From Hero To Heel To Healed—Fragments From An Estranged Relationship

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It has been well over a year now since I’ve left the conservative Mennonite culture. I wrote about my grievances in the time leading up to and after my departure. My life has gone in a direction that I never expected. I did my best to bury the hurts, forgive at some level, and move on.

However, it seems recently some of those hurts have come bubbling back up through the rubble of hopes that were hastily bulldozed over them and have become a risk to the flower beds that I’ve planted to keep that part of my life contained in the past. There is a lingering question of how to forgive those who never admit (or even realize) that they had any responsibility to me whatsoever and have likely moved on without a second thought about their own decisions.

Before my Chrismation, I did reach out to the Mennonite leader, the father of the impossibility, and offered my forgiveness and confessed some faults. It was at least a token of forgiveness that was necessary for me to transition. But forgiveness is not as easy as saying the words and, as an Orthodox friend recently told me, it is a process. Sometimes it is a process that takes years of giving letting go of the lingering hurts. We are not robots, the emotional wounds we have as the result of the abandonment or abuses of others are real, and broken relationships that continue to be broken make healing more difficult. Show me a person who can forgive in a moment and I’ll show you someone who has never lost anything of real value to them.

Anyhow, because it has become impossible for me to write about anything else, it is time to clear these things out of my mind and give room for other things. There is something about sharing thoughts here, to know that my suffering was not in vain and can possibly be of some benefit to those who have experienced similar things, that seems to help the healing process. Yes, we will always bear the scars, we cannot erase the past through forgiveness, and no amount of sharing about something will undo what was done. But hopefully, in sharing some of these stories, this will help remove some of that shame and feelings of the experience being a total waste.

“God give me an opportunity to be a hero…”

Someday, after my final repose, inscribed on my gravestone there should be the words: “He prayed strange prayers and received stranger answers that were even stranger.”

This is a story of one of those answered prayers.

It was so terribly frustrating for me to be a Mennonite man, now somehow into his thirties not knowing how he got there and unmarried—despite a strong desire for a wife and children.

It was not the stigma of singleness (in a religious culture that prefers the married) that bothered me. No, it was more the lack of opportunity to be the “knight in shining armor” and valued by a woman. I longed to be the protector and provider. And, since I was confident that a God-fearing woman who saw my heart would give me a chance to further prove my courage, character, and conviction to her, I prayed: “God give me the opportunity to be a hero…”

It was shortly after praying that prayer that there was this “progressive supper” activity for the youth. We were to be divided up into small groups of four or five and then sent on our way to various homes to eat the different courses of a meal. That evening the ‘impossibility’ (the young woman that most embodied my own Mennonite ideals) was there along with her sister. So, wanting a chance to prove myself and to be paired with her, I prayed: “Please, God, you know my heart, let me be in the right place at the right time.”

Well, this is where things got a bit weird. The youth leader assigned the impossibility along with her sister to a group that did not include me. I accepted this fate and thanked God anyways. But that’s when the leader, for reasons that were never explained, stopped, said “no” and then proceeded to reassign the sisters—putting them together with me and two other youth. My resigned thanks became a “Hallelujah!” (still silent) as I began to imagine the pleasant conversations we would have that evening. I also began telling myself to remain calm, to just be myself, and enjoy the time together with them without having any expectations beyond that.

“Everyone remain calm!”

Foreshadowing is only supposed to happen in movies. However, en route to our first stop the sister of the impossibility informed us that she was sensitive to having sweets on an empty stomach. Well, guess what? Lo and behold, by some terrible coincidence, it was dessert first. At our first stop of the evening, we had a rich and sugary treat, that soon followed by another drive to our next stop and the next part of our meal…or at least that was the plan.

Well, the sister of the sensitive stomach was right, the combination of dessert with some slightly aggressive driving on bumpy back roads (it wasn’t me driving) proved too much for her to endure. She gave only a whisper of a warning before the entire contents of her stomach were unceremoniously and forcefully expelled. There was vomit everywhere in the back of the truck when we finally got stopped. It was distributed across the back seat and covered her clothing too. It was definitely not a pleasant sight to take in and especially not for those who had been planning to eat.

My first words, as the human contents of burst out the doors of the truck, were an attempt to maintain some order and (to the later amusement of some of the passengers) I exclaimed: “everyone remain calm!” We now had a crisis on our hands and the two other passengers—now fighting with their own sensitivity issues—were ill-equipped to manage this sort of event. So it was up to me to formulate a plan that would both maintain some dignity for this young woman and also spare the others as much as possible.

I decided, after contemplating our various options, that we would all drive together to the next stop (a few miles further down the road) and then go our separate ways from there.

So, we collected ourselves, got back in the truck, and finally to a place where we could do some cleaning up. The other two, dry heaving themselves, split as soon as we arrived. The two sisters were busy with the mess, I figured would appreciate their privacy in this, so I offered to run the necessary supplies they would need from the house and let them to themselves. Glad to be of assistance, I made a couple trips with towels, buckets of water, and whatever else they requested.

“You would make a great husband…”

In all this, I had to reconsider my own prayers. Perhaps I should have been more careful what I prayed? Maybe it was a little selfish of me to pray that I could be the hero? It really was not my intention to have someone else suffer so I could be heroic to them.

Then again, how was it my fault?

My mind did it’s usual overanalysis as I scurried between house and disaster area trying to be helpful. (So, sister of the impossibility, if you ever read this blog, I’m sorry if my answer to prayer came about as a result of something bad happening to you—that certainly was not the plan.)

My contemplation was interrupted, one on of my trips with supplies the impossibly turns to me and words come from her mouth that I never expected to hear directly from her mouth. The impossibility says, with sincerity in her voice: “You will make a great husband for someone someday.” Oh my! This compliment nearly caused me to run around the house screaming. However, I didn’t think that would be the right response, so I opted instead to remain calm, smile, and say a humble “thank you” rather run around dancing with all my might like King David seeing the return of the Ark of the Covenant.

I also noted very carefully exactly what she had said. She had said “husband for someone” and probably included that “someone” as to create some distance and keep the compliment from being a brazen indication of her own personal interest in me. And, yet, while it meant nothing besides what she said, I could not help but see this endorsement of my “great” potential as being only a good thing as far as my further hopes regarding her. I rejoiced for having been given the rare opportunity to demonstrate an ability to serve and to be recognized as being husband material by my secret crush.

“It is an impossibility…”

They had always presented themselves as if they were a Thomas Kincaid painting and something out of reach for me. But, boosted by a spiritual growth spurt, I began to think that my own ideal was in alignment with those they represented and that gave me the confidence to dream. Still, there were some obstacles to overcome, most of them related my age and their status as top-tier conservative Mennonites. I had been in the lower caste my entire life. Could a man change his stars?

For the first time in my life, taking the advice of an eccentric friend, I decided to write a father. As advised, I wrote merely to tell him of my admiration for his family and his daughter in particular. Of course, being the nice guy that he is, he wrote back and thanked me. But then he implied that his daughter was somehow out of my league. It sparked some indignation and my response I made it clear and said, in paraphrase: “Not that she shouldn’t be interested in me.” I mean, what had I done so horribly wrong that I wasn’t in the same class as him or his family?

I never asked for permission to ask her. However, he did grant me permission in a subsequent email. But then he added, in yet another message, that “it was an impossibility” that I would date his daughter. That’s a pretty hard hit for a guy to take. However, in a few days, I was reminded of how my latest journey of faith had begun and that it started with believing what Jesus said about all things being possible with faith. How could he, a mere man, make this bold declaration that went directly in opposition to what we could know from Scripture? I decided to believe what God said over his word.

It was from this point on that his daughter became the “impossibility” and, after praying that the impossible be made possible, I was bound by faith to follow through. At this point, those who would try to discourage the pursuit only further fueled the fire. I was not chasing after something rational or that I understood. Faith had to be going beyond what was possible for me or what’s the point? If everything can be explained by science or reason, why not apply Occam’s razor and dispose of any additional spiritual explanation of life?

No, faith required the pursuit of the impossible. My very salvation depended on the impossible being possible—that being a flawed and frail human, like me, made righteous before a perfect God. If I couldn’t be loved by the daughter of a good Mennonite man, how could I ever stand a chance before God? If faith couldn’t overcome all of our differences, which weren’t actually that big when it comes down to it, then how could faith overcome sin and death? I had no choice to believe. To not believe was spiritual death.

So I prayed, with as much faith as I could ever have, “God, I would crawl through a wilderness of broken glass to be made right, make the impossible possible,” and committed wholly to doing my part in faith. On that same day an hour or so later, I tore my ACL. It was some of the most excruciating physical pain I’ve ever experienced and yet nothing near the emotional agony that I would experience. I’ve been changed over the past few years, changed in ways that cannot be undone, and changed in ways that I could not have expected. I did my part for God even if others didn’t do their part for me.

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me.”

I had read the story of Billy Graham and heard some other notable Christian leaders who had their hearts broken by young women who couldn’t see the potential in them. I also considered how Jesus died betrayed, stripped naked, and in a completely undignified manner, after praying, even pleading “until his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:39-44), that God take the “cup” of suffering from him. I prayed and cried at night begging God: “Please God, please, I’m not strong enough, I can’t be like Jesus, I’m too weak!”

Night after night, I tossed and turned with anxiety and fear. What if my faith proves to be in vain? What if the impossible is truly impossible and my dreams of overcoming my own shortcomings to find the abundant life a lie? Perhaps my whole enterprise of faith was nothing more than an evolutionary coping mechanism to keep me going on despite the obvious? How will I live when my final hopes to have a place amongst my own Mennonite people proves, once again, to be a delusion? I desperately implored God to spare me the pain of another rejection and write for me a story of triumph against the odds instead. I promised I would tell the amazing story to the world when it was all over and use it to strengthen the faith of those who are in the Mennonite church.

