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Apologetics Lesson 11 – What authority does the Bible have?

July 24, 2012

How does the authority of the Bible compare with the authority of religious leaders and traditions? This is a big factor in most all religions. There is almost always a system of traditions and rituals which are considered authoritative. Christianity is no exception to this. Throughout the centuries there have been many traditions and many religious authorities within the church. When Scripture says one thing and tradition says another which way do we go?

The Question of Authority

In dealing with spiritual issues, some would question the attention we give to the Bible. They would ask us, “What about other spiritual authorities?” Fortunately, we have a clear Biblical example we can go to which helps explain and expound this issue. This is found in Matthew 15:1-9 with the parallel account in Mark 7:1-13. In these verses, the Jewish religious leaders confront Jesus about the shocking misbehavior of His disciples. They ask, “Why don’t your disciples wash their hands before they eat?” This seems to be a silly question but it is actually a very important one. At the heart of this controversy was the obvious fact that the disciples of Christ were not following the religious traditions of the day. This passage gives us a valuable insight into the question of religious traditions and the authority of Scripture.

So who were the Pharisees and Scribes? These were two different sections of the Jewish religious leadership of the day. The Pharisees Accepted both the Torah and the oral tradition. They were Known for their commitment to keeping the law of God but the emphasis of their teaching was ethical rather than theological. The Scribes were members of a learned class who studied the Scriptures and served as copyists, editors, and teachers.

What did the Pharisees and Scribes believe? First, they believed in the authority of the OT Scripture. They had a high view of the Scriptures and held to its authority. They also believed in the authority of tradition. Tradition means “to give alongside of;” The Pharisees and Scribes believed that tradition was equal in authority to the Scripture. It was believed that when Moses was given the Law on Mt. Sinai, which he wrote down (Scripture), he was also given the Oral Law which was not written down, but passed on verbally from generation to generation. Then, in 350 B.C. a group of Jewish Elders came together and officially declared that the “oral traditions” of Moses were EQUAL to the “written Law of Moses.” These Pharisees and Scribes embraced the authority of tradition and could not understand why Jesus’ disciples didn’t.

Now, back to the question of the Pharisees and Scribes. They observed that the disciples were eating without first washing their HANDS. (Mat. 15:1-2; Mark 7:1-5) They had a tradition which required the washing of hands before eating. This was not for practicing proper hygiene. Washing your hands referred to a ritual cleansing process. To be pleasing to God you had to wash your hands in the prescribed way to be ceremonially clean. The disciples were ignoring the demands of tradition. In our day, many would observe that we don’t observe religious traditions and would ask us the same kind of question. “Why don’t you embrace the authority of tradition?” Were the Pharisees and Scribes right in claiming the authority of tradition? Were the disciples right in ignoring the authority of tradition? Let’s look at the answer given to the Pharisees and Scribes.

Jesus points to another tradition that contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture. That being Corban. This basically said that a person could dedicate their wealth to God and thus not be accountable to provide for their parents. However, Scripture clearly contradicts this idea (Honor your father and mother.) We see a key example of the clash of authority. What should you do when tradition tells you to go east and Scripture tells you to go west? Jesus helps the Pharisees and Scribes to see that in choosing to obey the authority of tradition, they were disobeying the authority of Scripture. “. . . So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God.” (Matt. 15:6).

Traditions have no God given authority. Although these religious leaders confidently taught that the Oral Traditions were from God and equal in authority to Scripture, Jesus tells them that their traditions are not from God, “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of MEN” (Mark 7:7-8) Despite the fact these religious traditions have been carefully handed down over the years and have been sincerely embraced, they are not from God.

The Scriptures speak with the authority of God. Jesus establishes the clear authority of the Scripture. “why do you break the commandment of God” (Mat. 15:3-4). When referring to tradition, Jesus uses phrases like, “rules taught by men” and “you say” but when referring to Scripture, He uses phrases like, “the command of God” and “God said.” There is no doubt that Jesus wants people to embrace the authority of the Word of God and to reject any tradition that contradicts it. [See also: John 10:35, Mark 12:24, Matthew 4:4, Luke 24:25] By application, the Bible is the authority that we as Christians should listen to. To contradict the Scriptures is to contradict GOD.

Truth, Traditions, and Pleasing God.

