Legalism: Knowing the Letter of the Law but Missing the Spirit

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This is part two of a four part series on law, legalism, church authority and economia.

Ever get angry after being cut off in traffic?

I know I do.

Instantly I’m making judgments about that person’s lack of driving skills. How dare they interrupt my text messaging and topple the donut that was perched precariously on my lap!

However, later that same day, I’m cruising along in bumper to bumper traffic, my exit is coming up, I see an opportunity and take it. The guy behind me blows the horn, he obviously cannot appreciate my superior skills and that I had no other choice.

That, of course, is a composite of many true events out on the road. When I do something wrong, there’s always a good reason for it and if there isn’t a good reason—Well, nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, right?

People believe they see things as they are.

We feel we are a fairly good judge of ourselves and others.

This trust in our own abilities is what enables us to navigate life. If we couldn’t judge up from down or left from right we would have no means to make a decision or progress in a direction. We are aiming creatures. We have two eyes pointed frontward, stereoscopic or “binocular” vision, so we can judge distance and aim correctly at a target down range. That is what our mind does, it prioritizes one thing over another, it is a sorting machine, we are built to judge and—unless sleeping or in a vegetative state—we are always making judgments.

Unfortunately, this forward facing vision gives us big blind spots. We can only see in one direction at a time. When we are locked in on a particular subject we can lose grasp of the bigger picture and possibilities outside of our range of vision. We are creatures with a finite mind and ability to comprehend. We need our judgment to navigate through life and yet our judgment is not perfect, we are short-sighted, biased and often inconsistent. We project into our environment. We judge people based on our presumptions about them and their motives.

We tend to justify or rationalize our own bad behavior, see our mistakes or the mistakes of those whom we love as being the result of circumstances, then turn around and mercilessly judge the faults of others as being serious character defects. This tendency—called fundamental attribution error—leads us to judge ourselves only by our own intentions and others only by their actions. It is extremely common, if not completely universal, and shows up constantly in political and religious debates. The other side is evil, corrupt and inexcusable—our own side is righteous, well-intended and misunderstood.

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.

Truth be told, many people are not good at judging others as they imagine themselves to be and are wrong more they realize. Our memory is selective. On one hand, we sort out examples that go against our fundamental assumptions about reality and, on the other, we can easily recall those things that confirm our existing ideas. This confirmation bias, combined with fundamental attribution error and our many other cognitive limitations, unless humbly considered, will make us a very poor judge.

Legalism is a misuse of the law by those who do not understand the intent of the law.

The basic intent of the law is to create order out of chaos and yet law itself can become a source of confusion and conflict. The problem with any law is that it requires interpretation and understanding of the intent. This is why we have lawyers, judges, juries, and courts—to safeguard the intent of the civil law from abuse.

Legalism abuses the intent of the law.

Legalists incorrectly use the technicalities of language to find loopholes and carve out special exemptions for themselves. Legalists also apply their own interpretation of the law to others in a way that is harsh and often hypocritical. For them, the law is a tool to help them achieve their own personal or political ends.

That is not to say legalists are lacking in sincerity either, they are often diligent students of law, they have zealously committed the letter to memory and know the words inside and out. But what legalists lack is the spirit of the law and their knowledge is a hindrance to them.

#1) The rich man who relies on his own abilities rather than live in faith. (Matt. 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30) In this story, we are told of a young man who is wealthy and also very religiously devoted. He comes to Jesus, whom he addresses as “good teacher” and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, upon hearing this man’s diligence, tells him to sell all he has, to give the proceeds to the poor and then to follow him.

Sadly, and ironically, this account is often used by modern legalists to make a new religious formula rather than understand. This man was a legalist who succeeded in following the law and still lacked one thing and that thing being faith. There are a few who are able to keep the letter of the law and miss the intent of the law because of this. The intent of the law is so we depend on God for our salvation rather than our own works:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:10‭-‬14 NIV)

The law is not there so we can believe we will impress God with our careful obedience. No, the intention of the law was to do the opposite—it was to remind us that we do not measure up to the righteousness of God and that we are therefore condemned to death. This rich young man had achieved the letter of the law, he had done everything that could be done through his own abilities, yet lacked the most important thing and that being faith in God. Jesus gave the answer to how we are saved: “What is impossible for man is possible for God.”

