The US Constitution is a prime example of how the same words can be interpreted in many different ways. Sometimes this is just a way to get around the clear meaning and other times it is simply a problem with language. There are many cases, with this founding document of a nation, that it would be nice if we could have some further explanation. Sure, you can read some of what the writers and signers said elsewhere in order to try to fill in the blanks. But, in the end, without them here, we don’t truly know how they would respond to the demands of our modern economy, technology, and needs.
This only gets murkier when dealing with Scriptures written two millennia ago. Yes, every Bible-thumper and their brother thinks they have a clear understanding while everyone else is just making things more difficult than they really should be. I mean, “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It,” right? And yet, if I were to answer that with, “do you bury your poo outside of your property, in a hole you dug with a trowel, as instructed in Deuteronomy?” I’m guessing that suddenly what the Bible says would become a bit less settled as those using this phrase made some sort of theological exemption and that’s okay, there are things in Scripture that aren’t perfectly clear without some further explanation.
But what is more intriguing to me is what is completely left out that would be so obvious to early Christians that it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning in the letters. As the saying goes, more is caught than taught, and sometimes the most important things never do get written out. In other words, if we were writing instructions on how to drive a car, we would probably assume that the person knows how to get into the vehicle or sit facing forward. However, from the Bible, do we know how the early church structured their services or generally lived? Would they even recognize us as Christians? The reality is that there are gaps that many today just fill in with assumptions and it is usually these different extra-Biblical assumptions that lead to many divisions.
In the Protestant world “extra-Biblical” is practically a curse word. How dare you ever have a rule, custom, or tradition that goes beyond the written text! That’s false religion or something! This is why Orthodoxy is often dismissed by those seeking to strip down Christianity to the Biblical bare bones. It is a special kind of ignorance.
A good illustration? In World War II there was a study of returning aircraft and the damage that they had to determine how to better prevent future losses. The Center for Naval Analyses concluded from this that the aircraft needed more protection in these most heavily damaged areas. However, Abraham Wald, a Hungarian mathematician, begged to differ. He reasoned that the aircraft returning had survived and those that had been hit in more critical areas did not. In other words, what needed to be done was the very opposite of what the others had concluded. They needed to better armor those areas that weren’t damaged in the returning aircraft. This tendency to misinterpret evidence, based on what we have rather than what is missing, is called “survivorship bias” and can lead to woefully incorrect ideas.
This is what the Bible says about what is written versus what is not:
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
(2 Thessalonians 2 NIV)
The “letter” is what we have received in Scripture. These are the books of the Bible, canonized by the Church and believed to be truly inspired writing for this reason. But the “word of mouth” is where things are more interesting. What of the Apostle’s teaching (or tradition according to the KJV) is not written in their letters and how do we know what is missing?
The Orthodox, of course, say that this is the tradition of the Church and tie their legitimacy to the fact that there is a line of secession going all the way back to the Apostles, by the laying of hands and ordinations, and this only makes sense. The Church (note, not an individual or even the institutions) is what keeps the spoken teachings of the Apostles preserved like it did the Bible, and also serves to provide the correct understanding of Scripture. Because we should know, as Peter warned, that the Bible does not provide its own interpretation: “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16 NIV)
However, it isn’t just the non-Orthodox that fall victim to their own bias. There are parts of the Church tradition, whether spoken or written, that slip through the cracks. We all have blind spots. We all have our distortions of concepts and errant assumptions. The difference is, that the Orthodox, if they are truly seeking to be Orthodox, are at least making some effort to incorporate the sayings of the Fathers and have a grasp of those “word of mouth” traditions not necessarily ever expressed in Scripture. In doing this, in understanding how Christianity was practiced by the faithful throughout the centuries, it becomes that much harder to distort the words of the Bible.
In the end, Christianity is about Communion, not easy textbook answers, not following an instruction manual, not standing alone, but real relationships. The more important being that between ourselves and God. However, a relationship with God implies love for our brothers and sisters. It means we are rubbing elbows with other Christians and the Saints. As Fr. Anthony put it, in his fatherly council to me, “there are no Lone Rangers” in Christianity, we can’t put the words of Jesus to practice in solitude or isolation. It’s not in removing ourselves that we are purified, it is in our getting messy and involved in the life of the Church of imperfect people (like us) that we are changed. That is taking up our cross. That is the hard part of Christianity we would rather run from.
Learning never stops in relationships. Christ Jesus did not come so we could house church with the few other perfect people who have the proper understanding of a book according to us. Instead, the very act of Incarnation was God choosing to be around those undeserving and impure, to identify with them and their suffering, which should be the impulse of those filled with the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit, St Paul tells us, that will bring “unity” and a “bond of peace” which should span centuries or the current divisions because: “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 4:4-6 NIV)
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.
Let’s talk about consciousness and infant Baptism, shall we?
My entire life, as a child of Anabaptism, I was taught a doctrine called “Believer’s baptism” (or credobaptism) which a) tied Baptism to church membership and b) teachings that Baptism requires a conscious or adult decision. The irony of that is that many Mennonites are Baptized as children, as a result of indoctrination, and not after an exhaustive search for truth that ends with Christ.
It makes sense, at one level, that a believer in Christ must be able to “count the cost” (Luke 14) of discipleship, right?
And yet, if we look at the Apostles themselves, were any of them actually ready when they were picked by Jesus?
No, if Peter had counted the cost, if he truly understood what it meant to enter the kingdom, he would never have denied Christ. The doubts of Thomas, and the betrayal of Judas, all point to a group of men who did not fully comprehend the words of Jesus prior to their Baptism.
#1) We don’t choose, we’re chosen and drawn to Christ:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. […] The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
(John 6:44-45,63-65 NIV)
#2) We did not decide the hour of our first birth nor do we decide the second birth:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. you should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
(John 3:2-8 NIV)
#3) We were dead, dead people aren’t conscious to make adult decisions:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
(Ephesians 2:1-10 NIV)
By adding the requirement of adult comprehension, the teachers of credobaptism turn Baptism into a work and base salvation on our consciousness of the need. That’s rational, yet humanistic and not the process we see outlined in Scripture. Lazarus, dead for four days, did not have the mental capacity to listen to the command of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out!” No, we understand that this would be impossible. And, likewise, when the Rich Young Ruler (asks “what must I do to be saved,” the final answer is not “sell all and give to the poor,” as some Anabaptists believe—it is “with man this is impossible, with God all things are possible.”
The real problem with this idea that Baptism requires a certain level of consciousness (and the invented concept of an “age of accountability”) is that it is totally arbitrary and would exclude those not fully capable of making an adult choice. I mean, truly, will we refuse to Baptize the mentally disabled because they can’t count the cost of discipleship? Should we have an IQ test? Maybe make applicants provide proof of their faith? At the very least, if this notion of Believer’s baptism is correct, and adult consciousness necessary to appreciate Christ, then should we cut this silliness of a baby leaping in the womb (Luke 1:41) out of the Gospel narrative?
There is evidence, in Scripture, of whole households being Baptized. But there is little to support this idea that one must reach a certain level of consciousness to be Baptized. It is really like some people think they’ve saved themselves and this misunderstanding of the significance of Baptism, starting five centuries ago, got turned into theological hubris. If Baptism is about being born again or spiritual rebirth—and our first physical birth was not a willful choice—why would we ever conclude that Baptism must be a choice, a matter of age or adult comprehension?
What is Baptism truly about?
Baptism is the start of a journey of faith, like birth, and something to accompany repentance.
But wait, there’s more…
Baptism and the Nuptial Bath
Up until very recently, being unfamiliar with Jewish wedding traditions, I would never have made the connection between Baptism and a Jewish bride’s nuptial bath. A friend of mine shared a podcast that dove into that topic (listen here) and the parallels seem to be very real. Upon further research, this ‘other” meaning is also something understood historically by the church and quite clearly implied in this passage:
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.
(Ephesians 5:25-27 NIV)
Baptism, in effect, is a symbolic representation of the start of this ritual cleansing that doesn’t end with the act. The Christian life is a life of repentance, of continually turning towards Christ. Our spiritual cleansing doesn’t end with the water of our physical Baptism either.
After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
(John 3:22-30 NIV)
It was directly prior to this that we have the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus where we get the phrase “born again” and where Jesus tells the perplexed Jewish religious leader about this rebirth “of water and the Spirit” like the wind that goes wherever it pleases. That is an indication of the mysterious origin of Baptism, that it is not something that comes about through our own rational thought processes.
