My Visit to St. George Orthodox Church

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I wrote this blog over a year ago. Originally it was one of a three part series about different churches I had visited and was intended to be a comparison. However, much has changed since then and bringing this blog off the shelf seemed like a good way to introduce my next post.

When an friend (ex-Mennonite) invited me to attend an Orthodox baptismal service a couple years ago I had no reason to refuse. One of his college professors was the priest who would be performing the rites and had invited him to witness the event. So we met on a cool crisp October morning for the trek to St George’s, an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Altoona, PA.

Full disclosure: I’ve always considered myself to be an unorthodox guy and at one point probably wouldn’t have set foot in a liturgical church having pre-judged it as stuffy, stifling, etc. I was completely committed to my Mennonite ideals and had no intention of changing church affiliation. My visit was a nice opportunity for a different perspective and nothing more.

First Impressions: The building exterior had a foreign and very non-western appearance to my eyes. It could actually be confused with a mosque. On top of the building in a place one might expect a pointy steeple was a golden “onion” dome.

Inside there were three main rooms, a fellowship hall on the end where we entered, a sanctuary in the middle and then a kind of inner sanctum. There were paintings (or “icons”) of an ancient style were depicting various saints, Mary and Jesus on the walls.

We met Father Anthony, a man with glasses and a gray beard, and were warmly received by him before he went about his duties.

We had arrived a bit early and waited a few minutes for the service to begin. Soon we were worshiping as Christians had for thousands of years. Fr. Anthony leading out melodically “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto ages of ages,” and the congregation giving their musical response.

The words of the liturgy were rich with meaning, the gowns, regalia, ancient rituals, intricate ceremonies and incense burning had my mind whirling about the origination of these practices. Surprisingly, as one typically a cynic of formalities, I was oddly at peace in this service.

The Message: Be On Guard Against Spiritual Pride. (That isn’t the official title to the sermon, but it is what the message was about.) The text came from the Gospel of St Luke:

The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

This exuberant moment for the disciples was met with the sobriety of Jesus. While listening to this passage being spoken I had a flashback that made the message especially profound.

My mind went to a vision I had during a spiritual high point a year before where I was on a ladder, having climbed far up into the clouds, and the perspective I had gained was exhilarating. However, the lofty height also made me fearful. I was afraid I would lose my grip, slip and fall. Which is what happened, I was discouraged and feeling that bitter taste of defeat.

The message spoke to me. I repented my attitude of the last while and marveled at how this text and message could reach my own heart so directly.

The Good: I was surprised. I really enjoyed the service and especially the fellowship afterwards. Fr Anthony possessed a wealth of knowledge about church history and articulated Orthodoxy in a way more compelling than the explanations I’ve heard prior. For a well-educated man he was completely humble. He has remained in communication with me since.

The Bad: The congregation was small and the church we attended at a significant distance from home. Also, as a conservative Mennonite accustomed to children and young people, there was a conspicuous absence here. I wondered where the families were. It made me a little sad because there was a depth of tradition here that makes Mennonites seem contemporary by comparison.

The Ugly: While I’m being brutally honest, the iconology did make me a bit uncomfortable. It was something completely foreign to me and it seemed like there depictions could easily become idols. However, when considering the Bibliolatry common in fundamentalist Protestant congregations, perhaps we are also guilty ourselves?

Anyhow, wherever the case, it is one of those things that made me hesitant about this most ancient of Christian traditions.

The Verdict: Ultimately our salvation depends on God and I have a great appreciation for the Orthodox acceptance of this as a mystery of God. This is a welcome relief for someone tired of the contrived (and unsatisfactory) answers of religious fundamentalists.

Orthodoxy is about proper worship of God and their perspective is that worship should be about God’s glory—not our personal preference.

What questions do you have about Orthodoxy?

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In Search of Authenticity at an Amish Wedding…

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Protestantism aimed to strip away the inauthentic part of Christian tradition and, in the process, fractured the church into many competing sects all claiming to be the authentic article.

I was reminded of this while attending an Amish wedding and thinking of how quickly many outside of this peculiar tradition would dismiss Amish forms as dead religion.  The rituals of the service, all in German, while beautiful in their own rite, did not speak to me as an English speaking person.  I’m also doubtful the words did much for the many dozing throughout the three hours of singing and sermon.

Many Evangelicals, because Amish do not hand out tracts or speak of their “born again” experience and whatnot, openly question the salvation of Amish.  This includes many conservative Mennonites who (while also denouncing other Evangelicals as being too unorthodox) at least go through the motions of missions and schedule “revival meetings” every year to remind each other to be more authentic.

The Dilemma of a Doubly Non-conformed Mennonite…

Normally, in a traditional Mennonite context, non-conformity means conforming to their written (and unwritten) standards and being intentionally different from their “worldly” neighbors.  But for me non-conformity has always meant more than only doing things acceptable for a Mennonite.  For me non-conformity meant a) independence from public school peers and also b) authenticity at church.

I have spent my life as a non-conformed Mennonite.  This was a constant tension for me.  It made me uncomfortable with inauthentic conformity to Mennonite culture yet also always longing for full acceptance and wishing to be fully conformed.  I never wanted to be anything other than Mennonite and accepted there.  But it was equally important, as one seeking to be authentic as a matter of conscience, that I never do anything just to be accepted.

In practical terms this meant that I would not go to Bible school or to the mission field hoping to find a mate.  I know this is how many Mennonites do find a partner (despite their stated intentions and anti-fraternization policies) but it seemed dishonest to me.  So, as a result of this conviction to be forthright, I didn’t go and planned to go only when the reasons for going fully matched my expressed aims.  That, more than anything else, is probably what ensured my bachelor status and one of many ways my desire for authenticity cost me.

