Christian Doctrine: According to Tradition or Christ?

As Christianity spread beyond the Holy Land, counterfeit doctrines crept into various churches, most notably Rome. Where should Christian doctrine come from?

Counterfeit Christian doctrines that developed in the fourth century after Christ have amazingly continued into the 21st. But how do those changes compare to the Christianity of Jesus Christ? The New Testament has many answers to that question. For example: “Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8).

Chapter 5 of a 400-plus-page book first published in 1876 states: “The true Church must always teach the identical doctrines once delivered by the Apostles. … Consequently, no church can claim to be the true one whose doctrines differ from those of the Apostles” (James Cardinal Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers, emphasis added throughout).

Identical doctrines?

Claiming “identical doctrines” to those of the apostles would be praiseworthy if apostolic Christian doctrines really were associated with the church of the author. But the truth is, they are not. The truth is that his church abandoned apostolic doctrines and adopted instead aspects of paganism. Throughout his book, Cardinal Gibbons delves into numerous doctrines of his church, and careful comparison with Scripture shows they were not “delivered by the Apostles.” They are not “according to Christ.”

Doctrines espoused in the book include heaven for the saved, hell for the unsaved, purgatory for others (although it is never mentioned in the Bible), Christmas, Easter, mother/child veneration, graven image veneration, the Trinity and many more. If you study them carefully with the Bible, you will find that none are according to Jesus Christ, the apostles, the New Testament or the Church Christ founded.

Nevertheless, for many centuries they have all been practiced by the church at Rome and its countless offshoots. For biblical views on these subjects, you can search on the Life, Hope & Truth website.

Sunday-keeping and Constantine, the sun-worshipper

The story of how the New Testament Sabbath was changed to Sunday includes the Roman Emperor Constantine.

In A.D. 321 Constantine decreed that Sunday would be observed as the Roman day of rest: “On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing or vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost” (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 1867, Vol. 2, p. 380, footnote 1.)

Constantine never ceased to be a sun-worshipper, keeping its image on his coinage. Later, on his deathbed, Constantine converted to a form of Christianity very much of his own creation.

So a pagan Roman emperor imposed pagan Sunday-keeping on Christian Romans with the cooperation of the church there—not Jesus Christ, not the apostles and not anyone else of the New Testament era.

Contrary to the inference of Cardinal Gibbons, Sunday-keeping is by no means one of the “identical doctrines once delivered by the Apostles,” but is unquestionably “according to the tradition of men.” The keeping of Sunday by the apostles and disciples is conspicuous in the New Testament only by its complete absence. (For more on this, see our article “When and How Did the Change in Worship From Saturday to Sunday Occur?”)

Different doctrinal directions

In the beginning, New Testament Christians—especially those of the Holy Land—were unaware of the many doctrines that were creeping into the church at Rome.

Eventually they heard of some of them, but to the earliest Church these new doctrines were very much fake Christianity. In his lifetime the apostle Peter had warned: “There will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1).

In numerous places throughout His Word, God leaves the Christian in no doubt that to change from His biblical doctrines to doctrines from any other source is to be “carried about with … strange doctrines” (Hebrews 13:9).In numerous places throughout His Word, God leaves the Christian in no doubt that to change from His biblical doctrines to doctrines from any other source is to be “carried about with … strange doctrines” (Hebrews 13:9).

Consider for a moment exactly what Christians are to be called out from. Are they not called away from the false religions, beliefs, theories and practices of the world around them and into the truth of God’s Word? (Study what the Bible says about the Christian calling in our articles “God Calling!” and “Called and Chosen.”)

Christian doctrine: free to incorporate paganism?

Were Christians ever called to share doctrines or practices from sources other than the Bible? The answer should be obvious, but for most it is not. To help: let’s imagine an early Christian gentile convert from the Holy Land visiting early fourth-century Rome. To his absolute delight he finds Rome is crowded with Christians. His delight is short-lived, however, as he realizes that these Christians are keeping the same beliefs and practices that he gave up to become a Christian back home.

It should be common sense that God would not require people to keep the biblical Sabbath in one era but condemn them for keeping it (instead of Sunday) in another. Note God’s warning: “Take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, … and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way” (Deuteronomy 12:30-31).

Christians who were ensnared enough to say, “I also will do likewise” to the keeping of unbiblical doctrines were caught up in a false Christianity. The Roman state and church expected Christians who embraced the biblical Sabbath to forsake it—or be persecuted, sometimes to death. Sabbath observance was outlawed by the Council of Laodicea in the name of Jesus Christ, who actually said He is the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28; see our article “Lord of the Sabbath: Did Jesus Christ Break the Sabbath?”).

By preaching “according to the tradition of men,” the Roman church was of the mistaken idea that it could change and enhance Christian doctrines. Quoting the Old Testament, Jesus Christ Himself issued this warning to those who regard their own doctrines as superior to God’s: “‘And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men. … All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition” (Mark 7:7-9).

His criticism at that time was toward the Pharisees for all their additions to God’s law. However, all man-made religious customs break God’s law, so inherently are sin. “Whoever commits sin also commits lawlessness, and sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). So, how would it be possible to obtain salvation through the adoption of sinful practice?

Jaw-dropping changes

If the pagans of old earned the penalty of death (Romans 6:23) due to their lawlessness, how could it be that in the later Christian era the keeping of those same pagan traditions would be essential for eternal life? Would that make sense? Why would Roman Christians be required to keep nonbiblical doctrines to be saved, when Christians who associated with Jesus Christ Himself never heard of them or, if they heard of them, recognized them as pagan?

Salvation is by God Almighty’s standards, and His benchmark for those saved is through the Christian doctrines taught in the pages of the Bible—the Bible only.

There was simply no need for additional Christian doctrines, nor was there a need to abandon the biblical ones. The apostles and the New Testament Church they ministered to, and the prophets before them, all died without knowing or accepting the nonbiblical doctrines. They are all nevertheless well assured of receiving eternal life at the return of Jesus Christ.

“For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). True Christians are assured of this salvation.

The apostles of the New Testament Church of God didn’t teach doctrines of pagan origin, and neither does the continuation of that same Church today. Its weekly Sabbaths, its annual holy days and all other God-given doctrines are in accordance with Jesus Christ. Download our free booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You and study God’s plan of salvation “according to Christ.”

About the Author

Eddie Johnson

Eddie and Sandra Johnson serve the membership in the Tonbridge, England, congregation of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association. He is an ordained elder.

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