Are You Better Than Joel Osteen?

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Religious fundamentalists and their irreligious secular counterparts have found something in common—that being their shared hatred of Joel Osteen.

Osteen, a best-selling author, pastor of the gigantic Lakewood Church in Houston, has long been bashed for his positive spin on Biblical teachings and preaching what is often called prosperity gospel.  Many on the religious right have long regarded him as a false teacher for the lack of fire and brimstone in his message.  Meanwhile many on the left have long accused him of being hypocritical for stating that homosexuality is a sin (or his “gay problem” as Salon describes it) and for his embrace of wealth.

The latest media-fueled outrage started when JustOn Baze, a gay activist, found time—in the middle of a hurricane—to visit Osteen’s church.  Baze and his friend posted a live video on Facebook that showed some parts of the exterior of the Lakewood building unflooded.  His vitriolic commentary launched a shaming campaign on social media, which was reported on dutifully by the clickbaiting corporate media, and soon became a unique opportunity for activists on both sides to join forces.

Overnight, because the church was not immediately open, many on the right and left lined up to unleash their judgments of this celebrity pastor.  No amount of explanation was sufficient, the conclusions had been drawn that Osteen deserves condemnation and now the effort to disparage him is in full gear…

I will not join those critical of Osteen.

I do not judge him.  I do not know enough about the circumstances following Harvey to render judgment of his response.  I know he has opened the doors after the storm in cooperation with the city efforts and his congregation will likely be involved in the recovery after the deluge.

I also know that most Americans should be careful not to condemn anyone for their wealth.  Considering the median income in the US is over $51,000, and it takes only $32,000 to be in the top 1% of income earners in the world, we are all wealthy.  Even our poor are provided for through social programs and I’m quite sure those who lost all in Houston will find a way to recover with or without a vow of poverty from Osteen.

When over 90% of Americans households have a car—a privilege less than 9% of the world can share in—we have plenty of reason to be generous and humble. We, as wealthy Americans, even those who lost all in Houston, have a billion reasons not to be judgmental of those wealthier than us.  I can’t be critical of Osteen or his congregation when I consider how wealthy I am relative to most in the world.

It is really none of my business what Osteen and his congregation do with their collective resources.  Their building, his salary and home, is something they worked for and therefore their perogative.

What good will come from attacking them?

We should consider this admonition:

“Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor” (James 4:11‭-‬12)

We should consider the words of Jesus:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1‭-‬2)

It is easy to see ourselves as the good guys and feel justifed in our condemnation.  But Jesus gives clear warning: We will be judged as we judge.  That is good reason not to bash anyone.  That is good reason to be gracious to all people—including Osteen.

Where should our focus be?

Our focus should be on living righteously ourselves.  Our focus should be on showing true love and compassion to all people and especially where it is needed the most.

This week, looking through friend requests, I saw a picture on one of their pages that broke my heart:

Who will come to her aid?

Who will help the many like her born into poverty?

Filipino street children live like that every day and not just after a natural disaster.  My readership is large enough that we could do something big for many children who were not given the same opportunities we have.  We could fund an orphanage, programs to help set these children in the direction of success, and still have plenty left over for ourselves.

We don’t need to be better than anyone besides ourselves.  Instead of bashing celebrities, our focus should be on being better than our former selves, repenting of our own sins and showing the way through example.  That is true Christian leadership, that is the “good news” of Jesus Christ, and our responsibility to the world.

Who shares my vision for street children in the Philippines?

Who would help me in such an endeavor?

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Fundamentally Flawed: How Mennonites Failed To Be Faithful

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

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

The evolution has been slow over many generations, but the difference is profound and the implications are deep.  We might self-describe as Mennonite or Anabaptist, but are, in reality, something else entirely and very different from our ancestors.

If you want to see the contrast, compare us (conservative Mennonites) to our Old Order cousins and consider how differently we approach things.  We share the same genetic origins (and surnames) yet not much 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, our eschatological perspective, and Zionism, is not originally Mennonite.  Those were things added (sometimes with great controversy) often only a generation ago or within the past couple centuries.  They are things that originated from various Protestant movements.

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, but the difference in final outcomes is huge.  We have gone from from a question of “is it Christlike” to “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 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 to be read 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 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 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 church body.  In Protestantism everyone has become their own pope and their own individual understanding of the Bible their only god.

When did biblical fundamentalism enter the Mennonite church?

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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, the part that community (and discipleship) played in salvation of the individual, and 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” rather than it was interested in creating theology or a system of rules.  While fundamentalism reduces Jesus to the level of Moses, a man trying to establish a code of ethics and a new doctrinal framework as a means to salvation, the Anabaptist perspective was to take emphasis away from the individual, to place an individual in a community of faith (representative of God’s kingdom) and then practicing love towards each other.  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 at least 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 simple practical 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 something 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 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.

Living faith fossilized into mere Biblical fundamentals is no better than the dead orthodoxy or 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.

Missionaries From Hell? (Matthew 23:13-15)

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Jesus may have said his yoke is easy.  But it is not easy for someone born and raised outside the Mennonite culture to become Mennonite—especially not a woman who does not fit with our traditional ideals.

But conservative Mennonites are not the only ones that demand conformity to a list of cultural expectations.  Fundamentalist sects all have their fundamentals, their own special set of rules, cultural expectations, or doctrinal essentials that they use as tests for membership.

For example, a very sincere and sweet Christian friend of mine was asked about her view of Once Saved, Always Saved.  Her questioner, someone who believes in eternal security, did not like her answer and now counts her as lost.  To them salvation depends on our ability to parrot a theological position, a work of the mind, and no nuances are allowed.

And these false dichotomies, based on personal opinion, exist at all levels.  If your hermeneutic allows for some flexibility interpreting the creation narrative of Genesis, then Ken Ham (including his partner in self-promoting pseudo-scientific dogmatism, Bill Nye) will insist that you should be an agnostic.

Nothing is further from the truth.

Jesus rebukes religious gatekeepers and damned missionaries.

The text…

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces.  You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:13‭,‬15)

Jesus confronts the religious elites, who had positioned themselves as the final arbiter of truth, and he rudely knocks them off their pedestal.  He confronts them for shutting people out who might otherwise enter and says they make those few they do convert “twice the child of hell” as that they are.  That is a shocking reproach for those who are diligently religious.

Missionary service is typically unquestioned and perhaps that is because many of us feel guilt for not doing enough ourselves?  But missionaries get no free pass from Jesus; on the contrary, he rebukes them even more severely and describes them as being counterproductive.  I hope, after considering that, it goes without saying that missionary service can be a false indication of sincere faith and love for God.

There are many reasons why a person might want to be a missionary other than pure love for God and other people.  Traveling, in our day and age, is fun and many enjoy the adventure.  There are also the duty-bound “do-gooder” religious types, motivated more by fear than love.  But there is an even more insidious reason why a person may choose to be a missionary service, and that is the power over others it offers:

1) Power of peer respect: There is no question that being a missionary is considered honorable amongst religious people.  It draws positive attention.  Those who have served in a visible way are often given special praise and in my church it is almost a prerequisite to being ordained.  It can become a basis for ranking members of the church into higher and lower tiers.  When used that way, it goes directly against the admonition of Jesus to be a brotherhood of equals ealier in his sermon.

2) Power of material resources: I know missionaries who go out like Jesus sent his disciples (Mark 6:7-13) in the power of the Spirit and with little more the shirts on their backs.  Unfortunately, we do not embody that kind of faith anymore.  Our missionaries rely on the power of their own calculations and often with enough resources to live comfortably beyond the reach of the people they are trying to evangelize.  This can create a situation where people serve the missionaries’ whims for no reason other than attaining access to their resources.  Being treated as royalty can also be gratifying to those who hold this power.

3) Power to be a religious gatekeeper: Everyone, including the religious elites condemned by Jesus, believes they are right, and that sanctimonious feeling can be the basis to becoming an evangelist.  Recently a friend shared the testimony of Megan Phelps-Roper who was raised in Westboro Baptist Church and joined in their protests as a child.  It was through conversation with the “other side” that she realized her spirit was wrong and repented.

Unfortunately, there are many who never do get knocked off their pedestal, never do humble themselves in the light of God’s grace, and do damage to the cause of Christ.  They position themselves as the final arbiters of truth, as gatekeepers to the kingdom with the licence to shut people out, and the words of Jesus apply to them just as much as they did to the religious elites in the original audience.

Knowledge can become a barrier to truth when it leads to dead religion rather than following in faith.

We shut people off from the truth when we center our faith on our own religious “knowledge” rather than on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.  These “all or nothing,” black-and-white propositions are a distraction from the substance of Christian faith.  Obsession on theological minutia causes confusion rather than bringing clarity, and our additional requirements take away from the simple truth of the Gospel message:

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”  For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9‭-‬13)

We should remember what Jesus said to his disciples when they took issue with someone speaking in the power of Jesus’s name outside their exclusive club:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49‭-‬50)

It should be noted that in the verse just prior to this, the disciples were having an argument over who amongst them would be greatest.  Jesus answers them by bringing a child beside him and declaring that whoever would be most welcoming to that child in his name would be greatest.  I’m guessing that child wasn’t 100% theologically correct.

We should serve others in truth of self-sacrificial love and in humility rather than in superiority of knowledge.

There are many who go out in the strength of their own knowledge.  They never do comprehend the significance of God’s grace, and are blind though they think they see:

We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1b‭-‬3)

Some say it is the thought that counts.

It is also said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

But before we say or think too much, we should take heed of what Jesus said and consider it a warning against an idea that our salvation comes from our religious diligence or right ideas.  Instead we must be an example of the grace shown to us while we were yet dead in our sins.

We need to hold the door open for those wishing to enter and lower the threshold, rather than trip them up with our own pet doctrines.

We are not called to be gatekeeper; instead, we are called to serve in love and humility.

Let’s let God be the final arbiter of truth.

What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:5-12)

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The world loves distinctive dress and titles.

If I wear an expensive suit and fancy tie to an event, that will probably result in my being treated differently than if I show up in street clothes.  Having “PhD” behind my name would earn me more respect in some circles.

The world judges by outward appearance.

People rank and categorize other people based on what clothing they wear and what positions they hold.  Wear the wrong dress to an occasion and expect to be shamed in the gossip columns.  The climb up the social ladder can be brutal.

The church, unfortunately, is not much different.  The expectations and dress standards might vary, but the harmful focus on distinction of title or outward appearance is the same.

What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?

Jesus, continuing his rebuke of unhelpful religious elites, said…

Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others. ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers.  And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven.  Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.  The greatest among you will be your servant.  For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5‭-‬12)

The religious elites were obsessed with what other people thought and how they appeared.

Jesus mentions the “phylacteries” and “tassels” they wore, meant as symbolic reminders of their devotion to God, became about drawing attention to themselves.  They pranced to the front benches, loved to be noticed when out in public, and sought titles to impress their religious peers.

Jesus was unimpressed.  It is apparent that their religious devotion was not about God’s glory and honor as they would claim, it was all to draw attention to themselves and prideful.  Jesus again alludes to the tables being turned and roles being reversed—a time when the first shall be last and last shall be first.

But how is this applicable today?

Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.

However, I believe the warnings against obsession with appearance still apply as much to religious people today as it did then.  We have different versions of the same prideful behavior in our churches today.

Here’s what we are doing:

1) Seeking the important seats:  I sit anywhere in the church because it does not matter.  There is nothing wrong with sitting in the back benches in an age of microphones and amplifiers.  Socially awkward people do not enjoy parading up to the front of the church; they don’t want the attention.  And so what if the rebels sit in the back, at least they are at church, right?

Funny how some Mennonite leaders have apparently not gotten the memo about those who love the “place of honor” and “most important seats” in a religious setting.  From the way they commend people who sit in the front benches you might be led to think that Jesus said that makes a person special or better.

Yes, there is something to be said for accommodating visitors and mothers with young children.  There’s also something to be said for not creating a distraction by yukking it up with your buddies.  We should always be considerate of others.

That said, seating position is no indication of spiritual condition.

2) Loving important titles: There are some people who use the letter of what Jesus said as a means to bash Catholics for their use of “father” in reference to church leaders past and present.

Unfortunately they entirely miss the point being made and in their arrogance are potentially slandering those who appropriately use these terms.  The admonition against calling anyone “teacher” or “father” is not about the specific words used, but about how and why they are used.

How do I know this?

Well, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:22) and I’m doubtful he did it in ignorance of or contradiction to what Jesus said.  I believe he used it as a description of his true fatherly love and affection for the children of the faith and not vainly as a means to secure unearned respect from others—which is what Jesus was speaking about.

Sadly, those who turn the words of Jesus into a legal code miss the spirit of what he is saying.  Sure, they might never use the words he mentioned to describe themselves, but they do use words like “reverend” or “evangelist” in the same way as a Pharisee.  With different words they embody the same self-seeking spirit of the religious elites condemned by Jesus.

And we do this too.  We may not seek fancy titles outright.  However, I was turned down by a young woman who wanted someone who used “missionary” or “pastor” to flaunt their ambitions and I was uncomfortable describing my calling in those terms.  Love of religious importance is not unusual amongst Mennonites even if not as openly stated.

There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to spiritual pitfalls.  As my sister would say: Same manure, different piles.  Except she doesn’t use the word “manure” when she says it…

3) Dressing distinctly: It blows my mind how far off the mark people can be when it comes to matters of dress.  There are some churches where people will frown on those who do not wear a suit and tie (while some conservative Mennonites will frown on those who do) and for some reason carrying a big leather-bound Bible is important too.

It makes me wonder what these proper religious people would do if a man like John the Baptist showed up in camel’s hair.  They might be suffering from the same ailment as Saul’s daughter; Michal, when she saw David dancing in a “linen ephod” and called him a “vulgar person” for it (2 Samuel 6:14-23).  Apparently God was not impressed with her judgment of propriety according to what I read.

That is not to say we should intentionally draw attention to ourselves and dress in a provocative or ostentatious manner.

Which leads to my next point…

Many conservative Mennonites look to distinctive dress as a means to be a witness.  They claim this is an act of “non-conformity” and taking a stand against “worldly” fad and fashion.  And I do appreciate the idea of not being jerked around by every whim and fancy of the mainstream culture.

Unfortunately, this non-conformity of outward appearance does not always reflect change at a heart level.  We might not look like our “worldly” neighbors in the way we dress and yet many of us are even more obsessed with fashion than they are.  The smallest differences (the number of pleats in a dress or the collar of a suit coat) can lead to venomous accusations and division.

Distinctive dress has become a stumbling block for conservative Mennonites.  We judge each other based on our differences, we shut people out for not meeting our own dress standards, and forget to love each other as Christ commanded.  We have taken Scripture that instructs Christians to be focused on inner change rather than outward adoring (1 Peter 3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10) and turned it into a fixation about outward appearance.

Perhaps we forget what Scripture tells us about pride and clothing?

Peter describes the true distinctiveness of being “clothed” with sincere faith:

All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourself, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6)

We are told to be distinctively dressed.  However, that distinction of dress means to “clothe yourself with humility” and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14) rather than with our own religious works–that is a far deeper distinction than mere outward appearance.  Our distinctiveness should be less about what we wear on the outside and more about being a manifestation of this:

A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34,35)

Distinguished titles and distinctive outward appearance is vanity when it causes strife or leads to a pecking order.  We must embody the character of Christ by loving each other as he commanded.  It is not about looking different or having a fancy title, it is about being different in heart.

If a person professes faith in Jesus, then accept them as a brother or sister and don’t be a religiously pretentious snob.  Jesus, as far as I know, did not dress like a Mennonite, Amish man or Baptist.  I’m doubtful he was much concerned about solids or stripes and the size of floral prints.

Denominationalism: “My Church Is Better Than Yours!”

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People divide up.  Segregation occurs naturally in groups as individuals seek out others who have something in common with them.  It students find those of common interests, social status, gender or race.  It happens in communities—people choose to live with people more similar to them.

But where division should not happen is in the church.  Not according to the Apostle Paul, at least:

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:2‭-‬6)

I believe the first sentence, “Be completely humble and gentle,” is key to the second part being true of us.  With pride comes contention (Prov 13:10) and without humility there is divisivion.

Paul further elaborates:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloeʼs household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10‭-‬15)

The message is clear in the words of Paul—the church should not be divided into competing denominations and, if Scripture is to be believed, we should be grieved by division in the church and preach against it.

We should stand united against this:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John 1:9‭-‬10)

Diotrephes evidently thought he was pretty special.  He desired preeminence, made slanderous accusations and was excluding other Christians from fellowship.  We aren’t told why he was banning people, but his attitude clearly is condemned as wrong in the passage.

A church divided against itself…

The church today is divided up into many denominations.  There was the big schism between East and West that was caused by disagreement over Papal primacy, the Filioque added to the church creed, canonization of Scripture and multiple other issues.  After various attempts to reconcile differences over many years the result was eventually mutual excommunications in 1054 that are regarded as the terminal event.

Then came the series of splits in the Western church, the so-called Protestant Reformation, set in motion by Martin Luther’s protests over the sale of indulgences in the 1500s, leading to the formation of a “Lutheran” church and culminating in the 33,000 denominations that we have today.  My own Mennonite denomination was the eventual product of a radical and rebellious (sometimes violent) Anabaptist movement.

My church is part of many Mennonite “conferences” that recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree.  Some groups considered “old order” (who reject modern technology) with a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative” as broad as the overall church and spawning more variations (some who resist being called Mennonite) recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree… yet typically only allow their own members to take communion.

Mennonites today, unlike the schism in 1054 or other splits caused by larger more meaningful matters of theology and doctrine, tend to divide over the minutia of application.  Things like the style of coat, size of a floral print on a dress, color of socks, facial hair, and any number of nitpicking details which nobody in the world outside Mennodom would care about, can precipitate a church split.

For example, in my church the two big controversies that led people to leave were over hair style.  First, several families left for a more conservative conference because a little girl had bangs.  Later, a liberal contingent left because of a feud over a bit of peach fuzz.

Complete absurdity.

This is a reality in clear opposition to the teachings of Paul and the “unity of the Spirit” he describes.

What is the problem?

We have names from A to Z in front of our church buildings to proudly tell people what church tradition we follow.  We announce “I am of Menno Simons” or of this “Lutheran” theological perspective or that “Methodist” doctrinal division and promote a form of tribalism.  The result is a confusing mess that only a religious historian could untangle.

But, I can hear the protest: “Shouldn’t people know what denomination we are?  I mean, they’ll find out eventually, better to let them know before they enter and disturb us, right?”

And thus we prove we value our denomination more than we do welcoming others of Christian faith.  It is the spirit of Diotrephes, a prideful desire for preeminence and control; it is love of our own dogmatic ideas over other people.  It is the kind of attitude Jesus condemns:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)

The “teachers of the law and Pharisees” thought they had every right to shut people out based on their biblical standards.  But Jesus warns them that they will be shut out the way they shut out others.  It seems the same message Jesus preached of forgive as you wish to be forgiven (Matt. 6:14) and judge as you wish to be judged (Matt. 7:2) and that should give pause to anyone humble enough to know their own imperfections.

The Mennonite church I grew up in will refuse to baptize a believer who doesn’t go through a class and agree to follow their own list of standards.  They would go so far as deny communion to a person from another denomination.  And this inhospitable attitude is not a problem to most of them.

Maybe God will be inhospitable to those who have denominational pride and shut out other believers different from themselves?

Some things to consider…

1) Reconsider having a denominational name in front of your church.  Do you understand the admonition of the Apostle Paul against division?  If so, why do you see it as allowable to emphasize a man’s name, a particular doctrinal slant or denominational tradition in front of your church?  What if our true worship was supposed to be less about theological correctness and more about our truthfulness in love and forbearance?

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12‭-‬14)

2) Stop attacking, belittling, and making slanderous accusations against other denominations.  I know I know, Catholics are idol worshippers, Joel Osteen isn’t negative enough (more about hell, please) and Calvinists are too fatalistic, predetermined or something like that.  But Scripture tells us, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and warns: 

If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15)

Perhaps, before we get too sanctimonious, we should consider this:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11‭-‬12)

3) Be less resistant to criticism and more receptive to correction regarding your own denomination.  It is easy to circle the wagons when our own church tradition is scrutinized, and to react defensively rather then be open to rebuke.  For example, nearly any time I blog about the defects of my own religious culture, there’s usually a chorus of those crying, “My Mennonite church isn’t like that!”  Many are in denial—but that is their pride.

We should practice introspection and be open to the possibility that outsiders might see our flaws better than we do, because:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8‭-‬10)

There is no weakness in acknowledgement and confession of fault.  There is no need for huffy recriminations (“Well, they do it too!”) if we are truly humble.  Christianity is about forgiving and being forgiven, not about defending the image of our denomination.

4) Baptism should be uncoupled from denominational indoctrination and membership.  There is nowhere in Scripture where baptism is seperated from profession of faith.  Yes, we should disciple young believers, teach correct doctrine and encourage good application.  However, that can come after baptism.  There is no reason why a baptism should wait weeks or months.  And, if you belong to a church that ties baptism to extrabiblical church standards, speak out against it.  We should welcome the young in the faith rather than add our own prideful denominational requirements:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1‭-‬5)

5) Do not refuse to allow other Christians to participate in your Communion service.  Paul warns against eating and drinking unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27) and this is reason for introspection.  However, what is neither said nor implied is the idea that a church leader should determine who is worthy or not worthy.  Yes, we are told that an openly wicked and unrepentant person should be excluded (1 Cor. 5:13) and yet that doesn’t mean we should deny those of other denominational stripes from the table.

We must rebuke Diotrephes and welcome other believers even if they do not meet our own denominational standards.  There is one church and one Spirit—we must take a stand against the spirit of division.  We need to stand against sins of pride and denominationalism.

A Practical Model for Christian Love and Community

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My last blog gave an abstract vision of love.  

The story of my sister Sarah and a precious bhest were part of the catalyst for a more concrete idea. 

The other part of the inspiration process was a scammer who claimed to have cancer and promised me a windfall.  They said they wanted their untold millions to go to a man (yours truly) who would use it for Christian charity.

That flirtation with the thought of having a great amount of wealth to spend for a cause I thought worthy enough led to a vision of a farm.  The idea would be a farm that combined the biggest asset Mennonites have to offer (their families) with those who needed it most.

You see, church attendance, for someone without the family structure, is not enough to meet their social needs and single mothers need more.  A welfare check and public housing is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of many of these abandoned women and their children.

Our duty to love the widow and the orphan is clear.

We as true people of faith do not have an option here, we have a moral duty as those called to be perfectly merciful as God is perfectly merciful (Matthew 5:48, Luke 6:36) and desiring to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. 

Specifically, as it pertains to this blog and the vision, it means taking up this divine task:

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” (Psalm 68:5)

“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)

That is the heart of God.  And those who seek fellowship with God will share in His own heart and create their own visions around His cause.  James tells us:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14‭-‬17)

We live in a time where most basic needs are met and this could be used as an excuse.  One could shirk their own God-given responsibilities by saying that government programs provide.  Or use Scripture as a legalist would and claim that since social needs aren’t specifically mentioned there is no reason to fill them.

However, our culture, with the breakneck pace we live, is probably not the same as a city or village in the time the book of James was written.  And—despite our connectedness via technology and social media—many people are without close friends or family support and single mothers are especially vulnerable.

So, anyhow, at this point if you don’t agree or can’t see the need you probably can stop reading here.  But I’m guessing most of my readership is interested in knowing more and will continue to the specific idea.

A farm and vision to bring family to those without.

I did not grow up on a family farm.  However, like many conservative Mennonites, I was one step removed from agriculture and would often visit my grandparents farm.  Three of my uncles, carrying on the work of their father, all live in close proximity to each other and run the farm together. 

To me my uncles have something in that farm which few people do anymore and that being a true sense of community.  They work together towards a common goal, their labor is for each other as much as it is for personal gain and it seemed to me an ideal place as a child.  There is something special about a family farm.

So, as a result of that childhood experience, my love for both Sarah and bhest, as well as the scammer giving me reason to dream, my vision is to bring that family farm experience to single mothers and their children.  I believe it would be the ideal environment for teaching basic life skills and helping to end the cycles that lead to generational poverty.

What I picture is two or three healthy families paired with a single mother and her children.  The idea would be to have seperate houses within easy walking distance of each other, common meals at least once a day and plenty of working together in the way strong Mennonite families do. 

There would be gardening, maybe a garage for mechanical work or wood shop.  I would prefer that it be a sustainable effort that doesn’t depend on outside help besides start up cost.  The size and scope of the farming operation would depend on who is involved and the more other trades or talents the better.

I believe many single mothers and their children need this kind of real loving investment to thrive.  This is a need right here at home (North America for me) and places like the Philippines.  It is an adaptable vision.  The work could center on a bakery or restaurant so long as there is working together and an opportunity to teach.

What is needed to make this vision a reality?

This vision requires normal people like you.  Perhaps you are a mother escaping abuse or abandoned.  Maybe you are part of a Christian home and wish to share that great wealth of family you have with those who do not.  Or you could be a businessman looking for a tax write-off and investment.  This is your opportunity.

If you share this vision or something like it.  Please comment your own ideas below, describe what you are able to offer towards an effort like this and share this blog post with your friends of like faith and love for those most vulnerable. 

The Gospel is not about singing on the subway or shoving tracts into faces.  It is not about flying to exotic locations with the cool religious people either.  No, it is about Jesus who literally fed, physically healed and said his followers would do greater things.

Single mothers struggling to survive don’t need a lecture about sin or salvation.  What they really need is commitment and love that they can’t understand which in time will open their hearts to receive the fullness of God’s grace.

Who’s in?

Do People Get What They Deserve?

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In a non-zero-sum game everyone can be a winner.  It is a non-competitive or competitive circumstance where all participants can achieve optimal results and be successful.  In an abundance of resources and opportunities and assuming equality of abilities this is the case.

zero-sum-game is a circumstance where when someone gains another loses. This is true of sports where there is a score kept and a winner and loser at the end. It can be true of the marketplace when two people desire the same property but only one can possess it. It is true of any limited resource.

The right-wing or conservatives prefer the non-zero-sum explanation.  They assume that all things are equal besides effort then they are free to look the other way at those who have not achieved what they have.  This is not always uncaring or completely cold-hearted either—these people have worked hard, often have overcome obstacles (while playing by the rules) and believe others can as well.

However, the left-wing or progressives tell us, and rightfully so, that it is not that simple.  We can certainly say “when life gives you lemons make lemonade” and yet what does one do when life gives you rocks?  I suppose then you throw the rocks at those telling you to make lemonade?

Those who argue that life is largely a non-zero-sum experience and that those who put forward an adequate effort are too quick to dismiss differences in circumstances—they often do not appreciate providence of their own advantages enough.  Sure, people reap what they sow, but can we assume that everyone has the same soil, seeds and weather to work with?

Do people get what they deserve?

We like the idea of karma, that people get what they deserve and everything we have was somehow earned.  This absolves us of responsibility to those with less and allows us to enjoy our advantages in life without guilt.  This is an explanation of things that works for those who are relatively successful and have basically gotten what they want.

Many religious people, to cover for their lack of compassion, go a step further and assume that disability and disaster is a result of sin.

That is why Job’s friends added insult to injury and accused him of having some hidden sin because of all awful things that happened to him.  They were wrong for their assumption that he deserved what he got.

