Coming from a Protestant background – I’ve been predisposed to view tradition as something inherently suspicious. History had shown us how things like tradition could easily steer people away from the reality of the faith. We had heard about indulgences and purgatory and saw that our Bibles didn’t support the idea, so we were duly warned that tradition is dangerous. But what about the traditions that really are in the Bible?
Is it possible for somebody to take something as simple as prayer or baptism or communion and twist them into a shadow of what they should be? Looking at what is written about communion, it was once described as a love feast – one problem that some had was that the rule was ‘first come, first serve’ as such there were people who were getting drunk off of the wine and some people who showed up late only to discover that all the food had been eaten. In most churches I’ve visited, communion is a small cracker or wafer or pinch of bread and a small sip of grape juice. Sometimes there can be some rules about who can participate – open communion lets anyone take part, whereas other churches regulate it to members only or baptized members only. Sometimes people can use ‘discipline’ to deny communion; if it’s symbol of being made right and to be told that one is too wrong to partake of it, then it helps believers to know that unless they reform they will exist in a wrong state until the leaders decide they are worthy to be made right.
It is interesting to note that the original tradition died so that the new tradition could be born. Traditions very rarely exist in their original forms. We pray in English, not Aramaic. We baptize in baptismal tubs or local rivers, not in the waters of the Jordan River. These particular traditions share a commonality; Jesus was baptized, Jesus taught believers to pray, Jesus shared the first communion. Now let’s take a look at another tradition:
1 Corinthians 11:2, 16; “I praise you for remembering me in everything and for holding to the traditions just as I passed them on to you … If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.”
Paradosis is the Greek word translated as ‘tradition’ it can refer to the Oral Law that the Pharisees enjoyed and it can refer to teachings that were likewise oral traditions, rituals, or customs shared by word of mouth. Sunétheia is the Greek word translated as ‘custom’ and it can refer to a custom or a thing that a person is used to or accustomed to. Should we just accept that any mention of a custom or tradition means that God wants us to obey it? If so, then why don’t we baptize each other for the dead? Wash each others feet when we enter a building? Greet each other with a kiss? If traditions must endure, must they remain intact and identical to their original forms? Can customs and traditions die?
Imagine it – Paul’s in the midst of one of famous missionary journeys. He walks into Corinth and immediately sets up shop. He gathers some believers and starts teaching them. The Bible doesn’t exist yet – so all teachings basically what Paul says. After about a year (Acts 18), Paul continues on his journey, leaving the Corinthians to figure out how to do church without Paul around to answer their questions. It didn’t take long for the church to break up into factions – one for Paul’s teachings, one for Apollos’ teachings, one for Cephas’ teachings, and one for Christ’s teachings. Not just for different teachers, but four different sets of teaching, four different ideas about tradition and custom.
Jesus never taught believers to challenge tradition or change customs, he asked people to get along, to not make waves, to be humble. Paul’s primary concern was for the reputation of the church – any action that made the believers or the church look bad was frowned upon which would include defying tradition. Prevailing cultural customs – such as the baptism of the dead, weren’t outright forbidden; but they could be taught in such a way to show that they weren’t meant to last. Early Christians weren’t counter-cultural, they weren’t staging sit-ins or making demonstrations against traditions or customs that they felt were wrong; such a public display could only be met with one fate – the Roman soldiers dealing with it in a less than peaceful or friendly manner.
Keeping that in mind, if it was the cultural custom for women to wear something, for men not to wear something, for free people to wear something, for slaves to not wear something, for soldiers to wear something, for not-soldiers to not wear something, they likely would have said … “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Or something to that effect. I don’t think the plan was to say: “Do exactly as the Romans do, the world over for all time.”
There’s always been some confusion as well – is it our practice or isn’t it? If it is, then why isn’t it taught elsewhere? Why isn’t it referred to elsewhere? If it isn’t our practice, then what is? What do the other churches practice and what bearing do their ancient practices have on the modern church today? I could see the case being made for being contentious – the Corinthians were really good at it. But this other thing? It seems so out of place in and of itself. Which is why it seems likely that the whole matter was something one of the factions believed in that the other factions argued against. That one of these factions wrote to Paul (for they belonged to the faction that believed what Paul said over anyone else) for some answers. Paul realized that it had been awhile since they had written and he’d have to quote a few sections to refute the teachings that the letter described because odds were they had forgotten what they asked. And because it wasn’t terribly obvious who was quoting whom, literal readers today tend to imagine that Paul wrote the whole passage with modern believers in mind: “I know that Jesus could return at any moment, but the Holy Spirit wants me to write this just in case somebody called an American will read it two thousand years from now and want to understand some brilliant spiritual insight with a profound double meaning; so I’d better write it this way.”
As I said, I’m predisposed to being suspicious about traditions. This one was carried on for thousands of years prior to the time it was written down as such and carried on roughly one thousand, nine hundred and sixty years after that. In that time, the reason was lost on us and people continued to obey the tradition for the sake of tradition. After that, it met with a rather sudden end; but some conservative elements are not content to leave an old tradition behind and so they’re trying to revive it, restore it, re-teach it as a Biblical truth delivered with Apostolic authority. Tradition is what you make of it – and all too often it’s made into an idol. I just hope it doesn’t take us another two thousand years to figure that out. The irony of it all is that the people who are reviving this tradition are also Protestants who have embraced just this tradition in particular; all other traditions are still suspicious.