An old couple found this thing. It was sleek and shiny, some parts transparent, but had many mysteries packed under the opaque surface at the bottom. One of the intriguing features were the little boxes that could be pushed in or out again, giving a satisfying *click* that delighted them both. The upper portion, with a strange metallic knife inside, could be separated from the lower and there was also a third higher portion that was very easily removed. None of it made that much sense, but it was very beautiful and thus they decided to put this trophy on prominent display in their home.
The old couple were an avid readers, they loved the stories of ancient people, and that was one of the reasons why this old object stood out to them. They knew it had to have been something special, a sacred object for past generations, and they treasured it. But their desire for this food called “smoothie” would have to wait. It required a blender and they had none. So they continued their most faithful prayers, finding many pleasant (but mostly decorative and practically useless) things over the years, which they put to work to use as tables or art.
At the end of it all they decided that if God had wanted them to have that perfect blend of many fruits and other ingredients they would have been given the tools—so they decided to be content with these beautiful things He provided instead..
Pursuing the used car section, I happened upon an ad for an AMG Mercedes for a very good price. “This would be worth checking into,” I send a message and end up arranging the meet up.
So I travel two hours and, sure enough, there it is black and beautiful, the three pointed star on the hood. I’m excited. The interior is immaculate, leather, that perfect German fit and finish. It was loaded, with all of those features one would expect from a modern luxury vehicle.
“Okay, let’s take it for a spin,” I exclaim, anxious to see how this beast performs on the road. “Oh, you want to actually drive it?” My host asks. I wasn’t sure if he was going to throw me the keys or perplexed. So I answer, “Yeah, I want to see how it runs, could we go around the block?”
“This is a Mercedes Benz C-class sedan,” the response comes, “you either accept what it is or stop wasting my time.” At this point I’m a little stunned, taking a test drive isn’t that unreasonable. “I’m serious about this,” I respond, “could we at least start it up, hear how it runs?”
At this point the seller seems to be a little confused. “The battery is strong,” he says, as reaches for the radio knob, “surround sound,” turning up the volume. “Oh, that’s great!” Still trying to maintain my positive demeanor despite my increasing uncertainty, “could I look under the hood?”
“I don’t understand why you’re asking that,” the owner of the car retorts, “are you saying that you’re not satisfied with the heated seats and navigation system?”
“Well, I’m looking for reliable transportation,” I pause, “you know, to get from point A to point B.” And then add, “the door locks and other doodads certainly matter to me, but I really want to make sure that the drivetrain is solid before I commit to anything. That’s why I want to see how it drives or at least hear how it runs and look under the hood, can we do that?”
“The body on this car is immaculate, no dents or scratches. There is not an AMG this pristine, for this price, anywhere. So are you interested or not?”
“Okay, so here’s what I’m looking for,” I say, becoming more forceful, “I want a fully functional vehicle, something with a solid drivetrain.” I stop, then add, “I can pay cash, I I just need to be sure that the engine runs well enough and the car can move.”
Now getting red in the face, my counterpart responds angrily, “Oh, I see what this is really about, you’re jealous, you are on the attack against my Mercedes-Benz out of your own feelings of inadequacy, because you couldn’t handle the payments for a car like this! You make it about the engine and the driveability of the car as an excuse for being unwilling to pay the price for a luxury sedan!”
I laugh, a bit nervously, assuming this man must be joking as bizarre as the rant is and yet not entirely sure that given his serious expression. “I guess I just thought it was normal,” pausing to think, “to take a test drive and see under the hood.” And adding, “No offense, but most people are going to want to know this before making a commitment, is there a reason why you’re being so cagey about this?”
“How dare you judge me!” Comes the retort, and he continues, “Fine, it has no engine, but you’re being so negative! It’s obvious that you are unable to appreciate the bells and whistles, too completely obsessed with only one small component of what makes a great vehicle, so entirely unsophisticated!”
At this point, being unable to take the man seriously anymore, I hurry to make my exit without further drama, “Thanks for letting me look, so I’ll let you know if I’m interested.” As I turn to get in my vehicle and leave he mutters “go to hell.”
Have I mentioned that I’m tired of religious people and the prescriptions they give?
The real Jesus was defiant. He upended the systems and standards of his time. He was intentionally offensive to the self-righteous religious elites and then completely gentle with those who were broken. There was no one-size-fits-all, no attempt to simplify the process. Salvation is a walk of faith, not our ability to keep a set of fixed rules or pray a certain way, it is about our heart.
No, I’m not saying this as favoring the more libertine amongst us. Being “free in Christ” is not a license to do whatever we want. It is not about being ‘spiritual’ rather the religious either. Rather it as about love:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. […] You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.”
