Unapologetic — What Is the Real Proof of Resurrection?

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True or false: The truth of the entire Gospel message depends on the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

I’m pretty certain that this is something that both Christians and non-Christians alike, after reading the Gospel accounts, would agree on.  If Jesus remained in the grave, a dead man, then doesn’t that make the entire account of these books a lie?

Recently I was invited to watch a lecture by Gary Habermas, a professor, historian Christian apologist, and author of various books about Jesus.  This after I had expressed a thought on how difficult this central claim of the Gospel would be to accept for a true skeptic.  Presumably, this recommendation was to help me bridge the gap between the claims and reasons to doubt them.

It seems reasonable that Habermas, an expert who believes, would come out with his best argument.  I mean, why waste an opportunity by holding the most solid proof of resurrection for a later date, right?

So, after watching, and taking notes, this is the outline of the arguments made along with my own counterpoints:

1) Most Contemporary Scholars Agree

Habermas spends considerable time talking about the changes in perspectives in the last 30-40 years in academic circles.  Apparently, most theologians are conservative now and he cites a skeptic who has warmed to even the claims that the disciples saw Jesus after his death on the cross.

However, the first thing I see, when someone uses “experts agree,” is an appeal to authority, which can be a logical fallacy if being used as evidence of a claim.  The fact that a majority of doctors had once believed that bloodletting was good therapy does not actually prove anything as far as the reliability of the practice.

So, to a critical thinker, this is a red flag.  He is starting with an appeal that is not a true argument for his further claims or at least not any more than “a consensus of scientists believe” disproves the outliers who disagree with their conclusions.

Everyone else is here, can’t be the wrong place…

But, more than that, the devil is always in the details and there is a bit of a bait and switch in his presentation.  The acceptance of any empty tomb is not the same thing as the real issue at hand which is resurrection.  It is possible that something else could explain the disappearance.  An empty tomb is not itself proof of the miraculous.

So what about this shift in thinking?  

Well, it is no secret that the Western world is falling into unbelief, Christianity is losing influence, and to the point that the ‘liberals’ may have long left the room.  In other words, it could be polarization, where nobody in the moderate middle ground survived, and thus only ‘conservatives’ see theology as being a worthwhile pursuit.

When something falls out of popular favor, like eugenics or white supremacy, then it is not really a big surprise when the hardliners are all that remains.

As a young person, I remember an Evolution versus Creation debate at a local university campus.  Such an event would not even be hosted by such an institution.  The 2014 Ken Ham vs Bill Nye rhetorical battle was held at the Creation Museum for a reason.  And it is not because either of these men are taken seriously or viewed as credible by the mainstream.

The point is most people may simply have moved on and the plurality of those remaining, the current theologians, are the fundamentalists.  There is much talk about the collapse of the center and this change Habermas mentions could be a product of that rather than anything related to the evidence.  

We also have a resurgence of flat earth theories (and the rise of Socialism on the other) which is certainly not an argument for those beliefs.  I guarantee more than 350 pages have been written in defense of Marxism and yet that does not convince me in any way, shape, or form that this ideology is the right way forward.  No, this does not prove or disprove anything as far as the resurrection, but why waste time on this kind of appeal if there’s better evidence?

2) Paul Is Generally Accepted, Even By Skeptics

Of all the writings in the New Testament those of Paul, the Apostle, are the most compelling and probably because this man (despite his own claims to the contrary) is so eloquent in his presentation.  I do find his focus on spiritual transformation to be more inviting than Mathew, Mark, or Luke.  And also his ability to be the odd one out as far as important matters of the faith.

He was a controversial figure, even in the early church, and often put on the defensive by those fighting to preserve the Jewish tradition from Gentile converts.  The account of his Damascus road encounter obviously convinced the right people of his change of heart.  And this acceptance is significant, it is at least an answer to those modern-day Pauline skeptics, namely feminists and contemporary Judaizers, who would have us believe he was in conflict with Jesus.

That said, both Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, and Muhammad claimed to have had dramatic encounters.  Both were committed to these revelations they had received and able to convince a large body of people of these claims.  It is always amazing to me how even a fundamentalist Christian can scoff at claims of angels delivering inerrant teachings or laugh off the flight to Medina on the Burāq, all the while accepting Biblical claims.

An undeniably beautiful image, right?

In short, I absolutely believe that Joseph Smith and Muhammad existed as real people.  I also have no reason to doubt that they did not believe what they claim to believe or even that they had some sort of trip and conversion experience.  But the truth of their existence and conviction does not mean their most extraordinary claims are actually reliable.  It does not matter how many people recorded their lives or believed what they said.

So, of course, a man named Paul existed, and perhaps he did have an encounter with an apparition.  I will accept that he was brought into the church.  There is no reason to take issue with any of this.  And I’m sure, if he was indeed out there killing Christians, this was a very welcomed development.  And yet there are also those raised Christian who become Muslims or atheists.  A conversion experience does not prove the extraordinary claims of a particular religion.

3) More Sources Than Alexander the Great

Habermas spends significant time in his lecture discussing the typical criteria for accepting a source.  There is more proof of Jesus, according to what is acceptable by normal academic standards, than there is of Alexander the Great.  Which is no surprise given that Jesus arrived on the scene later and spawned a religious movement through his teaching.

And yet while most everyone agrees that George Washington was a real person, that he crossed the Delaware river, this doesn’t mean that they must accept his ideological perspective or believe the mythology about the cherry tree.  Historic texts, like reporting of events in our own time, can be almost entirely fact, yet also be embellished or just incorrect on details.  

The biggest lies are always laced with facts.  It is how so many people are snookered.  A charlatan will make many credible claims to establish themselves.  They may have credentials and compelling stories.  The New York Times reporter, Walter Duranty, won a Pulitzer Prize for his glowing coverage of the Soviet Union.  That he included many verified facts in his accounts does not mean his writing was not deceptive.

The reality is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  If I were to list off my activities for the day, that I went to Dunkin for coffee, to the gym after that, and then broke Usain Bolt’s 100 meter sprint time, would finding independent verification of the first two claims bolster the last claim that I’m now the fastest man alive?

Most of the Bible being reliable does not mean every claim being made is true.  Being correct on a million mundane facts does not prove any of the most extraordinary claims contained.  No, it does not even suggest we should be less skeptical.  Maybe this makes some of us uncomfortable, but this is a normal burden of proof that we place on those who are outside of our own belief system, why not use the same standard for ourselves?

The big difference between Jesus and other historical figures is that nobody is telling me to devote my life to Alexander the Great.  It is one thing to believe that Abraham Lincoln existed as a real person and a significant figure, and quite another to say that he resurrected from the dead and ought to be worshipped as God.

4) We Can Trace the Narrative Back

Most of the New Testament was written down long after the events took place, this is something generally agreed on by all sides, and Habermas does have an interesting response for those who would use this as a basis for skepticism.  This, I believe, is where a general consensus is good enough.  It is silly to argue that Jesus did not exist or that the narrative was entirely fabricated well after the fact.

Close is not the same as complete. Not even close.

And yet, again, this tracing narrative back, using catchy phrases to suggest that these things had been established early and then were passed along made me think of modern memes or protest chants that are created in response to real events.

Michael Brown, for example, was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  Soon a phase, “hands up, don’t shoot,” became the rallying cry and is a short version of this idea that Brown was gunned down while simply trying to surrender.  However, both a St Louis County grand jury and a US Department of Justice investigation cleared the officer of wrongdoing, the actual evidence points to the teen being in a physical altercation with the officer, and the catchy chants, therefore, are not an accurate representation no matter how popular.

The thing is, if we can’t get things right even days after the actual event, does gap or no gap matter? 

It really does not.

5) Why Die For A Lie?

Joan of Arc was an extraordinary young woman.  She managed to inspire her people to fight and is a wonderful icon of faith and courage.  But eventually, she fell into the hands of the English, who had every reason to hate her guts, and they put her on trial for ‘heretical’ exploits.  There is every indication that she was cooperative to the point that there was no justification for her execution and had likely been forced to violate the terms so they could kill her.

