Text: Matthew 15:7-20; Mark 7:6-8, 14-23

  1. Introduction

In continuation of our studies on the theme “The Life of Christ and His Glorious Church”, we shall today focus our lesson on the Master’s teaching on the issue of tradition, especially when such traditions become bad.  Closely associated with the issue of tradition is legalism or legalistic ritual in worship. Apart from Christ, the Apostles also had to deal with the above two issues, which played a major part in the rise of apostasy, witnessed in the early Christian churches.

Definition of Terms

Tradition – defines Tradition as the handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice”.  Easton Bible Dictionary describes Tradition as any kind of teaching, written or spoken, handed down from generation to generation.

Legalism - The term "legalism" commonly denotes preoccupation with form at the expense of substance. While it is now used metaphorically in all areas of human life, it appears to have theological origin, as Edward the fisher in the 17th century used it to designate “one who bringeth the Law into the case of justification”.

Ritualistic worship - A ritual is a religious service or other ceremony which may be merely symbolic” or “non-functional.” Compare this with true worship which must be in spirit and in truth (Joh 4:24).

Legalistic rituals - a religious service or other ceremony which may be merely symbolic” or “non-functional”, but just to fulfil the law (“fulfilment of all righteousness”).

The topic suggests that some traditions can be good, while others can be termed as bad. In this regard, it could be important to examine the difference between good and bad traditions in the course of the study. A tradition is considered good where it does not conflict with the scriptures. Paul admonishes the Thessalonians thus “Therefore brethren stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle” (2The 2:15). A tradition becomes bad when it conflicts with God’s commandments. Christ said to the Scribes and Pharisees “For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men” (Mar 7: 8). Our focus today is on when tradition becomes bad.

  1. When Tradition becomes bad

Based on the teachings of Christ (Mat 15:1-20; Mar 7: 6-8; 14-23) and the Apostles, we can identify the following as some of the situations where tradition and undue legalism become bad:

    1. Making a tradition to become law where there is no law - The Scribes and the Pharisees accused the disciples of Jesus Christ of transgressing the tradition of the Jews by not washing their hands before eating bread (Mat 15: 1-2; Mar 7: 1-2).  While the washing of hands before eating was a good practice, however, these religious leaders had taken that which was a good practice of cleanliness and made it a religious law. By doing such, they bound the practice on the consciences of men.  They were thus binding where God had not bound. Making a law where there was no law.
    2. Where it is hypocritical in nature- In responding to the Pharisees on the issue of the disciples not washing hands before eating, Christ also took them to task for being hypocrites. The children did not have to give their possessions in order to take care of their parents if the possessions were pronounced “corban” (Mar 7:11), that is, “given to God.”  When something was “corban” it was set apart by a formal vow to be used in service to God.  That which had been set aside for religious purposes went to the support of those religious leaders, Jesus was addressing here. In other words, these selfish religious leaders were binding their traditional laws on Israelites who had parents that needed help.  The children could not help their parents because their goods had been promised to these selfish religious leaders.  The religious leaders thus considered their own support more important than God’s commandment that a child should honour his father and mother, which of course includes taking care of the parents. It is just like Judas Iscariot remarking that the oil used in washing the feet of Jesus could have been sold for cash and given to the poor, because he knew the money made from the sale of the oil would be put into the treasury bag which he kept on behalf of the group and he could steal from it (Joh 12: 5-6) and not that he cared for the poor.
    3. Where it tends to emphasize the form as against the substance (Mat 15: 10-11 Mar 7:6-9) - Jesus condemned the nature of a religion when it is burdened with performances of traditions that focus on the outward appearance instead of the heart of man. He affirmed that what goes into the body through the mouth does not spiritually defile the person, but evil words that come out of the mouth, defile the man, because such is the action of an evil heart. The Apostles also taught on this subject (Act 10:15; Rom 14:14, 17, 20; 1Tim 4:4). Observance of the literal dictates of the law while overlooking or evading its underlying intent is not profitable.
    4. Where it transgresses the commandment of God (Mat 15:3) - By adding human religious traditions to the law of God, the religious leaders were transgressing God’s law.  Not only does the adding of such traditions assume that the law is insufficient, men start honouring the traditions above the law (See 2Tim 3:16-17).  They progress to the point of ignoring and rejecting the law of God in order to keep their traditions (Mar 7:9).
    5. Where it is based on unreasonable legalism or rituals or arbitrary interpretation

