Tag Archives: Pharisees

“Hardness of Heart” and Jesus’ Audience, Then and Now (JDR-10)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, which starts with a walk through Matthew 19. Having considered the question Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? I am now considering a “should” question: Did Jesus believe divorce and remarriage are always wrong? Here are my posts so far:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)

“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)

“Moses Allowed You to Divorce” Suggests a Breakable Bond (JDR-8)

Why Did “Hardness of Heart” Cause God to Allow Divorce? (JDR-9)


Summary of this post:  Jesus accused a specific audience of “hardness of heart”: men who believed they had a right to divorce their wives for virtually any reason—something I’ve never heard any Christian teach. Nearly all Jewish men in Jesus’ day believed this; there is no historical evidence the divorce debate between the “liberal” Hillelites and “conservative” Shammaites had yet begun. Further, Jesus was responding to one particular proof text used by these men—Deuteronomy 24:1. It was the abuse of this text that drew Jesus’ ire, not the proper use of other OT divorce laws designed to protect women. Given this context, we are not justified in saying that everyone who seeks divorce has a hard heart.


Whose Hearts Were Hard?

In my last post I began discussing Jesus’ explanation for why God allowed divorce under the law of Moses: “because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). As Israel repeatedly showed hardness of heart, God gave them more laws, including ones about divorce. These laws were both a concession to human weakness and a protection for those with hard-hearted spouses.

In this post I want to be more precise: Whose hearts, specifically, were hard? Whom was Jesus accusing of hardness of heart?

Let me begin answering this question by sharing several bad “translations” of Jesus’ words.

Jesus did not say this: “Because of Israel’s hardness of heart, Moses allowed them to practice divorce.” No, Jesus directed his rebuke directly to the Pharisees in front of him: “Because of your hardness of heart…” Meier notes the force of Jesus’ rebuke:

By claiming that Moses wrote this commandment for “you” (i.e., the Pharisees) to expose “your” hardness of heart, …Jesus implicitly lumps the Pharisees together with the rebellious Israelites of the wilderness generation. The Mosaic Law they presume to cite as experts actually bears witness against them.[1]

Nor did Jesus say this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to practice divorce.” That is more general than Jesus’ words. And he certainly did not say this: “Because of the hardness of your wives’ hearts, Moses allowed you to divorce them.”

Rather, Jesus said this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” In sum, Jesus was addressing his rebuke directly to the persons before him: men who were wrongfully divorcing their wives.[2]

Roberts makes the same point:

The people with hard hearts were those divorcing their wives, which means the callous individuals in question must have been male… Jesus… does not say, “Moses, because of the hardness of their hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives.” Nor does he implicate Israelites in general by saying, “Moses, because of your hardness of heart, permitted those divorces.” As it stands, Jesus’ sentence specifically implicates hardhearted husbands.”[3]

Before we extend Jesus’ rebuke of hardness of heart to everyone considering divorce, we should ask why Jesus accused these husbands of hardness of heart. Why were they divorcing? What did they believe about divorce?

Image from Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing, distributed by FreeBibleimages.

What Did Jesus’ Audience Believe about Divorce?

Jesus’ teachings against divorce were given in a specific historical context. In all four records we have of Jesus teaching on divorce (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18) he was correcting the false teachings of the same group: men who were arguing that God’s law gave them the right to divorce their wives for virtually any reason they might mention.

Most modern writers say that two views on divorce were debated by Jews in Jesus’ day—the view of Rabbi Hillel, a “liberal” who said Deuteronomy 24 gives grounds for “any-cause” divorce (cf. Matt. 19:3) and the view of Rabbi Shammai, a “conservative” who said Deuteronomy permits divorce only on the grounds of adultery.[4] Wenham clarifies that “on the issue of divorce, it was the Hillelites who were upholding tradition, and the Shammaites who were challenging it.” In fact, “to limit the husband’s right to divorce whenever he chose and for any reason was for most Jews a shocking limitation on male freedom.”[5]

