The Most Misunderstood Word In The Bible

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Fundamentally Flawed: How Mennonites Failed To Be Faithful

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I grew up believing my Mennonite religious tradition originated as a part of the Anabaptist movement.  I would’ve been incredulous had someone told me then that our theological underpinnings and practice actually originated from a completely different source and a much later time.

It has taken me decades to come to the full realization that conservative Mennonites (and especially those in the Charity movement) are not truly Anabaptist anymore.  We have, as a result of years of absorbing teachings from other sources, morphed into something quite different from our forebearers.  

The evolution has been slow and over many generations.  However, these small changes, added together, have become something profound and with very deep implications.  We might self-describe as Mennonite or Anabaptist, but are, in reality, something else entirely and have a mindset completely different from our ancestors.

If you want to see the contrast, compare us (conservative Mennonites) to our Old Order cousins and then consider how differently we approach things.  We might share the same genetic origins (and surnames) yet do not have much in common as far as our theological ideas and practices.

So, who is real and who is the impostor?

Consider that everything from Sunday school to revival meetings, four-part singing to our eschatological perspective, and Zionism, is not originally Mennonite or Anabaptist.  They were things added (and often with great controversy) within the past century and some only the last few decades.

The reality is that our relatives from a generation or two ago swallowed fundamentalist theological innovations hook, line, and sinker.  They did so without realizing the divergent path this represented.  It might have begun with a subtle change of focus, a slight ideological shift, but the difference in final outcomes is huge.

We have gone from from a question of “is it Christlike” to one of “is it biblical” and many of us don’t even know why that’s a problem.

Our ancestors might have been radical followers of Jesus.  Yet, most of us, despite our additional Mennonite packaging and a little Anabaptist flair (added back in to make us feel special about ourselves) are simply plain old biblical fundamentalists.

What is biblical fundamentalism?

It is a new idea.  It is a conservative Protestant reaction to modernism.  It is a hermeneutical system that reimagines “word of God” to be a book rather than something far more dynamic and alive.  It turns belief in Jesus into a process of finding a code of ethics in Scripture and creating doctrine—but misses the essence of what it means to truly follow him.

Biblical fundamentalism is an extension of a Protestant idea.  In fundamentalism the religious experience is centered on Scripture-alone (sola Scriptura) and neglects a large swath of Christian tradition.  It is a heresy only possible since the invention of the printing press.

Before Johannes Gutenberg’s invention, in 1440, and widespread literacy, it would have been a hard sell to convince people that God’s word (or logos) came to the masses primarily in book form.

Fundamentalists have literally deified a book, they made it an object of worship, and yet have irrationally thrown aside the institution of the church that delivered it to them.  They have essentially made Holy Scripture an coequal part of the Trinity, synonymous with Jesus Christ, usually at the expense of the Holy Spirit and almost always at the expense of church unity.  If we look at the long-term results, the fruit of the Protestant reformation has undeniably been the fracturing of the church into smaller and smaller bits. 

The Scripture-alone view has led to many bizarre interpretations of the text and a hyper-individualism that makes our unbelieving neighbors seem forbearing and cooperative by comparison.  It has led to a religion characterized by legalism and dogmatism.  Making the Bible into an infallible object has led to weird fixations on particular translations (like KJV-onlyism) that make no sense considering that the original text wasn’t written in old English.

In many cases biblical fundamentalists are simply conservatives stubbornly reading their own preconceived ideas back into the text (or proof-texting) rather than taking an honest and open Berean approach.  Fundamentalism started out of fear and as a defensive posture against higher criticism and modernism.  It is limited because it is based on assumptions that are wrongly taken as infallible truths.

It is a religious perspective that never leads to unity or true brotherhood because it is based on personal interpretation rather than a collective and historical understanding through the body of believers.  In Protestantism everyone has become their own pope and their own individual understanding of the Bible their only god.

When did biblical fundamentalism enter the Mennonite church?

Anabaptism quickly lost its way after a good start.  It soon devolved from radical faith, that challenged everything, into a religious tradition that couldn’t be questioned.  But despite that, it maintained a distinct community ethic and (after reigning in violent factions) developed a strong peace witness.  Ideas like non-conformity and non-resistance were passed down as a teleological “who we are” rather than a theological argument.

