Dangerous Complexity: What To Do About the Complex Problem of Complexity?

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Air-travel has become safer than ever and that due, in large part, to the increase in automated systems in the cockpit. However, with this advanced technology there comes a downside and the downside being that an otherwise perfectly functional aircraft (I.e., mechanically sound) with competent operators, can be lost because of a small electronic glitch somewhere in the system.

This issue was discussed, at length in response to the crash of Air France flight 447, an Airbus A330, in 2009, when an issue with an airspeed indicator and automated systems led to pilot confusion—which, in the end, resulted in a plunge into the ocean and the loss of all 228 people on board. The pilots were ultimately responsible for not responding in the correct way (they were in a stall and needed to push the nose down to recover lift) and yet the reason for their failure is as complex as the automated systems that were there to help them manage the cockpit.

It is this problem with advanced electronics that is summarized as a “systemic problem with complexity” in the quote below:

One of the more common questions asked in cockpits today is “What’s it doing now?” Robert’s “We don’t understand anything!” was an extreme version of the same. Sarter said, “We now have this systemic problem with complexity, and it does not involve just one manufacturer. I could easily list 10 or more incidents from either manufacturer where the problem was related to automation and confusion. Complexity means you have a large number of subcomponents and they interact in sometimes unexpected ways. Pilots don’t know, because they haven’t experienced the fringe conditions that are built into the system. I was once in a room with five engineers who had been involved in building a particular airplane, and I started asking, ‘Well, how does this or that work?’ And they could not agree on the answers. So I was thinking, If these five engineers cannot agree, the poor pilot, if he ever encounters that particular situation . . . well, good luck.” (“Should Airplanes Be Flying Themselves?,” The Human Factor)

More recently this problem of complexity has come back into focus after a couple disasters involving Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft. Initial reports have suggested that at an automated system on the aircraft has malfunctioned—pushing the nose down at low altitudes on take-offs as if responding to a stall—and with catastrophic consequences.

It could very well be something as simple as one sensor going haywire. It could very well be that everything else on the aircraft is functioning properly except this one small part. If that is the case, it certainly not something that should bring down an aircraft and would not have in years past when there was an actual direct mechanical linkage between pilot and control surfaces. But, now, since automated systems can override pilot inputs and take away some of the intuitive ‘feel’ of things in a cockpit, the possibility is very real that the pilots simply did not have enough time to sift through the possibilities of what was going wrong enough to diagnose the issue, switch to a manual mode, and prevent disaster.

The FAA, following after the lead of China and the Europeans, has decided to ground the entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft pending the results of the investigations. This move on the part of regulators will probably be a big inconvenience for air travelers. Nevertheless, after two incidents, and hundreds dead, it is better to take the precaution and get to the bottom of the issue.

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President Trump’s off-the-cuff Twitter response, basically stating “the complexity creates danger,” was met with the usual ridicule from those who hate the man and apparently do not understand hyperbole. (It ironic that some, who likely see themselves as sophisticated, have yet to see that through Trump’s putting-it-in-simple-layman’s-terms shtick.) However, technically incorrect is not the same as totally wrong and there is absolutely nothing ridiculous about the general point being made—there are unique (and unforeseeable) problems that come with complex systems.

The “keep it simple, stupid” mantra (aka: KISS principle) is not without merit in an age where our technology is advancing beyond our ability to control it. If a minor glitch in a system can lead to a major disaster, that is dangerous complexity and a real problem that needs to be addressed. Furthermore, if something as simple as flight can be made incomprehensible, even for a trained professional crew, then imagine the risk when a system is too complicated for humans alone to operate—say, for example, a nuclear power plant?

Systems too complex for humans to operate?

On the topic of dangerous complexity, I’m reminded of the meltdown of reactor two at Three Mile Island and the series of small human errors leading up to the big event. A few men, who held the fate of a wide swath of central Pennsylvania in their hands, made a few blunders in diagnosing the issue with serious consequences.

Human operators aren’t even able to comprehend the enormous (and awful) potential of their errors in such circumstances—they cannot fear to the same magnitude or to the proportion of the possible fallout of their actions—let alone have the ability to respond correctly to the cascade of blaring alarms when things did start to go south:

Perrow concluded that the failure at Three Mile Island was a consequence of the system’s immense complexity. Such modern high-risk systems, he realized, were prone to failures however well they were managed. It was inevitable that they would eventually suffer what he termed a ‘normal accident’. Therefore, he suggested, we might do better to contemplate a radical redesign, or if that was not possible, to abandon such technology entirely. (“In retrospect: Normal accidents“. Nature.)

The system accident (also called the “normal” accident by Yale sociologist, Charles Perrow, who wrote a book on the topic) is when a series of minor things go wrong together or combine in an unexpected way and eventually lead to a cataclysmic failure. This “unanticipated interaction of multiple factors” is what happened at Three Mile Island. It is called ‘normal’ because people, put in these immensely complex situations, revert to their normal routines and (like a pilot who has the nose of his aircraft inexplicably pitch down on routine take off) they lose (or just plain lack) the “narrative thread” necessary to properly respond to an emerging crisis situation.

Such was the case at Three Mile Island. It was not gross misconduct on the part of one person nor a terrible flaw in the design of the reactor itself, but rather it was a series of minor issues that led to operator confusion and number of small of mistakes that soon snowballed into something gravely serious. The accident was a result of the complexity of the system, our difficulty predicting how various factors can interact in ways that lead to failure and is something we can expect as systems become more and more complex.