#2) The religious hypocrites who use the law to accuse others and are guilty themselves. (John 8:1-11) In our day we don’t take some sins as seriously as we do others. Many, for example, are condemning of homosexuality and yet do not seem to realize that there are many things that we take rather lightly that are sin and that all sin comes with the penalty of death. Such was the case in the following extraordinary account:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:3‭-‬5 NIV )

We are told they did this was intended as a trap for Jesus. Evidently they knew the compassion Jesus had for sinners and wanted to present an impossible dilemma: a) He follows the law, condemns her to death as is required and proves to be no better than them or b) he contradicts Moses, can be accused of rebellion against the law and be himself condemned under their law.

He avoids their trap:

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:6‭-‬11 NIV)

We have no indication of what Jesus wrote in the dirt. However, it is fairly obvious, it takes two to tango and yet we only have a woman standing accused—What happened to the man involved in the adultery? Why was no man brought with this adulterous woman?

It is also interesting that the only tool these men seemed to have was condemnation. Perhaps this is psychological projection? Maybe deep down they felt guilty and the reason they needed to find fault with Jesus and this woman is so they could feel better about themselves?

Whatever the case, we know that Jesus did not condemn this woman. This could be interpreted as Jesus saying that what she did doesn’t matter. But, he doesn’t say her sin doesn’t matter—he tells her to go and sin no more.

#3) Judas betrays Jesus with his legalistic use of compassion. (John 12:1-8, Matt. 26:6-13) If you want to see the ultimate expression of legalism, it is Judas (and other disciples) interrupting a beautiful act of worship to criticize and, in the process, throwing the words of Jesus back in his face:

Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:3‭-‬8 NIV)

It is interesting there are many who use the words of Jesus the same way as Judas. They use them to support a socialist political agenda or as a means to condemn any extravagant form of worship. They rationalize their condemnation of others using the words of Jesus and, despite completely missing the spirit of the law, are correct according to the letter of the law—but they completely lack the joy and life of the Spirit. They might hide their legalism in compassion for the poor or in concern for the kingdom of God and yet themselves are no better in their attitudes than the legal experts who put Jesus to death.

What is the true intent of the Biblical law?

To save us from ourselves.

Those who use the law to parse away their own guilt or as a bludgeon to use against those who do not add up to their own standards, even standards that are based in the law itself, have missed the point—we don’t add up and by our own efforts we never will.

Any person, when held up to a perfect standard, will fail by comparison. How can we, as finite and limited creatures, ever compare favorably to an infinite and limitless good? This is a reality that should humble us and fundamentally change how we treat other people.

It is fitting that the first step in Christianity is repentance. If one considers the severity of the law and that everyone stands condemned before God—and that just might change our perspective about that guy who just cut us off in traffic.

The Christian answer to legalism: “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

Legalism is applying the law to others in a way we, as individuals, were never ordained to do. Yes, we must make judgments for ourselves and should always promote what is good even if it offends. Yes, there are some things that are under the jurisdiction of civil authorities (Romans 13:1-7) and sin is to be addressed by the church. However, we are not given license to go out on our own as individuals passing judgment on others, quite the opposite:

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

Some religious experts, who argue the false dichotomy of faith versus works, might see James (above) as contradicting Paul’s emphasis on grace, but they can’t on this point:

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (Romans 14:10‭-‬13 NIV)

Our true obligation to others is not to bring them condemnation—it is to be like Jesus and show them the love and grace we want God to show us.

The truer law is not that of the letter. It is the law of reciprocation. What we do to others or demand be done to them will be the same standard that is applied to us. In other words, if you live by the sword you will likewise die by it (Matt. 26:52) and if you judge others by the law you are putting yourself back under the curse of the law and will be required to do the impossible without God’s help—as Paul warned the Galatian church.

Jesus, when asked by a lawyer, says the entire law hangs on two commandments: He says to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-32) and this is some practical application:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14‭-‬15 NIV)

That is black and white. So is this:

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

The law is a means to end, to point us to our need for Jesus, and not an end in itself as many religious folks attempt to make it. The law itself can only bring condemnation and death because nobody is able to match the righteousness of God. The law is given, ultimately, not to condemn anyone—but rather so we can all know our own need of a savior and be saved.