Wenham’s clarification is crucial but may not go far enough. It’s possible that the debate between the Hillelites and the Shammaites had not even yet begun in Jesus’ day. Luck observes that “Josephus does not mention the distinction [between Hillel and Shammai], merely stating the position of Hillel as if it were the only position in vogue.”[6] Meier surveys Jewish intertestamental writings on divorce at length and concludes that “the mainline tradition begun in the OT and witnessed in Philo, Josephus, and the School of Hillel” allowed divorce for “practically any reason.”[7] The only known possible exception (besides Jesus) is the Essenes, a mystic Jewish sect, but this is disputed; Meier concludes that “their position on divorce remains a question mark.”[8]

Given this evidence, some of the best-informed scholars warn against assuming Jesus was responding to the Hillel – Shammai divorce debate. Here, for example, is Meier (see footnote for more):

Nowhere in pre-70 Judaism is there any clear attestation of a detailed discussion or debate on which grounds for divorce are deemed sufficient. Therefore, despite the almost universal tendency on the part of NT exegetes to explain Jesus’ prohibition of divorce against the “background” of the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this tendency may actually be a prime example of the anachronistic use of later texts to explain earlier ones. That is, a text written down for the first time at the beginning of the 3d century A.D. (the Mishna) is called upon to elucidate a teaching of Jesus reaching back to the early part of the 1st century A.D.[9]

What does this all mean for our question about Jesus’ original audience? When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for hardness of heart, he was addressing the sort of man who thought he had a right to divorce a wife if she had burned his supper or even simply if he wanted to replace her with a more beautiful one.

The Abuse of Deuteronomy 24:1 as a Proof Text

Further, in at least three of the four passages where Jesus teaches on divorce,[10] he was directly responding to a badly-distorted interpretation of one particular proof text that men were using to justify their divorces—Deuteronomy 24:1, the only text in the law of Moses to mention a “certificate of divorce.” This is evident, for example, in Matthew 5:31, where Jesus quotes a misinterpretation of that passage: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.”

The same is true in Matthew 19 and in the parallel account in Mark 10. When Jesus said, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (Matt. 19:8), he was referring most directly to Deuteronomy 24:1, the text just cited by the Pharisees (“Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” Matt. 19:7).

If Jesus meant to comment also on OT laws that directly commanded divorce (Ex. 21:10-11 and Deut. 21:14), then his statement makes best sense as an explanation of why these laws were necessary: Abused wives needed release from hardhearted husbands. Significantly, we have no record of Jesus rebuking wives who asked for divorce certificates to escape abusive or criminally negligent husbands.

In short, it was the abuse of Deuteronomy as a proof text justifying any-cause divorce that drew Jesus’ ire, not the proper use of other OT divorce laws designed to protect women.

Context is King!
Context is king! (Image by svklimkin from Pixabay.)

Applying Jesus’ Warning about “Hardness of Heart” Today

These observations about Jesus’ original audience are rarely considered, but are crucial. If we don’t recognize the original target of Jesus’ warning about hard hearts, then we are likely to misapply his words today.

When Jesus spoke against divorce, he was most certainly not speaking to, say, wives or husbands who were wondering what they should do after their spouses had abused or abandoned them. Nor was he speaking to Mennonites who were arguing over whether only separation is permitted or if sometimes divorce (but never remarriage) might also be okay. He was not speaking even to evangelical scholars who were teaching that there are two clear biblical grounds for both divorce and remarriage (adultery and abandonment)—or perhaps three (adding abuse).

No, every time Jesus rebuked divorce, he was responding to people promoting a teaching that is so egregious that I have never heard it argued today from any Christian leader—not even from those who argue that divorce is okay at will upon mutual consent. Jesus was rebuking the idea that a man has a God-given, biblical right to divorce his wife for anything at all that he might find unsatisfactory about her; all that really matters is that he goes through the correct legal hoops to provide a valid “certificate of divorce.”

Can you imagine any Christian leader making that argument today? No wonder Jesus spoke so harshly! And no wonder we, in very different circumstances, are often confused when we read his words without considering their original context.

