Turmoil and Theosis

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

A Bull In the China Shop

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

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

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

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

The Calm In My Storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Theosis Means and My Journey Since

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

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

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

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

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

Theosis, the True Promise of Salvation

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

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

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

What Jesus promised the disciples:

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

And the day he delivered:

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

How Paul explains this:

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

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

Where is Martha Today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being An Image (or Icon) of God

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

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

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

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

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

That is God’s economy at work.

That is poetic justice.

That is theosis.

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How God’s Economy Differs From Our Own

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

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

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

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

This is how Paul and Silas replied:

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

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

And we also have this explanation of salvation by Peter:

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

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

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

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

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

Probably not.

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

The Thief On the Cross, Judas, and the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does this mean that we should stop baptizing people?

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

No and no.

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

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

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

God’s Economy Is Different From Our Own

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is impossible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is our salvation:

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

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

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

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

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

Oikonomia: The Economy Of Jesus and the Church

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

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

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

What?!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The law is a means, not an end.

Love is the end.

Binding, Loosing and the Authority Given to the Church

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

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

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

Simple, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How should we deal with sin in the Church?

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

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

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

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

That is our individual role.

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

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

Jesus continued:

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

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

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

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

Jesus continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should everyone go out speaking on behalf of God?

No, not everyone.

Here’s why:

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

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

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

Remember this:

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

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

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

Christianity is not a schizophrenic delusion.

We are not individually Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again…

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

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

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

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

Zero Tolerance and the Trolley Problem — The Law Demands Perfection

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This is the first part of a four part series on law, legalism, church authority and economia. Stay tuned!

When I was out on the road hauling commodities there was a mill receiver who always did an excellent job keeping trucks moving through the bulk unloading area. In fact, he was so dedicated to good service that he would voluntarily open the pit early to keep things running smoothly and help us truckers get on our way again. He was a fixture, a competent employee with a great attitude and good sense of humor.

One week I arrived at the mill and the place was a total disaster. There were trucks jammed everywhere waiting to be unloaded, there was an industrial vacuum truck at work near some of the storage bins, and, as I would discover upon entering the receiving office, a familiar face was gone. When I asked what had happened, the other mill workers told me he had put an ingredient in the wrong bin and the management fired him on the spot.

It was a costly mistake. The ingredients he accidentally mixed were expensive and now unusable as feed. Hiring a crew to suck out the contents of a bin is not cheap and the company policies were clear—it was his job to make sure the equipment was set up right. It was nothing personal. He has been warned about their zero-tolerance policy for this kind of mistake and had violated established procedure by starting to unload before checking the driver’s paperwork.

From the company’s standpoint, there was no other option. The rules were established for a reason. If they let everyone get away with doing things his or her own way it would most likely result in more mistakes like this and could not deliver the same quality of product at the same price. If their competition did better they would lose customers and eventually be unable to stay in business. The result would be everyone losing their jobs. So firing him was simply loss prevention and a move to ensure profitability in the long-term.

Furthermore, making an exception here would undermine the effectiveness of their corporate policies. Other employees, observing that these rules were not always strictly enforced, might decide to disregard the procedures and incur more losses in the future. Not only that, but selective enforcement is discrimination and could open them up to accusations of favoritism and lawsuits. In an organization of hundreds, one-size-fits-all solutions often prevail over true justice.

From my own perspective, knowing the quality of the individual and considering the replacements, this seemed wrong. I had to think what this might do for employee morale when you show no loyalty to someone who went above and beyond what was required on so many occasions. Surely his good contributions outweighed the bad. Besides, he was conscientious, it was the truck driver who had misinformed him, and would likely learn from the experience, right?

Doing what I would hope others would do for me in a similar circumstance, I contacted the corporate office and pled his case. But, their decision had been made, his employment was terminated, there would be no grace shown, rules are rules.

Old Testament Law and the Trolley Question

From a modern American perspective, the law of Moses is unusually excessive and unnecessarily harsh. Under that law, everything from adultery to uttering profanity and disrespect for parents was punishable by death. We even have an account of a man being executed for merely picking up sticks on the wrong day of the week:

While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32‭-‬36 NIV)

In those days it really paid to pay close attention in Sunday school class.

By that standard, would any person living today *not* be condemned to death?