Doing anything without a full commitment, including singing hymns while down and only half-hearted, was painful for me.  I would sooner risk offense and remain silent than utter words without being completely genuine.  For me authenticity meant not going through the motions and not doing cliché things only to please culture expectations.  Unfortunately, in a culture that values conformity over authenticity, this was at odds with my hope for full acceptance.

What Does It Mean to Be Authentically Christian?

The other day I was talking to a couple curious about my religious roots.  The question came up, “Do Mennonites love Jesus?”  To that I answered “yes” but then went on to explain what differentiated Mennonites from other denominations.  Mennonites, like their Amish cousins, claim to love Jesus.  However, to be one of them you will need to prove your authenticity by keeping their traditions and following their rules.

Sadly, being authentically Mennonite does not make a person is authentically Christian.  Even assuming that Mennonite standards were absolutely correct, even if a person were able to follow those standards perfectly to the letter, and even if these forms are of temporal benefit, there is no salvation to be found in religious conformity.  We know this because Jesus said this when he encountered a man who had kept his religious tradition perfectly and was still lacking something:

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:16-21)

We read that the disciples were “greatly astonished” by what Jesus had told this man.  How could anyone be saved by this new standard that Jesus gave?  This man had followed all the rules.  He was the good Mennonite, did his missionary service, attended every service, tithed faithfully and was a reputable man, perhaps even homeschooled his children, but somehow this was not enough for Jesus.

1) Authenticity is not preserved in keeping tradition…

Tradition is intended to guard authenticity.  Many measure the authenticity of others by how they measure up against their own tradition.  Mennonites question if authenticity can be found amongst Amish singing their centuries old Ausbund hymns.  Those not Mennonite, despite admiring our devotedness to our religious practices, question if we love Jesus.

Early Anabaptists and early Christians were right to understand that authentic Christianity was about more than keeping religious traditions.  In fact, they often, to the vexation of the religious, dispensed with the established rules and defied tradition.  They are like Paul and Barnabas who were adamant in their opposition to defenders of tradition:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. (Acts 15:1,2)

Basically these Judaizers (Galatians 2:14) were trying to force non-Jewish converts to keep Jewish customs and be circumcised as a condition for acceptance.  But the apostle Paul preached against this and used language quite strong to express his contempt:

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2-12)

Paul is saying that these traditionalists are at odds with authentic faith.  He comically calls these defenders of circumcision to go further and completely emasculate themselves.  It seems that the real problem with the Judaizers was not that they followed Jewish customs themselves, but that they tried to force to new converts to keep their traditions as if salvation depended on them and this came at the expense of authentic Christian love.

2) Authenticity is not a produced by destroying tradition…

Many in search of authenticity abandon tradition and try to rebuild from scratch.  This has been the modus operandi of many since Martin Luther hammered out his ninety-five theses in 1517 in protest of the selling of indulgences and has led to the great fracturing of the church.  Those seeking authenticity apart from established church traditions have gone in a thousand contradictory directions.

Some think authenticity comes from spontaneous and disorderly outbursts during church services, which goes against Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.  If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.  Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.  And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.  For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.  The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.  For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

Originality is not evidence of faith, innovation in worship is not a sign of deeper spiritual life, and being anti-formality does not make a person more authentically Christian.  And, according to Paul, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace…”

In practical terms, this means God is probably not bedazzled by our light shows and high-powered musical programs.  Conversely, nor is God likely to be impressed by our long-winded sermons, our wielding of giant leather-bound Bibles on Sunday mornings, our flowery prayers with “thees” and “thous” nor any of our other attempts to create authenticity apart from living in true faith and loving as Jesus commanded.

In a generation or two those who attempt to remedy dead orthodoxy by destroying tradition often end up in a weaker position and with a tradition more corrupt, more incomplete and more unbalanced than the one they left behind.  Their innovations evolve into forms and soon the only stability they have comes from their condemnation of everyone who doesn’t conform to their own particular denominational brand.

3) Authenticity transcends our dichotomies…

Evangelicals (especially conservative Mennonite evangelicals who fear being confused with their more non-conformed brethren) look down on Amish and question the authenticity of their faith because they don’t use evangelical terms to describe their experience.  But, in my working with Amish, I have found them to be very genuine and generous towards me.  I do not see them as much different from conservative Mennonites in their focus on outward conformity and there is nothing that makes the conventions of modern Evangelicalism more authentic than the more traditional alternatives.

You can worship in a non-denominational house church or recite liturgy in a cathedral in Rome and miss the point of Christian faith entirely in both places.  As many Mennonite ordained men lament, pleading and trying to prod through the blank stares of their congregations, “Did you think about the words you just sang?”  And thus they prove that even the best-written hymns of the past couple hundred years can be sung beautifully and yet the meaning of the words missed.  Which makes me wonder why they think their own appeals will be heard?

Whatever the case, true authenticity is not a product of the religious form one follows, it is not a matter of being more or less traditional.  I have actually found it easier to worship God in a liturgical service than I did in the less ordered and less orthodox Mennonite setting that I grew up in.  Why?  Well, because it is an authentic love of God that gives our worship life.  I’ve found it easier to lay aside all earthly cares while in a liturigical service.  For me there is greater peace in the cloud of witnesses and ancient tradition than there is in the many opinions of a men’s Sunday school class.

That said, I firmly believe there are authentic Christians in the whole swath of traditions old and new from Anglican to Zionist and everything in between.  What matters, what makes a Christian authentic, is not the costume that a person wears nor the prescribed language they use, what truly matters is whether or not we love each other as we were commanded.  All tradition, and all abandonment thereof, is only meaningless noise without love:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

Making Your Life Matter

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Kayla Mueller had a life that mattered.

Her name has been in the news lately because of her death at the hands of ISIS.

But her courage and sacrifice for the good of others will live on.  She loved others, not because they looked like her or shared her tribal identity, but because she loved God and knew God loved them.

Kayla’s example made an impact on everyone now reading her story and her life mattered in particular to those whom she served and rescued.  She is remembered especially by Julie, a young Yazidi girl, who knew Kayla as a protective older sister and true friend.

