Is There Room for Both Primitive and Historical Churches?

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

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

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

The Appeal and the Problems with Primitivism…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the Historical Christian Response to Primitivism?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave Those Who Are Both Primitive and Proud…

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

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

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

We should rebuke the rebellious and those who deceive:

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

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

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

Being Reconnected with the Historical Church…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 sharing 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)

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

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Jesus may have said his yoke is easy.  But it is not easy for someone born and raised outside the Mennonite culture to become Mennonite—especially not a woman who does not fit with our traditional ideals.

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

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

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

Nothing is further from the truth.

Jesus rebukes religious gatekeepers and damned missionaries.

The text…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some say it is the thought that counts.

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

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

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

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

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

What Mennonites Could Learn From Brandon Smith

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His name was unknown.

He is a walk on linebacker on a college football team who started this season as a backup to a backup.  But, undaunted, he practiced and committed to being ready for that moment.

That moment came last Saturday when this unknown finally had his number called.  Brandon Smith, a number 47 on his iconic ‘no name’ blue and white jersey, finally got his chance. 

After yet another injury in a season plagued with injuries he was called upon and took the field.  He used the opportunity to lead a bruised and battered defensive unit and preserve a win for the team.

Smith, despite only having a few snaps at a college level until last week, was no bench warmer.  

Smith, a humble soft-spoken leader, was on the most successful high school football team in Lewisburg Green Dragons history, a team that advanced all the way to the state quarterfinals in 2010, and the backbone of an outstanding defense.

But more significantly than all of that, Smith was active in the local church and is by all accounts a young man fully committed to using his talents for the honor and glory of God.  He even turned down two scholarships to prestigious universities to walk on and suit up for Penn State because that is where he believed God wanted him.  

The reason why Mennonites do not show up to play ball.

The Mennonite tradition I was born into has a long list of activities that are not encouraged.  And, of those activities restricted or outright banned, one being participation in organized competitive sports and football was considered especially intolerable.

The reason for this is an idea called ‘non-conformity’ that is common to Mennonites and other Anabaptist groups.  It is based on a statement “be not conformed to this world” found in the book of Romans and in other Scriptural teaching about separation from the world.

This idea of non-conformity usually amounts (ironically enough) to conformity to a religious standard that is enforced primarily by church leaders.  The standards are different from group to group, but generally apply to technology usage, clothing style and entertainment.  Through their idea of non-conformity various Anabaptist groups have maintained their cultural distinctiveness in an ever changing world.

Unfortunately too often it seems the focus is on preserving a religious heritage and an ‘Anabaptist identity’ rather than a radical pursuit of God.  Wearing black socks or using a horse named Fred as transportation rather than a Ford does not change a person’s heart.

The problem is when non-conformity is nothing more than a human effort to please cultural expectations.

Conformity without transformation misses the point entirely and will keep us spiritually sidelined.

The bigger problem with Mennonite non-conformity and separation teaching is that it puts the emphasis in the wrong place.

Read the context:

“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

The ‘be not conformed’ above is not a standalone statement.  Paul doesn’t leave us to guess his meaning and quickly follows with “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” and is basically describing the need for something transformative to happen within us.

The word “transformed” is translated from a word “metamorphóō” (μεταμορφόω) that looks like metamorphosis and basically means the same thing.  It is a word used four times in the New Testament, twice it is translated “transfiguration” in reference to Jesus and twice (including Romans 12:2 above) to describe the change that takes place in a believer.

Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) is a very significant event, the “greatest miracle” according to Thomas Aquinas, thought of as a bridge come between heaven and earth or perhaps what modern science would describe as a portal between dimensions.  It is where Jesus is seen by his disciples talking to Moses and Elijah and a voice proclaims Jesus as son.

The other time this significant word is used is in this passage:

“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)

It is quite clear in contextual usage that this word “transformed” is something spiritual, something God does, and not a matter of human effort.  In the passage from 2 Corinthians above it is about having a “veil” removed by the Spirit that allows us to be able to understand Scripture that leads to transformation.  In Romans 12:2 it is about a transformation that leads to renewal of mind.

What is renewal?

The word “renewal” as in “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” is translated from a word “anakainósis” (ἀνακαίνωσις) and describes a process.  In Romans 12:2 it is about the mind being changed through this transformative thing.  It is also a word used one other time in Scripture:

“At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:3-7)

Again we see a process in which God intervened on our behalf while we were still lost, hopelessly blind to spiritual reality, and did something to change us.  It is not something we do for ourselves or a list of do’s and don’t’s passed down from generation to generation, it is something spiritual done in us by God’s grace.

Why Mennonites should stop playing for fun only and need to get serious about using their all for God’s glory.

Should I be brutally honest?

Our idea of non-conformity is more often a path to complacency rather than spiritual renewal.