I wanted to be a hero in the way of David. The man is known for his bravery in combat against the giant and loved by his people. His heroism was something that women literally sang and danced in the streets to celebrate. He was courageous and charismatic in a way that even made a king jealous and yet was righteous in God’s eyes. David only ever suffered as a result of his own sin, but was still regarded as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14) and outlived those who opposed him. That is the hero story that we love and not that story of fading into irrelevance, as someone who didn’t have quite what it took and, while always chasing a mirage in hopes of finally seeing their destiny emerge, would never amount to anything in the end

I believe that Jesus, as a human being like us, would have rather had David’s life than face rejection, betrayal, and abandonment of even his most faithful followers. He prayed alone in Gethsemane, even his closest companions could not comprehend the burden on his heart and be there for him in his hour of need. The heroism of Jesus was the kind that should be terrifying to anyone. He was the rightful king of his people, killed in the most gruesome, torturous, and mocking way possible. Those who should’ve recognized him only saw him as a threat to their religious culture and many treat him with contempt to this very day. How awful it would be to be on that cross in agony both physical and emotional, enough to make a righteous man cry out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I felt so weak. It is one thing to die and be recognized as a hero—It is quite another to rejected and alone. At least Jesus had someone to mourn him as he hung on the cross and understanding that his pain would result in a victory over death, but what would I have?

How would I endure to the end if my rationality won the day and my fears of my irredeemable inadequacy realized?

A sunny day before the storm…

A few weeks prior I had taken advantage of a unique opportunity to talk to the impossibility where there would be nobody watching us. As one who fought a long battle with social anxieties, I needed to remove anything that would make things potentially more awkward, I found out (from her) that she would be cleaning the church that afternoon and decided this would likely be the best chance I would have. Still, when I finally pulled up to the carport I was already shaking like a leaf and praying that it would all go well. I peered through the door hoping that I would not startle her. I saw her in the sanctuary sweeping, she turned, I waved, her face lit up with a smile and she came to the door.

After that sunny afternoon, I had to work hard to quell the idea that her father was wrong and remind myself that there would likely be some adversity yet to come. Things went so much better than I had anticipated. I mean she had a big smile on her face, she stepped closer rather than away when I expressed my hopes that we could get to know each other better and even gave me her phone number when I asked. For a couple hours, I was on cloud nine and eagerly imagining all those things that I would tell her in that first conversation. She had told me that she was quite busy and then assured me that we would talk on an upcoming missions trip. The next couple of weeks I was excited while simultaneously still worried and trying to reign in my anticipation of the things to come.

The trip was an absolute disaster for me. She totally ignored me on the entire bus trip out and then carefully avoided me when we finally arrived. I was already exhausted by day two or three, I could not wait any longer, and decided to break the silence and asked if we would talk as she had promised. She assured me that we could. We arranged to leave dinner a bit early that night and talk things over. So we set off on a stroll that evening where she confidently expressed her plans for life (in contrast to what she had assumed my dreams were) and where I sputtered desperately trying to gain some traction in the conversation and could find none. It was surreal, to say the least, I was at once enraptured by having her full attention and then also extremely unsettled by my inability to articulate anything on my heart.

Her words would echo in my ears for the weeks that followed. They were an inescapable reality and the very thing that I had worked so hard to overcome. She wiped away any sense of accomplishment I had with eight words:

“You are thirty years old living in Milton.”

Those words, meant as a gentle explanation, confirmed my worse fears. I was stuck in an impossible situation. Her ambitions mirrored my own, but I had long lacked many of the abilities she seemed to possess in spades, and that’s what had attracted me to her in the first place. I had pictured us as a composite—two different types of material bonded together (in faith) and stronger together. But she saw things differently, she saw me as someone content to be mediocre in Milton, a liability as far as her own grand plans, and I lacked any words to answer her misconceptions about me.

She certainly didn’t mean her words to be hurtful and I didn’t take them as offensive. She had simply assumed that this simple life in a small town, without adventure, was what I had intended. What she didn’t know is how much her own ideals were my own nor how I had struggled to overcome feelings of failure despite having my own house, a decent job, etc. Her words hit like a ton of bricks because they were true and reflected an inescapable reality of my life. I never lacked for a heart. But, despite my strong desire to be on the field of play contributing in a meaningful way, I was always seemed stuck watching from the sidelines—lacking the natural size, coordination or talent to be successful.

I had made my leap in faith, I reached out for the impossibility, for the Mennonite ideal that had eluded me in so many ways over the years, and there was nobody reaching back. I fought a new war with doubt. Maybe I was doomed to fail no matter what I did? Perhaps my higher ideals were only ever a delusion and even the best Mennonite girls were as carnal as anyone, preferring athletic and arrogant men? Could it be my prayers for the impossible to be made possible, a hope against hope, was nothing but a mind trick I played on myself to hold off the obvious?

We had to draw our conversation to a close. She was being eaten alive by mosquitos and it would’ve been unmerciful to extend our time together by a minute longer. So, having lost the debate before it even started, not knowing how to end this walk together, I offered to pray with her and she agreed. I prayed. It was my last hope in an increasingly hopeless situation. And then something happened that made things go from bad to worse. A group of guys came around the corner (probably looking for her as clueless teenage guys do) and now my secret of a year or more was out. I didn’t want to face them and their judgments. I had wanted something extraordinary and the same old answer I always got.

Everyone knew now and those hopes of a final victory over the odds faded into the night sky along with my intelligible thoughts. Overhead the lightning flashed, there were things going on under the surface, but for the moment my mind was eerily silent as I wandered off into the wilderness.

“Once I swore that I would die for you…”

It almost seems a miracle that I was found so quickly of all the many places that I could’ve been. Two men, both who have earned my respect over the years as true friends, drove out from the reservation, headed right in the direction that I had ended up going and found me curled up on a bench. It had been my intention to spend the night there. I had no other plans.

When they arrived and hoisted me into the truck. The calm broke. Both the surface calm that covered the broiling of my subconscious mind and also of the skies overhead. At nearly the same time that they got me into the truck, the rains started pouring down and so did my tears. All of those hopes over the years that ended in dismal failure came flooding back. Instead of being strong in faith as I should’ve been, I panicked. I wanted to die, I wanted to be left alone to wither and die in the wilderness.

I stare into this mirror
So tired of this life
If only you would speak to me
Or cared if I’m alive
Once I swore I would die for you
But I never meant like this
I never meant like this
No I never meant like this

It had been rough for me over the past few years, the solitary life of a truck driver was not a good fit for my temperment, but I had overcome my depression related to the death of Saniyah, and had finally turned a corner spiritually that enabled me to dream big again. That all came crashing down again. Fear had won the day, I was stuck in a nightmare and there was no escape—I had done everything I could do to believe and failed miserably again.

Worse, this time, unlike other times, I had left myself no safety net, no plan ‘B’ or escape hatch. I lept and grasped nothing but empty space.

It is one thing to die and be recognized as a hero. It is entirely another thing to have made a complete fool of yourself, to have finally put all your faith in a God of the impossible, and to end up with nothing besides a deepening shame. Mentally I folded under the pressure, which only made me blame myself all the more, and I panicked.

She did what was predictable. The impossibility, the one who was able to clean up her sister’s vomit and run fearlessly to the edge of a cliff, now recoiled at my sight. She drew back in fear and who could blame her? I both pitied her and desperately wanted to explain everything that had led me to asking her and a chance for redemption. I wrote a long letter, fourteen pages long, spent months writing and refining it, but I never sent it because she would probably never read or understand it if she did.

“With God all things are possible.”

The road out of despair was paved with Adderall and writing my thoughts here and elsewhere. After weeks of seesawing, one day suicidal and the next determined to live in faith, I decided it was time to address one of those things that had always seemed to get in the way of my success and that being my difficulties focusing. A friend of mine, studying neuroscience, said that I was definitely suffering from attention-deficit disorder and highly recommended a particular amphetamine.

So, out of options, I gave it a try and it was absolutely amazing. Not only could I focus, but the entire world seemed more brightly colored and sharp. My social anxieties vanished, I could carry a conversation with people I had avoided before, I was more driven in general, and even wrote a book about faith while on the prescription. It was a miracle to me. The day after starting the drug I woke up early on a Sunday morning and thought to myself, “Wow, this is what it must feel like to be Betty Miller!”

I was feeling so good, after weeks of turmoil, that suddenly I wondered why I would even care about the impossibly? I mean, life was great without her…And then I turned to see it staring me in the face, something I hadn’t noticed before on the calendar, the words: “With faith all things are possible.” It sobered me. I was reminded again of the commitment of faith I had made to God in prayer and rebuked myself for being so easily manipulated by my feelings. I had to follow through or I was unfaithful.

Alas, it seems all good things come to an end, at least as far as those artificial means go, and the side-effects of my stimulant (that somehow doubled as a mood stabilizer) began to outweigh the benefits. I had difficulty sleeping and began to have this weird fixation with numbers that was suggestive of an induced schizophrenia. So I quit. However, while my positivity did drop off, mostly back to my old baseline, the drug acted like a kickstart to get me going again and, for the most part, the new equilibrium remained.

It was in the time after, months after the whole ordeal of the trip and aftermath, that I was finally able to have a short (but normal) conversation with the impossibility. It was great because it was progress in a relationship that had become estranged. But it also left me feeling down because she would be soon leaving for a long time and might very well spend enough time with some other guy to get over that initial threshold. Love, despite my own difficulties finding it, is not that complicated—we don’t fall in love with strangers or those who we hold at arm’s length.

I was melancholy that evening, brooding over the possibility that the very brief conversation we had in the kitchen might be our last, when she (the impossibility) passes by holding a paper. For reasons I’ll never comprehend, one of the other young people in the room, right at the moment she is near me, asks what is on the paper. Without a pause the answer came, she spoke the theme of my pursuit of the impossibility, “With God all things are possible.”

“If you go, take me with you…”

Time had passed. I was back driving truck again and would soon be starting a new job that would get me off the road. She had returned from her world travels and again I was contemplating my best approach.

My feelings were now mixed. There was someone else who had come into my life in the interim, it was someone who had become very precious to me, and it was almost unbearable to think about walking away from her. She was a little lost sheep when I had found her, someone even more alone in the world than a lonely truck driver, and it seemed wrong that I would abandon her—even for a life with my Mennonite ideal.

There seemed to be no good answer for the dilemma. Yes, I had carefully explained my own situation to this precious person, my bhest, that it was impossible for me to marry her and the impossibility one of those reasons. But it still seemed extremely cruel that I would there for her every day for a year, pull her out of the pit of despair, and then leave her to fend for herself again. I mean, how unfair would that be? I cared too much about her to let that happen yet couldn’t imagine any woman (Mennonite or otherwise) allowing me to maintain that kind of relationship.

