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Tradition and The Bible: Proper Authority in Religion?

Tradition or the BibleDoes it matter what the source of a doctrine may be: human or Divine? Is tradition a proper source or standard of authority in religion? Does the fact a church has participated in a practice for years prove the practice is good or bad? 

What does the Bible teach about tradition? Should we be traditional or non-traditional? Should we defend a doctrine on the grounds that "we have always done it that way"? Or should we seek what is new and progressive, so we oppose traditional practices as "old-fashioned" and "out of date"? Should we follow Scripture or man-made traditions?

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All societies have varying degrees of respect for tradition.

* Nations have flags, monuments, and holidays of historic significance. A tour of Washington DC is a study in the traditions of the USA.

* Families celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and other routines that we regularly enjoy or respect. Years ago our family had no TV, so every year we would rent a TV for the weekend of the Michigan-Ohio State football game.

* Religions also have traditions regarding morality, worship, church organization, etc.

Some people value tradition highly, others are more non-traditional.

Some people do not want traditions to change. They prefer to do things the same; the old methods are "tried and true." Some churches defend their practices on the grounds that "we have always done it that way."

Other people have little respect for tradition. Some openly oppose traditional practices as "old-fashioned and out of date." They want things to be new, different, and progressive. They may reject a practice saying, "That's just a tradition." Some members of the church become so opposed to tradition that they demand change simply for the sake of change.

The purpose of this study is to consider what the Bible says about tradition.

What is tradition? Should we follow tradition as authority for our religious practices?

One of our main purposes will be to show that "tradition" is essentially just another term for "authority." When we understand the Bible principles of authority, we will see that the same principles are true of tradition. When we understand the Bible teaching about tradition, we will see that the same things are true of all Bible authority. Studying tradition will help us understand authority and vice-versa.

Consider the Bible teaching about tradition and notice how it relates to authority in general.

I. Divine Tradition and Divine Authority Are Revealed from God and Require Our Respect.

Compare the Bible teaching about Divine authority or doctrine to Divine tradition.

Divine Authority, Command, Doctrine

God is our spiritual Lord and Master. He rules over the universe.

1 Chronicles 29:11,12 - Everything in heaven and earth belongs to God. He reigns over all. Because He made it all, it belongs to Him, and He has the right to expect all His creatures to obey His commands.

Acts 17:24 - God made the world and everything in it since He is Lord of heaven and earth. "Lord" means a person who has authority over others: a master, chief, or ruler. God is Lord of heaven and earth.

Only God possesses the ultimate authority in the universe.

[Psalm 97:5; Joshua 3:11,13; Matthew 11:25; Deuteronomy 10:17; Daniel 2:47; Psalm 136:3; 95:3; 97:9; 83:18; Isa. 33:22; Rev. 19:6]

God's authority today is exercised through His Son.

As the Son of God, Jesus is Lord of all and reveals God's will for us today.

Matthew 28:18-20 - As God's Son, He possesses "all authority in heaven and on earth," so we should obey all His commands.

Ephesians 1:21-23 - He is above all power and might and dominion. Specifically, He is Head over all things to the church.

Luke 6:46 - If Jesus is Lord then we must do the things He says.

Ultimate religious authority resides in God, and that authority is exercised through the teachings of Jesus Christ.

[Hebrews 1:1,2; Acts 3:22,23; Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 17:14; 19:16; Acts 10:36; Romans 10:12; 9:5; John 3:31; Phil. 3:20,21; Col. 1:16; John 16:15; 17:10; Matt. 7:29; John 17:2; Luke 4:32; 6:46; Matthew 17:5; John 6:68,63; 12:48; Col. 3:16,17; 1 Tim. 6:3]

Divine authority is revealed in the Bible, the Scriptures.

1 Corinthians 14:37 - The things Paul wrote were the commands of Lord.

2 Timothy 3:16,17 - All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching and furnishing to all good works.

The Bible is a complete and perfect guide, inspired by God to reveal everything we need for a godly life and salvation. We need no additional standard of authority or revelation, because the Bible completely reveals all God's will for man.

[Ephesians 3:3-5; 2 Peter 1:20,21; Luke 10:16; Matt. 15:4; 22:29-32; 10:19,20; 1 Thess. 4:15; 1 Tim. 4:1; Gal. 1:11,12; 1 Cor. 2:11-13; 4:6; 2 Thess. 3:6,12,17; John 20:30,31; 10:35; 1 John 1:1-4; Luke 1:1-4; 1 Tim. 4:11; Jude 3; James 1:25; Matt. 28:20; Col. 4:12; Jude 3; Hebrews 13:20,21; John 20:30,31; 1 John 1:1-4.]

