(Wes McAdams is the preaching minister at the Baker Heights congregation in Abilene, Texas.
His writing - located on his Radically Christian website - is often poignant and timely.)
While the church desperately needs to recognize the distinction between our doctrines and our man-made traditions, we also need to fight the urge to dismiss all traditions as irrelevant and out-of-date. The man-made traditions of yesterday have an extremely important role to play in the church today. We just need to recognize – and respect – them for what they are.
Here’s why we should respect many of our man-made traditions…
Traditions are Guardrails
Most traditions were erected as “guardrails” against apostasy and sin. The leaders of yesterday established certain practices that they felt were biblical ways of helping the church stay on the right track. They understood when they established them that these were not doctrine, but were simply expedients for maintaining a right relationship with God.
For instance, most congregations have the tradition of a mid-week Bible study on Wednesday nights. The leaders of the past apparently felt it would be good for the church to come together during the middle of the week to encourage each other and spend time with the Lord in Bible study and prayer. This was established as a guardrail, to keep the church on the right path during the week.
Many of our traditions have stood the test of time, at least in part, because leaders have seen these traditions as important guardrails to keep the church from getting off track.
Don’t Throw Away the Guardrails
If you came to a new stretch of road and noticed some guardrails on the side of the road, you wouldn’t start disassembling the guardrails, would you? Even if you saw no need for them, you would probably assume they were there for a good reason. You would assume they were there to keep people safe.
As a younger generation of Christians, our first assumption should be that these traditions were established for a good reason. We should assume they are there to keep people safe. If we start saying, “I know better than whoever put this here. I’m just going to throw this out,” we may get someone hurt.
If You Remove a Guardrail, Put Another In Its Place
There are times when guardrails are no longer effective. Roads change and the way people drive change. Sometimes guardrails must change too. But the danger that necessitated the guardrail in the first place, likely remains. So if you remove a guardrail, you must put another in its place.
One of the problems with younger generations of Christians is that we remove the traditions of our predecessors without much regard for why they were there in the first place. In our youthful arrogance, we believe we know better than those who came before us. In our desire to remove barriers, we often succeed only in removing barriers that were keeping us – and others – on the right path.
Therefore, we must always ask, “From what danger were our forefathers trying to protect us?” and maintain expedient and biblical practices to keep us from apostasy.
Caution and Discernment
It all comes down to biblical caution and biblical discernment. We must see traditions for what they are, we must NEVER teach them as doctrine, and we must examine them and reexamine them in light of Scripture. Just because it’s a tradition, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s biblical.
But when a tradition is biblical, we must appreciate and respect the fact that those who came before us probably did us a huge favor by putting things in place to keep us from straying. “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise” (Ephesians 5:15).