Be perfect, not in legalism, but in mercy…

One of the starkest warnings Jesus gave (Matt. 18:21-35) was a parable about a man forgiven a debt impossible to pay and is shown great mercy by the king whom he owed. This same forgiven man turns around and demands a small sum owed him—throwing the offending party in jail. The end result is the king revoking the mercy he had shown and doing what the unmerciful man had done to the one who owned him a little. That is the response Jesus gave to how much we should forgive.

James further expounds:

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:8‭-‬13 NIV)

Merely showing favoritism is mentioned in the same breath as murder and adultery!

Presumably, given we should be one in Christ according to Galatians 3:28, that would include any kind of favoritism. In other words, sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, social elitism, or anything else used to justify the favorable treatment of some and unfavorable treatment of others, makes you condemned as much as the evilest men of history under the law. James says that a person is guilty of breaking the entire law if they show favoritism…

Who then can be saved?

It is interesting, especially in a discussion of legalism, to consider some of the discrepancies of language in Scripture. For example, one Gospel calls out only Judas for his judgmental attitude towards the woman pouring perfume while another says it was disciples (plural) and not just Judas. One Gospel account of the rich man has him calling Jesus “good teacher” while another omits this entirely and says he started by asking “what good thing must I do” instead. Perhaps the writers were a bit less concerned than we are with the legalistic details and more with the message?

There is also an inconsistency between what the Gospels tell us Jesus said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I quoted Matthew’s version in my last blog: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Which seems sort of vague and open to some interpretation. I mean, how does one compete with the perfection of God? However, in Luke 6:36, in the same context of love for enemies, we read: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Combining the two different tellings, it seems what is being asked of us is to be perfect in mercy towards others and not perfect in some onerous legalistic manner.

We should turn our natural tendency to fundamental attribution error around. In other words, rather than judge those outside our own social group and show mercy to our own, we should judge ourselves (our own people) more harshly and leave the others to God. Or, in more practical terms, if someone cuts us off in traffic, rather than attribute his or her annoying act to an irredeemable character flaw, we should assume the best. And, if we cut someone else off, we should not excuse our own poor driving habits and take full responsibility instead.

If we want to be judged by God’s perfect law (and condemned) we should be legalistic.

If we want God’s mercy we should be merciful.

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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.

Mind Your Own Business — The Christian Response to Gossips and Busybodies

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A few weeks ago a story swept across my Facebook feed about a young Mennonite man from Indiana who went missing after a visit with his girlfriend in Arkansas.  I quickly determined, after a brief look on Google maps at the points mentioned, that there was very little that I could do to help.  There are plenty of situations where my own inputs and interventions are truly needed and this was not one of them.

The need for my personal involvement didn’t change after he was found.  Yes, as a normal human being, I was curious about the circumstances surrounding his disappearance and hoped to eventually hear more about what happened.  However, there was no reason for me to pry or persist in an effort to find information, I was content to wait until his family was ready to share and truthfully didn’t need to know anymore than I already did.

However, some were not satisfied to simply rejoice with those who rejoice.  Some felt entitled to information, they felt that they deserved an explanation and more or less demanded immediate answers.  Making matters worse, the online discussion (including a page created to help locate the young man) quickly became and a cesspool of gossip and den of busybodies who seemed to take great pleasure in sharing their scandalous revelations.

Anyhow, because this does effect my newsfeed, and having had malicious nonsense spread about me in the past, and knowing what Scripture says on the topic of gossip, I want to make three points:

1) The young man didn’t ask to be turned into a public figure.

Family and friends decided to take their search public and the network of Mennonites on social media responded in force.  But that doesn’t mean that we should not respect the privacy of the young man.  The public handling of this was not his choice.  If their best interests (both his own and those of the people more intimately involved) are better served by not sharing more than has already been shared, then so be it.

2) You are not entitled to anything more than has already been revealed.

I’ve seen the spreading of rumors explained as need for closure and blame being put on those closest to the young man for their not revealing more information at this time.  That, of course, is complete nonsense.  Being asked to pray and assist in a search does not give anyone a right to know the juicy details and nor does morbid fascination.  There is no need to know anything more than what needs to be known.  He has been found, he is with those who love him, and that should be everything a reasonable person needs for closure.

3) Gossip is a sin and busybodies are severely condemned.

Curiosity is excusable.  I understand the want to know more about a story than is already known.  I can even see good reason to share, in the right time and place, about unflattering things discovered.  However, what I cannot excuse is sharing dirt on another person and publicly trashing them for no good reason.  True or not does not matter, what does matter is that we show the grace we wish to be shown and handle such matters in the way appropriate for a Christian.

