Traditions and God’s Law

In Mark 7:1-13, the Pharisees questioned Jesus and His disciples about washing their hands before they ate. This was not simply a matter of hygiene for them. To the Pharisees, this was as good as Law. Of course, there was no law that said this. Certainly, the Law spoke of cleanliness and defilement. But there was no law that mandated the washing of hands, cups, pots, and vessels simply to make sure they hadn’t been defiled. The philosophy was apparently that any time they had been out in public, they needed to wash just in case they came in contact with someone or something unclean. By washing, they wouldn’t make their food unclean and wouldn’t internalize any uncleanness while eating.

That makes some sense to me. I can see how a logically minded person might take these steps, just to be on the safe side. After all, defilement is serious business. For the Pharisees it became extremely serious business. It was a test of spiritually. It was a test of fellowship. They were sure that through their logical deductions, it was part of God’s pattern for them.

Yet, Jesus turned that understanding on its head. This was a tradition they had built up around the Law. It was not God’s Law itself. Jesus accused the Pharisees of hypocrisy. They honored God with their mouths and not really with their hearts. They elevated the teachings of men to the level of God’s command.

Was it wrong to wash their hands before eating? No. Was it wrong to wash their hands if they feared defilement? No. What was wrong was to mandate this tradition as if it were equivalent with God’s law and treat others as if they were disobeying God when they didn’t follow the tradition.

If we are not careful, we can make the same mistake. I can and have heard some similar questions today. “Why don’t you have two assemblies on Sunday as is the tradition of other churches?” “Why don’t you have Gospel meetings that last an entire week or two weeks as is the tradition of other churches?” “Why don’t all of you wear a suit and tie or a dress to the assembly as is the tradition of the older generations?”

Is it lawful to have two assemblies on Sunday, Gospel meetings that last all week, and to dress up for our assemblies? Of course it is. Does God mandate it? No. Are we allowed to do these things? Certainly. Are we allowed to mandate these things for anyone else? No. Are others allowed to mandate these things for us? Absolutely not. Are we more spiritual for doing these things or for not doing them? Of course not.

However, Jesus didn’t stop with this. He continued His rebuke. The Pharisees had another problem. While they were willing to elevate their pet traditions to the level of God’s Law, they were equally willing to disregard the laws of God that they didn’t really like. God’s Law said they were to honor father and mother. Obviously, God saw caring for father and mother as they aged as a necessary part of honoring them. The Pharisees didn’t seem to like this Law or pattern. They dispensed with it by coming up with another seemingly great tradition. They declared the portion of their goods with which they would have supported their parents as Korban, or devoted to God. “Sorry, Mom, Dad, I would take care of you, but I can’t give you what is devoted to God.”

Today it is pretty to vogue to notice the side of this teaching that rebukes equating our traditions with God’s law and pattern. But we must not forget this other side. We cannot refuse to follow God’s pattern and Law by our traditions. Do you notice that nowhere does the Law specifically say that caring for elderly parents is part of honoring them. Rather, God expected right thinking people to realize caring for elderly parents was part of that pattern. They had to use their logic to realize this. But it was, nevertheless part of God’s pattern.

We certainly cannot mandate traditions like multiple assemblies, week-long Gospel meetings, or formal dress for assemblies. However, when the pattern says sing, we can tell folks they should sing and not add instruments. When the pattern says celebrate Jesus’ death through the Lord’s Supper, we can tell folks they should not add extra holy-days. When the pattern demonstrates using unleavened bread and fruit of the vine for the Lord’s Supper and taking it only on the first day of the week, we can rebuke others for violating it.

God expects us to use our common sense and our logic. But He also expects us to use it to understand what He has written, not mandate whatever we like and disregard whatever we don’t. We must not add our traditions to God’s laws. Neither must we allow our think-sos to disregard God’s laws.

We must forever recognize that God’s word provides us the pattern and authority for good works and continue to look to it as the guide for our behavior as Christians and work as congregations (II Timothy 3:16-17).

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Does Having Bible Authority Matter?

Can we use mechanical instruments of music to worship God and edify one another?

