Seeing the Truth — Who Are the Real Christians?

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There was a 1980s cult film about a man who finds a pair of sunglasses which allows him to see subliminal messages in mass media.  In this science fiction movie, “They Live,” the protagonist learns that world is run by aliens, along with human collaborators, who use billboards and television to control the population.  The protagonist, now that he is awakened to this truth, goes on a mission to free people.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever watched the entire movie.  It was before my time.  But, from the bits and pieces that I’ve seen, it is basically a commentary on our mind-numbing American consumerism and political propaganda.  It is trying to show how mass media is used by social elites to manipulate and manage people.  

Anyhow, for a moment, yesterday, I thought somehow I had landed in that movie and posted the following on social media to describe the experience:

“Was out on the road today and saw a billboard with the word “Obey” in large print.  I thought, for a moment, that I was in the 1980s movie, “They Live,” in which the protagonist finds special glasses that allow him to see what really is.  In the film the world is controlled by aliens who manipulate people to conform.  As it turns out this was not my new vision that could see through the propaganda, but was a Christian Aid Ministries (Mennonite) evangelism effort aimed at professing Christians that do not live to their standards.”

Now, given that much of my friends list is still conservative Mennonite, who live mostly in their own religious cloister, I knew the risk of some missing the meaning and intended humor of the cultural reference.  However, what I had not expected was the personal attacks against me and bizarre accusations of bashing CAM for stating the plain truth.  What led to this severe reaction?  Apparently, that last sentence, that this message was “aimed at professing Christians that do not live their standards,” which offended.

Standards are a sore subject for conservative Mennonites and most especially for the neo-Anabaptist types.  Perhaps, had I used the word “doctrines” the howls of protest may have been more muted.  Why?  Well, the word “standards” is often associated with that multitude of extra-Biblical rules that some argue aren’t a matter of salvation and yet, despite this claim, are somehow important enough to be the cause of their countless church splits.  But the bizarre part is that I didn’t say anything about their extra-Biblical standards and that’s what made the boisterous denials so interesting.

What does “Real Christians” actually mean?

The billboard proclaimed “Real Christians OBEY Jesus’ teachings,” citing Luke 6:46 as a reference.  At face value that is the goal of all Christians, to obey Jesus, right?  But it is this qualifying word “real” that indicates this is a loaded statement and more than just a reminder to be good Christians.  The writer doesn’t want you to just be any kind of Christian.  No, they want you to be a “real Christians” and quite obviously, unless this writer is at odds with themselves, it means to be like them.

There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment, St. Paul urged, “follow me as I follow Christ,” (1 Corinthians 11:1) and that would certainly mean to be a part of the same church body as him.  It shouldn’t be a big controversy, when a Mennonite puts up a sign saying to be a “real Christian” they mean to be more like them, an Anabaptist.  This would not even be a question if a billboard, with a similar message, were put up by a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness organization.  So it is beyond disingenuous to insist that this use of “real Christian” has nothing to do with being more like Mennonites.

As someone who has spent decades of their own life amongst conservative Mennonites and other Anabaptist types, this notion that “we’re the real Christian” oozes out.  And, more precisely, when they say “obey Jesus” what this ultimately means is agreeing with their Mennonite ‘doctrines’ of “non-conformity” and “non-resistance.”  To them, this is just Biblical teaching, the clear extension of the commands of Jesus and, therefore, the most essential part of what it means to be real Christians.  

So why deny it?

Why do some get up in arms over someone speaking this truth?

Why not be Mennonite and own it?

The real issue goes deeper.  Mennonites, for various reasons, do not like to be identified as Mennonites.  The term turns them into an ethnic tribe or mere subculture rather than the purer form.  Whereas they would rather see themselves as simply being the only genuine Christians.  The Holdeman Mennonites, calling themselves the Church of God in Christ, were more forthright in this regard and believed themselves to be the only true church.  Other Mennonites aren’t as bold as to outright say that they’re the remnant church, but also do not fully embrace their common denominational label either.

The worst of the deniers try to discard the word “Mennonite” completely, despite this being their religious, cultural, and ethnic heritage.  Modify the veil a little, ditch the capedress for another style of conservative dress, change the language, and suddenly they’re now the more authentic ‘Anabaptist’ who arrived at this particular emphasis by their own study of Scripture.  This faux conversion is something born of insecurity from knowing that their own religious form is inherited. And yet, despite this, holding to a dogma of “Believer’s baptism” that causes cognitive dissonance if their being Mennonite isn’t completely a choice.

