Kissing Images, Grandpa’s Love, and Jokes On Me

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Years ago, while on a Mennonite forum discussion about the “holy kiss” ordinance, I had joked that the practice was impossible given that those mentioned to kiss in the Biblical proof-texts were already long dead.

Old Order Mennonites, along with some conservative holdouts, continue the practice of greeting each other with a kiss. They base this practice on some salutations of epistles where St Paul instructs the reader “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Corinthians 13:12) and even gives particular people to greet in this manner:

Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my dear friend in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. Greet Apelles, whose fidelity to Christ has stood the test. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. Greet Herodion, my fellow Jew. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the other brothers and sisters with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the Lord’s people who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings. (Romans 16:3‭-‬16 NIV)

I was being facetious in suggesting that it was impossible to carry out the instruction above. I was challenging the holy kiss hardliners to consider the context of the instruction and the intended audience. My own thoughts at the time being that this practice was more common to the culture then, that it had become archaic, and that a holy handshake would get the job done in our own time.

The concern of those questioning the need to carry out the salutation as instruction for all time was that men giving other men a big smooch would be misunderstood by those not familiar with the practice. So my joke that we can’t kiss dead people was to drive home that point, we can’t greet Mary Andronicus or Junia and the others listed in the letter as those to greet, so why should we take any of it as an instruction for us?

The Joke Was On Me

One of the strangest things for a person coming into the Orthodox Christian culture is the practice of kissing icons. For whatever reason, this practice of veneration is often misconstrued as worship and dismissed on those grounds. However, that is a silly notion, if it is idolatry to kiss an image then why is it not also idol worship to kiss your spouse?

Over the time I was still mulling over the Orthodox practice of kissing icons, my grandma passed away surrounded by family and my grandpa—her loyal companion and loving husband of sixty years.

My grandpa’s grieving was intense, as one would expect, and there is no person on this earth who could ever replace his beloved Mildred.

It was then that I found out about a curious little ritual he would perform each morning and evening. He would take the image of his late wife in his hands, kiss it seven times, and put it down again. Why? Well, in what other way do you suggest that he honor the woman who gave birth to his seven children, who faithfully cooked his meals up until dementia stole her ability to do that, and professed her deep love for him to the very end even as her mind slipped away?

Suddenly my flippancy about kissing dead people lost its humor.

My grandpa is not worshipping the image. He is not confusing the image with his reposed wife either. But he was showing his love for her in the most intimate way available to him. Kissing her image was symbolic of something for him, things he probably couldn’t even put into words to explain, and it would be silly to question the appropriateness of his action.

For me, this ritual of grandpa kissing grandma’s picture put the Orthodox practice of veneration of icons in a whole new light. My grandpa isn’t Orthodox, he is a Mennonite, and yet intuitively he arrived at the same place they do concerning the beloved who have departed this life for the next. Not only that, but he made it completely possible for us to carry out the salutation of St Paul’s letters and greet even those he listed with a holy kiss.

The Church Both Militant and Triumphant

As a Protestant-born, I was firmly stuck in the here and now, the church was those alive today and those who came before were basically irrelevant other than the writings they left behind. That is typical of our generation. I mean, we have smartphones and Instagram, what could previous generations have that is relevant to us today?

But the Orthodox perspective is different. They see a clear continuity from the early church to the present and they also see those who have gone on before us as participants in the worship service. They believe that the dead in Christ are still spiritually alive in him and they make up the “great cloud of witnesses” that we read in chapter 12 of the book of Hebrews.

The Orthodox see their corporate worship, which is centered on Communion, as the link between temporal and eternal, a place where heaven and earth come together, rather than merely a commemorative meeting of religious folks. In other words, as Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, I am there with them,” (Matthew 18:20 NIV) there is an emergent property of our coming together, that being the presence of Christ and the “cloud of witnesses” we read about in Scripture.

There is a beautiful description of the two parts of the church congregation. The Orthodox refer to those who have completed their race as being “the church triumphant” and use “church militant” in reference to those still in the fight. They acknowledge and greet both. When the Orthodox kiss an icon they are merely saying hello to the triumphant who join us in worship. It is a true act of faith. If we do not believe that those who have gone on before can join us in our worship, then why go to church at all?

When is the last time you’ve consulted the church fathers when trying to interpret a passage of Scripture?

It is a shame that I did not understand the significance and need for a church that extends beyond the current generation. This notion that we do not need the church triumphant, that their contribution has passed, makes us weak and vulnerable. We need to cultivate the connection between our current practice, the Scripture and other tradition we have received through the church, and those who have gone on before us. We may not see them with our physical eyes, but that does not mean that they are not present, relevant or worth our time.

The wonderful thing about icons is that they are visual reminders that we are not alone in our worship. Sure, like my grandma’s picture isn’t my grandma, the objects we kiss are not the actual person, but it does encourage mindfulness about the true meaning of being part of the body of Christ.

The Biblical Basis For Sacred Objects and Icons

As with many Christian practices, from Sunday school to Christmas celebration, even Dank Kingdom Christian Memes, there is nothing in the canon of Scripture that specifically instructs us to venerate icons with a kiss. That said, there is definitely a Biblical basis for images in areas used for worship and even Christian purpose for relics and other objects.

It seems, actually, that Orthodoxy encourages more Biblical literacy (through practice) than the alternative of Protestantism. In questioning various Orthodox practices I was always led directly back to Scripture. From incense being referenced in the context of prayer, to art and images being used in Israelite worship, there is plenty of support for the Orthodox understanding of Christian practice.

For example, the idea of relics, like the bones of various saints, having significance originates in Scripture:

Once while some Israelites were burying a man, suddenly they saw a band of raiders; so they threw the man’s body into Elisha’s tomb. When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet. (2 Kings 13:21 NIV)

Can you imagine that?

Merely touching the bones of a prophet could bring a dead man back to life!