There was never a need for me to cross that bridge.

It was the Facebook status update that I had dreaded for so long. There she was, the impossibility, with that prototypical Mennonite guy and the kind I couldn’t compete with—athletic, adventurous and having the right religious pedigree. They had met on the missionary/Bible school/Mennonite matchmaking circuit. And, since dating is now equivalent to engaged in this culture, I knew the pursuit of impossibly within the Mennonite world was over.

I tried hard to hold off the downward plunge.

The tears would fall once again.

My faith, as a Mennonite, really did die that night, along with my will to live, and there’s only one reason that I’m still here today. That reason being that my bhest never let go. I asked her if she would be okay if I went away, obviously implying suicide, and bhest had the only answer that ended my ideation. She said, “If you go, take me with you.” I decided right then and there that I would continue on if only for her good. It was one thing to kill my own hopes, but I couldn’t kill that little hope that I saw grow in my bhest and it was that seed of faith that I left in her that had now become my own salvation.

My last Sunday as a Mennonite…

I had long become disillusioned with my religious upbringing over the unquestioning devotion to a fundamentalist theological perspective adopted only a century ago and yet continued to hold on to an Anabaptist reformer’s hope. The father of the impossibly was one of those that I had counted on to see this shift and help restore some of that unwavering commitment to Christ and the Holy Spirit. But it was now clear that his calculator weighed more heavily in his decisions than a faith that allowed for the mysterious.

My experience over the past couple years was that straw that broke the camel’s back. It was supposed to be the triumph of faith in a Mennonite context and ended up only revealed a deeper carnality in even the best of my religious peers that was only different from the world in how it was dressed. It was too much for me to take. I couldn’t continue with them anymore. However, I decided to be strong, to go one more Sunday and leave with whatever dignity I had left.

So I went that one last time, I sat in the back and the only place where I knew I could best avoid the discomfort of holding back my emotions while trying to small talk. And I did manage to keep my composure for the length of the service and also for the gab period afterwards. The impossibility may or may not have been there amongst the crowd, it no longer mattered. The building was now cleared out besides my mom (who was the librarian) and John, a truly humble man, a good listener, and the most recently ordained.

My mom, knowing how difficult it had been for me over the past couple years, told me how proud she was of me and, in the nearly empty church, I fell apart. I sobbed. I had tried. I had invested all my hopes within the Mennonite denomination and fought long and hard for a place there. That was over now, it had become unbearable to remain anymore. The impossibility had been that last ditch effort to restore something that had been lost over the years.

She confessed that she could not love me the way that I wanted to be loved. It had now become impossible for me to live as they wanted me to live, as a beggar in a land of plenty, as one whittling away his hopes in a religious culture that offered mostly platitudes and hardly any real world solutions. It was time to give them what they wanted and be on my way to something else. I’ve had nobody question that decision or ask me to remain with them—which confirmed all my reasons for the divorce.

May I have my closure now?

I’m in a better place than I was while still trying to make things work in a place where I didn’t belong anymore and time will heal. That said, that doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with the things that transpired over the years. I’m not sure what forgiveness looks like in a case like this? Do I owe anything more than letting them live their life in peace? Have I said enough now?

Still healing is difficult and forgiveness a process that is especially hard when those who hurt you make no acknowledgement of any failure on their part. It is not easy walking away from the identity that was everything to you. I’ve struggled a little lately with some leftover emotions, a wish for some kind of closure with the impossibility and want of a way to finally bury it all forever.

The good news is that there’s finally someone who sees me as their hero and someone that they can love like that. In fact, I’m preparing for another trip to the other side of the world to be with my precious bhest once again. While I was praying for the impossible to be made possible my bhest prayed that her bhest would not be taken from her. Her prayers were answered. And perhaps my impossible has been made possible in a way that I could never have expected?

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Second Marriage: A Second Look At Early Christian Writers…

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Early Christians, like their modern-day counterparts, had a wide variety of opinions and not all of their opinions are trustworthy or canonical. Still, their writings are often taken as 100% reliable and played like a trump card in debates over correct interpretation of Scripture.

That is the case with some of my conservative Protestant friends when it comes to the topic of remarriage after divorce. If shown where Jesus addresses divorce as causing sin and qualifies his statement adding “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32, 19:9), they will deny the implications of this clear exception and deflect to non-canonical early church writings.

It seems a fairly reasonable approach to controversy over meaning at first glance. Why would we not trust early church writings as reliable indicators of original intent? What reason would they have to distort the true meaning of what Jesus taught? Shouldn’t we assume that they would know better than us?

However, that is not reasonable to assume. In fact, this idea that the early church was completely pure or free of heresies and false teachings goes completely contrary to Scripture. Indeed there were many errant ideas that circulated then and some very deep disagreements over practice. So, in other words, we should be testing their words against Scripture and not using their words in aid of our own confirmation bias.

Or, at very least, if you are going to quote Tertullian in a debate you should probably know a little about him before you do and also consider what else he believed.

Consider this early church writer…

Athenagoras (circa A.D. 177)

A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. “For whosoever puts away his wife,” says He, “and marries another, commits adultery”; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to many again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.

Did you catch that?

He just declared *all* second marriages, even those after the death of a spouse, to be “only a specious adultery” and forbidden.

Compare what he says to saint Paul in the Romans 7:2-3:

For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.

Athenagoras has clearly gone off the rails. He is in direct contradiction to the canonical teachings of the apostle Paul. Why? Well, the reason for this is that he subscribed to the heretical “New Prophecy” called Montanism.

Montanism arose from the teachings of a man named Montanus, a new Christian convert from paganism, who claimed to have a special new revelation from the Holy Spirit. They taught that their own revelations superseded those of Jesus and the apostle Paul. They ordained women as bishops and basically rejected the authority of Scripture and the established church tradition as well.

And you know who else was under the influence of Montanism and also wrote against *all* second marriages?

Tertullian.

Tertullian, a favorite of sophistical fundamentalist efforts to justify their existing positions, taught that *all* second marriages were forbidden. And by all I mean even second marriages in cases where the first spouse had died and a teaching that is certainly in direct contradiction to Scripture. That contradiction (if one truly believes that Scripture has authority that supersedes personal revelation and not the other way around) disqualifies Tertullian as an authoritative source.

It is strange, while most Mennonites (and other Protestant fundamentalists) might denounce a modern version of Montanus as a false teacher and regard his adherents as deceived, many do accept old heretical teachings (when these old heresies argue their own established positions) and ideas that are not supported in Scripture.

All second marriages were forbidden by those misled by Montanus. However, according to Scripture, and not my own opinion, marriage can be dissolved for three reasons: Adultery, abandonment, and death of a spouse. In all three cases a person is no longer bound to the first marriage and therefore is free to marry again.

1) The death of a spouse…

A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39 NIV)

There is no allowance for a Christian to divorce their faithful husband or wife. Marriage is supposed to be one man and one woman till death do they part. However, we live in a fallen world and that means sometimes a young married person might lose their husband or wife. For that reason the apostle Paul provides a provision for widows and, presumably, widowers as well.

2) The abandonment of a spouse…

But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15 NIV)

A Christian is never allowed to divorce a faithful spouse. But, there are times when a couple is “unequally yoked” where one is a believer and the other is not. Paul tells those with a faithful and unbelieving spouse to remain faithful. However, he also provides a provision for brothers and sisters who have been abandoned by their unbelieving spouse. He says they are “not bound” to the marriage in that case.

3) The unrepentant adultery of a spouse…

I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9 NIV)

Jesus, in response to the Pharisees who asked if it is lawful to divorce for “any and every” reason, first took the opportunity to restate the ideal for marriage as a lifetime commitment, then explains that Moses only allowed divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, and lays down the gauntlet: There is no divorce for any and every reason.

Jesus does, however, give one exception and that is in the case of sexual immorality (or porneia) when the marriage has been broken by unfaithfulness. He significantly narrows the scope for divorce and remarriage. I do not believe he is ruling out forgiveness of the errant spouse either. But marriage can be broken and it is broken by unfaithfulness to the marriage vows.

Isn’t it better to be stricter than Scripture?

The church of my youth allowed remarriage after a spouse had died, yet not when a marriage had ended by other the other means described in Scripture, and has turned away those remarried who refused to separate from their second spouse. This kind of hard-line, no exceptions besides death, stance seemed normal to me. I had simply accepted what I had been told.

It could seem like a good thing to exceed a Scriptural requirement. Mennonites do this all the time, they forbidding alcohol, mandate clothing styles and often have a whole list of standards. There seems to be an idea that exceeding the requirements of Scripture make us safer and there is definitely a case for erring on the side of avoiding things that are questionable.

But, that said, when our own personal conscience (standards in addition to Scripture) is used as a basis to exclude others, then we have become as Diotrephes, the arrogant church leader condemned in 3 John for his refusing welcome other believers, and we will be held to account. It is one thing to have high personal standards, it is quite another to make them a test of membership and reason to slam the door in the face of those trying to enter.

Do not be like those who use their own conscience to overrule the teachings of Jesus and the apostle Paul. Montanism was heretical, a false teaching, and their kind of sophistry remains a stumbling block.

“Why Don’t Mennonites Pay Taxes?” And Other Similar Questions…

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Growing up conservative Mennonite and going to a public school opened me up to many questions about my religion. However, while these inquiries were presented in form of a question, they often came off as statements:

“Hey, don’t Mennonites have horse and buggies, where’s yours?”

“Why don’t Mennonites pay taxes?”

Understand, this wasn’t intended as obnoxious, this was in elementary school and these classmates were genuinely curious. They were trying to take what they knew about Mennonites (or thought they knew) with what they observed in me and reconcile the two. I suppose these could be called “micro-aggressions” according to the currently popular terms, but I prefer a more gracious explanation.

Still, while I prefer to be gracious, the presumptions still annoyed me. This exposure might explain my sometimes strong visceral reaction to being pigeonholed in a debate. It might also have contributed to my desire to be a non-conformist in a culture that took pride in being non-conformed and did things a little different from other Mennonites. I’ve always wanted the right to speak for myself and for that reason have tried to give others the same respect and let them speak for themselves.

Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that any conservative Mennonite who spent time outside of their own religious cloister has experienced much of the same thing. The people asking if they are Amish, those inquiring if they ever considered the possibility there is no God, etc. And presumably, this would make us more careful not to do the same others. But that’s not always the case, as I’ve discovered…

Oh No, Not Again!!!

Since becoming Orthodox I’ve encountered the same kind of presumptions in a different form. This time, rather than public school peers, it is Mennonite family and friends. And it is not that I mind the questions either, but when someone starts with “I know a Catholic…” it reminds of those who cannot distinguish conservative Mennonites from Amish or Old Order Mennonites.

So I’ll start with that one…

“Aren’t Orthodox basically Catholics?”

Yes and no.

The word “Catholic” means universal. In the words of St Paul, there is “one body” (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:20, Eph 2:16, 4:4, etc.) and that is what universal or catholic means when applied to the Church. There may be multiple denominations, differences, and divisions within the Church, but there is only one universal Christian body of believers and that is what Catholic means. So, yes, all Orthodox Christians believe in a Catholic church, in that they believe there is only one universal Christian Church—that is what Biblical tradition tells us and that is what we must believe is true.

However, no, despite some similarities, we are not *Roman* Catholic. The early church had five patriarchs, one in Jerusalem, one in Alexandria, one in Antioch, one in Constantinople and another in Rome. These were geographic centers and separate jurisdictions of the early church and all were basically in agreement. However, in a similar fashion to how Amish split from other Anabaptists, there was a “Great Schism” in 1054 between the four patriarchs of the “East” and the Roman “West” over a variety of issues—including Rome’s unilateral addition to the creed (called the “filioque“) and the elevation of Papal power.

The Roman side veered towards more authority being granted to “Peter’s seat” in Rome. The Orthodox, by contrast, put more emphasis on maintaining Church tradition both written and spoken (or Orthodoxy) and hold that Peter was the “first among equals” rather than the “Vicar of Christ” in the way that the Romans do. This is a very significant difference of perspective, yet Orthodox and Roman Catholics do recognize each other at some level despite not being in Communion together. Both the Orthodox East and Roman West are Catholic in the sense they are parts of the universal Church, but they are not the same.

“Do Orthodox worship Mary?”

One of the first things a non-Orthodox will notice when entering an Orthodox sanctuary is the many pictures. These are called “icons” (after the Greek word for “image”) and are a visual representation of various saints, scenes, etc. This is a Christian tradition back to depictions in the Catacombs, there are icons of many virtuous Biblical characters, and of those most prominently displayed are those of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. There is also mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with the saints” throughout the divine liturgy and special honor is given to her.

However, Mary, while venerated (or honored) as the mother of our Lord, is never worshipped by an Orthodox Christian. Worship is only for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and all others are honored for their various roles. Mary’s role is more significant because her body was quite literally the ark of the new covenant. That is why Mary knew, early on, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and why Elizabeth (who were are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit”) loudly proclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Nowhere in Scripture do we have a similar proclamation made and it is only right that the mother of Jesus is recognized by us in the same manner that she is by Elizabeth.

For Jesus to be fully man he needed a mother and his mother was Mary and that is why we celebrate her role. But that honor is not worship. In Chrismation, one has to make agree and make clear that their recognition of Mary and the saints in form of icons is “not unto idolatry” but for sake of “contemplation” and so that “we may increase in piety, and emulation of the deeds of the holy persons represented.” It is no more idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints than it is to have pictures of your grandparents on the wall or to speak of your own mother glowingly on Mother’s day or to treat your own children or spouse differently than other people. There is a vast difference between honor and worship.

“Why aren’t there Orthodox missionaries?”

This one caught me off guard. First off, every Orthodox Christian is (borrowing the words of Charles Spurgeon) “either a missionary or an imposter” and by this, I mean every member of the body of Christ is sent into the world as his representative. Sure, not every Christian is sent abroad in the manner of Hudson Taylor, but every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and should do this wherever they are in the world. Secondly, Orthodox Christians, from St Paul onward have journeyed physically to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the world. Again, not all traveled to far away places, but every Orthodox believer is a missionary and there are no exceptions.

Some of the confusion of my Mennonite friends (who more or less proclaimed that Orthodox lack missionaries) could a product of Evangelical Protestantism and the influence this movement has had on defining their current practice. It seems many under that influence see missionary service as an activity that Christians do rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle. In other words, according to this mindset, one is only a missionary when shoving a tract in the face of an unsuspecting passerby or when they go with a group to do a project in a country that could use jobs more than donated labor. And yet, while that may be a part of what missionary work entails, this too is how we are to proclaim the good news:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22‭-‬24 NIV)

And, as far as Orthodox being missionaries in the forms more celebrated, there are many powerful examples of wonderworkers and martyrs for the faith. Orthodox don’t just travel to tropical paradises, do fun projects, and then jet back home again (back to their privileged lifestyles) after a few days or couple years. No, the Orthodox live in some of the most hostile places for a Christian to live and many have become the truest witness of Christ—they have died as martyrs for their faith, in this century as much as any other, and not only in the history books. It was not Protestant missionaries or Evangelicals being brutalized and beheaded by ISIS.

Furthermore, having entertained (very briefly) proselytizers of a sect widely viewed as heretical (even by Protestants) and having considered the words of Jesus about missionaries that make their converts twice as damned as themselves (Matt. 23:15) or those who will cry “Lord, Lord, have we not” when standing condemned in front of Him (Matt. 7:21-23) and listing their missionary works as if that is their salvation, there is something to be said for correct teachings and practice. The Orthodox, while all over the world (including Africa, where a baptism of 556 took place), seem to be more concerned with quiet and sincere obedience than they are with loud and proud professions.

“I’ve heard Orthodox don’t believe in being ‘born again’ experience, is this true?”

Conservative Mennonites, like other Evangelicals, tend to put much stock in a “born again” salvation experience. They take a phrase out of an analogy Jesus used (while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:1-20) to explain spiritual transformation that must take place before someone can enter the kingdom of God. He likens being born of the Spirit to the wind, it is something mysterious, and then foretells his dying on the cross by likening it to the brass serpent Moses raised in the wilderness that healed those who looked upon it. And, yes, there is an experience, at the foot of the cross, for those who look up to Jesus and cry out for God’s mercy to them as a sinner.

However, salvation is not simply saying something and having an emotional experience attached or a once and done event, there’s so much more. We are told in the letters of St. Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and then also that we are saved by grace “through faith” and as a “gift from God” (Eph. 2:1-10) rather than by our righteous works, which (with many other Biblical texts) could seem to present a contradictory view of salvation—splitting Protestants into competing camps of works versus faith, eternal security versus potentially losing our salvation, or Calvinist and Armenian. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians avoid this debate entirely with a view of salvation that transcends easy categorization. We are saved, being saved, and will be saved so long as we continue to believe.

The Orthodox see salvation as a direction, not just a destination, as an intentional alignment with God’s perfect will and the choice we make daily in following after Jesus. In other words, salvation is less about declaring oneself to be “born again” or a singular event in time that we look back on and more about taking up our cross. Salvation is not a mere once-and-done transaction for them, it is a continuous relationship and being in Communion together with the body of Christ. So, yes, we should all be “born of the Spirit” and yet we should also be connected to the vine (John 15:1-8) or we will die as spiritual babies and never bear the fruit of salvation. Ultimately salvation is not a past event or a promised future reward, it is something we choose every day in our being faithful to God and living out the commitment to love each other.

“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”

+ St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 45, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

“I know an Orthodox and…”

It is one of the most annoying statements. Annoying because it is usually followed by some sort of negative characterization which they then use their anecdote to generalize about the entire two millennia of Orthodox Christianity and a church made up of hundreds of millions of people. It is a statement many Mennonites have encountered as well, which makes it all the more annoying when the same thing in slightly different form comes from the mouth of a Mennonite. I recall a time, broke down while driving truck, when the service technician (who didn’t know I was Mennonite) went on a long rant about some Mennonites he knew and how hypocritical Mennonites are, etc. Of course, his criticisms weren’t entirely incorrect nor are many of those leveled against the Orthodox (we don’t claim to be a church of perfect people) and yet they were definitely unfair to use as a basis to judge the entire group.

This tendency to remember their worse examples and our own best is a human universal. It is something called in-group-out-group-bias which means we tend to recall good examples of our own group (minimizing our bad) and bad examples of other groups (minimizing their good) or, in a word, favoritism. But this is especially true where the perfect church myth is prevalent or there is a lack of contemplation, introspection, and ownership. The smaller a group is, the easier it is to imagine that you are not like those others—those who do not live up to your own personal standards—and forget that a judgmental, divisive and prideful spirit is as sinful as anything else. Pointing out the faults of others is never a good defense. We should recall the story Jesus told about the confident religious elitist who thought only of his own righteousness in comparison to others and the humble man who begged only for mercy in his prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, anyhow, maybe you know an Orthodox Christian and can only recall bad things about them. But I probably know a few more and can tell you that they are just as sincere as any conservative Mennonite or other Evangelical I’ve met. Maybe you know some Orthodox who do not live to your own religious standards or can point to a historical blemish or two from a thousand years ago? Well, I’ll raise you one pedophile ordained by a Mennonite church in the past decade (here’s a list of some other Mennonite sexual abusers, if that’s not enough) and the Münster rebellion. Every denominational group has their less than celebrated moments and members, I can assure you of that. And if a group is too small to have a history of mistakes, that is not a great strength, it is a weakness, it only means they are more vulnerable. So “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or maybe we should just take the advice of Jesus to be humble about ourselves and understand our own continual need of God’s mercy?

The Orthodox do not run from their history by starting a new denomination (or ‘non-denominational’ group) every time there’s a failure, they have their greater and lesser examples like every other group. But one thing that can be said is that they have maintained their unity centered on Christ and keeping the traditions of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the present moment. Fr Anthony, the Antiochian priest who served during my Chrismation, can trace his ordination all the way back to Peter and the first Gentile church, the church of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) where believers were first called Christian. There is a great wealth of history to draw from, some cautionary tales, and many who were faithful until the end. Like the church that Paul preached to, the Church today is by no means perfect and yet, as Jesus promised, the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against the Church he founded.