The martyrdom of the disciples of Jesus is something many Christian apologists tout as being hard evidence of the resurrection.  As in who would die for something that they know is a lie?  And this is indeed is proof of the commitment that these men had made to the Gospel message.

But let’s consider what happened to the Millerite movement when their prophecies about the Second Coming proved to be false.  Did they give up their delusion or even entirely reject the teachers that had misled them?  Some did.  But, as with Harold Camping, who spiritualized the prediction post hoc rather than admit being wrong, this is what is now the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.

So why do people remain committed to something despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary from an outsider’s perspective?  

It is this little thing called confirmation bias, we become emotionally attached to the things we believe and to the point of being blind to the obvious.  As the saying goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  And people who have had their belief system falsified will simply modify as much as necessary and then move on as if nothing happened.  Why?  Well maybe because it is too hard to start from square one, to admit being wrong, or perhaps because the community and values feel too important to give up?

So, since I have my skeptic hat on, and we already know that the disciples had been looking for a literal earthly kingdom, what is to say they did not pick up and run with an alternative rather than return to the lives they had before.  I mean, even most agnostics will claim that Jesus was a good teacher, so this could be justification for building a mythology to sell this better way.  For radicals the ends often justify the means, lying is not forbidden if for a righteous cause in Judaism.

Anyhow, if backed in a corner, if you’re likely killed even if you do recant, why not refuse to go along with what your persecutors want?  I doubt Joseph Smith would have given his tormentors the satisfaction of admitting that he never had his angelic encounter.  That doesn’t make Mormonism true.  No, this is just how we are.  Pathological liars are so convincing because they believe their own lies.  What Jesus taught was revolutionary, people die for less all of the time.

Is That Really the Best We Have?

I know that I’m not going to win many fans amongst my Christian audience by giving an honest answer to the apologetics they offer.  I’m sorry, it may work for many who already buy-in, it may be enough to convert a few, but I simply cannot be impressed.

That said, I do appreciate Habermas for his admitting that the Gospels do not always agree perfectly, and also admire those who can engage in the long form of argument too tedious for my own tastes.  

Still, all said and done, these sorts of arguments can never span the gap between the extraordinary claims and the most capable skeptics.  It is nibbling around the edges of proof and really only ever evidence that is convincing to those who come in with the right presuppositions—like those claims of the miraculous as an explanation to things not yet explainable.

In his questions and answers follow-up, Habermas mentions how many do not believe for emotional (rather than rational) reasons.  He points to C.S. Lewis as someone who fell away from faith over the death of his mom before his eventual rise as a Christian thinker.  However, the same is also true for why people believe.  We want a world with purpose and meaning, and the Gospel narrative provides this.  It is harder to give up a comprehensive belief system, even if it makes no truly testable claims.

It just feels like apologetics always relies on strawman versions of skepticism.  Even if I fell totally into unbelief, I could never dismiss all of Scripture.  But I also have seen, first hand, how incapable people are at getting the facts right, how they see what they want to see and delude themselves.  I know because I’ve made the error of pursuing something, in sincere faith, that could be falsifiable and was forced to swallow the hard reality of my self-deception.

Most who profess belief in Jesus will never be so bold as to risk it all on something that can be disproven.  They believe things that are written in a book, they attribute their good fortune to God’s goodness or try to accept the bad as being loving discipline, without ever putting it to the test as they would if they had actual faith.  It is as if they hope if they never question then maybe the dream of eternal reward will come true and thus run from any chance of encountering a serious refutation.

The thing is if the resurrected Jesus needed to appear to Peter, James and Paul before they would believe, then why not appear to us all? 

Is there an answer to this that doesn’t come off like an excuse?

It isn’t like the creator of the universe lacked the budget.  And that the most important decision in our lives would come down to believing the eyewitness testimony of a handful of first-century men, this seems rather odd.  Don’t get me wrong either, the Biblical narrative is quite fascinating, the miracles, angelic visits, and promise of life after death to those who believe, it is wonderful. The teachings of Jesus have led to a more compassionate era. Still, the claims like the virgin birth, walking on water, and raising the dead aren’t exactly things a rational person would accept without seeing these miraculous events for themselves.

The biggest problem with the apologetics of Habermas is that it relies on a false dichotomy.  A reader doesn’t need to be able to accept that a source is perfectly reliable to believe some of it is true.  There is a multitude of possibilities as to why the disciples would go with the resurrection narrative.  First, it is much easier than saying they wasted their last few years.  Second, it sells the teachings of Jesus better than anything else.  And third, it can’t be falsified, how does anyone disprove what they claim to have seen?

The possibilities are endless.

This is not to say that the disciples were delusional or lying either.  My point is that it is too easy to see an argument as being stronger than it is.  It is annoying, perhaps, that we can’t rely on apologetics to do the heavy lifting of the Gospel, nevertheless, the only resurrection of Jesus many people will see is that which is embodied in us.  What that means is self-sacrifice and bridging the gap of unbelief with the substance of love. 

Talk is easy, actually taking up the cross is not…

[Don’t] Trust The Narrative

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The truth of a story is not proportional to our investment in it.  The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example, is a movie franchise worth nearly 23 billion dollars and has no basis reality other than locations.  And still, despite being complete fiction, people are obsessed.  We treat the characters as if they’re real, repeat their lines, cosplay to participate in the fantasy, and it does seem that many would rather be lost in this exciting world of make-believe than live their actual lives.

It is really interesting how outside observers of religions (other than their own) have no difficulty dismissing the beliefs and practices.  The claims of L. Ron Hubbard, or Joseph Smith, or Muhammad ibn Abdullah aren’t all that compelling to non-adherents.  I mean, come on, riding through the sky on a horse with a woman’s head and the tail of a peacock sounds more like a crazy acid trip than something to take seriously, right?  But for this raised in an Islamic country, this makes more sense than Trinity or resurrection.

I’m quite certain that the Biblical narrative, whether Genesis or the Gospels, would have been far less believable had I not been indoctrinated as a child.  I mean, it made sense to me then.  My parents and every other respectable adult that I knew held to this belief system.  It would actually be rather strange had I rejected this outright.  It was only later that the vast differences between even various Mennonite sects, and facing challenges to my assumptions, that I even knew how to question.

Of course, this doesn’t make those raised outside of organized religion any more rational.  Secular ideas, like Evolution and Global Warming, have taken on their own narrative framework, similar to religion, that far exceeds the actual evidence.  Not all of the gaps can be explained by Natural Selection.  And climate apocalypticism has strange similarities to the “end times” prophecies common with many caught up in Evangelicalism.  Al Gore is basically Harold Camping with corporate sponsorship.

Most of these narratives can’t be entirely falsified.  The decades and decades of dire predictions from climate alarmists haven’t come true, yet they keep moving the goal posts, even making claims in contradiction to those prior, and the next generation of conscientious young people are none the wiser.  Likewise, the doctrines and practices of traditional religions evolve and get twisted every which way, to the point that you can’t get people raised in the same denomination to agree.  

The strangest thing is how these various movements never die even when their claims are falsified.  For example, the Seventh-day Adventists arose from the false Millerite prophecy that Jesus would return on October 22, 1844.  The date came and went without event.  But, despite this Great Disappointment, some who saw their central claim proven false still regrouped and continued on their way again.  Perhaps the investment made was too much to simply give it up?  

It’s sort of like I don’t expect the “believe science” midwits to ever comprehend how many times the experts get it wrong or reconsider.  They’ll probably go on praising Dr. Fauci as a saint even after the puppy experimentation scandal, even after the NIH now admits to funding of gain-of-function research, and probably because it would cause too much discomfort to consider that their trust may have been misplaced.

It takes a boatload of evidence to overturn these narratives we have built up in our minds.  Bad ideas, like Marxism, even if they fail miserably in one place, are often recycled and reintroduced.  At the same time, credit for plain luck is given to whatever a person wants to have credit.  A boom economy, with the President you voted for, and it is obviously a product of wise leadership, right?  The sun came up right after you prayed?  Must be the grace of God.

