for the sake of the rules handed down to you by your forefathers (the elders)? For God commanded, Honor your father and your mother, and, He who curses or reviles or speaks evil of or abuses or treats improperly his father or mother, let him surely come to his end by death. But you say, If anyone tells his father or mother, What you would have gained from me [that is, the money and whatever I have that might be used for helping you] is already dedicated as a gift to God, then he is exempt and no longer under obligation to honor and help his father or his mother. So for the sake of your tradition (the rules handed down by your forefathers), you have set aside the Word of God [depriving it of force and authority and making it of no effect]. You pretenders (hypocrites)! Admirably and truly did Isaiah prophesy of you when he said: These people draw near Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts hold off and are far away from Me. Uselessly do they worship Me, for they teach as doctrines the commands of men. And Jesus called the people to Him and said to them, Listen and grasp and comprehend this: It is not what goes into the mouth of a man that makes him unclean and defiled, but what comes out of the mouth; this makes a man unclean and defiles [him]. Then the disciples came and said to Him, Do You know that the Pharisees were displeased and offended and indignant when they heard this saying? He answered, Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be torn up by the roots. Let them alone and disregard them; they are blind guides and teachers. And if a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a ditch. But Peter said to Him, Explain this proverb (this maxim) to us. And He said, Are you also even yet dull and ignorant [without understanding and unable to put things together]? Do you not see and understand that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the abdomen and so passes on into the place where discharges are deposited? But whatever comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this is what makes a man unclean and defiles [him]. For out of the heart come evil thoughts (reasonings and disputings and designs) such as murder, adultery, sexual vice, theft, false witnessing, slander, and irreverent speech. These are what make a man unclean and defile [him]; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him unclean or defile [him].” – Matthew 15:1-20 (AMP)
“Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God.” – Matthew 22:9 (KJV)
“At every crossroads on the path that leads to the future, tradition has placed each of us 10,000 men to guard the past.” – Maurice Maeterlinck
Not too long ago, I was introduced to someone who wanted to consider coming up under the covering of this ministry because he was interested in pastoring, but clearly had no training. He had been a part of another ministry that was completely out of order and in a full state of rebellion prior to that ministry’s dissolution and had no understanding nor guidance about ministry order or protocol. What became really clear to me as he attempted to move things in his desired direction was his insistence that he needed certain things in order to move forward in ministry. He wanted a church building that he expected me to pay for. If I didn’t get him this church and start moving things along, he was just going to “burst” (his words, not mine). When things didn’t move like he wanted, I suggested to him that maybe he should try doing something ‘outside’ of the church box instead of so dramatically bursting: write a blog, or visit a prison or a nursing home, or do something for somebody else. When I told him this, he looked at me as if I had lost my mind or said something real confusing or foreign to him. It was as if he couldn’t fathom doing ministry work without a literal ‘church’ building.
This past weekend, I inadvertently found him in a church in the middle of nowhere, where now they are calling him “co-pastor.” The church has some obvious reasons why this is an interesting choice, albeit rather unconventional choice. But, beyond those obvious reasons (which I will not get into in this blog), the church itself has a rather familiar air to it. Everyone who preached had on robes that echoed of The Thornbirds and more traditional styles. The church itself was old, the leaders were old, and the style of the service was also very old. The individual was willing to forsake convention in order to have his church, that was quite empty save three visitors (who are most likely not going back), two leaders and two children, all because he could not think about nor see ministry outside of that building.
The issue I am speaking of here that affected him affects all of us. It is called tradition. No matter how much people want to talk against religion or religious spirits (which is not even Biblically correct but I am going to not delve into this right now, I have written on it in the past), no matter how much people want to talk against the Pharisees and Sadducees, there are all certain levels, certain boundaries of comfort and familiarity that people like to fall back on. These things are tradition…and they are the very thing we need to look at, as a church. This issue of tradition is far from unique, and we are quick to see it in others, and never in ourselves in the way we need to.
