Adventures in Missing the Point
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:8)
I’m not sure that we understand just how much of a radical religious revolutionary Jesus was. He constantly challenged the motto of the religious legalists both then and now, who hold tightly to the “We’ve never done it that way before.” theology often so prevalent in religious circles.
Christ also assaulted the sacred cow of the teaching of the elders. These elders were well-known theologians, who since the fifth century before the birth of Jesus, had played a powerful role in shaping the beliefs and practices of religious Jews. Their interpretations and understanding of scripture were accepted without question among the majority of religious leaders in Jesus’s day.
I see a dangerous parallel between the influence of these elders on Jewish religious teachers and many pastors and teachers in the church today. Let me explain.
The Protestant Reformation, which most people date to Wittenberg, Germany, and Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed to the door of the Castle Church, has shaped the theology and teaching of the church for several centuries. It has certainly shaped my beliefs and teaching.
But here’s the problem of which, in the last decade or so, I’ve become painfully aware — an almost unquestioning acceptance of the biblical interpretation of the reformers and those distinguished preachers who followed them. Men like Charles Spurgeon, Martin Bucer, John Calvin, and many others, who hold tightly to Reformation theology.
Don’t misunderstand me; these are brilliant theologians and teachers of the Bible. But the problem is, however gifted and insightful they were, their sermons, commentaries, and teachings are NOT the Bible. But I fear that all too often, we, as pastors and teachers, have placed the teachings of these men on a level equal to that of scripture. Personally, I don’t believe this is done consciously, but it is done nevertheless.
The problem with this is that it reverses what should be the sacred responsibility of those who teach the Bible. Instead of the scriptures being the lens through which we view the teaching of others — however gifted and influential they have been — we view the scriptures through the lens of the theologies developed and systematized by mere men.
As a result, much of our Bible teaching becomes a recitation of the doctrines or teaching, if you will, of men. Good men, godly men, but men. This is what Jesus accused the teachers in his day of doing — “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
Some pastor friends of mine point to the fact that much of what the Reformers taught goes back to the early centuries of the church to men like Augustine, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and others. This is true. But these are still the interpretations of men.
I’ve said it before, and I will continue to repeat it over and over again — I think today’s church is too obsessed with right doctrine. And this obsession is obvious in the splintered, fractured divisions and animosity among far too many Christians. It’s also seen, in my opinion, in the dropout rate so prevalent in today’s churches.
What made the teaching and ministry of Jesus so powerful was not his recitation of the teaching of the elders. It was his ability to explain God’s kingdom in ways that people readily understood: flowers and mustard seeds, leaven and light, pearls and pigs, foolish and wise virgins. The prominent religious teachers of the day looked down on this simple rabbi from Galilee. Jesus, on the other hand, accused them of straining out gnats while swallowing camels.
But it was the people, the ignorant, uneducated masses, who the leaders saw as beneath them, that listened to the teachings of Christ, saying, “He doesn’t teach like our scribes, his teaching comes to us with the real ring of authority and truth.”
I am grateful for the centuries of Christian teaching that have been passed down through the church. As a protestant, I am especially, though not exclusively, grateful for the courage and willingness of the reformers to break with teachings that were not, in their view, in line with the Bible. And I believe with every fiber of my being that we desperately need men and women pastors, leaders, and teachers today who are willing to break the mold that we are so often forced to fit into and faithfully teach God’s life-changing Word to a generation that desperately needs to drink new wine from new wineskins.