What is the place of [ecclesiastical] customs and traditions in the church? We know that it is wrong for the Romish and Orthodox Churches to place customs and traditions on par with Scripture. But how should we, as Protestants, view them?
Church customs are practices, which are accepted in the church through habitual use; whereas traditions are practices, which have been handed down through the generations. A brief consideration of what are customs and what are traditions in the Scriptures and in the church will quickly reveal that there is so much overlap that it is confusing rather than helpful to try to distinguish them when thinking about how we should view them. We shall, for the purpose of this brief answer, therefore take them as essentially synonymous and speak of them as customs.
With what attitude, then should we view church customs? This is question that is not very difficult to answer in principle, but difficult to work out in terms of implications and practice. Indeed, it would require a full-length book if we should attempt to work out satisfactorily the implications and applications in respect to the church visible, local and universal. Let me as such attempt a general answer by suggesting and justifying four inter-related principles within the context of a local assembly.
Our first principle is: We ought to observe all biblical customs that are directly mandated in the Scriptures for New Testament believers. The apostle Paul writing to the Thessalonians, charge them: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions [paradosis, paravdosi"] which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle" (2 Thes 2:15). We need not say much more. The Scriptures are inspired of God, and since the only epistles from the apostles we have are in the Canon of Scripture, it is God’s will that all the traditions and customs that are mandated in the Scripture should be observed by us. It is hard to distinguish between what are commands and what are biblical traditions in regard to the way the church should function. Therefore, we should generally take all biblical traditions mandated in the Scriptures as commandments of God. The role of men and women in the church, for example, ought to be observed according to this principle.
Our second principle is that we ought to observe all customs that are revealed in the Scriptures as customs received and approved or delivered by the apostles to the early believers. The apostle Paul writing to the Corinthians, says: "Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances [or traditions, paradosis, paravdosi"], as I delivered them to you" (1 Cor 11:2). Some of the traditions that Paul have in mind might be traditions which are mandated in the inspired Scriptures (as mentioned in our first principle), but there might be some which he verbally handed down to the churches, which are not in the Scriptures. Since there is no way for us to know for sure what are these oral traditions handed down but not mentioned in the Scriptures, I believe we are not required to observe them. The Scriptures is sufficient for our faith and doctrine. However, there are a couple of customs, which are spoken of as being observed in the early church. For example, in the same passage just referred to, Paul in answer to the Corinthians’ question on whether it was alright for women not to wear head-covering in prayer or worship, says: "if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom [sunêtheia, sunhvqeia], neither the churches of God" (1 Cor 11:16). Of course, by his arguing for the rightness of the custom of head-covering, Paul is making it a mandated tradition, but the implication of what he says is clear: Customs already observed by the churches with the apostle’s approval ought to be maintained.
Our third principle is: We must firmly reject any custom that are clearly contrary to the Word of God or have a tendency to eclipse true godliness. Again this is not difficult to prove. Responding to the Scribes and Pharisees charges that His disciples transgressed the traditions of the elders, the Lord asked them: "Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition [paradosis, paravdosi"]?" (Mt 15:3). Elsewhere He charged the Jews for "making the word of God of none effect through [their] tradition [paradosis, paravdosi"]" (Mk 7:13). And similarly the apostle Paul, warned the Colossians: "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition [paradosis, paravdosi"] of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" (Col 2:8).
Our fourth principle is that we should be slow to abolish any church custom unless we are convicted by Scripture that they are contrary to the revealed will of God. This principle is derived from the fact that customs that may not have direct biblical warrant, but are not contrary to God’s Word may not necessary be bad and therefore to be renounced by the church. To prove this principle, consider the normative example of the Lord Jesus Christ. Consider how when He was twelve years old, He followed His parents to Jerusalem "after the custom [ethos, e[qo"] of the [Passover] feast" (Lk 2:42). What is this custom that Luke is referring to? We are told in verse 41, that the Lord’s parents went to Jerusalem at the Passover every year. Surely, He would have gone with them every year, for it would be rather unusual for them to put him in the care of someone while they traveled to Jerusalem together. So the custom referred to cannot simply be that of traveling down for the Passover, but something that relates to the Lord’s being twelve years old. I believe Matthew Henry is right when he asserts:
The Jewish doctors say that at twelve years old children must begin to fast from time to time, that they may learn to fast on the day of atonement; and that at thirteen years old a child begins to be a son of the commandment, that is, obliged to the duties of adult church-membership, having been from his infancy, by virtue of his circumcision, a son of the covenant (comm. in loc).
Now, this tradition of admission into adult membership of the church is nowhere described in the inspired Scripture; and yet the Lord observed it. I believe this example, together with the apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 11:16 is sufficient to require us to have a healthy respect for meaningful traditions in the church. So then, I believe John Calvin is right in his counsel in his third sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:11-16—
So let us carefully observe that when a custom is good – that is, when it is based on reason – we must acquiesce to it. …as soon as anyone sets something before us which is good for our mutual edification, and for promoting decency among us, and especially if it will nurture peace, let everyone say, "Amen," and let there be no argument about it. Rather, let us agree that whatever is good for the well-being of the whole Church will be practiced, and let everyone keep to it (Men, Women and Order in the Church[Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1992], 55, 59-60).
This counsel is, no doubt, hard to observe. Calvin knew it was hard and we know it by experience; for as soon as we make a custom, there will be those who have different opinions who will be unhappy about it. So for example, in PCC, since we are very new, we have to establish some customs (borrowed or adapted from other Reformed churches). We have customs in regard to order of worship, to the way we conduct our Lord’s Supper, or our church weddings and burials. We have customs in regard to covenant taking and annual covenant renewal, customs in regard to prayer meetings, lunch fellowship, etc, etc. While many do not object to them, some of us, I am sure, would prefer to do things differently if given the choice. And some of us will be ready to give many good arguments to coerce the church to turn in certain directions. What should we do in such situations? Calvin has some sound advice—
Let us learn that where there is an accepted custom, and it is a good and descent one, we must accept it. And whoever tries to change it is surely the enemy of the common good…
If we are hardened in our evil customs, let us take great pain to escape. Let us not be as the obstinate who say, "Hey, look! We were brought up this way, and never saw it any differently."… (ibid., 57)
We must also, however, oppose those who [conveniently] appeal to [the fact that the practice is but] custom and assert their liberty [as it suits their purpose], in order to change something which is orderly and well established…(ibid., 58)
Now we are thereby admonished to search our natures carefully. For certainly, in accordance with the haughtiness which is in all men, no one will readily conform to his neighbours, until he has rid himself of the vice to which he is inclined. Thus we will never have the meekness which is required of us, until we have so far changed our disposition, and forgotten whatever it is that carries us away, that we desire only to be little ones under God’s guidance.… (ibid., 60).
In sum, church customs that are contrary to the Word of God should be abolished, but customs, which are meaningful and reasonable, although not having direct biblical mandates, should be received with meekness by the members of the church, if we wish to maintain peace and unity in the church. However, these same customs (in terms of practices), not having the infallible authority of the Scriptures may be changed at the considered discretion of the leaders of the church without violating God’s will.
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