For nearly 2000 years we, Jesus’ followers, have been adding doctrines, beliefs, traditions, rituals and rules to Jesus’ teachings. We think of these things as being Christian – but they are not Christian. They are human traditions and rules. Jesus was passionate, perhaps brutal, in his criticism of the religious leaders of his day for teaching human rules.
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are just human rules.’” (Matthew 15:7-9)
When new denominations have started up, they have almost always introduced new rules – often defining who can be a member. Unfortunately, these human rules divide the body of Christ. They encourage an “us and them” mentality that stands in opposition to Jesus’ instructions that we are all brothers and sisters (Matthew 23:8), that he wants us to be one (John 17:20-23) and that he wants us to love each other (John 13:34-35). These human rules are hindering the coming of God’s kingdom by aggravating divisions within God’s church. If we deliberately promote the human rules taught by our denominations as rules required by God then we deserve the condemnation Jesus pronounces in the scripture quoted above. But if we even fail to openly identify these rules as being human, not divine, then we deserve the same condemnation.
These human rules have nothing to do with serving our loving God. They are, in fact, preventing us from doing God’s work effectively. They are weighing us down and hindering us from loving, supporting and encouraging each other, and they are hindering us from getting God’s message across to others. We have become burdened by these human rules, but we find it difficult to even recognize these human rules as being burdens. And if we do not recognize them as burdens, we cannot change them. This weakens our love for each other, weakens our witness to others and hinders the coming of God’s kingdom.
It gets worse. We do not just weigh ourselves down with these traditions and rules; we burden others with them. Jesus criticized the religious leaders of his day for doing this, saying:
“They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)
Jesus does not want his followers to be burdened with human rules. He tells us that those who commit themselves to his service will find rest and will find that the work he requires us to do is light:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
And Jesus’ beloved disciple, John, said:
“For this is love for God: to keep his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)
We Christians must free ourselves from unnecessary burdens, including our human traditions and rules, and we must be very, very careful not to lay these unnecessary burdens on others.
If you’d like to read some thoughts on what we need to be doing to change our churches, you can do so in the article: “What should followers of Jesus be doing to change our churches?”