There seems to be some confusion about what is appropriate and inappropriate sharing of information…

Fortunately there are Biblical passages that offer us strong clues.  In fact, being a “meddler” (1 Peter 4:15) or “gossip” (Romans 1:29) is mentioned in the same context as theft and murder and slander.  We are even told to disassociate ourselves from those who are “busybodies” (2 Thessalonians 3:11, 1 Timothy 5) as a result of their idleness.  And, if that condemnation is not enough, there is also this clear instruction:

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

The word “slander” in the passage above is also translated as “speak evil” or “speak against” and doesn’t simply refer to false tales.  It comes from the Greek word “katalaleó” (καταλαλέω) and is defined by International Standard Bible Encyclopedia as follows:

Slander (etymologically a doublet of “scandal,” from OFr. esclandre, Latin scandalum, “stumblingblock”) is an accusation maliciously uttered, with the purpose or effect of damaging the reputation of another. As a rule it is a false charge (compare Matthew 5:11); but it may be a truth circulated insidiously and with a hostile purpose

It is important to note that this goes beyond the modern definition of slander.  It is saying something, true or untrue, in a way that is unnecessarily harmful to another person.  In other words, this means *not* revealing things in public about an individual that detract from their reputation.  That in contrast with sharing only what is helpful to another individual and of benefit:

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29 NIV)

There is a time and place for confronting sinful behavior.  However, unless the sin is already public knowledge and obvious (as in 1 Corinthians 5) or something that must be reported immediately to civil authorities like sexual abuse, the process of confrontation should always start one-on-one with the offending individual in private:

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.  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.’  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 18:15‭-‬17 NIV)

In light of this, spreading scandalous information about another person just because you can is never appropriate for a Christian.  It goes completely against Biblical instruction to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” and to “mind your own business” (1 Thessalonians 4:11) and amounts to a sin as bad as any other.

As for closure…

There are certainly those who should be working with this young man to help and restore him.  But there are many more (in the online crowd) who have no role in that and should be mindful of what Jesus told those who brought an adulterous woman out to be condemned: “Let anyone of you who is without sin cast the first stone…”

Christians should have no time for gossip and no place for busybodies in their ranks.  There is no duty to tell the world about things than can (and should) remain private and absolutely no need for salacious appetites to be fed.  So, if you desperately need closure, use the opportunity to reflect on your own attitudes and actions.

Are You Better Than Joel Osteen?

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

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

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

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

I will not join those critical of Osteen.

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

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

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

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

What good will come from attacking them?

We should consider this admonition:

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

We should consider the words of Jesus:

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

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

Where should our focus be?

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

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

Who will come to her aid?

Who will help the many like her born into poverty?

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

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

Who shares my vision for street children in the Philippines?

Who would help me in such an endeavor?

Why Purity Culture Must Be Kissed Goodbye

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Those who are sincerely wrong are oftentimes the hardest to convince otherwise. Those who are the most sincere are also the most emotionally invested in their own position. This investment can lead to blinding confirmation bias and prevent a person from seeing the truth when it is staring them in the face.

The problem with many people raised in religious purity cultures is that they are very sincere and yet extremely misguided. Many in these cultures are convinced that their salvation is something they earn through their diligent efforts to please God and their own righteousness. Sadly, this is a complete misunderstanding of God’s grace and a form of false religion that will leave a person lost as ever despite their sincere efforts.

People often think of purity culture as it applies to romantic ideals. (And it does wreak havoc there.) However, purity culture is a religious mindset that goes far deeper than our courtship practice. It is a perspective that hurts everything we do as a church. It makes us less effective as evangelists and missionaries. It undermines the concept of church as a family and leads to division. The purity culture has produced a bitter fruit because it is based completely in human reasoning rather than God’s word.

A bold claim?

Let’s compare and contrast purity culture to the actual example of Jesus and what his ministry established:

#1) Purity culture externalizes blame for sin, but Jesus taught that defilement comes from the inside.

Many people blame external factors for the choices they make. This can be used as an excuse for sin. It is also used as justification for a long list of safeguards and arbitrary religious standards intended to preserve or protect a form of purity. They reason that since sin is a product of outside influences, they therefore must require people conform to their own rules and shelter their children carefully for fear they will be contaminated.

