On Teaching Human Precepts as Doctrine

I’ve been reading through the gospel of Mark, chapter 7, and I came upon this passage (verses 6-8):

He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

What’s going on here: in verses 1-5, the Pharisees and scribes noticed that Jesus’ disciples don’t follow all the traditional rules of Israel, in particular rules about ritual washing before eating. Jesus says this, and then in verses 9-13 chastises them for some particular traditions they follow which end up breaking God’s commands.

The gospels present an ongoing controversy between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, and it’s easy to think that the Jewish leadership and religious elite were all of one mind. The truth is, there were several schools of thought within Judaism in those days, even without Jesus thrown into the mix. (Google “Hillel and Shammai” to see more about one of the bigger arguments.) Each side tended to use scripture against the other, which of course continues to this day in the church. (I would guess this also happens in modern Judaism, but I do not know.)

So I was thinking about the arguments and dissensions in modern church bodies and congregations. It seems to me that people on both sides of such arguments tend to think the above passage refers to their opponents, particularly “teaching human precepts as doctrines, abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human tradition.”

I think of the argument about welcoming LGBTQ people into the church. Some people on one side of that argument say things like: God’s word is clear that such behavior is sinful. The church ought not be persuaded away from this, just because the currents of thought in our country about LGBTQ people are changing. Don’t abandon the commandment of God!

And some people on the other side of that argument say things like this: God’s word is clear that love and hospitality trump everything. The church ought not be persuaded away from this, just because the church and society had narrow opinions for a very long time. We are understanding things differently, so our love must expand. Don’t abandon the commandment of God!

I actually have a theory that the debate about LGBTQ welcoming all comes down to the interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 18-19, in particular the nature of the “depravity” of Sodom. In this story, God (in the guise of three men) tells Abraham,

“How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.”

No description of what that sin is. The three men go to Sodom, and are welcomed into the home of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Then we see their sin, their depravity, at work. Here is how it is described: 

But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house; and they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, so that we may know them.” Lot went out of the door to the men, shut the door after him, and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man; let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please; only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

One traditional reading of this is that Sodom’s sin is that the men of Sodom wanted to have sex with other men. However, another traditional reading (that’s gained some new traction in recent years) is that Sodom’s sin is that the men of Sodom wanted to treat outsiders with disrespect. One reading claims homosexuality is the sin; the other claims lack of hospitality is the sin. To me, the lack of hospitality reading is by far the more compelling, but this isn’t the place for me to make that case. Perhaps I’ll do that in another post one day.

My point here is that within the debate about welcoming LGBTQ people, people on both sides of the debate are convinced that scripture is clear. It’s so hard to have a productive discussion about this, if people on both sides are convinced that they are the ones following God’s command, and their opponents are “teaching human precepts” instead. And let me assure you: people will not change their mind about this simply because their pastor gives them some new information. These opinions, like so many others, are so deeply entrenched in us.

I don’t know how to have productive conversations about topics like this. I don’t even know if anyone really wants productive conversations about topics like this. Perhaps we’re willing to listen and talk about topics like tax cuts and military spending. But when it comes to certain things, like LGBTQ rights, or gun control, don’t we all want the other side to just shut up?


2 thoughts on “On Teaching Human Precepts as Doctrine

  1. I find myself more willing to see the sin as lack of hospitality and as a woman, I am not happy with Lot’s response to the men by sending his daughters to them. Don’t the women also fall under the protection of hospitality? Except that they are not strangers, or foreigners, and so no they don’t. They are in this passage property. Which is not an easy thing to swallow. Nor would I want a patriarchal system that harkens to seeing women as property or less than men, make a comeback in our society. Let me be clear, I am glad that our society has changed some. Patriarchy is dangerous to my freedom.

    I still believe and hope that God is love and love seeks not to control others but enable them to be whole, or shalom, or at peace or healed or the best that they can be in their current situation. I think somehow God calls us to love more deeply and do not harm, do not harm the stranger or the other, do not harm the enemy, do not harm the neighbor. And in a way hospitality is not harming the stranger, who in a primitive way, is always seen as a possible enemy, someone unlike me, who might harm me. That basic instinct of our primitive brain is with all of us, and God calls us beyond our primitive selves to love what we do not understand and protect the stranger among us.

    if we begin each dialog with someone with whom we disagree by acknowledging their humanity and showing care for them, will they in turn respond to us with the same acknowledgment of common humanity? This is what I think is necessary for any conversation. We are biologically programmed to seek likeness because thousands of years ago it insured our survival. Unfortunately it makes it too easy to then see people who disagree with us as strangers and enemies. This is where we can become fearful. IF the person does not agree with me, will he or she become violent and harm me? If the answer is yes because they see me as an enemy who is a threat to them, then I cannot safely converse with them. If the answer is no, we have a better chance of coming to a conversation feeling safe. We have a better chance then of dialoging respectfully. We may not agree with each other but we can come to a point where we at least acknowledge the other person is valuable, human, and worthy of respect.

    And for people in the LGBTQ community those who often label them as sinful are unfortunately not willing to do no harm. If they would simply say I disagree with you and how you see yourself, but I’m willing to protect your rights and your property and your life, it would be one thing. It would mean that LGTBQ people would be respected and not put in danger of losing their lives, or being harmed by those who don’t agree with them. But too often the group who sees LGBTQ as sinful and a threat, hurt them, advocate against their basic human rights, and seek to demean their basic humanity. They do not give them the respect that an LGBTQ person is also created in God’s image… So LGTBQ people, don’t feel safe, just like I don’t feel safe with people advocate and legislate based on a patriarchal view point. In my opinion they do not treat LGTBQ people with hospitality, respect, or love…

    As a Christian I think we do better to see our role in the world as people of hospitality, compassion, kindness and love. Be the people who protect the minority in our society. Be the people who advocate for equality, who advocate for peace between differing groups, who seek compassionate laws. And if we truly are willing to put ourselves out like this it is scary because we will experience being hated by people willing to harm us. Hate is easy and it sells. Love is difficult, love requires a strength of character and courage that can only come from God. But love, compassion, and kindness are what the world needs more than anything. Studies show that compassionate people make the best leaders, the best politicians, the best bosses, and are the most able to handle power responsibly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for that excellent reply. I find Lot’s response vulgar and horrible. I’ve heard it said that this shows just how important hospitality was, yet certainly viewing women as nothing more than property and chattel is also a terrible sin.


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