Mennonite Values and Love That Transcends Difference

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The other day it occurred to me that many of my most faithful Mennonite friends married across divisions of ethnicity and race.  In fact, three out of the three friends I was with yesterday are married to women who were born in foreign countries and later became US citizens.

Interracial marriage is not unusual in modern America anymore.  A full 17% of newlyweds in the United States married across racial or ethnic lines according to Pew Research Center.  This has been a steady trend for many decades and with this increase in interracial marriages the stigma has decreased—only a small percentage of Americans remain opposed to marriages across racial lines.

Mildred and Richard Loving who, in 1967, refused to be separated even when facing prison time.

Mennonites have tended to lag behind the general population in many regards and this is one of those areas.  It was only a few years ago that my Mennonite pastor (educated at Bob Jones University where interracial relationships were banned until the 1990’s) cautioned me against this kind of relationship citing cultural differences.  It is probably safe to assume that his views are not unusual in the conservative end of the Mennonite denomination.

Have Mennonites have began to catch up with the mainstream?

I know that interracial dating was unusual and even discouraged in the Mennonite church of my youth.  That is why my realization about so many of my friends being married interracially was astonishing to me.  I’m not sure if it is only a local anomaly or a general across-the-board trend.  However, I do know that there were very few others in the conservative Mennonite church when I was in a romantic relationship with a black woman just over a decade ago.

Some of it could be explained by inner-city outreach projects.  Typically Mennonites have been raised in rural parts of the country and sheltered from non-Mennonites.  My own experience was slightly different due to my public school education, which likely made me more open to relationships outside of my own ethnic group (my first real crush was not a Mennonite or white girl) and yet many of my religious peers caught up with a bit of exposure to the world outside their ethnic enclaves.  Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church (in Brooklyn, New York) accounts for many of the relationships across racial lines that I know about in the more traditional end of the denomination.

But, before anyone gets too excited, this does not mean attitudes have changed much with most conservative Mennonites.  I have heard many young men (who likely have not met too many girls besides their sisters or cousins) state that they would not be interested in dating a girl of a different race.  It is probably even less acceptable for a Mennonite female to marry outside her ethnic fold, and many of the couples in interracial relationships do not remain Mennonite.

Generally one cannot deviate too far from the Mennonite cultural norm and expect to be embraced.  It was hard enough for me, a Mennonite guy with some unorthodox views, to find a girl born in a Mennonite home that would give me the time of day.  I could not imagine being a convert from outside trying to get a date with someone of a popular family with an established Mennonite pedigree.

Mennonites barely have the faith to ask or date anyone—let alone someone who doesn’t meet a long list of qualifications, race and ethnicity likely included.

Why do some Mennonites marry across racial or ethnic lines?

One thing my friends have in common is that they married older.  I do not see them as purposefully trying to find girls from a different ethnic group or race either.  Most of them are down to earth and practical guys who found a girl who gave them a chance and connected with them.  It seems that girls from non-Mennonite background are more willing to be friends first, are less driven by impossible purity culture ideals, and much more appreciative of a guy who treats them with respect—even if he is not tall, smug or otherwise full of himself…

By all appearances, those Mennonites marrying across racial lines are not trying to make a political statement.  Ironically, the virtue-signaling types (the most outspoken cradle Mennonites about racial issues) seem to marry the whitest and then preach to everyone else about about being more accepting of immigrants, etc.  Those actually marrying across racial lines, on the other hand, are doing it for pragmatic reasons and real love for the person they married rather than to be superior to anyone else or prove anything about themselves.  And that’s not to say my friends will not defend their wives and children from racists—they might not be vocal or making a show of it, but are solid men and their loved ones not to be trifled with.

Those who married across racial lines seemed motivated truly by love.  They would have likely also married someone of their own ethnicity or race had the right circumstances come along.  But, that said, they are extraordinary, they married out of a love that could transcend superficial differences and therefore their relationships have a potential others do not.  They were willing to go outside of the conventional ideals of their parent’s generation, even of their religious peers, and may have even faced some extra resistance along the way.  That may be why they are some of the most loyal, caring and mature people that I know—they are simply willing to go in love where others have not.