Obedience to rules of outward appearance and ritual purity pleased the Pharisees who trusted their Bible based tradition, but it did not please Jesus:

“Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!'”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.'”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them. (Matthew 15:1-11)

The Pharisees, like their modern day religious purity culture counterparts, put their hope for salvation in their ability to maintain an outward distinction between themselves and others.

But Jesus was unimpressed.

First he points out their hypocrisy for neglecting weightier matters and then he goes on to explain something that many still miss today: Our defilement comes from something spiritual within us and therefore our purity cannot be preserved by external or physical means.

#2) Purity culture creates walls of separation between people, but Jesus removed barriers and bridged divides.

Purity culture teaches defilement comes from an outside physical source and it is for that reason those indoctrinated into this system are obsessed with maintaining physical separation as a means to protect themselves or their children from sin. But Jesus completely defies this kind of thinking:

“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:37-39)

This was considered scandalous by the self-righteous and sanctimious religious people then. It would also be seen as a scandal in many churches today. Even the disciples (Judas especially) found cause to question the appropriateness of Jesus allowing this kind of behavior.

Can you imagine?

A single man, a leader in the church, being touched by a woman, and a sinful woman at that!?! Outrageous, right?!?

I do not need to imagine the raised eyebrows and expressions of concern. I know them all too well. We would never allow such a thing in my own church tradition. We segregate practices like foot washing and the kiss of peace for fear of impure thoughts. It is because we believe that defilement is something that comes through our physical contact (like a grade schooler’s aversion to cooties) and do not actually follow the example of Jesus.

Ironically, those who view any meaningful relationship across gender lines outside courtship as dangerous (or see any and all physical touch as a prelude to sexual behavior) are as guilty of a the same hypersexualized view as those in the world whom they condemn. They may be outwardly pure according to an arbitrary religious standard, but they have an unhealthy obsession with sex and a fear born of their own impure thoughts. Purity cultures are fertile ground for sexual abuse.

#3) Purity culture avoids ‘the world’ as to appear righteous to religious peers, but Jesus made his place amongst the sinners.

Purity cultures build walls to physically seperate people. Those in this type of culture, not recognizing that sin originates in the heart, believe there is safety in the guard rails they create to protect themselves against sin and worldly contamination. But Jesus directly opposed this mindset, he confronted those who promoted it by exposing them as hypocrites (or only outwardly pure) and led by a completely different example:

“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)

Those who were influenced by the modern purity culture ought to read the book of Hosea as Jesus told their religious forebears to do.

They should look for themselves and try to determine what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means as applied to their own mentality. If more did take this recommendation of Jesus seriously it would make a dramatic change in their perspective. It could shift their focus from a ritual religious devotion to something altogether different.

#4) Purity culture attempts to manipulate God through religious devotion, but Jesus taught to authentic worship is showing true love to other people.

Purity culture, no matter what disguise it wears, is always an attempt to be control and manipulate rather than actually love God. It is an idea that “if I do A then God will do B” that treats God like a vending machine (where we insert our diligent religious practices then out pops a blessing) and really only an attempt to make ourselves master over God. Devotion in a purity culture is no more than a cynical calculation rather than a true commitment to love God.

This is exactly what was condemned in the book of Hosea. The charge made early in the book is “there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.” Later on, the Israelites, after experiencing the consequences of their neglect of true worship, try to regain God’s favor through false repentance, say “come, let us return to the Lord” and think their going through the motions of will force God to take them back. But God is not fooled and asks like a disappointed parent: “What can I do with you… Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.”
It is at this point where the phase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” comes in and we get to the heart of the matter: The Israelites, like the Pharisees after them, and our various purity cultures today, tried to please God by a devotion expressed through religious practice. However, no amount of sacrifice, no amount of religious practice, and not even a life of poverty or missionary service can save anyone.

The message of Hosea seems to be that the mercy we show to others is the true measure of our love for God. Love for all people as expression of love for God is a theme throughout the teaching of Jesus. Jesus taught to “be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) and left his disciples with this commandment:

“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)

True love of God is expressed in our love towards each other and most especially out mercy shown to those who need it most. We are told to love everyone and not only those who we believe are deserving according to our own religious score card. Our love must be genuine or all of our worship and diligent religious works will be in vain.

#5) Purity culture is obsessed with righteous outward appearance, but Jesus focused on religious hypocrisy and the inner reality of hearts.

