Legalism: Knowing the Letter of the Law but Missing the Spirit

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This is part two of a four part series on law, legalism, church authority and economia.

Ever get angry after being cut off in traffic?

I know I do.

Instantly I’m making judgments about that person’s lack of driving skills. How dare they interrupt my text messaging and topple the donut that was perched precariously on my lap!

However, later that same day, I’m cruising along in bumper to bumper traffic, my exit is coming up, I see an opportunity and take it. The guy behind me blows the horn, he obviously cannot appreciate my superior skills and that I had no other choice.

That, of course, is a composite of many true events out on the road. When I do something wrong, there’s always a good reason for it and if there isn’t a good reason—Well, nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, right?

People believe they see things as they are.

We feel we are a fairly good judge of ourselves and others.

This trust in our own abilities is what enables us to navigate life. If we couldn’t judge up from down or left from right we would have no means to make a decision or progress in a direction. We are aiming creatures. We have two eyes pointed frontward, stereoscopic or “binocular” vision, so we can judge distance and aim correctly at a target down range. That is what our mind does, it prioritizes one thing over another, it is a sorting machine, we are built to judge and—unless sleeping or in a vegetative state—we are always making judgments.

Unfortunately, this forward facing vision gives us big blind spots. We can only see in one direction at a time. When we are locked in on a particular subject we can lose grasp of the bigger picture and possibilities outside of our range of vision. We are creatures with a finite mind and ability to comprehend. We need our judgment to navigate through life and yet our judgment is not perfect, we are short-sighted, biased and often inconsistent. We project into our environment. We judge people based on our presumptions about them and their motives.

We tend to justify or rationalize our own bad behavior, see our mistakes or the mistakes of those whom we love as being the result of circumstances, then turn around and mercilessly judge the faults of others as being serious character defects. This tendency—called fundamental attribution error—leads us to judge ourselves only by our own intentions and others only by their actions. It is extremely common, if not completely universal, and shows up constantly in political and religious debates. The other side is evil, corrupt and inexcusable—our own side is righteous, well-intended and misunderstood.

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.

Truth be told, many people are not good at judging others as they imagine themselves to be and are wrong more they realize. Our memory is selective. On one hand, we sort out examples that go against our fundamental assumptions about reality and, on the other, we can easily recall those things that confirm our existing ideas. This confirmation bias, combined with fundamental attribution error and our many other cognitive limitations, unless humbly considered, will make us a very poor judge.

Legalism is a misuse of the law by those who do not understand the intent of the law.

The basic intent of the law is to create order out of chaos and yet law itself can become a source of confusion and conflict. The problem with any law is that it requires interpretation and understanding of the intent. This is why we have lawyers, judges, juries, and courts—to safeguard the intent of the civil law from abuse.

Legalism abuses the intent of the law.

Legalists incorrectly use the technicalities of language to find loopholes and carve out special exemptions for themselves. Legalists also apply their own interpretation of the law to others in a way that is harsh and often hypocritical. For them, the law is a tool to help them achieve their own personal or political ends.

That is not to say legalists are lacking in sincerity either, they are often diligent students of law, they have zealously committed the letter to memory and know the words inside and out. But what legalists lack is the spirit of the law and their knowledge is a hindrance to them.

#1) The rich man who relies on his own abilities rather than live in faith. (Matt. 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30) In this story, we are told of a young man who is wealthy and also very religiously devoted. He comes to Jesus, whom he addresses as “good teacher” and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, upon hearing this man’s diligence, tells him to sell all he has, to give the proceeds to the poor and then to follow him.

Sadly, and ironically, this account is often used by modern legalists to make a new religious formula rather than understand. This man was a legalist who succeeded in following the law and still lacked one thing and that thing being faith. There are a few who are able to keep the letter of the law and miss the intent of the law because of this. The intent of the law is so we depend on God for our salvation rather than our own works:

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:10‭-‬14 NIV)

The law is not there so we can believe we will impress God with our careful obedience. No, the intention of the law was to do the opposite—it was to remind us that we do not measure up to the righteousness of God and that we are therefore condemned to death. This rich young man had achieved the letter of the law, he had done everything that could be done through his own abilities, yet lacked the most important thing and that being faith in God. Jesus gave the answer to how we are saved: “What is impossible for man is possible for God.”

#2) The religious hypocrites who use the law to accuse others and are guilty themselves. (John 8:1-11) In our day we don’t take some sins as seriously as we do others. Many, for example, are condemning of homosexuality and yet do not seem to realize that there are many things that we take rather lightly that are sin and that all sin comes with the penalty of death. Such was the case in the following extraordinary account:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:3‭-‬5 NIV )

We are told they did this was intended as a trap for Jesus. Evidently they knew the compassion Jesus had for sinners and wanted to present an impossible dilemma: a) He follows the law, condemns her to death as is required and proves to be no better than them or b) he contradicts Moses, can be accused of rebellion against the law and be himself condemned under their law.

