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General Essays > On Respecting Tradition


“Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” -Proverbs 22:28


Today’s church faces a serious malady. The symptoms are spiritual complacency or boredom, which can be described as a restless impatience with protocol. This so permeates current Christian temperament that it cannot be blandly ignored.


The cause can be linked to invading worldliness in the church. It is hard to think of a time when worldliness has been more prevalent. The inexcusable tragedy is that many accept this wretched condition as normal and are not seeking a remedy, but rather ways to justify it. Most do not know the difference for they have not seen a time when the Spirit of God moved mightily on a congregation.

Everywhere you turn these days the religious media is decrying the menace of “tradition” as though it alone bears the responsibility for the unprecedented decline in spirituality among us. Of course, there is a sense where tradition can hinder. No tradition is above the most vigorous scrutiny and never must it be permitted to regulate truth, which results in legalism.

Someone has pointed out that history is an important part of life. If you have no history, you have no future. And, it is history that creates tradition. Tradition helps us evaluate personal experiences and circumstance, and the various movements that invade each generation.

The present generation, however, finds history extremely boring and has no patience with it. As a result of this languid boredom with the past, mistakes of the past repeat themselves. In our feverish eagerness to be contemporary we have ignored historic perspective to our spiritual jeopardy.

One important aspect of tradition is doctrine. We have all but completely disregarded doctrine. The average Christian today knows little Bible doctrine and its practical application to every day life.

Many have replaced the systematic teaching of Bible doctrine with things more suited to a casual style of living. Drama, musicals, and entertainment is the acceptable fare of too many churches today.


Few Christians are willing to be exposed to the reproof of God’s Word week after week. Only those with an insatiable desire for personal holiness will put up with the plain teaching of God’s Word and adjust their life and lifestyle accordingly.

Numerous religious leaders view church goers as unwary consumers who have to be sold something they like. The pulpit must give what the people want to hear rather than what God wants proclaimed. Today the pollster has more influence than the prophet; statistics are studied more devoutly than the scriptures; and the law-of-averages is more prominent than the law of God. We want to know the latest trend so we can get aboard.

Cultivating the depraved appetites of the flesh has resulted in the spiritual decline of an entire generation. Religious leaders have been slick in disguising these carnal appetites and have always found an eager following. Just a little twist of the Scriptures and almost anything seems unquestionably permissible for the Christian. Even the gross sexual sins among religious leaders seem acceptable and glossed over as insignificant. No one seems to object anymore.

Forgiveness of sin has come to mean something other than what God intended. It has degenerated into some subtle magic spell that makes all consequence disappear. The idea of disobedience without consequence is totally foreign to the scriptures. Even though David found forgiveness for his sin, he still faced the repercussion of his action.

The vogue these days is for people to despise tradition. Usually, it is some young fellow trying to impress others with his spunk, hoping to make a name for himself. There will always be those who think it their job to be a self-appointed iconoclast and do away with the traditions of the fathers.

There is a time to throw off the yoke of the past. This calls for a discerning eye to know what needs to be set aside and when to set it aside. Our motives behind what we do are complicated. Dr. Tozer often said, “I have to account to God not only for what I have done, but for why I did it.” The Bible points out that the “heart is deceitful . . ..” There are times when our heart will deceive us into thinking our motives are right and our interest in progress and truth is genuine.

There are prevailing circumstances when certain traditions must be set aside. A tradition needs to be set aside when it has valiantly served it’s avowed purpose. Many passively accept a tradition handed down by the Fathers without any conscientious regard to the significance behind it. The tradition then degenerates into a burdensome ritual because we feel some obligation to continue. We have no idea of the blood behind it nor the alarming conditions that brought it into being in the first place.

Many traditions handed down by the Fathers were a passionate reaction to some wrong in society or the church at the time. Long after dealing with that grievous wrong the tradition goes on, unnecessarily. At the time the tradition was a vigorous protest and witness used mightily by God. The battle is over now and most have forgotten the conflict, but the tradition lingers on without life or purpose.

There is a danger that in time the tradition will hinder the progress of the church in the task of world evangelism. People become comfortable with the tradition and take comfort in holding on to it. The test of acceptable fellowship becomes identified with that tradition. Confusion sets in because some do not understand the functional significance of the tradition and, accordingly, do not support it. This brings them under suspect of the religious hierarchy.

This prevailing attitude distinctly intimidates the “old guard” who take to defending the tradition as though it were an irrevocable part of Christianity. The tense confusion in the camp leads to internal conflict and otherwise good and sane men begin attacking one another. A beautiful diversion tactic designed by the contemptuous enemy of the cross.

Then a tradition hinders individual spiritual development, it must be dealt with. This is not an easy call to make, I assure you. What hinders one person in his spiritual development may effectively help another. The Apostle Paul said, “If meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no meat . . ..” It must be acknowledged that some traditions are merely a matter of rote. The potential danger is it can, and often does, develop into a serious spiritual rut.