Divine Tradition

Notice now how the things we learned about authority relate to tradition.

"Tradition" in the Bible does not mean exactly what many people think.

"Tradition" is currently defined: "the handing down of statements, beliefs ... from generation to generation..." In theology, it especially refers to teachings handed down from past generations but not written in the Bible. (Random House College Dictionary)

"Tradition" in the Bible means: "a giving over which is done by word of mouth or in writing ... by instruction, narrative, precept, etc. ..." - Grimm-Wilke-Thayer. This is a related form of the verb "deliver." So, tradition is simply teaching that has been delivered. The source or means of delivery is not inherent in the meaning, nor is the age of the teaching.

Notice what the Bible says about Divine tradition.

1 Corinthians 11:1,2 - Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. I praise you that you keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. Note the connection: Traditions are teachings that have been delivered. Paul praised them for keeping traditions. But we should follow teaching only so far as it comes from Christ.

2 Thessalonians 2:15 - Stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. Traditions should be held, not rejected (v14 shows this refers to the gospel). When the inspired men were alive, these traditions were taught "by word or epistle": orally or in writing. But the inspired men recorded all truth in the Scripture, then passed away. So Divine tradition today is found only in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16,17; John 16:13; 1 Peter 1:3; Jude 3; 1 Corinthians 13:8-10; etc.).

2 Thessalonians 3:6 - We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. Tradition is so important that those who do not follow it are walking disorderly and should be withdrawn from! But again, this refers to the traditions revealed from God through inspired men.

Divine tradition is the teaching delivered by inspired men.

"Deliver" is used in many ways in the Bible (like today), but one way is to deliver Divine teaching. This is just the verb form of the word for tradition!

1 Corinthians 11:2 - I praise you that you keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you.

1 Corinthians 11:23 - Regarding the Lord's Supper, Paul said: "I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you." The Lord's Supper is a tradition delivered to us by inspired men as they received it from the Lord.

1 Corinthians 15:1-4 - Paul declared the gospel by which we are saved. He delivered that which he received: the message of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. So, the gospel of Christ is tradition by which we are saved. [Romans 6:17,18]

Jude 3 - Contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. Divine tradition is simply the faith that was delivered to us. Rather than opposing this tradition, we must contend for it!

So, tradition is simply teaching that has been delivered. It has nothing to do with the age of the teaching. Divine tradition is teaching delivered from God through inspired men. Rather than opposing it, we must obey it as essential to our salvation.

This means Divine tradition is equivalent to Divine authority: teachings that come from God to guide our lives. As such, everything that we understand regarding Divine authority applies to Divine tradition.

II. Human Tradition and Human Authority Originate with Men and Must Not Be Followed If They Differ from Divine Authority.

Now compare Bible teaching about human authority or doctrine to human tradition.

Human Authority, Commands, Doctrine

Often people follow religious practices that are nowhere found in God's word. They are different from what God has told us to do. People often reason that these practices are acceptable unless God's word expressly tells us not to do them. The Bible teaches differently.

Jeremiah 10:23 - The way of man is not in himself. It is not in man who walks to direct his steps. Since we do not think like God does, we cannot possibly know God's will unless He reveals it [1 Corinthians 2:10-13]. Knowing this, God completely revealed His will for us in the Bible, then He warned us not to follow human wisdom.

Galatians 1:6-9 - Any man is accursed if he preaches a gospel different from what inspired men taught in the first century. If a practice is not included in the gospel, then, for us to say it is acceptable, would be to preach a different gospel.

2 John 9 - Whoever goes beyond and does not abide in Jesus' teaching, does not have God. To have God we must abide in Jesus' teaching. Since Jesus' teaching is revealed in the New Testament, to practice things we cannot find in the gospel would be to separate ourselves from Him.

Revelation 22:18,19 - When we truly respect God's word, we will refuse to add to or take from what He says. We will do exactly what He says without changing it.

When we study about a certain practice, then, we should not ask, "Where does God say not to do this?" Instead, ask, "Where does God's word show this act would be acceptable?" If the act cannot be found included in God's will for us, then we should refuse to participate in it.

