Matthew 15:1-9 and I Corinthians 8, 10:23-32 are instructive to compare. They teach us when we must stand our ground, even if it inevitably means separation from a church, and when we should bend our conduct to accommodate some perceived weaknesses and faults in a church.
Both Matthew 15:1-9 as well as I Corinthians 8, 10:23-32 teach that there are certain principles from which we simply must not budge, no matter if the church were to teach otherwise. These principles are part of that corpus of non-negotiable standards we wrote about in another article (see http://www.puritans.net/news/biblicalrealism021207.htm ), and these principles we must insist the church embrace and defend and in good faith seek to implement. For example, in Matthew 15:1-9 we find the principle of sola scriptura, and its corollary, the regulative principle of worship. As we there read, “in vain do you worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:9). In I Corinthians 8, 10:23-32 we find the principle that idolatry is prohibited, and that we ought only to worship the one true God. As we there read, “we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is none other God but one” (I Corinthians 8:4). Thus, Christians must “flee from idolatry” as a principle of conduct (I Corinthians 10:14).
When a church fails to confess such corpus of principles, but rather teaches and acts directly contrary to them, we must stand our ground and not budge that such is wrong and can in no wise be countenanced nor accommodated, even if it means separation from a church. So, in Matthew 15:1-9, Jesus Christ rebukes the heresy of the Pharisees in no uncertain terms. He boldly and clearly rejects the error of human tradition, even church tradition, as an independent source of authority from the word of God. This is the error of the Romish Church, that like the church led by the Pharisees of old, denies the doctrine of sola scriptura. Christ would not countenance that Christian disciples bend to rules based in such a false foundation, that the Pharisees sought to impose on Christ’s disciples. This position of Christ would almost certainly result in an inevitable separation of Christian disciples from the church of the Pharisees.
Interestingly, however, there are cases where we should bend, even when we are right and other Christians are wrong, and when we are more knowledgeable and they less so. So in I Corinthians 8:9 we read, “But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak“. There is here described in I Corinthians 8 a good faith effort of a weak Christian to conform to the scriptural principle prohibiting idolatry. But the weak Christian perhaps has some false notions of how that principle should be applied in various circumstances. The more knowledgeable Christian, in this case, may need to forego conduct that is otherwise lawful, so as not to cause his fellow believer to stumble. And what is true in relation to other individual Christians, is true in relation to the church at large. As we read in I Corinthians 10:32, “Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God.” There is a clear difference between bearing with and accommodating Christian brethren that in good faith are seeking to apply scriptural principles, even when we disagree with some aspects of their application, versus accommodating clear assaults on the non-negotiable principles of the faith taught in the word of God. Of course, we ought to acknowledge the possibility that though we think we are the more knowledgeable Christian with respect to the right implementation of a scriptural principle, it may be that we are wrong, and the other Christians are right. In addition, we should keep in mind that there are avenues in presbyterian church government for over time correcting these sorts of errors, where they do exist.
These lessons of Matthew 15:1-9 and I Corinthians 8, 10:23-32 surely must be the case, or else there can be no sound Christian church on this earth before Christ’s Second Coming. For instance, it is right and reasonable to expect a church to adhere to the Ten Commandments, and seek in good faith to implement their principles, but it would be unrealistic to expect perfect implementation. If we insist on perfect execution of the Biblical commandments, then there can be no church, since men inevitably sin. But in realizing the necessity of an imperfect church, we must avoid lurching to the opposite extreme, such as treating ecclesiastical subscription to the Ten Commandments as negotiable and disposable. If we err in this extreme, then we discard with all possibility of a church that fulfills the role of “pillar and ground of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15). More broadly stated, where we have a church that subscribes to the Biblical standards outlined in the original Westminster Standards and is seeking in good faith to implement those standards, we ought to bear with and accommodate some failings in the implementation. For instance, consider these contrasting sorts of denominations:
In summary, we should not allow the faults and weaknesses of others to serve as an excuse for shirking our own responsibilities.