There’s also another possible reason why someone might deny their religious heritage and that is to fool their potential converts. In other words, a bait-and-switch tactic: 1) Tell inquirers that the group is all about following the example of Jesus, 2) shower them with attention and get them invested in the local fellowship, then 3) slowly shoulder them with those expectations that aren’t explicitly stated and yet required to be in Communion with them.  This way they can use the established emotional connection as a tool for manipulation to later bring the new person into full compliance.

Let’s talk about those Mennonite doctrines…

What was most striking, and absolutely disturbing, about this recent encounter on social media, was how completely willing some were to question my faith and even to bear false witness to my face.  For my infraction of saying that Mennonites are what they are, that they generally promote keeping their standards as being the definition of what it means to be a true Christian—for being an ex-Mennonite—one of their number went as far as to question if I was even a brother in Christ.

This, of course, is the grandest of ironies and starkly illustrates the disconnect between what adherents claim versus the reality of the practice. 

First, they (two or more) wrongly interpreted my post as bashing CAM. But, instead of show love or turning the other cheek (as would be truly obeying what Jesus, right?), they attacked me personally and lied.  Rather than address me directly and honestly, they would attempt to knock down strawman versions of what I said and pigeonhole me.  Which is another reason why I don’t buy into the Mennonite ‘doctrine’ of non-resistant.  It seems almost entirely about avoiding military service, giving them something to hold over other believers, and not all that practical or sincere.

In response to this empty non-resistance, it would be better to be the Roman Centurion that Jesus commended for his “great faith” than be the person who is a “conscientious objector” as a matter of cultural inheritance or convenience.  It is noteworthy that Jesus, in the “Sermon on the Mount,” says not a word about wars between nations or about police doing their work, the examples given are what amount to insults and it seems to be about how we respond to our own personal enemies.  So how this gets reversed, as part of Mennonite ‘doctrine,’ is strange.

And, so far as “non-conformity,” taken from St Paul’s “be not conformed to the world,” (Romans 12) the rest of the context does not at all support the most common ‘Anabaptist’ interpretation or application.  In that context, there is no mention of clothing or style, but rather what this means is summed up in the second half of the verse where he says “but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  He goes on in the chapter to define this further, describing what this looks like in practice.  It is about looking intentionally different or in-your-face billboards.

The Truth sets free!

The fictional “They Live” speaks of the reality that is hidden beneath political messaging and commercial advertising.  It is almost routine now that the name of a new piece of legislation or branch of government is nearly the opposite of what it does.  For example, the Defense Department leads the absolutely most aggressive military in the world.  The Inflation Reduction Act has nothing to do with reducing inflation and will likely only increase costs as all subsidies tend to do.  The ‘right’ words are always manipulation and cover their agenda.

But the reality is, most of us, and especially those brought up in a religious home and community, have great difficulty telling the truth.  No, it is not that we set out to lie or mislead people, rather it is we have difficulty fully comprehending how corrupted our own hearts can be.  We tend to see ourselves as being righteous and forget that even our Sunday best is filthy rags by comparison to true Holiness.  We do not realize how much we are bound to our own confirmation bias and prejudices.  This could be why Jesus said we leave behind even our families to follow Him:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26 NIV)

Taken literally this would be a contradiction with the many admonitions to love found in Scripture and the Gospels.  I’m pretty sure the “hate” means to not be encumbered by or unable to see beyond our own heritage and most familiar to us.  This means accepting that we may ourselves have an incorrect understanding of the Biblical texts.  When Jesus spoke of those who cry “Lord Lord,” he isn’t speaking to those other “nominal Christians,” but to those who are sure that they represent His truth and do not.

Jesus said, in John 8:32, “the truth will set you free.”  And, for this reason, it would be far better that Mennonite-borns embrace, rather than deny, the influence of their culture and tradition so far as the Christ that they are able to see.  In doing this, in our understanding that what we received in doctrine or practice is not plain unadulterated Christianity, there is a far greater possibility of discovering our own blindspots and growing in faith.  It is more comfortable to assume that we’re the real Christians.  It is much harder to deal with our pride and repent.

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

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

Ever get angry after being cut off in traffic?

I know I do.

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

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

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

People believe they see things as they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Legalism abuses the intent of the law.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He avoids their trap:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the true intent of the Biblical law?

To save us from ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is black and white. So is this:

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

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

Be perfect, not in legalism, but in mercy…

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

James further expounds:

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

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

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

Who then can be saved?

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

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

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

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

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