The most famous words in the history of the church may be: “We’ve never done it that way before.” The temptation to elevate tradition above Scripture is one for which we must always remain vigilant. Jesus warned against the Pharisees in Mark 7 who He said, “leave the commandment of God and hold to traditions of men.” (Mark 7:8)
Tradition has had a way of usurping Scripture’s authority repeatedly during the history of the church. It was primarily this elevation of tradition of the church that Martin Luther reacted against during the Protestant Reformation. Luther’s writings infuriated the Pope and most of Christendom. At the Diet of Worms in April of 1521 convened by Emperor Charles, Martin Luther was called upon to recant (take back) his writings against the traditions of the church. When asked if the writings on the table beside him were his, he replied in the affirmative. Then Dr. Luther was asked to deny what was taught in those books, to which Martin heroically responded:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. God help me. Amen.”
The “authority of the popes and councils” was the tradition of the church passed down through the centuries. Martin Luther rejected those in favor of “the Word of God” which alone bound his conscience.
But the problem of human tradition is not just a 1st Century Jewish problem with which Jesus dealt, nor is it only a Middle Ages Catholic problem with which Luther dealt. It is a human problem that each of us must deal with both in our churches and within our own hearts.
In the end, Jesus declares the tradition of the Pharisees to be not only a hindrance to integrity by producing hypocritic words and to worship by producing false worship, but also to be an outright rejection of the very Word of God. By the end of Jesus’ response the choice is clear: “Man’s Tradition of God’s Word?” Which will it be? When “We’ve never done it that way before.” is at odds with “Thus says the Lord” our choice is clear. We must obey the Word of God rather than the traditions of man.
At the end of the day, may what was said of Martin Luther be said of us when the Catholic scholars of his day reported concerning him: “We’ve tried to reason with Dr. Luther, but he accepts only the authority of Scripture.”
What a great testimony! If only people would be able to say that of us. There is a constant need for reformation in our churches because of this human problem of drifting away from Scripture to tradition. The church is to be Semper Reformanda – “Always Reforming.” For this reason God still wants to use people who will say, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I stand. God help me.”