What might Jesus say if he spoke directly to conservative Anabaptists today—particularly, say, to those hurting from adulterous or abusive spouses? Yes, I am certain he would still direct us to God’s creation intent for marriage, a beautiful and timeless standard of loving permanence. But I am also certain he would word his message very differently, meeting the very different needs of a very different audience.[11] Is it even possible, perhaps, that Jesus would have some words of warning for those who take his rebuke of hardhearted husbands in the Gospels and use them to judge victims of marital betrayal today, denying them release from abusive marriages?

We must be very careful not to go beyond Jesus’ words, making him say things he never said. For example, consider the following statement from a Rod and Staff tract:

Jesus said, “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.” All who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.[12]

Really? Does every person who seeks divorce have a hard, unbelieving heart? What about a wife who is seeking divorce to protect her children from an abusive father and husband? What about God in the OT, who divorced his “wife” Israel for her adulterous idolatry (Jer. 3:1, 8)? No, it is not true that “all who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.”

The cover of the Rod and Staff tract that says “all who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.”

Looking Ahead: Jesus’ Words and the New Covenant

But didn’t Jesus inaugurate a new covenant standard of marriage permanence that left no room for either hard hearts or separation of marriages? Coblentz expressed this view eloquently:

Divorce was never sanctioned, but under the Old Covenant God permitted it because of the hard hearts of the people of Israel. God permitted it in anticipation of the New Testament era in which He would require a higher standard of righteousness through the grace and light of His Son… Under the New Covenant, hardhearted husbands and wives can be given new hearts by the transforming power of the Spirit. Jesus the heart-changer has come, and God’s standards for marriage can be restored to His intention “from the beginning.” …In the age of the Spirit, therefore, God commands, “Let not man put asunder.”[13]

There is much to commend in Coblentz’s words, but they may also leave us with some questions. Moses allowed divorce, but “from the beginning it was not so,” Jesus said. What did Jesus mean by this? Was he intending to revoke everything Moses had written permitting divorce? Was he inaugurating new divorce restrictions under a new covenant? Answering these and similar questions will require at least a couple more posts.

Thank you for reading! Please share your insights or questions in the comments below.


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[1] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. IV, Law and Love (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 177, n. 141.

[2] Yes, Jesus’ words definitely carry implications for women, too. See, for example, Mark’s record of Jesus’ warning to wives: “if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk. 10:12), a text that may reflect a Greco-Roman audience for Mark’s Gospel, where wives had more freedom to divorce. Yet it remains true that when Jesus explained why the Mosaic divorce allowance was given, he specifically rebuked men, not women.

[3] Barbara Roberts, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Maschil Press, 2008), 66.

[4] An accurate description of the views of these two rabbis and their disciples would require several paragraphs correcting common misrepresentations. That is beyond the scope of this post.

[5] Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 44.

[6] “Josephus does not mention the distinction, merely stating the position of Hillel as if it were the only position in vogue.” William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 152.

[7] Meier, ibid., 95.

[8] Meier, ibid., 93.

[9] Full quote from Meier (ibid., 95): “Only when we get to the Mishna do we have, for the first time in Palestinian Judaism, clear documentation of a scholarly dispute over what precisely constitutes sufficient grounds for divorce. As far as datable documents are concerned, this is something startlingly new in Judaism… Nowhere in pre-70 Judaism is there any clear attestation of a detailed discussion or debate on which grounds for divorce are deemed sufficient. Therefore, despite the almost universal tendency on the part of NT exegetes to explain Jesus’ prohibition of divorce against the “background” of the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this tendency may actually be a prime example of the anachronistic use of later texts to explain earlier ones. That is, a text written down for the first time at the beginning of the 3d century A.D. (the Mishna) is called upon to elucidate a teaching of Jesus reaching back to the early part of the 1st century A.D., with written attestation in the 50s by Paul and ca. 70 by Mark. Considering the dearth of any clear attestation of the dispute over the grounds of divorce between the Houses in the pre-70 period, we would do well, at least initially, to explain Jesus’ teaching on divorce solely in light of what is truly prior to and contemporary with the Palestinian Judaism of the early 1st century A.D.”
Similarly, Collins: “Many New Testament scholars capitalize on the disagreement between the school of Shammai and that of Hillel to affirm that the Matthean Jesus sided with the school of Shammai in interpreting Deut 24:1 in a narrow sense, but there is no certainty that the tradition reflected in the Mishnah actually reflects the real halakhic situation before the destruction of the temple… One cannot simply assume that Matthew’s exception clause was formulated within the context of the difference of opinion between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. One cannot, moreover, and without further discussion, simply assume that the tradition in the Mishnah regarding the interpretation of Deut 24:1 reflects the real halakhic situation at the time of Jesus or at the time of the composition of Matthew’s gospel, although this is often presumed to be the case.” Raymond F. Collins, Divorce in the New Testament, Good News Studies, Vol. 38 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 193, 198-99.

