Word Study #109 — Tradition, Ordinance

Here are two perfectly good and useful words/ideas whose value has been obscured, if not totally destroyed, by people or groups who have a “doctrinal” axe to grind. I treat these words together here partly due to this commonality, but also because both are also used by “traditional” translators for the same word, paradosis.
Paradosis, in classical usage, combines two very different strains of meaning, probably due to its derivation from the verb, paradidomi – literally, “to give” (didomi) with the prefix para- “along, beside, toward”, but also “against”. It is used both positively, as of a bequest or the delivery of a message, and negatively, of betrayal or examination by torture! Both senses are also represented by the noun, which most frequently refers to the transmission of history, legend, or doctrine, but also to surrender for legal prosecution.

Paradosis appears only 13 times in the New Testament, 12 of which are rendered “tradition” and one (I Cor.11:2) “ordinance.” There is no obvious reason for the single deviation. Of those usages, eight are in accounts of Jesus’ discussions with Pharisees regarding “the traditions of the elders” (Mt.15:2-6 and Mk.7:3-13). In both of the instances referenced, Jesus and his disciples are criticized for failure to observe a requirement of “tradition”, to which Jesus responds by pointing out quite bluntly that nit-picking about details of “tradition” actually amounts to outright violation of the explicit commands of God (Mt.15:3,6; Mk.7:8,13).

These traditions were initially designed, with the very best of intentions, to guide people into faithfulness to their God. It was only when the observance of traditions obscured the need for obedience to God’s overtly stated directives, that they lost any positive value. Please note, it’s not the “tradition” itself that Jesus criticizes. Washing one’s hands before eating, for example, is a good idea, simply from a health perspective. But elevating even a good idea to a level that takes precedence over God’s instructions, creates problems. Jesus’ frequent conflicts with the religious authorities over Sabbath observance provide additional insight, which we will examine in a later study.

Paul sings a similar tune in Gal.1:14, regarding his zeal for the Law before he met Jesus, and also regarding the details of pagan ritual (Col.2:8) formerly observed and still being advocated by some individuals among the Colossian brethren.

Actually, there are only three places where paradosis is used in a positive light: I Cor.11:2 (where it is translated “ordinance”), and II Thess.2:15 and 3:6. In each of these, Paul refers to the teaching that he himself has given to each group. ( I used “principles” in the PNT. I considered that choice more accurate, since the lexical meaning of the word refers to “anything handed down.”)

Tradition” is not inherently wrong, but it must be constantly judged/ evaluated in the light of the Lord’s specific instructions. It is NOT, as some groups insist, equal in authority to the scriptures themselves. In fact, it was failure to distinguish “the traditions of men” (Mt.15:6, Mk.7:13) from the instructions of God, that caused problems for Jesus and his associates, and has continued to do so through all the centuries since the first!

“Ordinance”, on the other hand, in addition to the I Cor. reference above, represents seven other Greek words, of which four – diatage (Rom.13:2), ktisis (I Pet.2:13), dogmatizomai (Col.2:20), and diatagma (Heb.11:23) – refer exclusively to civil law or royal decree. One, dogma, refers to both civil and religious law (Lk.2:1, Ac.16:4, 17:7; Eph.2:15); one, dikaioma (Lk.1:6, Heb.9:1, Heb.9:10) exclusively to the Jewish Law; and only one, paradosis (I Cor.11:2) to the instructions of a Christian teacher.

The verb, diatasso, which refers to the giving of any sort of instructions – (Lk.8:55) Jesus telling the little girl’s family to give her some food, (Lk.3:13) the terms of the license given to tax collectors, (Tit.1:5, I Cor.7:17, 16:1) various instructions for arranging local leadership in new congregations, and (Ac.18:2) Claudius’ decree that expelled all Jews from Rome – certainly does not carry any normative weight with respect to faithfulness!
Nowhere is diatasso applied either to the establishment of a hierarchy (see W.S#48) or to the observance of any ceremony, as has been advocated by groups who (correctly) reject the concept of “sacrament” (W.S.#76) but still want to cling to some of its “magic.”

In classical usage, all of these words have primarily civil rather than “religious” connotations.
Diatasso lists “to appoint, to distribute, to classify; to make arrangements, to pledge oneself, to set an army in array, to make testamentary distribution, to bequeath”.
Diatage – “command, ordinance; testamentary disposition, or a medical regimen”
Diatagma – “ordinance or edict”
Dogmatizo – “to decree by ordinance, to lay down a judicial opinion”
Ktisis – “(most commonly) creation; founding or settling, creation of authority”
Dogma – “notion, decision, judgment; a public decree or ordinance, opinion or belief”
Dikaioma –“ judicial amendment of a wrong; pleadings in a suit, credentials”
Only the latter two are used of the Old Testament Law – see references above.

So where do we come out?
A “tradition” (paradosis) has value, IF it involves, enables, or enhances faithfulness to the Lord Jesus and his Kingdom – but ONLY as long as those who observe or adhere to it constantly judge (test) its effect on their obedience to his directives. Like any symbols (see chapter 9 of Citizens of the Kingdom) traditions can be a valuable teaching tool, as long as they are not invested with magical powers, used to abuse or exclude other disciples, or otherwise to distort the message of Jesus and his Kingdom.

Likewise, “ordinances” – which, please bear in mind, both lexically and in New Testament usage, are primarily civil pronouncements – are to be respected, insofar as they are properly ordered and observed UNDER the ultimate authority of the only true King (I Pet.2:13).

Carefully shared discernment by a faithful brotherhood is essential in determining whether the observance or the violation of any specific tradition or ordinance best expresses our faithfulness to the King and his Kingdom.
May we help each other to find the Way.

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