For all of my non-Orthodox friends, the door is open, all people are welcomed, and there are good answers to questions for those who have them. There is truly a wonderful diversity within Orthodoxy, and a beauty of traditions—traditions packed with deep meaning—that span thousands of years. This is not something that one can begin to summarize in a blog post. There are volumes written and many more yet to be written about the Church.

But the best way to start learning about Orthodoxy is first-hand—to come and see.

Salvation from the Dark Cave — 5 Parallels Between the Rescue in Thailand and Spiritual Transformation

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When I first heard the news about the Wild Boars, a youth soccer team, having gone missing in Thailand, I assumed these twelve boys along with their young coach were hopelessly lost in the flooded cave system and probably already dead or likely would be before anyone reached them. It had been over a week since they had disappeared and there seemed to be little hope of finding them alive.

For that reason, I was very happy to read the news of their being discovered by two British divers who were aiding the rescue efforts. Somehow, despite their ordeal of having to flee deeper into the cave to avoid the rising flood waters and having been trapped in the pitch blackness without food or light for over a week, these players and their coach were still alive. And what a great relief it must’ve been for them to see a person from the outside emerge from those murky waters that had entombed them.

However, that moment of joy was soon replaced by a new fear when considering the perilous journey they now had to face in order to make their escape. The divers who found them were some of the best in the world and many of these boys didn’t even know how to swim—let alone swim in conditions that experts described as extremely dangerous and conditions that tragically did cost one of their rescuers his life.

The question became one of could these boys be saved without a miracle?

This World Is A Dark Cave

We, unlike those boys who had been outside the cave, have never been beyond this world. While we can imagine that there could be something beyond, we are truly bound by what we can touch, taste, see or perceive in our minds. For many reality only extends as far as they are able to fathom. And yet science has discovered spectrums of light beyond our vision and philosophy has long challenged us to go beyond even ourselves, our rational minds, in our thinking.

Greek philosopher Plato imagined a scenario, the Allegory of the Cave, in which we were all born bound in a cave where most are chained where they can only see a shadow of greater reality projected onto the wall in front of them and some of these life-long prisoners are eventually freed. Those freed, we discover, have great difficulty explaining this greater perspective to those still bound. This scenario is pretty much describing our own perception of reality in a nutshell.

Some desire to look beyond the shadows and find a measure of freedom. However, there are many others who are content to live with the shadows and in denial. They are bound by religion, ensnared by the entertainment industry, distracted the pursuit of wealth, blinded by the daily grind or unable to see for any number of reasons and never realize that they are in a cave and chained to a wall and only seeing shadows of something greater.

There are also those who have realized they are trapped in a cave and yet also see the waters, have probed the escape routes from this reality and have understood the true impossibility of their predicament. They have lost hope. They are depressed and living in despair because they know that they are trapped and there’s nothing they can do about it.

Jesus Emerged From the Murky Waters

Those Thai boys and their coach had to know that they were doomed without divine intervention or outside help. During the rainy season (that started early and caught them by surprise) lasts into October and they only had supplies for an afternoon. The coach seems to have did his best to look after the boys, withholding rations from himself to give them a better chance of survival, and yet what he could provide was never going to save them from death in the darkness.

Even a strong swimmer had no chance to escape the under water labyrinth that separated them from the outside world. To find another path or dig their way out was impossible given their lack of necessary tools and provisions. Their resources (besides the water they could lick off the walls) were already exhausted. Even their oxygen supply was starting to dwindle and would disappear long before the flood waters would recede. They only had their prayers and hope for a rescue mission to hold back despair—without a savior were doomed.

That is essentially the story for all of humanity and the background for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are born, our forefathers having wandered deep into a cave of sin and our escape from this blocked by the waters of death. This whole world, the entire universe, in fact, is bound by physics to eventually run out of energy and our descendants, no matter how technologically advanced, will not escape that. This is a reality that can cause an intelligent forward-thinking person to wonder what is the point of living if death is all the future holds.

Drawing by Manatsawin Mungsungnoen

If one can imagine how welcomed a sight those British cave divers were for the boys and coach trapped in complete darkness and facing imminent death, then they can also imagine the feeling of elation that the disciples of Jesus felt having seen him after his emergence from the murky waters of death—His resurrected body, their resurrected hopes, and proof positive of his claim that there is eternal life for those who follow after Him.

We Must Take the Plunge of Faith

The happiness about those lost being found was soon replaced with a big question about how to get them from the cave to freedom. How could this half starved group of youngsters and their coach (who was even worse for the wear after selflessly giving his rations to the boys) get out of their subterranean prison?

Many options were discussed and ruled out one by one. There simply was not enough time for other solutions when oxygen levels began to drop, with the fullness of the monsoon season about to begin, and the consensus became clear: They would need to dive out like their saviors or die in the cave. This was something that had been impossible for them before, it was something extremely dangerous even for a veteran cave diver, and would be absolutely terrifying for someone claustrophobic. None of them were swimmers, let alone in any physical condition to match the world class athletes who found them, and I’m sure their fears could keep them paralyzed.

Where does one find the faith to do the impossible?

That was my question a few years ago.

You jump in, that’s how…

We Cannot Save Ourselves

The truth is, while we must take the plunge under the murky waters and swim for all we are worth, the journey out of the cave is not one we are able to do on our own strength. Like the rescue in Thailand took the coordinated effort of many men and women, we cannot possibly complete our journey to freedom without a community or the help of others. Rather we need to partake of the provisions left for us by those who have followed after Christ. We need to firmly grasp the guiding rope of the written and spoken tradition that the Church (2 Thessalonians 2:15) has left for us. And must also submit to those ordained to lead us to safety and who are responsible for leading us to salvation:

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)

We live in an age where purported authorities are questioned, and rightly, for their abuses. There are many self-proclaimed (and self-promoting) religious experts who claim to have spiritual knowledge and have yet to truly take the plunge of faith themselves. These false teachers. They are ordained only by themselves, by their own arrogance, and are whom Jesus describes as being blind guides. You can know them by their fruits:

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (Matthew 7:15‭-‬20 NIV)

Be sure that those who lead you have a true connection to the world beyond. Do they shine a light that pushes back against the darkness? Do they bring you nourishment and spiritual air? For those trapped in the cave in Thailand, it is clear who came from the outside and why they are there. The rescuers come with provisions, they administered first aid to those in need and built the trust of the boys to follow their lead and instructions.

These teachers, without a doubt, played a critical role in the salvation of those trapped in the cave and we too need those who have experience beyond our own to provide calm and guide us through the fog, currents, and confusion of life.

We Must Die to Save Others

As I entered the church building on Sunday the final act of the rescue mission started. The Gospel text was, interestingly enough, about some friends of a paralytic and their faith that carried him to Jesus:

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 9:1‭-‬2 NIV)

The account goes on with Jesus first addressing the naysayers and critics for their evil thoughts before going on to fully heal this man. But this detail about Jesus seeing the faith of these men is something I had missed before. It was their carrying him, like the divers leading the boys out of the hopeless depths, that led to this man being forgiven and freed from his paralysis. It is our job to carry each other back to Christ and that is the purpose of a Christian community and the Church. It is our faith that leads to the healing of others.

Like these men carrying their friend or the “buddy system” of experienced divers leading the young boys through the darkness to the light, we too must serve a role in the salvation of others. The Christian mission is to participate in the salvation of others in much the same way as those, who came from around the world and volunteered to risk their own lives—not for financial gain, not for their own biological children and not compelled by force. They simply saw a need, a desperate need, and became the solution.

Sgt Major Saman Kunan

Many have sacrificed time and volunteered their talents to aid in the search and rescue effort in Thailand. But one man, Sgt Major Saman Kunan, a retired Thai Navy diver, gave his own life so those boys could be saved. This hero, after delivering oxygen canisters needed for the daring escape, ran out of oxygen himself and perished.

And that is the responsibility of all Christians. We are to find lost sheep, feed them, heal their wounds, lead them out of harm’s way, and even give our lives for them. We are to be Christ in every sense of the word and that means dying to ourselves and saving the lost from their dark cave.

We need to be faithful to those who are lost without a hope.

Turmoil and Theosis

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There are those unsung heroes—those people to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and yet never could repay for their contribution to our lives. For me, there are many on that list. However, there is one woman in particular whose witness of few words was a seed. I wanted the peace that she embodied. But, at the time, I could not escape the turmoil in my heart. Only with the transition out of the church of my youth to a better place has the fruit of her influence has become clear.

A Bull In the China Shop

Years ago now I received an invitation to a new web forum. The site “MennoDiscuss” was created by a guy named Hans Mast and was dubbed “a place where Mennonites (and others) can discuss anything” in the tagline. I loved the idea. I was soon one of the first members of the board and was determined to make the endeavor a success.

I can’t recall exactly what I had expected going in. But early on it became very evident that MennoDiscuss would be a place where ex-Mennonites (and the otherwise) disaffected would come to argue with those of us still content with the denomination we were born into. And, being that I wasn’t afraid of debate (although, oddly enough, I dislike conflict) I jumped right in—playing the role of chief Mennonite apologist for some and being a real annoyance to others.

My zeal, both my desire to drive traffic to the site and need to defend my religious peers, led to me being one of the most prolific posters on the site and also often put me in the center of many controversies. My initial carefree (or careless) attitude soon led to a reputation and it is only a small transition from being engaged in conversation to feeling embattled. I took on the critics, yet I was not the “good Mennonite” who plays nice either, I believed turnabout was fair play and would often try to fight fire with fire.

Initially, despite being intense and a little too argumentative, my participation had mostly been fun and games for me. However that all changed when a personal tragedy knocked my spiritual feet out from under me and left me feeling betrayed by those whom I had assumed would be there for me and bitter at God. It was at that point things went very badly online as well. I was hurting and wanted answers for my pain. I needed help. But all I seemed to get was contempt and criticism.

The Calm In My Storm

There was one person different from the others. She offered me no advice. I can’t recall her saying much at all. But there was something about her spirit. She did not judge me. She let me speak without reminding me of all my past failures. I could open up and be honest with her in ways that I could not be with others for fear they might stab me in the back. She had been hurt by Mennonites yet didn’t seem to come in with an agenda.