However, that “who we are” was too often missing the spiritual component that inspired it.  As a result, many Mennonites over the past few centuries started to look for energy from outside of the Anabaptist tradition.  Protestant movements that led to biblical fundamentalism have long had an appeal to conservative-minded Mennonites.  Pietism, revivalism and biblical fundamentalism have all breathed life into what had become dead orthodoxy.  But these movements did not share the same theological underpinnings of original Anabaptism.  And, instead of help, they have further eroded the Mennonite community, as many splits since then bear witness.

Biblical fundamentalism took root in the Mennonite culture when the longtime standard of the Schleitheim confession (established in 1527) was supplemented in 1921.  The adoption of “Christian Fundamentals” represented a dramatic change of thinking from anything truly Anabaptist.  It mirrored the polemic (or apologetic) style of the Protestant theologians and borrowed language from their work “The Fundamentals” which is the basis of ‘Christian’ fundamentalism.  The shift in priorities is clear, we went from a more practical lived-out ideal to an argumentative obsession with our “doctrines” and a new fixation on a particular brand of biblical literalism.

Our more scholarly and fighting approach has backfired.  The Mennonite church has split multiple times along “conservative” and “liberal” lines since then, both sides using their own interpretation of the Bible as their basis and coming out at different conclusions.  Our going from a perspective that prioritized loving submission to each other to one that elevates an individual’s own (personal, dogmatic and inerrant) interpretation of Scripture has not worked well for us.  It continues to bear the same fruit of division in our denomination as it did in Protestantism in general.

Sadly, we have increasingly farmed out the discipleship duties of the church brotherhood to “Bible institutes” and foolishly turned to fundamentalist icons like Bill Gothard, Michael Pearl or Ken Ham for our understanding of Scripture.  And worse, while a liberal arts education is viewed as a potential pitfall, biblical fundamentalist schools like Bob Jones (where racial segregation was enforced until the 1990’s) and Liberty University (who’s founder gave his full-throated endorsement to a divisive and immoral political candidate) are not seen as dangerous.

Why?

Because we have become something different from what we claim to be.

Fundamentalist indoctrination has now become woven into the fabric of our Mennonite experience and is indistinguishable from our authentic Anabaptist heritage to most born into our denomination.  We teach our children lyrics like: “The B-I-B-L-E, now that’s the book for me, I stand alone, on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!” or “I love the Bible, I love the Bible, I love the Bible, it is the word of God.”  Which is cringe-worthy when you consider those songs are fundamentalist propaganda, with little basis in Scripture, that are priming a child’s confirmation bias for life.

In their embrace of fundamentalism, conservative Mennonites have lost the fight for the soul of Anabaptist tradition.  

Many have confused the fundamentalism of the past century with a “third way” Anabaptist heritage and are fooled into thinking they are winning the war when they are actually fighting for the other side.  In reality, while we think we are still Anabaptists, we have actually been invaded and conquered by our former persecutors.

How was authentic Anabaptism different?

True Anabaptism, while having very high regard for the Holy Scripture, understood the importance of community of faith and attempted an orthodoxy around simple obedience to the instructions of Jesus.  It was Christocentric rather than bibliocentric, meaning that the words of Scripture were to be illuminated through the life of Christ and via the Spirit.  The focus, as a result, was less on theological navel-gazing and more on living true evangelical faith.  Or, in other words, they made practical real world application of Christian love.

Gelassenheit, or the idea of self-surrender and resignation to God’s will, meant submission to the body of believers.  Early Anabaptists understood the importance of community of faith and the part that community (and discipleship) played in salvation of the individual.  They taught that faith produces a practical change in lifestyle.

Fundamentalism, by contrast, puts emphasis on personal experience, stresses the importance of dutiful Bible reading, takes a cerebral (modernist) approach to understanding Biblical text and often gets mired in the theoretical.
Authentic Anabaptism was more teleological than it was deontological in that it was more about just “being” something rather than it was about creating theology or a system of rules.  