And increased automation does not eliminate this problem. No, quite the opposite, it compounds the problem by adding another layer of management that clouds our ability to understand what is going on before it is too late. In other words, with automation, not only do you have the possibility of mechanical failure and human error, but you also have the potential for the automation itself failing and failing in a way that leaves the human operators too perplexed to sort through the mess of layered systems and unable respond in time. As the list of interactions between various systems grows so does the risk of a complex failure.

[As a footnote, nuclear energy is cleaner, safer and far more reliable than wind and solar farms. And, in the same way, that it is safer to fly than to drive, despite perceptions to the contrary, the dangers of nuclear are simply more obvious to the casual observer than the alternatives. So, again, with the fierce opposition to nuclear power by those who are unwittingly promoting less effective and more dangerous solutions, the human capacity to make good decisions when faced with the ambiguous problems created by the interaction of various complex systems does certainly come into question.]

Has modern life become dangerously complex?

There is no question that technological advancement has greatly benefited this generation in many ways and few would really be willing to give up modern convenience. That said, this change has not come without a cost. I had to think of that reality over the past few weeks while doing a major overhaul of how we manage information at the office and considering how quickly years of work could vanish into thin air. Yes, I suppose that paper files, like the Library of Alexandria burned, are always susceptible to flames or other destructive forces of nature. But, at least fire (unlike the infamous “blue screen of death“) is a somewhat predictable phenomenon.

Does anyone know why the Bluetooth in my car syncs up sometimes and not always?

Or why plugging my Android phone into the charger causes my calls in Facebook Messenger to hiccup (I.e., disconnects and reconnects multiple times) sometimes but not always?

I’m sure there is a reason hidden somewhere in the code, a failed interaction between several components in the system, but it would take an expert to get to the bottom of the issue. That’s quite a bit different from the times when the problem was the rain and the solution was cutting down a few trees to create a shelter. That was also true in the early days of machines as well—a somewhat mechanically inclined person could maintain and repair their own automobiles. However, the complicating factor of modern electronics has put this do-it-yourself option out of reach for all but the most dedicated mechanics.

Life for this generation has also become exponentially more complex than it was for prior generations when travel was as fast as your horse and you were watching your crops grow rather than checking your Facebook feed updates every other minute. It is very easy to be overwhelmed, as individuals, by information overload. The common man is increasingly over his head in dealing with the technological onslaught. We have become increasingly dependent on technology that we cannot understand ourselves and fails spontaneously, without warning, at seemingly the most inopportune times.

Advanced modern technology represents a paradigm shift as much as the invention of the automobile was a revolution for personal transportation. We have gone from analog to digital—a change that has opened a whole new realm of possibilities and also comes with a new set of vulnerabilities as well that go beyond the occasional annoyance of a computer crash. We really have no idea how the complexity of the current system will fare against the next Carrington Event (a solar storm that caused widespread damage and disruptions to the electric grid in 1859—a time of very basic and sturdy technology) nor are we able to foresee the many other potential glitches that could crash the entire system.

It is easy to be lulled into thinking everything will be okay because it has been so far. But that is a false security in a time of complex systems that are extremely sensitive and vulnerable. As when a pilot of a sophisticated airliner fails to comprehend the inputs or like the flustered operators of a nuclear reactor when the alarm bells ring, our civilization may be unable to respond when the complex systems we now rely on fail in an unexpected way that we could not predict. It is not completely unlikely that a relatively small glitch could crash the entire system and lead to a collapse of the current civilization. That is the danger of complexity, having systems that are well beyond our ability to fix should they fail in the right way at the wrong time.

The last human invention will be too complex to control and could be our demise…

Computers far exceed the human capacity to process information. We’ve come a long way from Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov in the 90s and the gap between man and machine continues to grow wider after our best representatives were surpassed. Yet, while vastly faster in their abilities, computers have long only been able to do what they were programmed to do and thus their intelligence is limited by the abilities of their human programmers.

However, we are on the cusp of development of this technology and the implications far beyond the finite capacity of the human mind to grasp. We could very soon couple the processing speed of a computer with a problem-solving ability similar to that of a human. Except, unlike us, limited by our brain size and relatively slow processing speed, this “machine learning” invention (a video on the progress so far) could continue to expand its own intellectual abilities.

Machine learning is a massive paradigm shift from the programmed computers we currently use. It would lead to super-intelligence beyond our ability to fathom (literally) and, any more than a monkey can control us, could not be stopped. Imagine something that is always a hundred steps beyond any scenario we could imagine and has less in common with us (in terms of raw intelligence) than we do with an ant—would it have any reason not to treat us better than bacteria?

There was a time when I would not have believed that artificial intelligence was possible in my lifetime and a time after that when I would’ve thought it is something we could control. That was naive, artificial intelligence would, at very least, be unpredictable and almost totally unstoppable once the ball got rolling. It could see us as a curiosity, solve cancer simply because it could in a few nanoseconds—or it could kill us off for basically the same reason. Hopefully, in the latter case, it would see our extermination as not being worth the effort and be on to far greater things.

It remains to be seen whether artificial intelligence will solve all of our problems or see us as a problem and remove us from the equation. This is why very intelligent men, who love science and technological advancement, like Elon Musk, are fearful. Like the atomic age, it is a Pandora’s box that, once opened, cannot be closed again. But unlike a fission bomb that is dependent on human operators, this is a technology that could shape a destiny for itself—an invention that could quite possibly make us obsolete, hardly even worth a footnote in history, as it expanded across our planet and into the universe.

