Freedom Superimposed: Toxicity, Rituals, & Traditions Over Biblical Truth
My study of Marks’s Gospel narrative has been fascinating, frightening, and revolutionary. At this point, I have preached through the middle of chapter eight. Many literary and theological elements of Mark left me captivated and spellbound, but for this project, the focus lands on the first twenty-two verses of chapter seven.
Brief Style Considerations of Mark’s Gospel Narrative
Before jumping into analysis and applications, we shall highlight the contextual premise of Mark’s gospel narrative. The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Mark is the shortest of the four narratives, but was also the first written. Unlike Matthew, Luke, and John, Mark’s narrative is written to a primarily non-Hebraic and Jewish audience. When analyzing the text of Mark and parallel passages captured by Matthew and Luke, it becomes clear why the narrative of Mark is shorter.
Matthew and Luke add genealogies and extra theological explanations to their narratives, containing linguistic phrases, typically only understood by those connected to a Hebrew context. Efficiently, Mark elects not to provide Christological details that would only be understood by those with a cultural, historical, and theological connection to Israel. As an example, we can observe the contextual style of Mark regarding the story of the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman, compared to how Matthew shares the same story. Mark omits the contextual clues that would only be understood by a Hebraic audience, while Matthew reveals the concepts to his Jewish audience for storytelling and theological emphasis.
In Matthew 15:22 (ESV), the author records the Syrophoenician/Canaanite woman crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” In the narrative of Mark, he did not include the address of Jesus by way of the woman saying, “O Lord, Son of David.” Why? The reverence she showed to Jesus would be understood as impressive or jolting to a Jewish audience, but not the reverse. A lot is happening theologically in this radical encounter, and unlike Mark, Matthew also records Jesus saying to the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24 ESV). Lastly in Matthew 15:28 (ESV), Jesus said, “…O woman, great is your faith!” Why did Matthew capture this statement of Christ, but not Mark?
The linguistic inclusions of Matthew, enhanced the divine reverence of God for the Hebrew audience, but may have been lost on the Gentiles. Similarly, to the context above, there are many elements Mark omits because it had no cultural reference or emphasis for his audience. It is also stated that Jesus only commended the great faith of Gentiles.
Radical John Mark & the Misunderstood Christ
The Gospel narrative of Mark is immediate, rugged, urgent, abrupt, and brilliantly cinematic. Thematically, in Mark’s narrative, the family of Jesus thought he was out of his mind (Mark 3:21), the religious establishment labeled him the Chief or Governor of the demons (Mark 3:22), and his disciples continually failed to fully grasp his purpose and identity. The theme of Mark’s gospel is that Christ is misunderstood and it is still a reality today for many inside and outside the church and kingdom of God. At this time, we turn to Mark chapter seven analysis to assess the impact of what happens when we misidentify Christ, misinterpret his message, and like the religious establishment that existed in the first-century, bind our preferences on others.
Rituals & Traditions Superimposed
John Mark records in 7:1-2 (ESV), “Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed.” The Pharisees approached Jesus with a concern about his disciples eating without going through the ceremonial hand-washing process. Although this narrative depicts an epoch that is almost 2000-years-old, we are often guilty of it today. It is similar to when Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24, NLT).