All religion, all political ideologies, the trust we have in certain institutions or people, is part of our embracing narratives.  Whether you believe vaccines cause autism or ended Polio depends more on who (or what) you accept as an authority than the actual evidence.  Past narratives might seem irrational to you, like the idea that autism was caused by “refrigerator moms,” yet made complete sense to many influential and intelligent ‘scientific’ people at one time.  Those who go against the currently popular ‘expert’ consensus can expect persecution.

All this to say that we aren’t as good at discerning truth as we imagine.  In many cases what we believe is nearly as much fiction as Captain America fighting against Hydra.  It isn’t just the conspiracy theorist kooks buying into narratives despite evidence to the contrary, we all do, we all believe a blend of religious propaganda, political indoctrination, and out-of-context or unqualified facts stitched together, and much of it as absurd as the narratives we reject.

My Suspicions Confirmed

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I’ll have to concede, I was wrong about face masks.  Early in the pandemic, in January of 2020 while the corporate media ‘experts’ were saying that we should be more concerned about the seasonal flu.  I was worried about this mystery virus in Wuhan and decided to get a box of N95 masks in case my fears were confirmed.  I was ridiculed, at the time, for my warnings and telling people to be prepared.

Months later, as the “no human-to-human transmission” claim of WHO became too obviously false to ignore and the glib urgings of politicians for their constituents to visit China were replaced with terror, that confirmed my warnings.  But now, with mask mandates and recommendations rolling out, many friends began to resist the idea.  They weren’t going to wear a “face diaper” and ridiculed the idea that a bit of cloth would be effective against a virus.

Of course, they were a little right, cloth masks aren’t at all effective against stopping the spread of the virus and now the corporate media is finally conceding this.  But still, based on laboratory experiments and filtration level, I believed my N95 masks were effective.  However, laboratory conditions are not the real world and, eventually, even that became a question mark for me.  Many countries also require facemasks with the masks because the masks are not adequate.

A few weeks ago, I may have overstated, I said that masks were completely ineffective at stopping the spread.  Technically correct since the virus spread as much (or even more) in states with strict requirements and yet I’ve also ran into some convincing data that suggests the good masks, the N95’s with a decent seal, may make an 10% difference overall.  So on this basis I’ll admit there could be marginal benefit.

The Wishy-washy Way To Truth

Many people, once they’ve made up their minds, never reconsider their stance.  If they believe masks are stupid then they will use every excuse in the book not to wear one.  I’ve heard them all.  The fear about being dehumanized.  That breathing carbon dioxide is dangerous.  But then they’ll contradict by calling people who disagree “sheeple” and claiming that something that can stop carbon dioxide from leaving can’t stop a virus from entering, hmm?

This is called confirmation bias.  People are emotionally invested in their ideas.  It is not easy to admit being wrong after making strong statements one way or another. So, rather than be on an unbending quest for the truth, most people (including your’s truly) will seek out the information that ‘confirms’ an established position and ignore what does not.  It takes much more effort to take an honest (and critical) look at the evidence and go wherever it leads.  Few actually do.

Confirmation (or my side) bias is powerful because it is hidden under layers of fact and explanation that sounds rational.  The position being guarded seems completely reasonable to the holder of the opinion, in their eyes they own the moral high ground, and those who disagree are simply ignorant, selfish or otherwise deficiencient.  It is often this moral stake in the ground that makes it so hard to back off from an established opinion, we would rather continue in the righteous delusion than deal with the possibility the other side was right.

As the saying goes, “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”  Even a mountain of evidence cannot uproot an established position.  It is the same as a fortification on a hill that can hold off waves of an assault with few defenders.  That hill being our ego, the banner flying our identity, and we cling to this ground because to lose it would cause us to question ourselves, ask the hard questions of if we are truly virtuous and good, if we are actually intelligent or fooled by our own desire to be right?

It is far easier to remain in the comfort of our own righteous delusion than to consider that the very foundation of our citadel of reason could be sand.  We fear changing our perspective will mean we’re wishy-washy or, worse, might require us to examine the underpinnings of other long held beliefs and leave us with no bedrock to build on.  Most of all, we fear the ridicule and abuse of our ideological enemies, we can’t let them win!

Powerful Propaganda to Innoculate the Masses

The point of propaganda is to build confirmation bias.  The propagandist tries to encourage an emotional bond to an idea, often through appeals to popular prejudice, and yet not overtly or in a way that the targets know they’re being used.  Almost every war is fought for the financial benefit of a few and yet sold as some righteous common cause.

For example, both sides of the American Civil War felt they were fighting for civil rights.  Both sides used labor that was either property outright or treated like a rented mule.  The Northern elites, for all their moralizing abolitionist hubris, depended on an industrial machine that exploited poor European immigrants, taking them right off the boat to send into dark mines, dangerous factory conditions or conscript them into the meat grinder of Lincoln’s war.  The South, obviously, was fighting for the privilege of the slaveholding elites and yet convinced they were depending themselves from Northern tyranny and aggression.

Propaganda is about framing an issue in terms favorable to a particular side without ever appearing to be biased to the target audience.  It is subversive by design, aims to overwhelm the true complexity of debatable mathers with simple sloganeering, refrains meant to be picked up by the midwits in media and then spread by the unsuspecting masses.  The point is to convince the enforcers of the order, the common folk, that they are doing God’s work, being patriots, on the side of irrefutable science or what have you, when in reality they’re serving some undisclosed agenda.

Hitler did not rise to power by being the caricature of evil that we see him as on the other side of the conflict.  No, rather, he had convinced enough of the German people that he was on the side of progress, that he would remove the causes of disease and suffering, then build their country back better than ever.  The Nazis dressed up in a magnificent authoritarian style, it might look bad in retrospect, knowing where it was leading, yet was hope for a nation emerging from years of crisis.

The Safe and Effective Deception

As part of the propaganda campaign, to convince people to inject the controversial new vaccines, news articles repeated the “safe and effective” mantra over and over again.  Both of those words are, of course, subjective.  However, they are assuring and have a sort of sophisticated ring.  Surely this sort of confident declaration is the result of rigorous science and more or less an unquestionable truth, right?

Those in support of vaccine mandates completely ignore the known risks, Big Tech monopolies literally removing groups of people who had encountered adverse effects, and seem to have no awareness of the great potential of unknown risks that come with any new technology hastily introduced.  I mean, somehow the 737 Max got through the approval process, was essentially declared safe and effective, despite a serious defect.  So, in short, we can’t possibly know that there are no long-term health consequences of these experimental vaccines and are only now starting to study that potential.  

But the thing most egregious propaganda is not the downplaying and dismissal of the documented deaths or reasonable concerns of those who have studied history enough to know how quickly narratives change.  They are simultaneously attacking treatment options, like Ivermectin, that are truly effective, cheap and present less of a risk than Tylenol.  It is actually this that makes me distrust them as far as the vaccines.  Why are they so adamantly against things that are actually safer than the vaccines and with a proven record?

Even as the new vaccines have proven to be ineffective as far as stopping the spread and preventing infection, despite the natural immunity of those who had the disease being up to thirteen times stronger than the vaccines, the current propaganda narrative continues that it is the unvaccinated are the real cause of the suffering.  Nevermind that Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson all have financial ties to big media and make a windfall off of this new product.


Far Should Our Trust Go?

The real question is why should we trust the same political and media establishment that lied about where the virus originated, initially downplayed it as less a threat than the seasonal flu, parroted the Chinese regime that was no human-to-human transmission, and even had the audacity to encourage people to visit the crowded streets of Chinatown?

At what point do we start to question their bold declarations?

Can we really trust the same people who, in a complete panic after being wrong, first said “two weeks to stop the spread” and then somehow transitioned this into months of lockdowns?  Can we trust the people who, months ago, laughed off the concerns about vaccine cards being turned into a sort of passport and are now pushing for that very thing?  What can be for a President who is on record, before the election, saying he would not mandate vaccines and is now trying to impose that very policy?  