We are doing it wrong…

We have become as the Pharisees who were obsessed with details, considered themselves to be the experts on all things Biblical, yet despite their diligent study of the book they rejected Jesus as savior (John 5:39-40) and totally missed the point.  They were “blind guides” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24) and we are there with them.

Instead of seeking after true transformation, and using everything in our life to bring glory and honor to God, we attempt to carefully divide up our activities into categories of “worldly” and spiritual.  Instead of integrate all areas of our life into our witness, we compartmentalize and become ineffective.

When we do participate sports, rather than see it as a way to a witness, we play for fun only.  In similar fashion, when we work we do it for money only, when use social media we use it exclusively for recreation only.  We think missions is only something that happens when we join our earnest religious peers on an airplane ride to Africa and otherwise arrange our lives in such a way that we miss opportunities staring us right in the face.

Instead of seeing athletic pursuits as a means a greater end, a chance to display Christian character to others, we see only the frivolity of sports.  Instead of seeing business as a mission to our customers and employees, we take a worldly approach by make profits a higher priority than people—then excuse it because it will give us more spices to tithe on Sunday or an opportunity to “travel over land and sea” as Jesus said (Mathew 23:15) the Pharisees did while calling them hypocrites and blind.

It is a problem called functional fixedness. In problem solving functional fixedness is when a person can only see things one way and therefore miss better solutions.

Could it be possible that this is because we got our poles reversed and have put our effort to achieve righteousness before real faith in God?

Could it be because we are non-conformed in outward appearance through artificial religious means, but have the same ‘worldly’ attitudes in our hearts and are not truly transformed through a renewal of our mind?

If so, we should stand up against our own hypocrisy like Jesus…

Jesus defied the religious expectations that he was supposed to conform to and so should we.

Jesus infuriated the adherents to the Bible-based religious tradition of his time.  He broke their rules of do’s and don’t’s as a way to point out their hypocrisy and true lack of faith.  Jesus, while they were busy arguing the theological minutia and details of application, was out healing and showing love.

Mennonites, like many other Christian denominations, are often so distracted by their own doctrines and dogmas that they fail at being actually faithful.  We are so concerned with preserving our own fundamentals that we neglect the larger matters of following after God’s way and the largest being genuine love for the world.

The truth is that we are never told by Jesus to physically separate ourselves from the world.

We should be in the world and not of the world, set apart in our attitude and approach to life rather than in outward appearance only. To truly follow after Jesus we need to be in the world, in places where the real people are and in the places that religiously self-righteous people avoid.

We need to consider the example of Paul:

“To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23)

It is interesting to note that Paul, directly after telling us that for sake of the Gospel he has “become all things to all people” in the quote above, uses an analogy of an athlete preparing for competition.  It reminds me of the dedicated preparation of a faithful young man named Brandon Smith.

Smith was not only ready to take the field in terms of physical preparation either.  This week, after his debut on Saturday, his wife, Andrea, posted a status update on social media from her personal prayer journal.  It was an entry from exactly a year before and asking that her husband would have the opportunity to take the field:

That, my friends, is where it gets real.

We do not battle against flesh and blood, our battle is spiritual.  We do not win victory by artificial conformity and meaningless arbitrary rules either, we are fighting an unconventional war using asymmetrical tactics, we need the mind of Christ:

“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 2:15-16)

Do you have the mind of Christ?  Have you been transformed by supernatural means of the Spirit?  Or are you just outwardly and artificially non-conformed through human efforts?  Whatever the case, do not bury the talents God has given you for fear of what others may think.

Smith is expected to get his first college start on Saturday afternoon against Michigan.  And, win or lose, I know #47 is playing for the right reasons.  I pray God blesses him and his wife as they serve.  I hope we all are prepared to serve wherever and whenever our own number is called.

Marriage as Martyrdom: The Truly Christian View of Love and Romance

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​Do you want to know a secret? 

You are never ready for marriage nor are you ever worthy of anyone’s faithful abiding love and nobody is.  We are all fatally flawed, even those of us who are more capable of hiding it beneath a facade, and eventually our own immanent human weakness will be made known.

Some, for fear of being exposed as the frauds, never open themselves up fully to the love of others.  They prefer the safety of the illusion that they are able to create (in the solitary confines of their own minds) to the risk of honesty about their own hopelessness.  This is a worldly approach to love, it is all about proven performance, all about carefully maintained outward appearances and it lacks true faith.

Others make themselves vulnerable.  They confess their faults openly and let their flaws be known.  They would rather deal with the pain of rejection than deal dishonesty with themselves or others.  These people have hope of finding real love because they have humbled themselves, they have taken this risk to confessed their own sinful imperfection, and choose to live in faith of forgiveness rather than in fear.

