We're starting a new series on What Christians Believe from the Articles or statements of belief of the Church of England, which are firmly based on the Bible. Today we're looking at Article 21 on the authority of general councils, which is essentially: The Bible or Tradition – which should be our authority when making decisions?
Article 21: The authority of general councils
General councils may not be gathered together without the command and will of rulers. And when they are gathered together (since they are an assembly of men, among whom not all are ruled by the Holy Spirit and the Word of God), they may err. Indeed they sometimes have erred, even in things relating to God. Therefore anything commanded by them as necessary to salvation has no power or authority unless it can be shown to be taught by Scripture.
How do you test in these days of fake news whether what an individual or a government says about something is right and true? You check it out. You go back to the original source or documents. The recent movie The Post with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks showed this with regard to the Vietnam War. What the US government had been telling its citizens didn't match up to the facts on the ground or to what the politicians really knew from the start. Thousands of young men lost their lives based on lies. The government had the truth in secret dossiers but chose to go with the propaganda which in the end was exposed by the press.
How do you test whether what someone or a church council says about something regarding or according to the Christian faith is right and true? You check it out. But against what? The Bible. Why? Because the Bible is the inspired Word of God – it is from God and so God's Word is the authority. 2 Timothy 3.15-16 states:
"the sacred writings… are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."
Let's first look at some common traditions about the Christian faith which are actually misconceptions. You may have heard it said that…
- Cleanliness is next to godliness
- God helps those who help themselves
- Money is the root of all evil
But none of those statements are either from the Bible or an accurate Bible quote. In terms of cleanliness being next to godliness Jesus tells us to worry far more about the sin in our hearts than the dirt on our hands (Mark 7). Outward cleanliness may be good but it can't influence our salvation. Regarding God helping those who help themselves, in fact we can do nothing to help when it comes to salvation; salvation is through Christ alone (Ephesians 2.8-9). That money is the root of all evil is a common misconception. The Bible in 1 Timothy 6.10 actually says, "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils." Money's not good or bad, being wealthy is not a sin; Job in the Old Testament was a wealthy man who "feared God and turned away from evil" (Job 1.1). It's loving money which is the root of all kinds of evils as it means the desire to accumulate wealth is placed above God and others. All the money in the world, another recent movie, told of John Paul Getty, the richest man in the world, whose grandchild was kidnapped. He was asked how much money he'd be willing to pay to get his grandchild back. He replied, 'Nothing'. Nothing mattered more than money to him. Even though he had more than anyone else it was never enough. That's a love of money.
Then there are decrees made by the Pope, such as 'Mother Theresa should be made a saint'. But the Bible says all Christians are saints. Vatican 2, a council of the Roman Catholic Church, which they say has authority because of the Pope, underlined the worship of and praying to Mary plus the infallibility of the Pope. The Bible says no to both. Yes, the Bible says that Mary was blessed (Luke 1) and we can learn from her, but she was a human being so shouldn't be prayed to or worshipped. But Vatican 2 says:
"It's not from sacred Scripture alone that the church draws her certainty about everything that's been revealed. Both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of devotion and reverence."
No! The Bible is the supreme authority. But we mustn't be arrogant in pointing out error. Even though we as a church accept the supreme authority of the Bible, no denomination and no church perfectly lives under its authority. In that sense, no church can say that its teaching and practices are perfect. All Christians and churches need constantly to revise their beliefs and practices under the authority and correction of the Bible. The General Synod of the Church of England says that marriage is no longer for life. The Bible says it is in Mark 10. And how do you test whether what I say in this talk is right and true? You test all by the Bible. You see, what the Archbishop of Canterbury, me, or church councils say has no real power or authority unless it can be shown to be taught by Scripture. That's the test of what's right and true in the Christian faith and even beyond. Humans make mistakes, get things wrong and fall into error because we're fallen and sinful, and so church councils, bishops and we get things wrong. It's God's Word that has supreme authority.
Now, when the supreme authority of the Bible is recognised and submitted to, church councils haven't got it all wrong. The first six General Councils representing the very early church, despite making human errors, did discern by the Word of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit what was true and what was error. The two creeds that we use at St Joseph's – the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed – came out of those councils. Why are those creeds acceptable? Because the content is taught by Scripture.
What's needed in the worldwide church today is perhaps a General Council, maybe called by the Queen as the lay head of the Church of England, but under God and the supreme authority of his Word, to reform the worldwide church and especially the Roman Catholic Church. That would be quite a revolution.
But as I've been saying don't just take my word for all this. Jesus, God the Son and the head of the church, says so in Mark 7. The religious leaders of Jesus' day were often teaching and practising tradition rather than Scripture and so leading people astray. And there's much in Mark 7 for us to take note of personally not just as a church.
Did you know that there are four possible authorities in life? The Bible; teaching or tradition; reason; and experience. One of them will be the supreme authority that decides what we believe, how we behave. So, for you and this church where does supreme authority lie? Perhaps you're not yet a Christian. Well the issue of authority still faces you. Every day, you're making decisions, choosing right from wrong. The question is: on what basis do you decide? TV soaps? We all have our authorities but where does supreme authority lie? So…
1. The Issue of Authority (v1-5)
"The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered round Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. When they come from the market-place they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)" 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?"
