Mary and Restored Womanhood

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A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (Revelation 12:1‭-‬2‭, ‬4‭-‬5a NIV)

Mary is described in splendid terms in the account above. She is wearing a crown with twelve stars symbolizing the tribes of Israel, clothed with divinity and standing above creation. As she gives birth the dragon stands ready to “devour her child the moment he was born,” an allusion to Herod who ordered male children to be killed after Jesus was born as to prevent a challenge to his throne, yet she prevails. It takes a queen to give birth to a king and Mary is described in precisely those terms.

Growing up in a Protestant fundamentalist church the role of Mary was almost always dismissed or downplayed. While nobody in these churches would argue against the significance of Abraham, Elijah, King David, John the Baptist or the Apostle Paul, many do brush off the significance of Mary in the Biblical narrative and, despite claiming that Jesus is their king, would scoff at the idea that Mary should be regarded as Queen Mother. In this view Mary is basically interchangeable with any other woman and nobody special or worthy of the veneration given to faithful men.

The disregard for the example of womanhood that Mary embodies is not without consequence. In fact, it is a disrespect that I would argue leads to male abuses, abuses that lead to female reactions and greater dysfunction. In other words, feminism is a response to traditional female roles being dismissed and downplayed in the same way that Mary’s role is disregarded. Many women feel that the only way they can be recognized is by thriving in what has historically been a male domain and it is no wonder that they do. Why pursue womanhood when only male roles are worth celebrating?

Mary, the answer to Eve…

One Biblical character Protestant fundamentalists have no problem talking about is Eve. They have no problem talking about how Eve was the one first deceived or quoting verses about male authority over women. I know many men who spend an awful lot of time discussing bad female characters, like Jezebel, or any woman who would dare challenge their authority, and continually attempting to blame women for their own failures.

For example, I recall a morbidly obese man who faulted his wife’s cooking for his condition and I know many more men who try to use female immodesty as a means to offload responsibility for their own lusts and abuses. And so it goes. These men are imposters rather than Christian leaders. They want to claim authority for themselves and yet, at every turn, blame women for their failures. They resemble Adam who blamed Eve more than Jesus who took up the cross despite being blameless.

To solve this age old problem we should go back to the beginning and right after the fall of mankind:

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15 NIV)

This was what God told the serpent who deceived Eve. It is a prophecy about “the woman” and also specifically a woman. This woman would produce a child that would crush the head of this serpent and this is exactly what we read happened in the book of Revelation:

The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12: 9 NIV)

The woman with “enmity” towards the serpent triumphed over the dragon through her offspring and that woman is the answer to those still deceived and stuck with Eve. The parallels between Eve and Mary, the antidote, are too great to ignore and were well-understood by the faithful in the early church:

As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. (St Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies” [A.D. 175-185])

This is the logical extension of what St Paul’s exposition in his letter to the Galatians about slavery under the law and freedom in the Spirit:

His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. (Galatians 4:23 NIV)

The comparison above is between Abraham’s two sons, one born by human effort to the slave woman and another by divine origin to his wife Sarah, but the greater context Paul speaks of is of our own divine sonship and salvation. The sons of Eve lives in bondage, they are subject to the law and perpetually trying to escape the condemnation of the law through their own efforts. But he writes of another son “born of a woman” who provides an opportunity for us to be a heir of God and a son of the free woman.

Jesus is understood to be the new Adam. Or the Adam who brought the “life-giving spirit” rather than death like his predecessor (1 Corinthians 5:45) and salvation from sin. And, his mother, in the same way, is understood to be the woman whose obedience overcame the curse of Eve’s disobedience and undoes the curse upon women. It is through the man Jesus, born of a woman, Mary, that we are saved. But it was not any woman, it was not a woman under the bondage of sin—it was a free woman.

“Behold your mother!”

There are those who use references to brothers and sisters of Jesus as proof that Mary, after giving birth to Jesus, conceived to Joseph and didn’t remain a virgin. This is another subtle way to belittle her and the significance of her role in the story of our salvation. It is also something routinely used by men to undermine the authority of the church. The perpetual virginity of Mary, for that reason, is important as a theological point and a misunderstanding of Scripture that is easily cleared up.

