How Orthodox Christianity Triumphs Against the Odds

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Christianity was systematically opposed and oppressed in the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox church, said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, was heavily persecuted under Marxist rule. Atheism was promoted in government schools, speaking against it outlawed, and it seemed that Orthodox Christianity did not stand a chance against this irreligious secular state.

During that dark period, thousands of church leaders were killed. Many more were imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals or the “gulags” to do forced labor. From 1917 to 1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested and 95,000 of them were executed by firing squad. Later, from 1937 to 1928, in another anti-religious purge campaign, 168,000 Orthodox clergymen were arrested and, of them, 100,000 shot. Religion was ridiculed in the public sphere, believers were harassed and deprived of parental rights, church properties were seized by the state and buildings, including the beautiful Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, were destroyed: Cathedral_of_Christ_the_Saviour_(destruction,_1931)

The Russian Orthodox church, that extended into the Americas (where they didn’t kill the Native populations like their Western counterparts) and had an estimated 54,000 parishes in Russia before WW1, was reduced to only 500 parishes in the 1940’s under the Communist dictatorship. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 left Russian Orthodox churches in Japan, United States, Manchuria, and elsewhere effectively orphaned and without support. Patriarch Tikhon, in 1920, issued a decree for these churches to operate independently until normalcy could be restored and, as a result, many of these churches (because of financial hardship and/or need of pastoral care and governance) were turned over to the Orthodox churches of their national homelands—which is why there is the current disorganized mix of Greek, Antiochian, ROCOR and OCA parishes in America.

However, Orthodoxy has since triumphed over Marxism in Russia. An average of three churches a day are being opened by the Orthodox faithful in Russia, there are currently 40,000 churches and, at the current pace, that number may double in the next decades. In addition, there are now 900 active monasteries (down from 1000 pre-revolution) and this is an expansion based on demand. This resilience against the odds, against the world’s only other superpower besides the United States, is a testament to the strength of Orthodox religious tradition. Orthodoxy in Russia could not be driven into extinction by one of the most powerful and brutal regimes in human history and is as strong today as ever.

The divided (and dying) church of America

America has traditionally divided up according to ethnicity or race. Churches (Protestant, Roman Catholic or otherwise) are not exceptional in this regard. Many churches, including Mennonites and Amish, came as a result of immigrants taking their religion with them rather than as a missionary endeavor. It is not a surprise that traditionally German churches, like the Lutherans, are mostly populated by white people nor is it unexpected that people go to churches that are reflective of their own cultures or where their own language is spoken. People tend to gravitate to other people who look like them.

But this “homogeneity principle” also extends beyond skin color as well. A church that is racially or ethnically diverse is probably homogeneous in other ways (things like level of education, political affiliations, etc) and thus not truly diverse. For example, American Mennonites, from the most progressive or liberal to the most ultra-conservative and traditional Old Order end of the denomination. are (with the exception of a few adoptions and inner-city outreaches) ethnically homogenous. But, as centuries of divisions have proven, that shared genetic ancestry and skin color certainly does not make us the same. And so it is with Protestantism in general. A multi-ethnic church probably has very little diversity in terms of educational level, ideological bent, or income and this is because we prefer to be with people who share something in common with us.

The end result is that everyone claims that they are loyal to Christ and his love. Yet, in reality, there are hidden loyalties that are actually taking precedence. We are divided by our loyalties to our race, our religious/cultural heritage, national/political identities, denominational affiliations, personal preferences, and feelings or any combination of the preceding items. In other words, our pet issues and petty differences are what truly matters to us despite what we profess. And this doesn’t get better for those who are non-denominational or believe they are independently guided by the Spirit and are truly only loyal to themselves. Saint Paul, the Apostle, said that the Spirit brings unity to the body (Ephesians 4:1-6) and spoke out against disunity brought about by their misplaced loyalties:

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

Note, Paul calls out even those who claim “I follow Christ” in his rebuke and that is not because Christ is not the head of the church either. No, it is because loyalty to Christ means loyalty to his church, to true believers past and present (and future) who together represent his body, and who we are to seek Communion with rather than chase after our own personal ideals. True Christianity is about forbearance, forgiveness, and humility, realizing our own fallibility and showing mercy to others as we have been shown mercy by God. It is little wonder that many are confused about Christianity in America and increasing numbers are checking-out of their denominational and ever-dividing churches. It is because many professing Christians say one thing and do another. They say they love as Christ loves, even call someone a “brother,” but are completely unwilling to sacrifice anything of true consequence to themselves in love for the body of Christ.

Is Orthodoxy any different from this?

Yes and no.

At the time I am writing this there is a break in Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarchate of Constantinople over a Ukrainian schism. In 1992, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, some Ukrainian Orthodox wanted their independence from Moscow (understandably so given regional politics) and, unfortunately, went ahead without having appropriate permission. Making matters worse than they already were, Archbishop Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, decided to recognize the schismatics and over the protests of Moscow. This, of course, is not acceptable, important church decisions have been always made by a council or through the correct channels, rather than independently, and this is reminiscent of the unilateral decision-making that divided the Roman Catholics from Orthodox in the Great Schism.

The explanation above probably comes off as Greek to those outside of Orthodoxy and took some time me to wrap my own head around. However, it is also a good way to illustrate a key difference between Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic perspectives of authority in the church. In Roman Catholicism, the Pope, as “Vicar of Christ” and supreme by his own decree, rules the roost. Protestants, by contrast, essentially believe that every man (and his Bible) is their own Pope and need not be accountable to anyone besides themselves. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, do not see even their highest-ranked individual as being infallible or outside need to be accountable and rather (like the early church) build upon consensus and through councils—which means even Peter, the first amongst equals, can be set right as need be.

(On an aside, Anabaptists, in that they believed in individual submission to the group, were traditionally sort of a half-step between Orthodoxy and Protestantism in this regard. The difference being that Anabaptists are only accountable to the local church (and what they cherry-pick from Scripture or early church writings) rather than the universal church and an ordination faithfully passed down, generation to generation, from the time of the Apostles. This unique Anabaptist perspective, while still preserved by the Amish and other Old Order groups, has been largely supplanted by Biblical fundamentalism in “conservative” Mennonite churches and secular/progressive group-think in the “liberal” side—both sides with zero real accountability to the historic church including even their own Anabaptist forebears.)

The Ukrainian schism, while a black mark on the testimony of the those who caused it if left unresolved, is actually proof the triumph of Orthodoxy over the spirit of division or unity formed around the wrong loyalties. The consensus across the Patriarchates seeming to be that the Ecumenical Patriarch went outside the bounds by recognizing the Ukrainian schismatics. The unity of the church is not mere unity for the sake of unity, but a unity of Spirit that doesn’t neglect sound doctrine or the traditions (“whether by word of mouth or by letter,” 2 Thessalonians 2:15) passed down by the church. In other words, the established Orthodoxy has more authority than any one person or group within the church. Orthodoxy is something that transcends all individuals in the church and protects against both abusive patriarchs and also the divisions over personal opinions. The Spirit of truth, the foundation of Orthodox tradition, is what preserved correct doctrines against heresy and false teachers.

Orthodoxy is what delivered the Biblical canon. The same Biblical canon that many Protestant fundamentalists and other separatists idolize as an infallible object equal to God while simultaneously not recognizing the authority of the church that wrote, authenticated, and compiled it for them. It is strange that a council was only good for that one thing, creating a collection of books that can’t be changed, and not anything else before or after, isn’t it?

But, I do digress…

Yes, Orthodoxy is messy because, as with the church of Acts, there is still a difference of opinion, politics, legalism, favoritism, and imperfection. We can’t get away from conflict, not even in the church founded by Christ himself and that is disheartening to us idealistic types. But that was also the case from the earliest days of Christianity and that is why there was a need of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts.  The church had councils to establish who was right or wrong and how to correctly interpret Scripture.