Her name was “theosis” (or at least that was her screen name) and offline went by Martha. I do not know the details of her life, but she had been a convert to the Mennonite tradition before eventually finding a home with Orthodox Christians.

There were other Orthodox converts on the site. However, they were of the variety of converts who may have accepted Orthodox theology and practices, but have yet to grasp the attitude—or, in other words, “Ortho-fascists” as they are affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as by other Orthodox. Theosis, by contrast, was not aggressive or argumentative, she had a peaceable spirit and something quite a bit deeper than the judgmental ‘non-resistance’ or militant ‘pacifism’ of many Mennonites.

Mennonites tend to take the role of “peacemaker” and turn it into something forcible and even meanspirited. They might never pick up arms in defense of a nation or theoretically refuse to defend their families from a hypothetical attacker, but some will passive-aggressively resist and gossip about their real enemies while pretending that they have none. Mennonites are good at niceness, sometimes putting a smile on their face while harboring ill-feelings, because that is what the culture requires.

But theosis was different. She seemingly saw something in my antics others could not or at least she was peaceable. If I had to guess her perception was due to her own pain. But, unlike me, where I raged against fate, she accepted her lot in life and had faith. While fundamentalist Mennonites tend to see peace as something to shove down your throat, she embodied peace and embodied it in a way that would temporarily calm my storm.

I desperately wanted what she had and yet didn’t know how to get there.

What Theosis Means and My Journey Since

My first guess, as far as the meaning of theosis, would’ve been something like “theology” and “sister” going by the fact that the only theosis I knew was a female Christian. But silliness aside, given my respect for Martha, I finally did Google the word “theosis” and found an intriguing theological concept. Theosis, as it turns out, is the Orthodox description for the ultimate goal of Christianity and that being perfect oneness with God.

At the time the term intrigued me. But I had bigger fish to fry rather than try to sift through Orthodox theological descriptions and kept it filed under delightful (but otherwise useless) oddities. Becoming like God is a moot point when one is struggling to even believe in God. Besides that, theosis (otherwise known as “divinization” or “deification”) seemed way too tall an order for my Mennonite mind and was probably heretical. Still, it stuck in the back of my mind as a concept and that’s where it stayed percolating for years.

My turmoil began to subside as I came to terms with the unexpected loss of Saniyah and the hopes tied to her. During this time I made a brief return to MennoDiscuss (after a hiatus) and left after feeling that I had done my part to restore relationships there and could move on. And, more significantly, I had a spiritual experience, an epiphany about faith, that helped push me to this point where I could move on.

In short, I discovered faith is something God does, a gift of salvation, a mysterious “quickening” and spiritual transformation, rather than something proved through science, apologetics, and reason—it was not earned through my works of righteousness or religious efforts. I could finally rest in grace, be empowered by the Spirit and be changed from the inside out. That newfound confidence is what led me to pursue “impossibly” in faith and, after another period of turmoil when my “hope against hope” was not reciprocated, eventually took me beyond my Mennonite roots.

As I read through Paul’s writings, as one now spiritually alive and with eyes opened a bit more than before, a picture of theosis began to emerge out of the text. It was a marvelous thing, and a beautiful paradox of faith, that Jesus became man so that we could join Him in perfect oneness with God. That is what it means to be adopted as a son or daughter of God—putting on the divinity of Jesus Christ and being made into an incarnation of Him. This is not to be equal to or replace God, but rather to be in perfect Communion with Him and a true embodiment of His life-creating Spirit.

Theosis, the True Promise of Salvation

Theosis is a theological concept both simple and profound. God became man so that we could follow in the example of Jesus and go beyond what is possible through mere religious devotion:

“We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.” Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father. (John 10:33‭-‬38 NIV)

To claim to be God’s son is essentially to claim divinity or equality with God and, unless you truly are God’s child, is blasphemous.

What Jesus promised the disciples:

“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. (John 14:18‭-‬20 NIV)

And the day he delivered:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are oneI in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:22‭-‬23 NIV)

How Paul explains this:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “ Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirsheirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:15‭-‬17 NIV)

That is an extraordinary claim. It is to essentially claim the same thing Jesus did and led to his being killed. And, in fact, before Jesus died to make the impossible possible, our calling God “Father” would indeed be blasphemous. This theosis, this divine adoption, is not cheap grace nor earned by our works of righteousness, it is a mysterious transformation that comes from faith and a work of the Spirit—It is partaking in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Where is Martha Today?

Theosis, her full name Martha Ann Hays, passed from this life to the next on December 20th of 2010. She was terminally ill when I knew her and dealing with the same sense of loss all sane people feel when facing certain death. Yet despite this, and excruciating physical pain, she treated me with extraordinary kindness and a love that I did not deserve. Unlike me, constantly trying to figure everything out and win people through theological brute force, she was simply peaceable.

Her terminal illness, colorectal cancer, was very unpleasant and painful. She was still a young woman, in her thirties, when first diagnosed and was no doubt dealing with the weight of broken dreams and disappointment. That is probably why she understood me and had compassion where others did not. I knew she was not well. But she would never complain to me about the things going on in her life at the time.

Martha had never fit into the Mennonite culture and eventually moved on. She learned Russian while in university and later found Orthodoxy (Russian Orthodox) and a parish community in Toronto that loved her. She had many friends in her parish and that including a boyfriend who would be at her bedside. She died peacefully, as she had lived, surrounded by family and friends.

Her funeral, according to one non-Orthodox in attendance, had beautiful music and a worshipful atmosphere.

It is interesting how two people can see the same event through a completely different lens. Another friend (a conservative Mennonite who knew Martha) commented that her funeral was a “very sad occasion” because allegedly there were more Mennonites than Orthodox in attendance. But an Orthodox Christian knows that is not true. Yes, conservative Mennonites definitely have bodies in the pews at funerals. Yet, even if there are only a handful that can be physically present, an Orthodox funeral is always well-attended. Orthodox believe in the “Communion of saints” or basically the idea of that “great cloud of witnesses” expressed by the apostle Paul in the book of Hebrews.

[07/01: The friend who made the attendance claim has since wrote to make a retraction.]

I believe someone with Martha’s prognosis could greatly appreciate that she was not alone in her suffering and that there was that “great cloud of witnesses” there to cheer her on to the finish line. That is the beauty of Orthodoxy. The Chruch is bigger than the present suffering of those still “militant” and also includes those “triumphant” who have gone on to glory with God. The icons on the wall are there to remind us of that reality beyond us.

Being An Image (or Icon) of God

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:24‭-‬25 NIV)

As is well-known now, I have left my Mennonite religious culture and have become an Orthodox Christian. But until now I have not mentioned theosis and her contribution to that decision. Martha’s peaceable witness was a seed, it was later watered by Fr. Anthony with his similar spirit a and genuinely fatherly care and has been nourished by the Church. It is a life that continues to grow in me. There is a great beauty in Orthodox worship that I have not found elsewhere.

I do not go to church as a family reunion or to hang out with friends anymore. I go for healing and spiritual renewal, to experience God through worship, to be one with Jesus in body and Spirit. I go to be in that “great cloud of witnesses” of a Church that spans two millennia and those icons on the wall are there to remind us to remain faithful until the end.

Orthodoxy is not a “seeker-sensitive” church, we do not change with the winds of modern culture, we do not fill our pews with those seeking entertainment or easy answers. We believe that the Christian life is one of trials, tribulations, loneliness, hardships, suffering, and salvation by way of the cross. But we also find there is a great peace in knowing that our turmoil is temporal and eternal life awaits.

We die to self so that we can live in perfect oneness with God. Martha died, like Jesus, so that I might live. And I must die, so you whom I love may also live.

That is God’s economy at work.

That is poetic justice.

That is theosis.

How God’s Economy Differs From Our Own

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In three prior blogs (on topics of law, legalism and church authority) I’ve tried to present the Biblical basis and lay the theological groundwork necessary to establish concepts I will introduce in this post. I wish to remind my readers once again that I do not speak in any official capacity, I am not ordained, and encourage y’all to investigate these matters for yourselves rather than just take my word for it.

There are several cases in Scripture of people asking what they must do to be saved. In Acts 2:37-39, when the crowd asks what they must do, Peter answers:

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.

Later, in Acts 16:31-34, a Roman jailer asks: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

This is how Paul and Silas replied:

“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

We read the testimony of the apostle Paul, in Acts 22, where he describes his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. He describes a blinding light, being confronted by Jesus, and how he asked what he should do. He is told to continue on the road and meet a man named Ananias who restores his sight and then tells him: “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”

And we also have this explanation of salvation by Peter:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Peter 3:18-21 NIV)

All of those passages answer the question of what a person must do. All of them mention water baptism as a necessary step in this process. This emphasis on baptism reflects the preaching of John the Baptist who tied the practice with true repentance. It also is what Jesus clearly taught:

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5 NIV)

This is likely the reason why baptism is a sacrament that, traditionally, in an emergency or circumstance where there is nobody else, can be administered by anyone. One can repent and believe in their mind, but baptism should follow—because that is what Jesus taught, it is what the early Church believed and to this very day is still the tradition of the Church.

So, we can all agree that baptism is a requirement for salvation, right?

Probably not.

This is one point where legalists might carve out exemptions, turn Scripture against Scripture, or otherwise downplay the necessity of baptism. But no amount of theological twisting can overturn the rule. Baptism is absolutely a requirement for salvation and to argue against that is to deny what is clearly recorded in Scripture. Jesus says that “no one can enter the kingdom” without being “born of water” and we must assume that is exactly what he meant.

The Thief On the Cross, Judas, and the Kingdom

Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant. For I will not speak of Thy Mysteries to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss. But like the thief will I confess Thee: remember me O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.

One of the starkest contrasts in Scripture is between the thief on the cross beside Jesus and Judas who betrayed Jesus. It wasn’t a comparison I had considered before hearing the Orthodox liturgy (in the quotes above) and yet is a parallel that is quite poetic and very significant.

On one side of the comparison, we have the man who did everything right from a legalistic standpoint. Judas had followed Jesus for years, from all appearances he had done everything required of a disciple and was even trusted enough to carry the common purse. But Judas, despite his outward devotion, seems to have been full of bitterness and ends up betraying Jesus with a kiss—before he took his own life. His name has become synonymous with betrayal and treason.