Supposedly they’re completely trustworthy this time around?

Anyhow, each day I hear stories, that man a friend knew who faithfully wore a mask, had two shots, and then died after becoming sick from the Covid virus.  We have the trickle of stories about vaccine related health complications, contaminated injections resulting in deaths and recalls of millions of doses, warnings from the very inventors of the mRNA technology, and yet told that we’re a conspiracy theorist to question.  Those blinded by confirmation bias will never see.

Let the Idiot Speak!

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This morning I came across an article reporting Facebook’s sudden about face on the matter of whether Covid-19 came from a lab in Wuhan.  The established narrative was that this debunked, a wild conspiracy theory, and thus the social media giant took it upon themselves to protect us from this misinformation. 

Had you posted some speculation about the possible man-made origin of the pandemic prior to this it is likely it would be demoted by Facebook’s algorithms or removed entirely from the platform.  This, like questions about the election results or the Biden laptop scandal, deemed to be fake news by Big Tech monopolies, present a prime examples of why I oppose all censorship.

Their supposedly independent fact-checkers, who somehow never found the time to flag some false claims (including the Russian collusion narrative, that ‘kids in cages’ started with the last administration, and the myth that Trump praised white supremacists), somehow instantly debunked the New York Post’s big scoop in the weeks prior to the election.

Of course, the Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, did issue an apology for this “total mistake” and yet long after it could impact the election.

All this to say that, no matter your politics or perspectives, these Silicon Valley elites did a rather poor job of playing impartial arbiters of truth and really can’t be trusted to police the national conversation.  Sure, maybe it was an honest effort, confirmation bias can make a fool of the best of us, they were relying on the experts, yada yada, but clearly they can be wrong and can be wrong again.

Wisdom of the Crowds

A few months back I had planned to write a blog on an interesting phenomenon called wisdom of the crowds.  

In an experiment, Sir Francis Galton, a statistician, had the visitors to a country fair guess the weight of a dressed ox.  He also had some experts independently assess the weight.  Many of the non-expert guesses were wild and yet, when taken collectively, as a mean average, do you know who came out on top?

That’s right!  

The crowd beat the experts and actually came within 1% of the true weight of the slaughtered animal.

Now this wisdom, when manipulated, say by someone claiming to know the weight, is no longer accurate.  And this is not to be dismissive of expertise.  There is certainly a place for doctors, lawyers and engineers, professionals, those who have spent years in careful study or ‘know the math’ so to speak.

Still, maybe just maybe we should rethink this idea that some kind of central body, especially in matters of partisan politics, should have complete control over what information is or is not fit for public consumption.  I mean, do you really believe that smart people are immune to things like group think, that there’s no echo chamber or chance that they miss something in their ‘expert’ analysis?

It is absolutely fact that well-educated people can get things wrong.  Remember that deadly collapse of a bridge under construction in Florida, someone in the FAA approved the 737 Max to fly before it was grounded after two plunged killing all board, surgeons sometimes remove the wrong leg and there’s a good reason malpractice insurance exists. 

Even the best of us make mistakes.  Add political agenda to the mix and there can be tremendous blindspots.  

A friend of mine suffers from a rare genetic disorder.  But it had gone misdiagnosed for years.  A local hospital even refusing to consider the possibility of a genetic cause by running tests.  Well, it turns out, a relative of his, a layperson, reading in publication about someone with the same disorder, put two and two together, my friend finally demanded the tests and that is likely the only reason he’s alive.

So why, again, should we blindly trust a small team of experts when we can open it up to the entire crowd?

Let the Idiots Speak!

One of the things that bugs me most about the whole censorship regime is that truth can come from complete idiots.  Yes, I get tired of crackpot conspiracy theories, critical thinking often seems to be in very short supply, and yet I would rather have the open conversation than to arrogantly assume that the unwashed masses have nothing of value to contribute.

First of all, as previously discussed, the established ‘expert’ consensus can be wrong.  The problem with experts is that they often have a very narrow focus and rely on other experts rather than research everything for themselves.  So, in other words, incorrect knowledge can be repeated over and over again, taken as fact, because everyone trusts their colleagues too much and sometimes, even after peer review uncovers the error, the myth persists.

For example, the Lancet, a renown medical journal, was forced to retract a study they published that came out against use of hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment option.  How this got past their editors is anyone’s guess, but this shows the danger of relying too heavily on a few experts.

Second, idiots, being less knowledgeable, can be at an advantage as far as telling the truth as they see it.  Confirmation bias, as it turns out, is something that plagues the intelligent or those who are more able to rationalize their way around the problems with their perspective.  It is far less likely that an idiot will come up with wrong (yet plausible sounding) explanation which sways public policy in the wrong direction—like a PhD college professor could.

Third, children, who are idiots due to their lack of education, are less prone to functional fixedness, they often speak in an unfiltered way and have a fresh perspective that should be heard.  The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes describes this well, the child in the tale didn’t know what they weren’t supposed to say and blurted out the truth that the socially pressured adults refused to see.

So, in conclusion, the established ‘truth’ can be wrong, the child (or unsophisticated mind) can sometimes see through the knowledge others have, and therefore we should allow all to speak no matter how stupid they sound to us.  No, that doesn’t mean we should let the idiots lead or ignore the experts, but there is great danger in shutting even their incorrect and sometimes offensive ideas out of the conversation.

At the very least, nobody is safe when the tyrant king murders the court jester.  When the idiots can be silenced it won’t be very long before the powerful begin to use the label “idiot” for anyone challenging their authority, including you, and who will dare to speak up for you after that?

Breaking Down Identities

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The other day I was filling out a survey and came to the questions about my race and gender.  I paused for a second, “what am I today?”  And decided to select what applied to me in that moment, which is the answer that I would typically use when asked those questions, and yet continued to ponder this question of identities.

I understand why these categories exist, we do have tendencies and traits as a part of a demographic group.  Generalities and stereotypes certainly do have some basis in reality and I won’t deny that.  However, what makes me bristle a bit is what this grouping too often does to relationships across category lines.  It is divisive, it robs us our uniqueness as individuals and also puts us at odds with those deemed to be different from us.

It is too black and white.  Too simplistic and encourages a distorted picture of reality in emphasizing that one similarity we share in common (or one difference we have) over everything else.  The labels themselves are even dumb.  I’m not actually white.  My skin is a shade of brown.  Furthermore, I probably only ever started identifying as white because someone told me to fill in that box as a child and I mindlessly complied.  

The idea of “whiteness” is a social construct and has come to mean much more than it ever did before.  Now some claim that everything from work ethic and politeness to mathematics is somehow a part of being white.  Which is appalling ignorance, unexcusable, given the contributions of people of all skin shades and cultural backgrounds to civilization as we know it.  All people should be offended by that nonsense.

I had a classmate, a Jamaican immigrant, brilliant at math, well-spoken, very polite, the son of an engineer or university professor as I recall.  And, by the current color obsessed paradigm, he’s more ‘white’ than I am.  It is a backhanded insult to the many, like him, who have natural talents that don’t fit within the narrow categories or grievance culture narratives of the racially prejudiced left.

Which is the crux of the matter.  I hate these categories because they lie.  As Mark Twain quipped, “there are lies, damn lies, and statistics.”  Sure one color group may, collectively, produce more elite athletes, another more classical musicians, and another mathematicians.  But those group statistics tell you absolutely nothing about individuals nor why some individuals achieved these outcomes.

Much being attributed to color is actually culture.  In Europe, in Africa, in Asia, and America, there are as many cultures as their are shades of skin color.  Some European regions are known for their industriousness and superior engineering, others for their laid-back attitude and art.  The same is true of Asian cultures.  The same is true of African people.  So how do we know color has anything to do with these differences?

The two biggest lies of our time…

1) The myth that skin color is synonymous with culture.