[10] Luke 16:18 is unclear. However, given that his teaching in this passage virtually “quotes” his teaching elsewhere, he was probably addressing the same misinterpretation.

[11] Consider how Paul nuanced his message to different audiences in 1 Cor. 7:10-16.

[12] This comes from an anonymous 12-page tract: “Divorce—Is It Lawful?” (Crockett, KY: Rod and Staff, n.d.), 4. Available online: https://www.milestonebooks.com/item/1-3104/

[13] John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 21-23.


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Tradition in the NT (1): Bad Examples

[For the sequel to this post, see “Tradition in the NT (2): Good Examples.”]

“I don’t have much Scripture for this sermon.” The speaker was a visiting minister and his topic was Beachys, culture, and tradition. As I recall, his main question for the evening was this: should Beachy-Amish churches retain their cultural traditions as a way to help pass on the faith to the next generation?

The confession came perhaps 5 minutes into sermon. Unfortunately, it was true. The speaker briefly cited only about three Scripture passages that were vaguely related to his topic. (One, if I recall correctly, was Deuteronomy 6:6-9. More on that later.)

But the confession, however true, didn’t result in any change of behavior. The speaker continued for another 30 or 45 minutes, filling the time mostly with his own rationalizations about the usefulness of retaining traditions as they were. For example, traditions help a congregation run more smoothly and efficiently, so that everyone knows exactly what is supposed to happen. I, being new to Beachys and fresh from a multicultural congregation in New York City, found my mind quickly supplying counter-rationalizations for each of the speaker’s points. For example, unexplained and entrenched traditions might make things run smoothly for those who have always been part of the group, but they can be quite confusing for newcomers. In the absence of relevant Scripture, the sermon became for me a contest of human reasoning.

When I arrived home after the service, it didn’t take me long to fill nearly a page with typed notes about New Testament passages discussing culture and tradition. (Here are my notes, lightly modified after the fact. I’ll discuss some of the same content in my posts here.) The problem, I concluded, was two-fold: On the one hand, the NT passages about tradition and culture didn’t say what the speaker wanted them to say. On the other hand, he also missed a lot of things the Bible does say about passing on the faith to the next generation. In my notes I wrote, “Thesis: The New Testament is not concerned with preserving cultural traditions… However, a topic that is emphasized in the NT is cultural incarnation: giving up our own culture for the gospel’s sake.”


Story two: The scene was a panel discussion at the Anabaptist Identity Conference. Under the mysterious title “The Turtle Wins” (given the previous talk, I expected the discussion to be about the benefits of organic farming!), the main speakers for AIC 2015 spent most of the time discussing Anabaptist traditions and culture. Many of their words circled around a knotty problem: The same church traditions that seem to help groups like the Amish retain cohesion and oncoming generations also seem to be hurdles for seekers who would wish to join. What to do about our traditions? (Here is my friend Arthur Sido’s reflection on the problem as discussed by the panel.)