Why would they punish a man so severely for what seems like a very minor infraction?

The answer to that is two-fold.

First, having come out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were without a strong cultural identity or social structure, they were in an extremely harsh environment and thus would need to quickly become cohesive as a group to survive. Second, those who couldn’t follow instructions or fall under the authority of the leaders could easily cost the entire group and therefore had to be weeded out. The journey they were on required cooperation, order needed to be established, and thus a zero-tolerance policy was instituted.

Read the story of Achan’s disobedience in the book of Joshua:

Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies; they turn their backs and run because they have been made liable to destruction. I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction. “Go, consecrate the people. Tell them, ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow; for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: There are devoted things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them. (Joshua 7:11‭-‬13 NIV)

There is a connection being made in that story between lack of individual discipline leading to group failure.

The account continues that Joshua went through the camp to find the offending party. They find one man, Achan, who confesses to having brazenly violated clear commands. His actions reflected a disrespectful attitude towards the authority above him. It was representative of a general problem that was causing the Israelites to lose in battle. They had to make an example of Achan or there would be little chance of their survival as a group. They put him and his family to death for the good of the group.

This is a case where the Trolley problem applies:

If there is a Trolley going down a track that will end up killing multiple people and could switch it to a track that kills only one—what would be the moral thing to do?

That is the dilemma underlying every attempt at governance. Laws are written as a means to save the group from the sins of the individual. Sometimes it is very clear who is dangerous to the group. For example, when someone murders another member of the group they—through their established pattern of behavior—present an existential threat to the group and must somehow be removed. In lean times, when there is a lack of resources to be spent on unruly people, it is simply more practical to execute those who present a potential threat to the group. So, rather than kill the many through inaction, they kill the one.

The Old Testament law is similar to the hardline policies of the story I told about the fired mill employee. Chaos is costly in the corporate world and very dangerous to a group struggling to survive in a wilderness. In these cases, when there’s a very real chance of group extinction, the collective concerns take precedence over the rights of the individual. Poorer countries, or those that lack the resources to mete out justice the way more developed nations do, are often very harsh because they cannot afford to do otherwise and would rather sacrifice a few individuals than the entire group.

Does the New Testament change this?

Many modern-day Christians, especially in Protestant denominations, dismiss the importance of the law and play up the importance of grace. There is good reason for this bias given what Jesus taught about our right (as individuals) to judge others and God’s grace.

But this is not the dramatic departure from the Old Testament law that some people imagine it to be. Nearly everything Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount was a restatement of what was already written and, in some cases, Jesus made the standard even higher. There was never a time when it was okay to take personal vengeance. The words “vengeance is mine” (meaning only God has the right to judge) come directly from the Old Testament and do not do away with the institutions responsible for measuring out justice.

The apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, very clearly instructs Christians not to oppose punishment of the evildoer by civil authorities. He also commanded the Corinthian church to remove evil people from amongst them:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you. (Corinthians 5:9-12 NIV)

If the Old Testament were entirely nullified by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, why is Paul quoting from Deuteronomy? Paul uses the expression “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough” in his rebukes of the church—what this means is that individuals and their actions or attitudes affect the entire group. He makes the case that is better to remove those who are sinfully disruptive and unrepentant than to risk the entire group.

One might think that putting a badly behaved person with multiple good and conscientious people would influence them for the better. But it is more likely to work in reverse. When bad behavior is not adequately addressed in a group it causes others to lower their standards. I mean, why try so hard to live a disciplined and responsible life when you can join the riot and have a little fun? Troublemakers must be removed from a place where they could influence others negatively and dealt with or all chance of order will disappear.

So, yes, the law does still apply within the church and we should make every effort to obey it—because the penalty for breaking it is still death:

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events. (Acts 5:1‭-‬11 NIV)

That story of instant justice is from the New Testament. And I believe it is there to underscore the point that God’s opinion of sin has not changed because of the availability of grace. We, as Paul says, cannot continue in sin that “grace may abound” (Romans 6:1) and that’s because sin still has serious consequences—it hurts both individuals and the group. It was better that one couple, Ananias and Sapphira, make an early trip to the grave (may God have mercy on them in eternity) and the whole church be warned—from that day until to now—than it would be to allow a casual view of lawlessness to spread and infect the whole body of the church.