Orthodoxy (that is to say “right opinion”) is something worthwhile and should be the goal of every Christian. It is that sincere desire to find and hold to what is true that is leading many from the ranks of the most divided and disillusioned branches of Christendom and to the “ancient faith” of the Orthodox Christians.

The triumph of Orthodoxy…

Like King Josiah hearing the Scripture read for the first time, many are discovering the elegant theology and awe-inspiring, aesthetic appeal, and ancient beauty of Orthodox worship. Divine liturgy carries depth, history and meaning unrivaled in an age of flashing lights, cheap gimmicks, and consumerism. This is why people from all denominational backgrounds are finding a home in Orthodoxy today. The majority of those in my parish is not “cradle Orthodox” in that they were born in the Orthodox church and this seems to be the trend. In fact, nearly half of the million Orthodox Christians in the United States are converts and I am just one of the many who did.

It is very exciting to see the interest of those who have read this blog and want to know more. Several are either now attending services, have visited or are planning to visit when they have a chance. There is one, in particular, a single lady born into a conservative Mennonite church, never baptized and made a member, who left the church disillusioned by the pettiness, abusive leadership and message of condemnation, describes the Antiochian parish she is currently attending as “St Philips is beauty for the mind and spirit. A haven, a calm, a refuge,” adding that it is the “truest example of Jesus words put into my own, ‘Come just as you are.'” I have also had the pleasure of conversing with several who are converts from Anabaptist background, including a man who is my cousin through marriage, and have had the same hard-to-put-into-words experience I have had.

To be clear, the Orthodox church, like other churches, did come over with ethnic communities from Greece, Russia, Syria, Africa, Egypt and other parts of the world. Many Orthodox churches in America did often start as a part of an ethnic community and a decade ago may have been compromised mostly of people from one ethnic background. However, as that immigrant population declines it is being replaced by those who come from all sorts of Christian backgrounds. In my own parish, there is everything from non-denominational to Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic. Many of these converts were, like me, at the end of their ropes with religion as it had been presented to them, some agnostics, who were drawn to Orthodoxy through various means and have been forever changed by the experience. The most recent converts at my parish: Two women, one of them a Mennonite pastor, who were Chrismated and welcomed home a few weeks ago.

There is a great documentary on religious “nones” called “Becoming Truly Human,” that describes the journey of various people who have left the version of Christianity they were raised in and have simply stopped attending any religious services. There is clearly a need for an answer, people long for a connection to the historic church, worship that transcends current fads and trends, something real and authentic, and Orthodox Christianity provides this. Orthodoxy, made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), has withstood the persecution of the past century like it did in the first century and is a bastion for the faithful. Orthodoxy, the church that Jesus promised the “gates of hell would not prevail against” (Matthew 16:18), has and will continue to triumph against the odds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is that truly the case?

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

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

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

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

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

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

My contempt for commentators…

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

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

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

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

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

My own commentary on spiritual life…

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

As the Orthodox pray on a regular basis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My understanding was clouded by an individualistic filter…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But clearly, that is not the case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I prefer representatives…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is both yes and no.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good commentary must be rooted in sound doctrine…

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

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

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

Orthodox Christian Response to the Descendants of Anabaptism

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Fr. Anthony Roeber, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and a Professor of Church History, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, Yonkers, New York, and a friend of mine, had agreed to answer some questions asked by my Mennonite friends.

Before getting to those questions and his answers, I want to express my gratitude to him, to those brave enough to ask questions, and also for those of you lurking in the shadows. And, while I would much prefer that we could all meet over coffee together, I am still grateful for the opportunity to virtually introduce you and pray that this dialogue is beneficial.

So without further ado…

Question: How does Orthodox Christianity make worship more about God’s glory than Anabaptists do?