While fundamentalism reduces Jesus to the level of Moses (makes him into just another man trying to establish a code of ethics and doctrinal framework as a means to salvation) the Anabaptist perspective took emphasis away from the individual, it put an individual in a community of faith (representative of God’s kingdom) and made love in the brotherhood something practical rather than theoretical.  It was less “the Bible says so” (supported by a position paper) and more “this is what we are” using spiritual fruit as evidence.

Our Old Order brethren still carry on the vestiges of an Anabaptist perspective with their focus on maintaining a community of faith.  That, at very least, provides them with some stability and a little protection from being blown hither and thither by the winds of doctrine.  I can see this in my Amish coworkers who exhibit a genuine and simple faith as if it is breathing for them.  Sure, they might not loudly proclaim themselves “born again” or be able to give a detailed explanation of every practice, but they do have a unity of spirit that we as modern “conservative” Mennonites have lost.

Modern Mennonites, like other fundamentalists, are taught to depend on themselves and take an extremely individualistic approach to matters of faith.  We do not see ourselves as our brothers’ keepers (other than to argue with them in men’s Sunday school class) and are quick to split over what we see as “more biblical” based on our own personal interpretation.  We have lost the concept of the body of Christ (and our being the incarnation together) that once made us unique.

Why Has Anabaptism Failed?

Anabaptism started on the right track, but subsequent generations have abandoned what was a teleological (and Spirit-led) faith for something manufactured, deontological and fundamentalist.  Sure, we have more theological knowledge than ever, but we lack spiritual wisdom to contextualize, comprehend or properly apply what we know.

It is bizzare that we cling to fundamentalist innovations of the past century as if all truth depended on it (things like revival meetings, Sunday school, modern eschatological interpretations and Creationism) yet neglect the richer traditions of the church.

Even our Amish brethren celebrate important days on the Christian calendar (Pentecost and Ascension Day) that are forgotten by most of us.  Anabaptism has failed, in part, because it separated itself from the greater cloud of witnesses and universal church that together represent the body of Christ.
We failed also because we, like many religious fundamentalists today, study the Bible thinking a book alone can lead us and this, unfortunately, is a complete rejection of the means that Jesus said would be provided for those who believe.

Jesus promised that we would have the Holy Spirit to “teach us all things” and stressed living in simple obedience through those means—with loving submission to each other as something central.  That is something quite different from a mental assent to a bunch of religious doctrines or dogmas.

We fail because we face backward towards our ancestors as if they hold the answers for today and forget that those before us looked forward full of the Spirit.  They did not dwell in the past.  Instead, they were dependent on each other and had Christ as their head.  We should not be trying to recreate their movement or looking for fundamentals.  We should instead be in full and sincere pursuit of faith as they were.

What to do?

I believe we would do well to be humble about our heritage, consider the fallibility of our own inherited base assumptions, and reach for an understanding broader, deeper and richer than our own.  Yes, being a Mennonite is as good a place to start as any other, but it cannot be where we remain or it leads to spiritual stagnation.

Faith fossilized into mere Biblical fundamentals is no better than the dead orthodoxy and the faithless modernism it was supposed to protect against.  Faith is something that is supposed to be lived out while moving boldly in a direction and is not something reducible to a set of theological propositions.

From Truck Driver To Truss Designer

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Trucking paid well, but being on the road all week, like a vagabond, was not ideal—especially not for someone who wants to marry and have a family someday.

So, after seven years (going on eight) I had resolved to find another job by the end of the year.  After being off for an extended period of time to rehab a torn ACL I figured that I owed my employer one more year, but after that my plan was to find something else.

However, the whole year had almost passed and nothing opened up.  Finally, after hearing of another driving opportunity and decided that a job change would be sufficient enough, I decided to change companies for what seemed like a better gig and keep on truckin’…

Well, God must be a comedian, almost immediately after signing the papers for the new driving job the right opportunity came along.  My friend, Titus Kuhns, was vacating his position as truss designer and that presented a unique opportunity for me.

But, I had a bit of a quandary…

Was it right to quit a job I had just taken?

The first day on my new trucking job, when things weren’t quite as anticipated, was enough to convince me to make the jump right then.  I sent a text to Titus expressing my interest in the design job and stopped in for a visit at Triple D Truss later that week—I pretty much committed on the spot.

