Traditions can be good or bad depending on how we use them. Appeals to tradition are heard in churches across the world. But, when we talk about tradition, are we speaking about God ordained traditions or man-made traditions? Let’s take Baptism and the Eucharist as an example. Without getting into a discussion on the different theologies involved (real vs. spiritual presence, infant vs. believers’ baptism, etc) I think we would be hard pressed to find a Christian Church that would argue those that adhere to these traditions are traditionalists in the bad sense of the word.
A traditionalist, in the bad sense of the word is one who would say that we must do this because it is a tradition. In other words, a traditionalist in the bad sense of the word is one who makes a fallacious appeal to tradition. In their mind, the tradition is right because the tradition has always been done. Change is bad, the same old is good. This mentality usually pops up around man-made traditions. For example, I’m looking at different mission trips for my youth group. The number one answer I get about why we shouldn’t change is “We’ve always done it this way.” or “It’s a rite of passage.” This just raises a red flag in my mind. Bad Traditionalism!
The problem with this mentality is sometimes, doing the same old thing isn’t working. I look at the Lutheran Churches I have belonged to and have noticed a few commonalities, the biggest of which is dwindling attendance (while there are some Lutheran Churches that are growing, the big three Lutheran denominations; ELCA, LC-MS, WELS are losing 1-3% of their membership each year). Why is this? Traditionally, Lutherans are bad at evangelism. A lack of evangelism is leading to a slow death (the statistics say the Lutheran Church in North America will be dead in a generation). Anyone who mentions evangelism is met with “Well, we’ve always done it this way.” By not changing, we are contributing to our own death. The communities around us change, but we fail to change with them. We rely on broken models, refuse to change, and commiserate when the broken model fails to work. Bad Traditionalism!
Being a Lutheran, we have a fancy theological word for these man-made traditions: adiaphora. Basically, they are not essential to our salvation.
Jesus spoke out against such traditionalism:
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God) — then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:1-13, ESV)