What about the religious traditions of “the church”? Should the Bible be our final authority in faith and practice? Didn’t the church give us the Word of God and therefore has an authority equal to the Scriptures? Remember, the church only RECOGNIZED the Word of God. It did not have the authority to make the New Testament writings into Scripture, but only recognized what was clearly given by God. The authority of Scripture comes from it being the Word of God. The authority of Scripture has nothing to do with the church.

The church also does not have authority equal to the Word of God. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV) “Now these Jews (Bereans) were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11 ESV) It is not to church leadership that the Bereans turned nor is tradition said to be “breathed out by God.” Only the divinely inspired Scriptures have God as their origin and when the Scripture says something that contradicts established tradition, it is tradition that must mend the knee to Scripture.

What about the Scriptures that tell us to keep the traditions passed on to us? Doesn’t this point to the fact that the church has special authority as the keeper of the “oral” traditions from God?
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” (2 Thessalonians 2:15 ESV). “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. (1 Corinthians 11:2 ESV). There are two possibilities here. These are either oral traditions passed down from the Apostles, which are equal to the Scriptures but not preserved in them, or they are written traditions being what Paul taught the churches (orally) which was later written down in Scriptures. (There are no oral teachings from God that are not recorded in Scripture). A simple examination of the context of these passages shows that the latter is in view. There is nothing here to make us believe that these traditions spoken of are anything more than the teachings of the apostles which are recorded in Scripture.

We have clear teaching that Scripture is “God-breathed” and able to make us thoroughly equipped. That more can oral traditions provide to add to being thoroughly equipped? Furthermore, Jesus’ example clearly demonstrates that any tradition must be subjected to the Word of God. Scripture is our final authority because it alone is God-breathed.

Important Considerations

The Scripture warns of false teachers. Who did God warn would bring in false teaching into the church? It is clear from Scripture that the false teachers will come from within the church (Acts 20:30; 2 Peter 3:16; 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15). The early church was not “infallible.” They struggled with conflict and controversy just as much as we do. What traditions did these churches teach above the Scriptures? The church in Pergamum embraced the false teachings of the Nicolaitans and the teachings of Balaam (Revelation 2:14-16). The churches in Galatia embraced a distorted gospel and other false doctrines (Galatians 1:6-ff). The church in Corinth was guilty of embracing worldly values (1 Corinthians 5).

Another thing we need to come to grips with is that traditions are not bad by themselves. Only when they are considered equal or superior to the Scripture do traditions harm the church. We have several examples of “good” traditions in the church today.
Infant dedication
Advent wreath
Orders of service in the church

Any tradition must be held in subjection to the Word of God. We know that the Scriptures are the Word of God. We know that the Scriptures are God-breathed and speak with the authority and truthfulness of God. Even if you debate the origin of some traditions, there is no debate concerning the Word of God. Any tradition that contradicts the Bible, must be rejected as false. (Colossians 2:20-23.) The Scriptures must be our final authority in matters of “faith and practice”. Any practice or belief that contradicts the Scriptures must be fully rejected.


When someone asks a question about spiritual things, the best answer begins with, “The Bible says…” The Bible consistently teaches the clear authority of Scripture founded upon its status as the very Words of God. The cry of the Reformation was, “Sola Scriptura” meaning Scripture Alone. Let it be our cry today! Beware of the dangers of traditions:
Traditions are dangerous when not subjected to the Word of God.
They cannot deliver what they promise because they lack authority.
Keeping traditions can keep you from honoring God with your obedience to His Word.
Traditions can lead to hypocritical worship—as a people reject the “commands of God” and come to Him on their own terms, in their own way.

Above all, we need to hold up the Bible as our final authority in all matters of faith and practice. As soon as we begin to witness for Christ and use the Bible as our resource we must be consistent and uphold it as the Word of God which is sufficient for our needs. Sadly, many people never stop to question the source of the things they have been taught concerning spiritual things. Many people believe they are following the clear teachings of Scripture when in fact they are following “rules and rituals made up by men” —that often contradict the teachings of the Bible. If what you believe about spiritual things contradicted the Bible, would you be willing to be obedient to God’s Word?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. liveandlaughwithjesus permalink
    July 25, 2012 4:13 pm

    I really like the thought and detail of the posts you put up, so I wanted to nominate you for a Very Inspiring Blog award. You can see the shoutout, details, etc, on my post right here:

    • Knight permalink*
      July 25, 2012 4:23 pm

      Thank you. I cannot take all the credit. Much of what I have been posting on Apologetics has been derived from what our Associate Pastor put together. I simply edited it and converted it from a bullet point format to paragraph.

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