I Prefer Representatives, Sound Doctrine and the Holy Spirit Over False Choices

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I was speaking with a friend a week or two ago (a conservative Mennonite searching for his place in the church) and he shared this quote:

“Doctrine is dead as a doorknob without the presence of the Holy Spirit in an individual’s life.” (Paul Washer)

That quote drop of a Calvinist commentator was annoying to me. It was annoying because it was shared in the context of a conversation about Orthodox worship and prayers. The clear implication being that established doctrine is somehow in conflict with spiritual life.

So, without hesitation, I asked my friend: “How do you know Washer’s doctrines (like the one you just quoted) are inspired by the Holy Spirit?”

My question was based on my own experience as one who had put his full confidence in the Holy Spirit and has since learned (the hard way) the need to be grounded in sound doctrine as well. In fact, it was my desire to follow the Spirit without compromise which had led to my pursuit of the impossibility, which led to my eventual disillusionment with the Mennonite denomination, which led me to the ancient faith of Orthodoxy and new spiritual life.

So, getting back to Washer’s quote, he presents a false choice between doctrine and the Holy Spirit. He, like many Protestant commentators, seems to equate established religious dogma with spiritual deadness. His quote suggests that we devalue church traditions (those pertaining to worship and prayer in the case of my friend) based in an assumption that what is new or spontaneous is somehow more authentic and real than something that has been passed down through many generations.

But is that truly the case?

Do we ever need to choose between established doctrine and authentic faith?

From what I can tell, church doctrine and real spiritual life originate from the same source (that source being the Holy Spirit) and thus we should not ever have to choose between the two. The traditions passed down by the church (including the canon of Scripture) and the Holy Spirit are never at odds. To deny the importance of church doctrines and tradition is basically to speak against the authority of Scripture:

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3‭-‬4 NIV)

Nowhere in Scripture do I see sound doctrine being presented in contrast with living according to the Holy Spirit. However, I do see James tells us “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26) and also know, according to the Gospel (Matthew 7:22-24), that there will be those who have professed faith in Jesus, even worked miracles in his name, whom he will tell to depart because he never knew them and therefore authenticity of faith is about more than making a claim.

Thus I do question the basis for this commentator’s opinion and the many others out there of those who speak with a similar confidence about spiritual matters. By what authority do they speak? How do we know that they, along with their devoted followings, are not deceived? I mean these ‘spiritual’ commentators are often at complete odds with one another. Don’t believe me? Do a Google search “Paul Washer false teacher” and you’ll find dozens of articles denouncing him and his teachings.

So who is right? Who is wrong? How do we know?

My contempt for commentators…

My reaction to the Washer quote isn’t something unusual for me. I have a near-universal contempt for commentators and especially those who can’t at least ground their statements directly to something found in Scripture. And perhaps that strong aversion is because I have enough strong opinions of my own, more than my fill, and therefore seek something a little more grounded than mere opinions?

Not to be misunderstood, that’s not to say that I find no value in reading commentators. I do believe we can gain many valuable insights from listening to various men and women sharing their personal perspectives on spiritual issues.

But, that said, not all commentators are equal and anyone can say anything and our feelings (one way or another) about what someone says doesn’t make it any more or less true. There are likely false teachings that would resonate with any one of us and we should guard against being closed off to truth based on our emotions. We should remember that all religious groups are able to justify their own understanding of spiritual matters, many of them live morally upright lives, and can be very convincing to those who don’t know any different.

And, to be clear, I’m not just talking about those commentators who say “the Holy Spirit tells me thus and such” without offering any corroborating evidence from church history or Scripture. Being a Bible scholar or well-educated and intelligent does not make a person less susceptible to confirmation bias. No, if anything, being well-studied and smart brings a danger of pride and pride can prevent us from seeing our own biases and the many things we have missed in our studies.

