Tradition Versus Scripture

How does one properly distinguish between God’s commandments and human tradition? How do these terms affect what we practice and preach?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

When the report of the Savior’s miracles spread abroad, Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem made their way north to Gennesaret to confront Jesus. They charged that the Lord’s disciples neglected to keep the “traditions” of the elders, because they did not ceremonially wash their hands (to purify themselves from Gentile contamination) before they ate. But Christ focused on them, asking why they “transgressed the commandment of God” by their “tradition” (Matt. 15:3).

This narrative highlights a problem that has troubled man for many centuries, namely, how does one properly judge between “the commandment of God” and that which is mere “tradition”?

Terms Defined

We must define the terms “commandment” and “tradition.”

“Commandment,” in the present context, has to do with divine revelation. It is further designated as “the word of God” (Matt. 15:6; cf. Mark 7:13). Some Greek manuscripts have “law” in Matthew 15:6.“Commandment” is the equivalent of law (see Luke 23:56). These terms represent an obligation imposed by God, to which human beings are amenable. Violation thereof constitutes “sin” (1 John 3:4).

The term “tradition” renders a Greek word that signifies “instruction that has been handed down.” (Danker, p. 763). The expression may be used in a good sense, equivalent to divine commandment (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thes. 2:15; 3:6). In other contexts, it can denote hurtful, human traditions that are condemned (Matt. 15:3; Col. 2:8).

In this latter case, common practices, embalmed by time, become accepted as “the voice of God.”Such “traditions” may become “burdens” (cf. Matt. 23:4), unnecessarily levied upon people, robbing them of legitimate freedom in serving Christ.

Spiritual Discernment

Let us reflect upon some of the principles that enable the student to separate law from tradition.

The law of God was made known through persons who were credentialed by miraculous signs. Hebrew law came through Moses (John 1:17; Gal. 3:19), whose reception of the commandment was confirmed by supernatural phenomena (cf. Ex. 19:16ff; 24:17), and whose subsequent countenance bore witness to the reality of a heavenly encounter (Ex. 34:29ff). Christ’s miracles (John 20:30-31), and those performed by his appointees (cf. Gal. 1:11-12,15-17; 2:2; 2 Cor. 12:1-7), validated the divine origin of New Testament law.

Sacred law is not amenable to human alteration (Deut. 4:2; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18-19). It remains inviolate, upon whom it is required, for as long as it is designed to last (Matt. 5:17-18; Gal. 3:19; cf. Matt. 28:18-20).

Tradition, on the other hand, evolves. It is established by habit or custom. It will vary in its character from place to place, and from time to time. Tradition is not intrinsically evil, since it operates in the realm of expediency and human judgment. It is condemned, however, when it is thrust into the role of “law,” and bound as such.

There are two digressive directions in the “law-tradition” controversy. First, there is the tendency to reduce law to the status of tradition. Then there is the disposition that codifies tradition into law. Both approaches are wrong.

Transforming Law into Tradition

A driving force behind theological modernism is the ambition to trivialize the law of God, removing the authority and penalty therefrom, thus leaving behind a system of multiple-choice spiritual options. To liberalism, there is no inflexible right and wrong; everything is subject to culture, personal choice, etc. For example, liberalism asserts that Paul’s teaching reflected a variety of traditional threads, e.g., rabbinical Judaism, Cynic and Stoic moralism, etc. (Thompson, p. 944). This ideology allows for a pick-and-choose mode of religion.

The brotherhood of Christ has not been unaffected by this mentality to a degree. Increasingly, one hears statements to this effect.“Traditionally, churches of Christ baptize by immersion.” That leaves a wrong impression. Baptism, by definition, is immersion. There is no “baptism,” in the absence of immersion.

Again, consider this statement: “It is the tradition of churches of Christ to have a capella [strictly vocal] music in worship.”Our musical format is dictated by what is authorized (Eph. 5:18-19), not by “common usage.”Consider some specific examples of this mind-set.