While attending the synagogue on a particular day, Jesus did not hesitate to join issues with the Jews on their rigid interpretation of the Sabbath law (Mar 3:1-6).He saw the rigid application as nullification of God's will, in the interests of external conformity (Mar 7:1-23). Jesus’ interpretation of the law exhibited an incisiveness that pierced to the law's intent beyond its surface meaning (Mat 5:21-48). The problem with the legalistic religious system of the Scribes and Pharisees was that the religion focused on the outward performance of the religion and not on the heart of the man.

    1. Where it is oppressive in nature, places unnecessary burden (Mar 7:1-5)- In this passage, Jesus attacked the legalistic religious institution of Judaism where the religious leaders bound burdens on the consciences of the people that neither the religious leaders nor the people could bear. The Apostles also aligned with this position (Act 15:10; Gal 2:4; 5:1; Col 2:20-23).
    2. Insisting that it must be done in a way, even where there are other more effective ways, without breaking the commandment of God (Mat 15:3) - It is not wrong to do things traditionally in the realm of religious behaviour. However, when the traditional way of doing something becomes the only way it can be done, then the tradition has become a binding law on the consciences of men.  It is then wrong.  In this way, the religious traditions of the world in which we live have brought millions into bondage (See Act 15:10; Gal 5:1).  People have a difficult time objectively studying and applying the teachings of the Bible because they are hindered by their traditional religiosity.
    3. Where it is discriminatory and makes God’s commandment to be of no effect -The insistence of some Jewish believers in the early church that Gentiles also be subjected to circumcision was not only discriminatory but also made the enormous sacrifice of Christ on the cross, which brought down the wall of demarcation between the Jews and the Gentiles (Eph 2: 14), to be of no effect. They attempted to rebuild that wall by their action.
  1. Some traditional/legalism issues in today’s Christianity

Unnecessary rigidity in the interpretation of the scriptures – This is very common in areas that require human judgment. It’s not uncommon to hear “show me where it is stated in the Bible,” even when necessary inference could be drawn from some passages in the scripture to support a position. Some limit interpretation of the scriptures to direct command, Apostolic examples and would have none of necessary inference. An example is where some congregations still kick against separate women and or youth lectures or classes, because nowhere in the Bible directly says that such classes be held.

Singing – There is a congregation that I have been associating with, which considers singing of choruses as unscriptural. For them, it must always be hymns, because according to them, choruses can be corrupted in the way that they are rendered. They have made a law on singing where there is no law, as the Bible passages on singing (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3: 16) do not preclude choruses.

Prayers - Some believe that postures during prayers add to the efficacy of the prayers. Kneeling is particularly thought by many to attract more sympathy from God towards the prayer request, hence whenever they are praying or chosen to pray, kneeling must be observed. While kneeling could show reverence and respect, it should not be a must for prayers to be effective. No amount of standing, bowing, kneeling or prostrating will make prayers to be answered if one’s heart is not right with God. Postures for prayers should be in accordance with disposition and or situation. Another tradition in prayers is the “lifting up holy hands in prayers” (1Tim 2:8) being strictly interpreted to mean literal hands as against purity of hearts (Jam 4:8). I also hear of the ridiculous example of praying while naked so that God can see and sympathise with one’s naked situation!

Communion or the Lord’s supper – There still exists some congregations that insist that this item of worship be observed in the evening because to them supper means evening meal and Christ instituted it in the evening. Some further insist that it should be one loaf and one cup, all of which have no scriptural binding. Still on the Lord’s supper, some believe that singing must be done immediately after the Lord’s supper, otherwise it will not be complete. They hinge their position on “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mat 26:30). It is not doctrinally mandatory that hymn be sung after the Lord’s supper. It could be sung before or after the Lord’s supper.