Kayla’s selfless attitude and actions are a true reflection of Christian love and is an example of a life that mattered for all the right reasons.

Does your life matter?

We all want our life to matter.  My Christian faith has led me to believe human life has intrinsic value.  But does this mean all life has equal value?  Is your life worth the same to society as a serial killer’s life?  Is my life equal in value to a President who is guarded by dozens of armed secret service agents?

The answer is both yes and no.

It depends on perspective.  My life may have equal value to the President’s if you ask my own family and friends.  However, I would expect that the answer would change if the random person from the street were asked and that is one reason why we do more to secure the President.

A President’s death would likely be far more disruptive to more people than my own and that gives their life more value as far as national security is concerned.  It does not mean my life has less intrinsic value, but it does reflect a reality of life that does matter.

What we contribute and value matters.

President John F. Kennedy and his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, had lives that mattered to someone.  And, despite the fact Kennedy is responsible for more deaths than the man who killed him, his life was valued more than Oswald’s by many Americans.

Why?

Kennedy, in his inaugural address, challenged those listening to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”  He had the right idea and how much we matter to others depends on what we do for them.  Kennedy’s life mattered more to many people because he worked within their own established system rather than defy, resist or rebel against it.

Our value as individuals will be judged better or worse depending on what we contribute to the whole. Our outcomes, in part, will be shaped by our own attitudes good or bad and the respect we show to others.  All people are supposed to have equal protection under the law. However, this does not mean all people contribute the same to society and that matters.

We live in a time where many have an entitled self-centered mindset and wish to be valued without being willing to make a positive contribution.  Many Americans are only in it for themselves or people like them.  When no life matters except our own then our own life loses value.  When we treat others like they do not matter it hurts them and is sabotage to our own value.

Make your life matter for goodness sake.

We make our life matter more by loving all people as we wish to be loved.  When we treat other people with love we create value where it did not exist before.  By loving others as we wish to be loved we create value and make our life matter more as a result.

Yes, certainly that does not mean all people will value us.  Some might despise us no matter what we do because of their hateful ideologies or judgemental assumptions about us.  We cannot force others to love us or treat us as if our life matters.  If our life doesn’t matter to someone then all the pleas, protests and demands for respect can’t change that.  Even our kindness will not matter to some.

Nevertheless, we can always make others matter to us, we can always live a life that matters for the right reasons, and nobody, not even ISIS, can stop us.

Be like Kayla Mueller who died to save others.

My challenge is for all of my readers to go out and love someone who others do not care about or notice.

Find someone who is different from you (not your own race, family, culture, religious affiliation or political background) and then show them unconditional love.  Love them as thoroughly and completely as the good Samaritan did.

Be like Jesus who laid down his own life so others, including his personal enemies, could find their salvation in his example and together have opportunity to live a more abundant life.

Live a life that transcends differences and expands the scope of love to all people deserving or undeserving alike.

Live a life that matters.

Is a second marriage ever permissable for a Christian?

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As an idealistic person, one raised in a purity culture, and unmarried, I rarely have needed to question my indoctrination on the issue of remarriage.  Likewise, those who are happily married (or who have never been married) have the luxury of easy absolutism on this issue and can draw a hard-line with no need to take a closer look.

However, having been asked my opinion of divorce and remarriage on a couple occasions, I have been pondering the question for several months.  The opinions of modern commentators are as varied as those I have found in the writings of those in the early church and onward.

What do the commentators say about divorce and remarriage?

Some of the conclusions of early church writers differ dramatically from what I’ve been taught.  For example, divorce was, in the case of an unfaithful spouse, not only recommended in the case of an unfaithful spouse—it was considered mandatory.  Some taught remarriage in any case was wrong for a Christian and forbid all second marriages even if the first spouse died.

Tertullian, however, did make an exception when the prior marriage ended (by death or divorce) before conversion.  Menno Simons and other notable early Anabaptists also allowed divorce and remarriage in the case of unrepentant adultery, but only with the council of the church body:

“In the fourth place, if a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. And if it be one who complains that he has fallen in sin, and desires to mend his ways, then the brethren permit the believing mate to go to the unfaithful one to admonish him, if conscience allows it in view of the state of the affair. But if he be a bold and headstrong adulterer, then the innocent party is free–with the provision, however, that she shall consult with the congregation and remarry according to circumstances and decisions in the matter, be it well understood. (Wismar Articles)

That is in sharp contrast to the conservative Mennonitism that opposes all divorce, recognizes the marriages of even unbelievers as valid, and yet allows remarriage if the prior spouse has died.  Many teach that a second marriage (besides those ended by death) should be broken up even if there are children involved and it creates hardship.

That is also in contrast to David Bercot who’s lawyerly approach to Scripture and early church writings led him to believe that remarriage after a divorce is NOT perpetually sin:

“I have not found any situation in the early church where they ever broke up the second marriage. In other words, they said that it was an adulterous marriage, it was a wrong situation, but they didn’t say that it was just the same thing as living with someone in adultery. In other words, there was a union that had taken place there, and they don’t seem to have taken the position that breaking that up would be something good. Instead, it’s a second wrong that doesn’t make the first wrong right. It just makes things even worse, and we can see that today where there’s a family with children. To divorce a second time, break up a happy home, doesn’t seem to be the way God would normally work.”

That, of course, is Bercot’s opinion…

So how does all that above stack up against the actual teachings of Scripture?

“It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)

Jesus quoted the common practice and then corrects it.  He states “anyone who divorces his wife,” then adds the caveat “except for sexual immorality” and continues with that qualification to describe remarriage as sin.  From this one can conclude that remarriage is not adultery if there was infidelity (or “porneia” in the original Greek) discovered in the prior marriage. 

