Thursday, June 28, 2012

Unbiblical, Man-made laws

My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about how to respond to man-made rules that do not come from the Bible:

Q:  How should a Christian respond if their church insists on following rules that are man-made instead of Biblical?  How does one know what church rules are Biblical and which are not?

Throughout the History of Christianity, this has been a problem which has plagued churches.  Often people have a hard time separating the biases and preferences of their culture from actual Biblical law, often with the result that the pastors and churches begin enforcing man-made rules and making them equal with God’s law.  

We can see this beginning even during the life of St. Paul, as he writes to Timothy (1 Tim. 4:3) condemning those who forbid marriage and require abstinence from certain foods, as Peter is criticized for exercising His God-ordained freedom to eat non-kosher meat and dine with gentiles, and as Paul has to correct the Galatians after they are misled by false teachers to think they must accept Circumcision to be true Christians.

Over the years, the details change repeatedly, but the tendency remains the same.  Fewer than 600 years after Jesus resurrection, a movement gained traction which forced priests to remain celibate and unmarried.  150 years ago, my own denomination was known to superstitiously forbid the purchase of insurance with the accusation that it was a failure to trust God to provide and protect. 

Early in the 20th century, the movement for a ban on alcohol consumption overtook many churches and for a time the laws of our nation, and to this day new and different ways are being introduced to override God’s Law with rules of human origin.

How one reacts to these demands depends on how and why they are being made.  Governments, for example, are free to make laws not found in the Bible, and according to the Fourth Commandment and Romans 13, Christians are obligated to obey them, unless that law would command them to sin.  When spiritual leaders or church bodies make the laws, however, the situation is different.  If a command cannot be supported by an honest and accurate reading of the Bible, a church or a pastor have no right to demand it be followed. 

When something has neither been commanded nor forbidden in the Bible, the Christian is free to follow His own conscience in the matter and ought not attempt to enforce his choice on others.  Examples of issues where this might apply would include such things as alcohol consumption (in moderation), tobacco use, dancing and styles of dress (within certain boundaries of modesty).

Although I haven’t been able to find the reference in print to provide a precise quote, I heard a story from a professor in college about Martin Luther responding to such a demand, saying something like, “If any man tells me I may not drink Wittenberg Beer, I shall drink a second for him.”  The idea behind this is that if the demand is made out of pride, the Christian should be deliberate in boldly displaying His Christian freedom so that the other person would be freed from their bondage to the man-made law. 

On the other hand, when another Christian fears out of weakness that something is a sin, (not out of pride and trying to mislead others), or when an act may be harmful to a person (such as drinking in the presence of an alcoholic) the Christian ought to voluntarily abstain from that act in the presence of that person so as not to cause them unnecessary guilt or temptation in their weakness.  The Apostle Paul discusses this at length in Romans 13 and 1 Corinthians 9. 

Ultimately, a simple way to know whether a rule is Biblical is to know the Ten Commandments, and see if the law can be connected to one of them.  If it can, it is most likely Biblical.  If it cannot, it is most likely man-made. 

Churches and their pastors ought not ever be hesitant to declare a law that God actually has made, and cautious never to demand obedience to a law that He has not, while Christians in their lives ought never be ashamed to obey a law that God has given, and at the same time careful to discern whether their neighbor with a different position needs to be comforted in their distress or confronted for their pride.


  1. How does the fourth commandment -- telling us to Keep the Sabbath, apply to us obeying man-made laws? Truly, the fourth commandment teaches us that if man tells us to work on the 7th day, or if man tells us that the Sabbath has changed to the 1st day as commanded by Constantine and the catholic Church (who themselves admit they have no biblical basis for it), then we do not listen to them in this matter.

  2. The idea that Sunday is a new Sabbath is a horrible misunderstanding of Christian theology. Jesus is the Sabbath. Hebrews even states that Jesus Himself (not a day of the week) is the Sabbath which remains for the people of God. Sunday worship is never commanded in the New Testament, and the idea of Sunday as a day on which work is forbidden is a legalistic error which is rejected by Lutheran Christians, along with many others.
    Sunday worship is the norm for the majority of congregations, (having nothing to do with Constantine nor Rome) because it is the example of the Apostles, in honor of the day of the Resurrection, as recorded in the book of Acts. Instead of the new Sabbath,

    Sunday is the “Eighth Day,” the anticipation of the New Creation, the weekly celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, and the acknowledgment that we who trust in Him, along with all the company of heaven will likewise be raised on the Last Day.

    Where the Old Testament people observed Sabbath in anticipation of the coming of Christ, so the Church today keeps the Sabbath by receiving Him through the Means of Grace. As Martin Luther explained this commandment, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it Sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” On whatever day (or night) that they do so, Christians sins are forgiven through Baptism, they hear His

    Word through preaching and study, and they receive His true Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins in the Lord’s Supper, and thus they keep the Sabbath by receiving Christ in the Word and Sacraments, which are held sacred, and through which He and He alone makes them holy.