By chapter eight, Mark records that Jesus ultimately walked away from entertaining the whimsical requests of the Pharisees, but it was clear that their theological pursuit of the Biblical text rested on personal preferences, envy, power, and a flawed understanding of the will of God. They easily discarded weightier matters, while highlighting inferior and personal desires. In subtle, overt, and toxic ways, similar mindsets and methods are evident across churches of Christ throughout the US. The narrative of Mark continues below:
For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, 4 and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches. (Mark 7:3-4, ESV)
The Pharisees were drunk with personal power, esteem, and arrogance–ultimately more concerned with historical and cultural rituals and traditions–over the depth of the ministry and mission of Christ. Instead of valuing the humanity of people, the Pharisees were obsessed with ceremonial washings and the maintenance of inanimate religious objects. Drifting into this kind of unconscious pious mindset is dangerous, but happens often and establishes a culture that allows rituals to become more important than Christ and people. The Pharisees and scribes continued: “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5, ESV). The people of God are called to be spiritual and religious, but those of the text were staunchly religious, but lacked spirituality. We can find ourselves guilty of the same attitude and practice today. Some Christians are stubbornly stern and shortsighted (2 Peter 1:5:9) on the level of their religion/θρησκεία (rituals, practices, traditions), but do not operate under the influence of the Holy Spirit of God (Ephesians 5:18). The church must continually fight against this form of seductive apostasy. The prophetic fire of Jesus turned to the importance of exercising rituals and traditions with the right spiritualized heart. The narrative continues below through Mark 7:5-9 (ESV):
And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” 6 And he said to them, “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; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ 8 You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” 9 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!”
It is imperative that we frontload this ancient text into a modern-day context. Reflexively, the Messiah of Mark’s narrative is powerfully working his ministry of Justice and Righteousness (Psalm 89:14), inclusive of healing, cleansing, forgiving, feeding, and exorcising demons. Despite that, the sinfully religious elite approached Jesus and asked him about handwashing(s). The church is suffering from a pandemic, surrounded by a world that needs the liberation of Jesus, but some are spiritually blind and consumed by questions related to rituals and traditions.
It reminds me of the time, prior to the pandemic, when I was called to guest-speak at a church for their special program. After preaching I made my way to the back of the sanctuary, still breathing hard and sweating, while someone helped me put on my coat. As I stood in the back, someone eased up to me and said, “Do not get upset, but can I ask you a question?” I am wiping sweat from my face and trying to catch my breath and I said, “Yes.” The person proceeded: “Do you think TD Jakes could have preached that sermon?” I thought for a few seconds, still trying to catch my breath and decompress from the emotionality and energy of preaching for fifty prophetic minutes. Unaware that I was quietly being ambushed during service in the church house, I said, “I guess…Sure TD Jakes could preach that.” Swiftly the person locked in on me (the invited preacher) and said, “Yes, he sure could have preached that because you did not mention the one church at all.” The church member saw my cadence shift and jaw clinch in frustration before I uttered a response, and then calmly said, “Remember, I said do not get upset.”
The above scenario is a real-time example of the Pharisees asking Jesus about hand-washings. Pharisees and scribes were concerned about trivial and inferior matters, just like the member that approached me. I had not maintained the phraseology church ritual and it gave the person license to remove hospitality and traverse into the role of the antagonist toward the guest preacher. I was not asked if I was faithful, righteous, loving toward my wife, an example to my children, or living up to my biblical preaching duties; after almost an hour of preaching about the blood of Abel crying out to God from the ground and how that connects to the ultimate message of Christ, what was of concern was that I did not enunciate terminology connected to “the one church.” This is one example of countless related to how we superimpose toxicity, rituals, and traditions over Biblical truth.
The seductive aspect of the premise is found in Mark 7:9 (ESV). Again, Jesus said, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” The statement speaks to the convincing ways the Pharisees and scribes advanced their false doctrine(s). In Greek, the term fine is rendered Καλῶς and indicates the excellence of their eisegesis. Those who have embraced traditions and rituals over proper scriptural interpretation have developed deceptively airtight explanations of their doctrinal positions. Without appropriate hermeneutics, many people are deceived by their passion, scripture-quoting, and a litany of biblical passages to support their claim, albeit, grossly out of context. Without investigation and a close-read, their explanations appear sound, convincing, succinct, and logical, but they are actually rooted in ignorance, scriptural manipulation, and malpractice.