2) The myth that group statistics determine individual outcomes. 

Yes, there may be some statistical correlations between certain behaviors and skin color categories.  But that doesn’t mean that what applies to one of a certain category applies to all.  For example, many women love pink, but that doesn’t mean the most or even many women are fond of that color.  My younger sister defies many of those sort of feminine associated things, she’s not afraid of any critter, has reptiles for pets, and that does not make her less of a woman than those who freak out at the sight of a spider.

Correlation is not equal to causation.  And the late George Floyd has more in common with me, as a working class schlub, than he does with the Harvard educated, son of a privileged WASP mother, who calls himself Barack Obama.  It’s true.  Look it up.  One half of Obama’s lineage is as Yankee as you can get, a great great […] grandfather being the first to build a gristmill in the State of New Jersey, back in the 1600s, later elected to the state Congress.

It is a complete farce that a coal cracker kid, raised in rural West Virginia, is advantaged over a college educated “person of color” working as a Wall Street broker.  Nah, I’ve been around, I know how the cultural elites sneer at ‘deplorables’ and work overtime to make sure that they know their place.  Class privilege is often misidentified as color privilege and misidentified by the very people who benefit most from spreading out the blame for their own sins.

The son or daughter of an immigrant wage-slave has more in common with the ‘black’ category than the trust fund babies of any color pointing the crooked finger.  This is what grates me the most.  In the real world blacks and whites work together.  Out on the road, hauling commodities for the man, I swung the sledgehammer as much as that ‘black’ fellow beside me.  

So do I really need my prissy, Che Guevara T-shirt wearing sociology professor cousin, son of a doctor, who could somehow afford to travel the world taking photos while I worked for $7.50 an hour, lecturing me on things that I don’t understand as a white male?

No, no I do not!

Those who associate certain outcomes or behaviors with certain colors of skin, who only ever see skin color in their analysis, are the true racists.  There is a stronger correlation between fatherless homes and negative outcomes than there is between skin color and negative outcomes.  In other words, things commonly categorized as a color privilege is more strongly correlated with family structure.  

Look into mass shooters.  

Not at all excusing their violence, but many of them were estranged from their fathers, struggled to fit in, and it is hard not to see this as being an insignificant factor in their outcomes.

Think about that when discussion of privilege comes up.

Unfortunately, there is not much to be gained as far as political power in a “the fatherless unite!” campaign.  Racial division, by contrast, is an easy sell.  Skin color, indeed, is the low hanging fruit of human difference.  Tribalism comes naturally, all you need to do is convince people that they are somehow fundamentally different because of something superficial and their confirmation bias will do the rest of the work for you.

Breaking the Bonds of Designated Identities

I’m not going to minimize the importance of life experience and family inheritance in shaping our identities.  I was born into a conservative Mennonite home and that identity was very important to me.  In public school it made me a religious minority, subjected me to many inquiries, what would now be called micro-aggressions, and some bullying later in life too.

The strange part is that, while being the Mennonite kid amongst my school peers, I never really felt like I fit in with my ethic church peers either.  After years of rejections, both in romantic endeavors and even as far as filling offices or missionary opportunities.  Finding my place, complete acceptance, within the Mennonite culture had eventually become an obsession.  I desperately wanted to be the good Mennonite for reasons that I can’t fully explain.

That pursuit came to an end with a young woman who declared, “I can’t love you the way that you want to be loved.”  

Mercifully, over the same time, a truly fatherly figure, Fr. Anthony, an Antiochian priest and college professor, took me under his wing to help me through this collapse of my Mennonite identity that had left me with a meaningless existence and suicidal.

I had to break from my ethnic and religious identity because I had no other choice.  It was not pleasant.  I loved, and still do love, many parts of the Mennonite culture.  My parents are wonderful.  My church was not one of those Pharisaical nightmares all too common in that denomination.  But, as Fr Anthony offered, maybe I had simply “outgrown” the tradition.

And, truly, in Christ, we are all called to a higher common identity:

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

(Galatians 3:26‭-‬29 NIV)

St. Paul, in the context of the tumultuous days of the early church, spent much time addressing the many competing identities within the church.  He took on the religious elitists, bluntly telling them to castrate themselves in one letter, and spoke up for those being excluded on a class or ethnic basis.  That’s what he’s doing in the passage above, emphasizing that in Christ we can all be “children of God” and share one identity together.

The astounding part is that the church then, like the church now, still struggles on this point.  Even in the conservative Mennonite church, where we were basically all from the same ethic and cultural background, there were definitely tiers of acceptance.  Some simply check more of the ‘right’ boxes, are more popular, find the beautiful adoring wife, have all the opportunities, work their way up the ranks quickly and others not so much.  In short, the words to the Galatians are as relevant now as were then.

Christian Identity Makes Difference Beautiful

One of Mennonite cultural distinctives that I had rejected early on is that of uniformity as a part of Anabaptist non-conformity teaching.  My own church wasn’t nearly as strict as some.  But there is an undercurrent, undeniably, that if a girl talks more than average she’s a “flirt” or a motorhead guy with a nice car was somehow materialistic compared to a wealthy business owner with three farms.  Pity the artistic types in those churches more traditional than mine.

By contrast, an Orthodox Christian friend, gave this wonderful description:  The church is like a garden, full of different plants and plants, all watered by the same source.

That is the ideal.  

Unity in Christ is not about erasing all differences.  Galatians 3:28 is not turning us into an androgynous ‘multi-cultural’ blob of completely equal outcomes.  Jesus was not a Communist.  Having “all things in common” was not about forced wealth redistribution or reparations.  Certainly not about getting mine.  Rather it was about bringing our diversity of talents and abilities, bonded together as the body and blood of Christ, to the church.

Diversity can be a strength.  Not talking about superficial skin deep token ‘diversity’ achieved through quotas either.  Instead, what I love is those of many colors, many backgrounds and classes, working voluntarily towards a common goal, having found a shared identity that transcends all others and allows the entire group to reach full potential.  Competing identities keep us in conflict, but through Christ we could create the most beautiful harmonies.

In the end we must free ourselves from identities that keep us at war with each other.  However, that is not something we do ourselves. There are many misguided efforts.  Many are embracing divisive political ideologies, like critical race theory, that will only produce more hate and mistrust.  Condemning “whiteness” or heaping praise on “people of color” and otherwise playing favorites on those currently deemed to be victims is never going to do anything besides add to the confusion.  

Only in Christ, in repentance, in faith, can our differences in gender, culture, color or class be something beautiful. 

I Prefer Representatives, Sound Doctrine and the Holy Spirit Over False Choices

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I was speaking with a friend a week or two ago (a conservative Mennonite searching for his place in the church) and he shared this quote:

“Doctrine is dead as a doorknob without the presence of the Holy Spirit in an individual’s life.” (Paul Washer)

That quote drop of a Calvinist commentator was annoying to me. It was annoying because it was shared in the context of a conversation about Orthodox worship and prayers. The clear implication being that established doctrine is somehow in conflict with spiritual life.

So, without hesitation, I asked my friend: “How do you know Washer’s doctrines (like the one you just quoted) are inspired by the Holy Spirit?”

My question was based on my own experience as one who had put his full confidence in the Holy Spirit and has since learned (the hard way) the need to be grounded in sound doctrine as well. In fact, it was my desire to follow the Spirit without compromise which had led to my pursuit of the impossibility, which led to my eventual disillusionment with the Mennonite denomination, which led me to the ancient faith of Orthodoxy and new spiritual life.

So, getting back to Washer’s quote, he presents a false choice between doctrine and the Holy Spirit. He, like many Protestant commentators, seems to equate established religious dogma with spiritual deadness. His quote suggests that we devalue church traditions (those pertaining to worship and prayer in the case of my friend) based in an assumption that what is new or spontaneous is somehow more authentic and real than something that has been passed down through many generations.

But is that truly the case?

Do we ever need to choose between established doctrine and authentic faith?