So what is this “ceremonial washing” about?
And how does Baptism relate to brides and bridegrooms?
A few months back I worked on a truss layout for a religious building project, a Mikvah bath, and learned more about the Jewish ritual cleaning process and something observant women of that religion must do on a regular basis.
However, most significantly, it is something they do prior to marriage, which seems to be the connection between the quarrel about everyone getting this ceremonial washing and the response of John the Baptist.
The point and purpose of John’s ministry, like the pre-marital ritual washing of a bride when her groom arrived, Baptism was to make people ready for the marriage to Christ. It was not symbolic of the commitment itself—rather it was only a part of the process leading up to the commitment. So, sure, Baptism is the start of an important transitionary moment and yet our salvation comes through a life-long Theosis, through our being washed, sanctified, and justified by the Spirit of God until the time we depart this world.
One last point, and related to this nuptial bath tradition and the parallels to Baptism. Jewish brides did choose their partners nor the time of their wedding like we do. No, they practiced arranged marriage and the arrival of the groom was at the appointed time of his father once the preparations were complete. So again, where does this idea come from that the bride must choose the time or place of this meeting and bath? Wouldn’t responsible Christian parents want to prepare even infant children for their groom?
The expanded consciousness that comes through our prearranged nuptials with Christ can come after the ritual washing of Baptism—as it did for the disciples who didn’t know what they were being signed up for when they began their journey of faith.
As abstract minded as I am, always living in my own head, the only evidence of the Gospel narrative that works for me is that which is experienced or practical. I know the apologetics and intellectual arguments, but none are able to bridge the gap or overcome the reasonable doubts.
This idea that we can find God by climbing a tower of human knowledge is very appealing and especially for those of us in this age of information. It is a feature of Protestantism, where the soteriology is centered around the text, an individual’s ability to comprehend and then accepting certain propositions, which ends up being very Gnostic.
The blog, a few weeks ago, that questions resurrection apologetics, left things hanging as far as an alternative. If we can’t prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus died and rose again, as an actual historical event, how can we believe anything in the Gospel? Of course, we can’t prove the resurrection or any past event, how could we?
But is truth really about the past tense or some kind of intellectual theorem? Or is it something we relate to personally, that we must experience for ourselves?
Truth in Narrative
The most compelling evidence for the Gospel is the truth of the narrative itself and by that I mean how the older I get the more I realize that people behave exactly as those in the parables Jesus told and the accounts of his ministry. No, it doesn’t absolutely prove the extraordinary claims, but the Bible as a window into human psychology and sociology is quite fascinating.
Jesus started his ministry with a broad appeal, people wanted change and he quickly developed a following. It is very easy to gather a crowd by proclaiming to be the source of hope and change. But, as his teaching progressed, and it became clearer that his kingdom was not about the political power the masses wanted, and he started to say some weird stuff as he got to what would be required, the crowd thinned.
People don’t want the truth, they want their truth, to be validated for what they already believe. But Jesus taught the way to truth was by partaking of his body and blood, to make the sacrifice play, relying on faith and God for their sustenance rather than their own human reasoning. That’s why it was impossible for the Rich Young Ruler to attain eternal life—he was relying on his own goodness to save him.
Truth in Symbolism
It is interesting what freaked out the crowd in Jesus day also is a bridge too far with many who profess to be Christian:
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
(John 6:35 NIV)
And he doubles down when the audience begins to grumble:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.
(John 6:53-56 NIV)
This is what followed:
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
(John 6:60-66 NIV)
This was a rejection of materialism. He was pointing to something mystical, something that transcended their understanding of reality, their version of the universe and thus they fled from him. It is also very interesting that the coming betrayal of one of the twelve is mentioned by Jesus in this context, that perhaps this is where Judas Iscariot became disillusioned?
My own Anabaptist religious roots, given the Zwinglian influence, is very agnostic as far as the Mystical Supper. While being strict fundamentalists otherwise, like insistence on a ‘literal’ interpretation of the Creation narrative, in the book of Genesis, they will deny the substance of the words that Jesus said (above) that caused so many to fall away from Him. To them being a “follower of Jesus” takes a very practical turn and too practical in that it ignores the mystical in favor of the rational.
But, if one believes that Jesus actually walked on water or really turned water into wine, why would they ever question (or try to reinterpret) when he says “this is my body” and claim it means something other than what he said?
The thing is, yes, there is a practical, even a humanist, component to Christianity and yet it all must be in this context of Communion with God or it is only human effort. And, to go a step further, no, it is not all about barn raising practicality either, it is about truth in worship. We don’t do what we do in a spirit of utopian idealism, we do it because we believe their is a substance of bread, a bread of heaven, greater than what we can sense with our taste buds.
Truth in Action
There are many who are into the pageantry of religion, wearing the ‘right’ colors or cut according to their tradition, yet not willing to live out the actual substance of faith and Communion. Yes, the Orthodox understand that Christianity centers on the mystical, that there is no spiritual life outside of partaking of the body and blood of Christ. Still, it is a denial of Christ, and not true mysticism, when the rituals are not a reflection of real love of our family:
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 NIV)
The book of James was inconvenient for Martin Luther and also for all of those who would rather keep their religion between them, their own understanding of a book, and God.
But the truth is not about our own personal knowledge or judgment. Judas could quote the words of Jesus as good as any of the other disciples. And yet it takes more than our understanding a set of propositions or a mental exercise. As Jesus said, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” That is where the truth is, in our coming together, in our loving each other as Christ first loved us:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.
(1 John 4:7-12 NIV)
In the parables Jesus told, in the accounts of the ministry of Jesus, there is truth. Also, in our partaking in the mysteries of the Church, in our Communion together as the body of believers, there is truth. But the truth that us most significant, and the only real Christian apologetic there is, is the truth of our love for each other. That is the truth of Christ Jesus, who came in the flesh to demonstrate the love of God.
Much of what we believe is inherited and that includes how we interpret certain passages of Scripture. It is just the way things are, we do not independently arrive at our own conclusions and could very well have been taught wrong. Those who believe that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they’re standing on it have no potential for growth in understanding or perspective.
Many in a purity culture would squeal their displeasure at the term “legalism” being used to describe their ‘Biblical standards’ and hide behind mantras such as “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It!” Unfortunately, while this kind of obstinate stance may be good as far as resisting temptation, it basically amounts to confirmation bias on steroids in a search for truth.
This is exactly the attitude of those who took issue with Jesus breaking the Sabbath and how they absolutely refuse to see their own application of Scripture as entirely missing the point:
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
(Matthew 12:1-14 NIV)
The Pharisees, like religious fundamentalists today, believed that they were the experts and examples of righteousness. They would know that Moses, by order of the Lord according to Numbers 15:32-36, had a man put to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. It is very likely that many of them were very sincere in their saying that Jesus was possessed by a demon. How dare this teacher allow his followers to break the law and then defiantly double down in response to their concern!!! Weren’t there six other days to heal?!?
Now some commentators may try to square this legalistically, by claiming that Jesus was not truly going against Scripture. But I do not believe this is the case. The Pharisees were obsessed with the letter of the law and technically right in their complaint against his breaking the Sabbath. Jesus, by contrast, was focused on the reason behind the law, or spirit of the law, and pointed to Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” to establish the vast difference between the ritualistic devotion to a set of religious rules and genuine love for people.
Legalism, by this standard, is a use of the law that is negligent of the purpose. What is the purpose of law? The law is supposed to be for our own good, to protect us from harm, and thus the exceptions that Jesus mentioned in response to his critics. A legalist, in their strict adherence to rules, loves their rules, and yet they lack love and mercy for people. Thus, a legalist, in their no-compromise application of the law, defies the actual purpose for which the law was established and, therefore, are no longer under the law themselves:
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 2:12-13 NIV)
Legalism: Divorced From the Issue
This blog is not meant to be a theological tome. For a more exhaustive look at the divorce and remarriage topic, especially for those of an Anabaptist background, I would suggest reading Dwight Gingrich who has covered the issue exhaustively in a series of blogs. I’ve already covered Biblical proof-texts in prior postings as well. Instead, I’ll stick to a discussion of the hardness of hearts and economia (special exception) as it applies to divorce and remarriage.