But, lest a skeptic might say that was Old Testament, we also have this from the book of Acts:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11,12 NIV)

The Protestant aversion to the idea that objects have significance and can be sacred is not rooted in Scripture. The Bible shows very clearly that things in the physical world can be given supernatural powers, that touching bones could bring a person back to life or some cloth merely touched by an apostle could heal the sick and exorcise their demons. That is not idolatry, it is both Biblical and Christian.

Furthermore, this idea that every Christian practice must come directly from the Bible, a book canonized by the church via councils, is absurd. Those who trust the institution of the church to give them Scripture are trying to have it both ways when they undermine the authority of the church elsewhere, you can’t say that the Bible is completely reliable without also acknowledging the authority of the very institution that decided what books would be included in the Biblical canon.

The Arrogance of Assuming Your Own Normal Is Normal

What the objection to kissing icons really comes down to is arrogance and an assumption that what is normal for me is the ultimate standard of right or wrong practice in the Christian context. Those who dismiss or mock a practice simply because it is foreign to them show an amazing lack of self-awareness.

Maybe it isn’t normal anymore to greet each other with a kiss? Maybe the idea of objects having healing powers seems foreign, strange, ridiculous or inappropriate from your own perspective? But who are you and what makes your own opinion the center of the universe? All of Christianity, from baptism to concepts of eternity in paradise, can be dismissed on the basis of someone’s normal. Is it really that hard to accept a symbolic greeting of the reposed, those alive in Christ, for someone who believes that God himself became flesh in the person of Jesus?

Icons represent a physical connection to the spiritual realm, the Orthodox do not worship them anymore than those in the Bible healed by sacred objects committed a sin of idolatry, and it is as much an established tradition of Christians as the canon of Scriptural is. A church council decided what was normal for inclusion in the Bible and, likewise, a church council decided that the veneration of icons is appropriate and normal Christian behavior.

The church does not revolve around your own personal ideas, you as an individual are not an authority over the church, and if you dismiss what you do not understand simply because you do not understand it, then the joke is on you.

Deal with it!

Easter, Endgame and Resurrections

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Spoiler alert.

The fight is hard, there are great sacrifices that need to be made, but in the end the good guys win and the armies of chaos and confusion are defeated.

Or at least that is how one would expect of a superhero movie that packs movie theaters around the world, right?

Some, from my religious roots, would decry the fact that “Avengers: Endgame,” the wrap-up to a 21 movie saga where an unlikely group of misfits take on villains of increased size and power, is better attended than their Easter services.

I mean how can it be a good thing that so many seek to be entertained by watching such nonsense?

However, in my own perspective, it doesn’t seem like such a bad thing that story of triumph through self-sacrificial love still dominates the box office. In fact, if imitation is the highest form of flattery then this creation of Stan Lee’s imagination is possibly the ultimate expression of Christian worship.

God, who lives outside of time itself, taking on the form of a man to save the world from death and destruction, sacrificing his all for sake of his friends only to triumph in a way unimaginable, is basically the end game of the Gospel.

As someone who enjoys “cinema magic” I’ve had to reflect many times, and often with tears, as I related to the struggles of the characters on the screen. Sure, the stories may be fictional, yet there is truth that transcends our reality captured in these fantastic accounts and that is exactly what draws the crowd now as it did when Jesus worked his miracles.

I am Tony Stark insomuch as I’ve needed to adapt to survive and overcome even myself, my pride, to protect those who I love.

I am Steve Rogers insomuch that I’ve often felt like a throwback to a more innocent time and, like him, I belong in a world that has passed me by while frozen in ice.

I am Bruce Banner insomuch as I’m the nice guy, who doesn’t always know how to express himself, but when pushed far can go full on Hulk mode and leave a path of destruction.

I am Thor insomuch that I’ve been handed great responsibility, given a divine inheritance that I feel unworthy to wield (despite many assurances) and have failed those whom I love.

I am Natasha Romanoff insomuch as my loneliness, being a tragic character, haunted by my past and my crushed romantic hopes in particular.

I am Clint Barton insomuch as I’m just a man wanting to live a happy simple life, yet always faced with complexities, sucked into a fight bigger than my abilities, etc.

As I enter this endgame of my life, I’m in a fight to save my future from my past. I carry a weight of painful baggage, the resurrection of my hopes still incomplete, and some days I feel stretched well past my abilities to continue on. There are times I wish I could go back in time and fix the terrible things that have taken so much out of me. However, there are those whom I love too much now to abandon in an effort to retrieve that which was lost.

It is only fitting that the Endgame movie come out so close to Easter and you’ll need to watch it if you want to understand why that is. The story is compelling because it is a story very much like that of the one who overcame death through death and has given humanity a path to salvation. As I look forward to being a husband and father, a true friend to those in need of love, it is the heroic example of Jesus that will guide me.

I Prefer Representatives, Sound Doctrine and the Holy Spirit Over False Choices

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I was speaking with a friend a week or two ago (a conservative Mennonite searching for his place in the church) and he shared this quote:

“Doctrine is dead as a doorknob without the presence of the Holy Spirit in an individual’s life.” (Paul Washer)

That quote drop of a Calvinist commentator was annoying to me. It was annoying because it was shared in the context of a conversation about Orthodox worship and prayers. The clear implication being that established doctrine is somehow in conflict with spiritual life.

So, without hesitation, I asked my friend: “How do you know Washer’s doctrines (like the one you just quoted) are inspired by the Holy Spirit?”

My question was based on my own experience as one who had put his full confidence in the Holy Spirit and has since learned (the hard way) the need to be grounded in sound doctrine as well. In fact, it was my desire to follow the Spirit without compromise which had led to my pursuit of the impossibility, which led to my eventual disillusionment with the Mennonite denomination, which led me to the ancient faith of Orthodoxy and new spiritual life.