God’s Zero-tolerance Policy Towards Sin Has Not Disappeared Because of Grace.

Grace is not an excuse for sin. It is not an exemption from the law or a way of saying that breaking the law has no consequences. No, it was that sin that (quite literally and also metaphorically) put Jesus on the cross. There is always a price to be paid for bad behavior and disobedience. The message of the Gospel is not that sin doesn’t matter anymore. The message is that Jesus switched the track and sacrificed himself in order to save humanity from certain death. The message is that Jesus paid the price on our behalf and there is only one way to show our gratitude—we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.

Jesus says: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

There is no excuse for sin.

Is There Room for Both Primitive and Historical Churches?

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Recently I had breakfast with an earnest young Mennonite man to hear a presentation on behalf of an organization that helps to educate pastors in India. My overall impression was good, they focused on empowerment of local leaders rather than creating dependencies, and it seemed a cause worthy of my support.

Part of the goal for this organization was to ground these new converts, who often are opposed and even persecuted by everyone, and establish them with correct doctrines. In many ways it is a ministry similar to that of Peter and Paul in the book of Acts. It is exciting to see that there is a primitive church established on the miracles Jesus promised.

However, and perhaps unfortunately, this organization and many others, while they do indeed serve in a way that I can appreciate, also promote their own theological perspective. It is founded and maintained by those who are themselves disconnected from the established tradition of the church and could likewise benefit from the council of their elders.

The Appeal and the Problems with Primitivism…

When we see new converts struggle in some foreign land we can easily see the need for increased understanding and structure.

Sadly, while we see their need, we often do not comprehend our own need.

For many years, as a child of Protestantism, I believed that my own sect had as complete an understanding of Christianity as there is and that I was individually able to discern truth. As I’ve grown into adulthood I started to become more aware of inaccurate teachings and my own fallibility as an individual.

I was raised in a denomination that promotes their own idea of primitivism. In other words, many in the church of my youth believe very sincerely that they are the spiritual successors of early Anabaptists and also the early church. Basically we assumed, based in where we were born or in our own personal interpretation, that we held a corner on the truth.

This, sadly, is a belief established on confirmation bias. It is the intellectual equivalent of comfort food and keeps many from digging a little deeper. To think the ground that you stand on is sacred because you’re standing on it is a terribly arrogant position. This often ends up like 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 NIV)

Primitivistic groups are experts at finding the evidence in favor of their perspective and pointing out the faults in other groups. They, like Diotrephes, exclude those who do not agree with them. And that is the biggest problem with primitivistic church groups, they do not all teach the same things, some are extremely heretical, and yet all believe they represent the real unadulterated truth and keep out all who disagree.

What is the Historical Christian Response to Primitivism?

Not all primitivism is bad. A person must start their journey of faith somewhere and a basic conceptual understanding of the foundations of Christianity is a good start. Note how Jesus corrects the disciples for trying to silence those who were working miracles in his name and yet were not connected directly to his ministry with the disciples:

“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 NIV)

Jesus appears to endorse those working the miracles because they are correct in their basic understanding and doing his work. But that’s not to say we should be content to leave others ignorant and unconnected. I’m reminded of when Paul encountered some primitive believers:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:1‭-‬5 NIV)

It is the duty of a Christian elder to disciple and instruct the young in the faith and increase their understanding of the truth in the same way Paul did. Those who are of the right Christian perspective will appreciate the help and encouragement of an elder. They have the attitude encapsulated in the words of Peter:

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5 NIV)

We, like those new believers in India who are eager to be taught, need to take the same attitude towards learning from those who represent the historical church. There is an established church. There is a true orthodoxy of Christian faith and practice. We, those born into a more primitive setting in particular, would be remiss not to submit to our own elders and especially when we tell others to follow our own teachings.

Leave Those Who Are Both Primitive and Proud…

There is only one option with those who are proud and unsubmissive like Diotrephes, we must leave them because their pride blinds them. We must follow the advice of Jesus when dealing with those promoting false religion:

Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit. (Matthew 15:14 NIV )

There is extreme danger in relying on those who know little more than you do and who refuse to be accountable to anyone besides themselves. There are many denominations and parachurch organizations that fit that description. All have their subscribers who sip the same poisoned Kool-Aid (sometimes literally in the case of Jim Jones) and dismiss perspectives outside of their own.