Proof-texting, when a person soundbites Biblical texts at the cost of context, is a real problem for any commentator. That is why we have a multitude of denominations all claiming their authority comes from Scripture and, yet, can’t agree on some very basic issues. It isn’t that one side is more ignorant of the book than another nor that one side is less sincere about their profession of faith than another either—the problem is a lack of accountability to anything more than what feels right to us.

My own commentary on spiritual life…

Going back to Washer’s quote, I believe we can all agree that there is no life in the church or elsewhere without the Holy Spirit.

As the Orthodox pray on a regular basis:

“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.”

We know, from the creation narrative, that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2) and is also the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7) that entered Adam. Life, both physical and spiritual, comes from the Holy Spirit, and we see this pattern throughout Scripture and even at the end of the Gospel when Jesus empowered the disciples to continue his ministry of forgiveness:

And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:22‭-‬23 NIV)

Note how that parallels with the Genesis account where God breathes life into Adam. Note also that this being “breathed on” comes after the resurrection, after Jesus spent years teaching these men, and is what enabled them to fully understand what he had taught:

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:45‭-‬49 NIV)

The disciples being “clothed with power from on high” (a step that should happen before we go out on our own commission) is something that happened in the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, when they received an outpouring of the Spirit and many came to believe in Jerusalem.

Truth, according to Paul’s commentary, in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, is something revealed by the Holy Spirit. That is something that mirrors what Jesus said in his promise of a “Comforter” that would “guide you (his disciples) into all the truth” (John 16:13), and there is no way around it. All the Bible study and religious knowledge in the world cannot breath spiritual life into anyone.

All that said, sound doctrine and spiritual life are never at odds with each other. That it took a special outpouring of the Spirit before the disciples could understand what Jesus taught doesn’t make his prior effort useless. His teachings, if anything, provided substance, like the dust God formed up into a man in Genesis, and his breath the catalyst.

Furthermore, those waiting on the right feelings, or teachings that resonate with them and their own prior experience, will likely be like the rich young ruler who left disappointed after asking what he must do to be saved. Faith demands we go outside of our own comfort zone, that we go beyond our own understanding, preferences or calculations, and begin to walk before we have our eyes opened. In fact, the Spirit is something promised only to those who those who love Jesus and keep his commandments:

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. […] “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:15‭-‬17a‭, ‬23 NIV)

So, what comes first, belief and obedience to Jesus or is it the revelation of truth via the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand what we read?

That is a paradox and something that has always made me uncomfortable. Jesus appears to make obedience a prerequisite to spiritual revelation, which ran counter to my own intuition, and why I had always stressed the second half of the teaching rather than the first part. How could I know what is sound doctrine (as in the correct understanding of what Jesus taught enabling my obedience) without the Holy Spirit coming first?

My understanding was clouded by an individualistic filter…

One would think that I, as one raised in a church with Anabaptist heritage, would understand that interpretation of Scripture and establishing doctrine is something we do together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as a church.

But somewhere along the line (somewhere between urban myths being shared from the pulpit and men like Bill Gothard being given a platform), I had lost trust in the ‘ordained’ leadership and other members to discern truth. And, as a result, I began to look beyond my religious peers for answers. Eventually, after an epiphany about faith, I began to find answers in Biblical passages that had once confounded me and became more confident in my own individual discernment through the Spirit.

However, that paradigm of understanding was incomplete and all came crashing down when my own individual ability to discern spiritual truth came into serious question.

It is easy to claim the Holy Spirit is leading you while you remain safe within the boat of religion. But true faith requires going beyond our own established range of possibilities, to let go of our own human logic and reason, and step out of the boat. I did that. I stepped out. I took a few steps across the waves and then was promptly overwhelmed by doubts—doubts that were, in part, a product of running headlong into the plans, prejudices and cynical calculations of those in the church whom I had still counted on to mirror my faith.