In fact, if we take the Apostle Paul at his word, then a person applying his teachings must seperate themselves from an unfaithful and unrepentant spouse or they are joined together in the sin:

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)

To send an unrepentant sinner packing is NOT hardness of heart (as in what Jesus rebuked in Matthew 19:8) but an absolute necessity and why the church was directed by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:13) to cast out those who refused to repent of their immorality.  It is not hard hearted, it is something necessary to preserve the testimony of the church.

In the Old Testament we read various places where God is portrayed as the husband of an unfaithful spouse.  When the children of Israel break their covenant with God they are given their divorce papers and sent packing (Jeremiah 3:8) because their unfaithfulness could no longer be tolerated.  It was not hard hearted of God to divorce.

But, besides that one exception given by Jesus for sexual immorality, I see clear indication in Scripture that marriage commitment is permanent and a change of status not recommended.  At very least it seems second marriage (presumably any second marriage) has consequences.  We are told a church leader must be “husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2) and, since all should desire to be the best example of faithfulness, I would conclude remarriage is at least strongly discouraged.

In conclusion…

I believe grace triumphs over judgement and that we should love others as we wish to be loved.  It is my opinion that one is to remain committed to their first spouse in every circumstance except in the case of unrepentant sexual sin.  I believe death (or divorce of an unfaithful spouse) does unbind the living spouse and give them freedom to marry again.  But, if there is any doubt, it is better to remain unmarried.

For those who have already divorced and remarried there must be repentance of the broken marriage.  I do not feel I have the authority to overrule those who believe it is permissible to remain in a subsequent or second marriage.  But, we also should not continue in sin that grace may abound and should obey our conscience when in doubt.  That said, I am also not of the position that there is any sin (past, present or future) beyond the grace of God.

Anyhow, is a second marriage permissible for a Christian? 

Maybe.

But it is nearly always undesirable, unpleasant and not ideal.  Those who have lost a spouse or have been abandoned by an unfaithful spouse know that pain all too well.  Children of divorced parents often suffer terrible insecurity through life as a result.  It is not ideal. 

So, to married people, stay faithful if at all possible and don’t risk your own future or that of those whom are your responsibility by taking the commitment lightly.

From Death To Life: The Testimony Of A Biblically Religious Fraud Found By Jesus

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Sometimes the most religiously educated minds are the most spirituality ignorant.

Jesus confounded the religious teachers and authorities of His day.  Like the time Jesus asked a perplexed Nicodemus (John 3:3-21) why he “Israel’s teacher” could not understand the basics of spiritual birth.

Nicodemus was a religious expert.  He had no doubt studied Scripture his entire life.  Yet his mind was dull to spiritual things, his existing knowledge clouded him, and he clearly was not understanding what Jesus was trying to explain.

What was Jesus trying to explain to Nicodemus?

Nicodemus is not the only religious authority totally ignorant of spiritual matters.  Many professing Christians have the same dullness of mind of Nicodemus because they have yet to be born of the Spirit and to realize the fullness of truth.

The religiously minded tend to think they gave birth to themselves.  They believe they were saved by their own study and understanding of a book.  No, they will never say this in so many words, but it is evident in what they claim as the foundation of their faith and attitudes towards those who try to give credit to God alone.

The thoroughly indoctrinated church borns, those who are the cream of the crop in their own minds, are the most difficult to convince. 

How do I know? 

I was one of them.  I was raised in a bastion of Biblical fundamentalism and religious pride.  I was born in a conservative Mennonite home.  (We are the best of the best and know it—Don’t let our initial humble appearance fool you!)  I went into public high school arrogant enough to think I knew more about biology than the college educated teacher of the class.

This is not unusual, Biblical fundamentalist children are often ‘big fish in a little pond’ and the smartest person they know.  To make matters worse, they are often isolated from outside influences (home schooled or raised with like-minded people) and too sheltered to realize how sheltered they are.

The result is that many things are just presumed to be true and never questioned.  Yes, we are fed a steady diet of information to make us feel knowledgeable about everything from science to theology and philosophy.  But most of it is a strawman of the other side and an attempt to vaccinate us from further questions.

But I had the misfortune of being born with a question “why” on my lips.  I delved deep into apologetics, slipped on a personal tragedy, and found I could not (despite my dedicated effort and mental strain) prove the existence of God.  I thrashed, gasped for that last saving breath, then disappeared into doubt and despair.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”  (Friedrich Nietzsche)

A mother’s wail ripped a hole in my heart.  All of my pretense of knowledge couldn’t save her children or keep me from my plunge into spiritual darkness.  I stared at the lifeless body that had come to represent my hope for my close friend.  There was no resurrection of the dead that day.  My little hope died.

I had reached an end.  All of the religious cliché and trite assurances were swallowed up in a tsunami of fear and hopelessness.  Over the same period of time I had a falling out with the religious community that was a big part of my identity and security.  I gave up.  My attempts to find faith through my diligent religious effort had totally failed me.

Passing from death to life by the Spirit’s power.

Many who profess faith in Jesus believe they were saved through their religious knowledge and reading the Bible.  But Scripture does not support their delusional claims.  There is no evidence that we can be born of Spirit or come to faith through our own religious knowledge and effort.

Just as a child doesn’t give birth to themselves, the spiritually dead cannot bring themselves to life and this is what Scripture describes was our reality before God saved us:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins… But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. […] For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 1-10)

There’s no such thing as half dead. 

There’s no way for a fully dead person to bring themselves to life.

Those who claim to be saved through their Bible study have somehow missed the obvious.  They may have read, but they clearly do not understand that dead is dead and the dead to not rise by their own accord.  No, if you are spiritually alive today “it is by grace you have been saved” and “not by works” or Paul is a liar.

What I had failed to comprehend in my diligent study and dedicated pursuit of faith is the simplest spiritual truth of them all.  Because of my religious education I had no grasp of my own hopelessness.  I had always assumed faith was a product or result of my own knowledge of Scripture and religious devotion.

