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Are Traditions Good or Bad in the Church?

“Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” 2 Thessalonians 2:15

The two words in question are krateite (hold) and paradoseis (traditions).  The manner in which the Apostle Paul stated this concept goes beyond a suggestion or an implication.  Krateite is a very strong verb and connotes urgency and vigor.  Some scholars have even translated it as hold fast, which adds to the firmness of his intent.  We can take from this statement that there were teachings Paul communicated to the church that were of profound significance.  To ignore or contradict these teachings could be considered insubordination or rebellion.  At the very least, they would be divisive.

The second word is paradoseis which is translated traditions. The range of definitions include transmissions or ordinances.  The simplest definition is “rules or ordinances that have been handed down to you.”  Admittedly, the word “tradition” was also used to convey man-made or uninspired regulations, mainly those contrived by the Pharisees.  Paul, himself, kept those traditions before his conversion.  Afterwards, he disparaged them as carnal and not after the Word of God.  But he makes it clear that there are good traditions and bad traditions.  We must be VERY CAREFUL here to distinguish one use of the word from the other.  Indeed, 2 Timothy 2:15 admonishes us to rightly divide the Word of Truth, indicating that discernment and propriety are essential to understand the true teachings of the Scripture.  It would be presumptuous or lazy scholarship to lump all traditions together as bad when that result was never the intention of the Apostle.  Even worse, arriving at such a flagrantly wrong conclusion would be the height of irresponsibility for those who are charged with the oversight of the church. 

Going further, Paul qualified his use of the word tradition by referring to the source of such teachings as the logos or his epistles.  The probably definition of logos as used here was not the Holy Scriptures, but teaching transmitted orally by the Apostle.  The epistles, on the other hand, have now been canonized as our New Testament, the writings that we receive as the Word of God.  Yet, there is no provable source that informs us to consider the oral teachings as somehow less binding than the written letters.  So, what were these oral teachings?  We cannot know for sure, but we may certainly infer that they were in keeping with Apostolic doctrine, with the many admonitions to the church to be pure and holy, and with the general tone of the written epistles. 

When the Roman church drifted from the Apostolic era and evolved into the age of the church fathers, they began establishing traditions that were definitely at odds with the Scripture, such as infant baptism, the doctrine of the trinity, celibacy of the priests, etc.  These were man-made traditions that were neither based on Scripture nor provable by the Word of God.  Nothing about these traditions enhanced the efforts of the Apostles or the church leadership to move the church toward true holiness, righteousness or to strengthen doctrinal truths.  They were made to forge compromises with the pagan world and make Christianity more compatible and less of a radical departure from religions of idolatry.  They were also devised to further entrench the carnal hold of the leaders on the largely uneducated and gullible laity. 

Any attempt to dismiss the Articles of Faith of the United Pentecostal Church, International as equivalent to man-made traditions that are unnecessary or even burdensome is to say they are not based on biblical teachings.  Whether by cursory reading or by in-depth examination of our Articles of Faith, one must come to the obvious conclusion that they are attempts to bring meaning and application of the Scriptures to our modern existence.  While they may be imperfectly stated, or while they may be inconsistently managed, it is nevertheless true that they were born out of a sincere desire to bridge the gap between Scriptural principles and life as it is in the twenty-first century. 

At this point, the question is begged whether we should try to apply scripture to our lives today.  Some may say that the Scriptures themselves should be enough and that they need no interpretation.  Some may even go so far as to say it is wrong to codify our interpretations or applications to modern society.  I would give two responses to these contentions.

First, God has called teachers to be a part of the five-fold ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12).  All teaching is an effort to explain, to clarify, to instruct and to indoctrinate disciples.  Each teacher is a prism through which the Word of God is refracted into knowable, palatable and manageable concepts for students.  The tools of the teacher are definitions, examples, exercises, expansions, instructions, stories, parables and opinions (which, of course, should be substantiated by the Bible.)  It would be impossible for any teacher to avoid his or her own understanding of the Word in transmitting doctrinal truth to a class.  If this is wrong, if this constitutes addition to or manipulation of the Scriptures, then we should abolish all teachers and simply have readers.  If that be the case, then woe be to anyone who asks the question, “But, what does that mean?”  The answer would have to be, “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you what it means.  I can only read to you the words of the text.”  To impose such a requirement on teaching would reduce it to an absurdity.

My second response is that the increasing complexity of society means that the timeless truths of the Word of God need to be applied in ways unforeseen by the founding Apostles.  How should we deal with drugs, smoking, the many kinds of immorality or immodesty, bizarre fashions, computers or the internet?  How should be deal with transgenderism, tattoos, body piercings, cosmetic plastic surgery, political activism or modern laws that make immoral things legal?  How should we deal with bankruptcy, gambling, divorce, social drinking or rock music?  Should we not establish guidelines, set standards, require minimums of behavior, or demand certain levels of expectations?  Many, if not most of these behaviors or practices are not spelled out in the Scriptures.  Without a common understanding of how to treat these problems, we would descend into chaos. 

If all we needed was the Word of God, without teaching, without explanation, without application, then there would have been no need for Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians.  “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” 1 Corinthians 1:10.  If each of us were left to our own interpretations, we would all be speaking different things and there would be deep divisions among us.  Responsible leadership calls for a common understanding of our positions on as many things as we deem necessary.  On essentials, unity; on non-essentials, liberty.  On the difference between the two, agreement.

Good traditions are not only biblical, they are vital to fellowship.  Those who disagree are those who spurn fellowship.  They will always be loners or mavericks.  We may never know their true motive.  As for me, I want to align myself with the prayer of Jesus, “That they may be one.”

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