Transgression of Tradition

Gary Bird

Matthew 15:2 Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.


When I was younger, my parents reminded me how essential table manners were. “Chew with your mouth closed”, “Don’t put your elbows on the table”, or “Don’t shovel the food into your mouth” were just a couple of the phrases I heard regularly. Now that I am older, I find myself repeating all these phrases to my children. I didn’t realize how big of a pig I was as a child and now my kids remind me daily! I am sure you can relate if you have ever watched a child eat before.

Now, imagine one day I come up to you and tell you that it’s a command to practice table manners just like my parents taught me. If you don’t place your napkin on your lap just right, you are out of the will of God! What if I believed that particular table manners were just as crucial as the biblical doctrine of assembling in church together? We would both agree that the notion of this is ridiculous!

The above scenario probably sounded farfetched, but we actually find something similar to this in the Gospels. A group of very earnest men took it upon themselves to pretend that their personal preferences were biblical commandments. What was the personal standard they thought was important? It was washing their hands! Seriously, this issue was related to personal hygiene. For the record, I am a massive fan of washing hands, particularly before you eat.

Jesus didn’t take long to defend his disciples and point out the Pharisees’ own hypocrisies. They had a bad habit of making their own personalized rule book. What’s worse is they elevated these rules above God’s and instead ignored what was already given in the Scripture. Jesus’ goal wasn’t to do away with hand washing. In fact, He made it very clear why He was upset with the Pharisee’s teaching.

In Mark 7:7-8, Christ lets the Pharisees know that they were vainly worshiping God. They did this by teaching the commandments of men as if those commandments were from God, even superseding the Bible at times. This rebuke did NOT make the tradition of handwashing sinful or wrong. Jesus was just trying to have these religious men recalibrate their focus, which should have been less man-focused and more God-centered.

Sadly, we find ourselves in the same place today. History always repeats itself. As noted before, I am a huge fan of table manners and hand washing! But I am not in love with the idea of tradition being on the same playing field as God’s commands. These traditions are personal preferences God has left to our care and that’s where it ends.

Even though washing your hands is a smart thing to do, and I do believe you should do it before every meal, I don’t have a right to uplift handwashing as God’s standard. In fact, Bible teachers have an obligation to uplift God’s Word and remind their listeners of what’s actually in the Bible and what’s not. Teaching our own personal preferences as Bible commands is deceptive and damaging.

Jesus reminds us of something important in the parable of the wise man who built his life upon a solid rock. When the rain came down, the wise man’s house stood firm. There was also a foolish man in this story and he built his house upon the shifting sand. When the floods came down, this foolish man’s house was destroyed! What does this teach us in relation to our personal preferences?

When we trust our eternal destination on anything besides the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, this is shifting sand. Adding to this simple truth would be wrong and dishonest. The same goes with building our life upon the Rock of God’s Word. If man’s opinion or “traditions” are what we build our Christian life on, we are heading for disappointment. It’s only through the sole authority of Scripture that we can find an anchor for our life. We can build on those commands as we see fit, but where God’s Word is silent, we may not interject on His behalf.

Some may read this and believe that I am suggesting we don’t need personal standards. This couldn’t be further from the truth! There is no question that we need to have personal standards. In fact, how could you live life without them? Whether it’s at school, work, or church, there are always standards. There will always be guidelines, and we have to choose wisely how to live our life.

Traditions/personal preferences are not the problem. Jesus was making a different point in the text as was already discussed. Jesus wasn’t calling for us to have no personal standards or to make foolish decisions. Problems arise when we pretend our personal beliefs are God-given commandments.

God asks us to be holy. This is a command, not a suggestion. If we have sin in our lives, we are obligated to confess that sin and forsake it. The Bible is clear on what sin is. The Bible tells us to abstain from the appearance of evil. This takes being holy to the next level and cautions us not to put ourselves in a position that would even look like sin. Scripture exhorts us to love one another. This command alone could occupy all our focus! How many times have we failed in this area?

You see, the Bible is full of commands we need to hear. There’s no lack of material in that regard. Since that is the case, why would we waste time pretending that washing hands or table manners is something God has commanded? If you pay attention, just like in Jesus’ day, someone will come along with a personal pet preference and claim if not done to their liking, you must be out of the will of God! It may be a wise standard. It may be a prudent practice. However, if it’s not the Word of God, we must make the distinction.

Jesus strikes at the heart of the matter later in the discourse concerning the washing of the hands. The lack of washing of hands will not defile a man. If someone breaks a man’s personal standard, it means nothing. It may be disagreeable or rub the wrong way, but it’s not sin.

So, what is the conclusion of this matter? We need standards at home, school, and church. We must have standards around dating, friendship, and fellowship. It’s good practice to wash our hands and chew with our mouths shut. It is our duty to honor the standards where we work, live, and worship and understand the reasons behind the rules. But the standards of man are never a substitute for the commandments of God. Keep God first and love one another. Where the Bible gives us a command, obey, and when someone says their personal standard must be followed to be in God’s favor, ask for a chapter and verse. Acts 17:11

Gary Bird

Gary and his family are core members of our church. He assists with multiple minsitries. He and his wife Jessica have four children.

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