“Why Don’t Mennonites Pay Taxes?” And Other Similar Questions…

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Growing up conservative Mennonite and going to a public school opened me up to many questions about my religion. However, while these inquiries were presented in form of a question, they often came off as statements:

“Hey, don’t Mennonites have horse and buggies, where’s yours?”

“Why don’t Mennonites pay taxes?”

Understand, this wasn’t intended as obnoxious, this was in elementary school and these classmates were genuinely curious. They were trying to take what they knew about Mennonites (or thought they knew) with what they observed in me and reconcile the two. I suppose these could be called “micro-aggressions” according to the currently popular terms, but I prefer a more gracious explanation.

Still, while I prefer to be gracious, the presumptions still annoyed me. This exposure might explain my sometimes strong visceral reaction to being pigeonholed in a debate. It might also have contributed to my desire to be a non-conformist in a culture that took pride in being non-conformed and did things a little different from other Mennonites. I’ve always wanted the right to speak for myself and for that reason have tried to give others the same respect and let them speak for themselves.

Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that any conservative Mennonite who spent time outside of their own religious cloister has experienced much of the same thing. The people asking if they are Amish, those inquiring if they ever considered the possibility there is no God, etc. And presumably, this would make us more careful not to do the same others. But that’s not always the case, as I’ve discovered…

Oh No, Not Again!!!

Since becoming Orthodox I’ve encountered the same kind of presumptions in a different form. This time, rather than public school peers, it is Mennonite family and friends. And it is not that I mind the questions either, but when someone starts with “I know a Catholic…” it reminds of those who cannot distinguish conservative Mennonites from Amish or Old Order Mennonites.

So I’ll start with that one…

“Aren’t Orthodox basically Catholics?”

Yes and no.

The word “Catholic” means universal. In the words of St Paul, there is “one body” (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:20, Eph 2:16, 4:4, etc.) and that is what universal or catholic means when applied to the Church. There may be multiple denominations, differences, and divisions within the Church, but there is only one universal Christian body of believers and that is what Catholic means. So, yes, all Orthodox Christians believe in a Catholic church, in that they believe there is only one universal Christian Church—that is what Biblical tradition tells us and that is what we must believe is true.

However, no, despite some similarities, we are not *Roman* Catholic. The early church had five patriarchs, one in Jerusalem, one in Alexandria, one in Antioch, one in Constantinople and another in Rome. These were geographic centers and separate jurisdictions of the early church and all were basically in agreement. However, in a similar fashion to how Amish split from other Anabaptists, there was a “Great Schism” in 1054 between the four patriarchs of the “East” and the Roman “West” over a variety of issues—including Rome’s unilateral addition to the creed (called the “filioque“) and the elevation of Papal power.

The Roman side veered towards more authority being granted to “Peter’s seat” in Rome. The Orthodox, by contrast, put more emphasis on maintaining Church tradition both written and spoken (or Orthodoxy) and hold that Peter was the “first among equals” rather than the “Vicar of Christ” in the way that the Romans do. This is a very significant difference of perspective, yet Orthodox and Roman Catholics do recognize each other at some level despite not being in Communion together. Both the Orthodox East and Roman West are Catholic in the sense they are parts of the universal Church, but they are not the same.

“Do Orthodox worship Mary?”

One of the first things a non-Orthodox will notice when entering an Orthodox sanctuary is the many pictures. These are called “icons” (after the Greek word for “image”) and are a visual representation of various saints, scenes, etc. This is a Christian tradition back to depictions in the Catacombs, there are icons of many virtuous Biblical characters, and of those most prominently displayed are those of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. There is also mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with the saints” throughout the divine liturgy and special honor is given to her.

However, Mary, while venerated (or honored) as the mother of our Lord, is never worshipped by an Orthodox Christian. Worship is only for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and all others are honored for their various roles. Mary’s role is more significant because her body was quite literally the ark of the new covenant. That is why Mary knew, early on, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and why Elizabeth (who were are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit”) loudly proclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Nowhere in Scripture do we have a similar proclamation made and it is only right that the mother of Jesus is recognized by us in the same manner that she is by Elizabeth.