Whatever the case, we will soon have an answer…

Neural nets, the key component to artificial super-intelligence, are already here…

In fact, it is in your smartphone, it enables facial recognition and language translation. It also helps you pick a movie on Amazon by predicting what might interest you based on your prior choices.

Artificial intelligence technology could be our future. It could be that last invention that can finally manage all of these dangerous complex systems that modern convenience is so dependent upon and allow us to return to our simple pleasures. Or it could be a dangerous complexity in and of itself, something impossible to control, indifferent to our suffering and basically (from a human perspective) the greatest evil we ever face in the moments before it ensures our extinction.

Artificial super-intelligence will be complexity beyond our control, a dangerous complexity, and comes with risks that are humanly unimaginable. It could either solve all of our problems in dealing with disease and the complexity of our current technology—or it could make our woes exponentially greater and erase our civilization from the universe in the same way we apply an antibiotic to a pathogen. It is not ridiculous or absurd to think a little about the consequences before flipping the “on” switch of our last invention.

Should we think about simplifying our lives?

It is important, while we still reign supreme as the most inventive, intelligent and complex creatures on this planet, that we consider where our current trajectory will lead. Technological advancement has offered us unique advantages over previous generations but has also exposed us to unique stresses and incredible risks as well. Through technology, we have gained the ability to go to the moon and also to destroy all life on this planet with the push of a button.

Our technologies have always come as two-edged swords, with a good side and bad side. Discovering how to use fire, for example, provided us with warmth on a winter night and eventually internal combustion engines, but has often escaped our containment, destroyed our properties, cost countless lives, and creates air pollution. Rocks, likewise, became useful tools in our hands, they increased our productivity in dramatic fashion, but then also became a means to bash in the skulls of other humans as a weapon. For every positive development, there seems to be corresponding negative consequences and automation has proved to be no different.

The dramatic changes of the past century will likely seem small by comparison to what is coming next and there really is no way to be adequately prepared. Normal people can barely keep up with the increased complexity of our time as it is, we are already being manipulated by our own devices—scammers use our technology against us (soon spoof callers, using neuron networks, will be able to perfectly mimic your voice or that of a loved one for any nefarious purpose they can imagine) and it is likely big corporations will continue to do the same. Most of us will only fall further behind as our human weakness is easily used against us by the use of computer algorithms and artificial intelligence.

It would be nice to have the option to reconsider our decisions of the past few decades. Alas, this flight has already departed, we have no choice but to continue forward, hope for the best, and prepare for the worse. We really do need to consider, with the benefits, the potential cost of our increased dependence on complex systems and automation. And there is good reason to think (as individuals and also a civilization) about the value of simplifying our lives. It is not regressive or wrong to hold back a little on complexity and go with what is simple, tried and true.

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Purity Culture Is Always Bad

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Two people responded to my last blog. One said that I had not said enough about the exploitative nature of the porn industry and the abuses common in purity cultures. Another claimed that I had overstated and generalized about purity cultures and tried to point out the good.

First, there is not enough that can be said about the ugliness of pornography and how it is harmful on both ends. My previous blog had primarily focused on the consumer end because it was about how pornography and purity cultures hurt those under their influence. However, many blogs could be written about how pornography is produced and we should not forget those many who are used (or abused) in this industry—they also need to experience the pure love of Jesus.

Second, the other person responding to my prior blog seems to have assumed that my comments, specific to purity culture, applied to my Christian experience in general. That is incorrect. I have actually had great experiences with those who were able to transcend the cancerous influence of purity culture. I have met many who are more committed to Christian love (and faith) than they are to maintaining an appearance of purity (for sake of religious peers) that comes at the expense of those aforementioned things.

What purity culture is is a misuse of a set of teachings in the same way that pornography represents a misuse of sex. It sees a corrupted version of purity as an end to itself rather than a part of something more comprehensive and complete. It leads to the same kind of dissatisfaction as pornography and that is because it has, in a similar fashion, taken a good thing in the right context and twisted it into something that it was not intended to be. Purity culture, under the pleasant facade, is always about fear, control and shifting blame rather than true Christian love.

Purity culture is, by definition, a misapplication or overemphasis on some teachings at the expense of others. In other words, purity culture is a perversion and, like pornography, not enough can be said in condemnation of this wrongful and abusive use of Biblical teachings. There is a vast difference between purity culture appearances and actual righteousness. There is nothing good about purity cultures, the bad cannot be overstated and that is a generalization we should make.

Jesus Rebuked Purity Culture

The difference between being pure in heart (as is taught in Scripture) and purity culture is as different as Jesus was from his self-righteous critics:

On a Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10‭-‬17 NIV)

Had you run into this “synagogue leader” he would have appeared to be a very pious man. He was likely there every time the synagogue doors were open, probably spent hours of time devoted to reading Scripture and may have even tithed everything even down to his spices. But under this man’s righteous outward display was a corrupt and unloving heart that placed strict adherence to Sabbath laws above the actual reason for the laws.

Jesus, who had a pattern of healing on the Sabbath as if intentionally trying to antagonize these religious elites and expose their hard hearts, rebukes this leader’s misplaced priorities. Because, while this religious leader was technically correct that this woman could’ve been healed any other day of the week, his thinking was not centered correctly, he should have been rejoicing that this woman was healed and not obsessing on when or how it happened.

A “tell” refers to those unconscious actions that betray a person in a card game. A person can bluff or deceive others with a display of confidence and yet there are often small signs that give them away to an astute observer. Purity culture also has tells. One of the biggest tells of purity cultures is it does like this religious leader Jesus rebukes and puts emphasis on the letter of law or appearances over what is healing and helpful to other people.