So, getting back to Washer’s quote, he presents a false choice between doctrine and the Holy Spirit. He, like many Protestant commentators, seems to equate established religious dogma with spiritual deadness. His quote suggests that we devalue church traditions (those pertaining to worship and prayer in the case of my friend) based in an assumption that what is new or spontaneous is somehow more authentic and real than something that has been passed down through many generations.

But is that truly the case?

Do we ever need to choose between established doctrine and authentic faith?

From what I can tell, church doctrine and real spiritual life originate from the same source (that source being the Holy Spirit) and thus we should not ever have to choose between the two. The traditions passed down by the church (including the canon of Scripture) and the Holy Spirit are never at odds. To deny the importance of church doctrines and tradition is basically to speak against the authority of Scripture:

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3‭-‬4 NIV)

Nowhere in Scripture do I see sound doctrine being presented in contrast with living according to the Holy Spirit. However, I do see James tells us “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26) and also know, according to the Gospel (Matthew 7:22-24), that there will be those who have professed faith in Jesus, even worked miracles in his name, whom he will tell to depart because he never knew them and therefore authenticity of faith is about more than making a claim.

Thus I do question the basis for this commentator’s opinion and the many others out there of those who speak with a similar confidence about spiritual matters. By what authority do they speak? How do we know that they, along with their devoted followings, are not deceived? I mean these ‘spiritual’ commentators are often at complete odds with one another. Don’t believe me? Do a Google search “Paul Washer false teacher” and you’ll find dozens of articles denouncing him and his teachings.

So who is right? Who is wrong? How do we know?

My contempt for commentators…

My reaction to the Washer quote isn’t something unusual for me. I have a near-universal contempt for commentators and especially those who can’t at least ground their statements directly to something found in Scripture. And perhaps that strong aversion is because I have enough strong opinions of my own, more than my fill, and therefore seek something a little more grounded than mere opinions?

Not to be misunderstood, that’s not to say that I find no value in reading commentators. I do believe we can gain many valuable insights from listening to various men and women sharing their personal perspectives on spiritual issues.

But, that said, not all commentators are equal and anyone can say anything and our feelings (one way or another) about what someone says doesn’t make it any more or less true. There are likely false teachings that would resonate with any one of us and we should guard against being closed off to truth based on our emotions. We should remember that all religious groups are able to justify their own understanding of spiritual matters, many of them live morally upright lives, and can be very convincing to those who don’t know any different.

And, to be clear, I’m not just talking about those commentators who say “the Holy Spirit tells me thus and such” without offering any corroborating evidence from church history or Scripture. Being a Bible scholar or well-educated and intelligent does not make a person less susceptible to confirmation bias. No, if anything, being well-studied and smart brings a danger of pride and pride can prevent us from seeing our own biases and the many things we have missed in our studies.

Proof-texting, when a person soundbites Biblical texts at the cost of context, is a real problem for any commentator. That is why we have a multitude of denominations all claiming their authority comes from Scripture and, yet, can’t agree on some very basic issues. It isn’t that one side is more ignorant of the book than another nor that one side is less sincere about their profession of faith than another either—the problem is a lack of accountability to anything more than what feels right to us.

My own commentary on spiritual life…

Going back to Washer’s quote, I believe we can all agree that there is no life in the church or elsewhere without the Holy Spirit.

As the Orthodox pray on a regular basis:

“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.”

We know, from the creation narrative, that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2) and is also the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7) that entered Adam. Life, both physical and spiritual, comes from the Holy Spirit, and we see this pattern throughout Scripture and even at the end of the Gospel when Jesus empowered the disciples to continue his ministry of forgiveness:

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 20:22‭-‬23 NIV)

Note how that parallels with the Genesis account where God breathes life into Adam. Note also that this being “breathed on” comes after the resurrection, after Jesus spent years teaching these men, and is what enabled them to fully understand what he had taught:

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:45‭-‬49 NIV)

The disciples being “clothed with power from on high” (a step that should happen before we go out on our own commission) is something that happened in the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, when they received an outpouring of the Spirit and many came to believe in Jerusalem.

Truth, according to Paul’s commentary, in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, is something revealed by the Holy Spirit. That is something that mirrors what Jesus said in his promise of a “Comforter” that would “guide you (his disciples) into all the truth” (John 16:13), and there is no way around it. All the Bible study and religious knowledge in the world cannot breath spiritual life into anyone.

All that said, sound doctrine and spiritual life are never at odds with each other. That it took a special outpouring of the Spirit before the disciples could understand what Jesus taught doesn’t make his prior effort useless. His teachings, if anything, provided substance, like the dust God formed up into a man in Genesis, and his breath the catalyst.

Furthermore, those waiting on the right feelings, or teachings that resonate with them and their own prior experience, will likely be like the rich young ruler who left disappointed after asking what he must do to be saved. Faith demands we go outside of our own comfort zone, that we go beyond our own understanding, preferences or calculations, and begin to walk before we have our eyes opened. In fact, the Spirit is something promised only to those who those who love Jesus and keep his commandments:

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. […] “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:15‭-‬17a‭, ‬23 NIV)

So, what comes first, belief and obedience to Jesus or is it the revelation of truth via the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand what we read?

That is a paradox and something that has always made me uncomfortable. Jesus appears to make obedience a prerequisite to spiritual revelation, which ran counter to my own intuition, and why I had always stressed the second half of the teaching rather than the first part. How could I know what is sound doctrine (as in the correct understanding of what Jesus taught enabling my obedience) without the Holy Spirit coming first?

My understanding was clouded by an individualistic filter…

One would think that I, as one raised in a church with Anabaptist heritage, would understand that interpretation of Scripture and establishing doctrine is something we do together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as a church.

But somewhere along the line (somewhere between urban myths being shared from the pulpit and men like Bill Gothard being given a platform), I had lost trust in the ‘ordained’ leadership and other members to discern truth. And, as a result, I began to look beyond my religious peers for answers. Eventually, after an epiphany about faith, I began to find answers in Biblical passages that had once confounded me and became more confident in my own individual discernment through the Spirit.

