Jesus On the Traditions of Men

By┬áTom O’Neal

I appreciate very much the invitation of brother Connie W. Adams to participate in this special issue of Guardian of Truth. He and I in the past have worked together on Searching the Scriptures which the reader knows by now has ceased publication.

The text of Mark 7:1-13 reads, “Then came together unto him the Pharisees, and certain of the scribes, which came from Jerusalem. And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, except they wash their hands oft, eat not, holding the tradition of the elders. And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not, And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brazen vessels, and of tables. Then the Pharisees and scribes asked him, Why walk not they disciples according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashen hands? He answered and said unto them, Well hath Isaiah prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoreth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and any other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. For Moses said, Honor thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die the death: But ye say, If a man shall say to his father or mother, It is Corban, that is to say, a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; he shall be free. And ye suffer him no more to do aught for his father or his mother; Making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye.” Matthew records this also in Matthew 15:1-9.

Two Usages of the Word “Tradition”

In order to properly understand what Jesus said in the above passage, it is needful to comprehend that the word “tradition” in Scripture has two usages, one a bad usage and one a good usage.

First, we need to find out what “tradition” means and then we will find out second how it is used. Vine says it means “a handing down or on” and Thayer says “a giving over, giving up . . . which is done by word of mouth or in writing” (481). Thus, a tradition is simply that which is handed down or on to others, whether “by word of mouth or in writing.”

Second, how is the word used? In Scripture as well as elsewhere it has both a good and bad sense.

Good. The KJV uses the word “ordinances” where the ASV uses the word “tradition” in 1 Corinthians 11:2. “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances (traditions, ASV), as I delivered them to you.” Paul told the Corinthians what he delivered unto them was that which he had by revelation received of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:3). Further, Paul said that which “I write unto you are the commandments of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37).

Bad. In the writings of Paul mention is made of “tradition” in the bad usage of the term. He said, he “profited in the Jews’ religion above many my equals in mine own nation, being more exceedingly zealous of the traditions of my fathers.” These traditions were not the “commandments of the Lord” but were “of my fathers.” Paul warned the Colossians, “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). Observe carefully that these traditions were “of man” and “not after Christ.”

In our text, Mark 7:1-3, Jesus uses the word “tradition” in its bad sense. In fact, we could safely say Jesus always so used it.


In a close study of our passage under consideration, Jesus draws a very sharp contrast between (1) the word of God, and (2) the traditions of men. Six times he refers to their tradition: (1) “the tradition of the elders” (v. 3), (2) “the tradition of the elders” (v. 5), (3) “the commandments of men” (v. 7), (4) “the tradition of men” (v. 8), (5) “your own tradition” (v. 8), and (6) “your tradition” (v. 13).

Set opposite to the traditions of men, Jesus held up the word of God spoken by Moses. Jesus affirmed that these Jews laid “aside the commandment of God” (v. 8) rejected “the commandment of God” (v. 9) and were “making the word of God of none effect” (v. 13) by not keeping what “Moses said” (v. 10). Upon another occasion Jesus also upheld what Moses wrote and said for people to observe and do what Moses said (Matt. 12:1-3), the reason being Moses spoke the word of God (Exod. 20:1,12).

God had said through Moses, “Honor thy father and thy mother; and, Whoso curseth father or mother, let him die.

Kick out and kick hard all of the doctrines and commandments of men.

Do they mean by tradition, having a song first in our service, or two songs first and then a prayer, then a sermon and then the Lord’s Supper? I seriously doubt our “non-traditionalists” mean this. You see, if this is what they mean, the minute you change the order of the worship, you will start another tradition in a week or two.

What those that want to do away with tradition within churches of Christ mean is this: they want to introduce the use of the instrument, eliminate the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, having it as often during the week as they want and on any day or days that they want, have women deacons, preachers, and elders, eliminate so much Bible in classes and have some reviews of good books instead of a Bible class, having interdenominational services with the denominations in town, reject elders in the church, reject the church itself, and reject the idea that there is one scriptural reason for divorce and remarriage.

“The religious world has never learned that all of the traditions of men pumped into their services only make their worship before God vain. Such things as counting beads, lighting candles, sprinkling water, having plays of a religious nature, having special music, using instruments of music in worship and any number of other such things only make worship vain in the sight of God.”

These so-called “non-traditionalists” have so little know-ledge and respect for the Word of God that they think these things are just the tradition of the “Church of Christ.” What they fail to see is there is biblical reason for what has been the general practice of brethren on these matters through the years.

None of these “non-traditionalists” would think of taking his Bible and showing by the Bible the position of the Lord’s people on these questions are just tradition. What he wants to do is complain about the tradition within the church in small groups of people in living rooms where he can get a group that will listen to him together. If they objected openly, someone might call upon him to defend his position. And that is another tradition he says he wants to eliminate.

These “non-traditionalists” do not follow the tradition of Jesus Christ and his apostles. They reject the commandments of the Lord for their tradition, making void the word of God and rendering their worship vain in the sight of God.

We need to always follow the traditions (that which has been) handed down from the Lord and his apostles and reject the traditions of men. Human tradition will make our worship vain!

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 3, p. 16
February 4, 1993