My training would start a few months later in the beginning of April.  My old boss agreed to take me back until then (no point in me learning a new trucking job when I was already an expert at hauling commodities) and so I had my encore in the old blue Pete.

First impressions…

I’ve never worked in an office before, let alone for an Amish business, and didn’t really know what to expect.

Office hours started at 6:30am and, after a thirty-eight mile commute, I was a few minutes early.  So, figuring there was safety in numbers, I waited for Titus to arrive and then followed him in.

The office has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere.  That morning (and every morning since) my coworkers in the office all greet me with a pleasant “good morning, Joel!”  That day, not really knowing the program, I mumbled my reply and followed Titus to his desk upstairs.

John, one of the co-owners, seems to set the tone for the office.  He is upbeat, energetic, generous, and most importantly (for a fledging designer) a reassuring voice.  He sort of bounces up the stairs, often has a broad smile on his face, and hardly has anything bad to say about anyone.

The other part of the partnership, Dan, is a bit more awkward on the surface, but is also every bit as friendly and understanding as John.

Next in line is ever cool and collected Nathaniel, his charisma makes him a great dispatcher and excellent salesman—he possess youthful enthusiasm that is contagious and a curiosity that will likely take him far.

And the newbie of the group (besides yours truly) is Norman, who does some of the random office tasks (with Mary and Linda who work part time) and is only sixteen.

Oh, and did mention that everyone in the office, including the bosses) is ten years younger than me?

Yup, somehow I’m the old guy now, not sure how that happened…

Anyhow, let the training begin!

Titus seemed to be playing game of Tetris, except one that involved designing an endless variety of trusses, while juggling the phone, and doing a multitude of other small tasks—like creating their office forms.  The pile of stuff was overwhelming to my novice eyes and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up.

What would happen when Titus left in a month?

I designed trusses on my first day.  The design software, I learned, is occasionally cantankerous and will crash if you do things out of sequence or in what appeared to be random intervals to a complete rookie.  But my natural aptitudes combine with a good teacher meant that I learned quickly.

The highlight that month—besides wonderful home cooked meals with Titus, his wife Daisy and adorable baby Rowan—was the week of training in Dallas Texas.  Everything was paid, I ran around in my blaze orange Dodge Challenger rental (a free upgrade) and was taught to use the 3D layout software.  I even had time to connect with an old friend, Richard Miller, and ate some of the best BBQ I’ve ever had.

Then it was back to Mill Hall.  Titus was moving to Ohio at the end of the week and would leave me as the solo truss designer.  I had many questions about how the next few weeks would transpire and didn’t entirely share the confidence of my trainer and co-workers.

Time to sink or swim…

My hope was to start Monday with a clear desk.  I was slightly terrified by the layouts leftover from Friday and were now entirely my responsibility.

It my job to ensure that the quotes arrived to the customers and truss prints made it to the shop in a timely manner.  The designers desk is at an important crossroads in the office.  If I don’t get my work done production would grind to halt.

The first couple weeks were stressful, I was swamped, and my neck was sore because I was so tense.  My brother Kyle described my job as “speaking order into chaos” and chaos seemed inevitable in the absence of my concentrated efforts.

Fortunately Titus was only a phone call away and, if things got too out of control, the metal plate vendor (whose software I was using) has designers and engineers on staff to take the overflow.  Still, it was my job to coordinate the effort and keep chaos at bay.

After a few more weeks (and some overtime hours) I was fully in control of my work environment.  It was nice to end the day with a desk clear of work.  I had encountered the full range of what would be required of me and came out with my head still above water.

With each passing week keeping up has gotten easier and easier and more recently I have another problem.

The new problem?

Not being challenged.

Lately I’ve found myself facing a clean desk and blank screen.  This partly the result of things slowing down from the spring rush, but also because I am getting better at knowing where to start and also when a truss is basically as good as it will get and, more importantly, how to avoid the time consuming pitfalls of the software.

“An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject, and how to avoid them.” (Werner Heisenberg)

I might not be a truss design expert yet, but I’ve made good progress and have gained plenty of confidence in my abilities.