However, that paradigm of understanding was incomplete and all came crashing down when my own individual ability to discern spiritual truth came into serious question.

It is easy to claim the Holy Spirit is leading you while you remain safe within the boat of religion. But true faith requires going beyond our own established range of possibilities, to let go of our own human logic and reason, and step out of the boat. I did that. I stepped out. I took a few steps across the waves and then was promptly overwhelmed by doubts—doubts that were, in part, a product of running headlong into the plans, prejudices and cynical calculations of those in the church whom I had still counted on to mirror my faith.

I had questions that I could not answer nor could be answered in the Mennonite context. I had lost faith in my Mennonite identity and Anabaptist heritage to provide reliable guidance. I felt I had been fooled, once again, misled by the desire to find meaning in my struggles and a delusional faith that the impossible would be made possible. I had nothing, besides an obligation to continue to fight for the hopes of my bhest, and needed answers.

Fortunately, I ran into a man, a fatherly figure, who did have answers that I needed and set me right again.

Fr. Anthony, an Orthodox priest, arrived in my life as if by divine appointment. He had the right attitude, asked the right questions, never said a disrespectful word about my Mennonite identity (offering praise for our “peace witness” instead) and could speak with an authority that was missing where I was coming from. There was no pressure. However, he always seemed to show up at the right time and was always able to explain things in a way that made sense to me.

The timing was right for me in the same way it was for the man St. Philip encountered on the road:

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:29‭-‬31 NIV)

In an individualistic understanding, this man (the eunuch) should’ve had all he needed to find salvation—I mean, according to what many Biblical fundamentalist commentators put forward, Scripture is basically self-explanatory and all we need to do is believe what we read, right?

But clearly, that is not the case.

The Bible itself tells us that somethings in it are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16) and this eunuch, an important and likely very intelligent person, could not discern for himself what was written in Isaiah.

The Holy Spirit did provide him with an interpretation, yet that interpretation came through a man named Philip. Philip did not speak his own “private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20) as a mere commentator offering an opinion. He was a representative. He was a man both directed by the Spirit and also commissioned by the church in the book of Acts:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6)

Philip was chosen and ordained to be a representative of the apostles, the apostles who themselves were representatives of Christ. His authority to interpret Scripture went beyond being merely a product of his own religious studies. He was not simply a religious commentator spouting his own opinions. No, rather, he was ordained as a representative, as one judged to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” by the church, and therefore had an authority greater than a mere commentator with an opinion.

My individualistic filter was wrong, I could not understand everything on my own, we still need those representatives who are sent:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15 NIV)

Why I prefer representatives…

Anyone can offer commentary, we hear ‘expert’ commentators tell us their opinions of sports, politics and the economy all the time. Some people prefer Paul Krugman, others Rush Limbaugh, and typically we choose those who confirm our existing biases to those who would challenge them. That is also true of Biblical commentators as well. We like those men whom we choose based on our own feelings, on what resonates with us or provide our itching ears with what we wish to hear. Unfortunately, commentators are not accountable to anything besides their own understanding and too often play to the prejudices of their particular audience.

A representative, by contrast, does not speak on their own authority and is ultimately accountable to the authority that sent, commisioned or ordained them.

For example, in a Republic, like the United States, we elect Representatives to speak on our behalf and represent our interests. There are also representatives of a corporation authorized to act on behalf of the collective group and must also answer to the other representatives of the group.

Jesus, likewise, came as a representative of the Father who sent him, on several occasions he tells his audience that he speaks on behalf of the Father and not by his own authority:

Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”

Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. (John 7:14-18 NIV)

Jesus is imploring his audience to test his credentials. He is saying that those who choose to do the will of God, by following his teachings, will find out if his words are true or not. In other words, his teachings are a testable hypothesis, established directly on the authority of the Father, and not just his opinions that can’t be verified one way or another. Jesus is not a commentator speaking by his own authority, but a representative, commissioned by the Holy Spirit (confirmed with a voice from heaven and dove descending upon him at his baptism) and spoke with the authority of the Father rather than his own.

The difference between a commentator and a representative is accountable to an authority beyond their own. If a representative goes beyond their commissioning they can be voted out or brought before a council and condemned. A commentator, on the other hand, only needs to be accountable to their own understanding and the whims of their particular audience—their authority rests on their own credentials rather than on a true commissioning by an authority already established.

Doesn’t the Holy Spirit make us representatives as well?

My answer to this question, with my shift in paradigm, has changed.

The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, in that we do, as individuals, receive authority from the Holy Spirit.

But, no, as far that authority giving us license to be free from accountability and operate apart from what has been established by Christ and his church.

The Holy Spirit, the true spiritual guide sent by the Father rather than a counterfeit spirit, should lead us into unity together rather than to divisions. The early church was full of commentators, some who claimed to have the authority of the Spirit or Scripture on their side, but the book of Acts shows us that not all commentators were equal and some had to be rebuked:

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.

[…]

They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said… (Acts 15:5‭-‬8,22‭-‬24 NIV)

Heretical teachings in the church have always been sorted out by council and consensus.

Even St. Peter and St. Paul were accountable to the body of believers represented in this coming together of apostles and elders.

It is by this process we were even provided with a canon of Scripture: Councils, representatives of the church, decided what books belong in the Bible and which ones (while possibly still useful) did not meet the criteria of Orthodox teachings. Not every book, not every person, is equally authorized to speak on behalf of Christ and his church. The Holy Spirit does work in the life of the individual, but the Holy Spirit also speaks through the church and especially through those sent, ordained or commissioned by Christ and is church:

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:13‭-‬15 NIV)

We are told the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and that is to say that the church does have authority over the individual as a representative of Christ. We really do need that—we really do need to be accountable to something more than our own ideas and/or interpretations—and should seek to hold fast to the teachings that have been passed by “word of mouth or by letter” of those who, through Christ and his church, have more authority than their own personal opinion.

