7. Traditions of men
Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition.
---Jesus to the Pharisees, Mark 7:13
To nullify a thing is to make it “of none effect.” Nullification may be legal, i.e., accomplished by a court or legislature, or it may simply be practical and effective. While both senses of the word applied to the scribes and Pharisees, here I am concerned with the latter sense, for that is the kind of nullification the church has done.
At the time of our Lord’s first coming, Judaism was in disarray. Israel was under foreign control. The Jews had not had their own king in six hundred years.
But the Jews still had their religious leaders.
Also they had a religious tradition, the “tradition of the elders,” which superseded the written Word. Scofield, in his commentary on “the tradition of the elders” in Mark 7:5, called it “the so-called ‘oral law’ alleged to have been handed down from Moses; really a traditional interpretation of the written law.” That is, it was “traditional” and it was also false. It was bad interpretation of what was plainly written. By contrast, the faithful Jews did not interpret the Scriptures in this way. The proof of this is that when their Messiah came, born of a virgin, they recognized Him as the Son of God. Thus Anna, Simeon, later the apostles, Mary Magdalene, etc. The Pharisees, taken as a whole and representative of Israel as a whole, with their interpretation of the law and the prophets rejected and crucified Him.
A premise of this book is that the church has its own traditional interpretation, not of the law, but of the New Testament doctrine of the church, and that this reigning tradition does not at all square with the written Word. It is not that fine points are missed but that cardinal New Testament teachings are simply ignored. Romans 12:3-8, Ephesians 4, I Peter 4-5, I Corinthians 12 & 14, Colossians 2, Hebrews 13, as well as the misapplication of the books of I & II Timothy and Titus, are prime examples.
Jesus and His apostles were careful to distinguish the commandments of God from the commandments of men, as well as the apostolic traditions and the traditions of men. In Matthew 15:1-9 Jesus contrasted God’s commandments and man’s. In the parallel passage in Mark 7 Jesus contrasted “the commandments of God” with “the commandments of men” and “the tradition of men,” thereby equating the latter two. And Paul said, “Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (touch not; taste not; handle not; which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh.” Col. 2:20-23. Here, Paul reprobates human ordinances set up over and against the ordinances of God. Recall that Paul commended the Corinthians for keeping the ordinances. The problem is not with ordinances but in where they originate. Are they from God, or from men? In II Thessalonians 2:15 Paul wrote, “Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.” “Tradition” is synonymous with “ordinance.”
I believe it is common for Christians to view any and every teaching pertaining to ordinances—at least, whenever it concerns anything other than the Lord’s supper or baptism—as formalistic or even legalistic. Meanwhile they accept the established ordinances without a thought. They do not perceive their “order of service” to be formalistic. To them it is an expression of Christian liberty. But where did their “Sunday sermon” originate? When was that made an ordinance of the church? When was seminary training made an ordinance for “pastor preparation?” Must the Lord’s supper necessarily be administered by a church leader? Sunday school? Youth group? (If one does not participate in these, is he or she “not walking the walk?”) If you have small children you are likely to be ostracized for not sending them to Sunday school. Why? Because it’s a sacrosanct church tradition. Never mind that you prefer to teach your children at home and to have them in church with you. (Sunday school is not “in the church;” it is in the church building.) Regardless of what the churches call these, they are man’s ordinances and not God’s.
Now, some will object that Israel was under law but the church is under grace, and that therefore the Lord’s rebuke of the Pharisees does not apply today. The church is thus imagined to be immune to any charge of Pharisaism. This is simply untrue. What did Jesus say? “Thus ye have made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition.” But what is the commandment of God? It is His entire revealed will, and it encompasses both the law and grace. There is law under the Old Covenant and grace under the New, and this in no way contradicts the truth that the entire Word of God is the commandment of God. Grace says, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.” That is the commandment of God. “Husbands, love your wives” is the commandment of God. “Love one another” is the commandment of God. “Be subject unto the higher powers” is the commandment of God. In Psalm 119 the commandment of God is called, variously, His testimony, His law, His statutes, His judgments, and His precepts. Does this apply only to the words in the Old Testament? By no means. The fact that believers are under grace and not law in no way changes our responsibility to obey God. The only difference is that we obey Him out of godly fear and not the fear of a lawbreaker. Our salvation is not at stake, but love for God compels us to obey Him.
The church has done the same as Israel. It has made the commandment of God of none effect by its tradition. Now there were faithful Jews as there are faithful Christians. That is not the issue. The issue is what the church corporate has done. The church has failed in the same way Israel nationally failed.
The church has an oral or unwritten tradition that parallels the “tradition of the elders” in Israel. It is summarized under the heading clericalism. Clericalism’s tenets are “read into” the New Testament rather than actually found there. Clericalism is mostly practiced and not openly taught, though its assumptions are endlessly woven into sermons. (E.g., “My Greek professor at XYZ Seminary once said to me,...”) In the next chapters we will examine these assumptions.
Please note, the corrupt “traditions of the elders” in Israel in no way disparages the institution of eldership. Elders in the churches may lead either according to the faith of Jesus Christ, or they may lead corruptly, as the elders in Israel did. Nevertheless elders are charged with leading the churches, as those who will give an account, Heb. 13:17. The church never had authorization from God to change the system simply because elders may fail to lead well. Eldership is commanded by God; the clergy system is not. Rather, the clergy system is a tradition that makes the commandment of God “of none effect.”