(Galatians 5:1, 13 NIV)
A great deal of my social media connections are unregenerate social conservatives. They love those fading structures that once kept people bound to their moral standards and yet lack any comprehension of grace or their own need of it. They may see themselves as being righteous, for their exceptional ability to keep up certain cultural conventions, but they are very much like those rebuked and condemned by Jesus.
But still the alternative is not to go in the complete opposite direction. It is not better to have no structure, to completely defy all cultural convention or use Christian freedom as an excuse to do whatever we please. No, rather it is to serve and save others:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 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 9:19-23 NIV)
Which is to reiterate the example of Christ:
…whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Mark 10:43-45 NIV)
Our love for God is always, always, a matter of how we treat each other. If we can’t love the people we see, specifically our brothers and sisters in Christ, then our claim to love God is a lie. (1 John 4:20) Therefore, to be free in Christ, is not to shirk responsibility to each other. It is not worshipful, at least not of God, to go to church (or not go) for own sake:
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.
(Matthew 5:23-24 NIV)
This is putting reconciliation with each other, true reconciliation. before or ahead of the ritual worship that religious people do. No, it is not negotiable. This is the command of Jesus. And yet it is so often reversed. It is acceptable to act or go through the motions of righteousness, but not to ask for the same authenticity that put Jesus at odds with the religious authorities.
Had Jesus just followed the rules and did what was expected he would never have been a threat to anyone. The reality is that he saw through the empty gestures. He was not impressed with those pious people who had their performative religion. His call was for genuine love, to be merciful as our Father is merciful:
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Matthew 9:12-13 NIV)
That’s our true worship, to truly forgive and love those undeserving and broken.
Early Christians had a saying “unus Christianus, nullus Christianus,” which is to say that one Christian is no Christian. This is to say that our Communion together, in Christ, needs to go beyond merely sharing the same physical space for a few hours or it is fake. True Christianity can’t be reduced to mere individualistic pursuit of the Divine. It is not an “only God can judge me” freedom from duty to others.
I could quote two dozen other texts and it would not matter. So many are caught up in their own corrupted ‘traditions’ that they’ll always miss the forest for the trees. But I’m not interested in dime-store Christianity, the kind that only loves in prescribed ways. I want the real deal, the kind that frees and truly forgives. I want what is alive, what has the true Spirit of truth and love in it, not the lifeless self-serving counterfeit form.
It’s not that the wonderful symbolism and designated acts of ‘Christian’ service are unimportant or useless either. But it’s just that none of it really matters if it is not a part of something genuine. As Jesus said, in Matthew 23:15, a person can “travel over land and sea to win a single convert” and only be successful in making their new convert “twice as much a child of hell” as themselves. In that case it would be better to do nothing at all.
Even the mystical “cup of salvation” can be our damnation if we drink unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:29) or in disregard and without care for His body. The body of Christ meaning, at times, our fellow members of the Church or the people we encounter who are in need of love:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.
There was a 1980s cult film about a man who finds a pair of sunglasses which allows him to see subliminal messages in mass media. In this science fiction movie, “They Live,” the protagonist learns that world is run by aliens, along with human collaborators, who use billboards and television to control the population. The protagonist, now that he is awakened to this truth, goes on a mission to free people.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever watched the entire movie. It was before my time. But, from the bits and pieces that I’ve seen, it is basically a commentary on our mind-numbing American consumerism and political propaganda. It is trying to show how mass media is used by social elites to manipulate and manage people.
Anyhow, for a moment, yesterday, I thought somehow I had landed in that movie and posted the following on social media to describe the experience:
“Was out on the road today and saw a billboard with the word “Obey” in large print. I thought, for a moment, that I was in the 1980s movie, “They Live,” in which the protagonist finds special glasses that allow him to see what really is. In the film the world is controlled by aliens who manipulate people to conform. As it turns out this was not my new vision that could see through the propaganda, but was a Christian Aid Ministries (Mennonite) evangelism effort aimed at professing Christians that do not live to their standards.”
Now, given that much of my friends list is still conservative Mennonite, who live mostly in their own religious cloister, I knew the risk of some missing the meaning and intended humor of the cultural reference. However, what I had not expected was the personal attacks against me and bizarre accusations of bashing CAM for stating the plain truth. What led to this severe reaction? Apparently, that last sentence, that this message was “aimed at professing Christians that do not live their standards,” which offended.
Standards are a sore subject for conservative Mennonites and most especially for the neo-Anabaptist types. Perhaps, had I used the word “doctrines” the howls of protest may have been more muted. Why? Well, the word “standards” is often associated with that multitude of extra-Biblical rules that some argue aren’t a matter of salvation and yet, despite this claim, are somehow important enough to be the cause of their countless church splits. But the bizarre part is that I didn’t say anything about their extra-Biblical standards and that’s what made the boisterous denials so interesting.
What does “Real Christians” actually mean?
