There is a simple exercise I walk through with church leaders. First, I have them list all the things that people expect from their church. They usually list obvious things like a really good service, strong age-specific ministries, a certain style/volume/length of singing, a well-communicated sermon, conveniences such as parking, a clean church building, coffee, childcare, etc. Then I have them list the commands God gave the Church in Scripture. Usually they mention commands like “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12), “visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27), “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), etc. I then ask them what would upset their people more—if the church didn’t provide the things from the first list or if the church didn’t obey the commands in the second list.

In Luke 12, Jesus told a parable about a master leaving his servants with specific tasks. When the master returned, he expected to see the tasks accomplished. When he saw his commands neglected, the servants were punished harshly. How can we shrug our shoulders at a parable like this? That’s insane! Jesus is returning soon, and He expects to find His Church taking His commands seriously. Yet far too often we are more concerned with how well the sermon was communicated, whether the youth group is relevant enough, or how to make the music better. Honestly, what is it that gets people in your church stirred up for change? Is it disobedience toward commands from God? Or is it falling short of expectations that we have made up? The answer to these questions might just show us whether our church exists to please God or please people—whether God is leading our church or we are.

Jesus was eating with His disciples in Mark 7 when some Pharisees called out His disciples for not washing their hands. This was a strong tradition of the elders that all Jews observed by washing before eating (v. 3). They treated it as a major offense, as though God was really upset if someone didn’t wash, but the problem was this: God never commanded people to wash their hands before they eat. There is no reason to think God cares all that much about it, especially in comparison with all the things He has commanded.

Jesus responded by calling them hypocrites and saying they were “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men,” that they “leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men,” and finally accused them of having “a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition” (vv. 7–9). Jesus was really upset about this!

God had given clear commands in the Old Testament He expected His people to obey (613 things to be exact). Then along the way those people created additional traditions God never actually asked them to do but they felt were good ideas. Washing hands and dishes before eating is one example. It wasn’t wrong for them to do it. It’s actually a great idea. That’s not why Jesus called them hypocrites. He rebuked them so harshly because they had created their own traditions to obey (which aren’t important) and emphasized them more than the actual commands God had given them (which are extremely important).

Honoring traditions made the Pharisees feel like they were obeying God when they actually weren’t. If we are not careful, we can be guilty of the same sin resulting in the same divine displeasure.

Many of us have become so accustomed to various traditions that we genuinely think they are commanded. I have seen people become furious over the absence of Sunday school while being indifferent toward the absence of the Lord’s Supper. Some rant over the style of music while shrugging their shoulders at the neglect of widows and orphans in their distress. It may surprise some of you that a forty-minute sermon isn’t commanded but “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” is actually in the Bible (Gal. 6:2). I could go on and on about how those who complain about dress, youth ministry, and service times are also the same people who have not shared their faith in months (or years) and couldn’t care less about making disciples of the billions of people who have no idea who Jesus is!

It is imperative that we differentiate between what we want and what God commands. Not that our desires are all bad, but they must take a back seat to what He emphasizes.

Francis Chan, Letters to the Church (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2018).

I have just completed a nine-session Bible study based on Francis Chan’s new book, Letters to the Church. It is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription plan. The idea is to invite each participant to purchase their own book. Sessions include:

  • Chapter 1: The Departure
  • Chapter 2: Sacred
  • Chapter 3: The Order
  • Chapter 4: The Gang
  • Chapter 5: Servants
  • Chapter 6: Good Shepherds
  • Chapter 7: Crucified
  • Chapter 8: Unleashed
  • Chapter 9: Church Again