[Cf. Deuteronomy 4:2; 12:32; Proverbs 30:6; Colossians 3:17; Isaiah 55:8,9; Proverbs 14:12; 2 Corinthians 10:18; 1 Corinthians 1:21-24; 2:5; John 4:23,24; 1 Peter 4:11; 1 Corinthians 4:6; Romans 10:1-3; Colossians 2:8.]

Human Tradition

Just as religious people often follow other religious authority that differs from Gold's word, so they often follow human traditions that differ from God's word.

Jews follow many traditions that are human in origin and differ from God's word. The movie "Fiddler on the Roof" memorialized this in song. When asked the reason for their practice, the reason given was not a command in Scripture, but "tradition"!

The Catholic Church binds this as doctrine:

"Do we get from the Bible alone all our knowledge and certainty about what God has told us? No, there is also Sacred Tradition ... What is tradition? The Word of God handed on to us by the Apostles in their preaching and by their successors in the church to the present day ... Do you have to believe in tradition? Yes ... we are obliged to accept all the truths contained in the Bible and Tradition..." - Catechism, pp. 9,10.

So, they admit that these traditions are not found in the Bible. In practice, "tradition" is the practice of the church through the years: human tradition not found in Scripture.

What does the Bible say about such traditions?

Mark 7:1-13 (Matt. 15:1-14)

The Pharisees had many traditions about washing (vv 3,4,8). They had received these traditions from the elders or fathers (vv 3,5). They "found fault" (vv 2,5) with Jesus' disciples for not washing their hands before eating.

Jesus rebuked them, because their traditions freed them from obeying Divine commands, such as caring for elderly parents (vv 9-11). And they required people to follow human commands that God never gave, such as requiring them to wash before they eat (vv 1-5,8). Washing before meals is fine, but must not be viewed or bound as an of religious significance.

So, Jesus said they laid aside God's commands (v8), rejected His commands (v9), and made Gods word of no effect (v13). They did this because they followed traditions of men (v8), human tradition (vv 9,13) and taught as doctrine the commands of men (v7). [Note that these were "handed down" (v13) - this is the same word for "delivered" in other passages, the verb form of "tradition."]

The problem was they followed traditions that were human in origin that differed from God's teaching. Since the Bible reveals everything God has ordained, any practice not revealed in the gospel must be human in origin and therefore displeasing to God.

Colossians 2:8

We must guard against philosophies that follow the traditions of men and the principles of the world, but are not according to Christ. The problem is not that people follow tradition: the gospel itself is tradition handed down from God. The problem is that they followed traditions of men that differ from the doctrine of Christ. Such teachings do not constitute authority for our practice but must be rejected.

1 Peter 1:18,19

We were redeemed by the blood of Christ from the aimless conduct received by tradition from the fathers. The fact an act has been long practiced does not constitute valid reason for us to practice it. The question is: What is the origin of the practice? If it does not agree with God's word, then it leads to aimless conduct from which we need to be redeemed!


Traditions are not inherently good or bad, right or wrong, any more than doctrines, teachings, practices, etc. There are true and false doctrines, true and false practices, and true and false traditions. To say "I am opposed to (or in favor of) tradition" is like saying, "I am opposed to (or in favor of) teachings and practices." You must know what teachings or practices are referred to and what their source is.

Some people mistakenly think practices are acceptable or should be defended on the grounds a church has practiced it that way for years. Other people object to tradition and seek change for the sake of change. Invariably those people just begin new practices, which soon become new traditions.

Christians should be neither "traditional" nor "non-traditional" regarding our past practices: we should neither accept nor oppose a practice simply because people have done it in the past. The fact that "we have done it that way for years" is not, of itself, proof for or against a practice.

The question is not how long we have practiced something or when it began. The question is: Does it fit what God's word says? If God's word requires it, then we dare not leave it off. If it fits God's word, but is not required, then we should not oppose it or bind it. If it forbidden in God's word or unauthorized in God's word, then we must oppose it regardless of how long it has been practiced.

Are you following the tradition received from God for your life, or are you following human tradition that differs from His word? Have you been forgiven of your sins according to God's word? If so, are you living a faithful life?

Note: We have many other articles on our web site related to this topic. If you would like to have further information, please note the links below.

(C) Copyright 2002, David E. Pratte;
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Topics for further Bible study

Divine Authority vs. Human Authority
The Bible vs. Denominational Creeds
Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Importance of Bible Knowledge
Is One Interpretation as Good as Another?
The Inspiration of the Bible
False Teaching & Religious Error
Emotions in Authority and Worship
Can We Understand the Bible?
Are Bible Examples Binding Authority? - Return to the Gospel Way home page.

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