Here are some other tells of purity culture…

Purity Cultures Blameshift

Purity cultures always release men from being completely responsible for their own sin. Instead, they use male failure as an excuse to manipulate and control others.

For example, in a purity culture, when a man was caught by his wife viewing pornography, and the matter went before church leaders, he was treated as the victim and his wife (along with every other woman) was made responsible. In this case, they urged his wife to dress plainer and they encouraged her to become pregnant, I kid you not, meanwhile this man goes around condemning those who do not ‘dress right’ or otherwise live to a standard that would keep him from sin.

Women are often blamed for male lusts in purity cultures and this goes completely contrary to anything Jesus taught on the subject. Hyperbole or not, we are told by Jesus to pluck our own eye out if it causes us to sin. But never are we told that it is a woman’s responsibility to keep a man’s thoughts pure. Men who shift blame for their own sinful thoughts and actions have no business calling themselves Christian leaders. A real Christian leader takes full responsibility for their own sin, falls on their knees and repents.

But in purity cultures, a man is more concerned with maintaining an image. And, for that reason, he cannot repent or take complete responsibility for fear of being exposed and losing social status. So, rather than admit it was his own weakness that led to failure, he must find some reason outside of himself for the failure.

In other words, a purity culture response is like that of King Saul who pointed a finger at the people when he willfully disobeyed God and not like King David who took full responsibility for his own sin when confronted. Had David been like Saul, and not “a man after [God’s] own heart,” he would have likely blamed Bathsheba rather than actually repent and made a royal decree banning roof bathing in the kingdom of Israel.

Purity Culture Is About Outward Appearances

True purity comes from the inside out and never the other way around. Purity cultures, on the other hand, are centered on maintaining an outward appearance of purity and never leads to an inner change. The Pharisees are a pristine example of purity culture and how those in one respond when corrected:

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal. Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” (Luke 11:37‭-‬45 NIV)

Catch that?

These guys were so oblivious to their own spiritual deadness that they couldn’t even believe that Jesus was talking about them. But Jesus didn’t slow down when one of the experts said he had insulted them, he stepped on the gas and continued on with his critique. In the verses that follow those above, Jesus decries the burdens these religious elites heap on others (without lifting a finger to help them carry) and compares them to those who killed the prophets. We are told that after this they peppered him with questions and tried, desperately, to catch him saying something wrong.

What should have happened is that they should’ve recognized themselves in his words, then made no more excuses for themselves and repented. Unfortunately, pride is the most difficult sin to confess for a person who is concerned with maintaining appearances, because admitting pride is admitting that their righteousness facade is just that, a show, and means lowering themselves to the level of the more visible sinners—whom the self-righteous hypocrites think that they compare favorably to.

Purity Culture Is Itself Impure

The dirty little secret of purity culture is that it, like the pornography and sexual immorality it decries, is not what it appears to be. Yes, they, like the Apostle Paul before his conversion, may be able to follow the letter of the law and even win the praise of their religious peers. They may present themselves as completely humble and meek if that is the religious cultural expectation. However, beneath this well-manicured appearance of holiness, they are totally faithless and spiritually dead.

Purity culture depends on human effort, conformity of visible behavior, and never a true transformation of heart. It is a culture concerned with outward appearance or physical cleanliness, like the Pharisees with their ritual washing, that neglects what is actually important and totally misses the point. Many in purity cultures have bamboozled themselves with their own act, they become defensive when confronted and refuse to humble themselves when exposed as fakers.

The outward appearance of a purity culture and true holiness is so similar and that is why it is so difficult to address. Those in a purity culture, in most cases, think of themselves as the good people, and while blaming everything but themselves for their own failures, are actually making a sincere effort. But true holiness does not start with human effort, it starts with recognizing that our own effort is nothing compared to the Holiness God and is depending fully on Him.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:6 NIV)

Sex Obsession: Pornography and Purity Cultures

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It might seem that pornography and purity cultures are polar opposites. One provides instant gratification for sexual appetites whereas the other promotes abstinence and encourages young people to ‘save’ themselves for marriage. However, while pornography does accomplish its short-term aims, purity cultures often fail at their intended goals.

Purity cultures, a product of Protestant fundamentalism, arose in reaction to the promiscuity of mainstream America in the 1960s and as an effort to protect the next generation. It is fueled by the regrets of some who, like Augustine, indulged in fornication themselves and is also promoted by others who were just plain fearful of outside influence. However, as with most fear-based reactions, purity culture has created as many problems as it has solved. The promise of the ‘right’ one being the reward to those who most carefully adhere to its teaching has often only led to long-term dissatisfaction.

This purity teaching, especially when introduced to the already reserved conservative Mennonite culture, has made the threshold for entering a dating relationship nearly impossible for some. It has led to paralysis for the most conscientious and added unnecessary difficulties for all but the boldest and superficially attractive. Worse, while this reactionary movement has not delivered as promised to those who most fearfully adhered to the expectations, it has done absolutely nothing to stop those said “boldest and superficially attractive” from gratifying themselves outside of a marital commitment. So the net gain is more guilt for those who already have too much guilt and increased the hardness of hearts for those who are already predisposed to do as they please.

Purity culture fails because it does not provide any real help or practical solutions to those who desire a healthy relationship and, sadly, is too often as (or more) carnally focused on carnal pleasures as the carnal-minded are themselves. Purity culture never transcends or brings us closer to holiness and, sadly, ends up often leads many young people right into pornography addiction and a self-defeating cycle of shame. Pornography use is as prevalent in these fundamentalist purity cultures (albeit almost never confessed openly for fear of the social stigma) as anywhere else.

