By Mike Willis
There are some who are preaching that we have made the name of the church, mid-week services, conducting a spring and fall meeting, and other customary practices of local churches into human traditions (“Church of Christ traditions”). The charge is made that these traditional or customary practices are equated with divine law in the minds of certain unidentified brethren. Matthew 15:1-20 is used to justify opposition to these practices and then an appeal is made to do things another way. I propose in this article to examine the context of Matthew 15:1-20 to see if it has been used correctly when it is applied to these admittedly authorized practices of brethren.
Matthew 15:1-20 records the incident when Jesus was rebuked because he did not wash his hands before he ate. Here is the text:
Then came to Jesus scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they wash not their hands when they eat bread. But he answered and said unto them, Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me; and honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect by your tradition. Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men (15:1-9).
But he answered and said, Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up. Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch (15:13-14).
Notice that Jesus clearly distinguished the “traditions of the elders” and the “commandments of men” from the “word of God.” The practices which Jesus condemned resulted in these consequences:
Transgressed the word of God (15:3)
Nullified the word of God (15:6)
Rendered worship vain (15:9)
Manifested that one’s heart was not right with God (15:8) Were based, not on the word of God, but the commandments of men (15:9)
A doctrine that must be rooted up (15:13-14)
Caused men to fall into the pit (15:14)
To apply Matthew 15:1-20 to practices which do not fit these criteria is an abuse of this passage.
The Washing of Hands
Sometimes a person will say, “There is nothing wrong with washing one’s hands before he eats. Therefore, what Jesus is discussing is an authorized practice which is made into a divine law. When we make posting the name `church of Christ’ on the sign in front of the building a divine law, we are guilty of the same thing as the Pharisees were doing.” A better understanding of what the Pharisees were doing may help us to apply this passage correctly.
The Pharisees made a law that a person should wash his hands before he eats. Here are several quotations from rabbinical writings to demonstrate what they were teaching:
“He who neglects hand-washing deserves to be punished here and hereafter.”
“He is to be destroyed out of the world, for in hand-washing is contained the secret of the ten commandments.”
“He is guilty of death.”
“Three sins bring poverty after them, and to slight hand-washing is one.”
“He who eats bread without hand-washing is as if he went in to a harlot.”
“He who does not wash his hands after eating is as bad as a murderer” (cited from The Life of Christ, Cunningham Geikie 202).
Not only did the Pharisees make a law where God had made none, they also mandated the proper method for hand washing:
It was laid down that the hands were first to be washed clean. The tips of the ten fingers were then joined and lifted up so that the water ran down to the elbows, then turned down so that it might run off to the ground. Fresh water was poured on them as they were lifted up, and twice again as they hung down. The washing itself was to be done by rubbing the fist of one hand in the hollow of the other. When the hands were washed before eating they must be held upwards; when after it, downwards, but so that the water should not run beyond the knuckles. The vessel used must be held first in the right, then in the left hand; the water was to be poured first on the right, then on the left hand, and at every third time the words repeated “Blessed art Thou who hast given us the command to wash hands” (Geikie 203-204).
The Error Committed
The error committed by the Pharisees was not taking an authorized practice and elevating it into divine law. Rather, the error committed was adding to the revealed word of God. There is nothing wrong with a person choosing to wash his hands before he eats; however, man has never been at liberty to make hand washing an act of divine worship and bind it on others. Man has never been at liberty to add his own regulations to what the word of God required. These Scriptures forbid men to add to the revealed word of God:
Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you (Deut. 4:2).
Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar (Prov. 30:6).
For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: and if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book (Rev. 22:18-19).
The error committed in Matthew 15 was adding to what God had revealed, making necessary to salvation what God had not made necessary (compare to the adding of circumcision as a condition for salvation for the Gentiles, Gal. 5:1-4). Men have never been given the liberty to add to those things which the Lord authorized. Sometimes the same sin is committed today when men add their traditions to what God has authorized, as in the following:
Adding holy days (Easter, Christmas, Ash Wednesday, etc.)
Burning incense in worship
Instrumental music in worship
Collections taken on another day of the week Choirs, quartets and solos
The Lord has never approved of men adding to the revealed word of God his own additions of worship and work. These are the human traditions that the Lord opposed in Matthew 15.
Misapplying the Passage
To apply this passage to those things that are divinely authorized in the word of God makes havoc of the passage. Can you imagine the confusion which results should a man quote Matthew 15:8-9 (“This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”) to condemn a church because it had a baptistery? Rather than a baptistery being the addition of an unauthorized item, it is divinely authorized in the word of God as an aid to a command (Mark 16:15-16; 1 Tim. 3:15). To apply Matthew 15:8-9 to something authorized by the word of God is an abuse of this passage. Could the following things be said about a church that had a baptistery? Could we say that, because this church has a baptistery, this church’s actions .. .