Fr. Anthony: I would not suggest that any version of Protestantism neglect’s the glory of God, but the real question that has to be asked is what is Orthodox worship all about. The central focus of the Liturgy involves hearing the Word of God “rightly divided in truth” as well as the reception of the Eucharist—which means Thanksgiving—for the gift of his continued presence in all the Mysteries of the Church, all of which are critical to our on-going journey toward union with God. Right worship always includes acknowledging our privilege as the royal and priestly people who as adopted sons and daughters of God are able to worship him in spirit and in truth. That means that right worship involves the whole person—all the senses, the intellect, the emotions, bodily postures. But that worship also, and always confesses our failures both individual and collective to respond to his grace and the gift of faith. This is why our lives, including the Liturgy, continue to involve living under the Cross—and the need for constant repentance—turning back to God—and the change of heart that is our daily struggle, both individually and collectively. The Liturgy the Orthodox believe is a participation in the eternal Liturgy that is constantly being offered before the throne of God where the bodiless powers of heaven, Mary, the mother of God, and all the saints who have been well-pleasing to him from the beginning already share in a more intimate way in that praise and thanksgiving that will achieve its final shape and fulfillment at the resurrection of the dead and the Second and Final Coming. Liturgy, for the Orthodox, is therefore always eschatological—we are looking forward to his return. And, the Orthodox can claim that this is the way we have always worshipped, even if specific customs and rituals are slightly different in different cultures and places.

Question: I’m bothered by what happened with we Anabaptists in the Reformation (rebellion) 500 years ago. As a group, is there hope for we who left to be reunited back to an ancient branch of the church? In a collective way, can what has been done be undone? Would it take individuals journeying back to a Catholic church, or could some sort of collective reconciliation be made?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox identify themselves as the Church that acknowledges the unbroken Tradition of the Church from the very beginning of apostolic times. The Church has been forced by error to articulate aspects of that same faith in the form of the Nicaean Creed for example, and by other general councils of the Church that had to address false versions of the Gospel—the presbyter Arius’ claim that the Son of God was a created God, that there was a time when He was not—and so on. No one in any culture and in any tradition is automatically excluded from the communion of the saints that is the Orthodox Church. But since the Anabaptists were a 16th-century innovation of how the Gospel is understood, and they broke with the Latin Church whose bishop in Rome had already left the communion of the Orthodox. So the Anabaptists were never in communion with the Orthodox, and hence it is probably not correct to talk of “reconciliation,” but rather of how and whether the Anabaptists individually or collectively can accept the unbroken Tradition of Orthodoxy which in some aspects, would understand why for example, the peace testimony of the Anabaptists attempts to do justice to the early Church’s desire to witness to Christ’s own teachings as the God who forgives, who is merciful, who does not wish the death of any sinner.

Question: Since the Reformation, Anabaptist churches have been plagued by schism. How/why is the Orthodox church free from this? What does she have that we don’t?

Fr. Anthony: It would not be honest to say that the Orthodox Church has always succeeded in keeping everyone within the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church. The Church of the East broke communion with the Orthodox by refusing to acknowledge Jesus’ mother as the “God-bearer” thereby casting doubt on whether Jesus of Nazareth was and is fully God. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 finally could not persuade the Coptics, Armenians, and some Syrians that the Church’s attempt to say that Christ is one person with two natures, one fully divine, one fully human, in perfect communion with each other, unconfused, unmixed—was correct or sufficient. And finally, the Roman Church broke communion with the Orthodox by altering the words of the Nicean Creed unilaterally—in violation of the consensus that had been arrived at in council and to which Rome had signed its support and assent. Nonetheless, the Orthodox continue as they always have, confessing, and worshipping as they always have, neither adding nor subtracting from what they have received from the witnesses of the Resurrection. It is this insistence upon an unbroken Tradition that is confessed and sustained wherever the bishop with his presbyters, deacons, and people are gathered around the Mysteries of the Church that has sustained Orthodoxy in the face of persecutions and martyrdoms that continue right into the present day.