Cooperative evangelism – Some have misinterpreted the doctrine of the autonomy of the local congregation to extend to non-participation in evangelism programmes that bring various congregations together; neither do they contribute to sponsorship of radio/television. They would however be the first to seek for support for purchase of land, construction of building and helping their members in need, without losing their autonomies!

Youths, Women and other fora being regarded as unscriptural by some- Some congregations still kick against separate seminars for youths and women, singles’ class or such other fora, ignoring the exchange of knowledge, experience and ideas that can come from such gatherings.

  1. Consequences of unnecessary Legalism and holding to bad traditions

4.1 Could lead to Apostasy - The beginning of Apostasy in the early church had its root in the issue of tradition and legalism. The problem of legalism arose in sharp form when the gospel crossed the boundaries of Judaism and penetrated the Gentile world. It first started with the insistence by the Jewish brethren that the Gentile converts be subjected to circumcision (which was a Jewish tradition) if they are to be part of the Kingdom. The forms were much the same as in Jesus' day: association with sinners, observance of the ceremonial law, and, above all, acceptance of the ritual mark of the people of God, circumcision. However, the issue was very strong: Was salvation possible for Gentiles apart from law observance (Act 11:3; 15:1)? The Jerusalem meeting affirmed that it was (Act 15:11 Acts 15:13-14) and sought to resolve the practical difficulties arising from this decision (Act 15:28-29). Apostasy began with teaching the religious traditions of men, followed by elevating the doctrines and traditions of men above the word of God (beginning to ignore God’s word in order to honour the traditions of men ) and finally openly reject God’s word in order that the institution be preserved.

4.2 Division occasioned by intra/inter-congregational conflicts -The attempt to impose the traditions of the Jews on the Gentile converts almost tore the early church apart and required the holding of the meeting at Jerusalem to restore unity (Act 15:1-30). Even at that Paul still had to rebuke Apostle Peter for discriminating against the Gentiles (Gal 2:11-16) because of Jewish traditional perception of the Gentiles. In Nigeria, we have had situations where congregations have been divided into various factions and some of the factions moved out to establish their own congregations, because of issues that bother on tradition and or unnecessary legalism in worship.

4.3 Hindrance to the Growth of the church– Where some congregations, for example, refuse to cooperate in the sponsorship of evangelism in the media for reasons of legalism, the outreach to unbelievers may be limited and this could affect the conversion of souls and the growth of the church. How many congregations can singularly sponsor radio/television evangelism? Even a few that are able, are not financially strong enough to use media that are expensive but more effective in terms of outreach.

4.4 Bringing the name of the Church to disrepute – I have witnessed a situation where the conflict caused by dispute on the time of observance of the Lord’s supper reached a point where fists were freely exchanged and the actors had to be brought to a police station where a DPO had to admonish those church leaders on how to maintain peace! This could create doubt in the minds of the unbelievers on the authenticity of the one true Church and hinder their acceptance of the gospel.

4.5 Hinders efficiency and effectiveness in activities – The fear of “unscriptural” due to undue resort to legalism sometimes affect the way in which things could be done effectively. Outright condemnation of an activity, because it will amount to imitating a denomination, even where it does not conflict with the scripture, may hinder harnessing the good part of such act.

  1. Conclusion.

We had earlier noted that tradition may be good and may also be bad. A tradition becomes bad when it contradicts the scriptures and or make the commandment of God to be of no effect.  It is important to identify in the early stage a tradition that is bad and deal with, to prevent it from developing to a point that can affect the observance of acceptable worship unto God; a worship that is done in spirit and in truth. Christians, applying the knowledge of Church history, are being advised in this class, to learn how not to become traditional to the point of losing Christ to legalistic rituals. May God help us to avoid adopting a tradition or legalism that is bad in our followership and fellowship with Jesus Christ our Lord.


  2. Dickson Teacher’s Bible, ©1982

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