My recommendation to those on the fence…

Those advising against interracial dating often don’t have a clue what they are talking about.  Yes, there are differences to overcome, but that is also true of any committed relationship and it certainly is not reason to quit before you started.  Go on some dates, find out if your personalities compliment or collide and then decide your next step—is that really too difficult or complicated?

It does not seem that my friends who married interracially regret their choice.  I do know there are a number of those who married ethnic Mennonites who have had second thoughts.  Indeed, sometimes those seemingly perfect candidates (according to Mennonite cultural ideals) are not what they appear to be at first glance and pleasing their near-impossible standards can be a real headache.  So, if it is a choice between being taken for granted by some entitled brat or more fully appreciated by someone who has seen real struggle in their lives, isn’t the right choice obvious enough?

Take my advice guys.  Stop pining for that girl that snubbed your first inquiry.  If she didn’t see your interest in her as reason enough to go on a date or two, then she isn’t worth any more of your time.  Quit being a pathetic lapdog.  That will only feed her sense that you have nothing to offer her (that she can’t already have) and further convince her that she is out of your league.  Be a man, go where you are needed in the world, be a real leader, move on.

For those girls who have never been asked, same deal.  Broaden your horizons, stop trying to please people who don’t lift a finger on your behalf, and you might soon find there are many faithful Christians who don’t have a familiar Mennonite surname.

Godly character, not skin color or religious pedigree, is what makes a marriage work.

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Fundamentally Flawed: How Mennonites Failed To Be Faithful

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

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

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

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

So, who is real and who is the impostor?

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

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

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

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

What is biblical fundamentalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did biblical fundamentalism enter the Mennonite church?

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

How was authentic Anabaptism different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Has Anabaptism Failed?

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

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

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

“They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7)

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When Iran, a nation where people held candlelight vigils in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, were themselves the target of a terrorist attack last week many Americans (including the Trump administration) added insult to injury and called it karma.

Apparently these Americans, reveling in a terrorist attack, are unable to differentiate between Saudi Arabian hijackers (Sunni Arabs) and Iranian civilians (Persian Shites) mercilessly gunned down in Tehran.  I guess to them terrorism is only bad when American and European people are the targets?

What’s worse is the missed opportunity to defeat a common enemy (ISIS) and also to bridge a divide between two nations that should never happened in the first place.  This is probably because we have selective memory and remember the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 (when 52 American diplomats were taken hostage) yet not the decades of meddling by our government that led up to it.

Americans forget that we drew first blood in the conflict with Iran when our government (via the CIA) participated in the overthrow of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953.  It was called “Operation Ajax,” it was intended to serve British oil interests, and ended with our installing brutal monarchal rule under Mohammed Reza who was called the Shah (or king) of Iran.

With all the outrage over alleged Russian interfere in our election, and our own history of revolution against kings, it should be easy to understand what came next.  The Iranians took their country back, the Shah escaped to the United States to avoid accountability, our government refused to send him back to stand trial in Iran, and in response they took our diplomats hostage.

The great irony here is that the only Americans harmed were the eight U.S servicemen killed and four wounded in a helicopter crash during a bungled military operation to rescue the hostages.  That’s not to mention the one Iranian civilian, who was guilty only of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was killed by an Army Ranger’s shoulder-fired rocket.

Yet, despite our own casualties being self-inflicted, since then the U.S. government has made it their policy to do harm to the Iranian people.  For example, there is a reason why some in our government knew Saddam Hussain had chemical weapons: we enabled him to use them against the Iranians.

The Iran-Iraq war, started in the 1980’s when Iraq invaded Iran, was a bloody conflict that cost more than a million lives.  In response to the carnage Henry Kissenger, a former U.S. Secretary of State, smirked, “it is a pity they both can’t lose.”