Before I became a Christian, I was Catholic. In those days, Catholics made no bones about wanting their own identity. They didn’t pretend to want to have a Christian identity to be more politically correct and communally accepted. Catholics didn’t pretend, nor care, if what they did was Biblical. As a Catholic teenager, it was hard finding a place for me. I didn’t really fit in with my Catholic peers and I didn’t fit in in the larger community. In the process, I went to a youth group at a small Christian church that would probably be designated as “Full Gospel” today. What I mean by this designation is that even though it was, in some ways, a part of the Charismatic identity, it was not “Word Faith,” as many Charismatic churches were becoming at that time, and the replacing designation became a lot of traditions, especially when it came to the interaction between men and women. It was one of only a handful of non-denominational churches I saw at that time which prohibited women from preaching and also discouraged women from working. While they did not believe women had to wear skirts or head coverings, they adapted their own traditions that gave them their own unique flair. Let’s not forget this particular church had a pastor who was infamous around town for beating his wife and children, and that his current marriage came about as the result of an affair; but women preaching was their true “abomination.”
This particular church was also full of ex-Catholics, the majority of whom I would say it was safe to say came out of a time when they probably didn’t know a lot about their religious denomination and would have believed membership with this church equated to “freedom.” They would have assumed and believed that being able to lift up their hands, run around the room in a conga line (which yes, they did and yes, it was ridiculous) and jump up and down somehow made them free. What they did not consider is that in taking off one set of traditions, they put on a whole new set that left them just as bound and just as weary, if not more so, because these new traditions proved they didn’t know any more about the Bible than they had as Catholics.
It was several people at this church who tried to get me to see the error of my ways as a Catholic and “convert” to a more “Biblical” way of being. Their arguments to me at the time were that the Catholic Church had many man-made traditions that were not in accord with the Scriptures, such as praying to saints, the role of the priest as the gateway between man and God, the sacrifice of the mass, the role of Mary, etc. The reality is that what they said is, in fact, true. They were correct that the Catholic Church embodied many traditions that were not found in the Bible, and had nothing to do with Biblical tradition. The catch is that the Catholic Church fully well admits that their traditions have nothing to do with the Bible; they believe that tradition is equivalent to Biblical truth, and they don’t teach that their traditions have to be supported by the Bible. The thing that these people did not realize all those years ago is that they weren’t asking me to give up tradition…just take on traditions that were more in alignment with the ones they espoused and that they felt were more “Biblical,” at least on the surface, and abandon the ones that they felt were not “Biblical.”
When people find out I used to be Catholic, I face an endless parade of questions and off-color remarks that, are quite frankly, offensive. People can’t figure out how I became Pentecostal nor Apostolic, and they make comments to the effect, “Well, I won’t hold it against you that you used to be Catholic.” What kind of a statement is that to make?! Nobody ever makes that comment about Episcopalians, or Methodists, or even Muslims. If someone told me about their past history of promiscuity and I said, “Well, I won’t hold it against you that you used to be a whore but weren’t smart enough to get paid for it,” I’d be told all sorts of things about myself and my ministry. So why is it all right to do that when someone comes from a religious background that we don’t understand? Aren’t we in Christ now, and is something like that supposed to really matter?
What it is, simply put, is that the “traditions” of the Catholic Church makes people nervous, and someone having a history with those traditions makes people leery that they will ever be able to see things from a different perspective. It hasn’t caused that within me, although I will admit having to face myself and the things I believed as blatantly disobedient to God was not an easy process. But what it has done within me is make me keenly aware of the “traditions” we all hold dear, in one form or another, that aren’t any better, nor any more obedient, than those held within the Catholic Church. Traditions are traditions, and if they are nullifying our understanding of God’s Word to us, then they are a problem, whether we want to see them that way, or not.
For years, I have heard people classify the Catholic Church as the “worst of the worst.” I have decided that is unfair, and it is not based in people understanding or not understanding the Bible. Why? Because all churches and religions do the same exact thing, we just don’t have the nerve to admit we do it. Instead of admitting we have accepted a traditional system that is outside of Biblical order, we just lazily blame our traditions on assorted Bible verses without any understanding. In our own defensive arrogance, we’re missing God, too.
Thus with your tradition, you have made null and void the word of God.
I’ve heard it said that one of the world’s gripes with Christianity and Christians in general is that Christians focus on, harp on, and dwell on things that other people don’t care about. Have we ever stopped to consider if maybe this is true, and maybe we are being vain and repetitive in our traditions? That perhaps by holding on to these concepts, we are nullifying the word of God? There is nothing in the Bible that states half of these things we adhere to, neither directly nor indirectly, and yet here we are, harping and judging and criticizing other people based on these things because we don’t want to give up our church-y identity.