For Jesus to be fully man he needed a mother and his mother was Mary and that is why we celebrate her role. But that honor is not worship. In Chrismation, one has to make agree and make clear that their recognition of Mary and the saints in form of icons is “not unto idolatry” but for sake of “contemplation” and so that “we may increase in piety, and emulation of the deeds of the holy persons represented.” It is no more idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints than it is to have pictures of your grandparents on the wall or to speak of your own mother glowingly on Mother’s day or to treat your own children or spouse differently than other people. There is a vast difference between honor and worship.

“Why aren’t there Orthodox missionaries?”

This one caught me off guard. First off, every Orthodox Christian is (borrowing the words of Charles Spurgeon) “either a missionary or an imposter” and by this, I mean every member of the body of Christ is sent into the world as his representative. Sure, not every Christian is sent abroad in the manner of Hudson Taylor, but every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and should do this wherever they are in the world. Secondly, Orthodox Christians, from St Paul onward have journeyed physically to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the world. Again, not all traveled to far away places, but every Orthodox believer is a missionary and there are no exceptions.

Some of the confusion of my Mennonite friends (who more or less proclaimed that Orthodox lack missionaries) could a product of Evangelical Protestantism and the influence this movement has had on defining their current practice. It seems many under that influence see missionary service as an activity that Christians do rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle. In other words, according to this mindset, one is only a missionary when shoving a tract in the face of an unsuspecting passerby or when they go with a group to do a project in a country that could use jobs more than donated labor. And yet, while that may be a part of what missionary work entails, this too is how we are to proclaim the good news:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22‭-‬24 NIV)

And, as far as Orthodox being missionaries in the forms more celebrated, there are many powerful examples of wonderworkers and martyrs for the faith. Orthodox don’t just travel to tropical paradises, do fun projects, and then jet back home again (back to their privileged lifestyles) after a few days or couple years. No, the Orthodox live in some of the most hostile places for a Christian to live and many have become the truest witness of Christ—they have died as martyrs for their faith, in this century as much as any other, and not only in the history books. It was not Protestant missionaries or Evangelicals being brutalized and beheaded by ISIS.

Furthermore, having entertained (very briefly) proselytizers of a sect widely viewed as heretical (even by Protestants) and having considered the words of Jesus about missionaries that make their converts twice as damned as themselves (Matt. 23:15) or those who will cry “Lord, Lord, have we not” when standing condemned in front of Him (Matt. 7:21-23) and listing their missionary works as if that is their salvation, there is something to be said for correct teachings and practice. The Orthodox, while all over the world (including Africa, where a baptism of 556 took place), seem to be more concerned with quiet and sincere obedience than they are with loud and proud professions.

“I’ve heard Orthodox don’t believe in being ‘born again’ experience, is this true?”

Conservative Mennonites, like other Evangelicals, tend to put much stock in a “born again” salvation experience. They take a phrase out of an analogy Jesus used (while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:1-20) to explain spiritual transformation that must take place before someone can enter the kingdom of God. He likens being born of the Spirit to the wind, it is something mysterious, and then foretells his dying on the cross by likening it to the brass serpent Moses raised in the wilderness that healed those who looked upon it. And, yes, there is an experience, at the foot of the cross, for those who look up to Jesus and cry out for God’s mercy to them as a sinner.

However, salvation is not simply saying something and having an emotional experience attached or a once and done event, there’s so much more. We are told in the letters of St. Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and then also that we are saved by grace “through faith” and as a “gift from God” (Eph. 2:1-10) rather than by our righteous works, which (with many other Biblical texts) could seem to present a contradictory view of salvation—splitting Protestants into competing camps of works versus faith, eternal security versus potentially losing our salvation, or Calvinist and Armenian. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians avoid this debate entirely with a view of salvation that transcends easy categorization. We are saved, being saved, and will be saved so long as we continue to believe.

The Orthodox see salvation as a direction, not just a destination, as an intentional alignment with God’s perfect will and the choice we make daily in following after Jesus. In other words, salvation is less about declaring oneself to be “born again” or a singular event in time that we look back on and more about taking up our cross. Salvation is not a mere once-and-done transaction for them, it is a continuous relationship and being in Communion together with the body of Christ. So, yes, we should all be “born of the Spirit” and yet we should also be connected to the vine (John 15:1-8) or we will die as spiritual babies and never bear the fruit of salvation. Ultimately salvation is not a past event or a promised future reward, it is something we choose every day in our being faithful to God and living out the commitment to love each other.