It is little wonder that the Iranian leaders would seek a nuclear deterrence given our past (and present) aggression.  From their perspective it is simply a matter of survival given that U.S. leaders regularly threaten.  For example, long-term Senator John McCain who thought singing “bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran” was funny and praised the leader of a Marxist terrorist organization that has murdered thousands of Iranians.

McCain actually met with the leadership of Mujahedin-e khalq (MEK) to express his hopes that they would someday rule in Iran.  The thought of this is horrifying to a secular Iranian friend of mine.  My friend, while not a fan of the current Iranian government, says that she (and most other Iranians) do not want the MEK in power and are shocked​ that a prominent U.S. politician would openly support terrorism.

How quickly the American public forgets that our government (including McCain) also gave support (direct or indirect) to Osama Bin Laden when he was fighting a holy war against the Soviet Union.  Of course they do remember the blowback when the terrorist we helped to create turned his attention on us as a result of our meddling in his own part of the world.  Talk about karma.

And, no surprise, U.S. interventions (supported by then Secretary of State, Hillary “we came, we saw, he died” Clinton, and none other than John McCain) have also resulted in the formation of ISIS.  It is obvious that our leadership never learns from the blowback and the American public—putting it too lightly—is woefully ignorant of the misdeeds supposedly done on their behalf around the world.

Any slight hope that the Trump administration would take a more sensible approach has pretty much disappeared when they responded to the terrorist attacks with political opportunism rather than solidarity against ISIS (who claimed responsibility for the attacks in the Iranian capital Tehran) and, in the process, we are driving further away many Iranians who once looked upon America as great despite our numerous violations of their sovereignty.

We put a travel ban on Iran who has never once attacked the American homeland and has only fought in defense against the attacks of the U.S. and our regional allies.  But then no travel ban is applied to Saudi Arabia or any of the other countries where the 9/11 hijackers came from.  It is absurd that we are still signing weapons deals with a nation that doesn’t allow women to drive, uses beheadings as punishment, funds the spread of Wahabbism worldwide, and backs ISIS, while opposing a nation merely fighting to keep us out.

Given our inability to admit hypocrisy or even to recognize our own mistakes, it is likely only a matter of time before the next group of U.S. supported “dissidents” and “freedom fighters” accomplish their objectives and then turn their bloodthirsty eyes on us, like Bin Laden did, and make their mission putting a permanent end to our hegemonic ambitions.

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.  We are still sowing wind, covertly killing anyone (including the murder of civilian scientists) who stands in the way of our global dominance, supporting terrorism against those who do not want to be our puppets, and will likely reap still another whirlwind as a result.

Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

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One thing about Mennonites is that we are good at maintaining our niceness.  But this niceness, while “nice” by outward appearance, is not always truthful.  We can hide many evil thoughts behind a polite smile.  We know the “right” words to say and use them habitually… all the while harboring harsh judgments in our hearts.

Why do we hide our true feelings?

First off, to be the “quiet in the land” is part of our Mennonite-cultural-default setting; we play nice because we were taught to not cause a fuss.  Second, we want to avoid conflict; trying to resolve a conflict is difficult and one way to “keep the peace” is to bury our own feelings behind a smile.  The third reason (and most insidious) is so we can appear better than the other person.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this cultural niceness.  It seems to be far better than the alternative of direct confrontation, open disagreement or being too honest about unpleasant things.  But beneath this veil of serenity can be a toxic mess of unresolved conflict, secretly held enmity, and hostility that leaks out as passive-aggressive behavior.

Yes, Mennonites may be good at appearing nice on the outside.  However, we are also good at gossip, backbiting, anonymous letters, slander and giving the cold-shoulder treatment.  A pretty face and pleasant words can hide many less-than-desirable attitudes.  These hidden sins of the heart are not often addressed, and likely because they are far more difficult to detect and define.  Nevertheless, there can be a rotten core underneath a righteous facade.