This obsession with physical purity and on female virginity, in particular, paired with the dogmatic emphasis on female modesty, has had some terrible unintended consequences. Consequences which are all but ignored by fundamentalist leaders who think that their doubling down on preaching condemnation will someday change hearts.

Here are some observations about the similarities between pornography and purity cultures:

Two Sides of the Sex Obsession Coin

Sex, in the right context, is a wonderful thing and not something to ever be ashamed about. Unfortunately, sex is also something that can be twisted into a harmful obsession.

It is fairly obvious how pornography is degrading and a destructive habit. However, what is not so understood is how purity culture mirrors this obsession. The first notable similarity between pornography and purity cultures is that both represent an unhealthy fixation with sex and physical bodies. Both undermine us spiritually, objectify women and pervert our interactions:

  • Pornography and purity cultures both objectify women. The biggest irony of purity culture is that it is as obsessed with sex as the mainstream culture it decries as sinful. Yes, purity culture is in opposition to sexual promiscuity, but it is also as objectifying as pornography in that it places a woman’s value in her virginity and also spends an inordinate amount of time in discussion of the female physical form. I can still recall the men’s meetings about things like the so-called “peekaboo effect” pertaining to slit skirts (below the knees) and also hearing how some men claimed a woman’s exposed elbow somehow resembled a nipple and thus needed to be covered. To anyone outside of a purity culture, this sort of talk is perverted and ridiculous. It is little wonder why women in these cultures feel especially objectified and are often extremely distrusting or weirded out by men.
  • Pornography and purity culture pervert interactions between genders. This is the most insidious similarity between the two and the one that is most frustrating to me. There’s a picture of me on the beach, as a toddler, holding hands with a female cousin—our touch was friendly, completely non-sexual and entirely appropriate. But somehow, by the time I reached my teenage years, many young women were convinced that a mere conversation with a young man was a risk of defilement. This fear, sadly, is what became of the coffee date offer made in response to one of my blogs, the young woman who made the offer backtracked, and—while we did meet in the most awkward of settings—it was another bitter reminder of how perverted purity cultures have made male and female interactions. Rather than have a good time getting to know one another, as would be appropriate, we instead waded through topics of defilement and “guarding hearts” and her predetermined lack of interest in getting to know me. I don’t blame her for this nor the dozen other Mennonite girls before her who treated me more like a rabid dog than a Christian brother. It is what she was taught and it is also something she likely caught by seeing men constantly talk about her body as being this irresistible object. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the female form is beautiful to me. But I’ve gone on many friendly dates with non-Mennonite women, even studied alone with them, and never once did we engage in sexual conversation or behavior. A good man sees a woman as more than an object, not all physical interaction is sexual, but both pornography and purity cultures pervert our interactions, make everything about sex and make it much more difficult for healthy relationships to develop between genders.
  • Pornography and purity cultures feed guilt without providing effective long-term solutions. Sin needs to be called out. That said, guilt-tripping a person stuck in a sex addiction is not going to stop them and, if anything, will simply keep them from speaking openly about their struggle with sin for fear of being stigmatized. Those mired in shame do not need more sermons, they need practical solutions. Feeding guilt may provide gratification for purity culture preachers, but does little more than the pornography itself to helping those who already feel shame yet are caught in a vicious cycle and defeated. Rather than obsess on sex and sin, we would be better to focus on holiness and fostering a church environment where those ensnared feel free to confess and find their salvation from the addiction.

We should—at very least—be promoting healthy relationships and providing opportunities for young people who desire relationship to interact without it being assumed to be a sexual encounter or regard every conversation between two unmarried people as a potential defilement. If we believe in a transformation of heart then we need to stop telling young women to fear their brothers in Christ, we need to humanize each other rather than treat ‘sisters’ like objects or treat ‘brothers’ as if they are animals. This means that purity culture leaders need to trust God to work in hearts, stop living in fear of losing control, and love as Christ loves them. If Jesus welcomed prostitutes, we should be fully ready to embrace and restore those who have ‘defiled’ themselves with pornography or other sexual immorality. The long-term solution is to stop promoting fearful reaction and sexual obsession and start with leaders willing to acknowledge this current quagmire and their repentance for creating it.

Both Produce Unrealistic Expectations

There is often a nasty surprise waiting for those who do manage to navigate the dysfunction of purity culture courtship expectations. The high ideal that kept them fearful of talking to the opposite gender for fear of defilement doesn’t guarantee that they will find satisfaction in marriage when they finally find someone superficially attractive enough to give a chance. No, if anything, this will likely lead to their discontentment when this magic person, who checked all the right boxes, turns out to be a sinner like the impure others they’ve rejected merrily along the way and isn’t what they thought he/she was when they married.

Purity culture, like pornography, creates this unrealistic expectation for male and female relationships. Yes, pornography is different than purity culture in that the expectations it creates are solely pertaining to the physical and yet both push for this perfect fantasy ideal. Whereas pornography often centers on perfect bodies having amazing sex, purity cultures paint the right guy as being this courageous knight in shining armor and a young woman as this pristine princess. However, in reality, a real-life relationship often falls well short of these expectations in even the best of circumstances, real people have “bad hair days” and make mistakes.