I was blinded by my pretense of knowledge.  I had reasoned that I could be saved because of what I had learned about Jesus in church and in reading the Bible.  I thought this was faith in God, but it was really only ever a trust of my own human rationality and circular reasoning at best.  I really only had faith in my own ability to understand and believe the content of a book.

But my attempt to bootstrap my way into heaven this way failed me.  It was a false hope built on presumption and self-righteous delusion.  By assuming that my Bible reading was my salvation I had actually rejected Jesus and real spiritual life.  Despite my sincerity and ability to argue Bible-based dogma, I was nothing but a 2D cardboard cutout of a 3D faith.

It was only after my faith in my own abilities had died that there was a realization out of the blue.  The epiphany was the sudden understanding that it wasn’t my faith that saved me. No, it was God’s faith expressed through Jesus that saved me while I was yet a sinner. I was miraculously raised from the dead with Him.

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.” (Colossians 2:9-13)

My Biblical ‘Christian’ indoctrination did not save me.  No, it had blinded me.   I was too full of religious pride, intellectual assumptions and the pretense of spiritual knowledge to know the truth.  However, despite this pretense of faith that had taken root, I had believed in Jesus as a child and was baptized in sincerity of faith.

And now that spiritual seed of my Baptismal faith was ready to emerge from the water.  Suddenly the words of the Jesus and the Apostles came alive in a new way as I read them.  I was astonished, what had once confused and confounded me was now clear as day.  I could finally understand the book that had caused me (and others like this guy) to fall into agnosticism.

Are we saved by our book knowledge or saved by Jesus?

I can hear the howls of protest from both the book worshipping religious people and other unbelievers: “How could I know about Jesus and come to faith without reading the Bible?!?”

But these religious cynics and skeptics lack understanding of their own spiritual ignorance:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.” (John 6:44-45)

This is the mystery those who reject the Bible and those who think their own knowledge saves them refuse to understand.  They have both (tacitly or openly) rejected the resurrection of the dead and, in their self-reliance, dismiss the promise of Jesus and cling to what is reasonable to their spiritually dead mind.

But Jesus never promised we would be saved or taught by a book.  That idea is a misunderstanding of Biblical terminology and causality at best.  It is spiritual idolatry or rejection of the person of Jesus and blasphemy again the Spirit of God at worse.  This is what Jesus did promise:

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” (John 14:26)

Now, lest any of you protest and attempt to credit your own understanding of the Bible for saving you.  Go back and read the passages I’ve quoted previously, dead people do not come to understanding and life by their own reading comprehension.  We are told the real teacher is the Spirit and that it is only through the spiritual anointing promised by Jesus that we avoid deception:

“I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him.” (1 John 2:26-27)

At first glance it might seem paradoxical to write to warn someone about deception if they don’t need to be told.  However, faith is not individualistic effort or personal project and God uses many means to encourage us through the collective body of believers.  Only those with the Spirit know that the words of a writer originate from the Spirit.

But, wait, isn’t that circular reasoning, how do you know? 

I’ve mentioned that predisposing the Bible to be true because it says so is circular reasoning or an argument based in two unproven premises that rely on each other to be true.  So, isn’t saying that I know the Spirit because I have the Spirit the same thing?

Of course, the only way it is the same thing is if we believe a book is equal in ability and power to the Spirit of God.  Many Christians do this when they describe the Bible as “word of God” and claim it saved them.  But the Scripture is indeed different from the word of God and we can know this as fact.

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:9-11)

That word translated as “word” in the passage above is the Hebrew דָּבָר (dabar) and in the New Testament Greek comes out as λόγος (logos) or ῥῆμα (rhema) and does not refer to Scripture.  If it did refer to Scripture, and Isaiah is true, then it would be impossible for those who knew the Scripture to reject the word of God:

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. […] And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:25-40)

These people Jesus says studied the Scripture diligently.  Yet, despite their religious dedication to a book, according to Jesus, they did not have God’s “word” in them and therefore would not come to Him for life.  If Scripture is the word of God and they knew the Scripture, then how could they not know the truth standing literally in front of them?

The answer is that they knew Scripture and not the word.  The two are not one and the same. One is divinely inspired writing useful to a true believer (2 Timothy 3:16) and the other is divinity embodied and a promise that cannot fail.  One is infallible while the other can be twisted and misused as Peter warns:

“Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Peter 3:15-16)

Scripture can be distorted the “ignorant and unstable” but God’s word is always true.  Satan can quote Scripture, but we also know he always lies, has “no truth in him” (John 8:44) and this is a problem if you presume that “word” is synonymous with Scripture.

Fortunately we need not make such a presumption.  Scripture and the word of God are related to each other.  God’s word is what inspired Scripture.  I will even venture to say that Scripture can become as God’s word to the believer.  However, we must get first things first or we are deceived and Jesus always comes first.

Salvation is through faith and Jesus, not in our religious devotion to a book.

I am saved because Jesus saved me.  If I were to make any other boast I would only out of ignorance of both Scripture and the word of God which inspired it.  My faith and eventual salvation is entirely a gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8) and rest in the mystery of God’s power. 

It was knowledge apart from God that drove Adam away from the tree of life—I believe (after the fact) that it is God’s word or Spirit who “quickened” me to salvation. 

There is no faith without obedience and there is no obedience outside of hearing God’s word.  This is the paradox of the promised Spirit.  We hear because we are made alive in the grace of Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:5) and must be faithful in the very little we know before we can expect to get very much.

I believe salvation is totally the work of God.  God makes the initial payment through grace and we continue to grow in faith through obedience to to what we know.  My faith is not a presupposition based in something I read in a book or a product of religious indoctrination.  My faith is personal relationship and something experienced in the heart of those who believe.