Purity cultures work overtime to maintain a superficial visual distinction between themselves and those outside of their own religious group. They take pride in their maintenance of dress standards and see themselves as better than others for their ability to conform to the expectations of their religious peers. But Jesus exposed their counterfeit faith and true shallowness:

“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)

Some people are able to please man-made requirements and earn themselves the praise of their religious peers for this. But this righteousness of outward appearance is not evidence of an inner heart change. It is a false security established on meeting human expectations. No amount of church attendance, missionary service, or religious devotion proves a person’s heart is pure.

Jesus taught that true faith is something that transforms a person from the inside out and is something completely dependent on God’s grace. Purity cultures get things completely reversed, they put the cart ahead of the horse (put works of the flesh before God’s grace experienced through faith) and for this reason it is impossible for them to love as Jesus did.

#6) Purity culture loves selectively with a judgmental unforgiving attitude towards outsiders, but Jesus consistently showed grace to those who needed it most.

People in religious purity cultures often do the exact opposite of what Jesus did. They judge outsiders harshly and then give themselves a pass for their own grave sins of self-righteousness and pride. Jesus, by contrast, was gentle with those outside and made them feel needed, appreciated and useful:

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ [His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.] The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ [For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.]” (John 4:7-9)

Jesus, unlike many so called ‘Christian’ evangelists today, did not try to scare the hell out of this woman. He did not condescend. But, instead Jesus made himself dependent on her (a lowly Samaritan woman) and treated her as an equal and with respect. Through this loving humility he gained opportunity explain a greater spiritual reality to her and then tactfully addressed her sin while offering forgiveness rather than condemnation.

The hellfire and brimstone Jesus preached was, without exception, reserved for the smug and sanctimious religious insiders who turned to their own righteousness for salvation. The people who had their act together according to religious standards are the ones condemed by Jesus.

Why is it that the religious can be so demeaning of those outside their tradition and yet so sensitive when criticism comes their own way?

Because they are afraid and should be, that’s why…

#7) Purity culture is motivated primarily by fear and deep down insecurity, but Jesus told us to walk steadfastly in faith and trust God with the future.

Purity cultures are negatively focused. They see only moral decay, the live in a world of slippery slopes and anxiety about the future.

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” (Anaïs Nin)

Those who live in fear are like the men described in the book of Numbers (chapter 14) who’s pessimistic faithless outlook led to a rout and years of wandering aimlessly.

People who are extremely condemning of others are often the most insecure themselves. Those in purity cultures are so sensitive to criticism because they are attempting the impossible without God’s help and do not know the true meaning of grace.

Perhaps they think if they throw enough people into the pit of hell behind them (through their words and judgments) that God’s wrath towards them will be somehow satisfied?

At a deeper level those in a purity culture may know their own inadequacy. They fear of not being able to measure up and therefore are competitive against those of lower social status rather than truly compassionate.

Whatever the case, true faith relies on God’s grace and leads us to love rather than fear:

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)

True devotion to God is born of faith that comes through grace and not human effort. It is a commitment to a love that is impossible by our own standard. The love God seeks is unreasonable and irrational by human standards. It is a divine love made possible only through means of the Spirit. It is the love of Jesus who died to save us while we were yet lost in our sin and a love that takes away our fear of not measuring up.

In conclusion, we need to rid ourselves of counterfeit faith based in human ability and embrace the truth of God’s word.

Purity cultures, because they are based in human effort, do not lead to real faith or true repentance. They do little more feed obsessive compulsive disorders on one side and arrogance on the other. Those who believe that their salvation depends on reciting the right words or reading a requisite amount of Scripture daily are more hopelessly lost than their worldly counterparts.

It is what Jesus condemned in the Pharisees and also what Paul addressed as false religion in the early church:

These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:22-23)

Purity cultures attempt to manipulate God rather than live in faith and genuinely love their neighbors. They are condemning rather than compassionate and are more concerned with what people may think than they are in true purity of love. For fear of being defiled or viewed as less pure they (unlike the good Samaritan) cross the street rather than address the needs right in front of them.

True faith runs like a man on fire to where the need for mercy is greatest. Those who walk in faith know the truth of God within them is always greater than the world and therefore fear no evil. Faith always rests in the adequacy of God and never in our own.

True purity of heart comes from being clothed in the righteousness of God.