Now there's the issue of authority: Why don't you live according to the tradition of the elders? Why don't you treat our tradition as your authority? In the Old Testament, God told the priests to do a washing ceremony before they worked in the temple. The Pharisees took that idea and made up their own rule, which said all people had to do all sorts of ceremonial washing all the time. And rules like that were known as the tradition of the elders. Here in Mark 7 Jesus was in conflict for ignoring that tradition. So, the first lesson is: the issue of authority won't go away. One of - the Bible, tradition, reason and experience - will always come out on top. And where people have different supreme authorities, there'll always be conflict. That is why it's a vital issue for this and indeed any church or Christian organisation. Because if we don't agree on our supreme authority, we'll hardly agree on anything – just witness the debates in the wider church on sexuality. We'll argue and have no time to get the gospel out and we'll look so disunited, folks won't want to listen.
2. The Supreme Authority of The Bible (v6-13)
Jesus' reply to the Pharisees and scribes is essentially: tradition is not the supreme authority; the Bible is. Verses 6-8:
"Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites; as it is written: 'These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."
That is, you've rejected the Bible as your supreme authority, and made your own traditions supreme. Imagine that after this service you ask me, 'Would you like a drink?' And I say, 'Yes, please. Fresh orange.' But they're out of juice. And it's an effort to go to Lidl. So, you think, 'Something hot is better.' So you bring me a coffee instead. But I don't even like coffee. Jesus says, that's how these Pharisees and teachers were treating God. God says, "These people honour me with their lips" - they sound keen to please me – "but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men." That is, they don't actually do what God asks them. They have their own idea of what'll please God, and they do that instead. The spiritual equivalent of bringing him coffee instead of juice. "You've let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men."
And Jesus gives an example in verses 9-13. But first notice what Jesus says about the origin of the Bible. In verses 9-10, Jesus associates the commands of God with what Moses said.
"You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God…! For Moses said…"
Jesus taught that the words of the human writers of the Bible are also the words of God. So what Moses said is what God said through Moses. And likewise, for every Bible writer. Christians call that the 'inspiration' of the Bible. Meaning that by his Spirit, God worked in the human writers so what they wrote was precisely what he wanted them to write. Therefore, the Bible is the one and only place where human words can be trusted to be 100% the words of God. Jesus taught that the whole Bible is from God. He also taught the supreme authority of the whole Bible. The one leads to the other. Since what the Bible says is what God says, it should be the supreme authority in the church and in our lives. Jesus criticised these people for making their teaching-traditions supreme instead. Let's go back to Jesus' example in verses 10-12:
"For Moses said, 'Honour your father and your mother'; and, 'Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.' But you say, 'If a man tells his father or his mother, "Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban"' (that is, given to God) then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother."
One of their traditions encouraged people to pledge money to God's work. It was called 'Corban' money. But then their parents had got stuck financially. So they said, 'Look, couldn't I un-pledge that money - I need it to help my parents?' But the Pharisees said, 'Sorry, mate. That's Corban. You'll have to tell them you can't help.' So, Jesus says (v12-13):
"You no longer permit him do anything for his father or mother. [i.e. you actually stop this guy doing what God wants] thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do."
Do you see? So what does this say to us? What's the equivalent of 'the tradition of the elders' today, at St Joseph's? Take preaching. Preachers do our best to be faithful to the Bible. But unlike the Bible writers, preachers are not inspired. What we say is a mixture of right understanding and misunderstanding, right application and misapplication. We can't be trusted in the way that the words of the Bible can be. It's why we have Bibles in the chairs; it's why you need to check what's said against the Bible; it's why you should believe nothing and act on nothing unless you're persuaded it's what the Bible says. The same goes for what midweek group leaders say. But is it possible that we – a Bible based church - could do what it says in verse 8? Could we "let go of the commands of God and hold on to the traditions of men?" Yes. For example, Christian books on relationships, marriage and divorce vary in what they teach and often we can choose one that justifies our actions even though it's miles away from the Bible. You can let go of the commands of God to hold onto the traditions of men.
The Bible is from God and therefore supreme in authority. What does that mean for us? Read it. Unless you want your Christian freedom to be hostage to tradition, teachers, your fallen reason or your finite experience, read the Bible. Only that way will you live for God, not for men. Martin Luther stood almost alone against the false teaching and traditions of the church of his day. It was said of him, "A monk who goes counter to all Christianity for 1000 years must be wrong." But Luther replied: "My conscience is captive to the word of God; to go against conscience is neither right nor safe; here I stand, there is nothing else I can do; God help me; amen." Are we standing for the word of God?
3. The Supreme Interpreter of the Bible (v14-19)
Some might say: 'OK the Bible is your supreme authority. But doesn't it depend on your interpretation of the Bible?' Well yes, but there's wrong interpretation and right interpretation. You see, Mark 7 has another crucial thing to say: Jesus is the supreme interpreter of the Bible. In verses 14-19, Jesus goes back to the original issue of washing, and clean and unclean food:
"And he called the people to him again and said to them, "Hear me, all of you, and understand: 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." And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 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, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?" (Thus he declared all foods clean.)"
The Old Testament said some foods were unclean for God's people, Israel. And in a breath-taking display of authority, Jesus says, 'Hear or Listen to me' and declares that all foods are now clean. That is, the Old Testament food laws were temporary. Why? Because unlike the laws about marriage and sexuality, they were 'non-moral' areas. They were about God's people standing out distinctively among the nations by what they ate. But since the nation was only a temporary part of God's plan, the laws about national distinctives were also temporary. So, we can eat bacon and don't have to be circumcised, which is a blessing and a relief at least for us men! How do we know that's the right interpretation of the Old Testament? Because it's Jesus' interpretation. And Jesus is God. Jesus is the supreme interpreter of the Bible. Jesus can tell us what Genesis 1 and 2 really say about gender and marriage and divorce.
Do you believe all that? Well, there's an easy test to find out whether the Bible really is our supreme authority. It's this: do you let the Bible change you? Have you changed your mind on something, or your behaviour after reading the Bible? And could you come up with a recent example?