|Vol. 13 No. 12 December 2011||
Tradition versus Religion
Louis Rushmore, Editor
A foreign correspondent asks for comparison and contrast between “tradition” and “religion.” This is an important inquiry to him as he has asked repeatedly before I have taken time to address his question.
Both words have general meanings, but each word’s specific definition depends largely upon the context where it is used. This is true regarding both its contemporary usage as well as its appearance in various biblical contexts.
The English dictionary definition of “tradition” is “1 : an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom). 2 : the handing down of information, beliefs, and customs by word of mouth or by example from one generation to another without written instruction. 3 : cultural continuity in social attitudes, customs, and institutions. 4 : characteristic manner, method, or style” (Merriam-Webster).
Likewise, the English dictionary definition of “religion” is “1 b (1) : the service and worship of God or the supernatural. (2) : commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance. 2 : a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices.
A Bible dictionary definition of “tradition” is “any kind of teaching, written or spoken, handed down from generation to generation. In Mark 7:3,9,13; Col 2:8, this word refers to the arbitrary interpretations of the Jews. In 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6, it is used in a good sense. Peter (1 Peter 1:18) uses this word with reference to the degenerate Judaism of the ‘strangers scattered’ whom he addresses (comp. Acts 15:10; Matt 15:2-6; Gal 1:14)” (Easton’s). Essentially, as it pertains to religion, for instance, a tradition can be of human or divine origin. Mark 7:3, 5, 9, 13 demonstrates tradition that is not only human in origin but in direct conflict with God-given religion. “For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. … Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, ‘Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?’ … For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men… making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.’” Colossians 2:8 clearly portrays human traditions in religion as contradictory to the will of the Godhead: “the tradition of men… not according to Christ.”
Human religious traditions are counter to the saving of souls from sin. “…knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). For instance, the man we know best as the apostle Paul was out of Christ and an opponent of Christianity while he followed the religious traditions of his forefathers. “And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:14).
However, tradition that is divine in origin equates to biblical instruction, the Gospel of Christ, the Word of God or otherwise known as the New Testament. “…to which He called you by our gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). Only this type of tradition warrants a place in the lives of Christians. “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6).
Consequently, either religion or tradition of human origin is an affront to Almighty God; they are sinful. On the other hand, religion (i.e., true Christianity) and tradition are synonyms for each other if divine in origin.
Aside from the considerations hitherto in this article, we might refer to some ways of doing things as harmless traditions among God’s people – as long as they are not made into religious laws and tests of fellowship (e.g., order of activities in Christian worship, times of assembly, number of communion cups). Scripture specifies no particular order in which on the Lord’s Day we observe the Lord’s Supper, pray, sing, take up a collection or preach, but for orderliness (1 Corinthians 14:40) a congregation must select some particular order in which to engage worship activities (though they may change the order at some other time). In addition, the leaders of a congregation must decide upon and announce the times of assembly for the assembly of the whole church at one time in one place to occur, though those times could be altered in the future.
The words “religion” and “tradition” depend for their precise definitions upon the way in which they are being used. Religion that is not God-given or biblically driven Christianity is unacceptable to God – it is sinful! Likewise, tradition that is equivalent to manmade religion is not only faulty but also condemned before God (Matthew 15:9, 13). However, God-given religion grasped from the pages of the New Testament, sometimes in Scripture described as tradition, ought to be the substance of who we are as Christians. Nevertheless, tradition that merely relates to the inconsequential way in which a group of Christians in a given location select the order of worship or assembly times is inoffensive to God and necessary – as long as the way in which we have always done something of this nature is not construed as being Scripturally correct – merely on the basis of “We have always done it this way!”
Easton’s Bible Dictionary. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.10th ed. Springfield: Merriam-Webster, 1993; CD-ROM. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1996.