Questions, stories, and sociological observations all added to an interesting conversation. But near the end—too late for me to submit a question to the panel—I suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember whether any Scripture had been cited. Perhaps I had missed some passing reference, but clearly Scripture wasn’t framing the evening’s discussion. Didn’t Scripture say a few things about this question? Why weren’t we turning there for answers? I hastily prepared a question based on 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, but was only able to raise it after the service with one panel member and a few fellow audience members.


Story three: This time Scripture was clearly present. In fact, the sermon was designed to be an expositional sermon. The text was Matthew 15, and I think it was read in full near the beginning of the sermon. So far, very good.

And there were a lot of other good things in the sermon, too. Yet half way through I started to become uncomfortable, and by the end this is what I felt: Much of the sermon (a quarter? a third?) had not been based on the text at all. In fact, a major concern of the speaker was to say what he thought the text did not say: Despite Jesus’ warnings against the traditions of the elders, not all tradition was bad. In fact, tradition can be very good and important, and we should not be too quick too discard our traditions.

Now, as I have summarized my recollections here, these statements are true. But they were not based at all on the text of the sermon. More importantly, by the end of the sermon I did not feel that we had been made to feel the heavy weight of Jesus’ strong warning. I did not feel we had been asked to take a hard look at our religious traditions to see if any of them are keeping us from obeying the word of God. The speaker had not let Scripture speak clearly into our lives.

(For my own attempt to preach the same account, from the parallel passage in Mark 7, see these sermon notes.)

If I had a better memory I could tell more stories. But these are enough for me to make an observation: conservative Anabaptists don’t always listen to Scripture very well when they think about religious traditions and culture.


 Alternatives to Listening Well to Scripture

What do we often do instead of listening well to Scripture? Here are four approaches I’ve heard:

1. Selectively or inaccurately cite Scripture to support our traditions. Often this involves pulling OT passages out of their literary and covenantal contexts. For example, sometimes Deuteronomy 6:6-9 is cited. True, this passage shows the timeless importance of parents teaching their children. However, much of the content of this teaching is very different under the new covenant than under the old Mosaic covenant. Under the old, parents were to teach their children not only timeless ethics but also divinely-commanded cultural practices such as avoiding unclean foods and marrying only fellow Israelites. Under the new, parents are to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4), something that can happen within many diverse cultural traditions, even multicultural ones. Another OT passage I’ve heard used out of context in this way is Jeremiah 15. (See here for more.) Even more obviously questionable is how Psalm 133:2 has been used to support the wearing of beards. And does Numbers 15 really provide any more basis for us mandating uniform attire as a means of reminding us we are God’s people (Num. 15:37-40) than it does for us mandating the death penalty for those who break the Sabbath (Num. 15:32-36)?

2. Selectively or inaccurately cite history to support our traditions. For example, how many of us have heard something similar to these words from a Mennonite article published in 1957:

It has never been known that a church denomination has maintained simplicity of dress according to Bible standards for any length of time without the church prescribing what that dress shall be. This is simply a fact of history.1

If by “church prescribing what that dress shall be” was meant a church issuing general warnings against worldly clothing practices or even prohibitions of specific clothing styles, then perhaps the statement would be true. But the article was claiming historical evidence for a more rigorous approach: “the best way to help our members to maintain Bible modesty in dress is for the church to prescribe a form.”2 In actual historical fact, however, some streams of the Mennonite church (unlike the Amish) had maintained an emphasis on simplicity of dress for about three and a half centuries without teaching uniform attire. Here is historian Melvin Gingerich’s analysis, from Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries:

Centuries of persecution of their Anabaptist forefathers had convinced the Mennonites that an unfriendly society around them had different standards from their own… To be the salt of the earth required the maintenance of strict standards and high ideals in all areas of life, including the clothes they wore. The people of God were to be a separate people that could be distinguished from those conforming their lives to the standards of secularism. They therefore believed that a Christian should look different from the non-Christian. This conviction was held deeply even by those Mennonites who did not dress uniformly.