First of all, because it was not uncommon for older men to marry younger women in Biblical times, Ruth and Boaz for example, and it is widely accepted that there was an age differential between Mary and Joseph. It is quite possible, even probable, that Joseph was an older widower and had other children to another woman. So, in other words, the references to the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus could be step-brothers and step-sisters rather than other sons and daughters of Mary his mother.

Second, it is possible that we are misunderstanding the words used. Indeed, the same words translated as “brothers” and “sisters” could denote a close relative as Aramaic, the language being spoken, didn’t distinguish between brother or sister and a cousin. It seems similar to how Filipinos use the word “tito” (literally uncle) and “tita” (literally aunt) to also refer to a cousin or respected elder. So we may be dealing with a language translation issue.

Whatever the case, it is definitely not advisable to take our cues from those who were in doubt of Jesus, who identified him as “the carpenter’s son” and didn’t accept him as God’s son:

Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. (Matthew 13:55-57 NIV)

Note, the passage does not say that Mary is the mother of the other “brothers” and “sisters” mentioned.

If we should not be offended when Jesus claims to be God’s son rather than that of Joseph, then we should not be apt to resist the idea that his brothers and sisters could be from another woman and the real possibility Mary remained a virgin. This is the view of early church writers:

The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word […] might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity. (Origen, “Commentary on Matthew 2:17” [A.D. 248]).

And the doubt of this answered emphatically by St Jerome:

[Helvidius] produces Tertullian as a witness [to his view] and quotes Victorinus, bishop of Petavium. Of Tertullian, I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But as regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proven from the gospel—that he [Victorinus] spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship, not by nature. [By discussing such things we] are […] following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against [the heretics] Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man. (Jerome, Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary 19 [A.D. 383]).

We believe that God was born of a virgin, because we read it. We do not believe that Mary was married after she brought forth her Son, because we do not read it. […] You [Helvidius] say that Mary did not remain a virgin. As for myself, I claim that Joseph himself was a virgin, through Mary, so that a virgin Son might be born of a virginal wedlock. (ibid., 21).

If that isn’t enough to clear up the issue, the emphasis that even Joseph became purified through Mary’s virginity (similar to what Paul says about believing spouse “sanctifying” their unbelieving partner and children in 1 Corinthians 7:14), then we should consider again what Jesus did on the cross:

Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-29 NIV)

Jesus, in agony on the cross, soon to say “it is finished” and give up his spirit, and his concern is who would care for his mother. Not only does this highlight how important Mary is to Jesus, it would also be completely unnecessary for Jesus to assign someone to care for his mother if she had other sons and daughters. What we do know is that Jesus had to assign someone to care for his mother, to a disciple, and that would be odd if she actually had many children.

But there’s a twist…

Mary, in the same way we have become sons of Abraham through faith (Galatians 3:29) and similar to how Jesus became a son of Joseph through adoption, has also become our mother. If we are coheirs of Christ, sharing in his divinity through our adoption, then we are, likewise, are sons and daughters of Mary his mother. So, rejoice, our inheritance through Eve (sin and death) has been overcome through the Blessed Virgin and by her Son!

“From now on all generations will call me blessed…”

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55 NIV)

It is sad that those words do not carry much weight in some quarters who claim a ‘literal’ understanding of Scripture. I suppose they may think that Mary, a young woman, should not be taken seriously and her words are merely the product of unchecked female exuberance?

In that case these doubters should look at a declaration made by Elizabeth, full of the Spirit, in the verses right before Mary’s exclamation:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:41-43 NIV)

If the witness of two women and the Spirit isn’t enough, what will be?

Mary is most certainly blessed among women. If we should believe anything else said in Luke, then we must accept this is the reality, that it is something spoken through Elizabeth by the Spirit, and should join the generations of the faithful who call Mary blessed.

Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant!