Time and space do not permit an opportunity for a full explanation, but according to Mark 7:10-12, not even parents were off limits from faulty Pharisaic reasoning, greed, and covetousness. Instead of financially taking care of their aging parents, this group of religious elites claimed the money as (Corban), dedicated to the Lord (unavailable for parental need). Based on their spiritually felonious deeds and mentality, Christ indicated that their Pharisaic traditions made the Word of God contextually void and meaningless (Mark 7:13). Again, it was the essence of superimposing toxicity, rituals, and traditions over Biblical truth.
In the next section (7:14-23), Mark narrates the power of the Christological double-edged sword (Hebrews 4:12) that possesses the ability to counterculturally cut through hegemonic systems, cultures, and tightly held spiritual traps. To reinforce the message of Christ in verses 1-13, Mark emphasized a critical premise that shattered the abusive religious bondage practiced, preached, and instituted by the Sanhedrin Council. The note at the end of Mark 7:18-19 (ESV) is emphatic: “And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled? (Thus he declared all foods clean.)’” Jesus declaring all foods clean was a decisive blow of direct action to the religious establishment of that day. The Pharisees were concerned about the rudiments of handwashing, fasting, Sabbath day logistics, dietary customs, eating with pagans, and more; and Jesus informed them that their preoccupations and obsessions were a waste of time. Many of the things superimposed on others religiously have already been declared by Christ as unfruitful. We sometimes have hyper-spiritualized psychological customs we are unwilling to release and they have no salvific value.
I am sure it happened gradually, but the Pharisees allowed the method, tool, or scaffold to become more important than people, love, spirituality, and adherence to God. The rituals and traditions became sacred and people were reduced to mere test subjects. In Mark’s Gospel narrative Jesus said, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him” (Mark 7:14-16, ESV). Based upon the verse previously shared (19), Jesus deals with matters of the heart and not fancied, frenzied, and touted physical rituals and ceremonies. When exercised with the right heart, religious rituals, traditions, and ceremonies are superlative connections to God and the fellowship, but with the wrong mindset they become toxically dogmatic and superimposed over love, faith, spirituality, and integrity. Instead of dealing with mechanics and machinations, Christ elected to address distant, calloused, and arrogant hearts, riddled with mendacity. Like many religious people today, the Pharisees prided themselves in carnal practices while possessing diseased hearts. Thus, Christ said (Mark 7:20-23, ESV):
…What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
Many are trying to surveil, police, monitor, and scrutinize the religious practices and methods of others, while their hearts are impure, sinful, and immature. Shockingly, for the religious elite, the Messiah flipped their paradigm upside-down, indicting and informing them that ceremonial handwashing was not the problem; it was their scandalous hearts. While the Pharisees focused on the mechanical and physical, Jesus assessed the condition of the heart. Additionally, while accusing others, they were guilty of walking according to the flesh (Ephesians 5:19-21).
The Modern-day Application
How does this ancient scriptural dilemma impact and manifest within the church of Christ and the earthly kingdom of God today? Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are concerned with handwashing, but not within a religious and ceremonial context. The Pharisees and scribes cornered Jesus and said, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (Mark 7:5 ESV). It would be odd for someone in the church to approach you today, launching a claim of error against your Christianity because of your handwashing technique or observance. However, because we have reduced Christian worth in churches of Christ to what we do during first-day-of-the-week fellowship and worship, you may get questions about religious rituals, traditions, and practices in church service. The religious order or sect of Pharisees no longer exists, but some new-age heretics in the earthly kingdom today appear to have a double-portion of a Pharisaic spirit. Metaphorically, they believe it is their duty and assignment to measure and judge the handwashing practices within the church. The twenty-first-century Pharisees and scribes will not ask about handwashing, but they may pose a sharp question related to bass-mics, praise teams, women, hand-clapping, usage of the term pastor, and countless other practices. They will rarely if ever ask about the unseen elements of the heart; their motive is obsessed with the outside of the cup (Matthew 23:25).