First of all marriage, by original intent, is until death do they part and there’s no exception to this. If men and women would live up to their vows, not make promises they not keep, this would solve the entire issue. If people would act responsibly and remain faithful in relationships then there would be no broken homes. That is certainly ideal, it was also the privilege of being born into conservative Mennonite culture for me—in that my parents were encouraged, through peer pressure, to overcome doubts and make it work.
However, this ideal simply is not available to many in the world. Many do marry, or have children, with someone whom they intend as their soulmate and it doesn’t end in a happily ever after for them. This failure of adults can have disastrous consequences for the next generation, the less desirable outcomes for children of single-parent homes are the evidence:
Children who live with only one of their parents do less well in school, obtain fewer years of education, and have trouble keeping a steady job as young adults. Children from single parent families are six times more likely to be poor.
“Single Parenthood and Children’s Well-being,” Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars
Now maybe this is genetic, that the children have the same commitment issues as their parents, and this strong correlation of single-parent homes with poor outcomes for children does not automatically equate to environmental causation. Maybe we need an adopted twin study? But it is pretty safe to say, without a complex analysis, that the insecurity and chaos of a home with one parent will have an impact on children that is undesirable.
So there’s a question: If the law is there for our good and single-parent homes are bad, what should happen after divorce or abandonment?
In the culture that I came from, there was a hardline stance on divorce and remarriage that even nullified the “exception clause” of Matthew 19:9. This perspective, from my personal experience as one who defended it, is about the preservation of an ideal and even at the expense of people. I could reason, like Moses having the man killed for picking up sticks, that allowing one exception would be a slippery slope and lead to far greater social disorder.
And yet this “greater good” logic is exactly why Jesus was put to death:
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
(John 11:47-50 NIV)
They both missed out on Jesus, their king, and also did not save temple worship. Also equally ironic is that the high priest unintentionally spoke the truth.
Anyhow, maybe, in the time of Moses, sacrifices of animals and the sons of Abraham were needed for the health of the nation. But now, after the death and resurrection of Christ, we are clothed in his righteousness and thus free from the letter of the law that kills:
He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
(2 Corinthians 3:6 NIV)
You’ll need to read further about the context of that statement to fully grasp what St Paul is saying in that letter. But the short version is that he’s contrasting the understanding of the law prior to Christ with that which only comes with the Spirit and seeing the intent behind laws as being greater than the laws themselves. This is different from the Pharisee men who carved out legalistic exceptions for themselves to divorce and were confronted by Jesus for their hardness of heart:
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
(Matthew 19:3-9 NIV)
The audience is men. The ideal is marriage until death do they part. And the rebuke is against the hardness of hearts. This is what makes it so egregiously wrong that men, in fundamentalist communities, will apply this passage (usually excluding the exception clause) to women who were abandoned by their husbands. It is, at the very best, taking the words of Jesus out of context and it is too often used rather hard-hearted response to those who have no chance of restoring what is ideal.
Jesus was not answering the question of what a woman is supposed to do when left to raise her children alone. And I’m also quite confident that he was not intending for his prescription to these men to be applied in the same dogmatic manner as they approached the Scriptures. It was their lack of mercy and compassion, how these men would misuse of the law of Moses (which did allow divorce) to escape their own responsibilities, that is the focus of his words.
As was explained to me concerning the Orthodox position on divorce and remarriage in contrast to that of fundamentalists:
As to sticking with what is written, I think here you can see the difference in how the Orthodox view the Scriptures—as part and parcel—but never the entirely of the whole Tradition—all of which has been handed down to us. The Orthodox do not take divorce and re-marriage lightly—it’s a complicated process to get a bishop’s blessing to undertake second and third marriages and the blessing is not always given. But the primary issue here is that the Orthodox confess God to be a God of mercy, love, and forgiveness—not a law-obsessed judge who keeps a record of pluses and minuses in order to play “gotcha” with those who fail.
Father Anthony Roeber
That statement above, part of an email that so profoundly reframed my understanding of divorce and remarriage, cuts right to the heart of the issue. Married or single, first marriage or second, what matters more than anything else is will if help us in the journey of faith or will it hinder. And that’s the true intent behind the law, it was a tool to steer us in the direction of doing what is good and merciful, like our Father, and yet would never be sufficient to save us.
Conflict is everywhere, anywhere there are two are more gathered there is potential for conflict. We currently watch the lingering hostilities between the West and Russia unfold into open war in Ukraine, between people of a common Kyivan Rus’ religious and cultural heritage. The reasons are complex (watch this video for a deeper dive) and beyond the scope here.
Nevertheless, the same things that cause wars between nations also lead to schism and splits in the church, and despite the exhortation of St. Paul to make every effort to maintain unity:
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 4:2-4 NIV)
If we would ask most who profess Christ, they would probably agree that the Church should be united, there should not be rifts or denominations, yet that’s probably where the agreement would end. The body of believers has split hundreds of different ways, over matters of theology, history, structure, worship style, politics, or personalities.
But, before we get to the broader conflicts and division within Christianity, I’ll confess that I’m currently in my own conflict. This is why I am both the right and the wrong person to write about this topic. I am the wrong person because the impasse has not been resolved yet despite a small gesture on the part of the other person. My anger has exasperated the issue. And yet I’m also still wanting to find peace with this other person and honest resolution.
Conflict is Nothing New or Unexpected
If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers.
(Psalms 55:12-14 NIV)
I believe we can all identify with the text above. We expect an enemy to do us harm and will find ways to maintain distance. However, when someone that we trust acts in a deliberately hurtful way, exploiting our vulnerabilities, the betrayal of a friend is the worst kind of pain. It is hard to come back to the table when someone professing Christ, who worshipped with us, seemingly close in spirit, totally destroys our trust.
That said, restoration of what is broken is part and parcel of Christianity. Indeed, we’re told that if we can’t forgive a person who owes us, then we will not be forgiven by God. (Matthew 6:4,5) This is something that Jesus expounded on in the parable of the unforgiving servant, a man who begs for mercy for a vast sum of money he owed, is forgiven, and then turns around to demand from a fellow servant.
And yet, no teaching of Jesus should be taken out of context either. Jesus was not, I repeat, was not telling us to sweep sin under a rug or not hold people accountable for their abuses. This certainly was not unilateral and unconditional forgiveness without repentance:
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17 NIV)
So many conflicts within the Church could be solved if we would go directly to the other person who had caused our offense. This process above is prescriptive and may keep a mere misunderstanding from blowing up into something that leads to separation or divides a congregation. First, before consulting anyone else, we should try to settle the issue amongst ourselves. Then, if that doesn’t work, it is time to seek the counsel of others and confront together. And, if that fails, if they refuse collective council, we should part ways.
It is similar to this explicit command from St. Paul:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
(1 Corinthians 5:9-13 NIV)
Forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance for unrepentant sin. The church cannot be a hospital if we let the infection of sin to spread, like a superbug, untreated and ignored. The antiseptic is to confront the issue, to give opportunity for confession and repentance to begin the healing process. But, if the limb refuses treatment, then (as an absolute last resort) it must be amputated to save the body, as St. Paul had asked rhetorically in the lead up to the verses above: “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?”
In cases of actual unrepentant sin, conflict is entirely appropriate. The church cannot be allowed to become an incubator for sin. The toxicity can quickly spread and destroy the fellowship and health of a congregation. It takes proactive pastoral involvement, like that of St. Paul, to keep things from spiraling out of control. Yes, we should pray about all things. Sure, we should not judge without mercy and willingness to forgive the repentant. Still, we must confront sin, endure the discomfort of effective conflict resolution, and not simply resign to fate.
Not All Separation is Sin
Too many seem to skip over the book of Acts and miss the opportunity to see how Christianity played out in the early church:
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.
(Acts 15:36-40 NIV)
This seemed like an amicable separation between Paul and Barnabas. Nevertheless, it was an unresolved conflict and they parted ways over it. There is no indication that either of the men was harboring an unforgiving spirit or in the wrong for this and, in the end, it probably helped the Gospel to reach more people than if they had stuck together. That is why with my own current conflict I may simply move on rather than make an effort to settle things. It is sometimes not worth the energy to continue with someone that does not see things the way we do.
