“The Commandments of Men”Categories: Iron sharpens iron
...our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. (2 Peter 3.15-17)
After 2,000 years, we should not be surprised that there are many divisions, factions, sects, or denominations all claiming to be “the Church.” Most of these arose as a result of doctrinal disagreements. Either a teaching was not well-formed or articulated, leading to confusion and conflict, or (more often) someone did what Peter was warning against in the passage above—came up with his own idea, presented it as the truth backed by a mishandling of the Scriptures, and thus led others astray.
The New Testament is full of warnings this sort of thing would happen. In addition to the passage in 2 Peter 3 quoted above, Paul spends the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians addressing just such a problem springing up already in the church at Corinth. He also predicts a departure from the faith in 1 Timothy 4, and warns against wolves in sheep’s clothing in Acts 20, as did Jesus himself in Matthew 7. 2 Peter 2 predicts that false prophets will preach heresies, and Jude points out that it’s already happening toward the late 1st century.
After that, a stroll through later church history scares up a long list of terms for such divisions in the church: Valentinianism, dualism, adoptionism, doceticism, trinitarianism, antinomianism, Montanism, Arianism, Marcionism, Arminianism, Pelagianism, catholicism, Calvinism, protestantism, and many, many more. Half of these have names that roughly describe the doctrine in question (in Greek or Latin), but the other half are tied instead to an individual’s name. Paul warned us about this:
For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. (1 Corinthians 3.4-5)
Today, when Christians study, ponder, and discuss spiritual matters—as well they should!—they’ll often reach a conclusion, or at least entertain a notion, tied to one of these -isms debated and bickered over in centuries past. Often, someone with a smug disposition will see the connection and assign the idea its accepted label: “oh, that’s Arianism.” This is usually intended to stop the discussion, on the grounds that this heresy was debunked long ago, and is now off limits. Most of the time it is, in fact, a false doctrine; but shouldn’t we address the substance of the argument, demonstrating from the Scriptures why it is false? And if we can’t do that, do we have any business dismissing it on the basis of its name?
On the other side, and even more alarming is that so many people are quite happy to label themselves by such terms—a Baptist, a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, a Presbyterian, a Methodist, a Pentecostal, an Anabaptist, and so on. Sure this is a convenient way to categorize the ridiculous variety of beliefs, doctrines, and practices; but isn’t it also a tacit admission to following the teachings of someone other than Christ?
Why do people do this? And why is there so much more variety in the western world, than anywhere else? The situation is quite similar to what Paul found at Athens: “the city was full of idols” (Ac 17.16). In his speech, he generously calls the people of Athens “very religious” (v22), but the reason behind that characterization is that the city was a melting pot of cultures and ideas, and as each new religious idea entered the scene, it found a handful of people with whom it resonated, and so in the absence of real problems, or anything of tangible value to do, the people of this washed-up, has-been, decaying former military, economic, and cultural superpower reveled in their open-mindedness. As Luke tells us, “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Ac 17.21). Over the centuries, our society has followed Athens’ example, and has gutted the radical teachings of Christ, then parceled them out according to philosophical preference. There is little regard for truth or authority, and much for subjective feeling and novelty.
It all comes down to the rebuke Jesus gave to the Pharisees—one of the competing philosophical factions at the time:
“Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Mark 7.6-7)
Let the labels fall where they may; and “Let God be true though every one were a liar” (Ro 3.3). The true Christian isn’t too concerned with the teachings of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jacobus Arminius, or Alexander Campbell. These men all said good and true things, as well as bad and false things. They were fallible men (some more fallible than others). Do you know who’s not fallible? Jesus. As the voice from heaven told Peter, James, and John: “listen to him” (Mt 17.5). Let us be followers of Christ.