The Bane and Blessing of Tradition

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Tradition has a grasp on everyone. No one can escape the impact of the tradition in which he was raised. Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” It would therefore seem erroneous to toss about the idea that I can choose to live without the impact of tradition on my life. No matter what order of tradition I am born into, it will impact my life either for bane or for blessing.

What is tradition? Strongs Concordance defines tradition as the concurrent transmission of a precept. In laymen’s terms we would say it’s a commandment or direction given from one generation to the next as a rule of conduct.

Tradition is inherently amoral. The Bible warns of tradition as having an impact that is immoral or wrong, and it also speaks of it as having an impact of righteousness. So we see that practicing something long enough for it to become tradition does not define its morality, but rather the precept of it does.

In Mark 7:9 we read, “And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition.” Here a tradition is defined as immoral.

Jeremiah 6:16, “Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.” Here we are admonished to consider, seek after, and walk in the path that leads to eternal rest. This path to rest is described in the New Testament as the “narrow way” that few choose to walk. The precept of this tradition (the Law of God) will lead to righteousness.

Second Thessalonians 3:6, “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.” Paul speaks here of the tradition of the apostles, who laid the foundation for and established the patterns of the New Testament church. He warns us to withdraw ourselves from those unwilling to follow the apostolic tradition.

The series of above Scriptures show the bane or blessing that tradition can be to us. It all hinges upon the precept of the tradition.

What are some dangers that come to us if we fall for the error of viewing tradition as inherently right? Like the Pharisees, we may be deceived into thinking that all is well because of our tradition. Whether our tradition be ethnical, cultural, or religious, none of these avail anything outside the precepts of Christ. The Pharisees thought all was well because “we be Abraham’s seed” (John 8:33), but in reality they were in bondage to sin because they followed a tradition void of Christ’s power to cast out sin. Galatians 3:29 says, “If ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed.”

What are some dangers to us if we view tradition as inherently wrong? We might become like Demas in leaving the tradition of the apostles and prophets (Eph 2:20) in favor of the traditions of the world (2Ti 4:10). Young folks are especially vulnerable to this mistake, being too inexperienced and self confident to realize their need of wisdom found in the tradition of their elders and ancestors.

The Mennonite church faces danger on both fronts—that is, both the error of feeling a need to reject our tradition, and on the other hand feeling that we have acceptance with God because of our tradition. It’s often said that we face “fork in the road” decisions in life where one fork represents the straight and narrow way and the other represents the broad way. It seems that these “fork in the road” decisions are often more like five-way intersections. Straight ahead leads to eternal life, and our choice of anything else leads to eternal destruction. Satan will use our view and practice of tradition in any number of ways to turn it from blessing to bane. He will also provide plenty of choices to pick from when it comes to false traditions.

Viewing Mennonite tradition as a burden to be cast off will become a bane to us for the following reasons. The Mennonite tradition is built on a biblical foundation. A comparison of the Mennonite confessions of faith, life, and practice to the Scriptures will confirm this. While there may be components of the Mennonite tradition that could be pointed out as traditions of men, an effort to cast it off (that is, the tradition in its totality, rather than the inconsistency) will cause fatal damage. The process to rid oneself of inconsistency in the Mennonite tradition by casting it aside also rids oneself of Scriptural principles. This could be likened to a surgeon working to remove a cancerous growth without taking care to leave good tissue undamaged. Jesus’ advice to the Pharisees concerning the problems with their tradition was, “These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Luke 11:42).

The Mennonite tradition is not a cult where we follow the tradition of Menno Simons. Menno Simons was not the founder of the Mennonite Church. He was serving as a priest in Utrecht, Holland, when the Swiss brethren church began in Zurich, Switzerland, and was never part of the Swiss brethren. Rather, he joined the Dutch brethren, and it is interesting to note that most Mennonite churches in America are not of Dutch brethren descent. Menno declared that he had no special revelation from God and was only one of many Anabaptist leaders who desired to follow the Scriptures literally, teaching and warning “every God-fearing soul by the Word of God, driven by nothing but brotherly love, not by the exalted position of the man, nor by the antiquity of a name.” Notice what Menno says his teaching was NOT of. Anyone with questions concerning Menno’s intent to establish a tradition after himself can put this question to rest with Menno’s own testimony. He writes, “If I should by my teaching gain disciples for myself and not for Christ Jesus, seeking my own gain, praise, and honor, then indeed woe unto my soul.”

Viewing the traditions of the Mennonite church as the Pharisees viewed their traditions will cause us to place the traditions of men above the tradition of Christ. They were confident of their acceptance with God because they were Israelites, of Abraham’s seed, of the sect of the Pharisees, but Christ proclaimed that according to their deeds, the Devil was their father. We also can expect rejection by Christ even though we may be Mennonites, of the Martin Tribe, of the XYZ Conference, but exemplify deeds alien to what one inherits from Christ.

We cannot be part of the church without being part of its tradition. The church of Jesus Christ transcends all generations. No generation in itself encompasses all that Christ had in mind for the church. Otherwise Christ would have closed the church dispensation after the first generation. Think of faithful Christians of the past as brethren with us of whom we can and must receive advice. To insist that we can conduct church without reference to traditions of the historical church is to reject the faithful of the past as brethren. It also reflects seeing ourselves as “in Christ” outside of the church, a Protestant tradition.

While tradition is amoral in itself, whose tradition we choose and how we adhere to it is not. We must first choose between the tradition of men and the tradition of God. “For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do” (Mark 7:8). If we choose the tradition of God, we have joined the tradition of the true Church and our brethren in Christ.

The question we should ask ourselves is whether or not the order of our traditions is according to the commandment of God. If a tradition is after the command of God, then it will bless us during our walk on earth and lead to eternal life. May we weigh our traditions, whether they have been handed to us from the time of the prophets, the time of Menno Simons, or a more recent era, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the tradition of the apostles to see if there be any commandments of men bringing bane.

~ Manheim, PA
February 2013