From what I can tell, church doctrine and real spiritual life originate from the same source (that source being the Holy Spirit) and thus we should not ever have to choose between the two. The traditions passed down by the church (including the canon of Scripture) and the Holy Spirit are never at odds. To deny the importance of church doctrines and tradition is basically to speak against the authority of Scripture:

“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3‭-‬4 NIV)

Nowhere in Scripture do I see sound doctrine being presented in contrast with living according to the Holy Spirit. However, I do see James tells us “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26) and also know, according to the Gospel (Matthew 7:22-24), that there will be those who have professed faith in Jesus, even worked miracles in his name, whom he will tell to depart because he never knew them and therefore authenticity of faith is about more than making a claim.

Thus I do question the basis for this commentator’s opinion and the many others out there of those who speak with a similar confidence about spiritual matters. By what authority do they speak? How do we know that they, along with their devoted followings, are not deceived? I mean these ‘spiritual’ commentators are often at complete odds with one another. Don’t believe me? Do a Google search “Paul Washer false teacher” and you’ll find dozens of articles denouncing him and his teachings.

So who is right? Who is wrong? How do we know?

My contempt for commentators…

My reaction to the Washer quote isn’t something unusual for me. I have a near-universal contempt for commentators and especially those who can’t at least ground their statements directly to something found in Scripture. And perhaps that strong aversion is because I have enough strong opinions of my own, more than my fill, and therefore seek something a little more grounded than mere opinions?

Not to be misunderstood, that’s not to say that I find no value in reading commentators. I do believe we can gain many valuable insights from listening to various men and women sharing their personal perspectives on spiritual issues.

But, that said, not all commentators are equal and anyone can say anything and our feelings (one way or another) about what someone says doesn’t make it any more or less true. There are likely false teachings that would resonate with any one of us and we should guard against being closed off to truth based on our emotions. We should remember that all religious groups are able to justify their own understanding of spiritual matters, many of them live morally upright lives, and can be very convincing to those who don’t know any different.

And, to be clear, I’m not just talking about those commentators who say “the Holy Spirit tells me thus and such” without offering any corroborating evidence from church history or Scripture. Being a Bible scholar or well-educated and intelligent does not make a person less susceptible to confirmation bias. No, if anything, being well-studied and smart brings a danger of pride and pride can prevent us from seeing our own biases and the many things we have missed in our studies.

Proof-texting, when a person soundbites Biblical texts at the cost of context, is a real problem for any commentator. That is why we have a multitude of denominations all claiming their authority comes from Scripture and, yet, can’t agree on some very basic issues. It isn’t that one side is more ignorant of the book than another nor that one side is less sincere about their profession of faith than another either—the problem is a lack of accountability to anything more than what feels right to us.

My own commentary on spiritual life…

Going back to Washer’s quote, I believe we can all agree that there is no life in the church or elsewhere without the Holy Spirit.

As the Orthodox pray on a regular basis:

“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.”

We know, from the creation narrative, that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2) and is also the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7) that entered Adam. Life, both physical and spiritual, comes from the Holy Spirit, and we see this pattern throughout Scripture and even at the end of the Gospel when Jesus empowered the disciples to continue his ministry of forgiveness:

And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:22‭-‬23 NIV)

Note how that parallels with the Genesis account where God breathes life into Adam. Note also that this being “breathed on” comes after the resurrection, after Jesus spent years teaching these men, and is what enabled them to fully understand what he had taught:

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:45‭-‬49 NIV)

The disciples being “clothed with power from on high” (a step that should happen before we go out on our own commission) is something that happened in the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, when they received an outpouring of the Spirit and many came to believe in Jerusalem.

Truth, according to Paul’s commentary, in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, is something revealed by the Holy Spirit. That is something that mirrors what Jesus said in his promise of a “Comforter” that would “guide you (his disciples) into all the truth” (John 16:13), and there is no way around it. All the Bible study and religious knowledge in the world cannot breath spiritual life into anyone.

All that said, sound doctrine and spiritual life are never at odds with each other. That it took a special outpouring of the Spirit before the disciples could understand what Jesus taught doesn’t make his prior effort useless. His teachings, if anything, provided substance, like the dust God formed up into a man in Genesis, and his breath the catalyst.

Furthermore, those waiting on the right feelings, or teachings that resonate with them and their own prior experience, will likely be like the rich young ruler who left disappointed after asking what he must do to be saved. Faith demands we go outside of our own comfort zone, that we go beyond our own understanding, preferences or calculations, and begin to walk before we have our eyes opened. In fact, the Spirit is something promised only to those who those who love Jesus and keep his commandments:

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. […] “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:15‭-‬17a‭, ‬23 NIV)

So, what comes first, belief and obedience to Jesus or is it the revelation of truth via the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand what we read?

That is a paradox and something that has always made me uncomfortable. Jesus appears to make obedience a prerequisite to spiritual revelation, which ran counter to my own intuition, and why I had always stressed the second half of the teaching rather than the first part. How could I know what is sound doctrine (as in the correct understanding of what Jesus taught enabling my obedience) without the Holy Spirit coming first?

My understanding was clouded by an individualistic filter…

One would think that I, as one raised in a church with Anabaptist heritage, would understand that interpretation of Scripture and establishing doctrine is something we do together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as a church.

But somewhere along the line (somewhere between urban myths being shared from the pulpit and men like Bill Gothard being given a platform), I had lost trust in the ‘ordained’ leadership and other members to discern truth. And, as a result, I began to look beyond my religious peers for answers. Eventually, after an epiphany about faith, I began to find answers in Biblical passages that had once confounded me and became more confident in my own individual discernment through the Spirit.

However, that paradigm of understanding was incomplete and all came crashing down when my own individual ability to discern spiritual truth came into serious question.

It is easy to claim the Holy Spirit is leading you while you remain safe within the boat of religion. But true faith requires going beyond our own established range of possibilities, to let go of our own human logic and reason, and step out of the boat. I did that. I stepped out. I took a few steps across the waves and then was promptly overwhelmed by doubts—doubts that were, in part, a product of running headlong into the plans, prejudices and cynical calculations of those in the church whom I had still counted on to mirror my faith.

I had questions that I could not answer nor could be answered in the Mennonite context. I had lost faith in my Mennonite identity and Anabaptist heritage to provide reliable guidance. I felt I had been fooled, once again, misled by the desire to find meaning in my struggles and a delusional faith that the impossible would be made possible. I had nothing, besides an obligation to continue to fight for the hopes of my bhest, and needed answers.

Fortunately, I ran into a man, a fatherly figure, who did have answers that I needed and set me right again.

Fr. Anthony, an Orthodox priest, arrived in my life as if by divine appointment. He had the right attitude, asked the right questions, never said a disrespectful word about my Mennonite identity (offering praise for our “peace witness” instead) and could speak with an authority that was missing where I was coming from. There was no pressure. However, he always seemed to show up at the right time and was always able to explain things in a way that made sense to me.

The timing was right for me in the same way it was for the man St. Philip encountered on the road:

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:29‭-‬31 NIV)

In an individualistic understanding, this man (the eunuch) should’ve had all he needed to find salvation—I mean, according to what many Biblical fundamentalist commentators put forward, Scripture is basically self-explanatory and all we need to do is believe what we read, right?

But clearly, that is not the case.

The Bible itself tells us that somethings in it are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16) and this eunuch, an important and likely very intelligent person, could not discern for himself what was written in Isaiah.

The Holy Spirit did provide him with an interpretation, yet that interpretation came through a man named Philip. Philip did not speak his own “private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20) as a mere commentator offering an opinion. He was a representative. He was a man both directed by the Spirit and also commissioned by the church in the book of Acts:

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6)

Philip was chosen and ordained to be a representative of the apostles, the apostles who themselves were representatives of Christ. His authority to interpret Scripture went beyond being merely a product of his own religious studies. He was not simply a religious commentator spouting his own opinions. No, rather, he was ordained as a representative, as one judged to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” by the church, and therefore had an authority greater than a mere commentator with an opinion.