Can a church rent/own an assembly place?

Can a church host a potluck?

Can a church buy a first aid kit?

Should it be churches or Christians that provide benevolence and welfare to the community?

Is it okay to take the Lord’s Supper on Monday?

Is it okay to have a “make-up” serving of the Lord’s Supper in an evening assembly?

Do you ever begin to think that we are majoring in minors and nitpicking about issues when we start asking questions about Bible authority? It seems that some churches are free to work on big issues because they don’t worry about authority, they just do what seems right to them?

In a moment of frank honesty, I admit that I worry about this sometimes. Sometimes I do think about the fact that I’m in a daily life and death struggle to overcome sin. I know people that are daily struggling to quit taking drugs, drinking alcohol, committing adultery, practicing homosexuality. I know some people that don’t even seem to be trying to quit gossiping, slandering, lying, coveting or whatever sins they view as small and insignificant. With all these personal and individual struggles going on, does it really make sense to spend time worrying about whether or not it is scriptural for a congregation to allow weddings in their meeting place?

However, every time I start travelling down that road, I can’t help but remember that Jesus believed it was important to act based on a higher authority than Himself. In John 8:28, Jesus said, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” In John 5:30, He said, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” Jesus did nothing on His own authority. Jesus’ judgment was just not because most people agreed with His judgment, not because He had good judgment, but because He was seeking the Father’s will and not His own.

In John 12:49, Jesus said, “I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment.” Jesus refused to speak on His own authority but relied on the commandments He had been given by God. Further, in John 5:19, Jesus said, “Truly, Truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing.” Jesus did not simply rely on what He wanted to do, He looked to the example of His Father and acted based on that.

No matter how frustrated I get with some of the discussions we have about New Testament authority, I can’t help but come back to the fact that Jesus believed it was important to act based on a higher authority. If God the Son in the flesh refused to act without authority, why should I think I can?

Am I worried that sometimes I get involved in straining out gnats and swallowing camels? Yes, I do. I certainly think we should recognize that not every issue carries equal weight with the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). I think there are perhaps some disagreements we can simply continue to study together without making them tests of fellowship, even though I’m not completely sure where to draw the line on that. However, I also can’t help but notice that when Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for straining out gnats and swallowing camels, He didn’t tell them to quit straining out the gnats; He told them to quit swallowing camels (cf. Matthew 23:23-24).

I’m certain there is a need for balance and proper prioritizing. As I said above, I’m not always sure exactly where the right balance is. However, I am sure we shouldn’t go to extremes. We shouldn’t act as if every little question has the same weight and importance on our soul. At the same time, we shouldn’t travel to the opposite extreme by believing whatever we do doesn’t matter.

Jesus believed a higher authority mattered. We need to believe the same.

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Can a Church Buy a First Aid Kit?

Questions of authority for congregational action are important. We must not simply dismiss them with a wave of the hand because we don’t want to think about them or we just can’t imagine why something is wrong. When someone asks if a church can do something, we should pause, reflect, and look to the Scriptures.

Usually, when we ask what the church can do, it comes down to what can the church spend money from its collection on. I’ve heard questions about buildings, song books, and a myriad of things. I’ve recently heard a new one. Can a church buy a first aid kit?

I’d like to share three scriptural principles I believe help answer this question.

1) The church is authorized to relieve and to be prepared to relieve the needs of the saints.

I Corinthians 16:1 says, “Now concerning the collection for the saints…” What is the collection for? It is for the saints. That is, it is primarily intended to help relieve needs among the saints. In Acts 4:32-37, the Christians were taking up a collection, pooling some funds in a treasury, and giving to each as any had need.

Notice what this means. First, it means the church is authorized to relieve the needs of the brethren as they arise. Second, they didn’t have to wait until a need arose to prepare for it. Can a congregation pay for medical needs? If a brother or sister needs medical help, can the church provide for that? Absolutely. Do they have to wait until the medical need actually arises instead of preparing ahead of time? No.

2) Jesus relieved the physical needs of those who followed Him.