Some may call this kind of niceness “living peaceably” when in reality it is often nastier than the alternative of open rebuke and direct confrontation.  There is little chance of amicable resolution when a person refuses to openly state their grievances.  Worse, the person being whispered about often can sense the antagonism, yet is without a means to defend themselves.

Jesus had no problem directly rebuking those who were pretty on the outside and ugly inside:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:25‭-‬28)

The religious elites Jesus confronted were focused on outward appearance.  Earlier he rebuked them for their distinctive clothing and titles, but this time he goes right to the heart of the issue: True change comes from a transformed heart change and not through conformity of outward appearance.

The hidden sins of religious elites rebuked directly by Jesus are probably different from our own.  That said, our Mennonite religious culture is similar to theirs in that we also emphasize looking right according to our standards and we like to believe that this outward conformity is an indication of a spiritual condition.  However, according to Jesus, compliance with a religious standard is not an indication of a heart change.

The Mennonite “doctrine of non-conformity” is often a distraction and disguise for a sinful heart.

Many use the exhortation “be not conformed to this world” out of context and as a justification for their rules.  Unfortunately, this misses the point entirely.  The alternative to being conformed to the world is *not* a long list of standards but a transformation of mind, and that is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Mennonites need to focus less on their cherished doctrine of non-conformity (that is primarily concerned with maintaining an acceptable appearance) and more on change of heart.  As Jesus said, when the heart is changed then the behavior will follow—with or without rules.  But without spiritual transformation no amount of rules or conformity to them can change hearts.

I know plenty of Mennonites who wear the prescribed clothing, do the right Mennonite activities and are really nice people, but it seems they have no real faith.  It is possible to change on the outside through religious indoctrination while lacking in substance of faith and remaining spiritually dead.  So, if anything, Mennonite standards only serve to create a disguise for the faithless.

The focus on outward appearance and emphasis on rules in conservative Mennonite circles could itself be indication of a lack of heart change. It is a perspective that gets things completely in reverse and shows a lack of spiritual understanding so basic that it can hardly be anything but a sign of an untransformed mind.

True faith is not about cultural conformity and a pleasant facade.

People behave the way they do for many reasons.  We act in a particular manner or conform to the standards of our peer group in order to be accepted.  However, the faith that pleases God is not about fitting in or meeting religious expectations.  The faith that God seeks is about spiritual transformation that takes us well beyond anything that can be spelled out into code.

Sure, religious folks might be able to police themselves based on their rules (written or unwritten) and look down those who fall outside the lines.  Yet, without inner change, none of it matters; we are only succeeding at making people clean on the outside and neglecting what Jesus taught should come first.  Perhaps then we would be more accepting of those who don’t act right according to our favored ideas but have a heart for God?

King David didn’t always act right according to our standards.  He did some things that weren’t even allowed by God’s standard, was guilty of a terrible sin, and still was a man after God’s own heart.  David’s heart was right even though his behavior was not, and that is more important than meeting religious expectations or maintaining a nice appearance.

Are you truly transformed and changed spiritually from the inside out?

Or are you only a good Mennonite acting the part?

Too Focused To Be Faithful (Matthew 23:16-24)

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A biblical fundamentalist reads Scripture as a lawyer does a legal code.  Rather than read like the Bereans, who were open-minded and therefore receptive to the message the Apostle Paul preached (Acts 17:11), many people read with an agenda to prove their current beliefs.

Religious fundamentalist scholars are often able to find what they go looking for, and at the expense of what is true.  Their diligent search, rather than being a quest for Truth, is an effort to find proof-texts for their own theological presuppositions (often inherited positions), and is not guided by the Holy Spirit.

Some are very knowledgeable and respected people in their respective circles.  They parse words looking for specific permissions and prohibitions, or only to justify their existing doctrinal stances.

They are scholars of conservative or liberal persuasion and dogmatists for any denomination.

