Should You Follow the Custom?
A COUPLE from Rhodesia were visiting friends in Austria. While there, they were invited to an informal gathering in the home of some other people. Upon entering that house, they were invited to take off their shoes and were each handed a pair of slippers. At first, the couple were taken aback. They were not accustomed to taking off their shoes in front of strangers, especially in someone else’s home. However, they soon recovered their composure and readily complied with the request. Why? Because it apparently was the custom of that household.
This, of course, was a relatively easy decision to make, since no big issue was at stake. However, not all problems involving custom are that easily resolved, especially when they relate to matters of Christian conscience. A great many customary practices are innocuous and, in fact, add zest and richness to life. Some are very damaging and can seriously impair a person’s relationship with his Creator, whereas others should be earnestly sought after if one is going to walk in the way of life.
WHAT IS CUSTOM?
Custom has been defined as a “long-established practice considered as unwritten law.” It is also “a usage or practice common to many . . . or habitual with an individual.” As a legal term, it applies to “unwritten law established by . . . uniform practice.”
To illustrate this, let us turn to the Bible book of Genesis, chapter 29. There we find an account of Jacob’s negotiations with his uncle Laban for the hand of his younger daughter, Rachel, in marriage. The agreement was that Jacob should work seven years for Laban in return for Rachel, whom he loved very much. At the end of seven years, Jacob approached Laban, saying: “Give over my wife, because my days are up.” However, Laban tricked Jacob by giving him his older daughter, Leah, instead of Rachel. Obviously, Jacob was greatly upset at this deception and protested to his uncle. What was Laban’s answer? “It is not customary to do this way in our place, to give the younger woman before the firstborn.” In spite of his being thus deceived, Jacob did not dispute this unwritten law but showed his recognition of it by agreeing to wait for another week before receiving Rachel as his wife.—Gen. 29:15-28.
We might also use a modern-day example that demonstrates the meaning of the word “custom.” In Rhodesia, marriages must be legally registered by a government agent in order to have official recognition. At one time this was not the case. The marriage celebration had to be carried out according to African custom, an unwritten law, in order to receive recognition in the community. Among other things, this involved the payment of a bride-price, or lobola, as well as the presence of a go-between to establish approval of the marriage by the parents or guardians. Even today many an African woman, although in possession of a marriage registration certificate, does not consider herself really married unless these customary practices have been followed.
These are examples of commonly practiced customs that are not necessarily bad, unless, of course, they are misused. Many, in fact, are very pleasurable and greatly add to the enjoyment of life. For instance, who does not enjoy eating Chinese food—or trying to—with a pair of chopsticks? The custom of removing one’s shoes on entering a home not only is relaxing but also is a practical way of showing consideration for the hostess and her efforts to keep her house clean and neat. Also, from time immemorial, harvest customs have included rejoicing and merrymaking. (Ps. 126:5, 6) Yes, such customs add much to the joy of living.
Jesus Christ did not condemn all customary practices. In fact, on one occasion he chided a Pharisee named Simon for failing to follow a certain practice associated with hospitality. (Luke 7:44-46) On another occasion, Jesus took advantage of the custom of Scripture reading in a synagogue in order to give a fine witness concerning his Messiahship. (Luke 4:16-21; compare Acts 15:21.) The apostle Paul also made good use of the custom of reading the Scriptures in the synagogue. In fact, doing this, and explaining God’s Word, became his personal custom. In Thessalonica, “according to [his] custom,” Paul made use of a Jewish synagogue and “for three sabbaths he reasoned with [the Jews] from the Scriptures.” The result? “Some of them became believers and associated themselves with Paul and Silas.” (Acts 17:2-4) So, in order to give a witness, both Jesus and Paul took advantage of a fine custom.
CUSTOMS TO BE AVOIDED
There are customs, however, that are harmful. By the time that Jesus was on earth the Jews had built up a system of traditions that placed heavy burdens on the people. In fact, many viewed these traditions as having greater value than the written word of God. Jesus himself scathingly denounced as hypocrites those who imposed such traditions and thus made void God’s word. Did the guilty Pharisees benefit from this? No, for the disciples said to Jesus: “Do you know that the Pharisees stumbled at hearing what you said?” Not only were the Pharisees themselves blinded, but so were those on whom these traditions were being imposed. (Matt. 15:1-14) The ignorance fostered by such customs or traditions actually resulted in the Jews’ putting to death the very one who proved to be the long-promised Messiah, “the Chief Agent of life.”—Acts 3:14-17.
Today we also have customs that can lead to spiritual shipwreck unless we have a strong dependence on God’s Word. In Rhodesia, for instance, it is customary for a newly married man to leave his wife in his home village and go to the city for secular work. According to unwritten law, he must do so or be censured by the community. But what generally happens when this custom is followed? Once in the city, the man has to have accommodations. So he finds a room, probably sharing it with one or more other persons. In time, he begins to feel the need for someone to cook his meals and wash his clothes. So he looks for what is called a mapoto wife. Mapoto is simply a term derived from the English word “pot” and transliterated into the Shona language. This woman not only cares for the man’s household needs but also satisfies his sexual cravings. So the situation becomes a matter of living in adultery.
