The Potential Danger of Orthodoxy

Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, ‘Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.’” (Matthew 15:1, 2)

Orthodoxy is a just a fancy word for the idea of a body of commonly accepted practices or teachings. The traditions of the elders that the scribes and Pharisees referred to might be thought of as the Jewish orthodoxy of the first century.

This exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees shows us that orthodoxy can potentially be dangerous. Jesus condemns the worship of the Pharisees as vain and hypocritical: “Hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy about you, saying: ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matthew 15:7-9)

The Pharisees had made some fatal mistakes in the acknowledgment of their orthodoxy. They had elevated their commonly accepted practices to the status of doctrine. In the Pharisees’ minds, the disciples of Jesus were sinning by not observing the tradition of the elders, even though there was no passage of Scripture which showed that God placed any significance on the practice of hand washing.

The elevation of Jewish orthodoxy to the status of doctrine led to another serious religious problem. Jesus said the Pharisees had made the commandment of God of no effect because of their tradition. The law of God said that children were to honor their parents, but the Pharisees had a tradition by which one may verbally designate a possession as a gift to God. A person may continue to enjoy the possession in question until the day of their death, but it could not be given to anyone else, not even to needy parents. The Pharisees were violating commands of God, but in their minds they were still pleasing to God because they were adhering to the commonly accepted practices of their day.

In all areas of learning, we summarize information for the sake of understanding or to make concepts easier to remember. We need to admit that such summaries will probably not be able to fully explain some of the more complex concepts of our faith. We need to regularly go back and re-evaluate the process of how and why certain information has been included in “our lists”, and we must never be afraid to change “our lists” when we see a way to explain Scriptural concepts more accurately or more fully. It is much more important to be sure that we understand why a practice is pleasing to God than to just think of the things we do as being valid because they conform to “our orthodoxy”.

Acknowledging the existence of orthodoxy is not wrong, but orthodoxy has its limitations, and if our orthodoxy is ever at odds with Scripture, we must be willing to give up our orthodoxy in order to follow the Scriptures. Doctrine cannot be established by religious leaders or the orthodoxy of our day. Doctrine is established from the Scriptures.

All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  (2Tim 3:16, 17; emphasis mine, TDC)