Good commentary must be rooted in sound doctrine…

Anyone can claim to have the Holy Spirit, but not all who do are true representatives of Christ or his church, and we must use discernment. There have many heresies throughout the ages of those who felt they individually could discern truth without being accountable to anything besides their own religious knowledge and feelings of spiritual superiority to others. We need to be on the guard against their false teachings and also against being deceived by ourselves.

We are all very fortunate, we do not need to choose between the Holy Spirit and sound doctrine. This is a case where we can both have our cake and eat it. The church has preserved the teachings of Jesus, in traditions both written and spoken, as the basis for sound doctrine and that “breath of life” comes in our Communion together. We are not called to be “Lone Rangers” finding our own way, serving our own preferences, etc. We are called to be a part of the body of the church, representatives of the church past, present and future, this church:

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 16:18‭-‬19 NIV)

Should the Church Have Rituals and Traditions?

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Of those traditions kept by my conservative Mennonite church, a foot washing ritual was one of the more notable. It is a practice based in the example of Jesus who washed the feet of the disciples and then instructed them to follow his example:
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17, NIV)

So, twice a year with Communion, after a sermon about some aspect of the sacrifice Jesus made, after partaking of some bread and grape juice together and then another short reminder of why we were doing the stuff we did, the men would be dismissed to the basement (leaving the women the upstairs to do their symbolic washing) and on the way down we men would pair up with the guy beside us or another guy that we selected for whatever reason.

We would remove our shoes and socks, then proceed to one of the plastic basins arranged in front of folding chairs, then take turns solemnly splashing water on each other’s feet and dabbing them dry again with a towel provided. Once finished with this ritual procedure most would shake hands (those less inhibited would kiss) and engage in awkward small talk or make a comment about keeping their washing partner in prayer over the next few months.

In our time, this act of foot washing is little more than a symbolic act of service. But when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples it was something of practical value to those traveling the dusty roads in sandals and a task typically reserved for the servants. In that context it was a very significant gesture and represented a whole new approach to leadership. In the Mennonite context this practice is sometimes nothing more than a ritual and tradition.

Is reinvention of orthodoxy the answer to dead faith?

People often equate ritual and tradition in the church to dead faith. As a result, those disgruntled with dead faith swing in the direction of innovation and spontaneity hoping to find something authentic and real. Unfortunately, while the first generation of those discarding established tradition often experience the excitement of something new, their children do not get a temporary emotional bump from the change. It should be no surprise when these children continue down the same path and throw out practices that their parents considered to be sacred and essential.

The idiom, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” (derived from a German proverb “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütte”) is a warning against destroying something good in our zeal to be rid of what is bad. This saying was first recorded in 1512 and right before Martin Luther touched off a revolt against the established church. It is a phrase, frequently used by Luther himself, perhaps worried people would take what he started too far. It remains a very popular expression with Protestants (including Mennonites) who are trying desperately to retain their own children.

There is much in Scripture about the sins of fathers being transmitted to the next generation (Exodus 34:6-7, Leviticus 26:39, Deuteronomy 5:8-10) and seems to apply to our own circumstances today. Children, through genetics or behavioral patterning, often acquire the strengths of their parents. A parent’s good example can lead their children to good habits. And, in the same manner, children often also inherit the defects, blind-spots and weaknesses of their parents as well. Children build both on the success and also on the sins and/or shortcomings of the prior generation.

So, it should not be a big surprise that the children of Protestants continue down a path of independence, reinterpretation of Scripture and departure from what was established. Protestantism, with the inordinate focus on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, has led to further division, ever-increasing individualism, and significant loss of Christian character. Many Protestants, following the example of their forefathers, assume that the path to spiritual life is found in throwing off of traditions and rituals—but I believe they are terribly mistaken.

Orthodox tradition and ritual is not at fault for abuses of the institutions of the church…

What is the basis for tradition and ritual in the church?

Many seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew and faithfully kept the Jewish religious tradition. Jesus did speak against those who “let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8, NIV) or in other words those who prioritized religious rituals over love for others.

Yet Jesus did not dismiss ritual and tradition as completely unimportant either. Jesus and early Jewish converts to Christianity (while ranking the substance of faith higher than the religious symbolism) did not totally disregard the traditions that had been established.

To truly love Jesus means to follow his example and keep his commands. This, according to the words of Jesus, is requisite to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. 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. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:15‭-‬21, NIV )

Many church rituals (like Baptism, Communion and foot washing) are directly from the Gospels and given as instruction to the disciples by Jesus. And, it is in the Gospels that we read that Jesus gave authority to his disciples. He told Peter and the disciples this:

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 16:18‭-‬19, NIV)

The early church clearly had a hierarchy with real authority and one that built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. It is the writings of these early church fathers that contain their witness to the life of Jesus and also provide their reader with further divinely-inspired instruction. This is what they said:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NIV)

Scripture didn’t just drop out of the sky written on golden tablets. No, rather it is a collection of inspired writings compiled and later canonized by the authority of a church council. That, the Bible, is the written tradition of the church (or “letter”) and is a source widely accepted as authoritative. However, in Protestant churches, because they reject any authority besides their own, the “spoken word” of church tradition has not been firmly held—it is neglected and forgotten.

The complete disregard for the oral tradition of the church is no different from cutting a chunk out of Scripture. Sure, as a person can refrain from applying the instruction Paul gives in regards to veiling (and not veiling) in 1 Corinthians 11 and still be Christian, these things aren’t necessary to be saved. However, this represents the deterioration of church tradition and a serious problem. At some point we cannot claim to be following after the example of Jesus and continue to abandon the practices of the church he established.