It is sad that we have to revisit these concepts, but it will always be a problem for the church to face, negotiate, and resolve. The malady is not rooted in scripture, it is embedded in our human proclivity to categorize, codify, compare, and compete. Handwashing is no longer a religious issue, but we have superimposed and added new contentions and rituals to the list. As the prophet, apostle, and elder urgently proclaimed to the church, “Keep awake! Watch at all times. The devil is working against you. He is walking around like a hungry lion with his mouth open. He is looking for someone to eat” (1 Peter 5:8, NLT). As long as humans are in the earthly church, the problem will not evaporate, but it will morph conceptually, terminologically, ritually, and traditionally. It was Paul that warned the church about the danger of feasting on each other and the panacea of love: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:14-15, ESV).
Just like Jesus dismantled Pharisaic religious and cultural shackles by declaring all food clean, some would be shocked to hear Christ say that he has no problem with the rituals and traditions we spar over today. Imagine Christ walking up to the modern-day Pharisee and telling them that bass-mics and praise teams are clean, but he is concerned about the hearts that are singing, praising, and worshipping? Congregations are being torn, families are grieved, and preachers are ridiculed privately and publically because some want to (metaphorically) control handwashing practices across the kingdom. Paul said he was a Hebrew of Hebrews and a zealous Pharisee, but in Christ, he grew up and counted all of that for loss (Philippians 3:5-8). The kingdom is waiting for more people to mature and grow out of Pharisaic ways.
The Freedom Trap
Christianity is about freedom, but again, we naturally and unknowingly gravitate toward shackles. Freedom in Christ is never based on what we do or how we worship. I want to remind and warn us to beware of the freedom trap. Romans chapter six makes it clear that Christian salvation and freedom is singular; we are released and loosed from the grip of sin. About the work of Christ Paul said, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14, ESV). Paul proclaims that Christians have been delivered from the power (ἐξουσία/exousia) and grip of sin. The ἐξουσία referenced in the text is delegated; it is power God permits the devil to exercise, but Christians have been excused from its grip. When we fall to sin as Christians, it is because we offered Satan a seat at our table of lasciviousness and carnality (Romans 13:14). Shout it from the top and bottom of the mountain, “Our freedom is from sin and its dominion!” We cannot afford our current legacy because “There’s never been another community of people dedicated to enfranchising and empowering others” (Palmer, 2017, p. 8).
As Peter said, the devil is slyly searching for victims and seductively wants the church to misappropriate its freedom, attaching it to rituals, practices, and traditions, forgetting the true source and purpose. The metaphoric handwashing inquiry will always be a problem. Any practice, ritual, or tradition that becomes a mark of freedom will one day become a shackle. Customs and methods will always change, but the spiritual psychology and value we place on the practice have the potential of making it toxic in the future. Freedom in Christ is not evidenced in what the church does ritually, but in who we belong to, and our mature spiritual ability to refrain from binding personal preferences on others.
Since the beginning of first-century Christianity, methods and practices have changed across Christendom. Doctrine, the Gospel, and the law of Christ never change, but methods and approaches require constant innovation. However, a new method, approach, innovation, or technique can never be the source or evidence of freedom. As an example, a rather new phenomenon across churches of Christ are praise teams. And when I say new, I mean over the last thirty or forty years. Despite the fact that the church is a diverse institution across every category, in the US, predominantly white congregations are often the first to develop practices or methods considered new or on the edge. For something to be considered religiously edgy or controversial, it only has to be a new or unfamiliar practice. White congregations have facilitated services with praise teams, and even co-ed praise teams, for decades. Over the last twenty years more predominantly Black/African American congregations have developed various versions of praise teams. Some are all men and others are co-ed. Some of the praise teams are led by a woman and some by a man. Some praise teams have the women sitting in the pews with microphones, and some have both the men and women seated in the pews with microphones, while one man publicly stands before the congregation.