On the other side we have the account of two criminals crucified beside Jesus on the cross:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43 NIV)

This man called “the thief” was a criminal who acknowledged that his punishment was just and defends Jesus against the mocker on the other cross. We have no reason whatsoever to believe he lived an upright or righteous life. There is no evidence of this man being baptized. He doesn’t ask Jesus into his heart nor does he recite a creed. He simply pleas, with his dying breaths and a little faith, “remember me” and Jesus, in response, tells him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Does this mean that we should stop baptizing people?

Does this mean that we can continue in sin that grace may abound?

No and no.

There is no excuse for sin and there is no exemption for baptism either. There is, however, an order or a hierarchical arrangement of priorities and at the top of it is something beyond mere religion. What matters most is God’s grace and having the faith to fully put our trust in Him as our salvation. This something the thief could do and that Judas could not. Judas, for all his outward displays of righteousness and despite doing everything that was required of a disciple, had faith in his own understanding rather than in Jesus.

There are many sincere folks today who try to reduce Christianity to a list of dos and don’ts. And, instead of an abundance of life or resembling Jesus, they are rigid, anxious, jealous, judgmental, unforgiving and too often a stumbling block to those young in the faith. They believe that they are receiving salvation as a trade for their own righteousness and careful obedience. They often end up like Judas, bitter and critical, and refuse to truly put their faith in Jesus.

No amount of ritual obedience or religion can save a person who has faith only in themselves. We should like the thief who knows they are doomed without God’s mercy and not Judas who was righteous by outward appearance and lacked faith. Being a lowly criminal with a repentant heart is eternally better than being a disciple who judges others by his own standards and betrays Jesus.

God’s Economy Is Different From Our Own

Those trying to earn God’s favor, like the Pharisee who boasted in prayer about his righteousness compared to another man, have a desperate need to justify themselves. And, like the Prodigal son’s older brother who was angry because of the grace shown to his openly rebellious younger sibling, many have an entitled attitude and believe that their obedience and works means they are owed. It is because they believe that God’s economy is merit-based like their own. They try to earn points by obeying the law and fail to comprehend their own woefully inadequate position before Almighty God.

Jesus, in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, contrasts God’s economy and our own:

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1‭-‬16 NIV)

It is easy to understand why those who started early in the morning and worked all day might feel slighted at the end. They had spent their entire day sweating it out, trying to earn their wage, only for some to come during the day or even at the last hour and receive the same compensation. From a laborer’s perspective, it seemed unfair. Shouldn’t those who did more also get paid more for their efforts?

But the landowner had not hired them to judge such matters for themselves. It was the landowner’s money to spend as he wished, he was not obligated to hire anyone, he had gone out to find them, they had all agreed to the wage they were paid and were truly owed nothing more than what they had received. It was a fair wage when they were hired and that fairness did not change because of the landowner’s generosity to those hired later.

But what point was Jesus trying to make with this story?

It is interesting that this story comes right in the heels of the account of the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to be granted eternal life—which contains the same “the first shall be last” refrain. This man had kept the law from his youth. But when he asked what he lacked, this is how Jesus replied:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21 NIV)

If you stopped reading there you might end up like Judas who used those words of Jesus as a means to criticize an extravagant act of worship and to hide his own corrupt self-centered motives. There are many today who read the words of Jesus legalistically, they see the story of the rich man then add one more item to their list of religious requirements, and entirely missing the point.

However, there’s more to what Jesus said. If you keep reading you will see how the disciples were “greatly astonished” and ask Jesus “who then can be saved?” They, even as those who had already left everything behind to follow Jesus, understood the severity of what Jesus told the inquiring rich man. If keeping the law wasn’t enough, what then?

How Jesus answers is clear: With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. (Matthew 19:‬26 NIV)

That is the answer to the rich man’s question.

It is impossible.

That is also what the parable of the laborers is about. Those who had started early in the day represent those relying on their own efforts and are completely lacking appreciation for the one who made their earning anything possible. They were upset that the landowner was paying those who came later the same as them because they felt their labor had been devalued and yet the only value their labor had was what the landowner was willing to pay them. They didn’t create the circumstances of their own employment, how could they possibly be in any position to judge what was fair compensation for someone else?

The point Jesus is making is only God can save us. If you believe your works can save you, even if you sell all and give to the poor, you are no better than that rich man. The rich man had kept the law and yet lacked true faith in Jesus. He had faith in himself as a good religious person, he thought he could do something to save himself, and yet salvation does not come from our own effort.

The reason why it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom is that they are able to depend on their own effort and thus are adequate without faith in their own minds. It was that self-sufficiency, the idea that a human can earn their way into eternal life, that Jesus confronts in the rich man. A person relying on themselves does not understand that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6) or that their salvation depends fully on God’s choice and not their own:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (John 15:16 NIV)

Akribeia: We Cannot Please God Through Perfection on Our Own Terms

There are many trying to please God with their own righteousness. That is to assume that God will somehow want or need us if we are good enough and that is completely absurd. It is a path to misery or arrogance. If you try to win God’s favor through your works and have any grasp of how your own best efforts compare to absolute perfection, you will be miserable. And, if you can delude yourself into believing that you are able to live to a perfect divine standard you are an insufferable moron.

Our salvation is not based on our own effort and cannot be. The rich man’s perfect obedience to the law of Moses couldn’t please God. And those trying to save themselves by turning the words of Jesus into a new law will likewise fail. Being a Christian requires obedience to a standard that goes well beyond the law of Moses and even beyond a legalistic interpretation of Jesus. It requires absolute and impossible perfection.

This is where the word “Akribeia” comes in. It is a Greek word (ἀκρίβεια) that means exactness or precision and refers to strict adherence to the law in Christian usage. We are all judged according to Akribeia and found lacking in comparison to this absolutely perfect standard. Even if you have followed the words of Jesus perfectly as a law you will still have fallen infinity short of God’s glory and are no better than the rich man or Judas.

No amount of obedience to the law, outside of God’s grace, can save anyone. Salvation is not something we receive in trade for our works. Our perfection doesn’t come from our works. We can’t even know what perfection is at God’s level, let alone live it out, and even if we could, that would still not entitle us to anything and would still leave us condemned to death with no hope of eternal life.

This is our salvation:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8‭-‬10 NIV)

Jesus is what gives us currency in God’s economy and not our own righteousness. A person who even begins to comprehend how their own righteousness stacks up compared to absolute perfection will know that even their best efforts to follow the law will fall infinitely short. The very idea of pleasing God through our own works of righteousness is an insult and is basically to try to put ourselves on the same level as Almighty God.

To please God you need to be on an equal basis with God and that is not something we as a created being can do for ourselves. Our own righteousness is nothing but a filthy rag by comparison to the glory of God. That is why we must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus (Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27) and are made worthy through his work rather than our own.

Legalism doesn’t comprehend Akribeia. Legalists believe they can win God’s favor and therefore are always trying to prove their righteousness compared to others. They seem to believe that being perfect is like outrunning a bear in that you only need to be faster or better than the guy beside them. That is why they are critical rather than helpful, judgmental rather than merciful, and self-righteous rather than humble. They are like that unrepentant thief on the other cross who continued to mock and ridicule despite being condemned.

However, when you serve a God who is impossible to please by your own efforts you will not be jealous or upset about the grace that is shown to others. Instead, you will come beside the weak, forgive their sins as you have been forgiven, and help them to bear their burdens rather than pile more on. A humble person understands “there but for the grace of God go I” and realizes that even by their best efforts they would only be condemned by the perfect law of God. It is then, and only then, after we have exhausted our own riches and righteousness, that we can be saved.

Oikonomia: The Economy Of Jesus and the Church

The Old Testament law is severe by our modern standards and many believe that Jesus relaxed these standards. But that is incorrect. The law of Moses only addressed outward behavior, but Jesus emphasized that even our thoughts could make us guilty of sin. The reality is that Jesus added to the severity of the standard. In the Sermon on the Mount, he taught that lust was comparable to the sin of adultery and equates hatefulness to murder. By that standard, we are all condemned to die.

Yet, while Jesus is making things literally impossible for the rich man and other good religious people, simultaneously he’s allowing his disciples to break the written law:

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23‭-‬28 NIV)

What?!?

Didn’t Moses, by command of God, have a man executed for merely picking up sticks on the Sabbath?

Note Jesus did not take the Pharisees to task for their interpretation of the law. But he does give times when the law was set aside and then goes on to explain something that is key—he turns attention from the letter of the Sabbath law to the spirit or reason behind it. He tells these religious experts that the Sabbath was created for the man rather than man for the Sabbath. In other words, the Sabbath law was instituted for the good of men and that reason for the law triumphed over the strict legalistic application.

Jesus can do that. He can for the same reason he could heal the blind, walk on water or turn water into wine. The one who created all things is not subject to anything and that includes the moral laws he created. Furthermore, the purpose and or intent of the law always supersedes the letter and therefore the one who knows the reason behind the law perfectly is free from the letter. And, while the written law is essentially the God of the legalist, we (together, as the Church) who are clothed in Jesus are given the same authority over the law and this authority is demonstrated in the early Church.

Jesus, in giving his authority to bind and loose, through the promise of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for the Church to rule on circumcision in a way that went directly against what the written law taught. Physical circumcision is still an explicit requirement according to the book of Leviticus, yet physical circumcision was dismissed by the apostle Paul. That loosing from the law led to conflict in the early church. Some were teaching that circumcision was still necessary for new converts while others were saying that this Scriptural requirement could be ignored. So the Church held a council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and decided to waive the requirement.

We, as individuals, can’t pick or choose for ourselves what Biblical requirements apply to us. However, the Church (collectively) has the same authority as Jesus on matters of the law and can show the same grace (in other areas of law) that was argued in Jerusalem as far as circumcision. The Church can also expel an unrepentant evildoer as Paul demanded to be done in a letter to the Corinthians. The word for this is Oikonomia (οἰκονομία or “economia”) and literally means “household management” and is basically the same concept that allows anyone to be saved. If the written law cannot be overruled by God’s economy, we would all be condemned to death—who then could possibly be saved?

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:1-6)

The law is a means, not an end.

Love is the end.

Binding, Loosing and the Authority Given to the Church

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This is the third part of a four part series about law, legalism, church authority and economia.