Going separate ways, rather than trying to push through a conflict, may serve a greater purpose. At the very least, as with Abraham and Lot who parted ways over the turf wars between their respective herdsmen, we’ll gain a little peace. The key is that we don’t harbor ill-will or bring any hostilities with us Note that Paul and Barnabas did not go out and start competing church groups. They stayed within the same body of faith, carried on the same tradition, and simply moved in a different direction.
Is Ecumenicalism the Answer?
A church unified in teaching and mission should be the desire of all Christians. Some achieve this by declaring themselves the remnant and carrying on the great tradition of Diotrephes who turned away even the Apostles:
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)
Declaring yourself to be the true church and everyone else imposters is certainly convenient and yet not really employing be completely humble. I mean, sure, when I was Mennonite I wanted a church unity built around the doctrines that I was taught. It is easy to assume that the ground that we stand on is sacred simply because we’re standing on it. However, that is not an attitude or spirit that will ever overcome our existing conflicts.
Many are tempted to see ecumenicalism as the better alternative. Let’s all just give up on the particulars, find our common ground in Jesus, sing kumbaya while holding hands together, and move on, right?
But this is a race to the lowest common denominator, we would need to throw out almost everything to reach some kind of consensus. We would end up with a vague picture of the real Jesus and only end up creating one more faction. That’s the grand irony of universalist, non-denominational or ecumenical efforts, they never do actually solve the divisions and only end up creating another group of those willing to compromise for sake of creating a kind of unity that doesn’t really amount to much.
Eccumenticalism tends to be a denial of the reasons why the conflicts exist. It glosses over serious differences in theology and practice. It appeals to a “can’t we all just get along” sentiment, it is modeled off of the democratic process that many in our time embrace rather than the Gospel, and is not the way of the early church.
How Did the Early Church Settle Disputes?
The early church was not conflict-free. And had a fair amount of heretical teachings and false prophets that needed to be addressed. But one of the big disputes was between the Judiazers, those of Jewish background who wished to impose Jewish law on all new converts, and those who did not see this as necessary:
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. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “ ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— things known from long ago. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
(Acts 15:1-19 NIV)
This conflict was not solved by democracy or popular vote. No, it was decided by a council of elders and Apostles, who then told the rest of the Church what the right approach would be. It also went against a strict interpretation and application of Scripture. It was both hierarchical and required submission. We might not like that this dispute was decided from the top down. We can question the authority of this council or those that followed after, nevertheless, this was how conflicts over theology and practice were settled.
This is the strength of Orthodoxy; Orthodoxy centers on the Orthodoxy rather than hierarchy and that does mean the tradition of the Apostles, passed on “by word of mouth or by letter,” (2 Thess. 2:15) a canon of teachings (including Scripture) that have been established as authentic through councils of the Church, and has been held fast by the faithful throughout the centuries.
So Orthodoxy is the Answer to Conflict?
Many Orthodox Christians will tout their unbroken lineage all that way back to the Apostles. Our way of worship goes back over a millennium, the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated from the 5th Century on and is unrivaled in terms of the beauty of the content and structure. We are the ancient Church tradition and, indeed, Holy Communion is a mystical experience when in the presence of all those through the centuries who have participated. Such unity!
We’ll talk about the Great Schism and do some of that necessary handwringing about the literally thousands of divisions within Protestantism. I mean, judge for yourself, is there any civilization more divided against itself than the West? Even Roman Catholicism, with its progressive Pope and sex abuse scandals, is quite at odds with itself despite having a defined hierarchical structure.
Had I entered Orthodoxy with blind idealism, expecting the perfect church, I would probably have left even before getting started. The Orthodox may have the richest of Christian traditions, it is certainly a treasure trove for those who appreciate history and want to participate in a Christianity recognizable to those in the early Church. There is also a defined hierarchy to settle disputes. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? And yet the same conflicts of personalities and politics happen here as much as anywhere else.
Pretty much simultaneous to my entering the fold, the Ukrainian Schism took place. The gist of the dispute was that the Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew decided unilaterally to grant autocephaly (or independence) to the Ukrainian church. The problem was that this overstepped canonical law and violated the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. For sake of context, Bartholomew is pretty much the patriarch of a city that no longer exists, is supported by American churches, and is acting outside of his authority in a way reminiscent of the very Papal abuse that led to the Great Schism between East and West in 1054.
And then there were those families that left my own parish, led by a homeschooling mom from a Protestant background, who made some vicious (and completely unfounded, I was on the council and reviewed the books) accusations against the new priest. This woman, one of those pious and outwardly perfect types, the kind that can fool all of the frivolous old ladies, sends up all of the red flags of a classic manipulator. Things didn’t go her way and, therefore, that was proof of abuse and fraud. I tried to be her friend. I don’t completely connect with our new priest myself, and yet she’s way out of line.
Of course, I come from a Mennonite background, where no dispute is too petty to divide over. We would part ways over hairstyles.
The most disappointing fissure, however, other than my own personal conflict with someone that I thought was a real friend, is that between Abbott Tryphon and Ancient Faith Ministries. Tryphon, a convert to Orthodoxy, is a great writer and a favorite of my parish priest. I follow him on social media. He had a falling out with Ancient Faith over his more overtly political content. Of course, the accusations fly between sides, some say that one side has been compromised, has connections to this industry, or that, while the other would say it was over someone getting too entangled in worldly politics.
In other words, both sides are making essentially the same claim about the other and it probably does stem from both sides holding slightly different partisan perspectives. I can understand the perspectives that both sides have. I do not see worldly politics as being a good mix with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and yet I also see that a prophetic voice must speak to the issues relevant to the time. Still, Tryphon, though very eloquent, seems the more butt-hurt of the two parties and even alienated some of his own audience with his lashing out.
I would actually side against Tryphon, based on his visible conduct, if it weren’t for one thing and that thing being that I’m just like him when hurt. He’s a passionate man, someone who speaks with conviction, a bit black and white, and completely like me.
Division Makes Us All Weak
There is no religious system or culture that can prevent conflicts. We can go through all of the correct motions, speak all of the right words, have a perfect understanding of Christianity at a theoretical level, and yet totally fail to resolve conflicts.
Returning to the passage from Ephesians, from the start of the blog, the “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” is preceded by “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” That’s the hard part. When hurt or offended we don’t want to wait, we want to speak out rashly and let them feel a little of our own anguish.
And yet St Paul does not tell us to bury our grievances in the name of keeping unity and peace either:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
(Ephesians 4-14-16 NIV)
We should not lose our sensitivity:
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
(Ephesians 4:17-25 NIV)
Instead, we need to find a way to navigate through conflicts, to speak truthfully and reject falsehood, while still being completely gentle, humble, and patient at the same time. It is both prayerful and proactive. The potential growth of the church is stunted both by those aggressively confrontational and overly passive in their approach. Again, what good is a hospital that only ever talks about infection without ever treating it? Likewise, who would go to a hospital where they a browbeaten and belittled constantly?
Having the right spirit is the start to resolving (or even completely avoiding) conflicts. There is a need for open and direct communication. We should also not let things stretch out too long, where we let things stew, as Ephesians 4:26-27 says: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” The more that I think about something the more upset I can become. I tend to soften up very quickly when face-to-face with someone, it is harder to hold on to the grievance.
Oh No, Here We Go Again!
When I entered Orthodoxy, trying to put the deep disappointments behind me, and already having the romance question answered by Charlotte, I was determined to remain friendly, and yet aloof and impersonal enough not to get hurt. The people were nice at the small parish, a good mix of ages, coffee hour conversations could go deep and I very quickly warmed up to most of the regular attenders.
In the intervening years, there has been some change and conflict. The long-serving Fr. Dan, who helped to build the parish, retired (his last service my Chrismation) and the search was on for a new rector. Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the choice and almost immediately set to undermine the new priest. I tried to steer clear of those politics, choosing to remain faithful to the parish community despite my own personality conflicts with the burly bearded Harley riding Baptist convert. He’s a gruff man with a golden heart.
It was in the midst of the pandemic, after that initial quarantine phase in the spring of 2020, that a new person started to attend. She looked like someone who could be cradle Orthodox, with dark curly hair, and her veil with a long dress reminded me of the traditional Mennonite style that I loved. So I pretty much had to introduce myself and make them feel welcomed. I can’t really remember how that went, she was reserved and a little standoffish, and yet Orthodoxy provided a bond that allowed us to develop what seemed to be an authentic brotherly and sisterly relationship.
