If he wanted to, Steve Spurrier could change things up with his University of South Carolina football team. He could decide that the team would wear a different type of helmet, or he could even urge the university to change its mascot from a gamecock to a rooster! But he could not decree that home games would now be played on an ice rink, or that the ball would now be shaped like a soccer ball and kicked around the field.
Clearly, there are many customs and practices surrounding football which are not essential to the sport, such as a team’s mascot or uniform design. Such traditions develop over time and can be refined and changed according to the needs of the teams and fans. But on the other hand, there are many aspects which are essential to football, like the field and the ball. If we were to change these essentials, we would change the game into an entirely different sport.
A similar distinction exists in Christianity. God himself entered into our midst as Jesus of Nazareth, and while on earth he taught us everything that we need for our happiness and salvation. These are the “essentials” of the Christian faith. While our understanding of these truths deepens through the centuries, the teachings themselves can never be abandoned or changed, since they were revealed by God himself.
But just as football can be “lived out” in many different ways, so too there are many different ways for Christians to express and live their faith. These customs and practices develop over time, in response to our needs and experiences. All Christian groups have these sorts of traditions, whether Catholic or not. For example, we worship on Sunday instead of the Jewish sabbath of Saturday, and we celebrate the Lord’s birthday on December 25 with presents. These two traditions are not prescribed explicitly in Scripture, but we practice them because we find them good and helpful in our walk with Christ.
When Jesus speaks harshly of tradition in Matthew 15, he is not condemning religious traditions in general but rather corrupt religious practices. For example, he mentions that people are donating money to the Jewish temple instead of taking care of their parents; this is a practice that is contrary to God’s will and therefore needs to be abandoned. But Jesus certainly approves of good religious traditions; after all, he taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer and he commanded them to repeat the Last Supper.
As a priest, I find that quite a bit of confusion exists among the Catholic faithful and among non-Catholics because of a failure to make this distinction between essentials and practices. Many Catholics see how practices have changed during their lifetimes (such as celebrating Mass in English), and erroneously conclude that Catholic doctrine has changed or is now up for grabs. Conversely, many of our Protestant brothers will point to this or that Catholic practice (such as using candles, particular vestments, etc.), and erroneously argue that these practices are improper since they are not specifically commanded in Scripture.
So the question is not whether Christians will have religious traditions, but rather, “Is this particular practice in accord with the faith, and is it helpful in my walk with Christ?” What practices or traditions are you making use of to help you in your walk with Christ?