Writing to the Thessalonian church, the apostle Paul encouraged them, “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15; ESV).” A little later he adds, “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us (2 Thessalonians 3:6; ESV).
The use of the word “tradition” might confuse some, who have been told that in matters of religion, traditions refer to optional matters, or else to non-written dogma. Why, they might wonder, was Paul calling his doctrine, given to him by Christ, a tradition, and why, they might also ask, was it so important for the brethren to walk according to these traditions. These are good questions, and it helps if we understand what Paul meant when he used the word which has been translated as “tradition.”
The original meaning of tradition has little to do with how important the tradition is, nor did the word necessarily convey the manner by which the tradition was taught to another. The Greek word, in particular, “paradosis,” means most literally, “to give or hand to the one beside you.” It refers thus to the giving over of knowledge, especially from one generation to the next.
We can see this idea at work in the traditions we have in our families and our homes. Parents have a way of doing things, and their children are taught this way, and thus the practice becomes tradition. We have traditions regarding holidays, mealtimes, folding clothes, cooking, vacations and a host of other activities. Culturally we develop traditions as well. Children go to school and are taught to stand and pledge allegiance to the flag of their country. Thus does the practice get handed down from one generation to the next.
In matters of religion, knowledge likewise gets passed from one generation to the next. Ways of doing things, philosophies and dogmas, attitudes towards various activities… all these and more are taught, through word and deed, and each generation must choose what to do with that which the previous generation of believers has handed to them. When Paul spoke to the Faith of Timothy, saying, “ I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well (2 Timothy 1:5; ESV),” he was speaking of a tradition of faith, passed from one generation to the next.
When Paul used the word, “tradition,” to the Thessalonians he was speaking to those things that he as an older, experienced believer, as well as an inspired apostle of Christ, had handed over to them, entrusting them with those articles of faith that were vital for salvation and righteousness. These matters were important because they had come to Paul from Christ Himself. Paul would write to the Galatians, “For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12; ESV)” Jesus Himself said concerning the things He taught, “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak (John 12:49; ESV).”
True Christian doctrine then is a family tradition, so to speak. It was given by the Patriarch of the family, God, to His Son, Jesus, who handed them on down to His brothers, the apostles, who then continued to hand those self-same practices and doctrines to those they converted. This manner of passing on the faith was intended to be perpetual. Thus did Paul remind Timothy, “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2; ESV).”
While the traditions created by men are sometimes of dubious value, those things taught by God are of eternal value, for they are the very words of life. This is why Paul was so adamant that the Thessalonians continue in what they had been taught. He was aware that if they departed from the doctrine of Christ, into apostasy, they would lose the life they had in Christ. But if they would continue in them, walking according to what they had been taught, they would be saved (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-2).
When we think about those things we have been taught by others in matters of religion, the traditions we have received from various sources, we should ask ourselves if they are the same as those things that Christ handed down to His apostles, the same as those things the apostles handed down to the church. If they are, then we should hold fast to those traditions, and walk in them. If they are not, we might be well advised to seek out some older traditions: ones with a divine origin.
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Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.