I believe the word comes to us through revelation of the Spirit.  It is not our mere knowledge of Scripture that saves us, but also always an act of God and work of the Spirit.  It was only after Jesus revealed himself to the disciples on the road to Emmaus that they were finally able to understand:

“[Jesus] said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:44-45)

If the very men who spent all that time with Jesus teaching them needed His help to understand the Scripture, how can we expect to do better?

But the most compelling case for direct revelation is how Paul’s explanation of how we (as believers) understand the Scripture when others with the same written texts did not:

“We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: ‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’—the things God has prepared for those who love him—these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them?  In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’  But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:6-16)

Scripture is only useful for those of the Spirit and those who do not accept the Spirit “considers it foolishness” because they have yet to experience the indwelling of the word.  They are spiritual blind and often the most religiously arrogant hard-headed people.  If they profess Jesus Christ and seek to obey Him, I do believe they will be saved.  However, because of their refusal to fully acknowledge or accept the gift of God’s Spirit they may be as those who have built a foundation somewhat on the works of men rather than completely on Christ—who will see their work burn but still be saved (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) because God is gracious to the ignorant.

For those who think the Bible is the best way of sharing the Gospel I will again point to the explanation of Paul who writes (2 Corinthians 3) we ourselves are a letter from God and it is the Spirit that makes us competent.  The Gospel of Jesus Christ is always best learned through application.  Bible study has it’s place for certain, in fact that is probably one of the first places the Spirit will take us.  However, reading without loving as Christ loved to our best ability will limit our deeper understanding of the book. 

What am I… a Calvinist?

I make no such allegiance.  I have not studied John Calvin enough to know where I stand in relation to his teachings. 

I believe in free will and still acknowledge the clear pattern of causality and determinism in the universe.  I also do not ignore the language of predestination and election in Scripture.

I do believe in paradox. 

There are many cases where dualities of both/and (as opposed to either/or dichotomies) offer the better explanation. Dualities are found in both the uppermost, lowermost and outermost limits that define the universe as we currently know it. 

The singularity of a black hole, on the scale of the very big, is an object both infinity small and massive, a place where time itself ceases, defies normal reasoning.  Quantum mechanics, the world of the extremely small smallest parts of the universe, brings us to an irrational bizarreness where particles behave as waves until observed and time ceases to matter.

Advanced physics is now making the long held assumptions of materialists obsolete, we can now look beyond these constraints and to possibilities once unimaginable.

Our rationality is time based. 

God’s is not.

Time is an illusion.

This has huge implications.

This might explain the language of ‘is and is yet to come’ in Scripture.  Jesus explained “my kingdom is not of this world” and pointed to a higher spiritual dimensionality that is beyond the reach of normal human reasoning or natural science. 

Perhaps the question of free will and predestination is answered by a paradoxical both.  If we are adopted by God, sons and daughters according to His word, then we will eventually become one with the Father, our Father who exists in timeless reality, and therefore we participate in our own coming to salvation through the Spirit.

Who knows?  Only Jesus.

I don’t pretend to know the answers to those questions.  I don’t need to know the answers to those questions.  All I know I need to know is Jesus.  Even if I were not a Christian I am convinced Jesus, his way of self-sacrificial love and leadership by example, is the answer.

“And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

That is the testimony I have.  Only by the love of Jesus and the Spirit’s power am I saved.

Jesus is the answer that found me.

What Are ‘Christian’ Values?

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The culture war continues. 

The latest salvo in the fight is over the current segregation of public restrooms.  The proponents of change and traditionalists battle it out for control on social media and in the public arena. 

Both argue the moral inferiority of the other side.  Both claim to be defending the security of their loved ones.  Both threaten to take punitive measures against those who do not comply with their demands. 

It is a fight where nobody seems to win and everyone comes out a loser.  But what if this two sided debate is actually false dichotomy?  Could there be a third option solution where all could win? 

Perhaps, if all sides of this struggle for control could put down their rhetorical and political weapons for a moment, there is a better example to follow?

I believe there is a better ‘third’ way that is neither dogmatically religious nor demandingly progressive.  I believe there is an alternative where all can win and none lose. 

However, before I can get to the solution I need to discuss where the other options fall short and to do this I have defined a few categories. 

(Please understand in advance that there is overlap between my categories and many people may not fall neatly into one or another.)

1) Liberal ‘progressive’ or secular values are marketed as love, tolerance, inclusion and open-mindedness.  The promise is a more fair or high-minded society, but the result is often as petty and even more divisive than what it seeks to replace.  It is morally incoherent, in one breath claiming to be non-judgmental and making more allowance for free expression, but in the next moment enforcing strict dogmas of politically correct language and behavior. 

Those who do not comply with the moral edicts of progressives should be prepare to be shamed, belittled and bullied into silence.  Those who fall away, question or challenge the new orthodoxy will be labeled as a bigot, racist, homophobe, misogynist, hateful or insensitive.  The shouts of “don’t judge me” are often only a tool to drown out dissent and not a consistently applied principle.  These bleeding hearts are out for blood as much as those they accuse of lacking understanding or compassion.

2) Conservative ‘nationalistic’ or established values are the present cultural norms and current notions of common sense.  This is the flag waving proud patriotic perspective held by those who believe their own values (football, freedom and frequent beer consumption) represent the greatness of the American past, present and future.  These are the biggest defenders of the status quo, their status quo, and never minding that their current cherished culture was formed yesterday.

These are the people who complain about outsourced jobs while simultaneously shopping at Walmart and criticizing as lazy those who aren’t as successful as them.  This is the moral majority of the moment that sees their own privileges and preferences as fundamental rights without respect or consideration of those who see differently.  They have also abandoned the traditional values of their parents and grandparents yet still condemn those who go a step further than them.

In their eyes America was almost always right.  Historic injustice is white washed with a brush of romanticism.  Slavery, racial inequality, segregation of schools, massacres and other abuses against native people are forgotten.  The sins of our modern imperialistic aggression and global hegemony are downplayed.  “It’s ‘merica, baby, land of the free, home of the brave!”