Question: What does Orthodoxy desire from Protestants and Anabaptists? Does she have an ideal vision for us and our future? Is she OK with us being alienated from our spiritual past?

Fr. Anthony: The Orthodox pray that all people in all places and times and cultures find their true home in the Orthodox Church. No, the Church is not “okay” with the inadequate—however sincere—confession of the fullness of the faith that it sees in both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In short, the Church prays that those who have never been part of the Church or have strayed from it find their way home. It is the obligation of the Orthodox not to put obstacles in the way of those who wish to be members of the Church—but because the Church is made up of fallible and sinful men and women, this has not always been done as it should be.

Finally, one of my own questions: Mennonites and other Anabaptists take a firm stand against violence and cite the Sermon on the Mount as the basis for this. First, what is the Orthodox view of “non-resistance” as described in Matthew 5:39 and elsewhere in Scripture? Second, do the Orthodox have their own version of just war theory?

Fr. Anthony: There is no “just war theory” or theology in Orthodoxy. The Orthodox recognize not merely the scriptural teaching you mention but the witness of the saints, many of whom have suffered martyrdom rather than respond to violence with violence. At the same time, the Orthodox recognize that situations arise when the failure of an Orthodox Christian to defend the weak, the helpless, the innocent, would itself be hard to justify before the Judgement Seat of Christ. But the taking of human life—in any form—is sinful, and must be repented of with a firm intention not to repeat such a grave sin in the future. There may be circumstances when the individual or the community of faith feel compelled to defend themselves or others, but the Orthodox do not spend a lot of time trying to work out systems of “justification” for acts of violence, and increasingly have distanced themselves from actions of individuals, communities, or even states, that continue to commit such sins. But the Orthodox do not see a simple response to this problem nor are they prepared to reduce the entirety of the Gospel to a peace testimony only. Some Orthodox will therefore in good conscience serve “honorably” in the armed forces, or in the police, or other forms of law enforcement—and others will decline to do so. There does exist a Peace Fellowship among the Orthodox and perhaps it is with these Orthodox that Christians from the Reformation Peace Churches should take up contact.

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?

Should the Church Have Rituals and Traditions?

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Of those traditions kept by my conservative Mennonite church, a foot washing ritual was one of the more notable. It is a practice based in the example of Jesus who washed the feet of the disciples and then instructed them to follow his example:
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:12-17, NIV)

So, twice a year with Communion, after a sermon about some aspect of the sacrifice Jesus made, after partaking of some bread and grape juice together and then another short reminder of why we were doing the stuff we did, the men would be dismissed to the basement (leaving the women the upstairs to do their symbolic washing) and on the way down we men would pair up with the guy beside us or another guy that we selected for whatever reason.

We would remove our shoes and socks, then proceed to one of the plastic basins arranged in front of folding chairs, then take turns solemnly splashing water on each other’s feet and dabbing them dry again with a towel provided. Once finished with this ritual procedure most would shake hands (those less inhibited would kiss) and engage in awkward small talk or make a comment about keeping their washing partner in prayer over the next few months.

In our time, this act of foot washing is little more than a symbolic act of service. But when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples it was something of practical value to those traveling the dusty roads in sandals and a task typically reserved for the servants. In that context it was a very significant gesture and represented a whole new approach to leadership. In the Mennonite context this practice is sometimes nothing more than a ritual and tradition.

Is reinvention of orthodoxy the answer to dead faith?

People often equate ritual and tradition in the church to dead faith. As a result, those disgruntled with dead faith swing in the direction of innovation and spontaneity hoping to find something authentic and real. Unfortunately, while the first generation of those discarding established tradition often experience the excitement of something new, their children do not get a temporary emotional bump from the change. It should be no surprise when these children continue down the same path and throw out practices that their parents considered to be sacred and essential.