My individualistic filter was wrong, I could not understand everything on my own, we still need those representatives who are sent:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15 NIV)

Why I prefer representatives…

Anyone can offer commentary, we hear ‘expert’ commentators tell us their opinions of sports, politics and the economy all the time. Some people prefer Paul Krugman, others Rush Limbaugh, and typically we choose those who confirm our existing biases to those who would challenge them. That is also true of Biblical commentators as well. We like those men whom we choose based on our own feelings, on what resonates with us or provide our itching ears with what we wish to hear. Unfortunately, commentators are not accountable to anything besides their own understanding and too often play to the prejudices of their particular audience.

A representative, by contrast, does not speak on their own authority and is ultimately accountable to the authority that sent, commisioned or ordained them.

For example, in a Republic, like the United States, we elect Representatives to speak on our behalf and represent our interests. There are also representatives of a corporation authorized to act on behalf of the collective group and must also answer to the other representatives of the group.

Jesus, likewise, came as a representative of the Father who sent him, on several occasions he tells his audience that he speaks on behalf of the Father and not by his own authority:

Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”

Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. (John 7:14-18 NIV)

Jesus is imploring his audience to test his credentials. He is saying that those who choose to do the will of God, by following his teachings, will find out if his words are true or not. In other words, his teachings are a testable hypothesis, established directly on the authority of the Father, and not just his opinions that can’t be verified one way or another. Jesus is not a commentator speaking by his own authority, but a representative, commissioned by the Holy Spirit (confirmed with a voice from heaven and dove descending upon him at his baptism) and spoke with the authority of the Father rather than his own.

The difference between a commentator and a representative is accountable to an authority beyond their own. If a representative goes beyond their commissioning they can be voted out or brought before a council and condemned. A commentator, on the other hand, only needs to be accountable to their own understanding and the whims of their particular audience—their authority rests on their own credentials rather than on a true commissioning by an authority already established.

Doesn’t the Holy Spirit make us representatives as well?

My answer to this question, with my shift in paradigm, has changed.

The answer is both yes and no.

Yes, in that we do, as individuals, receive authority from the Holy Spirit.

But, no, as far that authority giving us license to be free from accountability and operate apart from what has been established by Christ and his church.

The Holy Spirit, the true spiritual guide sent by the Father rather than a counterfeit spirit, should lead us into unity together rather than to divisions. The early church was full of commentators, some who claimed to have the authority of the Spirit or Scripture on their side, but the book of Acts shows us that not all commentators were equal and some had to be rebuked:

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.

[…]

They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said… (Acts 15:5‭-‬8,22‭-‬24 NIV)

Heretical teachings in the church have always been sorted out by council and consensus.

Even St. Peter and St. Paul were accountable to the body of believers represented in this coming together of apostles and elders.

It is by this process we were even provided with a canon of Scripture: Councils, representatives of the church, decided what books belong in the Bible and which ones (while possibly still useful) did not meet the criteria of Orthodox teachings. Not every book, not every person, is equally authorized to speak on behalf of Christ and his church. The Holy Spirit does work in the life of the individual, but the Holy Spirit also speaks through the church and especially through those sent, ordained or commissioned by Christ and is church:

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 we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:13‭-‬15 NIV)

We are told the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and that is to say that the church does have authority over the individual as a representative of Christ. We really do need that—we really do need to be accountable to something more than our own ideas and/or interpretations—and should seek to hold fast to the teachings that have been passed by “word of mouth or by letter” of those who, through Christ and his church, have more authority than their own personal opinion.

Good commentary must be rooted in sound doctrine…

Anyone can claim to have the Holy Spirit, but not all who do are true representatives of Christ or his church, and we must use discernment. There have many heresies throughout the ages of those who felt they individually could discern truth without being accountable to anything besides their own religious knowledge and feelings of spiritual superiority to others. We need to be on the guard against their false teachings and also against being deceived by ourselves.

We are all very fortunate, we do not need to choose between the Holy Spirit and sound doctrine. This is a case where we can both have our cake and eat it. The church has preserved the teachings of Jesus, in traditions both written and spoken, as the basis for sound doctrine and that “breath of life” comes in our Communion together. We are not called to be “Lone Rangers” finding our own way, serving our own preferences, etc. We are called to be a part of the body of the church, representatives of the church past, present and future, this church:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18‭-‬19 NIV)

Second Marriage: A Second Look At Early Christian Writers…

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Early Christians, like their modern-day counterparts, had a wide variety of opinions and not all of their opinions are trustworthy or canonical. Still, their writings are often taken as 100% reliable and played like a trump card in debates over the correct interpretation of Scripture.

That is the case with some of my conservative Protestant friends when it comes to the topic of remarriage after divorce. If shown where Jesus addresses divorce as causing sin and qualifies his statement adding “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32, 19:9), they will deny the implications of this clear exception and deflect to non-canonical early church writings.

It seems a fairly reasonable approach to a controversy over meaning at first glance. Why would we not trust early church writings as reliable indicators of original intent? What reason would they have to distort the true meaning of what Jesus taught? Shouldn’t we assume that they would know better than us?

However, that is not reasonable to assume. In fact, this idea that the early church was completely pure or free of heresies and false teachings goes completely contrary to Scripture. Indeed there were many errant ideas that circulated then and some very deep disagreements over practice. So, in other words, we should be testing their words against Scripture and not using their words in aid of our own confirmation bias.

Or, at very least, if you are going to quote Tertullian in a debate you should probably know a little about him before you do and also consider what else he believed.

Consider this early church writer…

Athenagoras (circa A.D. 177)

A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. “For whosoever puts away his wife,” says He, “and marries another, commits adultery”; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to many again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.

Did you catch that?

He just declared *all* second marriages, even those after the death of a spouse, to be “only a specious adultery” and forbidden.

Compare what he says to Saint Paul in the Romans 7:2-3:

For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.

Athenagoras has clearly gone off the rails. He is in direct contradiction to the canonical teachings of the apostle Paul. Why? Well, the reason for this is that he subscribed to the heretical “New Prophecy” called Montanism.

Montanism arose from the teachings of a man named Montanus, a new Christian convert from paganism, who claimed to have a special new revelation from the Holy Spirit. They taught that their own revelations superseded those of Jesus and the apostle Paul. They ordained women as bishops and basically rejected the authority of Scripture and the established church tradition as well.

And you know who else was under the influence of Montanism and also wrote against *all* second marriages?

Tertullian.

Tertullian, a favorite of sophistical fundamentalist efforts to justify their existing positions, taught that *all* second marriages were forbidden. And by all I mean even second marriages in cases where the first spouse had died and a teaching that is certainly in direct contradiction to Scripture. That contradiction (if one truly believes that Scripture has an authority that supersedes personal revelation and not the other way around) disqualifies Tertullian as an authoritative source.

It is strange, while most Mennonites (and other Protestant fundamentalists) might denounce a modern version of Montanus as a false teacher and regard his adherents as deceived, many do accept old heretical teachings (when these old heresies argue their own established positions) and ideas that are not supported in Scripture.

All second marriages were forbidden by those misled by Montanus. However, according to Scripture, and not my own opinion, marriage can be dissolved for three reasons: Adultery, abandonment, and death of a spouse. In all three cases, a person is no longer bound to the first marriage and therefore is free to marry again.

1) The death of a spouse…

A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39 NIV)

There is no allowance for a Christian to divorce their faithful husband or wife. Marriage is supposed to be one man and one woman till death do they part. However, we live in a fallen world and that means sometimes a young married person might lose their husband or wife. For that reason, the apostle Paul provides a provision for widows and, presumably, widowers as well.

2) The abandonment of a spouse…

But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15 NIV)

A Christian is never allowed to divorce a faithful spouse. But, there are times when a couple is “unequally yoked” where one is a believer and the other is not. Paul tells those with a faithful and unbelieving spouse to remain faithful. However, he also provides a provision for brothers and sisters who have been abandoned by their unbelieving spouse. He says they are “not bound” to the marriage in that case.