I had questions that I could not answer nor could be answered in the Mennonite context. I had lost faith in my Mennonite identity and Anabaptist heritage to provide reliable guidance. I felt I had been fooled, once again, misled by the desire to find meaning in my struggles and a delusional faith that the impossible would be made possible. I had nothing, besides an obligation to continue to fight for the hopes of my bhest, and needed answers.

Fortunately, I ran into a man, a fatherly figure, who did have answers that I needed and set me right again.

Fr. Anthony, an Orthodox priest, arrived in my life as if by divine appointment. He had the right attitude, asked the right questions, never said a disrespectful word about my Mennonite identity (offering praise for our “peace witness” instead) and could speak with an authority that was missing where I was coming from. There was no pressure. However, he always seemed to show up at the right time and was always able to explain things in a way that made sense to me.

The timing was right for me in the same way it was for the man St. Philip encountered on the road:

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:29‭-‬31 NIV)

In an individualistic understanding, this man (the eunuch) should’ve had all he needed to find salvation—I mean, according to what many Biblical fundamentalist commentators put forward, Scripture is basically self-explanatory and all we need to do is believe what we read, right?

But clearly, that is not the case.

The Bible itself tells us that somethings in it are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16) and this eunuch, an important and likely very intelligent person, could not discern for himself what was written in Isaiah.

The Holy Spirit did provide him with an interpretation, yet that interpretation came through a man named Philip. Philip did not speak his own “private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20) as a mere commentator offering an opinion. He was a representative. He was a man both directed by the Spirit and also commissioned by the church in the book of Acts:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6)

Philip was chosen and ordained to be a representative of the apostles, the apostles who themselves were representatives of Christ. His authority to interpret Scripture went beyond being merely a product of his own religious studies. He was not simply a religious commentator spouting his own opinions. No, rather, he was ordained as a representative, as one judged to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” by the church, and therefore had an authority greater than a mere commentator with an opinion.

My individualistic filter was wrong, I could not understand everything on my own, we still need those representatives who are sent:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15 NIV)

Why I prefer representatives…

Anyone can offer commentary, we hear ‘expert’ commentators tell us their opinions of sports, politics and the economy all the time. Some people prefer Paul Krugman, others Rush Limbaugh, and typically we choose those who confirm our existing biases to those who would challenge them. That is also true of Biblical commentators as well. We like those men whom we choose based on our own feelings, on what resonates with us or provide our itching ears with what we wish to hear. Unfortunately, commentators are not accountable to anything besides their own understanding and too often play to the prejudices of their particular audience.

A representative, by contrast, does not speak on their own authority and is ultimately accountable to the authority that sent, commisioned or ordained them.

For example, in a Republic, like the United States, we elect Representatives to speak on our behalf and represent our interests. There are also representatives of a corporation authorized to act on behalf of the collective group and must also answer to the other representatives of the group.

Jesus, likewise, came as a representative of the Father who sent him, on several occasions he tells his audience that he speaks on behalf of the Father and not by his own authority:

Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”

Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. (John 7:14-18 NIV)

Jesus is imploring his audience to test his credentials. He is saying that those who choose to do the will of God, by following his teachings, will find out if his words are true or not. In other words, his teachings are a testable hypothesis, established directly on the authority of the Father, and not just his opinions that can’t be verified one way or another. Jesus is not a commentator speaking by his own authority, but a representative, commissioned by the Holy Spirit (confirmed with a voice from heaven and dove descending upon him at his baptism) and spoke with the authority of the Father rather than his own.

The difference between a commentator and a representative is accountable to an authority beyond their own. If a representative goes beyond their commissioning they can be voted out or brought before a council and condemned. A commentator, on the other hand, only needs to be accountable to their own understanding and the whims of their particular audience—their authority rests on their own credentials rather than on a true commissioning by an authority already established.

Doesn’t the Holy Spirit make us representatives as well?

My answer to this question, with my shift in paradigm, has changed.

The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, in that we do, as individuals, receive authority from the Holy Spirit.

But, no, as far that authority giving us license to be free from accountability and operate apart from what has been established by Christ and his church.