The idiom, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” (derived from a German proverb “das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütte”) is a warning against destroying something good in our zeal to be rid of what is bad. This saying was first recorded in 1512 and right before Martin Luther touched off a revolt against the established church. It is a phrase, frequently used by Luther himself, perhaps worried people would take what he started too far. It remains a very popular expression with Protestants (including Mennonites) who are trying desperately to retain their own children.

There is much in Scripture about the sins of fathers being transmitted to the next generation (Exodus 34:6-7, Leviticus 26:39, Deuteronomy 5:8-10) and seems to apply to our own circumstances today. Children, through genetics or behavioral patterning, often acquire the strengths of their parents. A parent’s good example can lead their children to good habits. And, in the same manner, children often also inherit the defects, blind-spots and weaknesses of their parents as well. Children build both on the success and also on the sins and/or shortcomings of the prior generation.

So, it should not be a big surprise that the children of Protestants continue down a path of independence, reinterpretation of Scripture and departure from what was established. Protestantism, with the inordinate focus on one’s own interpretation of Scripture, has led to further division, ever-increasing individualism, and significant loss of Christian character. Many Protestants, following the example of their forefathers, assume that the path to spiritual life is found in throwing off of traditions and rituals—but I believe they are terribly mistaken.

Orthodox tradition and ritual is not at fault for abuses of the institutions of the church…

What is the basis for tradition and ritual in the church?

Many seem to forget that Jesus was a Jew and faithfully kept the Jewish religious tradition. Jesus did speak against those who “let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8, NIV) or in other words those who prioritized religious rituals over love for others.

Yet Jesus did not dismiss ritual and tradition as completely unimportant either. Jesus and early Jewish converts to Christianity (while ranking the substance of faith higher than the religious symbolism) did not totally disregard the traditions that had been established.

To truly love Jesus means to follow his example and keep his commands. This, according to the words of Jesus, is requisite to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit:

If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:15‭-‬21, NIV )

Many church rituals (like Baptism, Communion and foot washing) are directly from the Gospels and given as instruction to the disciples by Jesus. And, it is in the Gospels that we read that Jesus gave authority to his disciples. He told Peter and the disciples this:

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

The early church clearly had a hierarchy with real authority and one that built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. It is the writings of these early church fathers that contain their witness to the life of Jesus and also provide their reader with further divinely-inspired instruction. This is what they said:

So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:15, NIV)

Scripture didn’t just drop out of the sky written on golden tablets. No, rather it is a collection of inspired writings compiled and later canonized by the authority of a church council. That, the Bible, is the written tradition of the church (or “letter”) and is a source widely accepted as authoritative. However, in Protestant churches, because they reject any authority besides their own, the “spoken word” of church tradition has not been firmly held—it is neglected and forgotten.

The complete disregard for the oral tradition of the church is no different from cutting a chunk out of Scripture. Sure, as a person can refrain from applying the instruction Paul gives in regards to veiling (and not veiling) in 1 Corinthians 11 and still be Christian, these things aren’t necessary to be saved. However, this represents the deterioration of church tradition and a serious problem. At some point we cannot claim to be following after the example of Jesus and continue to abandon the practices of the church he established.

There is a real loss when the established tradition is tossed in favor of a more ‘contemporary’ program. Moreover, those leaving their religious tradition often continue to benefit from the values it helped to instill in them. Sadly, the full cost is often only felt in subsequent generations who didn’t have the unappreciated benefits of the old tradition—the children raised without tradition have lost the helpful reminders given to their parents and also an important stabilizing tie to the historic church.

What makes tradition and ritual important?

The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” contains the following monologue:

“A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up here if it’s so dangerous? We stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That, I can tell you in a word—tradition!
Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything—how to eat, how to sleep, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition start? I’ll tell you—I don’t know! But it’s a tradition. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.
Tevye’s character is a Jewish father standing at this intersection of religious tradition and compromise in the name of progress. He points to one of the reasons why traditions are formed and that is balance. Traditions and rituals are established to help provide stability and order to our lives.