Cecil Hook, a Texas “maverick,” has written a series of books purporting to hail our “freedom in Christ.”In one of his books, the brother argues that in the Far East “rice” would do as well as bread in partaking of the Lord’s supper, since, in that “culture” rice is their “staple food” (Free to Speak, p. 60)

I have a letter written by a young preacher who has argued that “fruit of the vine” was merely the available beverage at the “last supper,” and that we have adopted that element solely out of tradition. He went so far as to suggest that “Pepsi” would serve equally well in our culture. This attitude dismisses the Lord’s clear command, "This do. . . " (Luke 22:19).

In another volume, Hook argues that the exclusive use of male worship leaders is merely one of “our traditions” (Free As Sons, p. 60).

Similarly, in a recently published book which promotes a “quest” for a new hermeneutical approach to the Bible, a brother opined that Paul’s admonitions relative to woman’s “silence” in the church assemblies, was grounded in “traditional and cultural restrictions” (Hougey, p. 295). These assertions are fallacious. The apostle’s censure of woman’s usurpation of authority resulted from his own apostolic commission (1 Cor. 14:37), buttressed by “law” (v. 34; cf. 1 Tim. 2:12-14).

In another segment of the same book, it was contended that we have no real biblical case for insisting upon an every-week, Sunday-only communion (pp. 107ff). It was suggested that our practice was more traditional than scriptural.

Transforming Tradition into Law

An equally dangerous digression occurs when men attempt to bestow the status of law upon that which is only tradition. An ancient example of this mentality again finds a manifestation in the Pharisees. When members of this sect observed Christ’s disciples plucking ears of grain on a sabbath day, they accosted the Lord with this charge.“Your disciples do that which is not lawful to do on the sabbath” (Matt. 12:2). With skillful argument, Christ refuted the allegation. The Pharisees had erred in turning a traditional interpretation into actual law.

A more modern example is found in Catholicism. According to Romanism, “tradition” must assume its rightful place as a source of religious authority, along side of, and actually superior to, the Scriptures. A Catholic scholar says:

“It is an article of faith from a decree of the Vatican Council that Tradition is a source of theological teaching distinct from Scripture, and that it is infallible. It is therefore to be received with the same internal assent as Scripture, for it is the word of God” (Attwater, p. 41).

We would not be balanced in our presentation of this matter were we to ignore the fact that there is a significant body of “tradition” within congregations of the Lord’s people. And sometimes, even we have difficulty in separating what is traditional from what is demanded, or forbidden, by Scripture.

We must remind ourselves that tradition is not necessarily wrong. Traditions may be wise, expedient, accommodative, etc. The issue is — what attitude do we entertain when someone is practicing a tradition that differs from ours? How do we view brethren when they change something that is merely custom? Do we criticize them? Are we ready to disfellowship them? Shall we “write them up” as liberal? This is the spirit of Pharisaism. Consider some examples.

In the 1800s, many congregations administered the communion (fruit of the vine) by means of only one container. Then, as more understanding developed about how disease is communicated, congregations began to migrate to the position that it might be more expedient to use individual containers.

Initially, David Lipscomb opposed the change. He contended there was no need to alter the traditional practice (Brewer). He altered his views, but some brethren were so welded to the “one container” notion that they separated from those who opted for individual cups.

I once conducted a gospel meeting for a small congregation in which the members’ Sunday contributions were deposited in a box at the rear of the building. The use of collection baskets was a “liberal” trend they wanted to avoid. There was minor controversy in some places when brethren began to give their contributions by check, instead of with cash.

The structure of our modern worship format is significantly traditional. Should the Lord’s supper be served before the preaching service or afterward? Should we use song books, or may the lyrics and notes be projected upon a screen. This latter practice is finding acceptance in some places, and a few brethren contend that it is a “liberal” trend.