Mary is blessed because she, set apart by her parents, allowed herself to be a vessel. Mary is referred to as the “Ark of the New Covenant” and that is because of the direct parallels in Scripture made between her and the holiest of vessels in Israel…

Mary is overshadowed and filled:

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called b the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)

As the ark of the Lord (in the tabernacle) was overshadowed and filled:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34,35 NIV)

***

David, a man after God’s own heart, revered the ark:

David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me? (2 Samuel 6:9)

Likewise, righteous Elizabeth says the same thing about Mary:

But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:43)

***

David, to the scorn of his wife, celebrated the ark of the Lord:

Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets. (2 Samuel 6:14,15)

Likewise, unborn John the Baptist, in defiance of those who do not honor the mother of our Lord, also leapt at the sound of Mary’s voice:

As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:44)

***

Finally, the ark of the Lord took a detour:

He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household. (2 Samuel 6:10,11 NIV)

And that parallels this:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, […] Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. (Luke 1:39,56 NIV)

So, given these clear parallels, it is only right Mary is called the “Ark of the New Covenant” and Theotokis (“Bearer of God”) and to say otherwise is to be ignorant of Scripture.

And, yes, all those filled with the Spirit do, in a way, parallel Mary in this regard. Christians are told, by St Paul, that they are the “temple of the Holy Spirit” and to “glorify God in your body” by remaining free of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 19:18-20) and this is following the example of Mary in being a vessel. However, Mary literally carried our Lord and Savior in her womb, we are told she is blessed among women and for that she is worthy of our honor and veneration—in the same way as the Ark of the Covenant.

Mary, like that Ark, is also set apart as holy and not to be touched.

“Do whatever he tells you.”

Mary was also an example for motherhood. She did not keep her son for herself by refusing to let him go or holding him back and enabled him to fulfill his purpose instead.

I’ve never thought much about this before listening to Dr Jordan Peterson a few months ago and the contrast he makes between Mary and the devouring (or Oedipal) mother or mother who over-protects her child, attempts to keep them for herself, and is a hindrance rather than a help to healthy development.

Peterson says Mary is the archetype of a good mother for offering her son to the service of God and as a sacrifice to the world. That is what good mothers do, rather than hoard (or, heaven forbid, destroy) the blessings of their womanhood, they give their children for sake of the world.

Anyhow, let’s take a look at the events leading up to the first miracle attributed to Jesus in Scripture:

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:1‭-‬5 NIV)

Some Protestant commentators take the inflection of the English translation (when Jesus says “woman, why do you involve me?” in response to Mary) as evidence that Jesus didn’t have any special regard for his mother. This is to suggest that Jesus would blatantly disregard the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:1–21, Deuteronomy 5:1–23) and go against his own words rebuking those who defied God’s command (Matthew 15:3-9) and basically make him a hypocrite.

This word “woman,” according to what I’ve read, is more to effect of “madam” than the English translation suggests and is also the same word used to denote a man’s wife elsewhere in Scripture. There is no reason to suspect that Jesus would be disrespectful of his mother and those who suggest that this is the case should probably consider the actions that accompanied his words.

We know what Jesus did immediately thereafter. He, like a good son, does and honors his mother by doing what she requests of him. Mary, for her part, does what a good mother does, she prompts her son to action and encourages others to give her son the respect he is due. We should not forget that Mary, in the same way as God the Father (yet as a human mother), also willingly gave her only son.

More on sons and their mothers…

Mary, mother of the King?

When Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah, the king stood up to meet her, bowed down to her and sat down on his throne. He had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat down at his right hand. “I have one small request to make of you,” she said. “Do not refuse me.” The king replied, “Make it, my mother; I will not refuse you.” (1 Kings 2:19‭-‬20 NIV)

It is interesting how good mothers intercede and especially on behalf of their sons. We see how Bathsheba (treated with reverence by Solomon) brought a petition to him and his response. There are also many stories of faithful mothers who prayed, with tears, every day for their wayward sons and I do believe that God hears their prayers. We also see this in the story of a mother who made a request to Jesus on behalf of her sons:

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:20‭-‬21 NIV)

This account is told differently in Mark 10, where the son’s of Zebedee, James and John, to the indignation of the other disciples, make this request themselves rather than through their mother. I’m not sure how to reconcile the two accounts, but I do see the role of mothers as significant. Let’s not forget that it was Bathsheba who prompted King David to name her son, Solomon, as his successor:

Then Nathan asked Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, “Have you not heard that Adonijah, the son of Haggith, has become king, and our Lord David knows nothing about it? Now then, let me advise you how you can save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in to King David and say to him, ‘My Lord the king, did you not swear to me your servant: “Surely Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne”? Why then has Adonijah become king?’ (1 Kings 1:11‭-‬13 NIV)

Now, clearly the prophet Nathan could’ve gone directly to the king himself and made this request on behalf of Solomon. But it seems Nathan, as a man of God, knew a little about the persuasive power that a woman has over a man and therefore makes his request to Bathsheba instead. Good men, like good Kings listen to their Queen Mother, listen to women, especially their wives and even more especially their own mothers.

Honor goes to the humble…

Going back to the question of who sits at the right and left hand of Jesus. We read the answer Jesus gave:

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:22‭-‬23 NIV)

Unlike worldly leaders who privilege themselves, in God’s kingdom “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16) or, in other words, those who have suffered most in this life will hold the highest places of honor in the kingdom.

My own thought is that there is one person who fits this description of suffering more than any other and that being the mother forced to watch her precious child, literally the perfect son, be falsely accused, brutally tortured, viciously ridiculed, and murdered in the most horrible method.

Can you imagine how Mary, a mother, would’ve felt as Jesus hung there dying?

I’ve heard that women, due to their giving birth, have a higher threshold for physical pain than a men. Since pain is subjective, I’m not sure if that is true. But I do know, from personal experience, the sound of a mother’s wail upon the loss of her only and most beloved child. It was something that cut me to my soul.

It would be quite ironic, given that men argued for the honor to bestowed upon them, if the humble mother of our Lord and Savior was given that seat of honor beside her son. We can recall Peter boldly saying to Jesus, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you,” (Mark 14:31) and how the other disciples quickly agreed. But this male bravado quickly faded away as Jesus was taken away to be killed. It was Mary, not Peter, who remained beside Jesus until the end.

Can you think of anyone more worthy of sitting at the right hand of Jesus than his mother?

Anyhow, regardless of where Mary sits in the minds of some, she is the Queen Mother and worthy of our honor or Jesus is not King. Because if we deny this we are basically joining those who used “king of the Jews” as a mocking description. But, if Jesus is Lord, and the lineage to David coming through his mother, then we ought to show due respect to the queenship of his mother. And, given that Jesus listens to his mother and since we already do ask others to pray for is all the time, it doesn’t like a bad thing to follow the lead of Nathan.

Mary, the prayerful mother

Had anyone a few years ago asked me about the importance of Mary I would’ve probably said she was a good woman and shrugged. I would not have understood why Orthodox Christians venerate her (with all the saints) and would say that all we need is Jesus.

However, I was ignorant. Of course Jesus is the center of our faith, he is our Lord and Savior, we worship only the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But that doesn’t mean the other examples in Scripture (and in the history of the church) are worth nothing for us. No, their unique stories of faith are there for our benefit, to encourage us, and as examples we can emulate.

Mary stands out as one of these faithful examples. Her contemplation, how she “treasured” things and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19,2:51), and her strength in remaining with her son, her willing response to the angel (“I am the Lord’s servant” Luke 1:38), the proper honor she is given by the faithful, provides a restored vision for womanhood.

Certainly there are many good women. Many have even seen their children martyred for sake of the Gospel. But Mary was the mother of our Lord and Savior, the vessel God chose for his son, and (like Eve) not just any woman. She should be honored, her true feminine strength should be praised, and it is through her womb that salvation came to the world.

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Purity Culture Is Always Bad

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Rebuked Purity Culture

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some other tells of purity culture…

Purity Cultures Blameshift

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

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

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

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

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

Purity Culture Is About Outward Appearances

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

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

Catch that?

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

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

Purity Culture Is Itself Impure

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

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

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

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

“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.

The Confidence Conundrum

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“Be confident!”  

Two words and some of the most unhelpful advice ever given.

Telling someone to be confident is like telling a depressed person to be happy or a short person to be tall.  A person who lacks in confidence does not know how to be confident or else they would already be confident.  Building confidence takes more effort than making a bold pronouncement upon someone.