They all have their loyal followers.

They all believe they are right.

But they are also no different from those whom Jesus confronted when he said:

…the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.  You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:37‭-‬40)

Those who were addressed by Jesus in the passage above had Scripture (graphé) and studied it “diligently” according to Jesus.  But they were missing something.  Jesus told them they lacked the word (logos) of God dwelling in them, thus they would not come to him for life.  They were impoverished when it came to true faith and the indwelling word of God.

There are many who have only Scripture and not the Spirit to teach them.

We are told there will be tares sown in the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30).  This means that there will be those who appear righteous on the outside, but they reject the most foundational concepts of faith.  Despite their many good works, they are spiritually dead and lost.

I recall discussions with a man unable to conceptualize the idea of a triune God.  Time and time again he would come back to his own flawed understanding and insist that I was polytheistic for believing in one God… three persons.  He also could not accept that the sonship of Jesus made him divine like his Father in heaven.

Sadly there are many who reject Jesus in a much more subtle way and by this I mean they have not placed their faith in the Spirit he promised:

Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.  Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.  All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:23‭-‬26)

They claim to have faith, but are agnostics when it comes to the idea of the Spirit teaching “all things” as promised.  And, despite their Biblical religion, they have the same “worldly” perspective that Jesus describes:

The world cannot accept [the Spirit of truth], because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:17)

They are as Paul describes:

The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?”  But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14‭-‬16)

Many who profess to believe have recast the Spirit’s work as mere emotionalism and cling to circular reasoning and poor understanding of the text.  They have a form of godliness; but, despite their diligent study and careful religious devotion, they are spiritually impotent because they lack the “mind of Christ” or the indwelling word of God.

Jesus addresses those “blind guides” who love the letter of the law while rejecting the Spirit:

Woe to you, blind guides! You say, “If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.” You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, “If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.” You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it. (Matthew 23:16-22)

Jesus started by ridiculing a legalistic controversy about what made an oath legitimate.  He dismissed the dispute as silly by taking a third position that supercedes the others and then continues:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.  You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matthew 23:13‭-‬24)

These religious scholars missed the forest for the trees.

They were so focused in on legalistic details of application that they “neglected the more important matters—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”  Jesus insults these religious authorities, he calls them “blind guides” and knocks them off their proverbial pedestal.

Paul expounds on the blindness of those who only have Scripture and the need for the Spirit as guide:

Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:12‭-‬18)

Biblical fundamentalists get things in reverse, they say we need the Scripture to understand the Spirit.  The truth is opposite, we need the Spirit in order to understand Scripture or we will be no better than the “blind guides” who diligently studied Scripture and yet never embraced Jesus (and the promise of the Spirit) who brings life.

Are you a minister of the new covenant powered by the Spirit?

The new covenant is different from the old.  In the new covenant, God’s dwelling moved from a temple of stone and gold to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12), which is to say the individual bodies or collective mass of those who follow after Jesus and constitute the church.  The new covenant is a law written on hearts rather than on tablets of stone (Hebrews 8:7-13, 10:15,16) and that is the work of the Spirit:

Such confidence we have through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:4‭-‬6)

The silly controversies that divide the church are not caused by the word of God or the Spirit.  They are caused by those who have their own interpretation of Scripture, who believe their own opinion of the language is infallible, and yet do not have the indwelling word of God or life of the Spirit.

Without the Holy Spirit to guide our study, we will “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” and be no different from those whom Jesus condemned: blind guides with veiled hearts and puffed up with biblical knowledge, yet unable to correctly understand…too focused in on the technical details to see the bigger concepts of faith.

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing is further from the truth.

Jesus rebukes religious gatekeepers and damned missionaries.

The text…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some say it is the thought that counts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The world loves distinctive dress and titles.

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

The world judges by outward appearance.

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

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

What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?

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

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

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

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

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

But how is this applicable today?

Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.

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

Here’s what we are doing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do I know this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads to my next point…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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