The Holy Spirit, the true spiritual guide sent by the Father rather than a counterfeit spirit, should lead us into unity together rather than to divisions. The early church was full of commentators, some who claimed to have the authority of the Spirit or Scripture on their side, but the book of Acts shows us that not all commentators were equal and some had to be rebuked:

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.

[…]

They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said… (Acts 15:5‭-‬8,22‭-‬24 NIV)

Heretical teachings in the church have always been sorted out by council and consensus.

Even St. Peter and St. Paul were accountable to the body of believers represented in this coming together of apostles and elders.

It is by this process we were even provided with a canon of Scripture: Councils, representatives of the church, decided what books belong in the Bible and which ones (while possibly still useful) did not meet the criteria of Orthodox teachings. Not every book, not every person, is equally authorized to speak on behalf of Christ and his church. The Holy Spirit does work in the life of the individual, but the Holy Spirit also speaks through the church and especially through those sent, ordained or commissioned by Christ and is church:

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:13‭-‬15 NIV)

We are told the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and that is to say that the church does have authority over the individual as a representative of Christ. We really do need that—we really do need to be accountable to something more than our own ideas and/or interpretations—and should seek to hold fast to the teachings that have been passed by “word of mouth or by letter” of those who, through Christ and his church, have more authority than their own personal opinion.

Good commentary must be rooted in sound doctrine…

Anyone can claim to have the Holy Spirit, but not all who do are true representatives of Christ or his church, and we must use discernment. There have many heresies throughout the ages of those who felt they individually could discern truth without being accountable to anything besides their own religious knowledge and feelings of spiritual superiority to others. We need to be on the guard against their false teachings and also against being deceived by ourselves.

We are all very fortunate, we do not need to choose between the Holy Spirit and sound doctrine. This is a case where we can both have our cake and eat it. The church has preserved the teachings of Jesus, in traditions both written and spoken, as the basis for sound doctrine and that “breath of life” comes in our Communion together. We are not called to be “Lone Rangers” finding our own way, serving our own preferences, etc. We are called to be a part of the body of the church, representatives of the church past, present and future, this church:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18‭-‬19 NIV)

Fundamentally Flawed: How Mennonites Failed To Be Faithful

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

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

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

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

So, who is real and who is the impostor?

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

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

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

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

What is biblical fundamentalism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When did biblical fundamentalism enter the Mennonite church?

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

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

How was authentic Anabaptism different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Has Anabaptism Failed?

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

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

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

Ken Ham’s Ark: Evangelical Outreach or Hammy Recreation?

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“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)

Question: How to know the salt of a religion has lost its savor?

Answer: Religiously themed amusement parks that seem to be more about preserving pet dogmas (or boosting the ego of a charismatic personality who built them) than the actual Gospel preached by Jesus and lived out by the early church.

Encounters of the wrong kind send the wrong message.

An article on televangelist Jim Bakker’s abandoned ‘Christian’ amusement park prompted my reflection above.  However, my mind soon went to another attraction now available to consumer Christianity, that being Ken Ham’s latest creation enterprise in Kentucky, the Ark Encounter.

Anyhow, other than the name reminding me of the Turkey Hill Experience (an actual attraction located in Columbia, PA) I’ve encountered some other thoughts about the 100 million dollar project: I’m not sure this edifice Ham boasts may be “one of the greatest Christian evangelistic outreaches of our day” will live up to the hype.

This tourist trap of mammoth proportions might end up more like Bakker’s now derelict ‘evangelical’ pleasure mecca.  It actually seems more like a dead end of fundamentalist dogma than it does a truly faithful living witness of Christian love.

And, at 40 dollars a pop to enter, it is evident that our modern expressions of grace are not cheap—we might have already encountered a bit of a messaging problem.

Finding answers in Jesus, not Genesis.