We should rebuke the rebellious and those who deceive:

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. (Titus 1:10‭-‬11 NIV)

Many denominations (and non-denominational groups) keep their independence for sake of being free of accountablility to others and having control in their own hands. This kind of purity based on personal preference has been the foundational principal for many cult groups and is a corrupt foundation even when it doesn’t end in a Münster Rebellion or mass suicide.

If you are part of a small group that teaches that they are the most authentic church (or excludes other Christians from fellowship who do not follow their litany of man-made regulations) be very wary. There are many people very confident in themselves, who think they have all the answers, who see themselves as pure—and are deceived by their pride.

Being Reconnected with the Historical Church…

My biggest temptation, when leaving the Mennonite denomination, was to do what many other Protestants do when disappointed with their denomination and that is to go start the “Perfect Church of Joel” or basically a new pure and primitive sect. That, of course, was a foolish impulse. Any church founded by me, while possibly strong in some areas, would also share my weaknesses and blindspots.

The impulse a “pure” church is a product of arrogance, a focus on the shortcomings of others rather than on our own, and ignorance of the historic church. The early church, believe it or not, was not exactly pristine of free from problems. Read through the Gospels, the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, there is controversy, there is disagreement and failure.

However, despite their quarrels and shortcomings, keeping unity was the refrain:

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.(1 Corinthians 1:10 NIV)

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 NIV )

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11 NIV )

Unity of the church is a Christian imperative. Perfection on our own Mennonite, Lutheran, Mormon, Methodist or other denominational/separatist/sectarian terms is not.

There is truly no pure church, all are made of people who are imperfect, but there is a historically grounded church, one with a better claim on apostolic succession than any other, that keeps the traditions passed by word of mouth or letter, and is focused completely on Jesus Christ.

Unity should not be on our own terms. It is the responsibility of the younger to submit to the elder (according to Peter) and this is a teaching that can apply to both individuals and entire denominational structures. Those in primitive churches, therefore, as individuals or collectively, should make it their perogative to connect and be unified with the historic church.

My finding my place in the Orthodox Christian tradition was not an easy transition. It required me to think beyond my own individual preferences and perfectionistic impulses. It required me to submit to an understanding in many ways different from my own, I’ve had to sacrifice some of my primitivism, and seek unity in Christ rather than unity on my own terms.

Orthodox Christian Response to the Descendants of Anabaptism

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Fr. Anthony Roeber, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and a Professor of Church History, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Yonkers, New York, and a friend of mine, had agreed to answer some questions asked by my Mennonite friends.

Before getting to those questions and his answers, I want to express my gratitude to him, to those brave enough to ask questions, and also for those of you lurking in the shadows. And, while I would much prefer that we could all meet over coffee together, I am still grateful for the opportunity to virtually introduce you and pray that this dialogue is beneficial.

So without further ado…

Question: How does Orthodox Christianity make worship more about God’s glory than Anabaptists do?

Fr. Anthony: I would not suggest that any version of Protestantism neglect’s the glory of God, but the real question that has to be asked is what is Orthodox worship all about. The central focus of the Liturgy involves hearing the Word of God “rightly divided in truth” as well as the reception of the Eucharist—which means Thanksgiving—for the gift of his continued presence in all the Mysteries of the Church, all of which are critical to our on-going journey toward union with God. Right worship always includes acknowledging our privilege as the royal and priestly people who as adopted sons and daughters of God are able to worship him in spirit and in truth. That means that right worship involves the whole person—all the senses, the intellect, the emotions, bodily postures. But that worship also, and always confesses our failures both individual and collective to respond to his grace and the gift of faith. This is why our lives, including the Liturgy, continue to involve living under the Cross—and the need for constant repentance—turning back to God—and the change of heart that is our daily struggle, both individually and collectively. The Liturgy the Orthodox believe is a participation in the eternal Liturgy that is constantly being offered before the throne of God where the bodiless powers of heaven, Mary, the mother of God, and all the saints who have been well-pleasing to him from the beginning already share in a more intimate way in that praise and thanksgiving that will achieve its final shape and fulfillment at the resurrection of the dead and the Second and Final Coming. Liturgy, for the Orthodox, is therefore always eschatological—we are looking forward to his return. And, the Orthodox can claim that this is the way we have always worshipped, even if specific customs and rituals are slightly different in different cultures and places.

