ELDER NEIL PHELAN JR.
I remember visiting a particular church many years ago and after several meetings I asked one of the members "Where do you get your doctrine and your guidelines for the practice of your church?" To my surprise they proudly held up the Bible and said "from the Bible". I thought to myself "I should have known that!" As time went on it seemed that everywhere I would visit, regardless of the denomination, everyone had the same answer to my question: "from the Bible". But the really confusing thing to me was that even though each of these churches claimed the Bible to be their only rule of faith and practice, every one of them was obviously different in both belief and practice. How could this be? How could educated people, who all had the same book, the same guidelines, be so far apart in belief and practice? The answer will always be the same: a departure from the Bible, the word of God; a departure from what God has said to what man feels more comfortable with; a substitution of God's word with man's ideas and philosophies.
Many times these ideas begin very innocently but unless they are confronted by the word of God, these ideas and tendencies become ingrained in the minds of people and become practice and habit; they become tradition.
WHAT IS TRADITION?
A tradition of the church is a practice of the church. Tradition defines the things we do collectively as a body of believers. Obviously, from the language of our text, there are some good traditions we should hold on to, and as we shall see later, there are some that will corrupt the church. As I did a word study on the word, "tradition", we found it to be translated from the Greek word "paradosis" which means "to deliver in teaching". The teaching of tradition may be delivered by mouth or by letter. As we read the New Testament we find two different kinds of tradition: 1) Divine traditions, coming from God; 2) human traditions, coming from man.
A divine tradition is a tradition which was initiated by God and not by man. The word "paradosis" even carries the meaning of "ordinance or decree." Therefore divine traditions could be any practice taught by the word of God. The doctrine of the church should define the tradition. If a church gets off base on their doctrine it will eventually get off base with their tradition and the opposite will be true.
Paul encouraged the brethren at Thessalonica to "stand fast and hold the traditions". Was Paul encouraging these brethren to depart from the word of God in order that they might keep some traditions started by man? Obviously not! Paul taught just the opposite. Paul told this church to "hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle."
When Paul spoke of traditions taught by "our epistle", he was referring to the epistles or letters written to the church either by himself or others in his day called to this task. These are divine traditions. Some of these epistles, just as the one from which or text is taken, later became a part of the New Testament cannon of scripture. Therefore we can safely say that those traditions Paul taught by epistle later became scripture.
Paul also mentions the traditions taught by "word". The translation for "word", as used in this text, is from the Greek word "Logos", which carries with it a variety of meanings. It could mean the preincarnate Christ: "in the beginning was the Word (Logos)"; it could even mean "something said". Here, as the thought suggests, Paul is referring to the latter, the things he preached; "something said".
Paul encouraged the brethren to "stand fast and hold". "Stand fast" means to be "stationary", which also carries with it the meaning of "Preserving". By standing fast in the teachings of God, the Bible, the identity of the church would be preserved. How can we remain "stationary" if we have not a mark to measure by? The word "hold", means "to use strength, retain", even in the face of opposition within and without.
As Paul followed Christ in his life he personally delivered the ordinances by both preaching and by letter as he encouraged them to "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ." As Paul followed Christ he admonished the church at them to "remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you" -1 Cor 11:1-2. The word "ordinances" in this text is translated from the same Greek word "paradosis". These ordinances that Paul delivered to the church at Corinth by letter are indeed divine and are still observed today. They are mentioned in chapter ten of this epistle as the "cup of blessing" and the "bread which we break" (v.16). Paul was referring to the Lord's supper. Paul was following Jesus Christ and teaching the ordinance which Jesus began in the upper room. This is a divine tradition which we refer to as an "ordinance".
There was another tradition which was initiated by Jesus in the upper room on that night as he taught His disciples "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you" -John 13:14-15. Jesus began this tradition in the beginning of the New Testament church and He taught it both by word and example. Yes, Jesus washed feet in his Church.
Some people have asked why Primitive Baptists sing without the aid of musical instruments. It has always been a tradition in the New Testament church to sing without the aid of musical instruments. Singing is a vital part of our worship service and there are no allusions to musical instruments being used in any way in the New Testament. Under the law service, in the Old Testament, there were musical instruments, but there was also the burnt offering, and the offering of slain beasts on an alter. If we take a part of that service we must take it all, therefore, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord" -Col 3:16. As we sing scriptural songs, we are admonished and taught by the words of the song. This brings us nigh unto the Lord and God is worshiped and praised collectively by singing His truth. Oh, how the spirit can be poured out during this part of our worship service. God looks upon the heart, not upon the voice or the musical instrument for what glory can a musical instrument give unto God. Certainly God was not speaking to a musical instrument when he told us to be "speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord" -Eph 5:19. Musical instruments can not speak or sing and they do not have a heart. Singing from the heart becomes a divine tradition by omission; the omission of use of musical instruments by the early church and the silence of scripture concerning them.