We spent a fair amount of time talking about our long-distance love interests, we became a sort of two-person support group for those waiting on their significant other to arrive, comforting and encouraging each other, and I found the greatest joy when her tall handsome man arrived one evening for vespers. I was so excited, in fact, that I offered to play the part of the photographer to make sure that this moment was captured.
I didn’t realize then that this would be the high point of the relationship. Uriah’s death meant I needed some space to process and mourn. I pulled back. And pulled back even more after a sarcastic remark was directed at me. It wasn’t meanspirited or meant to hurt, but I simply didn’t have the emotional armor for it and decided to let her be with her new nihilistic Ortho-bro Millennial buddies. A church isn’t supposed to be a social club or clique of cool kids snickering at everyone else, I could find more neutral company until I got my feet under me again, and that’s what I did.
It was mutual avoidance at this point. I wanted space, she never really loved me anyway (later revealing that our friendship was fake when I did try to reconcile) and this was fine.
However, eventually, this arrangement started to wear thin for me. It seemed dishonest or out of sorts with the loving claims we made with our mouths during worship together. It was too reminiscent of those cold shoulders Mennonite girls give when they want the pudgy less than hygienic misfit to get the hint and not Christian. So I did what I thought I do well, wrote an email, shelved that one, and wrote another less emotionally charged version that I sent.
Unfortunately, the signals that I got back were not conciliatory and some of the comments seemed to be very intentionally aimed at my known vulnerabilities, I was falsely accused of being romantically interested (100% not the case) and pretty much had everything thrown back in my face. It was at this point some of my past started to bubble back up, seeing her would trigger severe discomfort and a flight reflex. She did gesture to try to make it right and try I have not seen much evidence of a change of heart either.
Rather than reconcile with me directly and be honest, she seems determined to maintain the distance by getting intermediaries involved. And my initial anxiety attacks have morphed into intense feelings of anger from what feels like a betrayal and lies. I don’t trust her anymore and I don’t trust anyone to mediate. I can’t see platitudes or empty motions as being a way forward and would rather stick to the avoidance strategy. So the one triumph for true brotherhood in Christ ends in a messy quagmire.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The truth is that my interpersonal conflict, like all in the Church, is a problem with me as much (or more) than it is them. I have trust issues and an impossible ideal, the initial estrangement was my fault, she has her own baggage to deal with and is now moving to protect herself from me. In her mind, and in the mind of her allies, I am the unstable and manipulative party in this conflict. She is, no doubt, being encouraged to write me off and move on. I’ve given her reason (like telling her “stay away from me”) to never talk to me again.
So, what is my reason for spilling my guts in a blog once again?
Maybe so that someone reading can offer a solution or that those who are prayer warriors can help by begging God to remove those blinders from our eyes and free us from the bindings of fear. I had initially loved this person because they appeared to be sincere and that (during a sermon about martyrs and contemplating my own weakness of faith) I decided it would be worth dying beside her rather than leaving her to face death alone. It is tragic that we should end up dying now in opposition to each other due to our past. Please pray for me, a sinner, that I can learn humility and live a life of repentance.
This brings me to the final point and another reason why I’m sharing this openly: We cannot solve those broader schisms and divisions within the Church if we can’t even love those who are right in front of us enough to lower our defensive posture or give a second chance to those undeserving. Healing, within the body of Christ, can only be accomplished by working locally to resolve our own conflicts with humility, gentleness, and patience. We cannot conquer the world for the Kingdom when we’re at war with ourselves.
Furthermore, it takes being at peace with who we are as individuals, petty, unworthy, afraid and broken, to solve our own inner conflicts, before we’re going to do much good in our communities. My own insecurities, no doubt, are what cloud my judgment and lead to the wrong kind of response. The Gordian knot that I project onto this situation is less an external reality and more a reflection of my internal state. I am frustrated with my lack of progress. I did find great comfort in this friend who is complex and conflicted like me.
Now my true character has been revealed. I’m not this wonderful even-keeled guy. My emotions do get the best of me. I’m not at peace with myself all of the time and sometimes do look outward for a resolution to this inner battle. Unfortunately, looking to others for security and stability, will leave us further hurt. They have their baggage too, they respond wrong, misunderstand, misrepresent, manipulate, lie and will otherwise disappoint. That’s why spiritual healing has to start with me—with getting my own conflicted heart right.
What is the highest form of a loving relationship? Many would probably say marriage. Marriage is the recognition of two committing to oneness, involves physical intimacy, and is supposed to last “till death do us part.” What could be more wonderful than romantic love?
But, truth be told, people get into romantic relationships for some very biological reasons. As in pheromones and sexual attraction play a large role. It is why Mennonites marry young, they burn for sexual gratification, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, while this can develop into something deeper, it does not always and marriage can very quality become an unwanted obligation. Divorce rates would be much lower if people married for deeper reasons than merely getting something for themselves.
And that is why marriage and romance is not the ultimate expression of love. Admitted or not, it usually centers on sexual appetites, this special person may become your best friend and yet that does not negate the start. It began with physical attraction and is tied up in our reproductive instincts. So what is more wonderful?
The Love of David and Jonathan
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.
(2 Samuel 1:26 NIV)
This lament of David, in the quote above, the phrase “more wonderful than that of a woman” in particular, is supposed to stand out. It is a comparison for sake of showing how special and significant this relationship was to David.
But what made it so wonderful?
David, the Biblical character known for his fight with a Philistine giant among other things, had been secretly picked and annointed to be the next king of Israel. King Saul, despite his unusually tall stature, was a cowardly man and poor leader who blamed the people for his own incompetence. He was jealous and identified David as a rival for the throne.
But Jonathan, Saul’s son, who potentially had more to lose than his father immediately showed fondness towards the newly arrived giant slayer:
After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.
(1 Samuel 18:1-4 NIV)
They were “one in spirit” and made a covenant to express their love. Which became more important as David’s popularity, as a heroic military leader, grew:
When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang:
“Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”
Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?”
And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David.The next day an evil a spirit from God came forcefully on Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand 11and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.
(1 Samuel 18:6-11 NIV)
King Saul was, quite evidently, a very insecure man and couldn’t stand being shown up. Despite David being loyal, rage would get the better of Saul, as in the account above, and this would become a theme.
But Jonathan warned David and stood up to his father on behalf of his friend:
Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan had taken a great liking to David and warned him, “My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you. Be on your guard tomorrow morning; go into hiding and stay there. I will go out and stand with my father in the field where you are. I’ll speak to him about you and will tell you what I find out.”
Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, “Let not the king do wrong to his servant David; he has not wronged you, and what he has done has benefited you greatly. He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistine. The Lord won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad. Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?
(1 Samuel 19:1-5 NIV)
Jonathan, unlike his spiritually corrupt father, Saul, recognized that David had done no wrong and had actually secured their power. He put his neck out for David by standing up to his moody and unpredictable father. He had as much reason to be threatened by the rise of David, he could have simply kept his mouth shut to save his own skin, but instead he risked being the next to have a spear chucked at him defended his spiritual brother.
What Made This Love More Wonderful?
Some modern commentators try to pervert and sexualize the love between David and Jonathan. To them any intimate relationship must revolve around gratification of physical desires. But there is nothing in the text that suggests this was the case.
The fundamentalist religious types also dismiss love and intimacy that does not revolve around romance. They may not try to redefine the relationship of these two characters, but it is also an anomaly and mystery to them. Where I came from, there was no true brotherly or sisterly relationship, it was expected that people find their intimate connection in biological family or marriage.
David and Jonathan had a spiritual connection. It was a love that wasn’t self-centered. Jonathan was loyal, he eventually died beside his father in battle. Likewise, David had solid character, he absolutely refused to kill king Saul, the Lord’s annointed, despite being unjustly hunted and having to run for his life. Their love was more wonderful because it defied expectations, it went beyond the typical and was deeper connection.
It is often disheartening to see differences of application within the Church. I’m not only talking about the tens of thousands of Protestant denominations either, no, even those within the Orthodox tradition see things vastly different at times.
A few weeks ago, and adding to my consternation over the past weeks, which included an estrangement from a close friend, another trusted friend caught in his double life, as well as my continuing wait for Charlotte, still indefinite due to Covid restrictions, impending neck surgery, and other painful physical ailments, I had reached out to Fr. Anthony for council.
