What is the proper place of tradition in religion? Is it binding? Should it be totally shunned? Is the answer perhaps between those extremes?
In any question it is important to clearly define terms. The New Testament word rendered tradition means “a giving over which is done by word of mouth or in writing” (Thayer). We typically think of it as something handed down. It is important to differentiate three usages of the word.
Commands of God
Three times the New Testament uses tradition to refer to what is handed down by God via divine revelation through the apostles. “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us” (2 Thessalonians 2:15; cf. 3:6; 1 Corinthians 11:2). This kind of tradition is clearly binding!
Commands of Men
The other ten uses of tradition in the New Testament refer to what has been handed down from men, opposite the first application. Many Jews believed that part of Moses’ law was passed down orally (Galatians 1:14). They referred to it as “the tradition of the elders.” It was gradually expanded to include interpretations of the written law, and finally written in the Talmud.
Romans Catholics and others today hold a similar view of Jesus’ teaching. “Church tradition” is held on par with the Bible. Some traditions are so common (e.g., holiday celebrations) that people are surprised to find that they are not in the Bible at all.
Jesus rejected the notion of binding human tradition (Matthew 15:1-9). He said following these traditions leads people to transgress God’s commandments (v. 3), invalidate His word (v. 6), and thus make their worship vain (v. 9). Paul also warned against tradition in this sense (Colossians 2:8). Biblical truth, not church officials, determines what we should and should not do to please God. It is most presumptuous to elevate human wisdom to the level of God’s!
Custom or Common Practice
Established ways of doing things are often called traditions. (The Bible does not use the word in this sense.) For example, churches traditionally have their main worship period in the mornings on Sundays. God’s word specifies a Sunday assembly (tradition in the first sense) but not the time of day; having it in the morning is a custom.
Remember a few things here. While custom often springs from expediency, it makes a thing neither right nor wrong. “We’ve always/never done it that way” does not establish truth! What works at one time or place may not work as well at another. Change may be in order, but it can also be overdone. In any case, one’s “soundness” must be measured by his adherence to divine revelation, not another’s customs.