“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”

+ St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 45, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

“I know an Orthodox and…”

It is one of the most annoying statements. Annoying because it is usually followed by some sort of negative characterization which they then use their anecdote to generalize about the entire two millennia of Orthodox Christianity and a church made up of hundreds of millions of people. It is a statement many Mennonites have encountered as well, which makes it all the more annoying when the same thing in slightly different form comes from the mouth of a Mennonite. I recall a time, broke down while driving truck, when the service technician (who didn’t know I was Mennonite) went on a long rant about some Mennonites he knew and how hypocritical Mennonites are, etc. Of course, his criticisms weren’t entirely incorrect nor are many of those leveled against the Orthodox (we don’t claim to be a church of perfect people) and yet they were definitely unfair to use as a basis to judge the entire group.

This tendency to remember their worse examples and our own best is a human universal. It is something called in-group-out-group-bias which means we tend to recall good examples of our own group (minimizing our bad) and bad examples of other groups (minimizing their good) or, in a word, favoritism. But this is especially true where the perfect church myth is prevalent or there is a lack of contemplation, introspection, and ownership. The smaller a group is, the easier it is to imagine that you are not like those others—those who do not live up to your own personal standards—and forget that a judgmental, divisive and prideful spirit is as sinful as anything else. Pointing out the faults of others is never a good defense. We should recall the story Jesus told about the confident religious elitist who thought only of his own righteousness in comparison to others and the humble man who begged only for mercy in his prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, anyhow, maybe you know an Orthodox Christian and can only recall bad things about them. But I probably know a few more and can tell you that they are just as sincere as any conservative Mennonite or other Evangelical I’ve met. Maybe you know some Orthodox who do not live to your own religious standards or can point to a historical blemish or two from a thousand years ago? Well, I’ll raise you one pedophile ordained by a Mennonite church in the past decade (here’s a list of some other Mennonite sexual abusers, if that’s not enough) and the Münster rebellion. Every denominational group has their less than celebrated moments and members, I can assure you of that. And if a group is too small to have a history of mistakes, that is not a great strength, it is a weakness, it only means they are more vulnerable. So “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or maybe we should just take the advice of Jesus to be humble about ourselves and understand our own continual need of God’s mercy?

The Orthodox do not run from their history by starting a new denomination (or ‘non-denominational’ group) every time there’s a failure, they have their greater and lesser examples like every other group. But one thing that can be said is that they have maintained their unity centered on Christ and keeping the traditions of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the present moment. Fr Anthony, the Antiochian priest who served during my Chrismation, can trace his ordination all the way back to Peter and the first Gentile church, the church of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) where believers were first called Christian. There is a great wealth of history to draw from, some cautionary tales, and many who were faithful until the end. Like the church that Paul preached to, the Church today is by no means perfect and yet, as Jesus promised, the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against the Church he founded.

For all of my non-Orthodox friends, the door is open, all people are welcomed, and there are good answers to questions for those who have them. There is truly a wonderful diversity within Orthodoxy, and a beauty of traditions—traditions packed with deep meaning—that span thousands of years. This is not something that one can begin to summarize in a blog post. There are volumes written and many more yet to be written about the Church.

But the best way to start learning about Orthodoxy is first-hand—to come and see.

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Is There Room for Both Primitive and Historical Churches?

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

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

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

The Appeal and the Problems with Primitivism…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Historical Christian Response to Primitivism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave Those Who Are Both Primitive and Proud…

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

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

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

We should rebuke the rebellious and those who deceive:

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

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

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

Being Reconnected with the Historical Church…

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

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

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

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.(1 Corinthians 1:10 NIV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Departure From the Ethnic Church

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Like many other things not appreciated until they are gone, there was a time when the unique character of the church of my youth was something I had mostly taken for granted.

You see, that church, unlike some other Mennonite churches, had many surnames not typically found within the denomination.  We had Cordermans, Gelnetts, Fiedlers, Schrocks, Schooleys and Rovenolts—all of them “community” people who decided to become Mennonites.

Over the years that near even split of Mennonite-borns and “community” people has slowly faded.  The non-Mennonite names displaced and replaced as more transplants arrived following cheaper land prices and a better place than Lancaster County to raise their families.

The original church, started a few decades before my birth, had been the result of a Summer Bible School program.  A group from Lancaster County drove several hours north and set up camp on the grounds of a small one room public school.

Eventually several young couples involved decided to move into the area where they held the summer program.  They purchased the little old school house and started the “East District Mennonite Church” with Lester Miller ordained as pastor.