Now, I have suspected (but do not know and do not need to know) based on hints, that Fr. Anthony’s politics are a little different from mine. So when I shared about my own struggles with relationships within the parish family he shared a bit of his own. It turns out that his diocese is pushing vaccines (oops) and, evidently, he is in full support. My own bishop, by contrast, and fortunately for me, has issued a don’t ask don’t tell policy and basically forbade it from being an issue.
The thing is, I would never argue with Fr. Anthony over something like this, he is a wise and humble man, I have nothing but respect for him. Still, that doesn’t change my own opinion, my own hesitancy is not without good reason and I’m certainly not comfortable with this kind of medical decision being imposed on anyone. So there is a bit of cognitive dissonance while contemplating this difference in perspective. Can I have it both ways?
This was on the back burner until the other day, when a good friend, asked me to parse this:
I’m assuming you’re aware of the sentiment running around right now that Christians are supposed to be compassionate and care for their community. Therefore they should gladly submit to the vaccinations. Assume the vax is as effective as they think it is. What is the CORE philosophical/theological/moral flaw in that thinking?
I never actually answered the question. I honestly don’t know how to answer. But I suppose caring can cut many different ways and including being compassionate with those concerned about the risks of vaccines. My mind immediately went to that email exchange with Fr. Anthony where I had wanted to reconcile the opposite positions on vaccines, within Orthodoxy, and didn’t have the mental energy at the time.
My own rough position was that the whole debate, to vaccinate or not to vaccinate, was a secondary issue and there were others of primary importance.
Early on, last year, aware of the disease, still uncertain about the deadliness, I had stayed home a couple of Sundays because of my feeling sick and wondered about the wisdom of partaking from the Chalice. I’m not ignorant of virology and everyone being served from the same cup seemed to be a potential super spreader event in the making. Despite some saying otherwise, that we can’t get sick, I’m not completely convinced that disease can’t be communicated in this manner.
However, at some point, I decided that life or death, partaking of the body of Christ is more important than my own understanding of the spread of contagious disease. Besides that, my own risk of dying was relatively low, so why give up the practice of my faith on the basis of this risk? To live is Christ, to die is gain, right?
So, here’s the thing, if my parish did require me to vaccinate in order to partake, again, why worry? If faith means not being afraid of disease, then doesn’t it also mean not being fearful of vaccine side effects? New virus or new vaccine, we should not fear death.
But still, how do we reconcile one group using conscience as a reason why we should not even ask others about the vaccine status, while another uses it as a reason why all should vaccinate?
Why can’t Christians agree on this simple matter of application?
Christian Conscience and Meat Offered to Idols
Sometimes it is best to take a step back to gain some perspective. It is very easy to prioritize our own reasoning (and self-righteous indignation) above relationships and should remember what the Christian life is truly about. Is it about winning debates? Having our own way? Can we be technically right, as far as our own position, and wrong in spirit?
Looking back to St Paul, as far as how to handle the vaccine debate or other hot-button issues, I do believe that the answer is clear. In his first letter to the Corinthians he speaks to one of these issues of disagreement, pay attention to how he starts, what he priorities:
Now about food sacrificed to idols: 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.
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “Lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
(1 Corinthians 8:1-13 NIV)
We have many knowledgeable (and proud) in the church today, they studied theology, they have all the answers and will use “freedom in Christ” to exempt themselves from anything they don’t like. They have their “rights” and don’t you dare tell them otherwise. But they seem to have completely missed on the love part.
St Paul picks up on the meat theme again and drives home the point:
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the one who told you and for the sake of conscience. I am referring to the other person’s conscience, not yours. For why is my freedom being judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
(1 Corinthians 10:23-10 NIV)
Those who went to the discount rack, who bought the meat offered to idols, had logic and reason on their side. Meat is meat, right? Why not save a little? So it was offered to some false god and the proceeds go to pagans, what difference does it make? He even gives Psalm 24 as a proof text of this position.
However, he doesn’t stop there. He goes on to say that we should respect the conscience of those who do have a problem with the cheap meat and therefore abstain when the origin of the meat is known. In other words, our own personal freedom is secondary to the good of others, and even when our own position is more rational, or even Scripturally correct, than those of a more sensitive conscience.
He never says to argue our side or condemn their lack of knowledge. It’s not even something considered. His focus is on being respectful to others where we agree with them or not. Live or die, we yield in love, as St Paul writes in Romans:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
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. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
(Romans 14:1-23 NIV)
The ‘meat’ of St Paul’s point is that the other person’s conscience must be honored over our own, so that we do not create a “stumbling block” through our exercise of freedom. Even though he believes that there’s nothing unclean, in Christ, he strongly argues that we respect the conscience of others. In fact, he says it is sin for those who have a conscience against eating, and therefore we would be causing others to sin through our inconsiderate exercise of freedom.
To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate?
We no longer have controversies over meat offered to idols. But we have had some intense debate over vaccines and there are reasonable points made on both sides of the argument.
Generally speaking, vaccines have saved lives. We have, for the most part, eradicated some debilitating and deadly diseases through traditional vaccines and, therefore, we could offer protection to those most vulnerable by being first in line. It could be an act of Christian service to get vaccinated.
However, for some, the idea of using a vaccine derived from aborted fetal cells is completely reprehensible, a terrible evil. Would it be Christian to force these people to comply with our own understanding of science and violate their own conscience?
Is it ever right to tell another person to take on the risk of a medical intervention against their will?
My own position on the new Covid vaccines is that the risks outweigh the rewards and especially for those who already have antibodies through infection. According to some estimates, at least a third of Americans have natural immunity to the virus, and therefore the new vaccines (with the serious side-effects some suffer) are an unnecessary risk for these people. Why would we ever require these people to put their own health at risk for sake of our own conscience? Let people choose for themselves.
At the same time, are the moral objections we have to the vaccines actually as important as we make them. I mean, so some of the vaccines (not all) were tested on a cell line called PER.C6, would we ask as many questions about donated organs or if we should inject blood from another person? Do we raise the same ruckus when shopping for an iPhone, refusing to buy so much as a T-shirt if it may have been manufactured by sweatshop labor? Do we apply the same level of scrutiny to other products that enter our bodies?
Is it actually conscience or is it selective outrage, finding any excuse to be defiant, to stand on the ‘principle’ of our position because we need to win the debate, that keeps us from cooperating on vaccines?
This can cut both ways. One could say that we should never let a bad substance enter us, the temple of the Holy Spirit, and yet Jesus, in Matthew 15, says very clearly that what enters our bodies cannot defile us. Furthermore, in Mark 16 we read an assurance of what is possible with faith, “when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.” So should we really be so fixated on accounting for every molecule that enters our body? Are we not going to die eventually regardless? If you weren’t afraid of Covid, why be so terrified of a relatively safe vaccine?
Why do you oppose St. Paul when he says to put the other person’s conscience above your own?
The “You’re Not the Boss of Me” Attitude
If you’re an independent American, who wants to always do things your own way, then you probably won’t like my answer.
Nobody wants to be told what to do and especially not by those whom we do not believe are up to the task of leadership. It is not unusual, amongst siblings, for a child being ordered around by another, for the phrase “you’re not the boss of me” to rise in protest. And, it is true, in most circumstances it is not the role of one child to tell another what to do.
That attitude carries into adulthood, We don’t want to be told what to do. How many times have we heard “this is a free country” and people declaring their rights, as Americans, especially over the past few years?
Now, to be clear, I do not believe that government officials have authority over the law. It seems that many have a misconception about the structure of our government and seem to believe that Presidents or state governors are the equivalents of kings. They are not, this country is supposed to be one where rule of law trumps any official in government. There is nothing ungodly or rebellious about challenging illegal use of power in the courts. St. Paul himself took Roman jailers to task for their abuse of his rights as a citizen.
However, the Church is not a democracy, like it or not, and is ruled by a benevolent dictator with His ordained ministers. It is simply astounding to me that so many people take their understanding of American civics and apply this to the Church. The Church is (and always has been) patriarchal with Christ as the head. And just as a parent may give an elder child the authority to act on their behalf, as a stand-in, the same is true in the Church as well. No, this doesn’t mean that these ministers can rule in a manner different from their Lord. Indeed, they will give a greater account. Still, we are to obey those who are given charge over us:
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.