A praise team is not a violation of scripture and neither is a bass-mic. Anyone that concludes that such practices are sinful, are forced to engage in the same level of spiritual, biblical, and Christological mismanagement as the Pharisees and scribes. However, here is the critical freedom trap that must be avoided. Currently across churches of Christ in the US, those with praise teams are in the minority. Most churches still have a one song leader practice. The tide is shifting, but because most churches do not have a praise team or multiple song leaders standing before the congregation, implementing a praise and worship team is viewed as an act of freedom. Such a mindset is dangerously slippery and a toxic trap primed for future division. What do I mean? The implementation of a praise team, a concept that can actually be traced back to the ministry days of Ezra and Nehemiah (if not sooner), cannot be declared as a sign of spiritual freedom. Christians are free from sin and the dominion of darkness, not because we had/have the courage to implement a praise team or bass-mic. Christian freedom and courage cannot be co-opted or exchanged. That kind of thinking moves us back to Christianity being what we do and not who we are and to whom we belong.
Currently, the solo praise and worship leader, leading congregations in song(s), can approach those with multiple member praise teams and metaphorically ask, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:5, ESV). Or, the same could be asked of praise teams that consist of all men toward those that include women. When practices become the measure of sacredness and salvation, the divisive binding intersections become innumerable. Religiously, biblically, and spiritually, praise teams, multiple song leaders, and bass-mics are a non-issue, but for some, the practice goes against their tradition. I believe that within the next twenty years the praise-team landscape, across churches of Christ, will shift with the culture, and most congregations will have some variation of a praise team. When that day and epoch arises, the church will need to ensure that those with praise teams do not approach those that do not, with metaphoric questions about their handwashing and antiquated style.
In theory and praxis through the scheme of redemption, a church and Christian that worships with or without bass-mics, praise teams, or other unnamed modern methods both possess the same level of freedom paid for by Christ. As stated in Unarmed Empire, “We need a sweeping reimagining of what the church is in order to shed the political, cultural, and power-thirsty barnacles that have latched on to us” (Palmer, 2017, p. 7). Christian value and worth cannot be based on customs, rituals, practices, building or congregational size, sound systems, or aesthetics. May we all walk in the Spirit of Christ and fight against superimposing our perceived freedom in rituals and traditions on people and over Biblical truth. It was a shock to their system, culture, and power, but God declared what they thought was toxic as clean. This is still the case today. As the Bible declares, walk in your divine sanctified freedom, praise, and worship daily: “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life” (Romans 6:22, NRSVA).
Dialectic Questions & Reflective Considerations:
- Related to religious worship and praise practices concerns, are they rooted in Scripture, human tradition, or personal preference?
- What biblical study methods or techniques do you use to determine if a church, praise, or worship practice is authorized or unauthorized by God?
- What is your biblical understanding of what it means to be free in Christ?
- As a Christian, how have your ideas and understandings of Scripture changed over time?
- If anything has changed with your scriptural understanding, what was challenging and what was liberating?
- When dealing with difficult biblical passages or perceived controversial church practices, how do you honor multiple perspectives without negatively labeling those with which you disagree?
- What sincere questions do you have about controversial practices and biblical passages?
Resources & Tools
Dowd, S. (2000). Reading Mark: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Second
Gospel. Macon, GA: Smith & Helwys.
France, R. T. (2002). The New International Greek Testament: The Gospel of Mark.
Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Harris, R. W., Horton, S. M., & Seaver, G. G. (1988). The New Testament Study Bible: Mark.
Springfield, MO: The Complete Biblical Library.
Moore, M. E. (2007). The Chronological Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Press.
Myers, C. (2008). Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
Palmer, S. (2017). Unarmed Empire: In Search of Beloved Community. Eugene, OR: Cascade.
Sermon Link (June 5, 2022 – 11:00 AM Service – Title: Lost in the House) https://www.facebook.com/wococ/videos/324903993154986/