“But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.” — Matt. 15:9 KJV
What did Jesus mean when he rebuked the Pharisees with these words? More importantly, what do these words mean to us?
Consider two cities, Metropolis and Gotham City, each with two churches of Christ. In Metropolis, one congregation has changed its name from “Northside church of Christ” to “Northside Church.” The Southside church of Christ has withdrawn fellowship from Northside, arguing that dropping “of Christ” is a denial of Jesus and that Northside is catering to the community church movement for base reasons. Indeed, Southside says Northside is teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
In Gotham City, the Westside church of Christ believes women may attend the assembly without wearing a hat or other head covering. However, Eastside church of Christ insists on head coverings, and so withdraws fellowship from Westside, insisting that they are teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.
Both congregations are using Matthew 15:9 incorrectly. The context makes this conclusion clear.
The passage begins with an accusation by the Pharisees aimed at Jesus.
“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” (Matt. 15:2 NIV)
Jesus first responded in vv. 3-6 by pointing out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. He then capped his argument in vv. 8-9 by quoting Isaiah—
“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.”
The topic at hand was not worship, as we tend to think of worship. Rather, the Pharisees insisted that the Jews wash their hands before eating, and Jesus’ disciples didn’t follow this practice. Make no mistake: the teaching of the Pharisees was entirely sensible and even healthy. Their mistake was in confusing the wisdom of man—even sound wisdom—for the command of God. The Pharisees simply didn’t have the authority to make laws binding on others—even wise and prudent laws.
Jesus’ criticism wasn’t just that they had misinterpreted the Law of Moses. Rather, the Pharisees admitted in v. 2 that they were seeking to impose the tradition of the elders, not a command of God. And so Jesus condemned them.
The foremost lesson for us, then, is that we cannot honor God by imposing commands on our brothers and sisters that we know aren’t from God. No matter how wise, prudent, or healthy we may think a teaching is, if it’s not from God, we cannot insist on it as a term of fellowship.
Meanwhile, back in Metropolis, one group of Christians is seeking to impose on a different, autonomous congregation a choice of names. The New Testament offers no command as to what to call a local church. We have numerous examples of nomenclature used by New Testament authors, however, and by far the most common is simply “church.” Of course, the churches of Christ have historically used “church of Christ” as our standard term. But it’s a tradition to use this and only this term. It’s a good tradition, even wise, but it’s not a command of God.
Southside perfectly well knew that the Bible doesn’t require a congregation to post “church of Christ” over its door. Therefore, the Southside church violated Matthew 15:9 when they withdrew fellowship over a tradition of men and, quite ironically, falsely accused the Northside church of violating this very passage.
Over in Gotham City, the case is different. The two congregations disputing over head coverings both consider themselves to be teaching the will of God. In neither case is the congregation’s heart far from God. Eastside’s women intend to honor God’s word by wearing hats to church. Westside believes that insisting on hats hurts their evangelistic efforts in a community where hats are expensive and out of fashion. They believe they have freedom in Christ to show submission to God in culturally appropriate ways and so cannot justify losing souls over headwear. They also believe they are following God’s word.
Now in their discussions with each other, both congregations have used Matthew 15:9 in its argument, but in this situation the verse does nothing to help learn which congregation understands God’s will correctly. Rather, the passage has become a proxy for “I’m right and you’re wrong.” But, of course, both sides wanted to be right before the discussion even began. Rather, the use of the verse only raises the rhetorical temperature. It doesn’t help the other side realize its mistake.
In short, the lesson of Matthew 15:9 is that we must be very, very careful to never insist on a merely human teaching or tradition. Certainly, an eldership at times must decide what name to hang on the building but no eldership has a right impose its preferences—even wise, prudent, and healthy preferences—on another church. Jesus has nothing but condemnation for such audacity and arrogance.
However, where the dispute is an honest disagreement among Christians over how to interpret the Bible, and both sides wish to obey God’s will as they understand it, we would do much better to spend our energies in deeper Bible study, prayer, and humbly listening to those with whom we disagree, rather than thinking we’ll somehow win the argument by raising the temperature of the polemics.
And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth … .
—2 Tim. 2:24-25 (NIV)