He avoids their trap:

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:6‭-‬11 NIV)

We have no indication of what Jesus wrote in the dirt. However, it is fairly obvious, it takes two to tango and yet we only have a woman standing accused—What happened to the man involved in the adultery? Why was no man brought with this adulterous woman?

It is also interesting that the only tool these men seemed to have was condemnation. Perhaps this is psychological projection? Maybe deep down they felt guilty and the reason they needed to find fault with Jesus and this woman is so they could feel better about themselves?

Whatever the case, we know that Jesus did not condemn this woman. This could be interpreted as Jesus saying that what she did doesn’t matter. But, he doesn’t say her sin doesn’t matter—he tells her to go and sin no more.

#3) Judas betrays Jesus with his legalistic use of compassion. (John 12:1-8, Matt. 26:6-13) If you want to see the ultimate expression of legalism, it is Judas (and other disciples) interrupting a beautiful act of worship to criticize and, in the process, throwing the words of Jesus back in his face:

Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:3‭-‬8 NIV)

It is interesting there are many who use the words of Jesus the same way as Judas. They use them to support a socialist political agenda or as a means to condemn any extravagant form of worship. They rationalize their condemnation of others using the words of Jesus and, despite completely missing the spirit of the law, are correct according to the letter of the law—but they completely lack the joy and life of the Spirit. They might hide their legalism in compassion for the poor or in concern for the kingdom of God and yet themselves are no better in their attitudes than the legal experts who put Jesus to death.

What is the true intent of the Biblical law?

To save us from ourselves.

Those who use the law to parse away their own guilt or as a bludgeon to use against those who do not add up to their own standards, even standards that are based in the law itself, have missed the point—we don’t add up and by our own efforts we never will.

Any person, when held up to a perfect standard, will fail by comparison. How can we, as finite and limited creatures, ever compare favorably to an infinite and limitless good? This is a reality that should humble us and fundamentally change how we treat other people.

It is fitting that the first step in Christianity is repentance. If one considers the severity of the law and that everyone stands condemned before God—and that just might change our perspective about that guy who just cut us off in traffic.

The Christian answer to legalism: “Judge not lest ye be judged.”

Legalism is applying the law to others in a way we, as individuals, were never ordained to do. Yes, we must make judgments for ourselves and should always promote what is good even if it offends. Yes, there are some things that are under the jurisdiction of civil authorities (Romans 13:1-7) and sin is to be addressed by the church. However, we are not given license to go out on our own as individuals passing judgment on others, quite the opposite:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11‭-‬12 NIV)

Some religious experts, who argue the false dichotomy of faith versus works, might see James (above) as contradicting Paul’s emphasis on grace, but they can’t on this point:

You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (Romans 14:10‭-‬13 NIV)

Our true obligation to others is not to bring them condemnation—it is to be like Jesus and show them the love and grace we want God to show us.

The truer law is not that of the letter. It is the law of reciprocation. What we do to others or demand be done to them will be the same standard that is applied to us. In other words, if you live by the sword you will likewise die by it (Matt. 26:52) and if you judge others by the law you are putting yourself back under the curse of the law and will be required to do the impossible without God’s help—as Paul warned the Galatian church.

Jesus, when asked by a lawyer, says the entire law hangs on two commandments: He says to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-32) and this is some practical application:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14‭-‬15 NIV)

That is black and white. So is this:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1‭-‬2 NIV)

The law is a means to end, to point us to our need for Jesus, and not an end in itself as many religious folks attempt to make it. The law itself can only bring condemnation and death because nobody is able to match the righteousness of God. The law is given, ultimately, not to condemn anyone—but rather so we can all know our own need of a savior and be saved.

Be perfect, not in legalism, but in mercy…

One of the starkest warnings Jesus gave (Matt. 18:21-35) was a parable about a man forgiven a debt impossible to pay and is shown great mercy by the king whom he owed. This same forgiven man turns around and demands a small sum owed him—throwing the offending party in jail. The end result is the king revoking the mercy he had shown and doing what the unmerciful man had done to the one who owned him a little. That is the response Jesus gave to how much we should forgive.

James further expounds:

If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:8‭-‬13 NIV)

Merely showing favoritism is mentioned in the same breath as murder and adultery!

Presumably, given we should be one in Christ according to Galatians 3:28, that would include any kind of favoritism. In other words, sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, social elitism, or anything else used to justify the favorable treatment of some and unfavorable treatment of others, makes you condemned as much as the evilest men of history under the law. James says that a person is guilty of breaking the entire law if they show favoritism…

Who then can be saved?