It is quite clear, according to Scripture, that we have no right to judge anyone. The words “vengeance is mine” are found first in the Old Testament and Jesus left no doubt about what it means.

Our obligation, as individuals, is to love—to love even our enemies and even to do good to those who despitefully use and persecute us. This is what it means to be Christian. It means acknowledgment that we are as condemned by the law as anyone else and responding to that with the humility and mercy understanding that reality requires of us. If we forgive we will be forgiven. If we judge we will be judged.

Simple, right?

Well, yes, it is that simple as far as our own individual right to judge another person. In light of God’s goodness to us despite our being totally undeserving, what choice do we have besides that? Do we want to be as that foolish servant who was forgiven a debt impossible for him to pay then turns around and doesn’t forgive? No, we do not, we have no other choice, and we must forgive all who trespass against us or we are in danger of inviting God’s judgment upon ourselves.

However, it is not truly that simple. Because, while true that Christianity means giving up our individual right to judge, God will still judge sin harshly and has as clearly ordained the punishment of evildoers. It is something endorsed fully in Romans 13:1-7 as it applies to civil authorities and this does not contradict the teachings of Jesus in the least. It is vigilante justice, our taking matters into our own hands, that is forbidden—not properly administered and appropriate punishment of evil.

Jesus did not come so that evil men could abuse with impunity and he never protested against the punishment of evil. He actually spoke quite strongly about what should happen to those who harm the vulnerable:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (Matthew 18:6‭-‬9 NIV)

Those aren’t the words of an enabler telling us to sit on our hands and do nothing while the most innocent of us suffer abuse. And I would not assume that he is speaking only metaphorically either. If you are doing evil that might cause others to stumble there will be literal hell to pay when you face eternity and especially if you claim to be a Christian. Therefore do everything it takes to reign in your rebellious flesh, cut anything off that would cause you to harm others, and do what is pleasing to God.

But this goes beyond an individual obligation to ourselves. The church is a hospital for sinners, a place where everyone is welcome regardless of their sordid list of sins, but the church was not instituted to be a safe-haven for sin. In other words, grace is not given so that sin may abound, there is no excuse for sin in the church community and when dealing with unrepentant sin in our midst we must deal with it firmly as Paul commanded the Corinthian church: “Expel the wicked man from among you!”

How should we deal with sin in the Church?

Our individual judgment is often clouded by our loyalties. We tend to excuse the sins of those whom we love (including our own sins) and then harshly judge those who offend us or our friends. And this is another reason why we should, as individuals, defer judgment to God rather than demand our pound of flesh. We must realize that our own judgment is skewed and that all sins against us fade into nothingness when compared to the eternal reward that awaits the faithful. So, therefore, remember what Jesus said: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

If God is able to forgive, for eternity, our infinite lacking in comparison to His boundless perfection, then a little grace towards others (who owe us for their few moments of weakness) is the least we can do to show our appreciation to God.

However, our personal withholding of judgment and forgiveness of those who trespass against us does not mean we should not confront the sin. No, quite the contrary—We have a moral obligation, as a loving brother or sister in Christ, to keep the church free from sin and this does require us to act as individuals to address sin in our circles. This is the beginning of a process Jesus himself outlined as the appropriate process for addressing sin in our midst. In the same context of millstones and maiming ourselves, he says this:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. (Matthew 18:15 NIV)

That is our individual role.

Jesus does not tell us to ignore sin. No, to forgive sin means first confronting the sin. But this confrontation should not be to shame or punish the offending individual. Rather it is to give a chance for resolution of the matter in private when that is possible. This could mean repentance and forgiveness. It could also mean simply an opportunity to hear the other side and adjust our own perspective.

So what happens when the matter can’t be resolved in a private one-on-one exchange?

Jesus continued:

But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ (Matthew 18:16 NIV)

This is after the private confrontation has failed and still in an effort to restore the offending person without making an unnecessary public spectacle of them.

Too often we skip that first step of private confrontation and move directly to the stage where we tell all of our friends about how we were mistreated and never do get around to the direct confrontation. We are wrong to do that and should love the offending person enough to go through a simple procedure to resolve the matter in the most gracious manner possible. Christ died for our sins so we can be forgiven and extend forgiveness to others—not so we could go on without mercy towards other sinners or demanding justice for ourselves.

So what happens when a sin problem cannot be resolved in private?

Jesus continued:

If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17 NIV)

Three strikes and you’re out. The matter moves up the chain, follows a procedure that helps prevent a mob spirit on the basis of an accusation, and helps to ensure a just outcome for all involved—including the accused. This process ensures that personal vendetta and a vengeful spirit does not get in the way of a just response. Both parties, both offender and offended, are ultimately accountable to the judgment of God and the authorities He has ordained for our benefit. All are subject to the civil authorities and the Christian is also to submit to each other and their elders.

I’ll note here that in cases involving criminal behavior, especially things like child molestation and sexual abuse, we have an obligation to go to the civil authorities or risk being complicit in a cover-up of the crime. The outline Jesus gave does not mean we should worry about following a tedious procedure before protecting the innocent. Sometimes we need to intervene aggressively on behalf of others and sort the details out later.

The extraordinary role of the Church in judgment and forgiveness sin.

In our individualistic age, it is easy to take things in Scripture out of context and apply them personally to ourselves. I believe this tendency to personalize everything is to blame for much of the confusion in the church. And, whether it is a situation of having too many Chiefs and not enough Indians or everyone doing what is right in their own eyes, this is not the church instituted by Jesus. The early church had elders, there were those ordained to act on behalf of Christ, and Christianity is not centered on the individual or their own personal opinion.

We individually should confront sin, but—as those subject to civil authorities and the church as originally instituted—can not unilaterally render judgment.

However, continuing with what Jesus said, there is a judgment to be made and on earth as in heaven:

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:18‭-‬20 NIV)

Those words, spoken in a conclusion of how to deal with sin in the church, are extraordinary in the authority they give. It is easy to forget, in a time of easy forgive-ism, that forgiveness is something divine and not something we should treat lightly or as being without consequence. The religious authorities, in my own estimation, correctly deduced that Jesus was asserting his own divinity by offering forgiveness of sin:

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man. (Matthew 9:1‭-‬3‭, ‬5‭-‬8 NIV)

It is one thing for one sinner to show mercy to another sinner. It is quite another to declare “your sins are forgiven” and do something on behalf of God. Even when a person sins against us personally and we forgive then of what they have personally cost us, they still owe a debt to God that can only be forgiven by God. To forgive on behalf of God is to essentially declare oneself to be God and, unless you are in perfect unity with God, is truly blasphemous.

On an aside, it is terrifying how vainly the name of God is used. And, no, I’m not talking about those who are irreligious who merely utter it as an epithet or expression. What I’m referring to is when those who claim to reverence God, declare things on behalf of God that are not clearly expressed in Scripture or established by the Church. Whether it is words of condemnation against someone or any other bold proclamation of God’s will—we would be wise to consider our own fallibility and learn to speak for ourselves rather than bolster our own opinions by invoking God’s name.

That said, we read Jesus speaking with this divine authority in Scripture and bestowing this same authority to his disciples:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven. (John 20:19‭-‬23 NIV)

Should everyone go out speaking on behalf of God?

No, not everyone.

Here’s why:

Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. (Acts 19:13‭-‬17 NIV)

These men, sons of an actual Jewish priest, understood the power of Jesus name and arguably were doing the greater things Jesus has promised (John 14:12) would come as a result of his departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Evidently, it had been working out for them to use the name of Paul and Jesus without their direct authorization. That until the one day where an evil spirit called their bluff and gave them a beating that made them the talk of the town.

It is no small thing to invoke God’s power and is, in fact, a very dangerous thing to do.

Remember this:

The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17‭-‬20 NIV)

Jesus specifically ordained these seventy-two to go out in his name and yet speaks a very serious warning to them. The original sin is pride and it is one small step between going out on behalf of God and declaring oneself to be God. For this reason, we should probably think twice before dabbling in the spiritual realm without a specific ordination to do so. There is plenty of good that can be done, many ministries in the church to be filled, that belong to those of us who struggle against arrogance and pride. It is better to be humble than to be out of place, out of our league and defeated.

We have every reason to be cautious if even those specifically ordained were warned by Jesus. The gift of salvation is for all who repent of their sin and believe. But that does not make the Church a free-for-all where everyone does what is right in their own eyes.

Christianity is not a schizophrenic delusion.

We are not individually Jesus.

No, rather it is the Church (collectively) that represents the body of Christ and we are just part of that work. And, like anybody, different parts are assigned to different tasks, each part must do the work that it is assigned to do, and in perfect cooperation with those who God has ordained as leaders.

Who is ordained to do the binding and loosing of the Church?

There has always been a hierarchy in the church, the head is always Jesus and, from the beginning, there where always those given special designation to administer on behalf of Jesus:

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:17‭-‬19 NIV)

There are many who teach this ordination of the Church has been overwhelmed somewhere in the time of Constantine. They apply the words of Scripture liberally to themselves and those who agree with their own particular interpretation. They deny apostolic succession and any kind of accountability to a historic Church. For them Church history is a smorgasbord, everyone has equal authority to choose for themselves, they pick and choose whatever suits them individually and do not really submit to anything besides their own personal understanding of things.

But that was not what the early Church taught. The church has leaders and we are to humbly submit to them:

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5‭-‬6 NIV)

And again…

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)

We all may have some authority as individual Christians. But the full authority of the Church is bestowed collectively and to those ordained to speak on behalf of the Church. We should be mindful of this and submit to each other and especially to those who are ordained by the Church—the Church that was established by Jesus.

The power of “binding and loosing” is something Jesus spoke to Peter and the disciples. In other words, it was something he gave to those whom would eventually become the leaders of the early Church. This is an authority given to the Church, which is not to all Christians individually, the collective body of the Church which is represented by those ordained as leaders from those early days until the present time. It is not a power of human origin or something to be wielded by those who are not fully prepared for the responsibility and is rather a duty reserved for our elders.

We should forgive those who personally offend us and ask for forgiveness. We should also judge our own hearts and motives and repent of our sins. But we are not individually given authority to judge others. Individual judgment often leads to vengeance and never justice. For judgments of others, we should defer to civil authorities (where it is necessary or required) and to the collective authority of the Church.