(Hebrews 13:17 NIV)
When Peter spoke, and the Jerusalem council decided, that was what the Church did. They overruled those who were trying to apply Jewish law to converts and, unless you want to throw out this part of New Testament canon, the book of Acts, then this was within their authority to do. This is what Jesus was talking about, in the Gospel of Matthew, as far as giving the Apostles “the keys to the kingdom” and authority to bind and loose. It is the role of the Church, the collective body, led by those ordained by Christ, to help guide us. Many individualize the work of the Holy Spirit and I do believe that it does lead individuals, yet Jesus said where two or three are gathered I am in their midst.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
(Ephesians 5:21 NIV)
It is not submission if we only go along with what already agrees with us or goes along with our own conscience.
Church shopping to find one that suits you is not obedience.
Ultimately, I’m okay with contrary positions on vaccines from diocese to diocese. For those concerned only about the kingdom, this should amount to little more than a toilet seat up or down type of preference. It should be spiritual death that is our concern, prioritizing those things on a higher plane and not being so caught up in having our own way that we can never submit to those of a different conscience.
Christian love solves the paradox. It doesn’t actually matter vaccinate or unvaccinated. What matters is that we respect each other, that we submit to the conscience of others even when we do not agree. For some this means we love by not imposing a newly developed pharmaceutical product against their objections, for others it means obeying those who are given the responsibility to decide such things.
Many say that they would do anything God asks of them and yet aren’t willing to give an inch in love for their brothers and sisters, maybe they don’t hate and yet they certainly don’t love:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.
A thought occurred to me, while lamenting my persistent unorthodoxness, that eventually the point of any religious practice (with emphasis on practice) is to color outside of the lines a bit. From art, to athletic endeavors, being spontaneous, unpredictable, and original, there is advantage in harnessing some of that creative chaos. So ritual and rigorousness has taken a back seat to emotional expression. Many call themselves ‘spiritual’ for their abandonment of church tradition.
However, an art teacher will tell you and a good writer knows, that there is no natural talent so good that it can’t benefit from studying the masters. Before one can reinvent the wheel, it might be good to at least know what the wheel is and understand the basic function of the thing before improving upon it. No basketball player does well to ignore all of the established fundamentals of their sport nor is it recommended that a weightlifter abandon good technique. Doing things your own way can lead to injury, can limit potential and be a tremendous disadvantage.
Yes, some do “shoot from the hip” and still manage to score some points. My own writing has improved from simply writing and not from having read every style manual written in the past few centuries. And yet I would be remiss, as well as incredibly arrogant, to not give complete credit to the teachers, the many writers, the coiners of terms and all those who have contributed to the descriptive wealth of the English language. And if my desire is to improve, then reading the greats, absorbing their knowledge of the craft, is only going to enhance my own creative efforts.
Only a fool would enter the ring relying only upon their natural and unimproved fighting abilities. Absolutely, Mike Tyson would knock me out without having spent a day training, God gifted him with a heavy weight’s frame and musculature. But, no boxer, no high level competitor, would last a minute against a person who studied form, who learned all they could from the best, practiced hours and came prepared. It is religious devotion that pushes even the elite to the next level.
Jesus is the foundation of the church, that is true, yet this doesn’t mean we should strip it bare to the bedrock each generation. Do we forget that Jesus himself, God in the flesh, was a practicing Jew for three decades before, while reading Isaiah 61, the prescribed text at the synagogue, announced “today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” We know that Jesus would go on to push the boundaries, to correct and build upon the established religion, yet never claiming it was worthless.
What Is Orthodoxy?
This word “orthodox” refers to correctness.
It is the same root used for terms like “orthopedic” or “orthodontist” and basically implies straightening out, correctness.
Orthodox, as the Orthodox Christian uses it, is an adjective and not a noun. Orthodoxy is not a denomination. No, it is an unbending pursuit, a desire to live out the fullness of the faith, it means uncompromised worship and devotion to Christ and the Church.
Unlike Protestantism, that has whittled away at tradition, the Orthodox continue to practice as Christians have for over a millennia. We celebrate the liturgy of St John Chrysostom or St Basil and not because it is required to be a Christian, I’ve never heard those Orthodox proclaim those who profess Christ outside the tradition to be lost, yet we do see established tradition as a useful aid to the Christian.
Orthodoxy is built upon the foundation of Christ. And yet it is not in denial of the history of the Church nor dismissive of the written and unwritten tradition that the Apostle Paul admonished the church of Thessaloniki to keep:
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings (or traditions) we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
(2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 NIV)
The first thing noteworthy is that the church had a tradition and the second is that this tradition was passed down by the Apostles both in letter and spoken word. But, more significantly, in the same context of keeping tradition, St Paul also speaks of things of the Spirit. The idea that spiritual is odds with traditional is the great delusion of our time and trying to sustain one without the other is proving to be an overall failed experiment. Tradition, passed down by the Church both in written and by “word of mouth” is for our spiritual benefit.
Orthodox tradition is about carrying forward the practices sustained, and that sustained, generations of the Church. It pertains most particularly to the traditions of corporate worship. And, like the tradition of Scripture itself, gives a voice (or vote) to the many faithful who have gone on before us:
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”
(G. K. Chesterton “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy)
To be Orthodox one must appreciate that the Church is bigger than their own individual perspective. The Church is bigger than this generation. Yes, we, the Church militant, are still in the the fight and yet undoing the contribution of the Church triumphant is foolishness. It is a special kind of ignorance in an age where ‘progress’ too often means replacing an old church building with a Dollar General.
Christ is the foundation of the Church, but much has been built, from the Apostle’s time forward, that is beneficial to our spiritual growth and also very beautiful.
The Beauty of Orthodox Worship
There is something incredible about participating in a tradition of worship that has passed the test of time. The basic form of Divine Liturgy has endured, despite the severe persecution of the Orthodox, and in to join in this is to join in the choir of all who have worshipped in this manner.
To those who have never been to an Orthodox service, the first experience may feel foreign, especially if there is some ethnic flavor mixed in, and yet why would we expect the Church (which is universal throughout time) to be a reflection of our modern American culture? Are we truly that arrogant to believe that our own practices, built from the clay of Modernism, is superior to the gold refined over the centuries? We’re better than the entire Church spanning the millennia?
Before going further, consider for a moment that every Church has a liturgy, an order to the service, their own unique traditions, and there’s a reason for this. Protestants, from revival meetings to special mother’s day services, have formed their own traditions to replace those more timeless. I’ve heard about conservative Mennonite churches where at least one elder would insist that the ordained men enter in order of their respective ranks.
And, lest my ‘contemporary’ friends see themselves as superior. Not everyone is up front leading the service.
Order is good. St. Paul spoke to this need for order in worship as an alternative to the chaos and confusion of everyone talking over each other. We are creatures of habit, when brushing our teeth or taking a shower, rather than go through the wasted mental effort of finding a new way each time, we repeat a liturgy of a sort. We can get more done when we finally cease these useless arguments over worship style and move on to things of more substance.
Before I had ever entered an Orthodox liturgical service, I (like most or many Protestant borns) would’ve believed it to be stuffy and boring. I mean, how can something prewritten, predetermined, be as authentic or real as my own concept of worship?
However, upon reflection, considering the many times of Mennonite deacons begging for testimonies and prayer requests to a deafening silence or the same requests over and over again from the same people, the liturgical form that covers everything in prayer makes much more sense. Every service the priest leads us in prayer, through a list that covers pretty much everything, and I’ll often think (and pray) for a specific reason while crossing myself to physically confirm my inner thoughts.
Which is the one beauty of Orthodox worship: It is immersive, involves all senses, we love the beauty of the house we share, our temple, that is divided in a similar way to the Biblical places of worship. There is rich symbolism, incense rising as prayer (as is described in Scripture) and an altar, behind the Iconostasis, where the Communion is prepared. Better yet, the entire service is participatory, a sort of call and response style, with the entire Divine Liturgy service centered around our partaking of the body and blood of Christ.
The second thing I have found, as beautiful, is that this repetition of Scripture in song is spiritually like the muscle memory formed from any other practice. I can’t count the times when the music and words of a liturgical service will pop up during the week, either as a comfort or a challenge, and how these phrases have started to shape my perspective. For example, “put not your trust in princess or sons of man in who there is no salvation.” What a great reminder in this time when the institution of government seems to be failing, right?