Yes, the Ark Encounter and other expressions of faith, like charitable giving, are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  But I see only one of the two endorsed by Jesus as an outreach and it is not the Genesis themed recreational Biblical tourism kingdom of Ham.

Perhaps, instead of creating hundred million dollar gimmicks, that may be as likely to win as many converts outside of blood relatives as Noah’s original did, we should be focusing our kingdom building efforts elsewhere?  Could we do more to provide substantive help to those around us in need?

The problem with the modern ‘scientific’ attempts to bolster Biblical claims is that they often aren’t all that scientific nor do they well reflect the faith of Scriptural example.  The Gospel of Jesus never needed to evolve or be adapted for our time.  No, our time needs to adapted to actual life of spiritual reality that was once found in the early church:

“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)

The truth of our faith is the truth that we live.  That is our strongest argument and apologetic.  Jesus never said we should try to prove the historical accuracy of Biblical narratives as a means to covert others to faith or convince ourselves.  Jesus said to live we he taught and then the Spirit would reveal itself in and through us.

There is no need of an edifice built of wood as an evangelical tool to share true faith.  What there is need of is a body of believers who acts in unison as the hands and feet of Jesus.  A church that literally feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, shelters the homeless, meets the practical needs of their own communities and leads in genuine love:

“If you love me, keep my commands.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. […] The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (John 14:15-21)

The truth of our love for God (expressed in our obedience to love other people as Christ commanded) will reveal the truth of God to us and the world.  It is really that simple.

Either Jesus is the answer or He is not.

I recall my own hope based in apologetics and my taught mistrust of mainstream science.  I remember my own hopeful glances over at the secular neighbors, who attended an Evolution versus Creationism debate with my family, and at the time not realizing then that my own confirmation bias shaded glasses were as blinding as theirs.

It was a well-meaning yet misguided effort.  My trying to prove Christianity through study of history and using theories (often more flimsy and unscientific than the ones they mocked) only left me thirsty for truth.  My religious indoctrination actually caused me to doubt.  The deeper I got into the available evidence the less I believed anything.

It was only through an encounter with Jesus that I realized the error in my ways.  It was when I stopped resting in my own knowledge and started to live more obediently to the simple unadulterated teachings of Jesus.  It has been a transformative spiritual experience that cannot be duplicated through intellectual, artificial or forced means.

If you want to encourage faith be faithful.

Save what you would spend on Ark Encounter, find someone in your own community with a need (perhaps a single mother or elderly person) and fill it—that will do more for the faith of your family than feeding Ham’s Answers in Genesis empire.

If you wish to encourage your children in faith, show them how to be salt and meet the needs of their neighbors in Christian love.  That is the obedience to the law of Christ that will show them real truth and bolster your own faith.

If you have not encountered any real needs around you, then I pray you have an encounter with the Spirit of God and your eyes opened.

Don’t be yesterday’s news, be today’s salt.

Missionary Or Imposter? Pitfalls and Potential of 21st Century Evangelicalism.

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If any of my travel companions shared my disquietude it was not outwardly evident. It was an exciting break from routine and adventure, a chance to travel with a group of peers. Better yet, the ‘missions trip’ label gave it full religious sanction.

However, my guilt started weeks before. We had raised a large sum of money through fundraisers. In fact, we probably had enough cash to employ a team of Haitians for a year. But, to my dismay, most of it would go out the tailpipe as burnt jet fuel used to ferry us in and out. It seemed to me obscene that we were flying into that earthquake ravaged nation for only a few short days.

When I expressed my concern I was assured that this exposure would be a good opportunity for the young people to grow in awareness and compassion. I tried my best to accept that answer. But, finally on the ground in Port-au-Prince and throughout the trip my pangs of guilt would return, my concerns verified.

The most notable experience was when a young Haitian man, seeing our enthusiastic labors to paint a church interior, beckoned for my attention. In our short conversation he pled for work to feed his belly and said the obvious: “I can do that!”

It was true.