3) Religious ‘fundamentalist’ or traditional values are those out of the mainstream who claim to represent God’s will and freely judge all people—especially those outside of their own sub-cultural group.  These self-proclaimed sanctimonious gatekeepers to the realm of moral truth annoy everyone who doesn’t share their own interpretations.  People call them the “Bible-thumpers” and they come with a “holier then thou” attitude that is a major turn off to those outside their own cult.

They pose as authorities on spiritual matters.  However, their knowledge doen’t seem to know much beyond their proof-texting and dogmas.  They use “the Bible says” and selectively quote the Old Testament when it suits their own agenda.  But gloss over and don’t deal honestly with other culturally inconvenient Biblical realities like captured brides, naked prophets and daughters sacrificed in God’s name.

They make fun of the sensitivity of the progressives and then cry “persecution” when they themselves are opposed.  They feel entitled to a special privileged position in society as God’s favorites.  They use grace as a cover for their own sins without extending the same to those who sin differently or disagree.

4) Faithful ‘Spirit And In Truth’ followers are those who pick up the cross and live to be a consistent example of self-sacrificial love.  These are those who seek to be the literal embodiment of Jesus Christ. This means they follow his commandments to love their neighbors as themselves, to do unto others as they would have them do for us and, while seeking to purify themselves of evil, leave judgment outside to God. 

It is a way that doesn’t seek power to impose on others and instead is committed to self-sacrificial love and leadership by example.  It is the beautiful alternative to the endless cycles of reaction, retaliation and repeat again.  It forgives and frees others of their sin debt to us.  It builds a new identity in Jesus and is a truth that is lived more than preached.

How are Christian values different from progressive values?

There are some similarities.  Jesus broke from the established religious and cultural standard.  He identified with the societal outcasts and was full of compassion for hurting people. 

But Jesus did not turn to more law or greater regulation of offending behavior as the solution.  He did not urge a political fight or demand his voice be heard by government authorities.  He did not lead massive protests against the privileged and powerful.  Instead Jesus showed the example to follow, he offered his own life as atonement for the sins of others and forgave offenses.

How are Christian values different from ‘traditional’ American values?

There are many who characterize America as a ‘Christian’ nation and really do a disservice to the truth in this.  America does have some ‘Christian’ values reflected in its history and did certainly provide a haven of religious freedom. 

However, this conveniently glosses over the fact that founding fathers were not faithful.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, cut out portions of the Bible he found disagreeable.  Ben Franklin lived immorally according to a Christian standard. 

The individualism, materialism and entitlement mentality of modern America is not in the least bit reflective of the teachings of Jesus.

How are Christian values different from religious and Biblical fundamentalist values?

Oftentimes it seems those who are closest to the truth who are the furthest away.  Or, at least, this was the case with those who inherited the Scripture in Jesus day and thought of themselves as experts in morality.  But human efforts, even the most diligent of human efforts, cannot bring anyone a step closer to the truth. 

The truth, as found in Jesus, is not an accumulation of knowledge and careful application that leads to moral superiority.  No, the way of Jesus is acknowledgement of our inability—it is humble, repentant and is fully dependent on the grace of God.

Putting down Peter’s sword

We could have everyone forced to use the ‘right’ restroom without accomplishing anything more than Peter’s sword:

“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Put your sword away!  Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?'” (John 18:10-11)

Peter thought he was defending the truth and mission of Jesus, but actually stood in the way of God’s plan.  Peter, who was rebuked on several occasions for his lack of understanding and overzealousness, treated the servant as sword practice.

By contrast, the John’s account treats the man Peter wounded as a unique individual with a name: Malchus.  And, in a parallel account (Luke 22:51) Jesus demonstrates a different way, he heals the ear of Malchus—a man sent to bring him to his death—and showed the true Christian value.

Peter was fighting a losing battle.  He had his own vision different from that of Jesus.  He thought he was defending truth when in reality he was a part of the problem.  He thought his act was one of total commitment to the cause when it was in fact the opposite.

Peter’s act is perfect a metaphor of what happens when those of us who claim faith in Jesus go out militantly defending our own religious values with political force—we cut off ears.

And picking up the cross to follow Jesus…

“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.  Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.  ‘Never, Lord!’ he said.  ‘This shall never happen to you!’  Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.'” (Matthew 16:21-23)

Here Peter was completely willing to fight for the kingdom of God, but for his enthusiasm is called small minded, a stumbling block and mouthpiece for Satan.

Can you imagine how Peter felt? 

Jesus continues…

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.  What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?'” (Matthew 16:24-26)

This was not what Peter or the other disciples had in mind.  They pictured themselves as co-rulers of a worldly kingdom and had been arguing things like who would sit on the right hand of Jesus on his earthly throne when they finally defeated Rome.

But Jesus paints a picture entirely different.  He’s predicting his death, a painful and humiliating death on a Roman cross, while urging them to follow the same path of self-sacrificial love.  He was trying to explain a reality bigger than their worldly political visions and values.

What are Christian values?

Jesus, after being baptized, after receiving the Spirit’s anointing and being tempted in the wilderness, announced the start of his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4:18-19)

That is where we start.  That is Christian values in a nutshell. 

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already…”  (John 3:17-18)

That’s the good news.   Jesus didn’t come to condemn anyone, but to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, forgive impossible debts, reconcile relationships with God and bring freedom to those condemned to death.  It was a message of restoration and hope, not condemnation.

Christian values begin and end in living out the example of Jesus Christ.  Jesus was not a progressive, not a defender of cultural status quo nor a religious fundamentalist, his values were higher and spiritual.  He was not seeking legal power or political advantage so he could impose on others, that wasn’t his fight.

“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.'”  (John 18:36)

Having Christian values means one shares the same priorities as Jesus.  It means talking up the cross of self-sacrificial love and showing the way of grace.  Jesus was not a cultural warrior seeking to impose values by force of law or a sword, instead he is an advocate for those lost in sin. 

