Is Tradition Authoritative for the Church?

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Many churches, denominations, and entire religious systems elevate tradition as authoritative. This is one of the disagreements that separates the Roman and Protestant churches. The fact of the matter is, Scripture explicitly instructs followers of Jesus to hold to the traditions. So, as we consider this question, we will simply exposit this interesting passage in the Bible and see what the Bible has to say about what it means for us to hold to the traditions.

2 Thessalonians 2:13-17

But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.

Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself and God our Father, who has loved us and given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace, comfort and strengthen your hearts in every good work and word.

We remember, when studying a passage, we read the whole book. I know you probably don’t have the time to read all of 2 Thessalonians in this brief exercise. I encourage you to do that later. What I will do, here, is outline the text up to this point so that we can have at least the preceding context of this passage.

  • 1:1-5- Paul addresses the Thessalonian believers to encourage them through persecution. This persecution was given by God for their sanctification.
  • 1:6-10- God is just and will not leave persecutors unpunished.
  • 1:11-12- Our sanctification through affliction and God’s justice are by grace for the glory of Jesus Christ.
  • 2:1-12- There will be a great apostasy (mass falling away from the Christian worldview) and false teaching will abound greatly. This influence will be a deluding influence sent by God for the purpose of judging those who take pleasure in wickedness.

Verses 13-17 follow logically from Paul’s statements concerning persecution, affliction, the great apostasy, and the abundance of false teaching in the world. Now that we have the basic context, we walk through this passage verse-by-verse. It is tempting to take one idea from this text, extrapolate on it, and force all kinds of applications. I listen to other pastors’ sermons often, in our area and others, and this is something I hear people doing all the time. It is an example of merely using the Scriptures instead of teaching the Scriptures. It is easy to misrepresent God’s word when we do this. So, we look verse-by-verse because God’s word is something that we don’t want to mess up.

In verse 13, we see that, as opposed to God handing wicked people over to delusions (v. 11), God has chosen true believers “from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.” This is an explicit doctrinal statement concerning God’s soteriological work (work of salvation). If we teach something other than this, we contradict the explicit message of the text. Furthermore, this is why Paul, Slivanus, and Timothy (1:1) give thanks for all of those who are believers. God is the one they thank.

In verse 14, we see that it is explicitly God who does the calling. He does so through the presentation of His Gospel. God does this so that those who are called may share in Christ’s glory (1:12).

In verse 15, then, we see Paul apply the doctrine he has explained up to this point. Because we are being saved and sanctified through persecution, affliction, apostasy, and abounding false teaching and because God is calling us as His people that we might share in Christ’s eternal glory, we stand firm and hold to the traditions. The text indicates, by the conjunction, “But…”, that these traditions are opposed to apostasy and the abounding false teaching previously described. In fact, Paul clarifies in this verse that these traditions were taught to the people by word of mouth or by letter from “us” (Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy; 1:1). The traditions being referred to, here, are what is written in the New Testament for us; particularly the epistles (letters of the Apostles and a couple other disciples). To know what is meant by “word of mouth,” we must know the way in which Paul will instruct Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:7-11 when he will serve in Ephesus. There is a place where Scripture defines what should be taught by word of mouth. If this will be Paul’s instruction to Timothy in Ephesus, then it is Paul’s instruction as Timothy and Silvanus teach everywhere else by word of mouth. Timothy is to teach, explicitly, the word of God and have nothing to do with worldly fables, what we would refer to as the traditions of men. What was taught to the Thessalonians by word of mouth was an exposition of God’s word!

In verses 16 and 17, Paul offers a prayer or a blessing over the Thessalonian believers after encouraging them to hold to the traditions (what is explicitly written in the New Testament letters and the correct expository teaching of God’s word).

According to Paul in these verses, the authority of the church is Scripture alone and, explicitly, not human tradition or the traditions of the church. This is how we study and teach Scripture. The more we know and understand, the better equipped we are to rightly divide the word of truth. If our pastors and other teachers don’t prepare and preach or teach in this way, we will most definitely miss what the Scriptures are saying. There is a difference between merely teaching from the Scriptures and actually teaching the Scriptures. Sadly, most preacher-teachers don’t preach or teach the Scriptures.

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