Christian love transcends existing reality and, in true communion with God, seeks to find a more glorious future—reaches out in faith rather than dwell alone in fear of our imperfection.  Jesus sacrificed all while we were still dead in our sins, Jesus healed even those who did not take time to thank him, and faithful followers must do the same.  Christian love is a preemptive love, it is a truly selfless love only possible through means of God’s grace and a genuine spiritual transformation.  Christian love is always a gift given to those completely undeserving.

In contrast, the secular world has a version of love that is special favor distributed based on past performance, it is only given out in expectation of a return bigger than the investment made and abandoned quickly when the initial pleasurable feelings of an expected return fade.  It it is a selfish false love despite the selfless romantic language it is often disguised in.  It is a love of “what’s in it for me?” and is the only kind of love those without the Spirit of God can show.

The religious hypocrite may too use the language of faith and grace to describe their love.  However, with a bit of testing of spirits, sometimes their lack of truth in love can be revealed and their acting the part (as hypocrites) will be known.  This self-seeking love and self-serving spirit is found all over the church—even tacitly sanctioned in the romance and courtship arena.  But in marriage the truth of our love is known.

Is our conservative Mennonite idea of romance purely Christian or somewhat worldly?

I must vote the latter. 

As much as I hear talk about being the “right person” and emphasis on past and anticipated performance it is quite evident that we have an idea of love being something that is deserved.  It is the very antithesis of the Gospel of Jesus Christ we profess.  If love were indeed something earned then we would all be stuck in an impossible situation in relation to God and hopeless.

It is paradoxical, but many of the things the world uses as a basis to reject people and withhold love are the very things only love can cure.  For example, many prefer to criminalize addiction and take putative measures against addicts.  Unfortunately this approach is often extremely counterproductive, we drive those suffering further towards the margins of society, and a growing body of research shows that connection (a practical expression of love) is the solution.

We in the church, as religious people, do make an effort to reach out to those on the margins of society.  I have great respect for those faithfully involved in prison ministry, who visit the elderly interned in nursing facilities or for those who conduct clubs for disadvantaged children.  However, these are also things that can be done mostly out of obligation or religious duty, an attempt to earn the favor of God, and not out of genuine Christian love for others.

We can maintain a facade of Christian love in church and church activities.  But there is a point when the truth of the kind of love we possess will be brought to light.  And, while I’m not talking about only romantic love, our romantic and marital love is where this mask can no longer be maintained.  Sure, we can fake self-sacrificial love around our religious peers when preening for their approval, but we will not give away our whole life for our lie and therefore must keep some places off limits.

It is ironic that many conservative Mennonites (the same who affirm a belief in a doctrine that would preclude them even defending loved ones) also preach an extremely self-serving me-first worldly idea of romance.  I’ve had a father literally whip out a calculator while trying to explain why I was ineligible to court his daughter.  It is appalling faithless hypocrisy and yet never really seriously questioned.

My way or the highway: If I can’t marry who I want to marry, why marry at all?

Marriage, as something self-interested, means we will only marry when the calculations favor our own interests.  This, again, is a worldly idea of love and the antithesis of actual Christian love.

Unfortunately many in the church, going against their profession of faith, will only marry when they believe that it will produce a future advantage for them and choose based in things like family pedigree or past performance.  They rely on their own understanding and not faith in God.

Such might have been the case when a young woman named Emily Cavanaugh turned down a suitor back in the spring of 1938.  She rejected a young man’s love because he didn’t seem to be getting anywhere in life and she believed he would never amount to much.  She wanted a leader in the church and, by her analysis, he lacked that potential. 

That young man rejected by Emily later preached to millions.  He even acted as a personal advisor in matters of faith to Presidents of the most powerful nation in the world.  I had the honor of hearing him speak to the multitude at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens.  His name is familiar to many people today.

The man? 

Evangelist Billy Graham…

One should note carefully that all of the significant men in Scripture were losers and outcasts by worldly standards.  Noah was a drunk, Abraham was too old, Isaac had his head in the clouds, Jacob was a liar, Moses had murdered a man and couldn’t speak confidently and this pattern of God using the unlikely candidates continues into the New Testament.  Matthew was a collaborator with an enemy occupation, Thomas had doubts about Jesus, Peter was a basically racist (with a bark much bigger than his bite) and a Paul was actually abusive against the faithful.  They were misfits, but God saw what others did not.

Consider what God told Samuel when he was in search of a leader for his people:

“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

The man who fit the requirements was King David.  David, unlike Saul before him, was not a man of impressive stature and was a mere shepherd (a menial task) at the time Samuel found him.  What David had was a strong faith that was not recognized by his peers and yet was already known to God.  The courageous warrior and Biblical hero that we know today only emerged later in the story.  One can imagine the faith that it took for Samuel to anoint this unknown commodity as the future leader of a nation.

