But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. – Matthew 15:9, KJV
What are the ‘Commandments of Men‘ and why did Jesus come against this topic multiple times? Are we becoming dogmatic in our congregations and not pursuing the Commandments of God adequately, through Faith, or is this just good fodder for the Liberalism vs. Legalism debate?
I will explore this topic, with some authority in my background, coming from a more ‘legalistic’ sided faith structure, and ask the question that is overlooked at times during the argument…what exactly were the Commandments of Men?
What are Commandments of Men?
Matthew 15, and its companion gospel Mark 7 are the foreshadowing messages against New Testament legalism which was resolved once and for all by the Apostles and Church Fathers in Acts 15. The King James Version of the Bible titles Matthew 15:1-9 and Mark 7:1-13 as ‘Traditions and Commandments’, but what follows afterwards allows us to get a clearer picture of the fruit of this message. For brevity I’ll not place all the scriptures here, but Matthew 15:10-20 and Mark 7:14-23 is entitled ‘What defiles a person‘.
Having a clear understanding that the Jewish people lived by the Law of Moses (Torah) is vital to this topic. The Jewish way of living is centered around ritualistic cleansing and strict adherence to the Law. Just go and try to read the book of Leviticus! However, Christ came to fulfill the ceremonial and legal demands of the law. Not to do away with purity, righteousness, or holiness, but to write his commandments on the flesh of our hearts, (Hebrews 10:16) that we would pursue purity and holiness from a desire to please Him.
Wherefore if ye be dead with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not; taste not; handle not; Which all are to perish with the using;) after the commandments and doctrines of men? – Colossians 2:20-22, KJV
According to Strong’s Dictionary, the word ordinances here is from the Greek dogmatizō [δογματίζω] which means “to prescribe by statute, that is, (reflexively) to submit to ceremonial rule: – be subject to ordinances.”. This of course is the root for our modern dogma, which means “
So what then are these commandments of men, or docrtines?
Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do. And he said unto them, Full well ye reject the commandment of God, that ye may keep your own tradition. – Mark 7:7-9, KJV
These commandments of men appear to be outward, ceremonial or ritualistic methods of ‘appearing’ holy before God, yet it does not take into account the ‘heart’.
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception [pseudo-intellectual babble], according to the tradition [and musings] of mere men, following the elementary principles of this world, rather than following [the truth—the teachings of] Christ. – Colossians 2:8, AMP
The Bible teaches that you must guard against becoming captive to these teachings as they will keep you from following the truth of Christ’ teaching. In Christ’ teaching, he was fighting the Law and those Pharisees/Sadducees that were hypocritical before men, professing to be holy, yet their hearts rejected Christ, the Messiah. Christ’ message was salvation (justification) by Grace, through Faith in Him alone, not by works of mans hands.
Practical Modern Day Commandments
This is based off my own personal experience, but let me share some commandments that I was taught as being required to ‘make it’. We were ever in fear (at least I was due to the rampant teaching of these doctrines) of losing our salvation by crossing some of these lines. This by no means is a universal or extensive list, and some may make practical sense, but they crossed the lines as being taught as doctrine.
- No Short Sleeve Shirts/Blouses, sleeve length was moderated to be past the elbow or further to maintain ‘holiness’ before God.
- Women are only to wear dresses/skirts, no pants or leggings (anything that splits the leg) and they had to go past the knee, no side slits, to maintain ‘holiness’ before God (Men wore pants, no shorts for men or women) See my article on Men & Womens Apparel.
- Men are not to wear facial hair as it is proud and haughty, sideburns shouldn’t go past the ear
- Men are to have short hair (not touching the ears) and no facial hair, ideally most men wear the same simple style of hair cut to veer from a ‘proud and haughty’ look
- Women cannot cut their hair and must be worn ‘up’ most of the time, as long/flowing hair is attractive to men and thus they would be attracting bad attention. This is to maintain ‘holiness’ before God. (I Corinthians 11)
- No TV allowed in the home or visiting movie theaters. Hollywood is strictly prohibited as being vastly evil (and perhaps some of it is!)
- Women are not allowed to use makeup and neither sex can color/dye their hair. Since the Bible references harlots painting their face, only harlots used makeup apparently, and coloring of ones hair is proud, haughty, draws undue attention and takes away from glorifying God as he created you just as you are.
