3 Dangers of Religious Traditionalism (and How to Avoid Them)

The Word of the Year

Since 2003, the dictionary publishing company, Merriam-Webster, has declared a Word of the Year. Winners include blogbailoutsocialism, and capitalism. Even truthiness and wOOt have Word of the Year trophies.

In 2015, the Word of the Year wasn’t even a word but rather the suffix -ism.

The suffix -ism has its roots in Ancient Greek and originally was used in English to turn a verb into a noun. For example, criticize becomes criticism.

Today, when -ism is added to the end of a word, it is often intended to transform a noun into an ideology.

For example, race becomes race-ism, where the ideology is defined by prejudice based on ethnicity. Adding the suffix to material becomes material-ism, an ideology focused on acquiring wealth and possessions.

If this were a philosophy course, there are hundreds of other -isms we could discuss, such as altruism, transcendentalism, Marxism, egalitarianism and on and on. One of these -isms is religious traditional-ism, which is the focus of our text in the gospel of Mark 7:1–23.

Typically there is nothing inherently wrong with the root word of an -ism, whether, race, material, or even tradition. It is when we put an “ism” on the end that things have the potential to become problematic.

And I don’t want you to think “coat and tie,” ministerial robes, organ, or hymnal as the kind of tradition we are talking about. While we emphatically believe that all of life is spiritual, whether preaching, or writing an English comp assignment, or fishing, or working on a road crew, creating computer code, or teaching 2nd graders, I want you to think of “religious traditionalism” as doing any distinctively spiritual or religious activity where you just “go through the motions.” You may do it out of habit. You may do it because you are supposed to or because you’ll feel guilty if you don’t.

So, if you engage in things like Sunday worship or private prayer and find that you tend to go through the motions more than really connect with the heart of God in Jesus, this message is for you and will offer you something so much better that you’ve experienced before. More life-giving. More life-changing, transforming duty into delight, guilt into grace, and despair intojoy.

As we approach Mark 7, we need to know in this text that Jesus is ministering in the late 20s A.D. in a region called Galilee (presumably the town of Capernaum), which is 85 miles north of Jerusalem.

A group of scrupulous Jews called Pharisees and theology experts called scribes, or teachers of the law, show up in Capernaum to see if Jesus, as a self-proclaimed rabbi, is properly observing the religious “traditions of the elders.”

This background sets up the showdown that we encounter in Mark 7 — a showdown that will reveal 3 dangers of traditionalism (and how to avoid them).

The first danger is found in verses 1–5, which is…

1) The Danger of Doing

1 The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”

The problem wasn’t hand-washing itself. The problem was the motive for hand-washing and what it was supposed to accomplish.

The motive is always the root issue to anything we do. The why is often the most important question to any behavior. Why am I doing this? Why am I going to college? Why do I attend worship? Why do I read the Bible? Why do I pray?

Here is the issue.

The Pharisees implemented this hand-washing ritual thinking that by ceremonially cleaning their hands on the outside they were somehow protecting their hearts from moral defilement on the inside.

The Greek word used in verse 4 for wash is baptizo, from which we get the word baptize. This baptism, or ceremonial cleansing, was performed by using a two-handled cup, with which you would pour water over one hand and then use the other handle to pour water over the other.

By not having his disciples wash before meals, Jesus is showing how worthless their hand-washing ritual is. The Pharisees think that by doing a ritual that they are in good standing with God.

In verses 14–23, Jesus makes it clear that, while their hands might be clean, their hearts weren’t.

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” 17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.) 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come — sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

We need to learn the same lesson. Nothing we do can either earn us favor with God or sustain our favor with God.


Thinking we can sustain God’s favor by doing lead to the second danger in verses 6–7, which is…

2) The Danger of Hypocrisy

6 He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 7 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’

To be a hypocrite is to be a fake. It is to project an outward appearance without an inward reality.

When Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 and applies it to the Pharisees, it is as if he has a spiritual x-ray machine that enables him to diagnose the Pharisees as spiritual fakes.

Pharisees gathered for worship week after week, fulfilling their religious obligations of bringing tithes, singing Psalms, offering prayers, and listening to sermons.

Outwardly, they looked spiritually mature. But inwardly, they were spiritually dead. In fact, on one occasion Jesus called the Pharisees whitewashed tombs because they looked pretty on the outside but were full of dead men’s bones.

With the Pharisees, we see a disconnect between their outward, public religious life and their inward, private spiritual life.

This should really challenge those of us who have been super active in the church. What if that x-ray were put over my heart? What disconnect would it reveal in my soul? Would it expose me as a fake like the Pharisees?

We need to ask these questions, or else we may experience the final danger of religious traditionalism in verses 8–10, which is…

3) The Danger of Deception

8 You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” 9 And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’

[By the way, I addressed the Old Testament capital punishment laws in a previous sermon on July 28, 2019. You are welcome to listen to it at soundcloud.com/creekstone.]