We were doing menial tasks. We did work almost any Haitian could do with a bit of supervision. We could have sent two people for a year and had a far bigger impact. Yet, here we were, playing in the paint, doing unskilled labor in front of pleading eyes, as if to taunt them with our privileged position.

What is Christian ‘missionary’ service about?

Young people in my church are encouraged to serve as missionaries. What this often implies is travel to some exotic locale to do work projects and possibly to share a Christian witness with the indigenous population before jetting away to the next big thing. Some commitments are longer, they stay years as teachers, nannies and doing a variety of other things.

We celebrate those who go elsewhere with prayer cards featuring their picture, a “serving in [insert location here]” tagline and a favorite Bible verse. When they come back there is often a report to the congregation; which usually includes some humor about cultural oddities, maybe an expression of how blessed they were through the experience and many pictures.

I have little doubt of the sincerity of those who have embraced this idea of Christian service. Images of men like Hudson Taylor or Jim Elliot have been impressed upon their young minds, reminders of the 10-40 window fill their thoughts and they go with strong feelings of obligation. To many church raised people the ultimate Christian example is doing something over there somewhere.

I am, on one hand, happy for enthusiasm and dedication to the cause of Jesus Christ. And still, on the other hand, I question the effectiveness and wisdom of the current effort. I also suspect there is a deeper problem, a fundamental difference between the Spirit that motivated the early church to act and attitude that propels many today.

There are many reasons why a person may travel the world. But, according to Scripture, not all who claim to represent God truly do and not everyone who does wonderful things in the name of Jesus is actually saved. In fact, Jesus warns specifically about those whom he will not recognize for their efforts:

“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 23:15)

And it was not just the non-Christian religious leaders and Pharisees whom Jesus warned:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

How can it be? How is it that some missionary efforts are flawed beyond mere ineffectiveness and are actually destructive? Why is the work of some rejected despite the outward appearance of faithfulness?

These are questions we should ask. I do believe this severe criticism and warning from Jesus applies to us today. I believe someone can spend their life in missionary work, can profess to have faith in Jesus, and—despite their dedicated religious effort—still not be doing the will of God.

Too often missionary efforts go unquestioned. It is easy to remain silent, because we know we ourselves should be doing more, and take a position: “Well, at least they are doing something…” But this reluctance to be involved is unfortunate and is what leads to wasteful or even counterproductive effort.

#1) True Missionary Service Must Be Spirit-led

I’ve talked to a young person who is determined to be a foreign missionary. I asked them how they knew it was God’s calling for their life and the reply (or lack thereof) did not convince me that they truly knew. It was simply something they wanted to do.

Others referenced Scripture, they quote the “go ye into all the world” of Jesus commissioning the disciples, dutifully applying it to themselves without considering context or chronological order. A case of proof-texting where a person can find whatever they want.

But this is not how Jesus started his ministry nor the way he told us to determine God’s will for our lives. We see instead that in his ministry Jesus was led directly by the Spirit:

“As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 3:16-17, 4:1)

Jesus was led by the Spirit. And that this is the exact same Spirit that was promised and is now made fully available to those who believe in him:

“On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promise which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.'” (Acts 1:4-8)

It is easy to skip around the Bible to defend an established dogma and find what suits our own particular religious agenda. But we should always remember that the Pharisees also diligently studied Scripture. Yet, without the Spirit to guide them in their study, they were way off base and seriously misled.

If we do things our own way we end up like Abraham who had two sons, one of the bondwoman and his own human effort, the other of the promise God had given. (Gal 4:21-31) We are the same, we do not trust God, we get impatient and take matters into our own hands.

Instead, rather than go out on our own understanding and effort, we must wait on God’s timing and Spirit.

#2) True Missionary Service Starts Here, Not There

It is interesting to note, the author of a popular quote about every Christian being either a missionary or an impostor spent his years preaching in his native England and not overseas. So was he, by his own words, an impostor?