Transgress the word of God (15:3)
Nullify the word of God (15:6)
Render its worship vain (15:9)
Manifests that its members’ hearts were not right with God (15:8)
Are based, not on the word of God_, but the commandments of men (15:9)
Are based on a doctrine that must be rooted up (15:13-14) Causes men to fall into the pit (15:14)
If not, this is a misapplication of this passage to apply it to those things which are authorized liberties. By definition an authorized liberty cannot transgress the word of God! It can be misused to cause a brother to stumble, but it does not transgress the word of God (1 Cor. 8:12-13).
The assertion is made that certain unnamed brethren have equated authorized liberties with those things which are required. I have no quarrel with those who want to remind us that certain liberties must not be equated with those things which are mandated. However, I find it distasteful to read indictments of brethren for believing what they never have written or taught. Where would I go to find statements, similar to those made by the Pharisees about hand-washing, made by brethren when teaching on authorized liberties (such as having a sign with “Church of Christ” on it, passing a collection basket among its members, having a mid-week Bible study, having a Sunday night worship, having a baptistery)? To parody the writings of the Pharisees, can you imagine any such statements as the following being made by responsible brethren among us?
“The church that neglects having a baptistery deserves to be punished here and hereafter.”
“He who attends a church without a baptistery is to be destroyed out of the world, for in having a baptistery is contained the secret of the ten commandments.”
“He is guilty of death if a member attends a church that does not use a collection basket to take up its collection.”
“Three sins bring poverty after them, and to attend a church that does not have a meeting on Wednesday night is one of them.”
“He who attends a church without a Sunday evening service is as if he went in to a harlot.”
“He who attends a church that does not have a sign that says `Church of Christ’ on it is as bad as a murderer.”
There may be a few misguided souls who have made some excessive statements about a few authorized liberties, but to make a blanket assertion about brethren binding their liberties as divine law is irresponsible, if not malicious, on the part of those attempting to establish grounds for a hidden agenda.
Some preachers, for whatever reasons, seem bent on changing the local church to which they move. Soon after they arrive they create turmoil by encouraging (or insisting) that the sign be changed from “Church of Christ” to “Christians Meet Here.” Perhaps they suggest that Sunday evening services be dropped or that a collection be taken by putting out a basket and letting brethren drop their money in as they come in rather than by passing the basket during the worship service. If brethren resist the effort to change, their resistance is judged as positive proof that the saints there have equated in their minds authorized liberties with divine mandates. Trouble ensues that may divide the church or cause a sizable element to leave. What created the turmoil? Can the turmoil created by pressing for these changes be justified by asserting that we must resist the tendency to fall into the ruts of tradition? This scenario has played enough times to be cause for alarm. Frankly, we do not need men creating this kind of confusion and turmoil in local churches or peddling it in their meetings.
Enough places have changed these “authorized liberties” and enough time has elapsed to pass judgment on how successful they have been in reaching the lost in their communities. Do you know any church that has made significantly more progress in converting the lost in their neighborhood because they changed their sign from “Church of Christ” to “Christians Meet Here”? Do you know any congregation that has reached more people with the gospel because they meet on Thursday nights instead of Wednesday nights? Do you know any congregation that is converting more people because they disbanded their Sunday evening worship service?
I am not aware of any that have. However, I am aware of several who have started out opposing these “Church of Christ traditions” and have soon moved further and further away from the gospel. While becoming so intolerant of “Church of Christ traditions,” several men have learned to accept the unauthorized traditions of men-sprinkling for baptism, the clergy-laity distinction, instrumental music in worship, special singing groups, etc.
A Guise For A Hidden Agenda
Under the guise of opposing “Church of Christ traditions,” some have the intention of reshaping the Lord’s church. I want to state plainly and clearly that not everyone mentioned as misapplying Matthew 15 in the manner described above or who has persuaded brethren to put up a sign saying “Christians Meet Here” is guilty of trying to reshape the church. That having been said, we would be naive not to admit that some have an agenda of reshaping the church. They oppose as “Church of Christ traditions” such things as teaching that there is one church, opposition to instrumental music in worship, teaching that one must be baptized for remission of sins (versus to obey God), forbidding women to preach (or serve as elders and deacons, make announcements, attend business meetings, etc.), and opposing such things as choirs and other special singing groups, the religious celebration of Easter and Christmas, applause to show approval of something that happened in the public services, and testifying. These men are interested in creating a more palatable church – one which will not “turn off’ the “baby boomers” who may visit the services.
Enough of this false teaching is circulating that when you hear brethren opposing “church of Christ traditions,” that should be a red flag to cause alarm. This may be the first signal that a person is moving away from sound doctrine. To help clarify whether a speaker’s comments on this matter are a danger sign, ask him to specify examples of such “traditions,” what he proposes as alternatives, and exactly how his alternatives are more expedient. His answers should help you determine whether he is giving the valid caution against abuses that any gospel preacher might give or whether he is imagining and exaggerating abuses in an effort to peddle some hidden agenda that compromises the gospel.
To use Matthew 15:1-20 to condemn the use of authorized liberties is an abuse of that Scripture. While we are not opposed to teaching men to distinguish between divine mandates and authorized liberties, and every new generation will have to be re-taught foundation truths, there is no wisdom in creating turmoil and confusion to produce change for the sake of change.
Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 24, p. 2
December 16, 1993