The dangerous thing about the man in a spiritual rut is that he does not know it. He has come to that vulnerable place where going through certain rituals and motions make him feel comfortable. Motion satisfies him and any challenge to this is intimidating. Many confuse motion with progress. A small boy on a rocking horse has plenty of motion and noise, but there is virtually no progress. Some traditions afford much motion but actually hinder progress.

Again, tradition must be set aside when through the passing down it has become distorted and no longer means what it originally meant. The words are the same but the definitions have changed. In making an unalterable stand, our fathers devised certain phrases and activities to express succinctly their protest. Those Church Fathers coined words and phrases that had tremendous power when first used. Now, like spent cartridges, they are powerless to do what they once did. At one time they profoundly moved an entire generation toward God. Now the definition, altered and diluted, has lost its ability to offend.

And then some Reformer comes along to challenge that word or phrase and the Defenders rise to the occasion. To challenge that phrase or word is, in their mind, to challenge established truth. Some have forgotten that a word or phrase is only an appropriate vehicle to convey an idea. The idea fades, yet the phrase remains in tact. The meaning becomes distorted so that the idea is lost amidst the verbiage.

We have a fatally divided church now. On one side you have the Reformers and on the other side are the Defenders. How and why God puts up with this is a mystery of Divine patience. Some things are not worth fighting about.

When a tradition has no scriptural authority it must be dealt with. Many extra-biblical things have come into the church and, in some instances, crowded out legitimate things. Each generation needs to have a spiritual garage sale to rid the accumulated religious junk impeding real spiritual progress.

However, there comes a time to defend and preserve the traditions of the past. Simply because something is old does not mean it is outdated. Some things have a timeless quality. There comes a time unfalteringly to stand for the truth. Dr. A. W. Tozer once said in a sermon, “There comes a time for every Christian, every church, every Christian organization to decide, shall we modify the truth in order to gain more adherents or shall we stand for the truth come what may.” It is time for us to face this great decision in our own generation.

Tradition must be preserved when it carries forward the invincible truth of God’s word. Most traditions came into existence because they expressed God’s truth to a generation. As long as that tradition can be used of God in presenting truth to a generation, it must be carefully preserved at all cost.

The formidable difficulties of defense are no acceptable argument to lay it aside. We must keep in mind that when it comes to spiritual matters we face deadly combat. Those things used by God effectively to accomplish His purposes are under fire. If all we desire is a comfortable, carefree life we will have to abandon certain traditions. The enemy delights in nothing more than spiritual disarmament and seeks this with a savage vengeance. Many fall victim to his trap.

There was a time when justification by faith alone had been lamentably abandoned by the vast majority in the church. The fashion of the day was to leave it alone. Then along came Luther, who discovered it and picked it up at personal consequence. Some valid and essential traditions are being abandoned today for the same reason. To hold to them and strenuously defend them brings personal repercussions and many Christians, especially in America, are too soft.

When a tradition is significant to biblical Christianity it must be preserved. The passing of time does not detrimentally affect certain traditions handed down by the Fathers. Some things are matters of the utmost essential, and without them, Christianity would soon die out.

The wonderful traditions found in our hymn book are a magnificent example of this. The time-honored practise of singing hymns in the congregation is fast becoming a thing of the past. These grand hymns of the church lay silent in our hymnbook while the congregation sings frivolous choruses. In many churches, months go by without one hymn sung by the congregation. This robs the congregation of an august body of tradition that has been a means of blessing to many generations of believers.

Behind every tradition handed down is a potent reason for its existence. To discover that reason is the sacred obligation of each succeeding generation of Christians. Because we fail to do so does not invalidate the tradition. That tradition may foster holiness of living or enhance the operations of the Holy Spirit.

A tradition must be preserved when it facilitates world evangelism. Oswald Chambers, in one of his perceptive essays, gives us this warning. “We must be careful that in our zeal to get people to accept the gospel we do not create a gospel acceptable to people.”

Some things are too important to change. There have been certain things that God has uniquely used in every generation and culture to advance world evangelism. Evangelistic preaching used by God since the early church to bring multitudes of people into the kingdom of God, is a notable example. Solid preaching against sin and about the precious Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ has been the mainstay of this evangelistic preaching. Now, this magnificent tradition is being put aside because it is offensive to unsaved people.

Little church putterers and religious fix-it men devastatingly plague the church today, always tinkering with God’s machinery. Inevitably, they succeed in bringing the whole operation to a stand-still until God’s trouble shooters, the prophets, come to take charge. The shiny buttons and gadgets on the religious machinery bewitchingly fascinate these people and they are vaguely interested in what it produces.

A tradition must be preserved when it effectively destroys the enemy’s strategies. Satan has made many inroads into the operation of the church these days. He has been extremely successful in orchestrating many spiritual coups. Of course, many of the traditions of the church do not bring him any pleasure. Can you blame him?

The healthy existence of the church in every generation relies on the preservation of vital traditions handed down by the fathers.

Rev. James L. Snyder