The Commandments of Men

How many of our daily decisions are based on social convention? Probably far more than we realize. The words we choose, how much eye contact we make with others, and even the expressions on our faces all send messages to the people around us. We have learned by trial and error what works and what doesn’t, and many of these decisions happen intuitively, without conscious thought.

The same can be true for more intentional decisions: what to eat, what to wear, how to talk to the people around us, and many other choices can be heavily influenced by what is customary in our culture. This is necessary, given the number of decisions we make every day. But it can be harmful when those customs interfere with more important considerations.

The Pharisees saw some of Jesus’ disciples eating without washing their hands. As Mark explains, this was more than a faux pas; it represented intentional noncompliance with a behavioral norm in their religious culture. When they brought food home from the market, they never ate until they had first washed their hands. They asked Jesus, “Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” (Matthew 15:2; see also Mark 7:5).

The question itself communicated a lot about their values, and about the importance they placed on tradition. In response, Jesus reminded them of the following scriptural passage:

Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men

Isaiah 29:13, 2 Nephi 27:25, italics added

The fear of God means reverence toward Him and a desire to follow His guidance. Precepts are rules governing behavior. Here’s how Jesus rendered that last phrase:

In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men

Matthew 15:9, Mark 7:7

He gave an example of a harmful tradition: declaring property as a gift to God so that they were not required to share it with their parents. (See Matthew 15:3-6, Mark 9:9-13.) Then he added, “many such like things do ye” (Mark 9:13).

In the spring of 1820, when Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ in a grove of trees, he asked them which church he should join. Jesus responded by quoting this same passage from Isaiah: “They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men…” (Joseph Smith—History 1:19).

Book of Mormon authors refer many times to “the traditions of our fathers.” Enos fears that if his people are destroyed, their righteous traditions will end. (See Enos 1:14.) Ammon and his brothers traveled to the land of the Lamanites in order to convince them “of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers” (Alma 26:24). Multiple critics of the church, including the Ammonihahites, Korihor, and the Zoramites label the practices of the church as “foolish traditions.” (Alma 8:11, Alma 30:14, Alma 31:17). Setting aside wrong traditions and preserving good ones is a key priority in the book. Fundamentally, incorrect traditions are practices which are not in harmony with God’s law and with true principles. Righteous traditions are supportive of God’s law and aligned with true principles.

Today, I will avoid prioritizing custom or tradition over the doctrines of the gospel. I will strive to act in a way that is in harmony with God’s will regardless of whether my actions follow social norms.

2 thoughts on “The Commandments of Men

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  1. Good for you in choosing to follow God rather than the prophet who encourages disobedience of the law of God and obeying the traditions of men (bad thing)! In the article Why we worship on Sunday instead of Sabbath, it gives a list of excuses as to why we shouldn’t obey God and obey the precepts of men Peter when faced w persecution said We ought to obey God rather than men!


    1. Thanks for the comment, Robert. I’m glad you and I agree that we need to obey God’s commandments and not make excuses for doing what we want to do instead of what He asks us to do. I think the quote from Peter in Acts 5:29 is an excellent addition and very much in the spirit of this post. You and I can disagree about whether worshipping on Sunday instead of Saturday fulfills God’s commandment, but I applaud your commitment to follow God and to obey His commandments as you understand them with exactness!


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