Law, Tradition and Custom

Bryan Vinson

These terms are each clearly, distinguishable one from the others, but, unfortunately, they oftentimes become virtually synonymous in their application and force. This mistake underlies and vitally affects the well-being of people. In the realm of civil government law often becomes the concrete outgrowth and expression of tradition and custom. It is the child and custom is the parent. This is but the recognition of the utility and desirability of investing with legality that which already has been found acceptable to the subjects of the law in the society involved. This principle of operation is found to work effectively where government functions on a local level, and law is generated and established as the assured will of the governed. This p roc edure secu res law against being or becoming oppressive in character.

Conversely, we sometimes find laws being initiated with the design of creating and enforcing customs upon a people. That is, law is intrusive rather than constructive in such instances. Rather than being constructed as the embodiment and expression of the will of the governed as attested by their mores, their habits and customs, it intrudes from without with all the force of an alien dictator. This has been true recently in some of the issues which convulse the country todav. A racial minority, governed by an alien sentiment, ignorant of the thoughts, customs and rights of the southern section has sought bv judicial edict to, force - under the pretext of law their will on those who have every right to govern themselves. This affords an instance wherein law, so-called but erroneously so, has sought to reverse the long-established thinking and mode of living of the South. Why is this ill-advised and also wrong? Simply because it is inherently wrong for the will of another to be forced on one, be they individuals or segments of a society. The inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness forbids such arbitrarv intrusion of the human will being forced on fellow citizens. The influence of this kind of procedure within the real:n of civil government bids fair to destroy the long cherished liberties and rights of the sovereign states of America. However, it is not with a view of treating of things political which prompts this article.

In Religion

We see in evidence the same vicious and mistaken influence being exerted in the realm of religion. A more fundamental concept of Christlariltv cannot be found than that which reflects itself in the proper awareness of the irreconciliable characters of the world and the church. The church is not of the world; it is from above, and its laws are promulgated from heaven. While in the world, the children of God are obligated to exercise a salutary influence on the world, rather than becoming the victim of the thought, the aspirations and the arms of the world. It is undeniable that where there are two conflicting elements in society that either the one or the other will exert an influence over the other. The people of God are the salt of the earth, the light of the world. As the church enlightens by doctrine and practice the world, then good advances, whereas when the church is influenced bv the thinking of the world, both are injuriously affected.

All men are under moral law, and the thought that only members of the church are subjects thereof -is patently wrong. But while this is true, nevertheless, Christians may oftentimes allow I depreciated regard for moral standards, as entertained by the world, affect their own regard for moral truth and law. That is, there is a fluctuation of the moral standard in different communities and in different generations. Consequently, that which is regarded as I violation of the moral law in one place or tirne may not he so regarded elsewhere and at mother time. It is unmistakably true that the present moral standard of the American people now is decidedly lower than it was a generation ago. Is this having an injurious effect on the morals of Christians? I fear it is. The widespread increase of juvenile delinquency, of crime waves, and the increase in the divorce rate are all evidences of this. That such is being reflected in the thinking and behavior of God's children is indisputable. We wink at, condone, and even engage in that which formerly even the world around us f rowned on. We are allowing, in too many respects, the world to set our standard for us rather than adhering to the Divine standard and striving to bring the world up to it. For instance, we read: "I will therefore that men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting. In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or coastly array, but which becometh women professing godliness with- good works." I Tim. 2:8-10. Parading, themselves in public with scantv coverage, as with shorts and bathing suits, is not modest in anv sense of the word. If such be modest, then there is no such thing as immodesty of apparel. In anyone thinks so, let him tell the point where such becomes immodest short of absolute nudery. If it be reasoned that people have the right to establish their own moral standard, independent of or in contravention of what the scriptures say, then human custom supplants Divine Law.

Custom Versus Law

The force of human customs or practices in opposition to divine pronouncements is widespread. For instance, it is generally known that immersion was the apostolic "mode" of baptism, but there has by custom been established as acceptable therefor the practice of sprinkling. This is a flagrant instance of human custom supplanting the divine instruction and practice. How can we consistently resist such in this instance and yield so generously in other matters? Someone may say that in the one moral law is involved, and in the other the law of the spirit is involved; and that laxity may be safely indulged in in the former but strict adherence is required in the latter. If both are the law of God to man, how can we thus reason? We cannot. While denying to the affusionists this right, we are guilty of the same ourselves as touching the law of God on the question of the covering of the head of women in the assembly, It is futile to deny that Paul enjoined this in I Cor. 11:1-16. The commonly accepted reasoning of members of the church today is that, while this was true then and there, it is of no force now and here.

This reasoning is but the same, in principle, as that employed by the affusionists. It is the recognition of the power of changing customs to alter the express law of God. This, then, is equal to saving that God's law is subordinate to, and determined by, the will and wish of man. This is equal to saying that it is not law at all, but simply the accommodation of the Divine mind to that of man.

