Traditions that are Not in the Bible

By |2014-01-27T15:59:58+00:00December 30th, 2013|Categories: Anglican Life|7 Comments


Today I had a great facebook exchange with a family member friend.  We were discussing wedding bands.  Should married couples wear them?  Are there alternative ways to demonstrate one’s marital faithfulness?

It was a friendly discussion in which I mostly pontificated as usual.  It was a conversation between a few committed Christians who supported each other and didn’t question motives, etc. But one of the questions that came from that discussion was a common one that I hear a lot as an Anglican pastor.

“If some tradition isn’t in the Bible, then its not sacred or required, right?  Isn’t it up to the individual to choose?” Its a really good question, and not every pastor or parishioner would answer it the same.

My job in his journal is the give the answer of the Anglican Pastor.  My answer is yes.  Yes, we should wear our wedding bands, and yes, they are sacred.  Also, yes, they are not in the Bible.  And there are many other sacred traditions that should be kept, but aren’t commanded directly in the Bible.

In the non-catholic or free church (sometimes called puritan) tradition that is popular today among evangelicals, it is standard to assume that if something is not commanded in Scripture, it is not necessary.  Wedding bands, for example.  But also clergy vestments, dates of holidays, traditional written prayers, communion every Sunday, making the sign of the cross, receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday, etc.  In puritan theology (and most evangelical theology today) these things are at best personal or local church choices, or at worst pagan intrusions into “pure” faith.

But that way of thinking may not be helpful, true or even Biblical after all.  It doesn’t say anywhere in Scripture that we should only do things that the Bible itself tells us to do.  There is mention several times in the NT of traditions that are being passed along by word of mouth.  The idea isn’t that we should only keep the Biblical traditions.  The idea is that our “man made” traditions should never go against Scripture or be elevated above God himself, in his love and justice.  They should support it.  They should be pointing to the Gospel.  There are many ways to point to the Gospel, but these traditions are the ways that our spiritual ancestors have passed on to us.  We should consider that very highly when thinking about how to point to the Gospel and live it out.

In the Anglican way of thinking, any Christian tradition with the weight of years behind it should be kept.  If it supports the Gospel and the Bible, and if it is not forbidden by Scripture, then we are obliged to keep it.  I know that sounds heavy to a lot of evangelical ears.  But we are evangelical too.  Anglicans have been a part of the evangelical stream for a long time.  For some reason, the puritan approach kind of gets more press.  But it’s not un-evangelical to see traditions as important and as often obligatory on the individual.

No, traditions can’t save you.  But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important and necessary.  In fact, when they point to salvation, they do help people find it.  And when Christians share the same ancient traditions, we are all point to salvation in the same ways.  We are identifying ourselves visibly with each other, and with our spiritual forefathers.

For example, Jesus likely wasn’t born on December 25th.  And yet that is the traditional date we celebrate the feast of the Incarnation.  The Bible doesn’t command us to use that date, in fact it is pretty much silent on that point.  But it would be foolish for an individual Christian or a local church to declare his own personal Christmas day.  And not only foolish, but unwise.  Unwise because it would isolate that individual or church from the rest of the Christian community.  This is especially harmful in a day and age in which we need as much visible Christian unity as possible.

I know it would be silly for someone to declare their own personal Christmas.  And yet that is what we are told we should do with many other traditions.

What about vestments?  That is a great example.  Years ago some protestants decided that the pastors shouldn’t wear robes.  Of course, the vast majority of Christians kept using them (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, etc, literally 70%+ of Christians).  However, most American evangelicals think that robes are inherently arrogance or legalistic, etc.  The Bible doesn’t directly command robes (arguably it does, but that is for another day).  Yet Christian ministers have worn robes for hundreds of years, and distinctive stoles for thousands.  Should our generation just toss them aside so lightly?  What baby are we tossing out with that bathwater?  I’m not sure, but I don’t want to be the one to find out.  And furthermore, I hate picking out ties and suit coats anyways.

At weddings, I’ve seen the couple write their own vows.  That’s fine for them during the reception, or maybe at a different part of the service (not as vows, but as personal promises).  But this is another example of how we scorn the traditions.  We make up our own definitions of marriage, as individuals, and then impose them.  Instead, we are entering into an ancient Christian institution and should take the same vows as everyone else.  The Bible doesn’t include the actual vows. They are traditional.  But taking them reminds us, our witnesses, and the world, that we are Christians, and that we haven’t re-invented marriage.

Another example is the Church Year.  The cycle of Advent to Christmas then Epiphany, and then from Lent to Easter to Pentecost is very ancient. Christians have been observing together for so long.  And yet many Christians today ignore it.  They feel that because the Bible doesn’t command it, its not important.  And yet millions of Christians are observing it.  The Bible doesn’t command us not to have a shared calendar of celebration and repentance.  It encourages us to find unity, and to work together.  It encourages us to be “one.”  So in my view, it can be individualism that drives us from the shared Christian traditions, rather than Holy Scripture.

At the end of the day, in American Christianity, there are three ways to look at this.  The puritan way is to say that we will only do what Scripture commands.  The Anglican way is to do what Scripture commands, and to reverently keep the human traditions that support the Gospel and carry on our spiritual ancestor’s way of being Christians.  The Roman or Orthodox way may be to carry on all of the traditions and then try to reconcile them with the Bible.