It is interesting, especially in a discussion of legalism, to consider some of the discrepancies of language in Scripture. For example, one Gospel calls out only Judas for his judgmental attitude towards the woman pouring perfume while another says it was disciples (plural) and not just Judas. One Gospel account of the rich man has him calling Jesus “good teacher” while another omits this entirely and says he started by asking “what good thing must I do” instead. Perhaps the writers were a bit less concerned than we are with the legalistic details and more with the message?

There is also an inconsistency between what the Gospels tell us Jesus said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I quoted Matthew’s version in my last blog: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Which seems sort of vague and open to some interpretation. I mean, how does one compete with the perfection of God? However, in Luke 6:36, in the same context of love for enemies, we read: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Combining the two different tellings, it seems what is being asked of us is to be perfect in mercy towards others and not perfect in some onerous legalistic manner.

We should turn our natural tendency to fundamental attribution error around. In other words, rather than judge those outside our own social group and show mercy to our own, we should judge ourselves (our own people) more harshly and leave the others to God. Or, in more practical terms, if someone cuts us off in traffic, rather than attribute his or her annoying act to an irredeemable character flaw, we should assume the best. And, if we cut someone else off, we should not excuse our own poor driving habits and take full responsibility instead.

If we want to be judged by God’s perfect law (and condemned) we should be legalistic.

If we want God’s mercy we should be merciful.

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The Two Types of Truth-tellers

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There is a story about two con artists who convince a vain emperor that they’ve made a garment for him so fine that it is only visible to the smartest and most competent people. The emperor, more concerned with what other people think that what is own eyes tell him, plays along with the tricksters as not to appear unfit and stupid.

The emperor pretends to put on the imaginary new clothes. His ministers, also fearful of appearing unfit for their positions, ignore the emperor’s true nakedness, go along with the charade and allow him to parade through town in his make-believe garment. The townsfolk, while uncomfortable, do not dare offend the emperor and keep up the pretense.

The collective self-delusion comes crashing down when a young child, lacking social awareness, blurts out the truth: “But he hasn’t got anything on!” His father first tries to hush him, but the word is whispered through the crowd and, eventually, the townsfolk erupt into laughter. The emperor suspects they are right and yet he with his ministers continues on the ridiculous procession.

This ironic story about willful blindness to reality is an accurate description of how social pressure works. It is extremely relevant in our age of political correctness. Today, like in that fictional account, scientific evidence is ignored in favor of popular narratives and many smart people lack the courage to face down the social elites.

But there are truth-tellers…

1) Those too socially unaware to know the ‘correct’ answers. These are people, who like the child who blurts out the truth, are those of lower social status and a little stupid. They are unable to rationalize their way around the obvious reality like smart people do, they do not know (or care about) the socially “right” answer and simply blurt out the truth. They are easily ridiculed, they are often unsophisticated in their use of language and uncouth, they might not be morally upstanding individuals or always truth-tellers, but they are often brutally honest in ways that the polite people are not because they lack a filter their thoughts. They, in their lowly position, do not care about what the elites think of them and might even be empowered by offending their superiors.

2) Those unwilling to ignore the consequences of living a lie. These are the rarest of people. They are socially aware, they are able to see through the propaganda and brave enough to speak out against the popular narrative. They are able to see beyond what the socially smart people do, they are too principled to play along with the delusion and yet also understanding of the consequences of speaking an unpopular truth. Still, because it is dangerous to have social leadership that is divorced from the truth, conscience compels them to speak out. So they do, albeit carefully and using their intelligence, by telling stories about naked emperors in the hopes that others will read then awake to the lies that have ensnared them.

What part do you play in the story?

Most people, at least those intelligent, like to think that they are the ones who see reality as it is and are above delusion. Unfortunately, that is the first lie that blinds a person to the truth. Even the brightest minds are not entirely rational. We all suffer from a problem called “confirmation bias” where we select or ignore evidence-based in our established beliefs.

Many people eventually lose their sight because of fear, social pressure or indoctrination. They see themselves as smart and savvy for their ability to give the socially correct answers, but they are really only parrots of popular opinion and puppets to the status quo.

There are many taboo topics in the public discourse. There are many whom we are supposed to shield from certain truths lest they become outraged when their nakedness is exposed. They may call you “hateful” or many other nasty names if you dare to challenge their protected status. They attempt to use social pressure rather than logic and reason to defeat counterarguments.