I’ve heard a purity culture pastor explain that he needs to portray is own marriage in glowing terms as an example for others. But that sort of whitewashing is in direct contradiction to what we see in Scripture where even the heroes of faith are portrayed in their flawed and very unflattering moments. King David, for example, was an adulterer who murdered the husband of the woman who he had sinned with. Elijah was working miracles before he fled like a complete coward when faced down by a female tyrant. Even Peter, the leader of the early church, denied Christ. All of these men would be unqualified by the standards of a purity culture fathers and daughters, yet they are the best examples of faith we have besides the literal son of God!

Pornography and purity cultures both imagine a world where real people do not live and true Christian love is not required. These unrealistic expectations will lead many to great disappointment when they finally get to marriage. It has led to many others giving up on marriage because they can’t get their wish list of expectations with options currently available. This goes completely contrary to a love that transcended our imperfections and died for our salvation while we were yet dead in our sin. No, not saying that we should marry someone unbelieving and unrepentant, certainly not, nor even someone unconcerned with things like hygiene, etc—but we should also show love to others as we want to be loved by God.

Both Have Diminishing Returns

Pornography, like any self-gratifying indulgence of the senses, often requires more and more novelty to have the same effect and can eventually even lead to erectile dysfunction. Likewise, fear-based purity culture preaching, rather than make us more vigilant, often deadens ears. Sure, it might get the heads nodding in agreement, it might even get the commitments to purity from the idealistic youth still trying to navigate their way through their own sexuality, and yet there is nothing in it that will lead to holiness. Just like consuming all the porn in the world won’t produce a meaningful relationship, you can’t actually “scare the hell out of people” and drive them into the kingdom of God through fear. No, salvation depends on a new birth, an encounter with God’s grace, and spiritual transformation.

Salvation isn’t pounded through skulls by screaming fits on Sunday mornings. Sure, we do see where Jesus used the threat of being thrown into a trash pit to try to knock some smug self-righteous religious folks off their high horse, but that certainly isn’t all he did nor is that what drew the crowds. We have no indication that Jesus was overly dramatic or ever raised his voice, in fact that would go against what was prophesied about him in the book of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.” (verse 42:1,2) What Jesus did do was heal and work miracles, his words were full of truth and love, that is why the religious needed to put him to death—he had something they themselves could not match.

We can preach sexual purity and saving oneself for marriage until the cows come home and it will not save anyone. Even this effort does actually convince some to abstain from sex before marriage, sexual purity is a false hope for winning God’s favor and especially if it comes accompanied by pride. It is very likely that many of those who rejected Jesus never viewed pornography and lived completely righteous lives according to the law and yet lacked the one critical component necessary for salvation. The bigger issue with purity culture is that it keeps us fixated on physical or emotional purity and takes our focus off of what is actually consequential.

We aren’t saved by our ability to live out a high moral standard. No, as Hebrews 11:6 tells us, without faith it is impossible to please God. So, yes, sexual purity before marriage does potentially come with some temporal returns, but eventually, it will be worth nothing unless we repent of our pride and depend fully on Jesus in faith.

Both Render Us Impotent

The most striking similarity between pornography and purity cultures is how both effectively neuter us and keep us from healthy relationships. Prior to writing this blog, I came across a YouTube video, “Porn and You,” from a secular source, talking about the damage to men and culture as a result of porn. In the video he cites an article, “6 Ways to Develop Sexual Integrity,” (a terribly misleading title) that presents this degradation as positive:

“An interesting effect happens as people watch pornography. They become more egalitarian, and more supportive of women and men sharing roles and work, less accepting of gender-based discrimination. They also become more accepting of sexual diversity and less stigmatizing towards homosexuality. They become less religious, and may even experience more crises of faith. Enjoying porn leads to people changing their beliefs about sex and gender, and, in some cases, rejecting the dogmatically rigid sex/gender values they were taught in church.”

That could be fine for a ‘progressive’ social engineer who does not see declining birth-rates and hypofrontality as an issue. But, for the rest of us, that should be the writing on the wall. Pornography addiction is pushing us towards cultural dysfunctionality and a potential demographic disaster. There are many good reasons to stop consuming pornography now, to not wait another day, and that it renders us spiritually and sexually neutered is top of the list. A great video to watch on this topic, “The great porn experiment,” gets into some of the ill-effects and also the benefits for those who quit their pornography addictions. But quitting is enough (or even possible) without filling the void (the answer to addiction is not sobriety, but connection) and that is where the church should be stepping up to the plate.

Purity cultures, likewise, render both men and women impotent. Rather than encourage us to live in faith, to take necessary risks and seek meaningful connections, they keep us fear-bound, on the sidelines and paralyzed. Again, young Christian men are treated by young women and their fathers as threats to purity and not as true brothers. The discernment of a young man is routinely dismissed as irrelevant, he can’t even get a date until he meets a list of expectations that have nothing to do with his faith or good character, and that’s assuming he is not run out completely by jealous and competitive church leaders. Many women too are kept from fully expressing their maternal and nurturing abilities, perpetually saving these complementary strengths for the one who is deserving and never arrives.

In purity cultures, ironically, unmarried men are turned into servile drones, often failing in their frustration to the very things that this focus is supposed to guard against and basically groveling at the feet of women who see them as creepy or weak. An end result is a growing number of older unmarrieds, those with standards that can’t be pleased on one end and others defeated—might as well be eunuchs—on the other. It is not healthy, it is not a model of Christian relationship, and often goes hand and hand with pornography addiction rather than being the cure. Both pornography and purity cultures feed our fantasies in the short-term, but in the long-term, they can destroy our chances at the most meaningful relationship a man and woman can have together.

It Is Time To Get Over Sex Obsession!