A gospel preacher was criticized because, on Sunday evening, he spoke from down on the floor, instead of from the pulpit. The comment was: “He didn’t even preach!”What if the preacher did not preach a “sermon,” but rather led a discussion? Some might find that arrangement upsetting, but in Troas Paul “discoursed” in the church meeting. The Greek word is the basis of our English term dialogue, and it means “to engage in speech interchange, converse, discuss, argue” (Danker, p. 232).

Generally speaking, our congregations meet regularly three times each week — Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. What if a congregation elects to have no Sunday evening service? Instead, in order to accommodate those who must travel long distances, the church has an extended Sunday morning service — or a service without the “extension.”How long must the service be? If a congregation spends an entire hour in the Lord’s supper portion — studying, discussing, and reflecting, would they be counted “digressive”?

Some have been charged with liberalism for not “offering the invitation” at the conclusion of every presentation. While an “invitation” may be a wonderful expedient at regular church assemblies, is it a “tradition”? Or is it biblically mandated? If the latter is the case, why is it not offered at the end of every Bible class?

Speaking of Bible classes, in the earlier days of the restoration era, when meeting houses were small, one-room accommodations, the church generally met in one assembly, with adults and children together. Then, with the passing of time, as congregations grew in numbers, larger facilities were built. Bible classes, as an expediency, were arranged to facilitate different age groups. But some brethren were so “tradition” bound, they could not tolerate this. Hence, the “no-class” faction was born.

While we are on the subject of “buildings,” what if a congregation decided that it did not wish to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate? Rather, the brethren would choose to rent a facility for use on the Lord’s day. Then, at other times, they would meet in groups for Bible study and additional fellowship? Would their decision be a violation of divine law? Would they be suspected of being a “cult”?


O how many heartaches have been caused because well-meaning brethren could not distinguish between “law” and “tradition.”Is there any way to help ameliorate this situation?

We must develop a deeper confidence in the Bible as an inspired revelation from God. It is the full and final source of spiritual authority for all that we teach and practice. We must ever be conscientious to measure our conduct by its standard alone.

We may respect the pioneers, but they are not authoritative guides. Some of our liberal brethren today, who openly eschew our “traditionalism,” are themselves traditionalists, appealing more to Campbell, Stone, and others, than to the Scriptures. Alexander Campbell’s LunenburgLetter has almost acquired “canonical” status among those who desire to merge with the denominations (Childers, et. al., pp. 114-116,122).

We must become more dedicated students of the Scriptures. We are at a loss for direction if we are uninformed as to sound procedures in Bible interpretation. We must be able to discern the difference between “law” and “tradition,” the “essential” and the “incidental.”

We must inform ourselves of the issues and movements within the church. Prevention is the greatest remedy for disease — physical or spiritual.

Finally, we must cultivate a greater sense of tolerance for brethren whose practices, in areas of judgment, vary from ours. There may be opinion procedures one does not prefer, but such must not become barriers to Christian fellowship. When we become radical, we do nothing but fuel the flames of liberalism. We must cultivate discernment and work for peace, without doctrinal compromise, in the body of Christ.

  • Attwater, Donald, Ed., A Catholic Dictionary (New York: Macmillan, 1961).
  • Brewer, G.C. “How Churches of Christ Began to Use Individual Communion Cups,” Gospel Advocate, February 5, 1955.
  • Childers, Jeff W., Douglas A. Foster, Jack R. Reese. The Crux of the Matter — Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of Churches of Christ (Abilene: ACU Press), 2001.
  • Danker, F.W., et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000).
  • Hook, Cecil. Free As Sons (New Braunfels, TX: Hook, n.d.).
  • Hook, Cecil. Free To Speak (New Braunfels, TX: Hook, n.d.).
  • Hougey, Hal. The Quest for Understandable Hermeneutics (Concord, CA: Pacific Publishing, 1997).
  • Thompson, M.B., “Tradition,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, G.F. Hawthrone, R.P. Martin, D.G. Reid, Eds. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity).