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.

Marriage as Martyrdom: The Truly Christian View of Love and Romance

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​Do you want to know a secret? 

You are never ready for marriage nor are you ever worthy of anyone’s faithful abiding love and nobody is.  We are all fatally flawed, even those of us who are more capable of hiding it beneath a facade, and eventually our own immanent human weakness will be made known.

Some, for fear of being exposed as the frauds, never open themselves up fully to the love of others.  They prefer the safety of the illusion that they are able to create (in the solitary confines of their own minds) to the risk of honesty about their own hopelessness.  This is a worldly approach to love, it is all about proven performance, all about carefully maintained outward appearances and it lacks true faith.

Others make themselves vulnerable.  They confess their faults openly and let their flaws be known.  They would rather deal with the pain of rejection than deal dishonesty with themselves or others.  These people have hope of finding real love because they have humbled themselves, they have taken this risk to confessed their own sinful imperfection, and choose to live in faith of forgiveness rather than in fear.

Christian love transcends existing reality and, in true communion with God, seeks to find a more glorious future—reaches out in faith rather than dwell alone in fear of our imperfection.  Jesus sacrificed all while we were still dead in our sins, Jesus healed even those who did not take time to thank him, and faithful followers must do the same.  Christian love is a preemptive love, it is a truly selfless love only possible through means of God’s grace and a genuine spiritual transformation.  Christian love is always a gift given to those completely undeserving.

In contrast, the secular world has a version of love that is special favor distributed based on past performance, it is only given out in expectation of a return bigger than the investment made and abandoned quickly when the initial pleasurable feelings of an expected return fade.  It it is a selfish false love despite the selfless romantic language it is often disguised in.  It is a love of “what’s in it for me?” and is the only kind of love those without the Spirit of God can show.

The religious hypocrite may too use the language of faith and grace to describe their love.  However, with a bit of testing of spirits, sometimes their lack of truth in love can be revealed and their acting the part (as hypocrites) will be known.  This self-seeking love and self-serving spirit is found all over the church—even tacitly sanctioned in the romance and courtship arena.  But in marriage the truth of our love is known.

Is our conservative Mennonite idea of romance purely Christian or somewhat worldly?

I must vote the latter. 

As much as I hear talk about being the “right person” and emphasis on past and anticipated performance it is quite evident that we have an idea of love being something that is deserved.  It is the very antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we profess.  If love were indeed something earned then we would all be stuck in an impossible situation in relation to God and hopeless.

It is paradoxical, but many of the things the world uses as a basis to reject people and withhold love are the very things only love can cure.  For example, many prefer to criminalize addiction and take putative measures against addicts.  Unfortunately this approach is often extremely counterproductive, we drive those suffering further towards the margins of society, and a growing body of research shows that connection (a practical expression of love) is the solution.

We in the church, as religious people, do make an effort to reach out to those on the margins of society.  I have great respect for those faithfully involved in prison ministry, who visit the elderly interned in nursing facilities or for those who conduct clubs for disadvantaged children.  However, these are also things that can be done mostly out of obligation or religious duty, an attempt to earn the favor of God, and not out of genuine Christian love for others.

We can maintain a facade of Christian love in church and church activities.  But there is a point when the truth of the kind of love we possess will be brought to light.  And, while I’m not talking about only romantic love, our romantic and marital love is where this mask can no longer be maintained.  Sure, we can fake self-sacrificial love around our religious peers when preening for their approval, but we will not give away our whole life for our lie and therefore must keep some places off limits.

It is ironic that many conservative Mennonites (the same who affirm a belief in a doctrine that would preclude them even defending loved ones) also preach an extremely self-serving me-first worldly idea of romance.  I’ve had a father literally whip out a calculator while trying to explain why I was ineligible to court his daughter.  It is appalling faithless hypocrisy and yet never really seriously questioned.

My way or the highway: If I can’t marry who I want to marry, why marry at all?

Marriage, as something self-interested, means we will only marry when the calculations favor our own interests.  This, again, is a worldly idea of love and the antithesis of actual Christian love.

Unfortunately many in the church, going against their profession of faith, will only marry when they believe that it will produce a future advantage for them and choose based in things like family pedigree or past performance.  They rely on their own understanding and not faith in God.

Such might have been the case when a young woman named Emily Cavanaugh turned down a suitor back in the spring of 1938.  She rejected a young man’s love because he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere in life and she believed he would never amount to much.  She wanted a leader in the church and, by her analysis, he lacked that potential. 

That young man rejected by Emily later preached to millions.  He even acted as a personal advisor in matters of faith to Presidents of the most powerful nation in the world.  I had the honor of hearing him speak to the multitude at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.  His name is familiar to many people today.

The man? 

Evangelist Billy Graham…

One should note carefully that all of the significant men in Scripture were losers and outcasts by worldly standards.  Noah was a drunk, Abraham was too old, Isaac had his head in the clouds, Jacob was a liar, Moses had murdered a man and couldn’t speak confidently and this pattern of God using the unlikely candidates continues into the New Testament.  Matthew was a collaborator with an enemy occupation, Thomas had doubts about Jesus, Peter was a basically racist (with a bark much bigger than his bite) and a Paul was actually abusive against the faithful.  They were misfits, but God saw what others did not.

Consider what God told Samuel when he was in search of a leader for his people:

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

The man who fit the requirements was King David.  David, unlike Saul before him, was not a man of impressive stature and was a mere shepherd (a menial task) at the time Samuel found him.  What David had was a strong faith that was not recognized by his peers and yet was already known to God.  The courageous warrior and Biblical hero that we know today only emerged later in the story.  One can imagine the faith that it took for Samuel to anoint this unknown commodity as the future leader of a nation.

I believe those who reject a suitor (or a marriage eligible woman) based in their own expectations and arbitrary standards may want to reconsider their own profession of faith in a man run out of his own home town as a false prophet.  I would recommend some reflection on the words Jesus spoke to his Bible-believing (and deceived) detractors: 

“Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42)

Jesus was also turned down by his rightful bride because he was deemed unsuitable.  That is a reality worth considering when it comes to how we pick and choose today.  Perhaps our reasonable standards today are wrongheaded and unGodly?  Perhaps we are no better than our unfaithful religious predecessors?

Do our American ideals for love and marriage fail in delivering orthodox Christian imagery?

Marriage, in western society at least, has somehow become a legal arrangement dependent on human vows and will.  But this “till death do we part” contract view of matrimony is not necessarily the most faithful understanding in Christian tradition.  In fact it is this view that makes the very definition of marriage dependent on human whims.  Marriage has become about us rather than about God.

But, what if we were to put God at the center of the marriage union instead of human effort and need?

The Orthodox Christian marriage tradition (in contrast to our Western and somewhat Catholic originated ideas) puts much more emphasis on the eternal perspective and mystery of God.  And, in fuller recognition that God is the one who creates the martial bond, they make no wedding vows.  To them God makes a marriage commitment sacred, not human promises.

Most significantly, the Orthodox view puts stronger emphasis on the symbolic and positive spiritual value of Christian marriage.  It does not treat marriage as if a mere compromise for human weakness.  As an Orthodox friend of mine explains it:

“…marriage is the means blessed by God from the very beginning for a man and a woman to be yoked together in order that they might achieve union with God.  In Orthodox Christian teaching, the original intention of God is reaffirmed by Jesus in his teachings and in his blessing of the Marriage Feast at Cana. Furthermore, the Orthodox put a great deal of emphasis upon the mystery of Christ and his Church—the Bridegroom imagery of Ephesians 5 and see marriage as one very important manifestation of God’s love for his children.”

(Fr. Anthony Roeber, priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and Professor of Early Modern History & Religious Studies, Penn State.)

Conservative Mennonites do like their symbolism.  We have persistently held onto symbolic Christian practices (like veils, kisses of charity and foot washing) long after the mainstream church abandoned or neglected them.  This cultural penchant for resisting change could give the impression of faithfulness.  Unfortunately, our reality of heart can sometimes be vastly different from what we display outwardly.

Is our concept of marriage a reflection of a radical commitment to Christian self-sacrificial love?  We might say that our romantic endeavors are God honoring and rooted in faith, but is this actually true?  Or, beneath the veil of religious symbolism, is our romance spiritually vacant and about our own personal preferences?

Love as God loves and for God wants to do through us, not for what we want to choose for ourselves.

I believe emphasis on choice and knowing (on our own terms) often comes at the expense of faith.  There is cognitive dissonance in the church when you compare our courtship ideals to what we expect in marriage.  In courtship we forget about God’s perspective and adopt a worldly approach.  Yet then we expect that self-centered attitude to disappear once some religious ritual is performed? 

Marriage is not about our choosing what is best for ourselves.  To be successful in marriage requires commitment to self-sacrificial love and giving up our own rights to another.  I believe that our American/Western culture is hung up choice and independence, it is to our own spiritual detriment too, but there are few who address this weakness in our courtship ideal.  We push human calculations, our own personal or political advantages, and not faith.

The worldly perspective of romantic love is self-centered and is only about a person getting what they want.  But the true Christian ideal is martyrdom:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:21-33)

That, a text oft used at weddings, is a great guide to marital relationship.  However, to remain consistent, isn’t this the same reality of love that should be guiding our lives and including the whole process leading to marriage from start to finish?  Can we truly expect Christian love to be made manifest in marriage when we married for selfish gain or to advance our own personal agenda religious and otherwise?

A faithful follower of Jesus should marry because they wish to better serve God by their devoted self-sacrificial love to another.  It should not be a market based decision, a weighing of available options and determination to select what will be most beneficial to ourselves.  When marriage is about our own plans and ambitions it becomes as a business transaction between two people.  Yes, we can dress it up in the language of love or romance and celebrate it together in religious formality, but we might as well call it what it is: legal prostitution.

There is sometimes a vast difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe in practice.  We can claim to be ready to sacrifice anything in service to God, but are we actually willing to sacrifice our right to marry or marry the person of our own choosing?  Do we bring honor to God in our romance or are we as self-seeking and carnally minded as our secular neighbors?

It’s not what you can obtain through romantic pursuits, but about the glory God will obtain.  Marriage, for a Christian, should be a great testimony of our faithfulness, a practical display of a transcending self-sacrificial and eternal commitment to love.

Our romance, according to the most ancient of Christian traditions, can be our greatest witness and testimony of faith put to practice.  In truest form marriage is a dying to ourselves for love of another or martyrdom. 

Is a second marriage ever permissable for a Christian?

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As an idealistic person, one raised in a purity culture, and unmarried, I rarely have needed to question my indoctrination on the issue of remarriage.  Likewise, those who are happily married (or who have never been married) have the luxury of easy absolutism on this issue and can draw a hard-line with no need to take a closer look.

However, having been asked my opinion of divorce and remarriage on a couple occasions, I have been pondering the question for several months.  The opinions of modern commentators are as varied as those I have found in the writings of those in the early church and onward.

What do the commentators say about divorce and remarriage?

Some of the conclusions of early church writers differ dramatically from what I’ve been taught.  For example, divorce was, in the case of an unfaithful spouse, not only recommended in the case of an unfaithful spouse—it was considered mandatory.  Some taught remarriage in any case was wrong for a Christian and forbid all second marriages even if the first spouse died.

Tertullian, however, did make an exception when the prior marriage ended (by death or divorce) before conversion.  Menno Simons and other notable early Anabaptists also allowed divorce and remarriage in the case of unrepentant adultery, but only with the council of the church body:

“In the fourth place, if a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. And if it be one who complains that he has fallen in sin, and desires to mend his ways, then the brethren permit the believing mate to go to the unfaithful one to admonish him, if conscience allows it in view of the state of the affair. But if he be a bold and headstrong adulterer, then the innocent party is free–with the provision, however, that she shall consult with the congregation and remarry according to circumstances and decisions in the matter, be it well understood. (Wismar Articles)

That is in sharp contrast to the conservative Mennonitism that opposes all divorce and recognizes even the marriages of even unbelievers as valid, yet allows remarriage if the prior spouse has died.  Many teach that a second marriage (besides those ended by death) should be broken up even if there are children involved and it creates hardship.

That is also in contrast to David Bercot who’s lawyerly approach to Scripture and early church writings led him to believe that remarriage after a divorce is NOT perpetually sin:

“I have not found any situation in the early church where they ever broke up the second marriage. In other words, they said that it was an adulterous marriage, it was a wrong situation, but they didn’t say that it was just the same thing as living with someone in adultery. In other words, there was a union that had taken place there, and they don’t seem to have taken the position that breaking that up would be something good. Instead, it’s a second wrong that doesn’t make the first wrong right. It just makes things even worse, and we can see that today where there’s a family with children. To divorce a second time, break up a happy home, doesn’t seem to be the way God would normally work.”

That, of course, is Bercot’s opinion…

So how does all that above stack up against the actual teachings of Scripture?

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)

Jesus quoted the common practice and then corrects it.  He states “anyone who divorces his wife,” then adds the caveat “except for sexual immorality” and continues with that qualification to describe remarriage as sin.  From this one can conclude that remarriage is not adultery if there was infidelity (or “porneia” in the original Greek) discovered in the prior marriage. 

In fact, if we take the Apostle Paul at his word, then a person applying his teachings must seperate themselves from an unfaithful and unrepentant spouse or they are joined together in the sin:

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)

To send an unrepentant sinner packing is NOT hardness of heart (as in what Jesus rebuked in Matthew 19:8) but an absolute necessity and why the church was directed by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:13) to cast out those who refused to repent of their immorality.  It is not hard hearted, it is something necessary to preserve the testimony of the church.

In the Old Testament we read various places where God is portrayed as the husband of an unfaithful spouse.  When the children of Israel break their covenant with God they are given their divorce papers and sent packing (Jeremiah 3:8) because their unfaithfulness could no longer be tolerated.  It was not hard hearted of God to divorce.

But, besides that one exception given by Jesus for sexual immorality, I see clear indication in Scripture that marriage commitment is permanent and a change of status not recommended.  At very least it seems second marriage (presumably any second marriage) has consequences.  We are told a church leader must be “husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2) and, since all should desire to be the best example of faithfulness, I would conclude remarriage is at least strongly discouraged.

In conclusion…

I believe grace triumphs over judgement and that we should love others as we wish to be loved.  It is my opinion that one is to remain committed to their first spouse in every circumstance except in the case of unrepentant sexual sin.  I believe death (or divorce of an unfaithful spouse) does unbind the living spouse and give them freedom to marry again.  But, if there is any doubt, it is better to remain unmarried.

For those who have already divorced and remarried there must be repentance of the broken marriage.  I do not feel I have the authority to overrule those who believe it is permissible to remain in a subsequent or second marriage.  But, we also should not continue in sin that grace may abound and should obey our conscience when in doubt.  That said, I am also not of the position that there is any sin (past, present or future) beyond the grace of God.

Anyhow, is a second marriage permissible for a Christian? 

Maybe.

But it is nearly always undesirable, unpleasant and not ideal.  Those who have lost a spouse or have been abandoned by an unfaithful spouse know that pain all too well.  Children of divorced parents often suffer terrible insecurity through life as a result.  It is not ideal. 

So, to married people, stay faithful if at all possible and don’t risk your own future or that of those whom are your responsibility by taking the commitment lightly.

Performance Anxieties and Worship

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The Mennonite culture I am a part of has had a tradition of music that spans several generations.  The tradition is acapella congregational singing (typically in four parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and hymn music.  It is my preference, it is what I am accustomed to and comfortable singing in a church worship service, but some conservatives would have it as the only right way.

The other night, as is not uncommon, we had a choral program at my church. A group of a few talented individuals (dressed with matching outfits and practiced) sang together in front of an audience of family and friends.  Their selection of music had meaningful lyrics focused on distinctly Christian themes and the Christmas season.  It was a beautiful presentation.

Afterwards, the pastor (asked to give the benedictory prayer) went to pains to explain that the presentation that preceded was not a “performance” or “entertainment” and was worship.  I understood what he meant.  However, is it actually truthful to say that a presentation to an audience is not a performance?  Are concepts of worship and performance mutually exclusive?

Mennonite Tradition, Progressive Evolution and Lingering Guilt…

Mennonites have historically avoided elevation of some in the group.  Leaders were expected to be servants to all rather than a privileged hierarchy.  In fact, even raised pulpits were a controversial topic because of the potential for pride and spiritual inequality they represented.  Traditionally there was a table for those who preached to put their Bibles on and no pulpit.  Preaching was not to be done in a way that drew special attention to the presenter or flamboyantly.

Music in worship was ordered likewise.  There were no solo instruments or vocals in worship services because it was believed that would draw too much attention to the individual(s) performing.  In the church service singing was strictly congregational and in unison rather than divided into parts.  Four part singing only became part of Mennonite practice in the late 1800’s and special singing groups likely followed some time after as Mennonites adopted more mainline practice.

But it is an uncomfortable position to the conservative Mennonite mind.  There is still an urge to distinguish between performance for entertainment and worship of God.  In my own congregation we allow solos and special singing groups.  However, we are also dutifully reminded that the point is the worship God rather than recognize those presenting and (except for a few occasional outbursts by rebels) we do not offer any applause.

It is this careful avoidance of applause and tendency towards the over-wrought explanation that makes me wonder what is truly amiss—It seems too anxious.  If nobody else but God is getting the attention, shouldn’t that just be self-evident, why the need for an explanation? Why the contrast and comparison?

Our Worship *IS* Imperfect, Be Honest…

I believe the reality is that a special group singing before an audience is obviously a performance and for entertainment.  No, this does not nullify the reality it is intended as worship for God either.  What we do for others is an expression of our worship for God and that can certainly include wholesome entertainment.  Our performance for the good of others is ultimately what brings God honor and glory, is it not?

Furthermore, we aim to be perfect expressions, but we are not and might as well be honest about it.  Of course there is potential for pride in performance.  Did anyone on the stage not want to please the audience they sang to?  It would be utterly absurd to claim otherwise and with that the danger of self-aggrandizement. 

Yet, denial of that potential for self-centered worship doesn’t get us any closer to perfection of worship either.  If anything it is the same fatal error of Ananias and Sapphira who were judged instantaneously for dishonesty in their claiming to give all while secretly withholding some for themselves. Their deception, likely rooted in their wanting to maintain appearances of perfection or religious pride, was their downfall.

We are imperfect even at our best. Yes, even in our worship we can have mixed motives. We enjoy being talented, we often keep some of the praise for ourselves, and that’s okay if we are honest about it.  We are saved by God’s grace and not by our own perfect efforts.  It is this admission of our own imperfection that leads us to be more gracious towards others and a more true expression of the worship Jesus described.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)

In conclusion, we should do as Jesus instructed and learn what it means in Hosea 6:6 where it says God desires mercy not sacrifice.  This is a reference back to the religious sacrificial rituals observed as worship in the Old Testament.  Sacrifice is an impractical expression of worship whereas mercy is not. 

Our better worship is not having the right mode or music style as much as it is in our expressed in our genuine love for each other. 

Hey, Christians, who do you serve?

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I read a blog today that spurred my thoughts in a new direction.  The blog (read here) was about the religious owners of a small business who elected to close shop after their employees decided to unionize.

The rationale they give for their decision piqued my interest:

“…our personal beliefs will not allow our conscience the freedom to work with a labor union, as we are required by Scripture to ‘live peaceably with all men,’ and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed.”

I am a big believer in freedom of conscience and allowing business owners to make the decisions best for them.  I understand the angst of a small business owner facing the prospect of a workforce organized against them.  I know other small business owners who said they too would close shop rather than deal with a union.

However, by a Christian standard, is it truly living “peaceably” to essentially take the ball and go home when the game isn’t played by our own rules?

The Reason for Unions and the Cost of Conflict

I understand why a business owner is threatened by the collective bargaining power of unions.  It isn’t a pleasant thing to face the prospect of a do-what-we-say-or-we’ll-strike and it does tie the hands of those trying to keep a business afloat rather than just take a paycheck.  But is it much different than the do-what-we-say-or-we’ll-fire-you that employees face?

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The reality is that unions form for a reason and the reason is that employees feel powerless and want a voice.  Unions give employees power to collectively bring their own agenda to the table and force their will on the owners of the business.  It is an attempt to rebalance or redistribute power in a way that makes a the structure of a business less hierarchical.

Unfortunately unions often only add another layer of management (often as removed from the needs of the employees as the other) and only adds to the cost of business while producing nothing besides a contentious attitude.  The end result can be an uncompetitive business model that eventually works for nobody.

What are the Christian Alternatives to Closing Shop?

First off, closing shop is not the only option a business owner has when faced by unionization, there’s more than one way to “live peaceably with all men” and avoid unnecessary conflict.  I am guessing that the employees are less at peace with the our-way-or-you’re-jobless approach and perhaps not too impressed with their ‘peaceable’ former employer.

Here’s some ideas…

Alternative #1: Partner only with like-minded people.  There would be less need for unions (or closing shop in protest of them) if we took Paul’s admonition seriously:

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?  What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15)

Much conflict between business owners and employees stem from differences of perspective that would be reduced by not hiring outside of one’s own religious affiliation.  Sure, this might reduce the amount of available employees (at a particular cost) and limit the size of the business.  But, if allegiance to faith outweighs financial gain, then the decision is clear.

Alternative #2a: Change who you serve.  Many people go into business to serve primarily their own needs.  Business is all about getting the best deal for yourself and all sides are in competition against one another (customer against producer, employee against owner, etc) trying to serve themselves.  Yet, there is an alternative and that alternative is cooperation.

What if owners served employees, customers served producers and employees served both and everyone *voluntarily* served everyone else selflessly? 

In other words, what would happen if we changed all of the force arrows pulling outward competing for their ‘piece of the pie’ and spun them 180° in the opposite direction?

That, my friends, is turning fission into fusion and (like the nuclear counterpart) has potential for more energy or profit to all than the alternative:

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What if all parts serve God by *voluntarily* serving each other rather than themselves?

Well, that’s Christianity:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)

We don’t have masters and servants (unless you agree with Noam Chomsky), but the same principles could apply to both an employee working for a business or customer.  It can also apply to how a Christian business owner responds to a union, the owner can choose to resist the collective will of their employees or they can serve and honor it as an act of obedience to their Master.

If Jesus is your Master this is your obedience:

“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)

Alternative #2b: Serve all people radically.  Maybe you already have employees who aren’t like-minded and want to gang up on you or unionize, what then?

Well, if your primary purpose is to serve Jesus Christ, then this might apply:

“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.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

That is a concept as revolutionary today as it was when Jesus spoke the words.  It is a concept, if applied evenly to all areas of life, would change everything we do and requires a faith few of us have.  Sure, most of us are willing to cooperate when we know it is to our own advantage, but Jesus goes a step beyond mutual cooperation and tells us to lead through self-sacrificial love.

The conclusion of the matter…

Many go into business primarily to serve themselves and there is nothing immoral about profitable enterprise.  However, a Christian should not go into business to serve themselves, the goal of a faithful servant of Jesus is to serve others as obedience requires and that means a cooperative—even a self-sacrificial—approach to business.

In the case with the small business of the blog post, I am guessing the separation or disunity of spirit between employees and employer existed long before the vote.  The vote to unionize only codified a division that already existed and was a move to change the terms in favor of the employees.  It backfired, in this case, because the employer chose to quit rather than serve terms not dictated by them and their needs.

I will let you decide if their response was the best Christian resolution of difference or not.  How would you decide?  I welcome your comments…

God bless.

Love: Feeling or Choice?

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This blog is about ideas and the idea that ideas matter.  I believe the ideas people have can dramatically influence the direction of their lives.  Our choices, based in our ideas, could actually help shape reality in a ways not previously understood.

The view that seems popular today makes people simply products of the universe.  We emphasize the role of genetics and the influence of environmental factors in shaping what a person is, which is an idea that is certainly not without merit.  We bear a close resemblance to our parents for a reason and had no choice in determining that.  There’s also a good explanation of why I am writing this in English rather than Chinese. 

Obviously we have a given nature and are influenced by the nurture we received, which could lead to a ‘it is what it is’ fatalistic view that we have no choice or free will and ability to determine the future.  But could there be more than that?  Is it possible that the universe is only an influence and not a dictator of our consciousness?  Could it be that our own consciousness acts as a co-creator of the future universe?

Advances in physics have opened a whole new realm of possibilities.  The wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics is a paradox that suggests there is a bigger picture of the universe and one that could put our own consciousness in a far more important role than previously understood.  If our observation actually shapes reality at a quantum level (collapsing the wave function) then the future may not actually be determined outside of our own mind and will as is a common assumption.

If the future is not a destiny and is in fact something we co-create, then that could change many things including our ideas on love, which leads to the question…

Is love an existent feeling or a willful choice?

Both religious and secular people have seemed to have embraced a fatalistic view of love.  We could be scientific and point to natural explanations like pheromones, cultural expectations, chance opportunity, etc.  It is basically to conclude that love is something pressed out of a myriad of factors that all combine at the right time—which is a view that makes love seem sort of like sausage.  The religious, on the other hand, may turn to a meant-to-be (or God-did-it) rational to explain love and downplay choice.

Our culture, religious or otherwise, tends to emphasize the feelings of attraction above all else.  Love is something we are told we should ‘fall’ into and that there is a ‘right’ person out there for everyone. The idea is that attraction produces a feeling that produces a choice that produces commitment and ends with happily ever after. 

Unfortunately, I believe this is a view of love that has produced a great deal of disappointment and disillusionment in our day. It doesn’t work for many people. For some the problem is that they never find someone who produces that feeling of attraction enough to make them commit and they remain single or go from one relationship to the next in search of it.  The problem for others is that they marry based in superficial feelings, eventually those feelings fade away and they want out of the commitment. 

In both cases (above) the idea of love centers around feelings of attraction and presents love as a product of circumstances outside of our own control.

But what if there is an alternative view? What if we flip the order of things and put commitment first? Or, rather than love being a fate produced by an initial attraction that eventually ends in commitment and happily ever after, could love be a commitment to love that lead to a continual choice that produces a deepening relationship that produces a feeling of love and marital bliss? 

It is my view that love is less of an ‘it is what it is’ fate and more an ‘it is what we make it’ choice.  I believe the idea of love as a choice would produce healthier more sustainable relationships than the current popular view.  We believe we would see a reversal in trends towards non-commitment if we stopped waiting for the ‘right’ feeling to come and started to be more actively loving to others even when the feelings do not exist.

What is the (proper) Christian view of love?

In the American church there is a heavy emphasis on experience and emotion in worship.  We want music, we want excitement and entertainment, because the more feeling we have in the moment the more we love God, right? 

Wrong.

Christian faith is not supposed to be primarily about feelings or ‘spiritual’ experience.  Christian faith should be about obedience to the Spirit of love and that is the true evidence of faith according to Jesus:

“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)

Many Christians have confused positive emotions for spiritual depth.  A person who proclaims the loudest how great God is and puts on the biggest public display of praise is not necessarily the one who loves God the most.  The Gospel presents a different view of love that doesn’t resonate as well with our feelings based culture.  Jesus says, “if you love me, keep my commandments,” (John 14:15) and equates love with obedience.  

To obey Jesus means to love others as we wish to be loved (Luke 6:31) and to love perfectly like God does:

“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)

If Christian love were a feeling and emotion how would it be possible to love our enemies?  Enemies are, by common definition, the people we do not love because they have in some way offended us or they are out to destroy us.  But, perfect love is not a feeling.  Perfect love is a choice to obey and love in action even when the feelings aren’t there.  Perfect love is a choice rather than a feeling, perfect love is the kind that sacrifices our own selfish ambitions for the good of others, and without that kind of love we are not actually true disciples of Jesus:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.  God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.  There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us.  Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”  (1 John 4:7-21)

Christian love is preemptive.  Christian love follows the example of Jesus who loved us BEFORE we loved him.  True love is not based in initial attraction nor does it wait in fear of not being reciprocated.  True love steps out in faith.  Perfect love is not a pursuit of an immediate feeling or instant gratification. 

Love is a choice to invest in the good of another person even when we do not feel like they are worth our investment.  Love means a choice to obey and the choice to obey is a choice to follow the example of Jesus.

So, if love is a choice, then feelings do not matter?

No, not exactly.  I do believe feelings do matter.  But, a love based primarily in initial superficial attraction is a shallow love and deep love is only possible with deep (and self-sacrificial) commitment.  Deeper love is a continual choice to love more than a fleeting feeling of love.  For that reason we should be emphasizing the choice to love over the feeling of love and not the other way around.

This is not to say that those who started with a feeling of superficial attraction never develop depth of relationship—some do and some do not.  But I will say that love that is a choice and a commitment in faith is starting at a deeper level.  The better love is not a feeling.  The better love is a choice to put aside fear (or hate) and invest in the betterment of another person.  It is a love that is based in faith rather than feeling.

If love is a matter of will rather than a determined or predestined fate, then when a person says that they cannot love a person what they are really saying is that they unwilling to love that person.  The feelings can never develop in a person who is not willing to step out in faith.  Therefore, if you want to find love, be willing to bring love into the world and give it away in faith.

Love first.  Plant seeds of love in the world.  Do not wait on feelings to arrive before investing in the good of others.  Do not expect the Spirit of God to come to you (or the world) unless you live in obedience to the command to follow Jesus and love self-sacrificially by his example.  Love before you expect love to arrive.  Yes, this is absolutely a paradox, a causality dilemma, but that is the nature of our reality in a quantum universe.

Do not be resigned to an idea that we are haplessly tossed about without a will of our own.  Instead, consider the last lines of Invictus, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”  Choose to love supernaturally.  Be a co-creator of a higher and deeper love rather than a mere consumer of the feelings produced by base human nature.

What does Charleston say about us?

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There are many who react to the church shooting at Charleston’s historic Emanuel A.M.R. Church by blaming availability of guns and decrying racism.

But one thing missing from the discussion, that is a victimhood mentality and the idea that all people of a particular race are guilty because of the acts of a few. 

When Dylann Storm Roof walked into the doors of that church he was armed with two ideas: 1) his tribe (white people, women, etc) were the victims, and 2) their tribe (black people) were collectively responsible for black rapists, perceived injustice, etc.

It was the ideas that this depraved young man harbored in his heart that were dangerous.  However, these ideas are not unique to him or just to unreasonable and angry white men.  These are ideas accepted accepted in mainstream thought that divides people into falsely dichotomous categories.

Who kills the innocent? We do!

Ideas that white is equal to privilege or black is equal to victimhood are equally dangerous.  When we feed the martyr complex and victimhood mentality we are giving license to those of an even more deranged mind to take it a step further. 

The problem with Roof and those like him (of all races, genders, etc) is not what they do—but that they feel justified to do it.  We can fret about availability of guns and a multitude of other factors, but until we address the heart issue we are only treating the symptoms.

We won’t stop a person bent on evil and destruction with more legislation.  If anything more law will only create the next inequity and give some other person reason to feel disenfranchised.  But what we do need is to unravel the false dichotomies and prejudice assumptions that fuel hatred.

Being on the ‘right’ side of history…

We are urged to be on the “right side of history” yet the problem is that everyone (including Roof) feels they are on the ‘right’ side and justified.  Jesus encountered this in the Pharisees who thought themselves better than other people and superior to their own ancestors:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.  And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.”  (Matthew 23:29-31)

There are many sanctimonious today who think they are superior to other people.  They may decry the injustices of the past, support punishment for those they hold responsible and blame, but they themselves often as guilty or more of similar abuse.

Is an anti-abortion activist who calls women entering a clinic names or murderers a provider any better than those they accuse? 

Is a person who labels others as “racist” or “homophobic” or “hateful” in response to a disagreement over opinion less abusive than a person who uses the n-word?

I say, no and no. 

The solution to hate is not to be hateful.  As Mahatma Gandhi wisely observed: “An eye for an an eye only leaves the whole world blind.”  What he observed is the same as when Jesus quipped that those who live by the sword will die by it (Matthew 26:52) or ‘what goes around comes around’ in essence.

We make a difference by being different…

Everyone has reason for their own abuses.  Many of the most abusive people in history believed they served a righteous cause.  Many people can identify the sins of other tribes or the prior generation, but few seem able to see their own abuses.  We prefer to keep the spotlight on those whom we perceive to be worse than us than we are interested in searching out the wickedness of our own hearts.

Ben Carson spoke well:

“You know, we have a war on women, race wars, income wars, age wars, religious wars. Anything you could imagine, we have a war on it… And we’re giving people a license to hate people who disagree with them.”

We need to stop arming ourselves with contempt and be committed to loving as we wish to be loved.  It is easy to love our own and hate others, but divine love seeks unity rather than encourage division.  It sacrifices self rather than perpetuate cycles of violence.  It brings grace to the fight even when vengeance feels justified.

Grace saves us…

It is the Spirit of love like that of Marcus Stanley, who was shot eight times but lived, and chose grace in response to hate:

“I don’t look at you with the eyes of hatred, or judge you by your appearance or race, but I look at you as a human being that made a horrible decision to take the lives of 9 living & breathing people. Children do not grow up with hatred in their hearts. In this world we are born color blind. Somewhere along the line, you were taught to hate people that are not like you, and that is truly tragic. You have accomplished nothing from this killing, but planting seeds of pain that will forever remain in the hearts of the families that lost their lives and countless hearts around our country.”

Let’s not fall victim to those who would divide us into categories, but instead seek the unity of all people only possible with a love that tears down walls, bridges divides and believes when others say it is impossible. 

May those seeds of Roof’s hate stay dead and the love of Jesus in Stanley’s gracious response grow in us.  The answer is not more or less guns nor petitions against flags and protest, it is less hate and more Jesus.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)