In Matthew 15:32-38, Jesus saw the crowds that had followed Him. Jesus said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” He then proceeded to feed 4000 people.

Of course, we need to understand that Jesus did not use food to attract people to follow Him as so many want to use this passage. However, He did take care of the needs of those who were following Him. These 4000 had been with him for three days. They were in a desolate place and were in need. He took care of it. Certainly, we might all argue over how real was their need, couldn’t they have provided for themselves, couldn’t Jesus send them on their way and take care of them if they fainted? But Jesus didn’t argue for that. He saw a need among those who were assembled with Him and He met it.

Can the church provide for the needs that arise as folks assemble with us? Can the church help these followers when their needs arise? If Jesus can do it, we can.

3) Jesus healed on the Sabbath.

In Matthew 12:9-14, Jesus saw a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. He used this as a teaching tool. He looked around at the Jews and questioned one of their sacred cows. “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Of course, the Pharisees and scribes thought it absolutely wasn’t. After all, surely a doctor could not work on the Sabbath. But Jesus turned their ideas on their heads and essentially said, “If a sheep fell into a pit on the Sabbath, wouldn’t you lift it out?” Then he asked, “Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath?”

Here’s the point we need to see. The Pharisees were not allowing common sense about God’s will to govern their approach. I fear we can do the same thing on our question. This question is not about a church being a provider of social welfare to the community. This question is not about a church trying to become a medical clinic. This question is about whether or not a church can prepare to provide medical relief to those who are attending an assembly or class of the saints. This question is about whether or not a church can be prepared in the case of an emergency for someone in our assemblies and classes. Is this lawful? I believe the answer is yes, just as Jesus thought it was lawful to pull a sheep out of the pit and heal a man on the Sabbath.

No doubt, some fear that a church purchasing a first aid kit might pave the way for all kinds of unauthorized activities. Why not let the church provide a medical clinic? Why not let the church provide a wellness center? We must not do those things because they are not authorized, but relieving the needs that arise while in our assemblies is. Being prepared to relieve the needs of folks in our assemblies and classes in the event of an emergency is not the same as providing a medical clinic or a wellness center anymore than paying a medical bill for a saint in need is the same as providing a medical clinic or a wellness center. This is true in just the same way that Jesus’ feeding the 5000 and the 4000 is not the same as opening a soup kitchen. This is true in just the same way that providing food for a widow in need is not the same as opening a restaurant.

Some may suggest we are appealing to the physical desires of people in order to interest them in spiritual things. If we had medical supplies, like a first aid kit or a wheel chair, and were advertising to the community that they should come check out what we are doing because we’re ready for any medical emergencies or if we were inviting folks to a medical supply giveaway in order to get them to attend a class with us this could be a legitimate fear. However, if a church is not doing that but merely preparing for a potential need and emergency, then there is no need for the fear. A church being prepared to provide needed relief and benevolence ahead of time is not the same as appealing to physical desires to attract folks to spiritual teaching. This is true in just the same way that Jesus feeding the 5000 and the 4000 is not the same as using food to attract folks to hear His preaching.

Some begin to bicker over cost and expedience. Some churches may go farther with this than others, buying epinephrine in case of allergic reaction, insulin in case of diabetic shock, or defibrillators in case of a heart attack. Some may refuse to go to certain lengths. However, at this point we are not dealing with scriptural authority (that has already been established), we are looking at congregational judgment on expedience. Each congregation has to give consideration to issues such as cost, likelihood of need, what responsibility the individual has, how others may interpret what the church is doing, etc. Different congregations may have different judgment regarding what is expedient based on all these issues. However, that is a judgment each group has to autonomously make and no congregation is allowed to elevate their judgment on expedience to the level of scriptural mandate. Further, different Christians within a congregation may have different judgment regarding what is expedient. While shepherds should be willing to listen to the judgment of the flock they guide, the sheep should be willing submit to their shepherds on these kinds of judgments instead of elevating their personal judgment to the level of scriptural mandate.

Does a church have to buy a first aid kit? Of course not. Is a church scripturally authorized to buy a first aid kit? I believe the Scripture demonstrates we can.

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