Each summer, my entire family goes on vacation together. I’m talking about my grandparents, aunt, uncle, and cousins. It’s a tradition of sorts. Now, maybe you don’t go on vacation with your extended family each year, but you have traditions. We all do. And if we’re honest with ourselves, traditions mean a whole bunch to us.
This week, I’m writing about the traditions of worship. Let me begin with a question: “What does traditional worship look like?” Does it involve hymnals? An organ? Choir robes? A grand piano? Electric guitar? Or does it involve any instruments at all? Now, it’s important to mention that I’m not referring to biblical traditions like communion and baptism. Those are God-ordained practices for His Church. Rather, my aim in this article is to discuss extra-biblical traditions like music style, dress code, decorations, and other “touchy” subjects. But how do these traditions influence our worship?
Having worship traditions is nothing new. Let’s open God’s Word.
“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 properly, 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?’” (Mark 7:1-5 ESV).
Jesus is in Galilee during the time of this account. And these religious leaders travel from Jerusalem to Galilee for an arrogant purpose. They seek to trap Jesus, and they wonder how His disciples can disregard their religious traditions.
It’s easy to cling so tightly to our traditions that we create an “us versus them” mentality. And this same mentality exists in the Church today. Like the religious leaders approaching Jesus about ceremonial washing, we often view churches who worship differently with an “us versus them” mentality. Once again, I’m not talking about commands explicitly stated in God’s Word. No Church should ever worship in a way contrary to the Bible. But how often do Christians attack other Christians about things like music style, decorations, and lighting?
Unfortunately, there are still religious people who travel the distance to tell someone else how wrong they are when those wrongs have no biblical grounding. As this passage in Mark 7 continues, we see another heavy truth.
Over time, we place a greater emphasis on our traditions than God’s Word. As a result, our worship becomes a façade. Let’s read what Jesus says to the religious leaders who approach Him.
“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’” (v. 6-8 ESV).
Quoting Isaiah 29:13, Jesus calls the religious people hypocrites (play actors). There is a discrepancy between what they do and why they do it. Jesus further explains this as He gives an example in verses 10-13. The Jews had avoided the fifth commandment to honor their parents by claiming to “give” Corban (a gift dedicated to God). In this way, they refused to help their parents in times of need. And as verse 13 says, the Jews ignored the Word of God in more ways than one.
It’s still common for Christians to hold so tightly to their traditions that they replace God’s Word with their own preferences. And when the Bible is replaced with human traditions, our worship becomes a façade. Such is the case of the religious leaders in Mark 7. And if we’re not careful, we can go through the motions and play church, too.
Lastly, pure worship comes from the heart rather than traditions.
In verses 14-23, Jesus teaches that pure and genuine worship comes not from clean food or clean hands (Jewish traditions). Rather, pure worship comes from a clean heart before God. And the same is true for His Church today.
Jesus says, “‘For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person’” (v. 21-23 ESV).
The biggest obstacle to our worship is sin. Not styles. Not human traditions. Rather than fighting over traditions, we should be repenting over sin. That’s not to say that all of our traditions are bad. Some of them may serve our worship well. But we must examine the motivations of why we do what we do.
How often do we focus our worship through the lens of tradition rather than the blood of Christ?