People do not simply choose to be shy, unsure, uncertain, doubtful, confused, hesitant, timid, anxious or fearful.  No, those things are a product of life experiences and emotions that are all very real.  A confident person making a perfunctory statement does nothing to change the reality of a person who lacks confidence.

That said, confidence is desirable and something to be shared.  

Unfortunately, people who are confident often do not have reason to be introspective about it.  When you feel good about life there is not much need to know why or question it, there is only reason to be what you already are and enjoy the benefits.

Confidence is both a natural disposition and also something gained through positive experience.  Parents instill confidence in children through example or by helping them to overcome their fears and learn from failures rather than dwell in them.  Confident and successful parents seem to produce confident and successful children.

Confidence goes hand in hand with success, it frees a person to take the plunge rather than waste time in needless deliberation and makes them more attractive.  But, there is a sort of causality dilemma, in that confidence often leads to success while success builds confidence and without one the other becomes more difficult to maintain.

When confidence doesn’t produce success, it leads an intelligent person to doubt.  And with doubt comes less desire to risk effort and that results in even less opportunity for success, which often leads to even less success and even less confidence.  Pretty soon things can spiral downward into the pit of despair without a clear way out.

So, how do we help someone who lacks confidence gain it?

If you want a person to be confident then you must give them reason to be confident and good enough reason to overcome whatever reasons they have to lack confidence. To be helpful one must directly address root causes and not dismiss the realities that created the condition as silly or irrelevant.

What people need is T.IM.E.

Help must be practical.  Encouraging words don’t cut it.  Words, no matter how confident you are in saying them, are only words and do nothing to counteract the real life experience or emotional baggage of someone who has only known failure.  What is helpful, perhaps the only thing that does help in some cases, is meaningful long-term investment in the other person.

Loss of confidence happens over a lifetime, it comes as a result of traumatic experience or neglectful treatment, thus expecting a person to “snap out of it” because you say so is delusional at best and an excuse to be indifferent at worse.  There is more to be done than simple encouragement and that means an investment of time.

Here are three simple steps…

1) Take time to listen.  Confidence goes hand in hand with success, but success can lead to arrogance and unwillingness to hear first.  Many people want to “fix” another person without taking time to actually listen and assess the need.  This could mean many months or only a moment depending on the need.  It takes relating to the other person at their own level, earning their trust, without being in a rush or speaking in judgment of their situation.  Half the problem could be the lack of someone who will actually hear them out and care.  So listen empathically and try to identify with the other person emotionally.  Weep with them, laugh with them, eat with them and imagine with them.

2) IMagine a solution.  Without confidence, our ability to envision a better future dwindles and dies.  A successful person can easily take their ability to see a bright future for granted and yet a person who has continually failed does not share their rosy vision.  The first step towards any solution, therefore, is to think about it, to break the problem down into steps and help the other person mentally develop their path towards success.  After that comes execution of the plan.

3) Empower them.  This is where the rubber meets the road and is probably what is most lacking in our age of dog-eat-dog individualism.  Sure, there are many willing to spew their unhelpful advice and unasked-for judgments, but there are very few willing to partner in the success of another person and by this I mean make a substantive investment.  No, this does not mean a handout done in pity or religious obligation either, but an investment that physically and materially shows our confidence in the person who needs it.  Your willingness to partner together with them in a solution will, by itself, help build their confidence.

Anyhow, some final notes…

This is not a method or formula.  Each person and every situation is different.  Sometimes all that is needed is encouragement (more than saying “be confident”) which could mean something as little as a phone call.  While other times a lifelong commitment may be required.  It will likely require creativity, facilitating the right connections, and making recommendations.  

The goal is to get the person what they need to get on their feet and going in the right direction.  It also means getting out of the way and not being controlling or expecting anything in return besides enjoying their success with them.

Nobody is self-made.  If you are confident and successful, there are reasons why that go beyond your own abilities.  We did not pick our own home, communities, height, intelligence, personalities or luck.  We cannot take full credit for anything we have accomplished in our life.  This is reason to be humble and helpful.

If you are confident then share what you have been given with those who have little or less than you do.  Show your hope in their future with truth of action and not only your confidently spoken (but empty) words, be their heart…