The billboard proclaimed “Real Christians OBEY Jesus’ teachings,” citing Luke 6:46 as a reference. At face value that is the goal of all Christians, to obey Jesus, right? But it is this qualifying word “real” that indicates this is a loaded statement and more than just a reminder to be good Christians. The writer doesn’t want you to just be any kind of Christian. No, they want you to be a “real Christians” and quite obviously, unless this writer is at odds with themselves, it means to be like them.
There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment, St. Paul urged, “follow me as I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 11:1) and that would certainly mean to be a part of the same church body as him. It shouldn’t be a big controversy, when a Mennonite puts up a sign saying to be a “real Christian” they mean to be more like them, an Anabaptist. This would not even be a question if a billboard, with a similar message, were put up by a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness organization. So it is beyond disingenuous to insist that this use of “real Christian” has nothing to do with being more like Mennonites.
As someone who has spent decades of their own life amongst conservative Mennonites and other Anabaptist types, this notion that “we’re the real Christian” oozes out. And, more precisely, when they say “obey Jesus” what this ultimately means is agreeing with their Mennonite ‘doctrines’ of “non-conformity” and “non-resistance.” To them, this is just Biblical teaching, the clear extension of the commands of Jesus and, therefore, the most essential part of what it means to be real Christians.
So why deny it?
Why do some get up in arms over someone speaking this truth?
Why not be Mennonite and own it?
The real issue goes deeper. Mennonites, for various reasons, do not like to be identified as Mennonites. The term turns them into an ethnic tribe or mere subculture rather than the purer form. Whereas they would rather see themselves as simply being the only genuine Christians. The Holdeman Mennonites, calling themselves the Church of God in Christ, were more forthright in this regard and believed themselves to be the only true church. Other Mennonites aren’t as bold as to outright say that they’re the remnant church, but also do not fully embrace their common denominational label either.
The worst of the deniers try to discard the word “Mennonite” completely, despite this being their religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage. Modify the veil a little, ditch the capedress for another style of conservative dress, change the language, and suddenly they’re now the more authentic ‘Anabaptist’ who arrived at this particular emphasis by their own study of Scripture. This faux conversion is something born of insecurity from knowing that their own religious form is inherited. And yet, despite this, holding to a dogma of “Believer’s baptism” that causes cognitive dissonance if their being Mennonite isn’t completely a choice.
There’s also another possible reason why someone might deny their religious heritage and that is to fool their potential converts. In other words, a bait-and-switch tactic: 1) Tell inquirers that the group is all about following the example of Jesus, 2) shower them with attention and get them invested in the local fellowship, then 3) slowly shoulder them with those expectations that aren’t explicitly stated and yet required to be in Communion with them. This way they can use the established emotional connection as a tool for manipulation to later bring the new person into full compliance.
Let’s talk about those Mennonite doctrines…
What was most striking, and absolutely disturbing, about this recent encounter on social media, was how completely willing some were to question my faith and even to bear false witness to my face. For my infraction of saying that Mennonites are what they are, that they generally promote keeping their standards as being the definition of what it means to be a true Christian—for being an ex-Mennonite—one of their number went as far as to question if I was even a brother in Christ.
This, of course, is the grandest of ironies and starkly illustrates the disconnect between what adherents claim versus the reality of the practice.
First, they (two or more) wrongly interpreted my post as bashing CAM. But, instead of show love or turning the other cheek (as would be truly obeying what Jesus, right?), they attacked me personally and lied. Rather than address me directly and honestly, they would attempt to knock down strawman versions of what I said and pigeonhole me. Which is another reason why I don’t buy into the Mennonite ‘doctrine’ of non-resistant. It seems almost entirely about avoiding military service, giving them something to hold over other believers, and not all that practical or sincere.
In response to this empty non-resistance, it would be better to be the Roman Centurion that Jesus commended for his “great faith” than be the person who is a “conscientious objector” as a matter of cultural inheritance or convenience. It is noteworthy that Jesus, in the “Sermon on the Mount,” says not a word about wars between nations or about police doing their work, the examples given are what amount to insults and it seems to be about how we respond to our own personal enemies. So how this gets reversed, as part of Mennonite ‘doctrine,’ is strange.
And, so far as “non-conformity,” taken from St Paul’s “be not conformed to the world,” (Romans 12) the rest of the context does not at all support the most common ‘Anabaptist’ interpretation or application. In that context, there is no mention of clothing or style, but rather what this means is summed up in the second half of the verse where he says “but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” He goes on in the chapter to define this further, describing what this looks like in practice. It is about looking intentionally different or in-your-face billboards.
The Truth sets free!
The fictional “They Live” speaks of the reality that is hidden beneath political messaging and commercial advertising. It is almost routine now that the name of a new piece of legislation or branch of government is nearly the opposite of what it does. For example, the Defense Department leads the absolutely most aggressive military in the world. The Inflation Reduction Act has nothing to do with reducing inflation and will likely only increase costs as all subsidies tend to do. The ‘right’ words are always manipulation and cover their agenda.
