The Subtle Snare of Human Tradition

Mark 7:5; John 4:19
       Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?
       The woman said unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place men ought to worship.

MARTYN LLOYD-JONES (1899-1981): We are all like this woman, governed by habit, custom, indeed even by prejudice. You see the way she puts it: Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship. Now the word translated “ought” really means “must.” Our Lord used the same word in the twenty-fourth verse. It means “necessary.” In this woman’s words you see the power that tradition and prejudice exercise upon us in the matter of worship.

MATTHEW HENRY (1662-1714): We are not to think it strange if people be wedded to customs which they have had transmitted to them from their fathers, and which they have been educated in an opinion of as sacred.

MARTYN LLOYD-JONES: I think this is true of many of us. We may have been worshipping for years in a given way and manner. Why have we done that? There is only one answer: it is how we were brought up. We have never thought about it, we have never examined it, we have never asked any questions. It was the thing to do; it has always been done. We have inherited a custom; we have inherited a tradition and, indeed, a prejudice. It is amazing to read the long history of the church and see the quarrels and the fighting that have taken place over the question of worship, and that has generally been due to prejudice. People do not know why they belong to different sections of the church; they have never examined it. They were “brought up in it,” and therefore they not only assume it is right, but prejudice comes in, and they will fight for their tradition with bitterness and intensity―That is sheer traditionalism, and the devil makes ready use of it.

CHARLES BRIDGES (1794-1869): Repetition forms the habit. The habit becomes a ruling principle.

MARTYN LLOYD-JONES: But we must never allow traditionalism to govern us. That does not mean that we despise the past—of course not! Let us learn from it, but let us not become slaves to it. Thank God for every good custom and tradition, but the moment I worship tradition I am in a dangerous state. We must be guided by the truth of the New Testament, and not governed by tradition, however old and venerable it may be.

C. H. SPURGEON (1834-1892): I do not hesitate to say that a great deal of church order, and a great deal of propriety and decorum, and regulations, and “As-it-was-in-the-beginning―is-now―and-ever-shall-be-ism” are only so much spices and linen for a dead Christ, and Christ is alive, and what is wanted is to give Him room!”

JOHN NEWTON (1725-1807): I make allowances for the unavoidable influence of education, connection, and habit, both in you and in myself. We generally ascribe the dissent of those who differ from us, in part at least, to prejudices of this kind; but, as it is very natural to think favourably of ourselves, we almost take it for granted that we have either escaped or outgrown every bias…For my own part, I dare not say that I am free from all bias and pre-possession; but I desire and endeavour to guard against their influence.

MARTYN LLOYD-JONES: I throw out a question for your consideration: Is a prescribed liturgy compatible with the freedom of the Spirit? There is an answer to the question, and I give it myself immediately―the Holy Spirit can even use a liturgy! He has done so, He can break through it. But He has to break through it! The more set, formal, mechanical, and repetitive the service, the less opportunity there is for the Spirit.

C. H. SPURGEON: A brother minister told me this morning, that on one occasion, he prayed in the morning service at the commencement instead of giving out a hymn, and after the service, the deacons informed him that they would have no innovations. We hitherto understood that Baptist churches are not under bondage to traditions and fixed rules as to modes of worship, and yet these poor creatures, these would-be lords, who cry out loudly enough against a liturgy, would bind their ministers with rubrics made by custom. It is time that such nonsense were for ever silenced…It is easy enough to find regulations as rigid as could be invented by any bench of bishops; you may not vary the length of the hymn or the order of the service by a hair’s breadth, or you will sin against your own reputation and the feelings of the conservative portion of the congregation. There are few of such places now, but quite enough and, where the evil rules, the good folks are as tenacious of their established nonsense as ever the Church of England can be of her printed prayers and rubrics; and the preacher must submit to all the regular fudge as if it were Scripture itself, or be pronounced eccentric and wanting in decorum.

E. W. BULLINGER (1837-1913): Tradition is like the tether which prevents an animal from getting a blade of grass beyond the length of that tether.

C. H. SPURGEON: We will not be bound to sing here and pray there, but will vary the order of service to prevent monotony. And why not? Irregularities would do good, monotony works weariness. We ought ourselves to guard against falling into formalism by means of simplicity, for we may do it the one way as well as the other, by laying it down as a rule that a service must begin with prayer or begin with singing, that the preacher must preach at such a time in the service, that the service must commence, continue, and conclude in some fixed fashion; that seems to me to have a tendency to breed another form of ritualism inconsistent with worshipping God in spirit and in truth.

LORD SHAFTESBURY (1801-1885): Ritualism is the Colorado beetle of ecclesiaticism—you cannot keep it out.

C. H. SPURGEON: Oh, do not get into mere religious habits! Ritualistic habits they will be to you, simple as that ritual will be. You come, and you go, and you are satisfied. This will never do.

GEORGE MÜLLER (1805-1898): Everything that is a mere form, a mere habit and custom in divine things, is to be dreaded exceedingly: life, power, reality, this is what we have to aim after.

MARTYN LLOYD-JONES: We must beware of traditions that do not really belong to the vitals and essentials of the Christian life, but are the mere accidents of history or of circumstances.


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