The sacred ordinance of Baptism was begun by John the Baptist as he immersed his candidates completely under the water. John's commission to Baptize was divine for "he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost" -John 1:33. By the language of John "he that sent me" was God.
Even the mode of baptizing by complete immersion is a tradition. Jesus was placed completely under the water "And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water"-Mat 3:16. As God the Father raised Jesus "straightway out of the water" we observe the forthcoming promise of His resurrection. Baptism by immersion symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our confession of being a part of Him and it.
There are many other "divine traditions" taught in scripture and space will not permit us to continue but let us all "search the scriptures" as we define our tradition and see whether they be divine or human.
Most human traditions can be traced back to a particular time or source. Most of them are post apostolic, after the sacred cannon of scriptures were closed. To keep human traditions alive there must be some underlying false principles; some error must be taught. But where does it usually come from? The Pharisees confessed it unto us with their own lips as they asked Jesus "why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders". As we shall see they all begin with people and not God.
If you were to check the historical records, you would find that almost every Baptist church in this country washed feet at one time or another. Why did some cease to observe this divine tradition? Because the tradition of men, human tradition, was given preeminence over the teaching of Jesus Christ.
Many other divine traditions have been done away with by various orders of religion. There was a time in which both the Catholic and the Methodist church baptized by complete immersion rather than sprinkling. To avoid getting their cloths wet and being subjected to cold weather when baptizing, the clergy substituted man's idea for God's sacred ordinance. The tradition of sprinkling began by man and even though it can not be supported by scripture, it remains to be their tradition. By this we observe how innocently traditions can be started? Therefore, if it is a divine tradition it needs to be observed and continued and if it is a tradition of man it should be acknowledged as such and discarded.
Jesus encountered the eroding principles of human tradition in the sect of the Pharisees. Their traditions had carried them far away from scripture; it had corrupted their doctrine. Saul of Tarsus was personally taught "at the feet of Gamaliel (a Pharisee), and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day" -Acts 22:3. Paul confessed his former traditional errors to the churches of Galatia as "being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers" -Gal 1:14. Fathers' ideas and teachings should be respected, but we have only one Father who is not subject to error; His word is the final authority. Paul was zealous of the tradition of the fathers' and not "The Father".
Unger observes "In addition to the written Torah the Pharisees and rabbis recognized an oral Torah, Composed of specific applications of the general principles of the written Torah. In the time of our Lord the oral traditions had become so minute and devoid of spiritual meaning as to set aside the Law of God and in some cases completely nullify it."
The Pharisees gloried in their own interpretations and writings, the Mishnah and the Talmud, to such and extent that they forgot to observe God's word. The problem was not that the Pharisees were not looking for the Messiah or teaching of the Messiah's advent, but it was that their tradition had so veiled God's word that they knew Him not when He did come. Thus the disciples remembered that it was written, "The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up."
The Pharisees were so engrossed in their own tradition that they rebuked the Master of all Law, Jesus Christ. Jesus was personally approached by the Pharisees who said to him "Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?" Here was the Lord of glory, the master, accused of breaking a church tradition! Did Jesus deny His action? Certainly not! He was guilty as charged because their tradition was not God's tradition. Jesus said "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition?" This confrontation is almost humorous except for the consequences it yielded to the Pharisees "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate"- Mat 23:38. This admonishment is observed even today as churches become so entangled in human tradition that they "have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith" Mat 23:23.
By their own language, the Pharisees confessed the source of their human tradition: "the tradition of the elders". The word "elders" in this text means "seniors". Human traditions can not be supported by scripture therefore the only source available to teach such is the writings and ideas of other men, "the elders". That is why people should continually "search the scriptures daily, whether those things were so"- Acts 17:11.
Jesus accurately accused these Pharisees of "teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." Did Jesus know what He was talking about? Of course He did! When the Pharisees endeavored to back up their tradition they did not go to Moses or the prophets; they went to what "old brother so and so wrote in the Mishnah or the Talmud". When God's commandments are set aside for the tradition of men "ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition." In essence this is "making the word of God of none effect through your tradition." Were these human traditions profitable to them? Did they enhance the worship service? Rather than build up, these traditions destroyed; it left their house desolate. If Jesus came into your church next Sunday morning could you support your practice and your doctrine with His book.