Rituals also help reduce anxiety and increase confidence even for those who do not believe they are beneficial:

Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. (“Why Rituals Work,” Scientific American)

At practice and before games my high school football team went through the same “warm up” routine. Some of the reason for this was to physically prepare us to prevent injury through stretching and get us warmed up. But the other part, perhaps even the larger and more significant part, is what this ritual did psychologically to calm our nerves and get us mentally prepared. This practice and pre-game ritual made us better individually and also helped our cohesiveness as a team.

Beyond that, it is what Jesus taught and showed by example. Jesus did not entirely do away with his Jewish rituals and traditions. In fact, he added to them, going as far as to give the disciples a template for a simple prayer (given in contrast to the arrogant public prayers of religious elites and “babbling like pagans”) and this “Lord’s prayer” is still practiced—even in Protestant churches. If one understands the value of Baptism and Communion then there should be no argument. Rituals are important to help to pattern, influence and shape our minds.
Traditions provide us with a structure that helps us to navigate our lives. When Paul urges believers to conduct their worship “in a fitting and orderly way” (1 Corinthians 14:40) it is not intended to stifle their freedom or individuality. It is rather to free them from chaos and confusion. We are creatures of habit, we do not do well in a constantly shifting environment, and therefore ritual is even more important in these tumultuous times.
As Tevye said, traditions are reminders of who we are and what God expects from us.

So what to do with dead orthodoxy?

It is fairly obvious that people can continue in religion long after they’ve become spiritually dead. Ritual and tradition, while a benefit to the faithful, cannot preserve faith. Christianity is not as simple as checking the right boxes. As Jesus told the perplexed Nicodemus “you must be born again” and about how the Spirit works like “wind” that “blows wherever pleases” (John 3:1-21) there is a profound mystery in this that goes beyond a religious program and all human rationality.