When the language barrier [German] was surrendered and geographic isolation was lost [urbanization], a final effort was made to strengthen the third separation device, that of simple dress… This simplicity was to conservative Mennonites the final citadel which must be held at all cost. It is this image and fear which explains in a large part the series of conference regulations of the first four decades of the twentieth century. A uniform costume was pleaded for, demanded, and ruled on by conference action. Detailed descriptions of plain costume were made part of conference regulations, in contrast to a simplicity earlier maintained largely through tradition.3

Gingerich summarizes the practice of “Mennonites in most times and places” like this:

They wished to avoid legalism and thus were reluctant to endorse detailed regulations. By stressing the life of humility and naming the articles of clothing and decorations that they believed violated biblical principles of simplicity, they often became a “plain” people rather than the “gay” people. Living in communities, they came to regard certain items of clothing as conservative without any attempt being made to prescribe by church edict the exact costume or garb that must be worn.4

It is easy to underestimate the challenges that Mennonite conference leaders faced in the early twentieth century. I do not want to hastily condemn them. The clothing culture in society around them (even among Christians) was on a rapid descent into godlessness and sensuality, creating new challenges for church leaders. However, I do want to point out the historical sleight of hand in that 1957 article: A history of simple clothing traditions and warnings against ostentation was re-read as being a history of prescribed uniform attire. But the two are not the same. In fact, they are very different.

Perhaps a better lesson to learn from our vantage point in history is that regulations about uniform attire will not produce the same spiritual fruit as a voluntary “natural” participation in a simple clothing culture. The force of tradition is often more powerful than the force of law, and adopting the latter when the former begins to be questioned is a dubious solution, a stop-gap measure likely to raise societal pressure until a cork blows somewhere. (And are either regulated costumes or cultural norms really Christian means for achieving Christian behavior? Don’t we usually question attempts to Christianize people by either legal codes or behavior modification via culturalization?)

Other examples of selective historical citation could be shared, but must wait for another time.

3. Cite recent Christian authors who discuss culture and tradition. All truth is God’s truth, so we should willingly learn truth no matter where we find it. But sometimes we perceive truth when a careful biblical comparison would reveal that it isn’t actually there. And sometimes we become so preoccupied with searching for truth in extra-biblical places that we forget to mine the Scriptures for wisdom.

Mennonites looking for truth about tradition and culture read a variety of authors. For example, some who want to hang onto conservative Anabaptist church traditions listen to thinkers such as Cory Anderson, who draws on his training in sociology to discuss culture and change in conservative Anabaptist churches. (Anderson has “a Ph.D. in rural sociology” and his research has focused on “the social structure and social change of the plain Anabaptists, with a particular emphasis on the Amish-Mennonites.”) Thus Anderson uses sociological observations to “build… a rational case” (his words) that the head covering should do much more than what is described in 1 Corinthians 11. It should be a distinctive religious symbol (not merely a hair covering) that ties the wearer into a recognized historical religious tradition (Anabaptism), thus preserving a wide range of religious values, not merely the headship truths that Paul presented. (Listen to these talks to hear more. Please tell me if my memory of Anderson’s emphases is incorrect.) Now, I agree, as best as I can understand Scripture, that the headship veiling is for today, and that it should be taught in our churches. But with Anderson’s approach I can’t help wondering: Are we becoming more exciting about sociological methods for culture-building than about obedience to Scripture and the Christ of Scripture?

Others who are less bound to preserving recent Anabaptist traditions might read elsewhere. Those with a similar separatist vision might affirm the Benedict Option recently popularized by Rod Dreher. In this view, Christians should withdraw from an increasingly hostile surrounding culture and transmit a robust Christian subculture across the generations within their own communities, much as monks preserved Christian intellectual and moral life in monastaries through the European Dark Ages. Other readers prefer authors such as Richard Niebuhr (Christ and Culture), Andy Crouch (Culture Making), or James Davidson Hunter (To Change the World).