The emperor’s new clothes story is only inaccurate in that it doesn’t depict what often happens to truth-tellers when they humiliate the emperor. In reality, speaking unpopular truth often leads to social alienation and sometimes to persecution. Speak out against patriarchal abuses in a fundamentalist church, for example, and you might be unfairly labeled a “Jezebel” or feminist agitator.

There are many social domains—religious, denominational, secular or otherwise. Our keen awareness in one domain doesn’t make us immune from being deceived and deluded in other domains. Our only defense is humility and understanding the limits of our own ability to see beyond ourselves. We must first realize that we are ourselves not above being fooled individually or as part of the collective group.

The first step to being a real truth-teller is to be humble and see your own moral blindness. Once you understand the limits of your own vision you will be able to help others overcome their blindness. And, at very least, don’t walk around naked because you are too vain to admit that a ‘truth’ you were convinced of is a lie.  Being a truth-teller means first being brutally honest about your own vulnerability.

Are You Better Than Joel Osteen?

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Religious fundamentalists and their irreligious secular counterparts have found something in common—that being their shared hatred of Joel Osteen.
Osteen, a best-selling author, pastor of the gigantic Lakewood Church in Houston, has long been bashed for his positive spin on Biblical teachings and preaching what is often called prosperity gospel. Many on the religious right have long regarded him as a false teacher for the lack of fire and brimstone in his message. Meanwhile many on the left have long accused him of being hypocritical for stating that homosexuality is a sin (or his “gay problem” as Salon describes it) and for his embrace of wealth.

The latest media-fueled outrage started when JustOn Baze, a gay activist, found time—in the middle of a hurricane—to visit Osteen’s church. Baze and his friend posted a live video on Facebook that showed some parts of the exterior of the Lakewood building unflooded. His vitriolic commentary launched a shaming campaign on social media, which was reported on dutifully by the clickbaiting corporate media, and soon became a unique opportunity for activists on both sides to join forces.

Overnight, because the church was not immediately open, many on the right and left lined up to unleash their judgments of this celebrity pastor. No amount of explanation was sufficient, the conclusions had been drawn that Osteen deserves condemnation and now the effort to disparage him is in full gear…

I will not join those critical of Osteen.

I do not judge him. I do not know enough about the circumstances following Harvey to render judgment of his response. I know he has opened the doors after the storm in cooperation with the city efforts and his congregation will likely be involved in the recovery after the deluge.

I also know that most Americans should be careful not to condemn anyone for their wealth. Considering the median income in the US is over $51,000, and it takes only $32,000 to be in the top 1% of income earners in the world, we are all wealthy. Even our poor are provided for through social programs and I’m quite sure those who lost all in Houston will find a way to recover with or without a vow of poverty from Osteen.

When over 90% of Americans households have a car—a privilege less than 9% of the world can share in—we have plenty of reason to be generous and humble. We, as wealthy Americans, even those who lost all in Houston, have a billion reasons not to be judgmental of those wealthier than us. I can’t be critical of Osteen or his congregation when I consider how wealthy I am relative to most in the world.

It is really none of my business what Osteen and his congregation do with their collective resources. Their building, his salary and home, is something they worked for and therefore their perogative.

What good will come from attacking them?

We should consider this admonition:

“Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor” (James 4:11‭-‬12)

We should consider the words of Jesus:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Matthew 7:1‭-‬2)

It is easy to see ourselves as the good guys and feel justifed in our condemnation. But Jesus gives clear warning: We will be judged as we judge. That is good reason not to bash anyone. That is good reason to be gracious to all people—including Osteen.

Where should our focus be?

Our focus should be on living righteously ourselves. Our focus should be on showing true love and compassion to all people and especially where it is needed the most.

This week, looking through friend requests, I saw a picture on one of their pages that broke my heart:

Who will come to her aid?
Who will help the many like her born into poverty?

Filipino street children live like that every day and not just after a natural disaster. My readership is large enough that we could do something big for many children who were not given the same opportunities we have. We could fund an orphanage, programs to help set these children in the direction of success, and still have plenty left over for ourselves.

We don’t need to be better than anyone besides ourselves. Instead of bashing celebrities, our focus should be on being better than our former selves, repenting of our own sins and showing the way through example. That is true Christian leadership, that is the “good news” of Jesus Christ, and our responsibility to the world.

Who shares my vision for street children in the Philippines?

Who would help me in such an endeavor?

The Last Mennonite Standing — Is a Population Collapse Inevitable?

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A few months ago a Christian friend of mine shared a link to a news story and asked my opinion.

The story, “UK Mennonites end Sunday services after numbers dwindle,” did not seem to apply to my own conservative branch of the Mennonite denomination.

My initial thoughts were that this was one of those wacky liberal churches and therefore not relevant.