- Men and women are allowed to utilize no form of jewelry, such as rings, necklaces, bracelets, ear rings, any body piercing, etc.
This is a very short list of the commandments of men I am familiar with, but it paints the picture of how the heart is taken out of Christianity and rather, faith is legislated. Now those who are among these rule sets (even I did this) will defend them as ‘practical ideas’ for pleasing God. When the Bible says ‘Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” – Hebrews 12:14, they declare holiness as obeying strict dress/conduct rules as listed above. With short sleeve shirts, you will not see the Lord. With colored hair, you will not see the Lord.
Why does Jesus call this ‘vain’ worship?
First and foremost, it reverts to legalism. God’s entire purpose through Calvary and the Cross was to bring humanity back into a faith relationship, one in which man desired to fellowship God, and to live holy before him by choice and reverence.
Jesus taught that believing in Him was the road map to eternity and his disciples carried this message forth!
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. – John 3:14,15, KJV
When the legalist attempts to build again the things which were destroyed (Law’s requirements) he becomes a transgressor. (Galatians 2:18)
Side rant: I always heard this verse used to condemn a saint for sinning after having been ‘saved’, most commonly ‘dont want TV after you gave it up to come to this Church’ or such like, but while that principle may be pulled from the language of the verse, the context of this verse was Paul (who was a keeper of the law and a persecutor of the Church) saying he would not require the works of the law as part of salvation or justification. Read Galatians 2:15-21
Later in the book of Acts, chapter 15 in what is called the Jerusalem Council, the fight of legalism came to a head! Prior, Peter received by revelation the commandment that the Gospel was to the Gentile. Previously, Jesus and the Apostles only evangelized the Jewish people (Matthew 10:5) but now Cornelius, a Gentile had been saved. This caused trouble even for Peter but finally, word came to the Church leaders that some preachers were requiring the commandments of men to be saved.
And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. – Acts 15:1, KJV
Paul and Barnabas had no intention of allowing this and they traveled to Jerusalem, teaching along the way. (Acts 15:3) When they reached Jerusalem (v4-5) there was also sects of legalists there demanding the keeping of the law. After a long debate, the Holy Ghost convinced all the early church fathers that no works (commandments of men) should be required for salvation.
Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment: It seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, Men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have sent therefore Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same things by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well. – Acts 15:24-29, KJV
Thus, Paul and Silas later find themselves in a situation where they must by the Holy Ghost answer the Philippian jailer what he must do to be saved.
And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. – Acts 16: 30,31 KJV
Can you imagine the New Testament version of Leviticus Paul and Silas would have give the Jailer if commandments of men were to be taught as saving doctrine? How mind blowing would it have been to answer, ‘Sit down, this is going to take awhile’ and then start giving the list of commandments I portrayed from my experience? Thank God that through His Word and example we can see that we are saved by GRACE, through FAITH, and that NOT of OURSELVES. This free gift of God is wondrous, life altering and truly the Abundant Life.
Is it wrong to do all the things listed as Commandments of Men?
Absolutely NOT! If you feel (for yourself) that doing those things allows you (for yourself) to get closer to God, to give more of yourself (for yourself) to Him, them by all means, let those convictions drive you to God!
It is important however to know and be able to define what legalism (commandments of men) is so that you can avoid the snare it sets.
Legalism is faith that is based on a set of rules that must be conformed to, and then, those rules should be used to judge whether others are worthy of Christ and eternal life, and what is normative for other Christians.
Using this definition, you must ask, do you walk around judging whether or not someone is saved based on if they do or do not conform to your rule set of convictions? Do you see someone dressing a way you would not or wearing a necklace and you believe them to be ‘lost’? If the answer is yes, then you are a legalist.
Yet, Paul, (and thank God for Paul) gave us a easy model to follow in dealing with divisions among what believers feel is the right way to live before God.
Romans 14:1-12 is titled in the King James Version Do Not Pass Judgment on One Another and you can find my article on Judgmental Christians for a fuller outline of its meaning.
Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. – Romans 14:1-4, KJV
Let us then run our race by Faith and not be deceived by tradition, by commandments of men being taught as salvation doctrine, but learn to live by His Word and the revelation of Jesus Christ!