People getting what they deserve is not the reality that Jesus describes.  When asked who’s sin caused a man’s blindness he answered that it was nobodies sin and used the opportunity to bring glory to God by healing the man.  He also used a couple events as a basis for a rhetorical question and answer:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?  I tell you, no!  But unless you repent, you too will all perish.  Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?  I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1‭-‬5)

His answer seems to go directly against those who try to attribute calamity to God’s judgment and see success as a sign of God’s favor.  He muddies the water for the sanctimious religious elites with their simple (and often self-congratulatory) black and white explanation.  He defies their people should get what they deserve logic:

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 5:43‭-‬48)

It is interesting that the parallel account in the book of Luke uses “merciful” rather than perfect.  Assuming that they are both a paraphrase of the actual words of Jesus and accurate (as opposed to one being unreliable) we can probably combine the two ideas to approximate the correct message.  I believe we are to be perfect in our mercy or perfectly merciful like God.

The message that seems clear in the teachings of Jesus is that nobody gets what they deserve.  He says that unless people repent they too will perish—that neither sunshine nor rain is distributed by who deserves or does not—and with this undermines those who want to put all blame for failure on the individual.

Furthermore, there is no excuse for indifference.  Even our enemies, people who deserve our contempt for things they have done, we are told to treat as we do those who are deserving of our love.  We are to be perfectly merciful because we can do nothing to deserve God’s love and yet are loved despite that.

That is the essence of the Gospel, to do unto others, not as they deserve, but we want God to do to us.  We will be shown mercy we we show mercy and judged as we judge.  If we live by the sword then we can expect to die by it as well.  If we forgive others then we will be forgiven by God.

If nobody gets what they deserve, then what?

Truly believing in the goodness of God is not about crowing on social media when things go right.  No, that is only triumphalism covered in religion and brings no glory to God whatsoever.  Again, some good people suffer terribly for their righteousness while many evil people in the world are both materially and socially successful.

A big bank account or beautiful girlfriend is not proof God’s goodness or else Job’s friends would have been right to torment him further trying to find a hidden sin.  Success is only proof that circumstances tilted in favor of the outcome you desired and attributing it to God’s favor is only to dance on the backs of the bruised.

True thankfulness to God is using the means we are given to help others.  Those with loaves and fishes didn’t thank God loudly then gorge themselves in the presence of the hungry crowd.  No, they responded to the call of Jesus, gave up what many would argue they were entitled to through their foresight and by their sacrifice we have the miracle of five thousand being fed.

It is on us to be an answer to prayer using the means provided to us, being an answer to prayer—that is our thankfulness to God.  Your success or failure in an endeavor says nothing about God’s plan.  Only your willingness to step out in real faith, the faith of going outside of comfort zone and sacrificing for those who deserve judgement, is evidence of God’s goodness.

True repentance is realizing that you deserve nothing and treating others as if they deserve all of your love.  If we truly appreciate God’s grace we will show it in humble actions of service rather than pompous claims of God’s goodness to us.  It was the Pharisee who stood on the corner thankful to God at the expense of others and was condemned for his pride—he knew nothing of God’s goodness:

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.” (Luke 18:11)

Sadly many conservative Mennonites and other religious fundamentalists are like that Pharisee.  Even in their thanking God they are self-congratulatory and can barely hide their self-righteous pride under the pretense of praise—evidently they forget pride is the first sin.  In context of the passage above it was the man who prayed “God have mercy on me, a sinner” who left justified before God.

Those who know they are undeserving do not boast in God’s goodness towards them.  No, they share it with others by helping carry the burdens of others who were less fortunate than themselves.  True faith is not about bragging about things we do not deserve—it is about our self-sacrificially serving those who do not deserve.

Perhaps God is not multiplying our effort today, like he did in the Acts church, because we pretend to be thankful for His goodness in our words and yet withhold grace from those whom we feel do not deserve?

Maybe God could turn our zero-sum game into an over-abundance when we let go of our own calculations and plans to trust Him?

So, anyhow…

Shut up about your good life—people already know!  Instead, thank God by being an answer to prayer to someone who didn’t have your advantages.  

Actions speak louder than words.