Question: I’m bothered by what happened with we Anabaptists in the Reformation (rebellion) 500 years ago. As a group, is there hope for we who left to be reunited back to an ancient branch of the church? In a collective way, can what has been done be undone? Would it take individuals journeying back to a Catholic church, or could some sort of collective reconciliation be made?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox identify themselves as the Church that acknowledges the unbroken Tradition of the Church from the very beginning of apostolic times. The Church has been forced by error to articulate aspects of that same faith in the form of the Nicaean Creed for example, and by other general councils of the Church that had to address false versions of the Gospel—the presbyter Arius’ claim that the Son of God was a created God, that there was a time when He was not—and so on. No one in any culture and in any tradition is automatically excluded from the communion of the saints that is the Orthodox Church. But since the Anabaptists were a 16th-century innovation of how the Gospel is understood, and they broke with the Latin Church whose bishop in Rome had already left the communion of the Orthodox. So the Anabaptists were never in communion with the Orthodox, and hence it is probably not correct to talk of “reconciliation,” but rather of how and whether the Anabaptists individually or collectively can accept the unbroken Tradition of Orthodoxy which in some aspects, would understand why for example, the peace testimony of the Anabaptists attempts to do justice to the early Church’s desire to witness to Christ’s own teachings as the God who forgives, who is merciful, who does not wish the death of any sinner.

Question: Since the Reformation, Anabaptist churches have been plagued by schism. How/why is the Orthodox church free from this? What does she have that we don’t?

Fr. Anthony: It would not be honest to say that the Orthodox Church has always succeeded in keeping everyone within the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. The Church of the East broke communion with the Orthodox by refusing to acknowledge Jesus’ mother as the “God-bearer” thereby casting doubt on whether Jesus of Nazareth was and is fully God. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 finally could not persuade the Coptics, Armenians, and some Syrians that the Church’s attempt to say that Christ is one person with two natures, one fully divine, one fully human, in perfect communion with each other, unconfused, unmixed—was correct or sufficient. And finally, the Roman Church broke communion with the Orthodox by altering the words of the Nicean Creed unilaterally—in violation of the consensus that had been arrived at in council and to which Rome had signed its support and assent. Nonetheless, the Orthodox continue as they always have, confessing, and worshipping as they always have, neither adding nor subtracting from what they have received from the witnesses of the Resurrection. It is this insistence upon an unbroken Tradition that is confessed and sustained wherever the bishop with his presbyters, deacons, and people are gathered around the Mysteries of the Church that has sustained Orthodoxy in the face of persecutions and martyrdoms that continue right into the present day.

Question: What does Orthodoxy desire from Protestants and Anabaptists? Does she have an ideal vision for us and our future? Is she OK with us being alienated from our spiritual past?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox pray that all people in all places and times and cultures find their true home in the Orthodox Church. No, the Church is not “okay” with the inadequate—however sincere—confession of the fullness of the faith that it sees in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In short, the Church prays that those who have never been part of the Church or have strayed from it find their way home. It is the obligation of the Orthodox not to put obstacles in the way of those who wish to be members of the Church—but because the Church is made up of fallible and sinful men and women, this has not always been done as it should be.

Finally, one of my own questions: Mennonites and other Anabaptists take a firm stand against violence and cite the Sermon on the Mount as the basis for this. First, what is the Orthodox view of “non-resistance” as described in Matthew 5:39 and elsewhere in Scripture? Second, do the Orthodox have their own version of just war theory?

Fr. Anthony: There is no “just war theory” or theology in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox recognize not merely the scriptural teaching you mention but the witness of the saints, many of whom have suffered martyrdom rather than respond to violence with violence. At the same time, the Orthodox recognize that situations arise when the failure of an Orthodox Christian to defend the weak, the helpless, the innocent, would itself be hard to justify before the Judgement Seat of Christ. But the taking of human life—in any form—is sinful, and must be repented of with a firm intention not to repeat such a grave sin in the future. There may be circumstances when the individual or the community of faith feel compelled to defend themselves or others, but the Orthodox do not spend a lot of time trying to work out systems of “justification” for acts of violence, and increasingly have distanced themselves from actions of individuals, communities, or even states, that continue to commit such sins. But the Orthodox do not see a simple response to this problem nor are they prepared to reduce the entirety of the Gospel to a peace testimony only. Some Orthodox will therefore in good conscience serve “honorably” in the armed forces, or in the police, or other forms of law enforcement—and others will decline to do so. There does exist a Peace Fellowship among the Orthodox and perhaps it is with these Orthodox that Christians from the Reformation Peace Churches should take up contact.