However, upon further reflection, I realized that my own brand of Mennonite is not impervious to cultural trends and, despite all the babies crying on Sunday mornings now, we could face a similar population collapse down the road.

Headlines about record-low fertility rates in the US or an unprecedented population collapse in another nation might seem irrelevant to our own situation.  But they can also give some indication of the patterns, telltale signs and changes in behavior that come before such events.

I’ve heard people say that we, as conservative Mennonites, are “50 years behind society” and there seems to be some truth to that.  I know with the advance of technology (like that which makes this blog possible) the pace of change is now quicker than most would have imagined a generation ago.

The conditions that allowed the Mennonite tradition to continue for hundreds of years are disappearing, and quickly.  It does not seem we are in an especially strong position to cope with the new social, economic and technological realities.

This generation could very well be the last.

Here are some factors that could determine where things go from here…

#1) We grow mostly because we have big families and convert our own children.  Like it or not, “Mennonite” is an ethnic group—complete with unique genetic disorders and a game based on our common surnames.  Yes, we do have some converts from the “community folks” and yet most of us came from Mennonite or other established Anabaptist stock.  If our birth rates were to continue to drop (as they have been amongst Mennonites in North America), then there will likely be some problems down the road.

#2) Marriage is being postponed and even avoided altogether, thereby decreasing birth rates.  Mennonites seem to be taking cues from society when it comes to committed relationship.  But, unlike society, we do not have children outside of marriage and therefore our postponing of marriages means older mothers and fewer children, and that is assuming they will marry eventually.  I just had a young woman (maybe mid-twenties) ask me to do a blog to advise her and her friends on how to tell pesky guys to get lost—not an unusual sentiment.  It seems women from conservative backgrounds are becoming less interested in marriage and motherhood, and that is a death knell to a church that can’t bring in more than an occasional convert from outside our own existing gene pool.

#3) The feeder system from Old Order groups and elsewhere could dry up.  It is not a big secret that Mennonites migrate from conservative to liberal.  My own church has lost many born into it and the casualties have always been offset with those gained from other groups more conservative than our own, or those escaping expensive land prices in overdeveloped Lancaster County.  But this means of growth via a continued supply from upstream (or downstream?) is not guaranteed.  It could change as economic pressures increasingly encroach on the Old Order lifestyle.  It is harder to support big families with higher land values, a tougher regulatory environment, rising healthcare costs, etc.  We can’t count on migrants for growth.

#4) Urbanization and loss of an agricultural lifestyle results in cultural change.  My grandparents moved up out of the Franconia Conference territory (near Philadelphia) in the 1960s to begin farming where the land was cheaper and roads less congested.  My grandparents have remained relatively unchanged in the way they dress since that time.  However, their friends “back home” have changed dramatically both in dress and perspective.  There are still a small number of “breakaway” conservatives in that region, but the main body of Mennonite churches there are extremely progressive and their trends could give us some indication of our own future.

#5) The decline of meaningful brotherhood and rise of alternatives reduces interest.  The Amish were right to identify transportation technology as a threat to community.  We might pride ourselves for having stronger communities than the church down the road (a disputable claim) and yet would we compare favorably to prior generations?  I know that even in my own three-decade life span there has been a dramatic change.  We seem less closely knit and more quick to leave for the church up the road rather than come together as one community of diverse members.  We do more world travel, have more activities for every specialized interest or age group, and are kept very busy.  However, we are also fragmented with less vertical integration, more homeschooled children, and less everyday connection—resulting in weaker communities.  Our communities could eventually disintegrate completely as they lose relevance.

#6) Lack of foresight and appropriate faithful preparation is endemic.  Part of the reason I’m writing this blog is because nobody else is talking about this.  We are chronically unprepared for change.  It seems many conservative Mennonites have their heads buried in the sand (or simply buried in day-to-day business and family affairs) and do not see trends coming down the pike.  There appears to be very little effort on the part of the ordained leadership to account for changes in culture (or technology) and even less effort to respond in a positive or productive manner.  Few advocate for a faithful and deliberate approach to problems.  We miss opportunities to increase our effectiveness because we do not utilize the greater means available to us.  We perish for lack of vision.

#7) In the void of thoughtful preparation, what results is only fearful reaction and hasty retreat.  Mennonites, like other Christian fundamentalist groups, began to withdraw from strategic high ground after being blindsided by the pushback against the state endorsement of religion in public schools and the rise of secularism.  Many decry, “They took prayer out of school!” but the sad reality is they did not remove prayer and a faithful witness from schools—we did!  We trembled like King Saul facing the Philistine giant and removed our children and influence.  We did not read 1 John 4:4, “greater is he that is in you, than he is in the world,” and believe.  It is little wonder why nobody believes us when we try to convince them of our great God.

