Tradition can be a disease if one does not press forward
By Tony Foglio
“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it.” — Mark Twain
“The good old days,” Solomon had something to say of them, “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.” Ecclesiastes 7:10.
When my wife and I moved to a new area, we attended a wonderful church, with a great history. The good folks who had been there from the beginning were always referring to the little white church on such and such street. They would say to us newbies, “you should have been there when this happened or that took place.”
They had a beautiful new building but reveled in their memories in the old one. Living in the past has a way of excluding people arriving in the present. There comes a time when we are to heed the admonition of the apostle Paul, “Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14.
Jesus said, “People honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. In vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men … laying aside the commandment of God, they hold the tradition of men …” (Mark 7:6-8).
The term endemic is used to describe a condition–or disease–found among a particular people group or in a certain geographical area. When it comes to the endemic church, the disease is called “tradition.” And when a disease goes unchecked, it can become deadly.
Tradition is not necessarily a bad thing. The reason certain ways and customs become traditions in the first place is that at their onset, they were good or at least came with good intentions.
However, when the traditions of men trump the commandments and ways of God, they have lost their goodness. Once a tradition has outlived its goodness, it can become a stumbling block to its adherers and to those who look in from the outside.
Let’s examine three characteristics of the endemic church–or, in other words, three symptoms of the dying church:
¯ First, the heart has become confused with emotions. “People honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.”
Far too often, we confuse our heart with our emotions. Whether it’s a favorite hymn, a certain doxology, the order of the church service or a particular Bible translation, if it has turned into a hallowed ritual, it has left the realm of a godly heart and become nothing more than an appeal to nostalgic emotions.
Now, there is nothing wrong with emotions. Emotions cause us to love, laugh, cry and empathize. But having a heart for the things of God is not about what makes you feel good or comfortable, but the things that exalt and glorify him.
Consider why David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). David had a heart set on repentance, obedience and faithfulness. His emotions, on the other hand, got him into trouble — can you say Bathsheba?
Again, there is nothing wrong with emotions in themselves. They are often what God uses to draw us to himself. It is hard to repent without the emotion of repentance. However, emotions without just actions are of no avail. Consider Esau: “He found no place for repentance even though he sought it diligently with tears,” (Hebrews 12:17).
We may need to seek repentance from our “sacred cow” traditions.
¯ Second, all new forms of worship are considered “vain.” “In vain they worship me.”
A dying church considers anything new to be vain worship. Unless a type of music predates the ENIAC computer, it is thought of to be nothing more than entertainment.
The apostle John tells us, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). When our traditions become more important than reaching the lost and the seeker, and our preferences more important than the leading of the Holy Spirit, then it is our traditions that have become the true embodiment of vain worship.
¯ Third, traditions have become doctrine. “Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men … laying aside the commandment of God, they hold the tradition of men …”
The apostle Paul instructs Timothy, “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
A dying church is quick to misapply texts like this to megachurches and other cutting-edge ministries, claiming that, “They’ve turned away from the truth.” But in reality, that’s what the endemic church has done — it has turned aside to the fables and myths of manmade traditions.
“But that’s the way we’ve always done it,” they will say. Show me a stagnate church, and I’ll show you a church steeped in its traditions to the point that those traditions have become endemic doctrines.
Let’s stop condemning ministries and preachers who are reaching the masses through new technologies, unorthodox presentations and anything else God may be using to impact people with the gospel.
Let’s stop casting aspersions while reveling in our endemic church traditions.
Let’s lay aside the traditions of men and hold to the commandments of God. Let’s listen to Jesus, who when asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” he replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:36-40).
Let’s learn to love God and people more than we love our endemic traditions.
(Foglio, is a member of the Weirton-Steubenville Ministerial Association. He is the author of “Church by the Book,” which is available through Amazon.)