We all have traditions. We inherit some. We create others. Traditions are simply long-established practices that are habitually done. Some traditions we hold are obvious to us, usually because they are intentionally formed or continued.
For example, my family established a couple traditions around family prayer when I was growing up. We all held hands in a circle for the prayer, and rotated through family members, from oldest to youngest, to determine who would be voice for the prayer that day. If you had a guest over when it was time for family prayer, they were also invited into the circle, and since it was your guest, you got to voice the prayer. However, the second time that guest joined us for family prayer, they were invited to voice the prayer. We enjoyed that tradition, and may have scared off several boyfriends and girlfriends in the process.
Other traditions are not as obvious, and often require effort and humility to see and even greater effort and humility, coupled with faith, to change. By themselves, it may be difficult to judge whether a tradition is good or bad without knowing the intent behind it. And even a well-intended practice can become a tradition not worth keeping. I prefer to view traditions from a perspective of whether they bring light and truth, or whether they distract and block the light from being received.
The Pharisees and scribes in Jesus’ time had a traditional way of washing their hands prior to eating. This tradition was important to them. When they saw Jesus’ followers disregarding this tradition, they asked about it.
Mark 7:5 Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not thy disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands?
6 He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.
7 Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
8 For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do.
Jesus goes on to give them an example, but the point here is that they’ve allowed traditions to block out the word of God. They don’t receive light, and their worship has become vain, or producing no result. Perfect example of a tradition worthy of kicking to the curb.
That Was Then, This Is Now
As the Pharisees did with their hand washing, so we do today with our own traditions. I served in the Young Men’s organization in a ward at a time when the Deacon’s Quorum rarely had enough deacons to pass the sacrament to the congregation. They would visit the Teacher’s Quorum and then the Priest’s Quorum to help fill the assignments prior to sacrament meeting (prior to standardization of sacrament meeting being the first meeting of the meeting block).
One day, a deacon popped his head into the Teacher’s Quorum room to ask for help passing the sacrament. A couple of the young men volunteered to help while a couple of the others were unable to help because they would be attending the doors as ushers. That left just one young man without an assignment and still multiple passing assignments to be filled. His response when the other young men looked his direction for help, “I can’t, I have a blue shirt on today.” He was the only one not wearing a white shirt that day. This ‘priesthood uniform’ tradition is well rooted in many wards throughout the church.
We also establish tradition around the words we use. This is often at the root of many misunderstandings when discussing religion. Let’s take the word church as an example. What is the church?
The word church has an assumed meaning so common to us that we don’t bother to define it when it comes up in discussions or talks, or even when studying the scriptures.
When I look in the Guide to the Scriptures on lds.org for the word church, I find the term Church of Jesus Christ defined as an organized body of believers who have taken upon themselves the name of Jesus Christ by baptism and confirmation. Then the authors of this definition add the following: To be the true Church it must be the Lord’s Church; must have His authority, teachings, laws, ordinances, and name; and must be governed by Him through representatives whom He has appointed.
According to the above definition, it sure sounds like the church needs to be an organization, and official at that. But organized according to what or whom?
I think we get much of our current understanding from the actions of the past. According to the same authors of the above definition, the true church was officially organized on April 6, 1830. What exactly happened on that day?
Well, the Church of Christ was established according to law. New York State law. David Whitmer, in An Address to All Believers in Christ, explained that the reason they met on that day was that the world had been telling them that they were not a “regularly organized church”, and that they had no right to officiate in the ordinance of marriage, hold church property, etc., and that they should organize according to the laws of the land.
Pressure from the world can be a hard thing to bear. David also explained in his address that they were already an organized church, and had been since August, 1829, with baptized and confirmed members, Elders, Priests and Teachers. By April, 1830, they already had three branches and about 70 members. What David considered church organization was spiritual, not worldly.
Since that time, the word church has become so common in phrases we use regularly that the assumed meaning only gets cemented further in tradition:
- going to church
- The Church is true
- The Church is perfect, the people are not
- I belong to The Church of Jesus Christ … (children’s song)
Some of the common phrases above reinforce the idea that the Church is a thing separate from the people who claim to be a part of it. Maybe that the Church is the actual legal entity, 501(c)(3) or Corporation – Sole, that owns all of the land, buildings, and other property listed under the legal name.
It’s Greek to Me
When you search for the word church in the scriptures, you will not find any instances of it in the Old Testament. Though you do find it in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, the first mention of it in the bible comes in the New Testament.
Most copies of the New Testament used today were translated from Greek manuscripts. The word translated as church in English comes from the Greek word ekklēsia (Strong’s G1577), meaning a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly.
How interesting that the people are called out. This gives further depth in understanding scripture such as:
Isaiah 41:9 Thou whom I have taken from the ends of the earth, and called thee from the chief men thereof, and said unto thee, Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away.
Matthew 20:16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen. it was a public place.
Letting God Speak For Himself
Fortunately for us, God has the wisdom and foresight to help clear up any misunderstanding we have with His Word by giving us His definition.
Doctrine and Covenants 10:67 Behold, this is my doctrine – whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.
68 Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church.
With that definition, it’s easier to understand that despite there being thousands of christian denominations of various names, there really are save two churches only, as the angel told Nephi in 1 Nephi 14:10.
When we study the scriptures, we should watch for such declarations from God and be prepared to adopt His meanings for the terms He uses. That will certainly help open the eyes of our understanding to further light and knowledge.
This post has turned out longer than I had anticipated. I intend to write several smaller ‘traditional language’ posts with the hope that they will help lay a foundation for the reader to understand more clearly the messages on this site.