It is great finally getting paid to do something that I’m especially gifted to do.  I love when I’m described as “the engineer” (my work is backed up by someone certified) and especially enjoy walking through the yard seeing completed projects knowing my part in the process.  

It is even more rewarding when your trusses end up installed in your uncle’s new truck shop.

Being on top of things has afforded me the opportunity to work beside the guys on the truss shop floor, which is fun.  It is also fun being the only non-Amish employee (other than the truck drivers) and especially that I share a last name with three in the office including one of the owners.

Overall the transition from gear jamming to desk jockey has been a smooth one.

Is America Great?

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My little push mower sounds like a hit-and-miss engine running on that old gas.  And, while my stubbornness doesn’t allow me to waste the stagnant fuel, I’m a bit embarrassed as I sputter along through the lawn and always wonder what my neighbors must think.

That was my first concern when I rounded the corner to the backyard and saw my neighbor pushing his smooth running and sophisticated overhead valve machine.  I had never met these neighbors (other than their annoyingly barky dog) since they moved in a few years ago.  I thought to just keep my head down and contining on my way without saying hi.  But, realizing it was now or never, I decided to be neighborly and released the safety lever.

“I’m never quite sure where our property line is…”  I said, inviting his commentary on this extremely important matter of mutual interest (we quickly established that it ran from the corner of the sidewalk and past my big pine tree) before we transitioned into some other friendly chatter about the neighborhood.

Of course, me being me, noticing his accent and NY hat, I was curious where he was from originally.  So, picking an opportune time, when he talked about his wife being from another local town, I asked, “where are you from?”  It was no big surprise when he told me he was from New Jersey.

As we continued, a bit more relaxed now, we started to get into his Irish heritage.  His grandparents had been born there.  We talked about Dublin, how the animosity still lingers there today between Catholics and Protestants, comparing it to our relatively peaceable American experience.

After 30-40 minutes of conversation, I had to excuse myself (Sarah, my sister from Congo-Brazzaville, needed a ride home from work because her car is in the shop) and finished the patch of grass before heading out.  But had to think how wonderful this country is when considering the alternatives.

Where else in the world can such a diverse population coexist in relative peace?

Yes, obviously, it has not always been that way here, not all neighborhoods are as nice as my small corner of a blue collar town, and yet there are many things that make America a special place.  Sure, our freedoms aren’t unusual in the world anymore or as broad as they would have been when this was a sparsely populated frontier, but there is plenty left of what still inspires people to cross oceans to be here.

That said, I think we could lose that greatness and are squandering the potential to be greater when we pull away from each other in fear.  Which is exactly what we will do when we stay inside (and focus on the few bad stories in the news continually) rather than have those simple neighborly conversations.

We are a nation of over 320 million people, mostly immigrants from all around the world, and we’ve kept it together this long despite our differences.  Yes, in a population as big as ours, there will always be bad stories to fret over, plenty of ignorant bigoted people and enough evil to keep you occupied for a lifetime.  So, go ahead, spend your time amplifying those negative feelings online, if that’s what you want.

But, if you would rather have a better nation, do what worked for me and have those little meetings with the person across the street, because white, black or otherwise… Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Muslim, or irreligious… most of us would rather live in harmony together.  I know this based in my many conversations like the one today.

Stop listening to the divisive and hateful voices in the media and in politics.  Every wave of immigration came with a little controversy and unrest.  For example, Irish Catholics weren’t exactly considered trustworthy at one point in recent history and, yes, there was violence.  But my neighbor doesn’t seem to dangerous anymore, he actually seems quite like me.

Anyhow, to celebrate the 4th, I bought a bunch of polos and button downs (on sale) at the mall, then dropped off Sarah.  I happened upon a new Corvette, later in the evening, while crusing in my Shelby Mustang and, beat him in an impromptu race between red lights—hehe!  Now, at 10:00pm, I’m listening to what sounds like a war outside…

Yikes!

Should I be concerned or should I say…

Happy Independence Day!

Oh, and one last thing, I told my neighbor his barky dog didn’t bother me much when he mentioned that.  I guess the yapping doesn’t matter as much when it’s your friend’s dog…