It is right and according to the word of God to call for a restoration of the authority of the Bible in matters of faith. However, some who make such a plea often make a fatal mistake. While viewing the Scriptures as a catechism of doctrine by which to call for a restoration of the faith of the “old paths,” they assume that the identity of faith is based on their ability to ascertain and implement “sound doctrine” in all matters of opinion as to how we must implement our faith. In doing this, we often fall victim to the same hermeneutic that identified the Jews’ religion of the Pharisees (Gl 1:13). Not only is the law binding, but also the numerous traditions we might attach to the law in order to implement the law.
During His earthly confrontation with the leaders of the Jews’ religion, Jesus pointed out that His problem was not with the Sinai law, but with the added traditions that the religious leaders used to surround the law itself (See Mt 15:1-9; Mk 7:1-9). There is indeed nothing wrong with having interpretations of the law, but when the interpretations become the heritage of the believers by which the law must be interpreted and implemented, then we have a problem.
In our efforts to contend for the law of our faith, we must be careful. The zealous student often seeks for authorities outside the law in order to confirm his interpretations of the law. In doing this, he often believes that his assertions are authoritative because of the footnotes of his writings. The more bibliography he stacks at the end of his book, the more authority he assumes that his writings must have in the field of theology. His footnotes, therefore, are used to substantiate his interpretations as truth. When footnoted interpretations become the norm of biblical studies, then a problem invariable develops. That problem is that footnoted interpretations become a part of the catechism by which the doctrine of a particular religious group is defined. This was the road down which the Jews theologically traveled. When they came to Jesus on the day of the Mark 7 confrontation, they met the author of the Sinai law itself. His pronouncement was penetrating: “All too well you [religious leaders] reject the commandment of God [the Sinai law] so that you may keep your own tradition” (Mk 7:9).
The religious leaders of Israel had allowed the centuries of codified interpretations and opinions of their heritage to become “case law.” By the time Jesus arrived, they could not distinguish between the Sinai law and their law. And subsequently, Paul referred to their religion that was founded on the law, plus their case law, as the Jews’ religion (Gl 1:13). They had finalized their apostasy. Their doctrinal purity was obedience to the Sinai law, plus all the other restrictions of law to which the adherents must also be obedient.
Some of those who are sincere in their efforts to restore the authority of the word of God in matters of faith often fail to see the danger that brought the Jews into bondage when Jesus came with a message of freedom. His message was not a freedom message unless they were already in bondage. Paul reminded the Galatians: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gl 5:1).
Now consider for a moment. The preceding statement is a matter of historical significance in reference to the Jews’ problem with theology and obedience. In reference to justification before God, Jesus’ message would have no freedom if the people to whom He came were not in “bondage.” They had “entangled” themselves in a quagmire of theology by which they believed that obedience to such would deliver them justified before God. This was the same quagmire of theology that Jesus confronted in Mark 7:1-9.
The mistake that the religious leaders made by the time of the coming of Jesus was that they were preaching Sinai law plus all their interpretations and applications. Their counterparts today, for example, would be those who obey the law, “This do in remembrance of Me,” plus certain catechisms by which the law of the Lord’s Supper must be carried out. Should the Supper be served before the ceremonial sermon, or after? Should men, but not women serve? Women can serve from left to right, but not front to back. And then we need not go into all the confusion concerning what constitutes “fruit of the vine” and the “bread.”
What complicates the issue is when “Jewish authorities” are footnoted in one’s argument as to how the Supper is to be served. But more important than the authorities one may footnote in his defense, there is the heritage of the particular religious group that has “performed” the Supper a certain way throughout their history. Their heritage, therefore, has become law that must be obeyed in order to comply with the mandate, “This do in remembrance of Me.” The problem with theological heritage keepers is that they are quick to judge those of a different heritage law, but cannot see that they are guilty of the same.
We are urged to carry the apostasy of heritage keepers into the realm of sectarianism, something about which legal-driven sects are almost always unaware. For example, it is true that names of “churches” promote sectarianism. While some say they do not, they fail to recognize that even names within a family of religious groups are always used to identify one group of sheep to be separate from another group. The group that meets on North Main is identified with a name that separates itself from the group that meets on South Main. The identity of each group by a particular name is sectarianism. The sheep inadvertently separate themselves into groups by being categorized under their favorite names.