Ultimately it doesn’t matter what restroom your neighbor uses, that is an argument where both sides lose and a distraction. What matters is how our own attitudes and actions reflect those of Jesus Christ. 

We must put our rhetorical swords down. We must love our (political) enemies and heal rather than cut off ears.

Biblical Faith vs. Bible-based Religion

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Two different religious traditions use the same Scripture.  One tradition says the text points to a man named Jesus who preached in Roman occupied Judea a little over two millennia ago and was God’s only begotten son came to save people from themselves.  The other tradition rejected these claims and still waits on Elijah to return as a prelude to the arrival of the Messiah.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

Note the choices in the passage above.  There’s option a) repentance and changed hearts, or option b) face total destruction.  And, depending on perspective, there might be an option c) both. 

We know that Judaism was split in two because of Jesus (some believing him, others rejecting him) and also that Jerusalem was destroyed in the year 70CE.  The glorious temple, the very center of Jewish worship, was completely dismantled as Jesus had foretold and has never been rebuilt.

Temple #1: Symbolic, representation of truth, built out of stone and sweat of men, located in Jerusalem:

“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher!  What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’  ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.'” (Mark 13:1-2)

Clearly Jesus is referring to the destruction of buildings that the disciples were admiring and that destruction literally happened.

But, there’s more…

Temple #2: Figurative, fleshed out truth, the life work and example of Jesus, located in history:

“The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’  They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’  But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.” (John 2:18-22)

Jesus also used the temple as a metaphor for himself, predicts his own death and promises to resurrect his body.

Then at the trial of Jesus…

“Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.  Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: ‘We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.'” (Mark 14:56-58)

Note, in the third passage, we are told that the witnesses at the trial of Jesus spoke falsely.  However, we see in the prior two Gospel accounts quoted above that the words they spoke were half-true—It is indeed true that Jesus spoke about the destruction of the temple and probably said something about a new temple not built with hands—The false part is where they claim he would do it by his own hand.

Jesus foretold his own death using a metaphor of himself or his body being the temple.  But he was also prophesying about the literal building of stone in Jerusalem.  His words a double entendre, one meaning of the word “temple” was figurative about his own death and resurrection and a second concrete meaning about the literal destruction of the temple built of stone.  However, there is a third use of temple and not the temple of the body of Jesus or the temple in Jerusalem built of stone.

Temple #3: Spiritual, a truth experienced, lived practically and today, located in the heart of believers:

“Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.” (1 Corinthians 3:16)

“Jesus replied, ‘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 14:23)

“Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)

That is a radical message.  It takes us from a man-made building of stone and religion.  It takes us to the man named Jesus “the stone the builders rejected” (Psalm 118:22, Matthew 21:42, Acts 4:11) and then finishes with us being the place where God dwells and being Jesus.  It is the message that got Stephen killed:

“After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob.  But it was Solomon who built a house for him.  However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.  As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?  Has not my hand made all these things?‘  You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (Acts 7:45-51)

I can imagine why that was insulting.  Stephen basically just invalidated the entire religion of his audience using their own Scripture. 

The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem marked the end of a religious system.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was the beginning of something very different: A chance to be a dwelling place for God, and an opportunity to be a true child (adopted, not begotten) of God.

Jesus, talking to a woman who asked about the proper place to worship, said:

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23-24)

Oddly enough, many professing Christians today are waiting on a literal temple of stone and a literal bodily second coming of Jesus.  They seem to me like those who wait on a literal Elijah, who did not recognize John the Baptist as the spiritual Elijah, and rejected the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  They have a Bible-based religion, they diligently study Scripture, yet they seem to be missing something as far as understanding and faith.

Bible-centered religion and regulation is false security.  Jesus never told anyone that Scripture would replace him as teacher.  Jesus did, however, promise that the Spirit would “teach you all things” (John 14:26) and will come to all who believe.  I believe many have been deceived and believe their ‘Biblical fundamentalism’ will save them.  What they actually have is fundamental misunderstanding, they are relying on their own human religious traditions.  They have a Biblical religion only and not the true faith described therein.

“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’  But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:14-16)

It is the Spirit that makes the Bible discernable.  Those who place their security in the Bible itself (or their fundamentalist book-based religion) are not fully submitted to the Spirit and cannot fully understand the things of faith that are described in Scripture.  They bind themselves up in “false humility,” create “regulations” that have “appearance of wisdom,” (Colossians 2) yet they are false and—like those who “study the Scripture diligently” (John 5:36-40) that Jesus rebuked—they do not have the word of God to discern truth from it.

“Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:15-18)

The truth that brings freedom is of the Spirit.  Religions give adherents false security, but true faith that originates from the indwelling Spirit gives freedom and ability to experience God first hand.  Bible-based religion leads men to talk about Jesus.  Spirit-led faith allows men to *be* Jesus and bring salvation to a lost and hurting world. 

Religion relies on rituals, one size fits all prescriptions and manipulation through fear.  Faith is dynamic, applies grace as liberally as necessary and motivates by being an example of a love that transcends.  Religion hides behind a veil of human inadequacy and attempts to legislate morality into existence without ever changing hearts.  Faith overcomes fear and produces fruit out of passion that comes from true unity with God.

The Bible is a book that can only be understood properly by those with the “mind of Christ” and Spirit.  Knowing when the language of Scripture is figurative, metaphorical, spiritual, concrete, literal (or some ‘all of the above’ combination) requires the indwelling of the word.  Discernment through any other means but a mind renewed in Christ (be it be an old tradition or a new commentary) is incomplete.

“…without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

No amount of religion finagling or diligent study can replace the indwelling word.  Jesus made it possible to remove the veil of religion and experience the full presence of God.  Seek after Spirit-led faith, not Bible-based religion.

Have you experienced the promise and freedom of faith?

Or, are you still waiting on Elijah to return?