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV)

One tendency of fundamentalists, as reactionaries, is to fixate on the problem so much that their own thinking is perverted in the process. Everyone sincerely seeking after righteousness already should know, at a heart level, that taking advantage of other people for our own sexual pleasure is not Christ-like and sin. But the pushers of purity culture do not seem to trust the Spirit to convict their children and rely instead on isolation from outside influence and their heavy-handed regulations.

Purity cultures are motivated out of fear and a need to feel in control rather than faith. But, while they do force conformity of visible behavior (at least when others are watching) and keep many bound in their shame, they do not lead to a transformation of heart. Faith, not keeping the outside of the cup clean, is what pleases God. And faith will keep us focused on Christ, loving others as he loves, rather than obsessed with securing our own immediate gratification or turning to our own purity in the eyes of our religious peers for salvation.

Purity is not produced in a fearful reaction. It starts in a heart that seeks after goodness, walks in true faith, and is purified in fire. As Jesus said, defilement doesn’t come from the outside in, but from what is inside and comes out. In other words, we need to be pure in heart rather than filled with fear, obsessed with sin and frozen. The idea of guarding your heart, while it will keep us from sin, has nothing to do with avoiding friendly interactions that could lead to more down the road and everything to do with knowing the intentions which come from our heart:

“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.” (Proverbs 4:23‭-‬27 NIV)

Denominationalism: “My Church Is Better Than Yours!”

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

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

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

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

Paul further elaborates:

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

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

We should stand united against this:

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

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

A church divided against itself…

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

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

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

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

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

Complete absurdity.

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

What is the problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some things to consider…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lost Witness of Christian Community and Finding it Again

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There has been much focus on the family in the church.  Popular media commentators (like James Dobson, Michael Pearl, Bill Gothard and Doug Philips) encourage making a high priority of our own immediate families. 

Family is important.  But the “no greater joy” in 3 John 1:4 is not written about a man’s own family or his blood relatives.  Instead the letter is written about the church.  John is describing love for spiritual children and the family of God.  Do we find as much joy in the church family as we do in raising our own children?

Christian community has been watered down over the years.  Yes, we might have more ‘church’ activities than ever and yet, as far as real interdependence, we are lacking.  Those of you from good homes, who are happily married and in your prime, may not notice.  But there is great social need beyond your doorstep.

This blog will explore where we are, where we were and where we need to go from here; it will address the enemies and also the benefits of faith community.  One blog can’t even begin to do the topic justice, but hopefully it will spark thoughts and discussion.  My prayer is that those reading will take faithful steps to restore the Christian community where they are.

Where we are…

The loss of community in the world around us is profound and the results are tragic.  Isolated people are unhealthy people.  The family unit itself has been degraded.  Many children do not have opportunity of dinner time conversations together with their parents at home.  Child care is increasingly outsourced.  More people survive on food cooked by strangers than ever.  The elderly are interned for sake of convenience, out of sight and out of mind.  It is madness.

The church has not fared much better.  People in many churches have very little meaningful interaction with each other during the week.  After the church service is over most go their seperate ways and expect the needs to be taken care of by those appointed to do so.  There is very little difference between the mainstream church and the world in regards to community.  Sure, many churches bustle with activities, and there are many good people who are trying to make a difference, but there are many unmet social needs.

My conservative Mennonite culture has a more distinct history of community.  Other Anabaptist groups, our spiritual (and often biological) cousins, have a stronger community emphasis than our own.  Amish have taken dramatic steps and have rejected technology (starting with the automobile) in an effort to preserve the integrity of their communities.  The Hutterites have a long communal tradition.  But conservative Mennonites lack a clear structure and could lose this strength of community entirely.

I’ve seen changes in my own Mennonite community in my own lifetime that indicate the erosion of our community.  We are following after the mainstream and the world more than we often realize.  The Anabaptist prioritization of brotherhood has been replaced with a more individualistic mindset.  

We do not pursue the concept of Gelassenheit anymore.  Instead we turn to our own biological families for support and our fellowship is growing apart.

Where we were…

The early church example is very clear.  The family language used by early church leaders meant something.  When Paul spoke up for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-25) he speaks with the urgency of a father speaking for his son.  It is not casual usage of words.  It is not us singing “I’m so glad to I’m a part of the family of God” on Sunday mornings and then doing next to nothing for each other during the week.  The chuch then was a true family in every sense of the word…

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:44-47)

And repeated again later in the book of Acts…

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

Their commitment to each other was clearly not a superficial commitment like our own too often seems to be.  What is described in the passages from Acts above is not coincidence.  No, what is described is what will happen when people commit fully to the teachings of Jesus and love as they ought to love.

Where we need to be…

What we need, first of all, is intention—we need to want to make the ideal of community a greater reality.  We must realize our own weakness alone, confess this to each other and then bear our burdens together… 

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

It is not a meddlesome or controlling spirit, but rather a growing recognition of our own need for community and deepening commitment to the good of our Christian brothers and sisters.  This kind of love is the truest expression of obedience to the law of Christ.  

Jesus said the world would know we are his followers by our love for each other (John 13:34-35) and this is expressed in Koinonia (κοινωνία) or our common union as believers.  We are to be intimately involved in fellowship together, and in all things, or we are not fully living the example Jesus taught.  This must be made a reality today in our own time or we cannot claim to be fully living in faith. 

The church should be extending our family to those without.  Our elderly should never be left to a commercially operated nursing facility.  Young single mothers should be able to find a restful place amongst us.  We need to be less focused on our own individual family and more concerned with the family of God.

