Tradition. Religion. These have somehow become bad words, even though scripture uses them both in positive ways (James 1:27; 1 Corinthians 11:2; 1 Timothy 3:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6). I continually hear Christians use these terms pejoratively. Some bible translations even mistranslate it when it is used in a positive sense.
Religion vs. Relationship. ‘Religion’ is often pitted against ‘relationship.’ All relationships are guarded and preserved by rules. Imagine a wife telling her husband after having an affair, “Come on, I thought our marriage was about the relationship, not all these do’s and don’ts.” That sounds like nonsense—yet it’s precisely how most of us live out our spiritual lives (or lack thereof). So sure, it is all about the relationship with Jesus. But all relationships have boundaries for protection. Maintaining those boundaries doesn’t create nor define the relationship, but failing to keep them destroys it. Sin is not merely breaking a divine moral code, it is a personal offense against a holy God with whom Christians are in relationship.
Scripture vs. Tradition. It is often assumed that scripture is opposed to tradition. Protestants can thank those who later misunderstood the intention of their Reformation-era forebears and the consequent adoption of Enlightenment thought (modernity) for that (the Reformers’ intent was to do just that: reform the church. Not to rebel against it and reject all of its traditions). I highly recommend Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings by James Payton for more information about this.
“[For many,] all talk of tradition is suspicious. They supposedly live by the guidance of scripture alone, under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit. There is an undeniable naiveté to this approach, though. Tradition is inescapable in any human society, ecclesiastical or otherwise. Whether we call it custom or habit or whatever, tradition marks human existence. Everyone operates within in this world by tradition, to one degree or another. At its barest, one can recognize tradition if one has a predictable bedtime or mealtime or some morning routines” (James Payton).
Scripture is always interpreted through tradition, whether we acknowledge it or not. Baptists and Pentecostals tend to translate verses the same way because their respective ‘traditions’ are passed down in the leaders’ teachings. Scripture developed within the tradition of the Church (and is best understood within this tradition).
Jesus vs. Religion. A YouTube video went viral awhile back which pitted Jesus against religion. It claimed that Jesus came to “abolish” religion.
“The only problem is, he didn’t. Jesus was a Jew. He went to services at the synagogue. He observed Jewish holy days. He did not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt. 5:17). He founded the church (Matt. 16:18). He established church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20). He instituted a ritual meal (Matt. 26:26-28). He told his disciples to baptize people and to teach others to obey everything he commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). He insisted that people believe in him and believe certain things about him (John 3:16-18; 8:24). If religion is characterized by doctrine, commands, rituals, and structure, then Jesus is not your go-to guy for hating religion….
The word ‘religion’ occurs five times in [the] English Standard Version of the Bible. It is, by itself, an entirely neutral word. Religion can refer to Judaism (Acts 26:5) or the Jewish-Christian faith (Acts 25:19). Religion can be bad when it is self-made (Col. 2:23) or fails to tame the tongue (James 1:26). But religion can also be good when it cares for widows and orphans and practices moral purity (James 1:27). Unless we define the word to suit our purposes, there is simply no biblical grounds for saying Jesus hated religion. What might be gained by using such language will, without a careful explanation and caveats, be outweighed by what is lost when we give the impression that religion is the alloy that corrupts a relationship with Jesus” (Kevin DeYoung).
C.S. Lewis coined the term ‘chronological snobbery.’
“The phrase refers to the all-too-common tendency among Christians to quickly discount what is old and automatically embrace what is new. We tend to think our problems are original to us and our solutions are one of a kind. We are faddish trend-watchers—ignorant of our own history, obnoxiously dismissive of the practices of our spiritual fathers and mothers, and easily duped…. The one community we seldom look to for wisdom is the community of the dead…. What’s hot and new now will, unless it is the recovery of something old and biblical, end up being embarrassingly out of date and unhelpful in just a few years” (Kevin DeYoung).
Anyone who even takes a cursory glance at the existing historical documents of the early Church will see that churches had very specific liturgies in use for their worship services, including responsive prayers, detailed instructions for the Lord’s Supper (which was viewed as a sacrament/”holy mystery”), rituals for prayer, formulas for blessing, and specific instructions for church leadership. The early Church was anything but anti-liturgical, spontaneous (something new every week), and free from hierarchical structure.
Tradition is a dynamic thing that is critical of its past voices. It is not a blind assertion that all those who came before us are always correct (it is “giving our ancestors a vote” vs. a “tyranny of the dead”).
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name” (Jaroslav Pelikan).
Every Community Has Traditions
Whether a church calls it ‘liturgy’ or an ‘order of service,’ they follow one. They may deviate from it slightly, but everyone does this (yes, even Catholics and Orthodox Christians have some variation from week to week depending on the time of year). The Church calendar centers the Church on Christ.
“Every year we tell the story again, basically because we need to immerse ourselves in it, because it is the true story of the world. It is the report of what God is doing in the world to redeem and restore all things, the proclamation of how God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. We immerse ourselves in this story every year because our identities come from the stories we tell and the rituals we participate in. We immerse ourselves in this story because our culture loudly proclaims quite a few alternative stories that vie to tell us who we are, and thus claim our allegiance” (Ben Sternke).
I personally have grown to really appreciate the Church calendar more and more throughout the years. In a world that wants our lives to revolve around consumerism / shopping seasons, materialism, politics, or even sports seasons, I find great comfort in a liturgical calendar that centers the year on the life of Christ. I find that without it, I am at the whim of whatever else is clamoring for my attention.
“We live in a therapeutic age where everything is measured by how much I get out of it…. And we live in an era of rampant individualism. So in a very individualistic culture, the whole idea of being a part of a community is countercultural. And it fits perfectly in the what’s-in-it-for-me, narcissistic attitudes prevalent in American culture. Isn’t it a little bit ironic that we are publishing vast numbers of books about community, while at the same time we are publishing large volumes about dropping out of one’s church in order to ‘do relationships’ in a more organic way? We seem to be more interested in talking and reading about community than actually ‘doing’ it” (Chuck Colson, in an interview with Ted Kluck).
The reality is that there is no ideal community of faith. There is no ‘magic bullet’ method or buzzword that will fix all of our problems. Communities are filled with sinners. And where there are sinners, there will always be messiness.
A Proposal & Request For Help
Let’s start using different terms in a pejorative way other than ‘religion’ and ‘tradition,’ especially since both terms are used in positive ways in the bible. I’d rather stick to the timeless truths of scripture than the changing linguistic winds of American culture. Richard Liantonio proposes a few alternate words, including religiosity (excessively religious, often for its own sake) and legalistic (excessive emphasis on law/moralism). These words better capture the intent behind many critiques of ‘religion’ and ‘tradition.’