Human traditions are not to be elevated above God as Jesus said the Pharisees were doing.  Yet Jesus didn’t say “destroy all tradition!”  It was the fact that we Pharisees tend to put them above God or love, or the Gospel.  When they are in their proper place as means of grace,  unity, visible witness, and spiritual growth, then they are important.  And I know Americans hate this, but it really isn’t the individual’s choice, is it?  We’re part of a community of faith.  We shouldn’t see ourselves as deciding everything individually by our personal preferences or interpretations.  Especially in matters of human traditions, we should participate in the group rather than being autonomous.

In my view, the puritan approach becomes very individualistic, ends up putting people in a weird position in terms of other Christians, and honestly is unbiblical.  After all, St Paul wrote, “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.”   The Roman Catholic approach can tend to be rigid and to sometimes justify anti-biblical traditions.

The Anglican approach is to see ourselves as keepers of an ancient tradition.  We are guardians.  We have an obligation to tradition and to Christian unity.  We are individuals, yes, but we aren’t autonomous.

Thankfully, all Christians still share Baptism and Communion.  We differ on aspects of understanding them, but we all believe that they are commands of our Lord Jesus that should be kept.  These shared sacraments still bind us together in a visible witness.  But if we went a step further and gave the Christian tradition a benefit of the doubt, default setting, we would go whole lot further in building a true unified Christian community.  And on top of that, we’d probably find a better and wiser way of doing things, discovering that our spiritual ancestors knew a thing or two about how to worship and live.

What are your thoughts?

Greg is the founder of Anglican Pastor. He is an Anglican Priest of the Anglican Church in North America. He served in a non-denominational church before being called into the Anglican church in 2003. He has served as an Associate Pastor, Parish Administrator, and Rector. He currently serves as the Canon to the Ordinary for the Anglican Diocese of the South.


  1. Dan Monchesky December 31, 2013 at 3:57 pm - Reply


    One minor point that caught my attention at the end of your article… “all Christians still share Baptism and Communion.” I recently learned that the Salvation Army practices neither of the two. I’m not sure why baptism is not practised, but apparently communion is not practised due to their focus upon the social-justice side of ministry to the poverty stricken, and not wanting to be a stumbling block to many alcoholics that they serve.

    I guess my point is “here’s another dimension to ponder… eliminating established traditions for the sake of the people that you minister to.”

  2. Richard Norris January 5, 2014 at 4:30 pm - Reply

    Re: Traditions
    Thanks for your thought-provoking word, Brother Greg.

    Galatians 5 may be of some benefit or it may raise more questions with respect to traditions and our freedom.

    13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh[a]; rather, serve one another humbly in love

    22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

    As you have alluded to in the blog, traditions can nullify the word of the Lord and as a result, become an unhealthy and undesirable law in the eyes of man.

    I believe a helpful test would be to ask, does it glorify man or the Lord? A danger occurs when an individual loses sight of the symbolism behind long-established traditions and consequently embraces them as a matter of convention or to placate man but not to glorify the Lord.

    John saw Him, of which he wrote, “17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!”

    When we are reminded of Him through symbols or traditions, what immediate reaction do we have? Do they mean the same thing to us as they meant to our spiritual ancestors?

    Thanks again, Brother.

  3. Mary September 16, 2016 at 6:31 am - Reply

    Hi , really enjoyed the post! You mentioned ministers wearing robes/vestments is arguably biblical and you would write about that another day. Do you have that posted yet?

    • Greg Goebel September 21, 2016 at 3:28 pm - Reply

      Great question! I’m not even sure what I meant when I wrote that. I believe I was thinking of the robes the Hebrew priests and levites wore, and also of symbolizing Christ’s “robes of righteousness.” Other than that, I’m not sure!

  4. Laura May 24, 2017 at 12:48 pm - Reply

    Hi Father?/Pastor? Greg,

    I appreciated this article, as it relates to some recent discussions about Scripture and tradition with my Anglican friends.

    As I am Orthodox, I’d like to comment on the part where you referenced the Orthodox view of Scripture and Tradition. We don’t try to reconcile tradition with Scripture and hold to all traditions even if they disagree with Scripture. Rather, Scripture is the most important part of Holy Tradition. Nothing can contradict, though it is ok if doesn’t necessarily have a direct reference – so long as it doesn’t contradict with Scripture. Our perspective is similar to Prima Scriptura, though we tend to not define our views with a single theological term. 🙂 The Roman Catholic Church, however, holds Scripture and Holy Tradition to be two equal sources of revelation – which changes some of the resulting theology.

    I hope that helps clarify our opinion. Thanks again for the interesting article!

  5. J Maringa July 3, 2017 at 12:55 am - Reply

    Celebrating the birth of Christ today should not be observed as a tradition but as a reminder to reach out to the unsaved so that Christ can be borne in them.And it is a daily event – not a particular day.

    Nowadays it’s just a pagan tradition where people just eat and drink – -they even have no idea about standards of Christ. Kingdom of God is not about “eating and drinking”

    What would Christ be happy about – you marking his birthday or bringing a soul to him? He leaves 99 for one lost soul.

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