#8) Our missions are often without purpose and out of touch.  I know a young woman (a very sweet person and sincere Mennonite) who told me, “hearts don’t change,” in response to a circumstance outside her experience.  I was astonished at the cognitive dissonance on display and it made me wonder why she was spending thousands of dollars to be at IGo Adventures and Spouse Seeking Institute in Thailand.  It reminds me of the time when we formed a committee at my church to discuss local missions where mailing out more tracts seemed to be the idea with most traction and nothing practical ever came of the committee.  Needless to say, I am not very optimistic about our abilities to do effective outreach.

Is a Mennonite population collapse in North America inevitable?

I don’t know.

I’m not expecting our complete extinction.

I’m pretty sure the Mennonite name will continue on in one form or another.

For instance, we do have a list of genetic disorders that will carry on our legacy.

But, as a religious culture and tradition?

I believe that depends.

It depends on how we approach the issues listed in #1-8 above.

Will we address problems head-on and work through them deliberately or be blindsided?

Will we adjust our thinking and adapt our methods as needed?

Or will we (like the dying Shaker movement) use hope as a strategy?

Nothing is written in stone yet.  But I do know that the conservative Mennonite culture is a frustrating place for innovative and forward-thinking people.  Old habits, functional fixedness, inability to think outside the box and a “don’t rock the boat” mentality all stand in the way of a faithful and vibrant future.

We need to ask and answer the hard questions rather than avoid them.  We should be taking note of trends, and be confronting them collectively as a group.

Notice a growing number of older singles?

Look into the Moravian option or at the very least reconsider the faithless courtship teachings that have created the current mess.  There is no reason why we should pretend there’s nothing that can be done.

Wonder why our missions are ineffective?

It could be that we are isolating our children rather than trusting God and teaching them to live in fear rather than faith.  They can’t empathize or understand anyone outside the Mennonite culture.

Where do we go from here?

It is up to you.  But, if you don’t want to be the last Mennonite standing, I suggest it is time to remove the stale items from the shelves and introduce some fresh ideas.

Change is inevitable.

Be proactive.

A Practical Model for Christian Love and Community

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My last blog gave an abstract vision of love.  

The story of my sister Sarah and a precious bhest were part of the catalyst for a more concrete idea. 

The other part of the inspiration process was a scammer who claimed to have cancer and promised me a windfall.  They said they wanted their untold millions to go to a man (yours truly) who would use it for Christian charity.

That flirtation with the thought of having a great amount of wealth to spend for a cause I thought worthy enough led to a vision of a farm.  The idea would be a farm that combined the biggest asset Mennonites have to offer (their families) with those who needed it most.

You see, church attendance, for someone without the family structure, is not enough to meet their social needs and single mothers need more.  A welfare check and public housing is wholly inadequate to meet the needs of many of these abandoned women and their children.

Our duty to love the widow and the orphan is clear.

We as true people of faith do not have an option here, we have a moral duty as those called to be perfectly merciful as God is perfectly merciful (Matthew 5:48, Luke 6:36) and desiring to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. 

Specifically, as it pertains to this blog and the vision, it means taking up this divine task:

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” (Psalm 68:5)

“He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)

That is the heart of God.  And those who seek fellowship with God will share in His own heart and create their own visions around His cause.  James tells us:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14‭-‬17)

We live in a time where most basic needs are met and this could be used as an excuse.  One could shirk their own God-given responsibilities by saying that government programs provide.  Or use Scripture as a legalist would and claim that since social needs aren’t specifically mentioned there is no reason to fill them.

However, our culture, with the breakneck pace we live, is probably not the same as a city or village in the time the book of James was written.  And—despite our connectedness via technology and social media—many people are without close friends or family support and single mothers are especially vulnerable.

So, anyhow, at this point if you don’t agree or can’t see the need you probably can stop reading here.  But I’m guessing most of my readership is interested in knowing more and will continue to the specific idea.

A farm and vision to bring family to those without.

I did not grow up on a family farm.  However, like many conservative Mennonites, I was one step removed from agriculture and would often visit my grandparents farm.  Three of my uncles, carrying on the work of their father, all live in close proximity to each other and run the farm together. 

To me my uncles have something in that farm which few people do anymore and that being a true sense of community.  They work together towards a common goal, their labor is for each other as much as it is for personal gain and it seemed to me an ideal place as a child.  There is something special about a family farm.

So, as a result of that childhood experience, my love for both Sarah and bhest, as well as the scammer giving me reason to dream, my vision is to bring that family farm experience to single mothers and their children.  I believe it would be the ideal environment for teaching basic life skills and helping to end the cycles that lead to generational poverty.