3) The unrepentant adultery of a spouse…

I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9 NIV)

Jesus, in response to the Pharisees who asked if it is lawful to divorce for “any and every” reason, first took the opportunity to restate the ideal for marriage as a lifetime commitment, then explains that Moses only allowed divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, and lays down the gauntlet: There is no divorce for any and every reason.

Jesus does, however, give one exception and that is in the case of sexual immorality (or porneia) when the marriage has been broken by unfaithfulness. He significantly narrows the scope for divorce and remarriage. I do not believe he is ruling out forgiveness of the errant spouse either. But marriage can be broken and it is broken by unfaithfulness to the marriage vows.

Isn’t it better to be stricter than Scripture?

The church of my youth allowed remarriage after a spouse had died, yet not when a marriage had ended by other the other means described in Scripture and has turned away those remarried who refused to separate from their second spouse. This kind of hard-line, no exceptions besides death, stance seemed normal to me. I had simply accepted what I had been told.

It would seem like a good thing to exceed a Scriptural requirement. Mennonites do this all the time, they forbidding alcohol, mandate clothing styles and often have a whole list of standards. There seems to be an idea that exceeding the requirements of Scripture makes us safer and there is definitely a case for erring on the side of avoiding things that are questionable.

But, that said, when our own personal conscience (standards in addition to Scripture) is used as a basis to exclude others, then we have become as Diotrephes, the arrogant church leader condemned in 3 John for his refusing welcome other believers, and we will be held to account. It is one thing to have high personal standards, it is quite another to make them a test of membership and reason to slam the door in the face of those trying to enter.

Do not be like those who use their own conscience to overrule the teachings of Jesus and the apostle Paul. Montanism was heretical, a false teaching, and their kind of sophistry remains a stumbling block.

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.

Is There Room for Both Primitive and Historical Churches?

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Recently I had breakfast with an earnest young Mennonite man to hear a presentation on behalf of an organization that helps to educate pastors in India. My overall impression was good, they focused on empowerment of local leaders rather than creating dependencies, and it seemed a cause worthy of my support.

Part of the goal for this organization was to ground these new converts, who often are opposed and even persecuted by everyone, and establish them with correct doctrines. In many ways it is a ministry similar to that of Peter and Paul in the book of Acts. It is exciting to see that there is a primitive church established on the miracles Jesus promised.

However, and perhaps unfortunately, this organization and many others, while they do indeed serve in a way that I can appreciate, also promote their own theological perspective. It is founded and maintained by those who are themselves disconnected from the established tradition of the church and could likewise benefit from the council of their elders.

The Appeal and the Problems with Primitivism…

When we see new converts struggle in some foreign land we can easily see the need for increased understanding and structure.

Sadly, while we see their need, we often do not comprehend our own need.

For many years, as a child of Protestantism, I believed that my own sect had as complete an understanding of Christianity as there is and that I was individually able to discern truth. As I’ve grown into adulthood I started to become more aware of inaccurate teachings and my own fallibility as an individual.

I was raised in a denomination that promotes their own idea of primitivism. In other words, many in the church of my youth believe very sincerely that they are the spiritual successors of early Anabaptists and also the early church. Basically we assumed, based in where we were born or in our own personal interpretation, that we held a corner on the truth.

This, sadly, is a belief established on confirmation bias. It is the intellectual equivalent of comfort food and keeps many from digging a little deeper. To think the ground that you stand on is sacred because you’re standing on it is a terribly arrogant position. This often ends up like this:

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)

Primitivistic groups are experts at finding the evidence in favor of their perspective and pointing out the faults in other groups. They, like Diotrephes, exclude those who do not agree with them. And that is the biggest problem with primitivistic church groups, they do not all teach the same things, some are extremely heretical, and yet all believe they represent the real unadulterated truth and keep out all who disagree.

What is the Historical Christian Response to Primitivism?

Not all primitivism is bad. A person must start their journey of faith somewhere and a basic conceptual understanding of the foundations of Christianity is a good start. Note how Jesus corrects the disciples for trying to silence those who were working miracles in his name and yet were not connected directly to his ministry with the disciples:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49‭-‬50 NIV)

Jesus appears to endorse those working the miracles because they are correct in their basic understanding and doing his work. But that’s not to say we should be content to leave others ignorant and unconnected. I’m reminded of when Paul encountered some primitive believers:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. (Acts 19:1‭-‬5 NIV)

It is the duty of a Christian elder to disciple and instruct the young in the faith and increase their understanding of the truth in the same way Paul did. Those who are of the right Christian perspective will appreciate the help and encouragement of an elder. They have the attitude encapsulated in the words of Peter:

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5 NIV)

We, like those new believers in India who are eager to be taught, need to take the same attitude towards learning from those who represent the historical church. There is an established church. There is a true orthodoxy of Christian faith and practice. We, those born into a more primitive setting in particular, would be remiss not to submit to our own elders and especially when we tell others to follow our own teachings.

Leave Those Who Are Both Primitive and Proud…

There is only one option with those who are proud and unsubmissive like Diotrephes, we must leave them because their pride blinds them. We must follow the advice of Jesus when dealing with those promoting false religion:

Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit. (Matthew 15:14 NIV )

There is extreme danger in relying on those who know little more than you do and who refuse to be accountable to anyone besides themselves. There are many denominations and parachurch organizations that fit that description. All have their subscribers who sip the same poisoned Kool-Aid (sometimes literally in the case of Jim Jones) and dismiss perspectives outside of their own.

We should rebuke the rebellious and those who deceive:

For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. (Titus 1:10‭-‬11 NIV)

Many denominations (and non-denominational groups) keep their independence for sake of being free of accountablility to others and having control in their own hands. This kind of purity based on personal preference has been the foundational principal for many cult groups and is a corrupt foundation even when it doesn’t end in a Münster Rebellion or mass suicide.

If you are part of a small group that teaches that they are the most authentic church (or excludes other Christians from fellowship who do not follow their litany of man-made regulations) be very wary. There are many people very confident in themselves, who think they have all the answers, who see themselves as pure—and are deceived by their pride.

Being Reconnected with the Historical Church…

My biggest temptation, when leaving the Mennonite denomination, was to do what many other Protestants do when disappointed with their denomination and that is to go start the “Perfect Church of Joel” or basically a new pure and primitive sect. That, of course, was a foolish impulse. Any church founded by me, while possibly strong in some areas, would also share my weaknesses and blindspots.

The impulse a “pure” church is a product of arrogance, a focus on the shortcomings of others rather than on our own, and ignorance of the historic church. The early church, believe it or not, was not exactly pristine of free from problems. Read through the Gospels, the book of Acts and Paul’s letters, there is controversy, there is disagreement and failure.

However, despite their quarrels and shortcomings, keeping unity was the refrain:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.(1 Corinthians 1:10 NIV)

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 4:2‭-‬6 NIV )

Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. (2 Corinthians 13:11 NIV )

Unity of the church is a Christian imperative. Perfection on our own Mennonite, Lutheran, Mormon, Methodist or other denominational/separatist/sectarian terms is not.

There is truly no pure church, all are made of people who are imperfect, but there is a historically grounded church, one with a better claim on apostolic succession than any other, that keeps the traditions passed by word of mouth or letter, and is focused completely on Jesus Christ.

Unity should not be on our own terms. It is the responsibility of the younger to submit to the elder (according to Peter) and this is a teaching that can apply to both individuals and entire denominational structures. Those in primitive churches, therefore, as individuals or collectively, should make it their perogative to connect and be unified with the historic church.

My finding my place in the Orthodox Christian tradition was not an easy transition. It required me to think beyond my own individual preferences and perfectionistic impulses. It required me to submit to an understanding in many ways different from my own, I’ve had to sacrifice some of my primitivism, and seek unity in Christ rather than unity on my own terms.

The Two Types of Truth-tellers

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

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

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

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

But there are truth-tellers…

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

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

What part do you play in the story?

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

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

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

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

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

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