Paul encountered the danger of human tradition at the very dawn of the New Testament dispensation. He warned the church at Colosse to "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ"- Col 2:8. Don't you know that some of those Jews tried to bring some of that Old Law service into the New Testament church. They probably remembered past meetings, under the old law service, where mom and dad sat as they worshiped God. Paul's epistle to the Galatian churches abounds with this testimony. Here, Paul uses the word "philosophy" which means "wise things", worldly wisdom; to think like man would think and not according to what God has said; to think without faith not entirely trusting God's word for everything we need. The word "spoil" as used in this text means to "seduce or lead away" which is precisely what human tradition will do to a church. It will lead a church away from the pattern of God's word in both doctrine and practice and it will eventually lead them away from Christ. Even the word "vain" is descriptive for it means "empty" and the word deceit means "to cheat". That is why Paul said to "stand fast and hold". I wonder how many church doors are closed today and members and their families have no place to meet because they were "spoiled" and "cheated" by "empty" tradition. Can you think of some? Consider the heartache tradition cause in the life of a young man named "Saul".
When Paul and Silas preached in Berea they observed them as being "more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so"- Acts 17:11. Paul encouraged his listeners to compare what he taught and preached with God's word. Oh, that God's people today would "search the scriptures" and make sure the things they hear are from the Bible and not from the ideas and philosophies of man. Too many times, the Lord's people just take the preachers word for it and do not themselves search the scriptures. They are handed a tract or a pamphlet and assume everything that they read is 100% correct, not comparing the writings of man with the Bible, the writings of God.
C.H. Spurgeon once asked a man what he believed and the man replied "Well, sir, I believe what the church believes". To this Mr. Spurgeon said "and what does the Church believe?". The gentleman replied "Why, they believe what I believe." Mr. Spurgeon, determined to get to the heart of their religion asked "Well, then, what do you and the Church believe?". To this question the man said "Why, we both believe the same thing."
Tradition is good as long as it can be backed up by scripture, but when it is not let us be willing and eager to conform our practice and doctrine to God's word.
God has allowed His churches a great deal of liberty in many areas. If God defined every little detail of church activity we would be back under the Law service and not under grace as Paul reminded the churches at Galatia that "ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another" -Gal 5:13.
As we use this liberty we need be careful that we do not add something which is not scriptural; such as musical instruments, or take away something which is definitely taught; such as footwashing.
There are many areas of Christian liberty available to the church. These are areas in which the scriptures are either silent to condemn or in which the scriptures give broad terms to a particular practice. For instance, there is nothing in scripture that declares which song book a church should sing out of as long as the words of the song are scriptural and edify the body. Even though we all have our favorite song book we need remember that the blessed tie that binds our hearts together in christian love is Jesus Christ, not a particular song book.
The scriptures allow the church a great deal of latitude concerning how frequently a church may meet. Opportunity, persecution, availability of ministers and the desire to meet, all play a part in the frequency of meetings. In Acts, chapter 20, Paul had sailed away from Philippi and came to Troas where he abode seven days "and upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight" -v7. The disciples met at least once during this week and this particular meeting lasted until midnight. Even the length of the meeting is given a great deal of latitude for here we find Paul preaching "until midnight". Oh, how hungry they were for God's word!
In the early days of the church we also find the disciples "continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" -Acts 2:46-47. Here we find the early church meeting daily and apparently the meetings were spirit filled as "the Lord added to the church daily".
There have been times when ministers were scarce and the Lord's people traveled by horse and wagon to get to a place where their hearts were lifted up and their souls were fed by the preaching of the gospel. In days when ministers were scarce and meetings were inconsistent, some churches allowed this to become the tradition. According to the Bible the church is to "remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy." This is the fourth commandment from the decalogue and is just as important as the other nine. Could a church collectively agree to disobey one of the other nine and expect God's blessings? This gives the church a minimum standard for which every church should strive to attain unto for the Lord said "Ye shall keep my sabbaths, and reverence my sanctuary: I am the Lord" - Lev 26:2. How can a church "remember the sabbath day" and "keep my sabbaths" if it's doors are closed?
The word sabbath means "intermission, cease, celebrate". David said "I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the Lord"- Psalm 122:1. David liked to "celebrate" his Jehovah God, his "high tower", his "strong tower", his "rock". Today we have even more reason to "celebrate"! We can celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ and our freedom from the bondage of sin as we find an "intermission" from the world and the duties of life. What a difference it makes when we consider the sabbath a day of "celebration". Indeed, God knows the circumstances of each church and can bless according to our desires and needs for we should be found "not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching" -Heb 10:25. I am thankful when I hear of churches adding additional meetings to "celebrate" more.