There is a real loss when the established tradition is tossed in favor of a more ‘contemporary’ program. Moreover, those leaving their religious tradition often continue to benefit from the values it helped to instill in them. Sadly, the full cost is often only felt in subsequent generations who didn’t have the unappreciated benefits of the old tradition—the children raised without tradition have lost the helpful reminders given to their parents and also an important stabilizing tie to the historic church.

What makes tradition and ritual important?

The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” contains the following monologue:

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That, I can tell you in a word—tradition!
Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything—how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you—I don’t know! But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.
Tevye’s character is a Jewish father standing at this intersection of religious tradition and compromise in the name of progress. He points to one of the reasons why traditions are formed and that is balance. Traditions and rituals are established to help provide stability and order to our lives.

Rituals also help reduce anxiety and increase confidence even for those who do not believe they are beneficial:

Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. (“Why Rituals Work,” Scientific American)

At practice and before games my high school football team went through the same “warm up” routine. Some of the reason for this was to physically prepare us to prevent injury through stretching and get us warmed up. But the other part, perhaps even the larger and more significant part, is what this ritual did psychologically to calm our nerves and get us mentally prepared. This practice and pre-game ritual made us better individually and also helped our cohesiveness as a team.

Beyond that, it is what Jesus taught and showed by example. Jesus did not entirely do away with his Jewish rituals and traditions. In fact, he added to them, going as far as to give the disciples a template for a simple prayer (given in contrast to the arrogant public prayers of religious elites and “babbling like pagans”) and this “Lord’s prayer” is still practiced—even in Protestant churches. If one understands the value of Baptism and Communion then there should be no argument. Rituals are important to help to pattern, influence and shape our minds.
Traditions provide us with a structure that helps us to navigate our lives. When Paul urges believers to conduct their worship “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40) it is not intended to stifle their freedom or individuality. It is rather to free them from chaos and confusion. We are creatures of habit, we do not do well in a constantly shifting environment, and therefore ritual is even more important in these tumultuous times.
As Tevye said, traditions are reminders of who we are and what God expects from us.

So what to do with dead orthodoxy?

It is fairly obvious that people can continue in religion long after they’ve become spiritually dead. Ritual and tradition, while a benefit to the faithful, cannot preserve faith. Christianity is not as simple as checking the right boxes. As Jesus told the perplexed Nicodemus “you must be born again” and about how the Spirit works like “wind” that “blows wherever pleases” (John 3:1-21) there is a profound mystery in this that goes beyond a religious program and all human rationality.

Protestants, of all people, should know this. Every generation there is a new method that comes along, another “remnant” group shilling their own version of the Gospel, the next author trying to pump the purpose back into Christianity or yet another list of fundamentals, ordinances or doctrines, and all these movements eventually seem to end up in the same place again. Often these re-inventors end up leaving their children even more ignorant of church history and with even less to grasp onto. Some might declare themselves to be the more pure, but they are also void of any tradition with staying power and the proof is in the legacy they leave.
Dead orthodoxy is a result of dead faith. And, in the same manner that new window dressing won’t help to stabilize a wooden structure weakened by termites, reinventing traditions and rituals will never bring spiritual life back where the church has fallen off its foundation. The foundation of faith is Jesus, his faithful church is constructed upon that foundation—with the traditions it has passed on both in written and spoken form for our benefit—and there is no spiritual life gained in throwing this legacy out.
In fact, it is arrogant to think that we would be better to start from scratch and create our own new orthodoxy rather than draw from the experience and wisdom accumulated over many generations. It is basically to say that we today are better than all those faithful Christians of the past two millennia who kept these traditions and saw fit to pass them on to us.
Does the ritual of Baptism ever take away repentance?
Can our Communion practice come at the expense of our love for Christ’s body?
Should we stop celebrating Christmas and Easter because they aren’t found in the Bible and have been corrupted by American culture?
Our ridding ourselves of these established and orthodox Christian practices will not draw us any closer to God.
Yes, the foot washing tradition practiced at my Mennonite church is worthless if the act does not truly represent our heart. The veiling is often associated with the failures of Mennonite men to lead in the example of Christ and thus the practice of the veil is often discarded by ex-Mennonite women. But both represent cases of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is not the ritual of foot washing or the imperfect application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that is at fault. Tradition and ritual should never be blamed for our lack of those things that should come from the heart.
True, faith is not established upon religious rituals or traditions and they certainly can be corrupted. The apostle Paul had to sternly warn early Christians against the abuse of the Lord’s Supper and had to further define the practice in an effort to prevent them from abusing it. But what he didn’t do is throw his hands up and say: “Okay, no more Communion, let’s go back to the basics and just show our love for each other through charitable acts!” No, he urged them to rediscover, not reinvent, and that is what the faithful do.
The solution to dead orthodoxy is not reinvention. The solution to dead orthodoxy is to address the real problem and renew the heart of faith that makes the tradition meaningful and allows the ritual come alive.
What tradition should we keep?
Every denomination has rituals and traditions. The format of a Mennonite service, for example, intended to be a bit less formal, can be very dry and predictable. The song leader leads some songs, men argue our pet issues in Sunday school class while women sit in stoney silence in theirs, the deacon (after pleading for us to think about the meaning of the hymns we just sang) goes through the laundry list of activities and repeat prayer requests, after another song the preacher does his thing as some doze in the pews, and finally the congregation is dismissed to talk about farming, hunting, sports or politics.
At some point all new “movements” end up creating a new ritual and tradition. John and Charles Wesley introduced a radical new “methodical” approach to study and life. This eventually became the “Methodist” denomination. Mennonites take their denominational name from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest that became caught up in the Anabaptist movement, and now are mostly an ethnic church known for a “peace witness” and shoo-fly pies.
Not all religious rituals and traditions are equal in history or value. Sunday school, revival meetings, VBS, “sweetheart banquets,” mother’s day celebrations, Bible schools and church retreats are part of the Mennonite church calendar, but they are certainly not the equivalent of Ascension day, Lent season, Paschal feast or many of the other long established orthodox practices that some have abandoned in the past few centuries. I would rather we started to look at what was established early and has worked for many generations than try to create a dumbed-down, less historically grounded version.
The tradition of many Protestant churches has become so watered down there is little left to reinvent besides the Bible. As a result, those seeking an emotional high through change are running out of options and when their current experience isn’t satisfying anymore, some decide to toss the Bible next. That is the progressive approach. That is the approach that confuses their own temporal feelings of pleasure with spiritual gain.
In conclusion…
Faith is not created by ritual and tradition nor can it be increased by discarding them. Spiritual life comes through obedience and is also a mysterious work of God. We aren’t saved through our religious devotion. A person can go through the motions of Baptism, Communion, foot washing or any other orthodox Christian practice without ever having a change of heart.
That said, the truly faithful do benefit from the reminders, the structure and patterns for behavior that orthodox rituals and traditions provide. In my own experience it has helped me to worship in a manner that has been established over many generations. To join together with that “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and to worship as Christians did for thousands of years has been a tremendous experience that cannot be duplicated with a new light show and smoke machine.
A person who burns down their house because they don’t like some of the decorations on the walls might be momentarily free. But the enjoyment and empowerment of this new found simplicity and freedom will soon be a desperate struggle to protect themselves from the elements. And the same goes for those who think they gain through taking an eraser to the rituals, traditions and established orthodoxy of the church. The benefits are fleeting and the cost of trying to restore what was lost is great.
Yes, some necessary structure can be built back in a generation or two after the full loss of the change is felt, but not without slavish effort to restore it and where is the freedom in that?
A life unfettered by any established ritual and historical tradition might seem ideal for the freedom and simplicity that it promises. However, not all is as advertised, the freedom is an illusion and the reality created is often quite complicated. Taking a wrecking ball to established order often leads to only chaos and more confusion. Worse, it robs the next generation of their religious inheritance and leaves children worse off than their perpetually dissatisfied parents.
Our faith should be founded on Jesus, our religion grounded on the truth of his word, our life lived in obedience to the Spirit, and that means keeping the traditions passed down by his church. Spiritual life is restored through genuine repentance and not by abandoning ritual. Renewed faith comes with our humble obedience and not by reinventing traditions.