That church, the one with Lester at the helm, is the one that had a greater focus on the local community and was basically a family of misfits.  As far as Mennonite churches go it was a very welcoming place and I believe still retain that reputation today.

However, over the years (since the time Lester moved back to Lancaster and with the influx of “cradle Mennonites” who didn’t necessarily share that original vision of outreach) there has been a subtle shift—a reverting back to a mostly ethnic church full of those who cater only to their own families.

What is an ethnic church and when is it a problem?

It used to irk me, coming from the mixed background congregation that I did, when people would describe Mennonites as being an “ethnic church” and unwelcoming to outsiders.  My response would be that Mennonites aren’t the only church with a distinct ethnic flavor and that my own church was diverse.

Truth be told, ethnic diversity isn’t a necessary ingredient for a vibrant local church either.  I would expect that a church in China would have mostly those of ethnic Chinese background and a church in central Pennsylvania to have mostly German or other Caucasian origin.  Most historical churches were made of those who shared an ethnic identity and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of local flavor.

Unfortunately these ethnic lines, when they come at the expense of a universal and united church, become antithetical to the Christian tradition left to us by the Apostles.  We are supposed to all be one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28) rather than divided up by differences of gender, social status and ethnic background.

Ethnic division, very often linked together with sectarian or denominational distinctions, is a great weakness of the North American church.  Instead of local community is being unite into one church, as was the case in the early church, we hold onto our own racial and cultural identities.  We put ourselves first, our own ethnic families, over unity in the Spirit.

American churches are “intellectual ghettos” as well.  We separate over political ideologies, theological perspectives, traditional versus contemporary preferences and, in the case of Mennonites at least, over the most trivial bits of application.  This multitude of churches all claim to Jesus as Lord and yet each prioritize preservation of their own cultural “echo chamber” and focus on insulating themselves from any real challenge of their ideas.

What would Jesus say about ethnic churches in diverse communities?

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

That might be hyperbole.  It was addressing an audience that place great value on ethnic and family identity.  It seemed to contradict prior teaching that put emphasis on tribe and caring for one’s own first.  Nevertheless it is something Jesus said and something we ought to contemplate as it applies to our own times.

Did Jesus come to establish a church divided in so many ways?  Would he approve when people living in the same geographic area drive past multiple churches to find one that suits their own personal preferences?  At very least, is it appropriate to “plant” a new church in a town where there are already multiple options?

At some point there needs to be some introspection.  If the church you are in does not reflect the demographics of the local community you should ask why that is.  Was the true Gospel of Jesus Christ was about people congregating with people ethnically and otherwise similar to themselves?  Were newly converted Greeks required to live by traditional Jewish religious standards?

I’ll let this be the answer to that last question…

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.  You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? […] Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2‭-‬7‭, ‬11‭-‬12 NIV)

Strong words.

When we put our own ethnic and religious tribe above loving as Christ taught then we are like those whom Paul wished would cut themselves off completely.

Finding the universal church…

“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 4:4‭-‬6 NIV )

The divided western church does not represent the ideals expressed by Jesus or the Apostles.  What it does represent is our cultural value of independence over unity in Christ.  It is because we value our own ethnic groups and our own idiosyncrasies of practice over the love for the whole family of God.  It is because we are unwilling to “hate” our own families in order to find greater unity together in the Spirit.

There would no doubt be a blessing for those who gave up their own religious cultural and personal hang ups in obedience to their Lord who said to put love for his church first.  My own will to do that was crippled for many years by my want to feel loved, accepted and desired in my ethnic church.  In had placed being Mennonite above being Christian and truly loving my neighbors despite our differences.

I’ve recently started to go to a church that has members from many denominational backgrounds.  Yes, there are some of the “cradle” types who bring their own ethnic and cultural flavor to the group.  And, yes, I do need to drive past a couple other churches to get there.  But the mix is more representative of the surrounding community and the welcome I’ve received there reminds me of a little church that I once knew.

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

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Jesus may have said his yoke is easy, but it is not easy for someone born and raised outside the conservative Mennonite culture to become Mennonite—especially not a woman.

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

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

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

Nothing is further from the truth.

Jesus rebukes religious gatekeepers and damned missionaries.

The text…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some say it is the thought that counts.

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

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

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

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

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

Denominationalism: “My Church Is Better Than Yours!”

Standard

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.