What I picture is two or three healthy families paired with a single mother and her children.  The idea would be to have seperate houses within easy walking distance of each other, common meals at least once a day and plenty of working together in the way strong Mennonite families do. 

There would be gardening, maybe a garage for mechanical work or wood shop.  I would prefer that it be a sustainable effort that doesn’t depend on outside help besides start up cost.  The size and scope of the farming operation would depend on who is involved and the more other trades or talents the better.

I believe many single mothers and their children need this kind of real loving investment to thrive.  This is a need right here at home (North America for me) and places like the Philippines.  It is an adaptable vision.  The work could center on a bakery or restaurant so long as there is working together and an opportunity to teach.

What is needed to make this vision a reality?

This vision requires normal people like you.  Perhaps you are a mother escaping abuse or abandoned.  Maybe you are part of a Christian home and wish to share that great wealth of family you have with those who do not.  Or you could be a businessman looking for a tax write-off and investment.  This is your opportunity.

If you share this vision or something like it.  Please comment your own ideas below, describe what you are able to offer towards an effort like this and share this blog post with your friends of like faith and love for those most vulnerable. 

The Gospel is not about singing on the subway or shoving tracts into faces.  It is not about flying to exotic locations with the cool religious people either.  No, it is about Jesus who literally fed, physically healed and said his followers would do greater things.

Single mothers struggling to survive don’t need a lecture about sin or salvation.  What they really need is commitment and love that they can’t understand which in time will open their hearts to receive the fullness of God’s grace.

Who’s in?

Will the Real Anabaptists Please Stand Up…

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We are all familiar with that guy—the high water mark of his life being his senior year of high school—who is always looking back on that one moment when he was actually relevant and longing for those glory days to return, right?

It is the tendency of some to romanticize the past and something very easy to do when things aren’t going as well as we’d like in the present.  Occasionally this sentimentalism about the past is useful reflection, but oftentimes it is no more than our fear of a future that seems uncertain and keeps us from the greater fulfillment of our potential as an individual or together as a group.

We read about those who rejected what would have brought them into the promised land who “in their hearts turned back to Egypt” and “worship the symbols of their former greatness rather than understand” (Acts 7:39) in Scripture.  Because of this idolatrous preference for things past-tense a generation of Israelites escaped the bondage of Egypt only to wander aimlessly in the wilderness because they did not trust God to overcome the giants of their time.

It is fashionable nowadays in some conservative Mennonite or somehow otherwise related circles to use the word “Anabaptist” as a means to distinguish themselves.  This resurrection of Anabaptist identity seems to both be a response to a perceived lukewarmness in the established tradition and also a rejection of what is often labeled Evangelicalism.  But what it often amounts to is no more than a change of window dressing and nothing more.

In many cases it seems these new Anabaptists are simply another hybrid/remix version of conservative Mennonite standards with Biblical fundamentalism, Revivalism, Pietism, along with many other more recent innovations and influences.  These self-proclaimed Anabaptists may actually be more at odds with their ancestors than their Old Order cousins whom they consider to be their spiritual inferiors.  There is no new life, only rewarmed leftovers of yesterday’s meals and a new distraction.

Early Anabaptists did not spend their days in obsessive omphaloskepsis or in preserving a religious cultural identity.  They were men emboldened by the Spirit to question the authority of their own human teachers and break from tradition passed to them.  They were rebels, branded as troublemakers and thought to be dangerous heretics. 

If your primary goal in life is raising your quiverful and maintaining a respectable image in church or society in general, then you, my friend, are no George Blaurock.

Are modern day Anabaptist wannabes doomed to wander a spiritual wilderness?

The short answer is, no.  

We all have choices to make in the present that will shape our future and the choice is still in front of us all. 

Here’s your choice: Will you be like those who stubbornly clung to the past for security and missed out on the promised land because of their lack of faith?  Or, will you this day choose to stop burying your talents in fear, invest fully in trust of God’s grace and rest completely in the Spirit’s ability to lead you as it did Jesus? 

Jesus, when his authority was questioned, pointed to John’s Baptism (Mathew 21:23-27, Mark 11:27-33, Luke 20:1-8) and a moment of special spiritual anointing recorded in all of the Gospels. 

We are told the sky was “torn open” (Mark 1:9-11) then the Spirit of God descended upon him “in bodily form like a dove” (Luke 3:21-23) “and alighted on him” (Matthew 3:13-17) and immediately after this: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness…” (Luke 4:1)  I believe those writers wanted us to know what gave Jesus authority and direction—what say you?