Jesus did not discard all ritual and tradition nor should we. There is a place for both in the church. It is a connection that we need now more than ever in the shifting sands of our time. Perhaps it is time for some reflection, rediscovery and restoration?

Mennonite Non-resistance Revisted

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The term “Mennonite” describes a broad spectrum of people.  There’s everything from the liberal “progressive” types who ordain lesbians to those still using horses for transportation in the outermost conservative backwoods.  But there is one thing that unites all Mennonites under one banner and that an inheritance of pacifism called non-resistance.

It is a theological perspective I’ve argued in favor of many times.  In fact, it was a case that I made in an essay while enrolled at a secular university in front of a room full of incredulous classmates.

In retrospect, the Gnadenhutton massacre (when a native American tribe of pacifist converts were senselessly slaughtered by Pennsylvania militia men) was not as compelling an example of faith to those who did not already share my Mennonite indoctrination.  I can’t recall anyone in the room who accepted my reasoning that it was better these people not to defend themselves and their families.

But, for me, like most born into a Mennonite home, non-resistance was simply the most plain and obvious reading of the teachings of Jesus.  How could someone read “love your enemies” and not reject all use of force?

Well, with a few more years under my belt, it is time to revisit the topic of non-resistance and take a closer look at the proof-texts used keeping a couple questions in mind.  What does the text of the passage actually say and what does the greater context of Scripture provide to us as additional clues?

I’ll start with the linchpin…

1) What does Jesus mean by love your enemies?

The Sermon on the Mount, where the phrase “love your enemies” is used by Jesus, seems like the most reasonable starting point.  This is the text:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.  And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.  Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38‭-‬48 NIV)

First, Jesus brings up a part of Old Testament law that was being used in a literal and incorrect way to govern interpersonal relationships.  The “eye for an eye” concept was not intended so that everyone would go around as vigilantes and demanding punishment.  It was, in the context it was given, a guideline to keep civil punishments in proportion to the crime rather than too harsh or too lenient.

Jesus gives an alternative to the tit-for-tat misuse of the law of Moses.  He says to do the opposite.  Instead of returning return slap for slap he says to turn the other cheek.  Rather than fight a lawsuit over a shirt he says to give the person your coat.  He says to go the extra mile rather than resist going only one mile.  What he presents is an a means to break out of a downward spiral where everyone loses.  In other words, it is better to be twice insulted or doubly inconvenienced than it is to live out an endless feud like Hatfields and McCoys.

Jesus confronts this idea some had that it was okay to only love those who treat them well (their neighbors) and not their “enemies” or those hostile towards them.  However, he does not use life-or-death situation to illustrate his point nor does he argue against protecting the innocent.  There is no indication that his words are aimed at the work of government either.  He is speaking about personal rather than national enemies.

2) What does “vengeance is mine” mean?

Another important non-resistance prooftext is found in the book of Romans.  The apostle Paul, in context of how to love and serve others, says:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14‭-‬21 NIV )

This passage basically restates what Jesus taught.  Paul expounds on the idea of not answering evil with evil and backs this claim using passages from the Old Testament.  The words “vengeance is mine” come directly from the book of Deuteronomy and is not a repudiation of legitimate justice being served or it would contradict the context in which it was given.  Instead, this phrase appears to be directed against taking personal revenge outside of what God has established.  I say this because Paul does:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.  This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1‭-‬7 NIV)

It is interesting that Paul instructs to “overcome evil with good” and goes on to explain that those in authority who punish the evildoer are “God’s servant for good” and not to be resisted when serving in that role.  If it were sinful for governing authorities to punish evil it is strange that they are described as servants of God.