The full quote, from a sermon Charles H. Spurgeon preached, sheds light on what Spurgeon actually meant in his usage of the term missionary:

Every Christian here is either a missionary or an impostor. Recollect that you are either trying to spread abroad the kingdom of Christ, or else you do not love him at all. It cannot be that there is a high appreciation of Jesus, and a totally silent tongue about him. Of course I do not mean, by that, that those who use the pen for Christ are silent; they are not. And those who help others to use the tongue, or spread that which others have written, are doing their part well; but I mean this,—that man who says, ‘I believe in Jesus,” but does not think enough of Jesus ever to tell another about him, by mouth, or pen, or tract, is an impostor.

What Spurgeon is actually saying is that everyone who truly believes in Christ will share that with other people. He is not saying that we need to travel further than our next-door neighbors and hometown to do that. He is saying that a person is missionary wherever they are or they are an impostor.

It is true that some men in the early church traveled far and wide to spread the good news. We can read much about Paul’s missionary journeys and of other men sent out. But not all went. Not all traveled over land and sea. In fact, few probably did. Many others were needed to establish and serve in their local congregations.

All missionary work is local whether it takes place here, over there or in Jerusalem:

“…repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47)

The idea that Christian missions is a trip overseas and something over ‘there’ is plain wrong. In our age of internet connectivity and social media, a person can be an evangelist—literally speak to people on the other side of the world—from their bedroom. So start in your own Jerusalem, stay busy where you are and then if you are called elsewhere you will be ready to serve.

We must be faithful where we are, because changing addresses will not change who we are and the need is everywhere. We need to start serving our neighbors here where we are or we are an imposter.

#3) True Missionary Service Glorifies God, Humbles Us

Many parachurch organizations exist today to support the evangelical efforts of others. American missionaries to foreign countries are often well-supplied with their own plans and material support. But in this there careful planning can be a dependency on ourselves and our own efforts rather than God.

Sending people out as Jesus did would be unthinkable. Try to imagine this:

“He told them: ‘Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere.” (Luke 9:3-6)

It was total dependence on God. There are no five year plans. There’s no walled in compound or institutional support structure—not even so much as a change of clothes, a bag of personal hygiene supplies or packed lunch for the journey.

These men went out literally with nothing but the clothing on their back and the message of the Gospel. I can imagine that there was a bit more urgency to get to know people and make friends when your next meal depended on it. I wonder also if their total dependency and vulnerability is what was required for miracles to happen.

We can make Christianity look more like a profitable enterprise than a walk of faith. When we go out with obvious advantage over those we are trying to reach it should be no surprise that some seek our wealth rather than our Jesus and ‘convert’ for the wrong reasons. When we go out with our big checkbook or provide for needs (based in our own abilities to raise funds) it quickly can become about us rather than God’s glory.

Jesus gave a different example:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:5-7)

If we wish to present ourselves as entitled recipients of American prosperity then we ought to bring it with us. If we are cultural imperialists selling Capitalism then we need to display those wares. But, if we want our faith in Jesus to be be the focus then we must live it and leave everything behind.

People are not completely dumb and many can see through a religious act. If we wish to be effective we must “become all things to all people” (1 Cor 9:22) and lower ourselves. Our hiding behind walls (necessary to secure our possessions and keep people at a safe distance) will likely speak louder than our words when or if we finally do get around to speaking.

Jesus left his privileges behind. If we are to be of the “same mindset as Christ Jesus” we should mimic that example.

#4) True Missionary Service Is About Them, Not Us

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Why else would someone travel besides love for those they seek to reach?