My Visit to St. George Orthodox Church

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I wrote this blog over a year ago. Originally it was one of a three part series about different churches I had visited and was intended to be a comparison. However, much has changed since then and bringing this blog off the shelf seemed like a good way to introduce my next post.

When an friend (ex-Mennonite) invited me to attend an Orthodox baptismal service a couple years ago I had no reason to refuse. One of his college professors was the priest who would be performing the rites and had invited him to witness the event. So we met on a cool crisp October morning for the trek to St George’s, an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Altoona, PA.

Full disclosure: I’ve always considered myself to be an unorthodox guy and at one point probably wouldn’t have set foot in a liturgical church having pre-judged it as stuffy, stifling, etc. I was completely committed to my Mennonite ideals and had no intention of changing church affiliation. My visit was a nice opportunity for a different perspective and nothing more.

First Impressions: The building exterior had a foreign and very non-western appearance to my eyes. It could actually be confused with a mosque. On top of the building in a place one might expect a pointy steeple was a golden “onion” dome.

Inside there were three main rooms, a fellowship hall on the end where we entered, a sanctuary in the middle and then a kind of inner sanctum. There were paintings (or “icons”) of an ancient style were depicting various saints, Mary and Jesus on the walls.

We met Father Anthony, a man with glasses and a gray beard, and were warmly received by him before he went about his duties.

We had arrived a bit early and waited a few minutes for the service to begin. Soon we were worshiping as Christians had for thousands of years. Fr. Anthony leading out melodically “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages,” and the congregation giving their musical response.

The words of the liturgy were rich with meaning, the gowns, regalia, ancient rituals, intricate ceremonies and incense burning had my mind whirling about the origination of these practices. Surprisingly, as one typically a cynic of formalities, I was oddly at peace in this service.

The Message: Be On Guard Against Spiritual Pride. (That isn’t the official title to the sermon, but it is what the message was about.) The text came from the Gospel of St Luke:

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

This exuberant moment for the disciples was met with the sobriety of Jesus. While listening to this passage being spoken I had a flashback that made the message especially profound.

My mind went to a vision I had during a spiritual high point a year before where I was on a ladder, having climbed far up into the clouds, and the perspective I had gained was exhilarating. However, the lofty height also made me fearful. I was afraid I would lose my grip, slip and fall. Which is what happened, I was discouraged and feeling that bitter taste of defeat.

The message spoke to me. I repented my attitude of the last while and marveled at how this text and message could reach my own heart so directly.

The Good: I was surprised. I really enjoyed the service and especially the fellowship afterwards. Fr Anthony possessed a wealth of knowledge about church history and articulated Orthodoxy in a way more compelling than the explanations I’ve heard prior. For a well-educated man he was completely humble. He has remained in communication with me since.

The Bad: The congregation was small and the church we attended at a significant distance from home. Also, as a conservative Mennonite accustomed to children and young people, there was a conspicuous absence here. I wondered where the families were. It made me a little sad because there was a depth of tradition here that makes Mennonites seem contemporary by comparison.

The Ugly: While I’m being brutally honest, the iconology did make me a bit uncomfortable. It was something completely foreign to me and it seemed like there depictions could easily become idols. However, when considering the Bibliolatry common in fundamentalist Protestant congregations, perhaps we are also guilty ourselves?

Anyhow, wherever the case, it is one of those things that made me hesitant about this most ancient of Christian traditions.

The Verdict: Ultimately our salvation depends on God and I have a great appreciation for the Orthodox acceptance of this as a mystery of God. This is a welcome relief for someone tired of the contrived (and unsatisfactory) answers of religious fundamentalists.

Orthodoxy is about proper worship of God and their perspective is that worship should be about God’s glory—not our personal preference.

What questions do you have about Orthodoxy?