Churches have the privilege and liberty to build a meeting house out of any material they choose. They may build it the size and shape they prefer for it is just a meeting house; the church is the people, not the building. But the scriptures do have something to say about the building without dictating a strict legal pattern for every church. Many years ago, churches in this country met from house to house and even in barns as they endeavored to worship God. As we have seen, the early church met "from house to house". People who lived in white frame houses built a white frame meeting house which was both needful and scriptural; their homes and their meeting house were comparable. As our fathers did the best they could, and built a particular kind of building, this should not become a tradition. The Bible says that our attitude toward our meeting house should be the same as that of our personal dwellings. David "the king said unto Nathan the prophet, See now, I dwell in an house of cedar, but the ark of God dwelleth within curtains"-II Sam 7:2. David looks at the nice home that God had prospered him to build and then looked at the house of God; he compared the two. His desire was to build the house of God at least as nice as his own. His son, Solomon, was blessed to perform that task. Our heart should be the same.
This same principle was applied by God at another time and instance. In the days of Haggai, when a portion of the children of Israel were allowed to return to their homeland, they found their homes and temple destroyed. God prospered their labors as they successfully built and completed their personal dwellings. It was at this time that the burden should have been in their hearts to build the temple, the meeting house, but the people said "The time is not come, the time that the Lord's house should be built"- Haggai 1:2. They had "ceiled" their own houses, adorned and finished them completely but had neglected the Lord's house for "ceiled" means to "roof, cover or wainscoat". They went to great means to fix up their own house when God sent the prophet Haggai who asked "Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste? Now therefore thus saith the Lord of hosts; Consider your ways" -ver4,5. It was time! Again, as with David, God's principle was the same. God compared the peoples house with His house. Have we considered our ways? As God prospers His people, his people should be willing to prosper the house of God.
The scriptures even give us some insight as to the location of our meeting houses. The church is to be "the light of the world" because "a city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven"- Mat 5:14-16. The church is to be God's faithful witness and testimony in a dark world "the pillar and ground of the truth" 1 Tim 3:15 as its members become "the salt of the earth."
One of the primary functions of the church is to spread the wonderful testimony of Jesus Christ to His redeemed family. When the church ceases to be that witness and testimony they become likened to natural Israel who had lost their testimony to the world as God's chosen people. They were unknown as a people who worshiped the Jehovah God and stood for His principles "and the daughter of Zion is left as a cottage in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, as a besieged city"- Isaiah 1:8. God's faithful witness is to be on the offensive, not besieged and covered with vines.
Years ago, many of our meeting houses were built in rural areas where the people lived and worked. Even then, many of our "elders" had the insight to move and relocate their meeting houses recognizing that the meeting house or the place to meet should not become a "tradition". Their desire was to place the meeting house in a location which would be both convenient and conducive to local gatherings.
As we read the New Testament we find Paul commanding Titus to "ordain elders in every city" Titus 1:5. Even during this time of persecution the church was shining her light in a place where the masses of people were to be found. Just to be in a place where one poor, hungry sinner could sit and listen to "Jesus Christ and Him crucified" would be worth all of their struggles and efforts. Once they had learned about Jesus their desire was to share this good news with others even if it meant imprisonment, beatings, or even death. To spread the good news of Jesus Christ is one of the most vital functions of the church. Oh, that we might reflect this attitude today!
The Bible has a lot to say concerning the support of the ministry but suffice it to say that each church will benefit greatly when they have a minister which lives among them for "Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox"-Prov 14:4. The substitution of visiting Elders should not become "tradition". It is far easier on the flesh and the pocketbook to invite preachers from other areas to preach on Sunday than to support a minister who can see to the needs of the flock on a daily basis. Even though circumstances may not permit this in every situation it should be prayerfully sought after for Paul said "thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn" -1 Cor 9:9 If we want to be fed; if we want our cribs to be full; we should have our own ox and feed him well. This is scriptural.
The most powerful means that God has given unto the church to spiritually communicate His word is by preaching the word "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine"- II Tim 4:2. Another method of spiritual communication is by letter "I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read unto all the holy brethren"- I Thes 5:27. Our point is this: the traditions that Paul encouraged this church to stand fast and hold were those he personally taught by mouth or by letter and both of these were supported by scripture and the personal teachings of Jesus Christ; they were divine. We are always safe when we can back up what we believe and what we practice by the word of God and when asked where we get our articles of faith and practice we can humbly hold up our Bibles and say "from this".