But the reality is, most of us, and especially those brought up in a religious home and community, have great difficulty telling the truth. No, it is not that we set out to lie or mislead people, rather it is we have difficulty fully comprehending how corrupted our own hearts can be. We tend to see ourselves as being righteous and forget that even our Sunday best is filthy rags by comparison to true Holiness. We do not realize how much we are bound to our own confirmation bias and prejudices. This could be why Jesus said we leave behind even our families to follow Him:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26 NIV)
Taken literally this would be a contradiction with the many admonitions to love found in Scripture and the Gospels. I’m pretty sure the “hate” means to not be encumbered by or unable to see beyond our own heritage and most familiar to us. This means accepting that we may ourselves have an incorrect understanding of the Biblical texts. When Jesus spoke of those who cry “Lord Lord,” he isn’t speaking to those other “nominal Christians,” but to those who are sure that they represent His truth and do not.
Jesus said, in John 8:32, “the truth will set you free.” And, for this reason, it would be far better that Mennonite-borns embrace, rather than deny, the influence of their culture and tradition so far as the Christ that they are able to see. In doing this, in our understanding that what we received in doctrine or practice is not plain unadulterated Christianity, there is a far greater possibility of discovering our own blindspots and growing in faith. It is more comfortable to assume that we’re the real Christians. It is much harder to deal with our pride and repent.
There was this elegant old structure, in the countryside, a tall pointy steeple beckoning the passers-by to gaze upward at the blue skies. It had been around at least a century, the doors still open to all.
One day a tradesman moved into this rural community and admired this building. He loved the sturdy timbers holding beneath the slightly weathered clapboard siding, and then that ever-reliable stone foundation keeping it all square.
But one concern, as he did his inspection, was the missing roof shingles. The wind and storms having taken their toll. It would be a shame, he thought, to have the contents all get ruined and eventually see the church itself destroyed by this neglect.
So he thought to get involved. He showed up one Sunday morning and met the pastor and congregation. Good people.
The building inside was as beautiful as it was outwardly. Fine craftsmanship at a level rare to non-existent anymore. The stained glass in the sanctuary gave an ethereal feel and the beauty of the whole experience was breathtaking at times. And yet, he could see the signs of a leaking roof, the water spots in the ceiling, and his concerns grew.
It was a few months later, after becoming a regular and joining the church, that there was a members’ meeting. Taking the chance to raise the issue of the roof, he stood up, described the problem, and offered to help coordinate the repairs.
There was a hush that came over the room. An elder thanked him kindly for the suggestion and yet seemed slightly bothered.
A week or two later the minister, a stately yet friendly man, took the tradesman aside, putting an arm on his shoulder, “Hey, brother, we’re glad you come here. We love that you participate in all we do.” He paused, trying to search for the right words. “There has been some concern, umm or rather, I appreciate your perspective, as a man who works with his hands and I don’t want to discourage that.” Stopping again. “However, the church is a spiritual place and, no offense, I know you meant well, but you need to have more faith. If you see a problem, rather than be consumed by doubt or despair, looking for man-made solutions, pray about it, okay?”
Now a bit stunned, but still respectful, the tradesman did not argue. He instead agreed to pray and did.
More time passed, things continued as usual, the roof continuing its deterioration, until one day the congregation was having a service and a chunk of the ceiling fell and squarely on the tradesman’s head. Adding insult to the injury, as he began to brush the debris from his suit jacket, a stream of water from the rain shower outside completely drenched him.
He was now upset. Enough is enough! We really need to do something about the roof, he decided, and approach the pastor again, after some small talk he announced, “You saw what happened today, right?” And then continued, “I know a Christian must remain committed to prayer and that God is always in control, but we have the means to fix that roof and should!”
Disappointment swept over the pastor’s face as he considered this statement. But, rather than lash out, he tried to be diplomatic, “I can hear your frustration. And nobody likes to be humiliated.” Smiling warmly to lighten the mood before getting serious, “Have you ever considered that the roof isn’t the real issue here? I noticed you only wear a suit coat, it is okay and yet a bit underdressed for services. Have you considered wearing a tie?”
The tradesman wore a tie from then on. And, after a few more awkward encounters, where he was eventually forbidden from trying to throw a tarp over the growing holes and told to tithe more instead, he would do his best to keep his exasperation from showing. It was none of his business, he was told, that we come to church to worship God together and prayer would provide all of our needs.
Eventually, the congregation of country folk would be left standing on top of the rubble. They would spend the winters shivering in the cold and wind-driven snow, summers in the blazing heat, wondering why God had taken their wonderful building, yet serenely sure this was just a test of their faith and devotion to Providence.