As indicative that this is the case, it is said that such a practice or custom was already in vogue, and that the apostle simply recognized and enjoined such on the Corinthians; whereas with us such is not the practice, and therefore the apostolic injunction is not valid as applying to us. What does this amount to? It requires an entire disregard for the and conclusion of the apostle in this passage. He predicates his entire contention on the relative positions of men and women, and of their relations to Christ and God. The principle of headship is the foundation on which rests the injunction, and a series of subordinate reasons are set forth as supporting strength, and finally -- the statement that is, any are contentious, that are opposed to what lie says, that no other practice is recognized bv the churches or the apostles. That is, no other practice than that which he has commanded. It would be foolish to have him sav "We have no such custom," making the custom thus mentioned in this statement to be the one he had commanded. Certainlv Paul would not say "we have no such custom" (or practice), as alluding to what he had been enjoi . ning in the above fifteen verses. Hence, irrespective of what the developing practices of societv mav be contrary to that which he enjoined, the adherence of the children of God to that apostolically required is to be maintained. This affords an indubitable instance of the superiority of Divine Law over human custom. It stands like the rock of Gibraltar against all the ingenious and circuitous reasoning which we have heard. While deploring intrusive law in the civil realm, law from without and in violation of the will and wishes of the governed, we equally deplore constructive law in the realm of religion. That is, law generated by the customs of religious society and constructed therefrom as the alleged law of God. All spiritual law is essentially intrusive, that 'is, it comes from above and is imposed on man by his God. It has to do with our relation and dutv to Him. It is the essence of presumption for man to endeavor to legislate in this realm. But this is exactly what, in effect, is done when human traditions and customs nullify or supplant divine teaching and commands. Christianity is a perfect and stereotyped religion. Judaism was not; it was imperfect and temporal, but nonetheless, from God and imposed demands on the Jews which were not to be disregarded by them. It was substantially rendered of none-effect by their traditions. Those traditions supplanted, in their affections and regard, the law of God. They took affront at any violation of those traditions as instanced in the charge against the disciples of Christ for having eaten with unwashed hands. As an act of cleanliness it was commandable; as a religious rite it was wrong. They, in turn, met the counter-charge frorn Jesus that they made void the commandmerits of God by their traditions. He cited a concrete instance to support the charge. What does this teach? Simply that human tradition, in supplanting Divine law, voids the latter. It is equal to, a repudiation of God. If we do what God says because he says it, by the same token we are not to do what he says nothing about simply because lie has not thus spoken. It is a matter of either walking by faith or by sight, and it is entirely inconsistent to admix the two principles of religious service and obedience. A respect for the one must entall a rejection of the other; they are incompatible in character and diverse in their course.

Tradition From God

Tradition is not a bad word. We are commanded to walk in the traditions of the apostles, and to "keep the traditions as I have delivered them to you." Whether a tradition is worthy or unworthy of respect depends on from Whoin it came. Christ died to deliver us from our vain manner of life received by tradition from our fathers. It simply means a giving over, a handing down. The question of supreme moment, in any given instance, therefore is from whom did it come? If from Christ and his apostles, then it must be respected ; if from men it must be rejected.

Customs or practices are the things and tradition is the act of transmitting the things. The two mutually affect each other; and a developing inode of behavior is transmitted to succeeding generations. It is readily discernible how those immediate environments and circumstances can create and transmit a practice that supplants those remote and ancient beliefs and practices of the apostolic era. It only takes two or three generations to develop a traditional body of faith and practice in religion to such a degree as to produce apostasy. This is the explanation of the history of recurring departures from God. The New Testament church has not remained immune and pure from corruption for as long as one century ariv one time this side of its establishmerit. It isn't surprising, therefore, in the light of history, to lie witnessing a developing digression and ultimate apostasy in our dav. It has been almost a century since the last digression began, and was iriatured within a little inore than a generation. We have had about time to become prosperous, riumerically and materially, and to begin to look on the world around about us for precedents rather than to remain satisfied with the law of Christ to guide us. We want to become fashionable, and be conformists rather than to remain in our peculiar position as established and maintained by an adherence to a thus saith the Lord.

Yes, we are, in many respects, rapidly becoming the victim of human tradition and custom at the expense of sacrificing our unswerving attachment to the law of the Lord. We need to return to the scriptures as our sole authority in work and worship, and cease seeking a pattern for our faith and practice from the thoughts and actions of the nations around us. The present programs of operations, benevolent and evangelistic, as practiced today are borrowed from the denominational world rather than found authenticated on the pages of God's Word. They are but the manifestation of a rapidly developing traditional religion. Is it too late to turn back, or are we too enamored with our success and recognition to have the humility and foresight necessary to do so?

Truth Magazine II:3, pp. 22-24
December 1957