Timeless Apostolic Traditions


The Premise

The apostles had a very definite way they organized churches and it was based on the teachings of Jesus. Their intent was for all congregations to follow these same apostolic traditions of church practice, for as long as the church exists.


The Purpose

There are certain things on which all true churches focus. Oxford University professor of ecclesiastical history Stanley Greensdale stated, “the church exists to promote the worship of God, the inner life of the spirit, the evangelization of the world and the molding of society according to the will of God.”[1] The apostles knew the best context and methods to achieve these objectives and purposely patterned this for us in the churches they established.


The Proof 

1. It’s Logical

If anyone rightly understood the purpose of the church, it was the original apostles. They were hand-picked and personally trained by Jesus for three years. The things Jesus taught His apostles about the church were naturally reflected in the way they later set up and organized churches. The apostles’ beliefs about the function of the church would surely have affected the way they organized churches (form follows function). To imitate the apostles’ traditions regarding church life would be a wise choice for any fellowship.


2. It’s Praiseworthy

Paul praised for the Corinthian church for holding to his traditions of church practice: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you” (1 Corinthians 11:2). The Greek word for tradition, paradosis, fundamentally means “that which is passed on.”[2] Gordon Fee pointed out that although paradosis was also a technical term in Judaism for oral transmission of religious instruction, in 1 Corinthians 11 it almost certainly does not refer to teachings, but rather to religious traditions regarding worship.[3] Thus we see an apostle praising a church for holding to his traditions regarding worship.


It is of note that the word “traditions” (11:2) is plural. Paul had in mind more than the one tradition dealt with in 1 Corinthians 11.[4] Should we limit our observance to this one tradition only or should we follow all the traditions of church organization that can be observed on the pages of the New Testament? Most churches still do follow some New Testament patterns. Our question is: Why not follow all of them? We argue for consistency.


3. It was Universal

Paul quieted those inclined to oppose his traditions for church practice by appealing to the universal practice of all the other churches: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1Co 11:16). This final statement was designed to win over the contentious people and settle any argument. The point is that Paul expected all the churches to be doing the same thing. Just to realize that one was different was argument enough to silence opposition. Prior emphasis had obviously been given to certain practices that were supposed to be done the same way, everywhere. This indicates a uniformity of practice in all New Testament churches.


1 Corinthians 14 is another chapter that deals directly with church practice. In verse 36 Paul asked two questions: “Or was it from you that the word of God came? Or are you the only ones it has reached?” The obvious answer to both questions is no. The Corinthians were tempted to deviate from what all the other churches were doing. Evidently all the churches were expected to follow the same patterns in their church meetings. These two questions were designed to keep the Corinthians in line with the practice of all the other churches. It was not as if they had authored the Scriptures or were the only church with a copy of the word of God. They had no right to differ from the practice of the other churches and neither do we. Holding to apostolic traditions (New Testament church patterns) was universal in the first century and, we argue, should be today as well.


4. It Brings God’s Peaceful Presence

In Philippians 4:8-9 we are  given the recipe for how to have the God of Peace be with us. Paul wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” We are instructed to put into practice what we learned, received, heard from Paul, or saw in Paul (Phlp 4:9). Would this not also include the way we see Paul organized churches i the New Testament? To bypass apostolic tradition in this area may be to  bypass a portion of God’s blessing. Could it be that those fellowships which also follow the apostle’s church practice may enjoy even more of God’s peaceful presence?


5. It’s Commanded

In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 we are commanded to “hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” [5] It is not just apostolic teachings to which we are to adhere, but also apostolic traditions (as revealed exclusively on the pages of Scripture). The Twelve are not here today to teach us by word of mouth. However, we do have letters that record their traditions (the New Testament). The overall context of 2 Thessalonians 2 refers to Paul’s teaching tradition about end-time events, not church practice per se. Yet the word “traditions” (2:15) is again plural; the author clearly had more in view than merely his teaching tradition about the second coming. Why would it not also apply in principle to his traditions regarding church order, as patterned in the New Testament?


The Patterns

What are some of the apostolic traditions for church practice? Ancient church practice included celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly as a holy fellowship meal co-terminus with the Agapé feast, participatory worship with mutual edification as the goal of the gathering, church government by elder led congregational consensus, Roman atrium sized congregations, meeting regularly on the Lord’s Day for worship, integrating church and family as children stay with parents during worship and a community church focused on relationships over programs.


The Proposition

It seems to us that whatever was normative church practice for all the churches in the New Testament should be normative practice for churches today. Perhaps these patterns of church practice are part of what gave the early church the dynamic that today’s church has been missing for so long. It bears pointing out that without Christ at the center of things, these patterns become legalism and death, a hollow form, an empty shell (Jn 15:5). We need the proper wine skin, but more importantly we need the wine. Both have their place. Either one without the other is problematic (Lk 5:36-38).


If the Bible commands something, then we ought to obey. The fact is that the Bible commands adherence to the traditions of the apostles (2Th 2:15). We must be careful not to develop our own church traditions that might inhibit our ability to obey the commands of our Lord. Care must also be taken not to develop our own traditions that replace the original traditions of the apostles. The real question thus is not, Must we do things the way they were done in the New Testament? Rather, the question is:  Why would we want to do things any other way?

— Steve Atkerson

Revised 04/22/14

[1] Stanley Lawrence Greensdale, “Early Christian Church,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. Warren Preece, Vol. 7 (Chicago:  William Benton, Publisher, 1973), 844.

[2] Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1980), 423.

[3] Gordon Fee, New International Commentary on the New Testament, The First Epistle to The Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 499.

[4] Fee, 500.

[5] The Greek here is the imperative mode.