The passage I quote above about tradition was talking about the various rules and laws which later formed what is now known as the Talmud. The Talmud consists of the traditions of Rabbis and Jewish teachers, forming in subsequent centuries before and after Christ’s life. The reason the Talmud emerged was simple: It’s easy for us to read the Bible, but understanding it in light of people’s questions takes on a whole new meaning. Jesus points out to the Scribes and Pharisees that their traditions were taking away from something direct that God spoke to the people that was of no question. There was no way to get around God’s Words and get around His direct commands. Their tradition gave people an ‘out’ which was really nothing more than vain disobedience.
The traditions we adhere to are designed to do just that: nullify the Word of God and give us a way to disobey Him without having to honestly consider what obedience might require of us. The Bible is full of people who went outside of the “norm” of traditions and had to obey God unto the end, even in the face of defying the comforts of tradition.
We want traditions today to ‘feel’ a certain sense of comfort in our church experience. We want to feel that holiness is had in a church building where we kick up on Sundays and in preaching the same exact verses many times over via the process of ciphering. We are vain enough to think that assessing someone’s engagement photos based on who proposes or how many tattoos someone has or how someone is dressed truly makes us superior to them, because we “do things differently.” We give no consideration to the fact that maybe someone has a different circumstance or maybe, just maybe, people share their photos because they want to celebrate something with other people (not so Christians can critique them about something that nobody else cares about anyway). We want to believe that it is in those traditions that we will be saved and we will receive from God.
The “ouch, amen” goes right there.
Maybe the problem isn’t what the Bible says, but how we keep interpreting it according to the clouding of our traditions. Every single one of us learned “doctrine,” before we ever read or understood the Bible ourselves. That means every single time we read the Bible, we are reading our traditions in between the lines of those verses and interpreting what the Bible says based on the tradition, not by what God actually said. For generations and generations, the traditions have dictated exactly what they were meant to do, and have done so without consideration of what God might have really said.
In other words: maybe it’s not what the Bible says about women or families, maybe it’s how you are interpreting it. Families are so screwed up because of these traditional concepts we hold so dear, maybe we need a new interpretation, a new way to see these things before we just traditionalize ourselves right into death. There is nothing in the Bible that says a woman can’t ask her husband to marry her, it’s how the verses are interpreted. There’s nothing that says a woman can’t do a lot of things that traditions state she can’t. There’s nothing that says Bishops are superior or even equal to Apostles in the Bible; that’s just vain, repetitious tradition at work, yet again. There is nothing that says we can’t listen to music, or women wear make-up, or men wear shorts, or women wear pants, or that women can’t cut their hair, or that we can’t watch television or go to the movies or dance, or that our kids can’t go to public school, or that we can’t use more modern translations of the Bible (think about that one: we even judge each other’s Bible translations!) or that we can’t use various forms of birth control, or the host of other things Christians are sitting on FB picking at others about, and maybe we need to get radically honest with ourselves about that so we can stop giving God a bad rap and blaming everything on things he never said. We are no different than those ancient leaders who came before Jesus and tried to trip him up by confounding God’s Words based on our understandings via tradition. If you have a conviction about something, you are entitled to have it. If that’s how you want to live your life, then live it like that, but don’t expect everyone else to uphold your standard when God never said a clear word about it in His entire existence. And certainly stop this incessant judgment of others and the way others choose to approach their lives and relationships, because, quite frankly, it’s none of your business, anyway.
Traditions exist so people can identify themselves in some way as different from others. In and of themselves, there’s nothing wrong with doing something to be different or unique. There is something wrong with performing traditions to be superior to others, or to make others feel judged or inferior. By tradition, we are judging by the very exterior things that make it seem like a cup is clean or unclean, while we ourselves internally ravage with things that truly make us errant in the sight of God.
Stop using your traditions to judge others when you fully well know you are not pure as the driven snow and you too are doing things that God is displeased with. Like using your traditions to excuse yourself and condemn others.
© 2015 Lee Ann B. Marino. All rights reserved.