Please don’t misunderstand me. While I have not read these particular books (just summaries and reflections from other readers), I certainly do affirm the value of reading widely. And while some of these books appear to be based significantly on sociology, philosophy, or other fields of study, some do wrestle earnestly and productively with Scripture. My concern is not that people are reading such books, but that some readers may not be investing equal energy in searching for themselves what Scripture has to say about tradition and culture. Are we as excited about tracing what the apostles thought about Christianity, tradition, and culture as we are about debating the views of thought-shapers such as Francis Schaeffer, Jerry Falwell, Bill Gothard, N.T. Wright, Albert Mohler, Shane Claiborne, Stanley Hauerwas, or Timothy Keller? Who is referenced more in your writing or preaching: Paul or your favorite Christian culture maker/analyst/prophet?

4. Selectively cite Scripture to reject any positive role for tradition. This is a parallel but opposite error to the first I listed. The temptation is huge. There are many examples today of religious traditions hindering people from obeying the word of God. It is easy to spot “Pharisees” in our pulpits and pews—people who demand external conformity to religious traditions but appear unable or unwilling to address matters of the heart. And it is easy to conclude that the word “tradition” is entirely negative, even evil. But mere rejection of tradition is a dead end street. It will not build a church, let alone Christ’s Church. It is only right about what is wrong, but it fails to replace harmful ideas about tradition with a positive NT vision for tradition. It still fails to listen closely to the whole counsel of Scripture about tradition. I’ll stop right now, because I plan to discuss these ideas more in the sequel to this post.

So those are four things we sometimes do instead of listening carefully to Scripture. I’m sure you could add more.


What the NT Says Negatively about Tradition

To finish this post about “bad examples,”  I’d like to do a quick U-turn and summarize what the NT says negatively about tradition. In order to simplify a complex topic, I’m going to zero in on just those NT texts that actually use the word tradition(s) in English translations. I’ll keep this survey short because many of us are already familiar with what I’d like to share. But I’ll include this survey because I’m not sure all of us have felt the full weight of these Scriptural warnings.

The words tradition or traditions are found fourteen times in the ESV Bible. In eleven of those fourteen occurrences, the word is used negatively:

1. Matthew 17 and Mark 7. Perhaps the most important NT account about tradition-gone-bad is Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees about “the tradition of the elders.” The central critique that Jesus launches against the Pharisees in this account is that their traditions were preventing them from obeying the word of God. Loyalty to the Corban tradition, for instance, was preventing them from obeying the command for children to honor their parents.

It is important to remember that the traditions of the elders were not random rules made up out of thin air. Rather, they were originally designed to be clarifications, applications,  or expansions of commands already found in the Law of Moses. But these traditions had taken on a life of their own until it was considered equally essential to obey the “oral law” as the “written law.” And any time we act as if our applications of Scripture are as important as what Scripture itself teaches, we “make void the word of God” (Mark 7:13).

Please note that we can do this without speaking a single word against God’s word. The mere act of treating man’s word as weightily as God’s word is blasphemy against God’s word, a de facto demotion of God to the status of man.

Here are three tests to see whether we have exalted our traditions and applications too highly:

a. Does our application of one of God’s commands hinder us from obeying any other of God’s direct commands? Examples: Does an expectation that all church members give financial support to a church school (application of biblical commands to train our children) hinder us from obeying the command to love our neighbor as ourselves (especially the poor)? Does the practice of having self-supporting ministry (application of command that elders not serve for shameful gain) hinder us from obeying the command that those who preach the gospel must be financially supported, and the command that elders must work hard at caring for the needs of the church? Does a highly programmed service order (application of the command to do all things decently and in order) hinder us from obeying biblical teaching about allowing each person to bring “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26)?

b. Are we more grieved when others disregard our traditions than when we dishonor God’s word? Examples: Which bothers me more—When my brother fails to bow and pray before his meal or when I grumble about the food in front of me? When my brother worships God while playing his guitar or when I daydream about my new vehicle all through the worship service? When a single mother works part-time as a nurse, leaving her children with a babysitter, or when I fail to help support her and her family?

c. Do we find it hard to clearly distinguish between our applications and God’s direct commands? Examples: Which of the following are applications, and which direct Scriptural commands? Converts must complete instruction class before being baptized. We must not drink alcohol. We must not smoke. We must not vote. We must not own TVs. Weddings must be held in churches, with an ordained minister leading. Women must not wear pants. Men must not wear skirts. Answer: They are all applications (or, perhaps for one or two, deduced implications).

