Working with people from around the world, as well as those from many different backgrounds within my own country, I have had the opportunity to learn about a lot of traditions. (I’ve particularly enjoyed that relate to special food, whether little person-shaped sweetbreads in Switzerland around Christmas, or feasts of Indian food during Diwali.)
Traditions can be fun to learn about, and are often rewarding to share with those who practice them. Some of these are local family traditions, like a certain meal that is eaten on a particular day, or cases where relatives go on a similar vacation each year. Others are cultural, where a group of people who have something in common (maybe the same ethnic heritage, a shared set of beliefs, or a common childhood school) share a tradition. For instance, specific church congregations may have established activities that their members (and often others) can count on every year, like a fish fry, a pageant, or a community event. Still other traditions are social or municipal, like an annual parade or race in a given town.
The Bible contains a lot of practical instruction (as one might expect, given its source and purpose). I’m glad that its instruction includes the passage below, on the topic of varying points of view about what should be celebrated or treated as special (which could include many things that we call “traditions”, today).
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.https://bible.com/bible/100/rom.14.5-6.NASB
Romans 14:5-6 NASB
It seems that there may have been some division among the followers of Jesus in the city of Rome, with regards to certain practices. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the city’s diverse composition, and the fact that the church was growing beyond its origins in Jerusalem (that is, not everyone in the church had been raised in a Jewish culture).
Imagine for a moment the cross-section of backgrounds that would have been represented by the early church. We could read Acts 2:9-11 to get a taste of the diversity present at the church’s inception, but a study of the apostles and early adherents to the faith shows an even wider range of backgrounds and situations. As different people became part of the same family of God, it makes sense that some of these disparate groups (being made up of human beings) would start to think that certain practices were applicable (or not applicable) to the entire family of God. After all, if I find closeness with God in a certain practice, wouldn’t I want everyone else to experience that same joy and blessing?
I really appreciate what Paul instructed the church, though: We don’t have to all worship, celebrate, or practice in the same way. If one group finds it easier to focus on God within a more formal structure, that’s great. If another group is distracted by formality when serving God, and prefers a more ad hoc approach, that’s ok, too.
In fact (and not everyone may agree with me here, which I respect), I believe that even traditions that overlap with non-Christian practices (regardless of which came first), can be used to glorify God. On the other hand, if secular overtones of a particular tradition prevent any one of us from focusing on God, then that tradition might be better skipped by the person to whom it is counter-productive (and perhaps also avoided by those close by, if a brother’s or sister’s struggle with a tradition is significant enough that continued practice of it would cause them to stumble).
What each group is not allowed to do is to judge someone on the subtleties of how they serve God. (For more context, I suggest a study of Romans 14. Let me know if you learn other things from that chapter, too.) Yes, there are fruits – evidence in someone’s life – that indicate sins which need to be corrected. That’s a different matter, though, from condemning someone else because (despite their following God’s commands) their practices don’t exactly match your own.
Furthermore, this is not freedom to just do whatever we want. Notice the constraint in this passage: our choices here aren’t intended for our own pride, fame, convenience, entertainment, or comfort. Instead, our worship is all for the Lord.
Just as God didn’t create everyone to look, behave, or act the same way, I believe that diversity in the body of Christ is a great opportunity. It is my wish for many followers of Jesus to learn about other ways to serve, worship, and glorify God. That may require stepping outside of our usual environment from time to time, and spending time with others within the larger community of faith in Jesus.
In my own journey, I have enjoyed opportunities to learn about other traditions of faith. When worshiping with others who come to God in a different style than me (but still through Jesus, who demonstrated that He was the only way to God), I’ve had a chance to praise and learn about God in ways that I probably would have missed in my own traditions. Sometimes, I pick up something new that I want to make a part of my future walk with Jesus.
In addition, I believe that traditions of the faith (even followers of Jesus who think that they have no traditions) are great opportunities to share the story of Jesus with others. When someone asks why we are going somewhere on a specific day, or why we do (or don’t do) something specific during a particular time of year, this is a great time to explain what we are doing, and how it reflects our hope in Jesus.
I imagine the early church in Rome – if they followed Paul’s instructions – celebrating the fact that their congregation included sub-groups that worshiped and served God in many different ways, all while giving glory to God. That probably led to a lot of conversations, both within the church, and in their community. May we embrace the same attitude among the body of Christ today.