11 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) — 12 then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. 13 Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

Corban is a Hebrew word that means “devoted to God.”

If a Jew were to declare his estate Corban, he would be promising to leave his possessions to the Temple or local synagogue in his will.

Now, a stipulation in the practice of Corban allowed the one making the commitment to continue spending his wealth on himself while he lived. But it prevented him from using it on or giving it to anyone else. Why? Because it was “devoted to God,” which sounds so holy and spiritual.

Jesus called it a total sham.

By declaring Corban, an adult child had a spiritual, religious excuse for not caring for their parents, even though the actual command of God was for children to honor their parents — with the obvious application being financial provision and physical care in their old age. To leave one’s parents in a destitute condition would be to curse them, and Jesus was clear that according to Old Testament law for the Jewish Theocracy, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.”

With such a dramatic statement, Jesus is calling out the futility of the Pharisees’ self-righteousness. I’m sure that many of them sincerely believed they were without a doubt in good standing with God. In reality, they were guilty of a capital offense that deserved death.

They thought they were righteous when they actually were condemned.

That is the dangerous deception of religious traditionalism. Because it replaces the law of God with man-made rules and religious practices, it minimizes the weight of sin and allows those who follow the rules to feel righteous in themselves.

This is the trap of religious traditionalism, which at its heart, is just a form of legalism, where we either must save ourselves or work really hard to sustain ourselves in God’s favor. The result: we become either joyless, despairing, guilt and shame-ridden Christians or proud, arrogant, self-righteous Christians.

Earlier, I promised to show you a way that led out of duty into delight, out of guilt into grace, and out of despair and into joy.

So, how can we make the transition out of traditionalism?

Let me show you three ways.

Three Ways Out of Religious Traditionalism

(1) Allow Isaiah 29:13 to x-ray my soul.

“These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

Is that me? Am I going through the religious motions?

Is there a disconnect between the theological words I profess about God and my true affections that I feel or don’t feel toward God?

Or we could put it this way: is my deepest desire for God’s glory or for my own?

(2) Identify the traditions I treat as the basis for God’s approval.

For some, these may be as simple as going to church, having daily devotions or private prayer. Do not get me wrong. These activities are God-ordained means of grace for us. They are good and profit us much. But as means of grace, they were never intended to be a ground or basis for grace. Does that make sense?

It all has to do with the why. “Why am I doing this?” If what I’m doing is out of fear, duty, guilt, or mere habit, I may be a religious traditionalist. Identifying the traditions I treat as a basis for God’s approval helps us take the final step out of traditionalism.

(3) Believe that Jesus was defiled for me.

As Jesus shows us in verses 14–23, my sin is far worse than I thought. But God’s grace is far better than I thought!

In November 2016, Colleen Dyckman of Long Island, New York realized that she accidentally had thrown out her diamond clustered wedding band in the garbage. When Edward Wiggins, sanitation site crew leader, received the call he put on some canvas gloves and began digging through the six tons of New York City garbage that had just been dumped. After 4 hours, no ring had been found. Colleen was there observing the search from a distance. The stench was too much for her to get close. Just when she was about to call it a day and have Wiggins give up, he spotted the ring.

Why would Edward Wiggins risk defiling himself in a mountain of filth? Why would he climb into mounds of rotten food and waste? Have you ever stood in the midst of six tons of garbage? The flies. The stench.

Why would he do that?

The bigger question is, Why would Jesus?

Golgotha, the hill on which Jesus was crucified, was a literal garbage heap just outside of Jerusalem.

Why would the holy and righteous, sinless Jesus allow himself to be taken to a place of such defilement?

Because he was born into this world to recover lost diamonds. Like you and me. Objects of the Father’s deepest affection that were hidden in the trash.

That is why he was willing to be nailed and hung as a criminal on a literal garbage heap outside of Jerusalem.

He was defiled and covered by my sin so that my soul could be cleansed with his blood and covered with his perfect righteousness.

That is the gospel!

  • That your most vile character flaw, the sin for which you would die if were exposed to the world… that sin is forgiven past, present, future. Done.
  • That the deepest and darkest places in your heart that you hate but can’t hide — those were absorbed into the body of Christ and judged then so that you can be free now. No more condemnation.
  • As Isaiah 1:18 says, “Though your sins were like scarlet, they now are white as snow.”

Have you believed that? Will you believe that now? With full abandon and without reservation, will you look to Jesus as your sin-bearer who has washed you clean!

If you will, let me ask you this. What do you want to do now?

I can tell you what I want to do.

I want to own my sin. I want to possess Jesus’ perfect righteousness as my own.

I want to sing and celebrate. I want to study the Scriptures to learn more about this Jesus. I want to pray, not as a formal duty, but as a son or daughter talking to a strong, loving, protective Father who cares for me with a cosmic devotion. And I want others to sing and celebrate with me.

Do you see what happens when we get past the traditionalism to Jesus? Grace changes everything. Even out motives for why we do what we do.