This is what I read: Jesus appealed to an authority greater than the experts on Scripture and theology back then could duplicate.  He points to something spiritually significant that accompanied his physical water Baptism.  An anointing by God that immediately leads him to the wilderness where he is tempted and then emerges to read from Isaiah “the Spirit of God is upon me” claiming it to be fulfilled that day in him to a stunned and incredulous audience.

But, besides that, there is another Biblical accounting of the Baptism of Jesus with an added detail of great importance, the testimony of John:

“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and I testify that this is Godʼs Chosen One.” (John 1:32-34)

Jesus did not only live as an example and die as a sacrifice for our sins.  No, according to the passage above, he came to deliver on a promise.  That promise was a spiritual anointing like his available to all who believe. 

That promise being “the Spirit of truth” that the world (including many who falsely claim to believe Jesus) cannot accept as real (John 14-17) and is only known to those who have been anointed or “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49) and is what was experienced on the day of Pentecost in an event Peter claims was foretold by the prophet Joel before preaching a message of repentance:

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39)

What is the first step out of the wilderness?

#1) “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, Mark 1:15) Which means turning away from our sinful attitudes and behaviors—be Baptized, then live in obedience to the teachings of Jesus as we know them.  The Baptism of repentance is something we do as both a symbolic gesture and also as part of sincere effort to put to practice the self-sacrificial love of Jesus.

This is the most difficult step for those raised in a Christian religious tradition.  We know how to follow the rules or behave ourselves and act right.  However, this is often a commitment without sacrifice and an occasion to stumble over our own pride.  We become like the prodigal son who never left home yet was far from repentance.

Keep repenting as need be.

#2) “Ye must be born again.” (John 3:1-21) This was something perplexing to Nicodemus and still mysterious to us.  Jesus says “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” then adds that only the Spirit gives birth to the spirit.  As surely as you didn’t give birth to yourself the first time you will not give birth to yourself spiritually.  For man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

There are many spiritual infants in the church today or those who rely on their own human reasoning and not the power of God.  There was recently a man, ordained in the Mennonite church, who confessed to his not being spiritually born when he started as a preacher.  We send missionaries out full of themselves or a religious indoctrination and youthful ambition rather than tell them to wait on the fullness of Spirit to come to them as Jesus urged his disciples.

#3) “But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.” (1 John 2:20)  Do you have that confidence?  Or are you like those Paul encountered who were Baptized in water of repentance and yet…

“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?’ ‘Johnʼs baptism,’ they replied.  Paul said, ‘Johnʼs 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. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” (Acts 19:1-6)

There are many who have been Baptized with water of repentance who are still not quickened in Spirit.  There are two Baptisms, one physical and the other spiritual, one is to show our repentance and another is of God clothing us.  I pray God sends the willing of this generation to lay hands on those who are Baptized yet still spiritual powerless and that through prayer they are anointed in the name of the Lord Jesus.

#4) “Where there is no revelation, people cast off restraint…” (Proverbs 29:18)  The word revelation (also translated as vision) is about spiritual foresight and leadership.  When there is no spiritual vision people cast off restraint, run wild, perish, etc.

Vision is not about looking backwards for answers.  This is not medieval Switzerland, you are not George Blaurock, I am not Conrad Grebel, and we can’t recreate the 1500’s today nor should we want to.  Tent meetings, Sunday schools, VBS (or any of the other innovations of a prior era) do not need to be preserved ad infinitum either.  We have work to do, work God has given us to do in this present moment using the advantages we are given.

Yes, the witness of faithfulness past-tense should not be forgotten and is a great encouragement.  Take these translated words of “Gott, dich will ich loben” (God, You I Will Praise) a hymn written by Blaurock before his martyrs death have great value:

“Lord God, how do I praise Thee
From hence and evermore,
That Thou real faith didst give me
By which I Thee may know.
Forget me not, O Father,
Be near me evermore;
Thy Spirit shield and teach me,
That in afflictions great
Thy comfort I may ever prove,
And valiantly may obtain
The victory in this fight.”

But putting those words to actual practice does not mean we should be consummate historians, full of knowledge of the past and light on vision for the future.  We should not be like those obsessed with their former glory, trying to be great again by looking backwards, rather we should be full of the Spirit and a vision for today.

The real Anabaptist is the one who does as they did and recklessly pursues the truth regardless of personal cost.  We need a radical faith, one that uses the technological means and media of today, that reaches the world with authentic self-sacrificial love.   We have tools at our disposal that give of us capabilities that our ancestors could hardly even imagine.

Ultimately, however, for any of our tools, technology and historical knowledge to be useful, we need a spiritual awakening.  Real Christian vision is not a product of human ability or effort, it comes from the Spirit of God—For any of our advantages to matter we must be born again.

Those who walk in the Spirit look forward with a positive vision and a great hope for the future.