(For extended reflection on this account, see my sermon notes for Mark 7.)

2. Galatians 1:14. This is Paul’s testimony of being a good Pharisee: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” Paul is referring here to the same traditions critiqued by Jesus in Matthew 15. There these traditions were shown to be contrary to the word of God. Here they are shown to be contrary to the church of God (Gal. 1:13), the grace of God (Gal. 1:15), and the Son of God (Gal. 1:16). Those who are most zealous for religious traditions may also be those who preach another gospel and oppress the church.

3. Colossians 2:8. Here Paul issues a warning: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Context and Greek vocabulary both suggest that “human tradition” here could perhaps be another reference to the traditions of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, but that is debated among scholars. Later in the same section of Colossians Paul gets more specific:

…Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath...  Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind…

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (From Col. 2:16-23.)

In this passage we can see at least two problems with human religious traditions. First, they don’t do anything to stop us from sinning. Second, and most important, they detract from the sufficiency of Christ. Paul presents a clear contrast: You can walk in the human traditions you may have received, or “as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6). Notice that “received” is the language of tradition, of something being passed on from leaders to followers. Only one tradition can save those who receive it—the tradition of Jesus as Christ and Lord.

The above passages (Matt. 15, Mark 7, Gal. 1, Col. 2) account for all eleven times that the word tradition(s) is used negatively in the ESV Bible. In all but one of those cases the underlying Greek word is παράδοσις (paradosis), a word referring to a teaching or tradition that is handed over. In the other case (Mark 7:4) tradition helps translate a phrase that refers to receiving and keeping something handed down.

The KJV and NKJV use tradition in one more passage:

…You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. (1 Pet. 1:18-19, NKJV)

Here the phrase refers to a way of life inherited from one’s ancestors. Commentator Karen H. Jobes explains:

The πατροπαραδότος (patroparadotos, ancestral way of life) was esteemed and venerated as the basis of a stable society in both Greek and Jewish culture. First Peter is probably the first Christian writing to use the word in a negative sense for one’s way of life before coming to Christ… The ancestral way of life, though appearing to offer a venerable reality, is precisely that from which one has been redeemed when given new birth into the only true reality established by the resurrection of Christ.5

A central theme of this passage is Peter’s urgent call to holy living. How is holy living to be achieved? Not through the “futile ways inherited from your forefathers” (ESV), Peter writes, but through Christ. In context, then, these futile traditions include anything that detracts from Christ—an emphasis similar to Colossians 2. Christ has redeemed us from the futility of trying to achieve holiness through adherence to human traditions. Praises to our Savior!

These passages make it clear that tradition is usually used in a negative sense in the NT. The evidence is overwhelming: Again and again we see tradition is opposed to the word of God, to grace, to the church, to our own holiness and salvation, and to Christ.

Is there really any room left for a positive vision for tradition? Well, we still have three instances of tradition to account for in the ESV NT. God willing, I’ll use them in a forthcoming post as the launching pad to talk about “good examples” of tradition. Listening well to the Scriptures demands that we hear the whole biblical story and not just that aspect of tradition (pro or con) that fits most comfortably with our personal stories.


It’s your turn. Have you experienced similar examples of how we listen poorly to what Scripture says about tradition? What authorities do you hear us relying on when we turn from Scripture to other voices? How would you summarize the Bible’s critique of tradition-gone-bad? Share your insights in the comments below.

  1. Pastoral Messenger (Scottdale, Pa.), July 1957, pp. 7-8. Article signed by J.P.G. (J. Paul Graybill). Emphasis added. Cited by Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries (Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970; dist. by Herald Press), p. 102.
  2. Ibid.. Emphasis added.
  3. Gingerich, Mennonite Attire, 148.
  4. Ibid., 157. Emphasis added.
  5. Karen H. Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 118.

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