Well worn pathways are not confining, they are freeing. Why hack our way through the jungle of life, being ‘authentic’ in the way of every other person in this age who has lost both religion and depth, undisciplined, when there is a rich banquet of tradition to draw upon? Does reciting the Lord’s Prayer over and over again ever take away from the meaning of the words or cause you to want to rewrite it for our own time? I should pray not!
No, we need good ritual in our life because it helps us to focus. Everything in Orthodox worship is founded upon Scripture and a beautiful expression of obedience. It has richness and depth, from the Lenten journey of fasting and reflection, to the icons, incense, vestments, altars, oil, candles, hymns, recitations and processions. It connects is to centuries of the faithful, in our participation in the Church that they built together on the foundation of Christ and is wonderful.
In the end, as Father Seraphim reminds us often in his homilies, we are not saved by our church attendance, we can read Scripture, sing, give tithes and it all be for naught. If there is no spiritual fruit this is all empty and utterly meaningless as far as salvation. However, as St Paul speaks of the law being a guardian, the established prescription and pattern for worship, once catalyzed with sincere Christian faith, is an invaluable asset. It may not be necessary for salvation, the repentant thief on the cross beside Jesus was never Baptized, and yet it does greatly enhance the life of the believer.
Lastly, Orthodox worship doesn’t take away from our ability to worship spontaneously, in the spur of the moment, like King David dancing as the Ark of the Covenant was being processed through the city of Jerusalem. This is not an either/or thing nor have I found the tradition to be onerous or confining in the way one may fear coming out of a legalistic tradition. There is a sort of casualness to our formality, an allowance for imperfection. So simple even children participate.
Structure We Need To Thrive
Us creative types loath structure. We like to color outside of the lines, right? And yet, despite this umbrage, we often live as beneficiaries of the structure that others provide. Many artists would starve, or be overrun, unable to do their work, outside the structure that others have diligently maintained for them. And many would do better, even in their passionate pursuits, if they would acknowledge their need.
The framework that Orthodoxy provides, likewise, for me has been that missing element that I didn’t even know that I needed. This idea that tradition is somehow bad is corrosive, it is creating a generation desperate to find their place, suicidal, distorted and unfulfilled. We are better when plugged in, when a part of something bigger than ourselves. Tradition brings us together and Orthodoxy enhances rather than take away from worship.
One of the markers of Protestantism, from the start and especially in the current evolutionary stage, is the purity spiraling of those still seeking the perfect church on their own terms. In a sense, the protest of Protestantism never has ended and continues to fracture the Western church into oblivion.
As a product of that way of thinking, I had always sought after and argued for my own ideal for the church. It could very well, if I was slightly more ambitious, had eventually led to the formation of the Perfect Church of Joel. That is what many Protest-ants do when they become disillusioned with the tradition they were born into, they protest and start their own new and ‘perfect’ church.
Of course, the shine of these fresh attempts to reform or restore the ‘original’ church is soon burnished. The next generation comes along, or disagreement comes up between these idealistic individuals, and soon spawns the next Protestant group, and the next after that, and the next after that, ad infinitum.
The Seeker Versus Slanderer
The concluding end of Protestantism is only perfect disunity, with everyone staying at home on Sunday as to be away from those other hypocrites and to do church right their own way. And, yes, if you’re thinking of the retired Burger King “have it your way” slogan, that might as well be the banner over these endeavors. Protestantism is the church for the consumerist age. It is defined by individualism, marketing campaigns, and seeker-sensitivity, or alternatively, pride, perpetual discontentment, and perfectionism.
There is nothing new under the sun.
Like now, there was also self-aggrandizement in the early church:
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)
There was plenty to criticize in the early church. There was sin overlooked or even celebrated locally, there were cliques of those of higher social status and those left out, arguments among leaders, and plenty for someone to be dissatisfied with. But Diotrephes took things a step further, he rejected church unity altogether, refused even the Apostles, and I’m sure, in his own eyes, his theology was impeccable. However, it is quite evident that Diotrephes had put himself first and, despite his inflated ego, was as sinful as those whom he arrogantly slandered or shut out.
There is no indication that Diotrephes ever wavered in his commitment to himself and his own understanding, it is quite possible that he remained inordinately impressed with himself until his last breath, but we certainly should not follow his example.
This is what we should seek after:
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 4:1-6 NIV)
Casting Pearls Before Swine
Had I still been seeking a perfect church I would not have become Orthodox and I would not have joined your silly cult group either. I can pretty much rip anything to shreds with my critical spirit and, at the right point in my life, would’ve been one of those that Jesus advised his disciples about, saying:
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
(Matthew 7:6 NIV)
It is likely not a coincidence that this quotation above follows Jesus saying “judge not, or you too will be judged” and recommends us taking the beam out of our own eyes first.
There is nothing to be gained by dialogue with a cynical and divisive skeptic. They aren’t there to learn, they are there to tear you apart as a means to prove their own superiority or justify themselves. Their goal is not to understand, it is to trip you up so that they can smear mud in your face. I think we all know the type. They live for controversy, for an opportunity to debate and disparage.
Do not engage these people. They are not seeking after the unity described by St Paul. They are proud, self-righteous, demanding, and never satisfied.
No, these contentious people are no more hopelessly lost than anyone else. They may be sincerely seeking and yet will not be argued or logically driven from their own position. However, despite their perpetual restlessness as a result of hidden uncertainty or insecurity, they cannot see the folly of their own way and are only engaging you to feel better about themselves. They will ridicule and mock because it distracts from their own inner lack of peace.
It is not worth arguing with someone who is focused on the imperfections of everyone else. They will need to come to terms with their own imperfection first and by not arguing with them you give them that space they need to turn their inquiry inward. Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us, he did not say to try to argue and persuade those not truly interested in hearing or considering their own need for repentance.
I’ve spent years of my life trying to convince people. I believed that people were changed by means of the mind, that we were rational creatures, and could employ reason to drive people to a correct perspective. But there is more to than that and, as a wise uncle recited to me years ago, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The pigheaded, those blinded by their own bias, will stomp, snort and sneer at anything they don’t want to accept. Without a change of heart, without repentance, trying to engage with them is a waste of time.
Correcting Our Orientation
Looking back the problem is clear. The divisions in the denomination that I was born into, the conservative versus liberal, had to do with a horizontal rather than vertical focus. We were oriented wrong. We thought we should be unified by our shared standards, our understanding of theology, and purity on our own terms. But the reality is that this was an approach that led to quarrels and a form of religious pride disguised as righteousness. Had we been oriented towards Christ we would have been more understanding of our own continual need of salvation and thus been more forgiving of faults and differences.
Seeking perfection in the church brings division and self-centeredness.
Seeking perfection in Christ brings unity and healing to the imperfect church.
Many seek the perfect church at the expense of following Christ who spent his time with losers. They neglect to notice that the book of Acts and the letters of St. Paul are full of examples of failure. Even the leaders of the church, Peter himself, had to be “opposed to his face” (Galatians 2:11-13) and call him out for hypocrisy. So who are we that we think that we are somehow cut from a better cloth than the Apostle themselves and can create a better church better than the one that they left for us?
Sure, the history of the church is full of imperfection and failure. There were heresies that gained traction and even leaders that got out of line. But why are we seeking perfection in the church? Shouldn’t we be seeking after Christ, who loved us while we were still lost in sin, who forgives us as we forgive others?
This was what Jesus told the disciples:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
(John 13:34,35 NIV)
This idea of a pristine church, free of failures, abuses, or problems, flies in the face of our need for salvation and a Savior. It is pride, the biggest sin there is, and people trying to save themselves, that divides the church. It is an orientation that looks across the aisle rather than inward and upward, eyes that see every sin but our own. It is preferring that others conform to our own will and understanding over loving each other (as commanded) and valuing our Communion together.
I became Orthodox once I stopped chasing after the fantasy creature of a perfect church. I gave up on the sufficiency of my own reasoning and started putting unity in Christ over having things my own way in theology and practice. There never was a perfect church, at least not one perfect according to my own hopes, perspectives, or personal standards. But there was a church that was brought together in their following after the teaching of the Apostles and in their seeking after unity in the Spirit.
The measure of true faith is how much we love those who do not deserve it, as Christ first loved us, and this starts with loving our brothers and sisters in the imperfect church:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
(Luke 6:36-38 NIV)
To be perfect, as our Father is perfect, is to be merciful as our Father is merciful.