Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.


September 17th, 2006 | 4 min read

By Tex

Tradition and my church have an odd relationship. My church vocally and vociferously decries religious tradition as the dirty fingerprint that sinful man leaves upon the pure and undefield religion of God. If only men had sense enough to neither add or subtract from what has been revealed they’d all find that harmful innovations (and yes, the implication is that all innovations are harmful) would largely disappear. So my church says.

But for all this talk against tradition, my church has kept around a peculiar tradition of its own. The conductor. We’ve removed the the artwork, the robes, the books of prayers, the candles, and even the benediction but somehow we’ve managed to keep the choir conductor. Now you may say that having a conductor is necessary, proper, or even useful, but surely not a tradition. Perhaps at one time this was so; however, things have come to such a pass that a musical director is nothing more than a tradition in the worst and most unholy way. After all, he stands at the front of the church and waves his hands in the air, sometimes with a slight allusion to pulse and rythym, and othertimes with as little regard for the motions of his quavering hands as the stereotypical woman has for the Super Bowl. It’s not like this is problem is really noticed, though, because the congregation has so completely forgotten what a conductor is for that they pay no more attention to him than they do the flies buzzing against the stained glass windows primly covered over with shutters and pull-down shades. He’s nice to have around because he seems to be the sort of thing that churches ought to have, but what he does and the purpose he serves is actually quite irrelevant.

It is this sort of tradition that my church turns a blind eye to because it doesn’t seem very “religious.” But this is the sort of tradition that ought to be most adamantly opposed, not because it is a tradition, but because in it is displayed all the thoughtlessness, lack of reverence, complacency, and pride that can not only unlawfully bind the hearts of men, but numbs men from maintaing the ever vigilant watch over their souls that is so necessary in a religion that must be forever reforming itself and defending itself from the sinful influences of its adherents.

In my estimation, there are three types of religious traditions. There are those traditions which enable men and women to worship and interact with God within the bounds He has prescribed. Then, there are those traditions which are added to the prescriptions of God for the purpose of protecting the people from omitting or committing an action that transgresses the prescriptions of God. And finally, there are those traditions which are nothing more than the historical record of the way the religious community has come to understand, interpret, and express God’s revelation of Himself. There are ample examples of all three throughout the history of the Church.

It is interesting to note that all three types of tradition came into being for an explicit reason: to enable people to worship God, to protect people from sinful errors, and to guide people into understanding. All three types of tradition have their place in the life of the Church and of the individual religious adherent, although only insofar as they actually accomplish their purpose. It is when tradition becomes thoughtless, meaningless, and false that it also becomes destructive. The problem with tradition isn’t that it is a tradition but that it is often misapplied and abused.

Some traditions become destructive because they no longer fit the situation or need for which they were created. The hosts of religious traditions found in the rabbinical writings at the time Jesus began His earthly ministry are of this sort. They were created to help men obey God, but they were applied in such a way that they kept men from obeying God. Other traditions become destructive when they lose their meaning. Liturgically oriented churches constantly run this risk. The rich and meaningful words and actions that were created as a means of worship of God actually hinder men from worshipping God when they are no longer understood or when their forms have lost their meaning. The traditions that were meant to help men worship, cover and hide their object much as the moon does the sun during a solar eclipse. Lastly, traditions become destructive when they no longer adhere to the truth. While there is a safety to be found in numbers, and the majority opinion of most men over a long period of time carries a respectable dignity and weight, it must not be forgotten that many men (sometimes more easily than a few) can be deceived or moved to wickedness; even the freshman psychology student can point out many examples of “group-think” running amuck.

When traditions go wrong the Church must be quick to take action. Traditions are powerful because they are a part of the way men think and act, and these habits of mind and body can be most difficult to change–even when they are recognized as destructive habits. Thus the polite toleration of a musical conductor after he has worn out his usefulness is more dangerous that it first seems. The problem, in this case, is not with the conductor: old Mr. Holland’s rythmic (or not) gyrations are really quite benign. Rather, the attitude that allows the Church to overlook Mr. Holland is destable because of its thoughtless and complacent approach to the worship of God and to the care of its members. When traditions outlive their place and purpose they ought to be removed and replaced, so that the Church is ever and always thoughtfully engaged in purposeful worship of God.