I was reading Mark 7 this morning and came upon the place where Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ snooty question as to why the disciples do not observe the tradition of the elders, which in this case was washing the hands before eating. Jesus, knowing exactly what to say, responds, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’. You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-8).
This particular message of Christ is a consistent one throughout not only the Gospels, but also the gamut of Scripture. Christ centers on the heart; and whatever flows from a life originates in the heart. In this case, Jesus pointed out the disconnect between the Pharisees outward actions, their claim (lip service) as to why they did what they did, and to what really was in their heart. In other words, what they claimed [outwardly] was not the same as what was within the recesses of their heart [inwardly]. Because of this disconnect, these Pharisees were lip worshippers of God, not heart-worshippers.
Lip-worshippers claim they love God base solely on what they do, morals they hold, new rules and structures they have created, and how religious or even spiritual they are. The truth is, God truly could care less about those who are very moral, socially active, and religiously committed. His concern rests with what is in the heart. And if a supreme love for God is not present, God is not pleased!
Based upon the focus of Jesus and all of Scripture, I would have to say that a center-set theory trumps a boundary set theory of behavior. Now, I do not use these in an ecclesiastical (church) way, as does Alan Hirsch in describing church [membership] structures. I use center-set and boundary set in a way that distinguishes rules (boundaries) and idols (center). For instance, there is always much discussion happening towards men in the arena of sexual immorality and marital infidelity. In these discussions, the majority of what is said focuses on boundary set ideology. Many tell men to do this and do not do this; here is a list of boundaries, do not get close or cross them. In doing so, they will protect your integrity and your marriage. While nothing is wrong with this focus (and these are needed), the focus on boundaries is very similar to the focus of the Pharisees in Mark 7. They were focusing on what they were doing or suppose to do, like washing their hands before they ate; and the origin of their actions, which originated from their heart, flowed from a heart that was unclean. They were unclean because their focus was all “jacked up”. The focus was their custom or tradition; and to be a good moral, spiritual, and religious Jew, who pleased God and gained his acceptance.
In the case of marital fidelity, the church can tell men to do this and do not do this, and incorporate these boundaries all day long for the sake of their wives and children that the focus on the boundaries lead to the neglect of God being center and the ultimate reason for a pure marriage. In the end men can have the cleanest healthiest marriage—as the Pharisees had the cleanest hands before they ate—but in the end they still are a lip worshipper of God rather than a heart-worshipper of God, especially if the focus has become the boundaries not the center. Having boundaries as the primary focus exposes the sin of idolatry in the heart.
Sadly, this notion of lip-worshipper of God vs. heart-worshipper of God describes our Western church/Christian landscape. Because at the center of good, moral, spiritual, and religious people, who attend worship services and claim to be a child of God, is the idol of self-righteousness, self-centeredness, and self-aggrandizement.
In other words their (lip-worshippers) lives and what transpires from their life is not ultimately originating in the heart for the glory of God, the praise of his majestic name due to their relationship with him, and the embodiment of his great kingdom due to their citizenry. But rather it originates in their heart for the glory of being good and religious, doing what is expected, following through on some type of traditional life handed down from parents or spiritual leaders, or maybe even to be socially acceptable. In the end, these types of people claim worship of God, but are only self-medicating the innate sin of self-centeredness and self-aggrandizement.
Although I believe this describes, in general, the Western Christian landscape (and I must admit it is easy for me to succumb to this temptation in my own life), there is this movement towards gospel (Christ) centrality. I am grateful for this movement, and I believe that the more gospel we pump into the veins of Christians and churches—the healthier they will become, while at the same time the more radiant God’s glory will be projected through them.
In conclusion, we must remember that boundaries, rules, or traditions are not bad, but they are not primary. The center is primary, and for believers and churches the center should be the primacy of Christ and his word. Boundaries, rules, and even traditions originating from this center do not lead to hypocrisy, but to his supremacy and glory. Striving for this center would keep the words of Isaiah from being applicable to us. Here are his words once again: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”