Protestants, of all people, should know this. Every generation there is a new method that comes along, another “remnant” group shilling their own version of the Gospel, the next author trying to pump the purpose back into Christianity or yet another list of fundamentals, ordinances or doctrines, and all these movements eventually seem to end up in the same place again. Often these re-inventors end up leaving their children even more ignorant of church history and with even less to grasp onto. Some might declare themselves to be the more pure, but they are also void of any tradition with staying power and the proof is in the legacy they leave.
Dead orthodoxy is a result of dead faith. And, in the same manner that new window dressing won’t help to stabilize a wooden structure weakened by termites, reinventing traditions and rituals will never bring spiritual life back where the church has fallen off its foundation. The foundation of faith is Jesus, his faithful church is constructed upon that foundation—with the traditions it has passed on both in written and spoken form for our benefit—and there is no spiritual life gained in throwing this legacy out.
In fact, it is arrogant to think that we would be better to start from scratch and create our own new orthodoxy rather than draw from the experience and wisdom accumulated over many generations. It is basically to say that we today are better than all those faithful Christians of the past two millennia who kept these traditions and saw fit to pass them on to us.
Does the ritual of Baptism ever take away repentance?
Can our Communion practice come at the expense of our love for Christ’s body?
Should we stop celebrating Christmas and Easter because they aren’t found in the Bible and have been corrupted by American culture?
Our ridding ourselves of these established and orthodox Christian practices will not draw us any closer to God.
Yes, the foot washing tradition practiced at my Mennonite church is worthless if the act does not truly represent our heart. The veiling is often associated with the failures of Mennonite men to lead in the example of Christ and thus the practice of the veil is often discarded by ex-Mennonite women. But both represent cases of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It is not the ritual of foot washing or the imperfect application of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 that is at fault. Tradition and ritual should never be blamed for our lack of those things that should come from the heart.
True, faith is not established upon religious rituals or traditions and they certainly can be corrupted. The apostle Paul had to sternly warn early Christians against the abuse of the Lord’s Supper and had to further define the practice in an effort to prevent them from abusing it. But what he didn’t do is throw his hands up and say: “Okay, no more Communion, let’s go back to the basics and just show our love for each other through charitable acts!” No, he urged them to rediscover, not reinvent, and that is what the faithful do.
The solution to dead orthodoxy is not reinvention. The solution to dead orthodoxy is to address the real problem and renew the heart of faith that makes the tradition meaningful and allows the ritual come alive.
What tradition should we keep?
Every denomination has rituals and traditions. The format of a Mennonite service, for example, intended to be a bit less formal, can be very dry and predictable. The song leader leads some songs, men argue our pet issues in Sunday school class while women sit in stoney silence in theirs, the deacon (after pleading for us to think about the meaning of the hymns we just sang) goes through the laundry list of activities and repeat prayer requests, after another song the preacher does his thing as some doze in the pews, and finally the congregation is dismissed to talk about farming, hunting, sports or politics.
At some point all new “movements” end up creating a new ritual and tradition. John and Charles Wesley introduced a radical new “methodical” approach to study and life. This eventually became the “Methodist” denomination. Mennonites take their denominational name from Menno Simons, a Catholic priest that became caught up in the Anabaptist movement, and now are mostly an ethnic church known for a “peace witness” and shoo-fly pies.
Not all religious rituals and traditions are equal in history or value. Sunday school, revival meetings, VBS, “sweetheart banquets,” mother’s day celebrations, Bible schools and church retreats are part of the Mennonite church calendar, but they are certainly not the equivalent of Ascension day, Lent season, Paschal feast or many of the other long established orthodox practices that some have abandoned in the past few centuries. I would rather we started to look at what was established early and has worked for many generations than try to create a dumbed-down, less historically grounded version.
The tradition of many Protestant churches has become so watered down there is little left to reinvent besides the Bible. As a result, those seeking an emotional high through change are running out of options and when their current experience isn’t satisfying anymore, some decide to toss the Bible next. That is the progressive approach. That is the approach that confuses their own temporal feelings of pleasure with spiritual gain.
In conclusion…
Faith is not created by ritual and tradition nor can it be increased by discarding them. Spiritual life comes through obedience and is also a mysterious work of God. We aren’t saved through our religious devotion. A person can go through the motions of Baptism, Communion, foot washing or any other orthodox Christian practice without ever having a change of heart.
That said, the truly faithful do benefit from the reminders, the structure and patterns for behavior that orthodox rituals and traditions provide. In my own experience it has helped me to worship in a manner that has been established over many generations. To join together with that “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) and to worship as Christians did for thousands of years has been a tremendous experience that cannot be duplicated with a new light show and smoke machine.
A person who burns down their house because they don’t like some of the decorations on the walls might be momentarily free. But the enjoyment and empowerment of this new found simplicity and freedom will soon be a desperate struggle to protect themselves from the elements. And the same goes for those who think they gain through taking an eraser to the rituals, traditions and established orthodoxy of the church. The benefits are fleeting and the cost of trying to restore what was lost is great.
Yes, some necessary structure can be built back in a generation or two after the full loss of the change is felt, but not without slavish effort to restore it and where is the freedom in that?
A life unfettered by any established ritual and historical tradition might seem ideal for the freedom and simplicity that it promises. However, not all is as advertised, the freedom is an illusion and the reality created is often quite complicated. Taking a wrecking ball to established order often leads to only chaos and more confusion. Worse, it robs the next generation of their religious inheritance and leaves children worse off than their perpetually dissatisfied parents.
Our faith should be founded on Jesus, our religion grounded on the truth of his word, our life lived in obedience to the Spirit, and that means keeping the traditions passed down by his church. Spiritual life is restored through genuine repentance and not by abandoning ritual. Renewed faith comes with our humble obedience and not by reinventing traditions.

Jesus did not discard all ritual and tradition nor should we. There is a place for both in the church. It is a connection that we need now more than ever in the shifting sands of our time. Perhaps it is time for some reflection, rediscovery and restoration?

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)