Does this mean that we can punish those who personally offend us?

No, absolutely not.

It is not okay for us to take matters of justice into our own hands.  There was never a license for individuals to act unilaterally and outside the established justice system in the Old Testament.  The role (or rule) given for individuals was the same then as it was when Paul restates the argument.  Love for “enemies” is not a new teaching:

If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.  In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21‭-‬22 NIV)

That is Proverbs.

That is how they were to treat their personal enemies in Old Testament times.

That is how Paul taught that Christians must deal with their personal enemies in his time.

Many arguing for non-resistance cherry-pick the phrase “vengeance is mine” and “overcome evil with good” and “heap burning coals” while neglecting important context.  These phrases must be understood in the context they are given.  Jesus was not contradicting the Old Testament nor rebuking government officials, rather he was correcting those who were misusing the words as an excuse to be unloving, to fight evil with evil and take personal vengeance.

3) My kingdom is not of this world…

When Jesus was arrested he told Peter to put his sword away and, remaining consistent in his message, warned that people who live by the sword will die by the sword.  Even when faced with the corrupt use of government power we are not given a pass to resist with violence.  And Jesus goes further to explain this when being questioned after his arrest:

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. 

(John 18:33‭-‬36 NIV)

Pilate was trying to establish the guilt or innocence of Jesus.  The Jewish authorities presented Jesus as someone deserving death.  The Romans only used capital punishment in some cases and that is why it was very important how Jesus answered.  If he answered “yes” when asked about being “king of the Jews” that would amount to insurrection and a crime punishable by crucifixion.  So Jesus presents himself as being of a different kingdom and one that is not a threat to Roman rule.

It is important to understand “my kingdom is not of this world” in that context.  Jesus is never at odds with the established government.  That isn’t his realm, he did not rebuke Pilate or the soldiers for doing their jobs, the legitimate punishment of evildoers is not something a Christian should ever oppose.  Jesus, even when wrongfully accused, did not curse his captors or repay their evil for evil.  Instead, he said “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!” (Luke 23:24)  That is an example to follow in our own experience with injustice.

That is not to say we should give up our rights and renounce our citizenship anymore than we should give up eating physical food.  Paul, in Acts 16, after being unlawfully detained and beaten, expected his privileges as a Roman citizen be respected and demanded that he should be released out the front gate.  But he did so in the right time, when the mistake was already acknowledged by the authorities, and without resisting arrest or imprisonment.  Paul, like Jesus, was willing to suffer personal loss as means to show God’s love.  He positioned himself as an ambassador of another kingdom and yet was not opposed justice in this world.

False dichotomies, non-resistance proof-texts and truth…

“A text without context is a pretext for a prooftext.” (Dr. D. A. Carson)

Proof-texting is a misuse of a Biblical text.  It is when a person takes small snips of a text to make their argument and neglects important contextual information in the process.  Mennonites, despite their very sincere intentions, are no exception—they are not free from this tendency to be led by confirmation bias.  They, like all other people, have an emotional attachment to their established beliefs, which causes blindness to evidence that runs contrary to their existing ideas, and this limits their ability to reach a fuller understanding of Scripture.

My youthful black and whiteness, while self-satisfying at the time, did not well-represent the texts used.  The either/or propositions of those arguing non-resistance are often false dichotomies based in misapplication of a Biblical text.  For example, the phrase “my kingdom is not of this world” is not an excuse to skip out on your taxes, the words “vengeance is mine” are not a repudiation of those employed by governments to punish evil, and “love your enemies” does not mean looking the other way and turning a blind eye towards injustice or abuse.  It is possible to both represent the kingdom of heaven and physically protect the innocent.

The truth is often represented by both/and.  Personal vengeance is forbidden, punishment of evildoers is ordained, and it takes wisdom to know what applies to the circumstances one finds themselves in.  Sometimes we need to be vocal about our rights, like Paul, other times we should maintain our silence and endure the abuse, but we should always place the welfare of others above our own.  Turning the other cheek does not imply giving a sexual predator your daughter after he raped your wife.  Overcoming evil with good does not mean being a pacifist doormat.

Mennonite non-resistance goes wrong when it is used as basis to judge those who God has ordained to punish evil.  If someone believes that resisting evil through physical means is always wrong and itself evil, then they are accusing God of hypocrisy for what he instituted. Jesus questioned the judgment of the Pharisees, but he never questioned the authority of the Romans nor did he call for them to lay down their weapons as he did with Peter.

It is not our role to judge those who use the sword to punish evil and protect the innocent.

Love does not require others to die on behalf of our own personal convictions.

Jesus never spoke against defending the weak nor did he make a case against subduing (or otherwise stopping) a deranged person intent on doing harm.  Being of a heavenly kingdom, at very least, does not mean one should be opposed to justice being served by those whom God has ordained and instituted for that purpose.  We can both support those who punish the evildoer and also “love our enemies” without the two ever coming into conflict.  In fact, if we oppose the protection of the innocent, we are ourselves in conflict with the command to love as Jesus did and giving preference to evil.

Does this mean I’m going to start to pack heat during a church service?  No, not at all!  Mass shootings, put in proper statistical context, are not something that concerns me.  I choose not to live my life as one paranoid.  I’ve put my trust in God.  I’ve decided that firearms used for protection are better in the hands of those better trained.

My own perspective, in further reflection upon Scripture, is a bit more nuanced than before.  However, I will say this in closing, it does reflect poorly on Christians when they appear to be more fearful of death than their supposedly faithless neighbors.

In context of eternity what will we lose in sacrificing ourselves for the good of others?

Fundamentally Flawed: How Mennonites Failed To Be Faithful

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

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

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

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

So, who is real and who is the impostor?

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

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

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

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

What is biblical fundamentalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did biblical fundamentalism enter the Mennonite church?

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

How was authentic Anabaptism different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Has Anabaptism Failed?

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

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

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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