I believe those who reject a suitor (or a marriage eligible woman) based in their own expectations and arbitrary standards may want to reconsider their own profession of faith in a man run out of his own home town as a false prophet.  I would recommend some reflection on the words Jesus spoke to his Bible-believing (and deceived) detractors: 

“Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Matthew 21:42)

Jesus was also turned down by his rightful bride because he was deemed unsuitable.  That is a reality worth considering when it comes to how we pick and choose today.  Perhaps our reasonable standards today are wrongheaded and unGodly?  Perhaps we are no better than our unfaithful religious predecessors?

Do our American ideals for love and marriage fail in delivering orthodox Christian imagery?

Marriage, in western society at least, has somehow become a legal arrangement dependent on human vows and will.  But this “till death do we part” contract view of matrimony is not necessarily the most faithful understanding in Christian tradition.  In fact it is this view that makes the very definition of marriage dependent on human whims.  Marriage has become about us rather than about God.

But, what if we were to put God at the center of the marriage union instead of human effort and need?

The Orthodox Christian marriage tradition (in contrast to our Western and somewhat Catholic originated ideas) puts much more emphasis on the eternal perspective and mystery of God.  And, in fuller recognition that God is the one who creates the martial bond, they make no wedding vows.  To them God makes a marriage commitment sacred, not human promises.

Most significantly, the Orthodox view puts stronger emphasis on the symbolic and positive spiritual value of Christian marriage.  It does not treat marriage as if a mere compromise for human weakness.  As an Orthodox friend of mine explains it:

“…marriage is the means blessed by God from the very beginning for a man and a woman to be yoked together in order that they might achieve union with God.  In Orthodox Christian teaching, the original intention of God is reaffirmed by Jesus in his teachings and in his blessing of the Marriage Feast at Cana. Furthermore, the Orthodox put a great deal of emphasis upon the mystery of Christ and his Church—the Bridegroom imagery of Ephesians 5 and see marriage as one very important manifestation of God’s love for his children.”

(Fr. Anthony Roeber, priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and Professor of Early Modern History & Religious Studies, Penn State.)

Conservative Mennonites do like their symbolism.  We have persistently held onto symbolic Christian practices (like veils, kisses of charity and foot washing) long after the mainstream church abandoned or neglected them.  This cultural penchant for resisting change could give the impression of faithfulness.  Unfortunately, our reality of heart can sometimes be vastly different from what we display outwardly.

Is our concept of marriage a reflection of a radical commitment to Christian self-sacrificial love?  We might say that our romantic endeavors are God honoring and rooted in faith, but is this actually true?  Or, beneath the veil of religious symbolism, is our romance spiritually vacant and about our own personal preferences?

Love as God loves and for God wants to do through us, not for what we want to choose for ourselves.

I believe emphasis on choice and knowing (on our own terms) often comes at the expense of faith.  There is cognitive dissonance in the church when you compare our courtship ideals to what we expect in marriage.  In courtship we forget about God’s perspective and adopt a worldly approach.  Yet then we expect that self-centered attitude to disappear once some religious ritual is performed? 

Marriage is not about our choosing what is best for ourselves.  To be successful in marriage requires commitment to self-sacrificial love and giving up our own rights to another.  I believe that our American/Western culture is hung up choice and independence, it is to our own spiritual detriment too, but there are few who address this weakness in our courtship ideal.  We push human calculations, our own personal or political advantages, and not faith.

The worldly perspective of romantic love is self-centered and is only about a person getting what they want.  But the true Christian ideal is martyrdom:

“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.  For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church—’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (Ephesians 5:21-33)

That, a text oft used at weddings, is a great guide to marital relationship.  However, to remain consistent, isn’t this the same reality of love that should be guiding our lives and including the whole process leading to marriage from start to finish?  Can we truly expect Christian love to be made manifest in marriage when we married for selfish gain or to advance our own personal agenda religious and otherwise?

A faithful follower of Jesus should marry because they wish to better serve God by their devoted self-sacrificial love to another.  It should not be a market based decision, a weighing of available options and determination to select what will be most beneficial to ourselves.  When marriage is about our own plans and ambitions it becomes as a business transaction between two people.  Yes, we can dress it up in the language of love or romance and celebrate it together in religious formality, but we might as well call it what it is: legal prostitution.

There is sometimes a vast difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe in practice.  We can claim to be ready to sacrifice anything in service to God, but are we actually willing to sacrifice our right to marry or marry the person of our own choosing?  Do we bring honor to God in our romance or are we as self-seeking and carnally minded as our secular neighbors?

It’s not what you can obtain through romantic pursuits, but about the glory God will obtain.  Marriage, for a Christian, should be a great testimony of our faithfulness, a practical display of a transcending self-sacrificial and eternal commitment to love.

Our romance, according to the most ancient of Christian traditions, can be our greatest witness and testimony of faith put to practice.  In truest form marriage is a dying to ourselves for love of another or martyrdom. 

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.