When It Is Better To Do Nothing

Standard

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.

(Matthew 25:35‭-‬36 NIV)

Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

Standard

One thing about Mennonites is that we are good at maintaining our niceness.  But this niceness, while “nice” by outward appearance, is not always truthful.  We can hide many evil thoughts behind a polite smile.  We know the “right” words to say and use them habitually… all the while harboring harsh judgments in our hearts.

Why do we hide our true feelings?

First off, to be the “quiet in the land” is part of our Mennonite-cultural-default setting; we play nice because we were taught to not cause a fuss.  Second, we want to avoid conflict; trying to resolve a conflict is difficult and one way to “keep the peace” is to bury our own feelings behind a smile.  The third reason (and most insidious) is so we can appear better than the other person.

On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this cultural niceness.  It seems to be far better than the alternative of direct confrontation, open disagreement or being too honest about unpleasant things.  But beneath this veil of serenity can be a toxic mess of unresolved conflict, secretly held enmity, and hostility that leaks out as passive-aggressive behavior.

Yes, Mennonites may be good at appearing nice on the outside.  However, we are also good at gossip, backbiting, anonymous letters, slander and giving the cold-shoulder treatment.  A pretty face and pleasant words can hide many less-than-desirable attitudes.  These hidden sins of the heart are not often addressed, and likely because they are far more difficult to detect and define.  Nevertheless, there can be a rotten core underneath a righteous facade.

Some may call this kind of niceness “living peaceably” when in reality it is often nastier than the alternative of open rebuke and direct confrontation.  There is little chance of amicable resolution when a person refuses to openly state their grievances.  Worse, the person being whispered about often can sense the antagonism, yet is without a means to defend themselves.

Jesus had no problem directly rebuking those who were pretty on the outside and ugly inside:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.  Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (Matthew 23:25‭-‬28)

The religious elites Jesus confronted were focused on outward appearance.  Earlier he rebuked them for their distinctive clothing and titles, but this time he goes right to the heart of the issue: True change comes from a transformed heart change and not through conformity of outward appearance.

The hidden sins of religious elites rebuked directly by Jesus are probably different from our own.  That said, our Mennonite religious culture is similar to theirs in that we also emphasize looking right according to our standards and we like to believe that this outward conformity is an indication of a spiritual condition.  However, according to Jesus, compliance with a religious standard is not an indication of a heart change.

The Mennonite “doctrine of non-conformity” is often a distraction and disguise for a sinful heart.

Many use the exhortation “be not conformed to this world” out of context and as a justification for their rules.  Unfortunately, this misses the point entirely.  The alternative to being conformed to the world is *not* a long list of standards but a transformation of mind, and that is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Mennonites need to focus less on their cherished doctrine of non-conformity (that is primarily concerned with maintaining an acceptable appearance) and more on change of heart.  As Jesus said, when the heart is changed then the behavior will follow—with or without rules.  But without spiritual transformation no amount of rules or conformity to them can change hearts.

I know plenty of Mennonites who wear the prescribed clothing, do the right Mennonite activities and are really nice people, but it seems they have no real faith.  It is possible to change on the outside through religious indoctrination while lacking in substance of faith and remaining spiritually dead.  So, if anything, Mennonite standards only serve to create a disguise for the faithless.

The focus on outward appearance and emphasis on rules in conservative Mennonite circles could itself be indication of a lack of heart change. It is a perspective that gets things completely in reverse and shows a lack of spiritual understanding so basic that it can hardly be anything but a sign of an untransformed mind.

True faith is not about cultural conformity and a pleasant facade.

People behave the way they do for many reasons.  We act in a particular manner or conform to the standards of our peer group in order to be accepted.  However, the faith that pleases God is not about fitting in or meeting religious expectations.  The faith that God seeks is about spiritual transformation that takes us well beyond anything that can be spelled out into code.

Sure, religious folks might be able to police themselves based on their rules (written or unwritten) and look down those who fall outside the lines.  Yet, without inner change, none of it matters; we are only succeeding at making people clean on the outside and neglecting what Jesus taught should come first.  Perhaps then we would be more accepting of those who don’t act right according to our favored ideas but have a heart for God?

King David didn’t always act right according to our standards.  He did some things that weren’t even allowed by God’s standard, was guilty of a terrible sin, and still was a man after God’s own heart.  David’s heart was right even though his behavior was not, and that is more important than meeting religious expectations or maintaining a nice appearance.

Are you truly transformed and changed spiritually from the inside out?

Or are you only a good Mennonite acting the part?