Enemies of community of faith…

There are many reasons why we do not follow the Acts church example today and it is mostly because we fear that the arrangement will not benefit us as an individual or our own family.  This is a short list of reasons why one may resist a greater expression of Christian community:

1) Individualism: There is no doubt that our American culture centers on ideas of independence and rugged individualism.  Unfortunately this has evolved into a rat race where everyone pursues a dream (unattainable for many) at the expense of real and fulfilling relationship.  We seek independence, and it is good when we are working to support ourselves, yet we have social needs that cannot be fulfilled in ourselves alone.

2) Prosperity: People can create an illusion of their lack of need for other people because they are wealthy.  Our wealth as Americans is used as defense of the status quo.  The argument goes that since everyone has food, shelter and clothing there is no need for a better application of what we read in the book of Acts.  Unfortunately government programs, while keeping people from physical death and complete destitution, do nothing for social or spiritual needs.  Even materially wealthy people can be very isolated and miserable.

3) Pride: Religious people can easily imagine they are better than other people including their own brothers and sisters in the church.  They do not want their children influenced by other children and adults, therefore they remove them, homeschool, etc.  It is the oldest sin in the book.  It was what seperated mankind from God and it is also an enemy of Christian community.  Pride is dangerous, it causes divisions in the church and decieves us into believing we are better off when we are in complete control.

4) Technology: The Amish were right.  The automobile dramatically changed and has aided in the decline of community.  Add to that the television and smartphones.  Children nowadays have more reason to stay inside and isolated.  Adults are not much better by choosing to live in some suburban home with a privacy fence.  We are increasingly buried in technology, addicted to the quick fix of social media and at the expense of true relationship.

5) Fear of commitment: It takes faith and commitment to seek after deeper relationship and many of us are simply avoiding it.  In the conservative Mennnonite church we are afraid to court and adopting the same reluctance towards marraige of the Millennial generation.  Commitment is scary.  The rewards of community (like marriage) are not immediate and the risks loom large.  Unfortunately we miss out on a blessing because of our fear.

The practical arguments in favor of community of faith…

First and formost, there is need.  Again, just because your own needs are met does not mean that there is no need.  The plight of our older singles and elderly people would be a little less severe if they were intergrated into a community rather than the afterthought that they often are.  The church shold be a place where everyone has an equal seat at the table. 

Unfortuantely many of us our too preoccupied with our own families to notice or care about those who are lacking.  That is not the spirit of Christ who told us to leave all (including family) to follow after him.  The irony is that those who actually have by some means found their security in themselves may actually have the most need.  Wealth, whether it be that of material or biological variety, has always hindered commitment to faith.  Our need to repent of our religious individualism and spiritual pride could be our greatest need of all.

Then there is the matter of efficient use of resources.  As most of us currently live there is this ridiculous redundancy.  We all need our own seperate lawn mower, garden tools, pickup truck and would be so much further ahead sharing.  That’s not to mention our reliance on commercial lenders rather than each other.  It is sad that we would rather our brothers pay interest to a bank and struggle to stay ahead than help them as we might our own son.  It is a wasteful use of resources that could otherwise be used to further the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the most spurious arguments against a more real expression of Christian community is the idea that it would come at the expense of evangelism.  The reasoning goes that existing groups that practice a community of goods concept have failed in one regard or another and often in sharing the Gospel.  This, of course, is the same argument used by those saying that we should drop other non-mainstream Biblical practices currently practiced by conservative Mennonites.  If we start abandoning practices that can somehow be associated with abuse or neglect we would probably need to join the faithless and stay home.

Community of faith is actually the most practical witness of the Gospel we have.  How better to meet the needs in the world around us than to offer them the clearest possible alternative?  There is no choice between missions outreach and Christian community because one can compliment the other.  In fact, one enhances the other and makes it much more effective.  Sure, maybe the commitment would require more of us.  However, there are many people with needs who would benefit greately from a church that truly acted as a family.  

Change comes upon us slowly…

The book of Acts describes a reality quite a bit different from our own today.  Then, unlike now, there was a willingness to give up financial independence and truly be a part in a community of faith.  This is something that must be restored for the church to function as it was supposed to fuction.

I believe that the contrast between then and now is something that must be part of our discussion.  Even in my own lifetime there seems to be a weakening of our commitment to each other.  There was a time it seemed we spent more time together visiting on a Sunday afternoon, when we worked closer together and had a more meaningful impact on each others life.

There needs to be radical steps taken in faith.  We need not recreate the past, but rather we do need to walk in obedience to the same Spirit that caused the early church to want to have a better communion (or common union) together.  We must ask what has changed between our priorities today and theirs then.

Many of us would scoff at the idea of a commune.  However, do we see the absurdity of our own time and way?  Do we see the cost of paying strangers to prepare our coffee in the morning or care for our elderly?  Do we see what the loss of community has done to our neighbors and nation?

There needs to be a vision for community of faith.  We need to take steps to get off the tragectory that the world is on and present something different and better.  My own conservative Mennonite church family can lead the way in this regard.  We have this better prioritization in our Anabaptist history and could use this as a basis for a fresh push in that direction.

We need to be intentional.  We need to challenge the thinking of the world that has crept into our lifestyle and has convinced us that we are better off in our own corners rather than in loving community together.  Jesus said “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:29) not only our own biological progeny.  The church should be our family.  

So my encouragement is that we pursue the true ideal of church community with all sincerity.  We should tune out the radio and internet commentators and commit to love each other more.  I believe we will find God faithful when we do.