But what about the wife back in the village? She cares for the fields, the domestic animals and the children, and she may see her husband only once or twice a year. Without a husband at home most of the time, the woman also is sorely tempted to commit immorality. So here is a case where a customary practice can lead to a direct violation of God’s pure Word of truth. The Bible says that when a man and a woman enter wedlock they become one flesh and should therefore stick together. (Matt. 19:5, 6) Of course, there may be occasions when a husband or a wife finds it necessary to be separated from his or her mate for a time, possibly due to unforeseen circumstances. Or, this may even take place by mutual consent so that some temporary obligation can be fulfilled. But when living separately becomes a practice, as in the example just cited, it can lead to great harm.
Happily, Christian witnesses of Jehovah living where this practice is carried on have courageously borne the reproach that comes with failure to follow the custom. They do so rather than indulging in a course of action that results in Jehovah’s disapproval and the possible loss of everlasting life. Some, rather than leaving their wives and going to the city for work, have enterprisingly engaged in raising such crops as coffee and bananas. Jehovah has blessed them for their sincere desire to stick close to their families and to the guidelines that he gives in his Word. Even though this might result in some form of community disapproval, they do it as unto Jehovah and not to men.—Col. 3:23.
Some customs involve practices so gross that they are detestable to Jehovah, and, hence, to his people. Among such practices are sodomy, bestiality, homosexuality, incest and other forms of sexual immorality. These were being indulged in by the Canaanite inhabitants of the Promised Land. After citing the practices that were unclean and detestable to him, Jehovah warned the Israelites: “You must keep your obligation to me not to carry on any of the detestable customs that have been carried on before you, that you may not make yourselves unclean by them.” He then emphasized the seriousness of the matter by saying, “I am Jehovah your God.”—Lev. 18:1-30.
Thus we see Jehovah’s viewpoint of such vile practices. But what about today? Are these practices common in your country? What is the situation in your own neighborhood? Is it not true that some nations are even changing their laws so that homosexuality no longer is punishable by law and homosexuals are looked on as respectable in the community? Just as in the days of the ancient Israelites and the early Christian congregation, such practices are repulsive to all those who want to ‘become holy in all their conduct.’—1 Pet. 1:15; Rom. 1:24-27.
DESIRABLE CUSTOMS TO FOLLOW
So far we have discussed customs that add pleasure to a person’s life, customs that involve the matter of a Bible-trained conscience and those that must be avoided in order for a Christian to remain clean in Jehovah’s eyes. Now let us give some attention to customary practices that the Christian would want to follow in order to maintain his separateness from the world. Call to mind that the definition of “custom” carries the thought of a practice that is “common to many,” or “habitual with an individual.” What are some customs that a Christian should develop?
Do you recall the account in the 17th chapter of the book of Acts 17, where it is recorded that Paul and Silas left Thessalonica and went to Beroea? How did the Beroeans respond to Christian teaching? Ac 17 Verse 11 says: “They received the word with the greatest eagerness of mind, carefully examining the Scriptures daily as to whether these things were so.” Is it your custom to make the study of God’s Word a daily practice? Do you have periods of deep meditation on the things that you have learned? A person who makes this a regular custom in his life is counted happy.—Ps. 1:1, 2.
What about the matter of associating with fellow Christians in worship? Would you not say that this is a desirable practice to develop? The apostle Paul thought so. In fact, in writing to the Hebrew Christians, he made reference to a custom that apparently had developed among some—that of neglecting to gather together in such worship. Instead of approving this practice, the apostle urged his fellow believers to follow the opposite custom. He said that they should be gathering together in order to stir up one another to love and fine works. No less should we be doing the same thing—in fact, ‘all the more so as we behold the day drawing near.’—Heb. 10:24, 25.
Finally, we might ask ourselves: How much concern do I show for others? Do I make it my practice to share the truth with fellow believers and others in their homes? Just examine the attitude of Jesus’ apostles as to this practice. In Jerusalem, on one occasion, Peter and John were charged not to speak anymore in the name of Jesus. Before the Jewish Sanhedrin these apostles respectfully, but boldly, declared: “We cannot stop speaking about the things we have seen and heard.” Then, after being released, these servants of God joined fellow believers, and all together they prayed: “Jehovah, give attention to their threats, and grant your slaves to keep speaking your word with all boldness.” (Acts 4:18-30) What a fine attitude!
But that was not all. Later, because of their bold activity, the apostles were put in prison. However, during the night they were released by an angel. And where did they go? To the temple to continue declaring the “good news.” Soon they found themselves before the Jewish court. After boldly stating that they “must obey God as ruler rather than men,” they were flogged and released. But what did they do? “Every day in the temple and from house to house they continued without letup teaching and declaring the good news about the Christ, Jesus.” (Acts 5:17-42) What fine habits these faithful followers of Jesus Christ had developed! Do you have the same attitude toward the Christian custom of declaring the “good news”?
So, then, how would you answer the question, Should you follow the custom? Wise decisions will result in warm companionship with fellow believers while at the same time adding variety and richness to your life. Above all, you will thus be building up a close, warm, personal relationship with Jehovah, who provides all things for our enjoyment. Additionally, you will be ensuring for yourself, and perhaps for others to whom you declare the “good news,” the privilege of living in God’s new order of righteousness, where all customs will reflect the glory of Jehovah.—1 Cor. 10:31.