Some with a sectarian spirit will go so far as to select a particular name from the Scriptures, and subsequently, affirm that their selection is “biblical.” However, another group will do the same, but will select a different “scriptural” name. They too will affirm that their selection is correct. Both groups will maintain their separation from one another that is simply based on different names. In doing this, they encouraged sectarianism. They encourage the division of Christians by encouraging different groups to assemble under different favorite names. When the favorite names become the heritage of each particular group, then the division is permanent.
Both groups have failed to understand that the Holy Spirit never intended to name the disciples, other than the reference to Christians only (At 11:26; 26:28; 1 Pt 4:16). And when the Holy Spirit used the reference “Christian” in the two notations in Acts it was probably used derogatorily. Nevertheless, the Spirit used the derogatory use of the name to identify disciples in the early 60s to whom Peter wrote.
We must keep in mind that the Spirit knew that names which are applied to the groups of different Christians would promote sectarianism. For this reason, we assume that the Spirit refrained from using any particular reference to the disciples as a unique mark of identity. If there are those who feel uncomfortable with this, then they have identified themselves to be sectarian. And when the name has become the identity of the heritage of a particular group of disciples, then the apostasy of heritage authority has captivated a particular group of disciples who seek to remain separate from everyone else.
But it is more than a name when we are referring to apostasy. As time carries on, every religious group begins to cluster under their favorite name and assortment of religious traditions that have now become the identity of their heritage. We would identify sectarian traditions as religious rites or rituals, customs or codes, that lie outside the word of God. When, as the Jews, we be begin to identify and footnote the particular marks of our identity, then the apostasy from simple Christianity that we read about in the New Testament becomes very blurred. We begin interpreting what we read in the New Testament through the glasses our own religious prejudices.
Throughout a few generations, the traditions that identify a particular sect become the heritage of their faith. Religionists are proud of their heritage, and in order to be proud, they must be able to specifically identify their heritage in the midst of other heritage groups in the religious community. Their heritage defines who they are, and thus, of necessity they must assign a unique name to their heritage lest others become confused as to which group they belong. At this state of an apostasy, the authority of the Scriptures fades away. Bible study no longer defines the group that originally set a course for defining who they are by a call for the authority of the Scriptures in all matters of faith. And thus, heritage has become the final authority of the faith of the adherents. The Jews have progressed to the point where they were when Jesus came to them. They rejected the commandment of God in order to maintain their heritage (Mk 7:9).
We recently heard one brother of a particular sect say about another brother of the same sect, “I guess he is no longer with us.” What the judge was saying was that the one on whom he had cast judgment was not longer of their heritage. Being “with us” meant that one must conform to the legal status of the sect that is now based on heritage more than gospel. “With us” meant with our sect. And to be of one’s particular sect, he or she must walk according to the traditions that identify the particular sect.
As a side note, the brother who “was no longer with us” was preaching the gospel, but outside the particular heritage of the group he had supposedly left. The judge meant that it was not “according to the law” that one should step outside the fellowship of the “heritage group” in order to preach the gospel to another group. Paul’s custom of preaching in the synagogues of the Jews would be wrong according to the judge (See At 17:1,2). Aquilia and Priscilla in the Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath would be Christians some would pronounce to be “no longer with us” (At 18:24-28).
We give this example of the Jewish apostasy to illustrate what happened with the religious leaders of Israel, which thing is also happening today. What the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were doing was grievous. It was so grievous that Jesus used the word “woe” in His condemnation of what His contemporary religious leaders were doing. Jesus said of the sectarian Jewish leadership,
“But woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men, for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (Mt 23:13).
When judgments are made in reference to conforming to heritage, then we know that apostasy has taken away those who, generations before, did not set their course to establish another religious sect. Therefore, the leading fathers of any restoration must be careful not to establish a legal-oriented foundation upon which apostasy can arise.
Our constitutional mandate is laid out clearing in the books of Romans and Galatians. In extracting legalistic Jews from the Jews’ religion, the Holy Spirit establish the gospel of freedom as the foundation upon which we must base our faith. Our call, therefore, must always be for a gospel restoration movement, as opposed to a legal restoration. Efforts to legalize grace will always create sects. Legalizing grace establishes those principles (“laws”) upon which a system of theology is produced that leads to sectarianism.
[Next in series: Dec 22]