If you don’t see a reason why a person would choose to be a missionary besides sincere faith here are some alternative explanations:

  • They love adventure. You do know that the millennial generation prefers experience and travel, right? It has nothing to do with faithful sacrifice and everything to do with seeking pleasure.
  • They want to escape. We do not send missionaries like the early church. Sure, those who wish to go may get a rubber stamp blessing from a church. But, in this age of individualism, people today decide for themselves and might do it to be further independent from accountability.
  • The ‘cool’ people do it. Positive peer-pressure is good, right? Well, yes, assuming that going into missions is merely a group bonding experience, a chance to be with age-group friends and maybe find a mate. But, if that’s not the missionary position we want to produce, it could be a concern.
  • It is self-gratifying. Some people really feel good about themselves and simply like to crow about it to vulnerable people. A missionary, especially supported by others, has power over those who are needy and can enjoy a near celebrity treatment as a foreigner.
  • They are duty-driven and fearful. I recall this guy named Jonah. He finally did what God said because he didn’t like being fish food. But, despite the grace he received getting spit out alive, he lacked any love or compassion for the people he was told to reach.
  • We like praise. Who doesn’t want a few feathers in the cap and ‘mission accomplished’ signs to welcome them home? Well, Jesus told us that those who act righteously for the praise of others have their reward.
  • We like projects. It takes some discipline and focus to do missionary work. Unfortunately, real love is something that does not fit a formula or schedule and people do not like being your project.

All of those things aren’t necessarily bad in their right place. We should enjoy ourselves with good friends. The less materialistic focus of the millennial generation is one positive thing about them and a potential strength. Confidence is great too and so is a sense of accomplishment or being recognized for the right things and encouraged.

Yet the purpose of missions is not our own pleasure. If it is not primarily for the good of those we claim to serve then we might be better staying home until we mature spiritually and love genuinely.

My caution is that our priorities be in the right order. Missions is about having true love for our neighbors. If you are not willing to serve your next-door neighbor, then you probably have no business traveling over land and sea on a religiously sanctioned trophy hunt. We need to go in genuine love for the people we are serving or it is going through the motions and it is spiritually empty.

#5) Missionary Service Is About Faithfulness, Not Dogmatism

In the book of Acts we have the interesting account of Philip and an Ethiopian. We are told Philip was promoted by an angel to take a walk. It was on that walk Philip encountered an Ethiopian eunuch on a chariot (the Bentley or Rolls Royce of their day) and an important man. Philip was directed by the Spirit to go stand near the chariot.

So Philip obeyed.

The man was perplexed about a passage from the book of Isaiah the prophet. Philip asked the man, “do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian admitted his need for help interpreting the meaning of the passage and Philip explained. The result was an on-the-spot Baptism (no mandatory background check or ‘young believer class’ waiting period) and the two never crossed paths again.

Philip was faithful. He was willing to adapt to circumstances and do what needed to be done without much hesitation. Faith is creative, it is free, it adapts as need be, and motivates us to become all things to all people, like Paul:

“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

Religious dogma, by contrast to Spirit-led faith, is rigid and inflexible. It tries to make every situation conform to a predetermined ‘cookie cutter’ mold or established mode and becomes easily frustrated when things do not fit the prescriptive ‘one size fits all’ solutions. It is confining rather than empowering and is often confusing or confounding in practice. It is limiting of full potential.

The front lines of evangelicalism have shifted dramatically. The internet has opened a new front and can get us beyond ‘enemy lines’ much like the invention of the airplane revolutionized warfare. Unfortunately many Christians are stuck slugging it out in the trenches, too fixated on established fighting methods, blinded by missionary dogmas built in the 1800’s, and unable to take advantage of the opportunities right in front of them.

Likewise the Pharisees did everything right outwardly, in their own minds (and that of their religious peers) they had righteous living all figured out to the last detail, but they lacked the mind of Christ. Nothing in their religious devotion or diligence in studying Scripture revealed the truth of God’s word (John 5:31-40) to them. They thought of themselves as gatekeepers and in reality they themselves would not enter in.

We have been warned about the false security of religion, but do we have the faith to change where need be? Do we have the imagination or vision for today? Are we like Philip who followed the Spirit and improvised? Or are we stuck fighting trench warfare in an age that may require a different approach?