You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.

In studying Mark 7:1-23 last week I was reminded of the elusive nature of self righteousness. I am working through Mark while reading a study written by Tim Keller. I have quoted a few sentences from it below.

In this passage the religious leaders charge that Jesus’ followers had defiled themselves by not holding to their religious traditions. In other words, the religious leaders had developed a ‘fence’ of strict rules that moved beyond the Bible in order to guard themselves from breaking the broader principles of Biblical law. Their reasoning was simple, “if you are truly devoted to God and committed to holiness, you will be eager to go the extra mile to be absolutely sure you have not been defiled.”

Jesus refused to have his followers bound by such legalistic extra-biblical traditions.

While the extra rules might, at first, seem to protect the people and honor God’s law, in the end it undercuts the point of the law. Specific rules provide the opportunity to ‘fully comply’ to the law externally without dealing with the real issue of sinfulness.

“By creating a hundred minor procedures, it becomes possible to feel that you have fully complied and to feel righteous in doing so…(plus) all the emphasis shifts to outward conformity and external behaviors.”

I fear that many people in the church today live their lives in the bondage of religious tradition and external conformity to sub-cultural norms. Often we knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate this mentality as pastors. We need to be careful not to destroy our gospel witness.

It is quite possible that by adding to Biblical mandates that we “concentrate on lots of specific rituals” and distract from seeing the depth of our sin and the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. One possible implication is that many church goers look to their ‘religious activity’ or ‘moral uprightness’ instead of Christ for their closeness to God.

I would even go as far as to argue that keeping ‘religious rules’ does not develop wisdom, character, and virtue but a subtle legalism that is ‘anti-gospel.’ When we set up religious rules that move beyond what the Bible teaches, those rules become an end in themselves. Then we can simply prove to others that we are good and moral, which “strangles us and those around us.” We need to use wisdom in our leadership not control. Remember the words of our Lord Jesus;

There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.

Read the passage here.

One thought on “Jesus and Religious Legalism – A Call for Pastoral Wisdom

  1. Matt, I think you raise a very excellent point, and a point that needs to be continually addressed. I have personally seen legalism (as well as extreme progressiveness mixed in) split a church into several pieces, and left the rest to fend for their own. I’ve also seen it hamper evangelical efforts as well, as it has been personal experience that those who are not Christian do not really take well to religious legalism. It is a point that every pastor or minister needs to address in their church.

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