Seeing the Truth — Who Are the Real Christians?

Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does “Real Christians” actually mean?

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

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

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

So why deny it?

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

Why not be Mennonite and own it?

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

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

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

Let’s talk about those Mennonite doctrines…

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth sets free!

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

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

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

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

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

The Patriarchal Protection Paradox

Standard

The order and protection of patriarchalism and purity culture could appear to be the alternative to the chaos, confusion, risk and hurt of sexual liberation.  We know that women are taken advantage of all the time by men who have no intentions of making a commitment, they do naturally bear the higher cost of sexual promiscuity and therefore it does make sense to offer them some special protection, right?

Men should be protectors.  This is a role that men are well suited for and, in correct form, actually enables women to thrive and be the best version of themselves.  Does this mean that women can’t do what men do?  No.  But it is simply optimal, in a trade relationship, that both parties specialize and do what they are better suited to do.  For the betterment of the whole and ultimately for themselves.  My grandma kept the books for the farm while my grandpa ran the equipment and did the field work.  Why?  Well, it’s simply what worked for them. 

The patriarch, the elder man of a household or a community, should indeed protect those who are under his care.  That’s what he is there for.  He can provide food, shelter, shepherding and defense for the vulnerable.  His age and experience, his humbly knowing his own place under God, can give him perspective valuable to his children and appreciated by the woman that he has committed to love.  This may be patriarchy, I’m not sure, but the good kind.

Unfortunately, patriarchalism, like that often found in religious purity cultures, tends to be the wrong kind of protection.  It elevates women while simultaneously not treating them as equals.  It protects some women, but not all.  And, while framed as a male advantage, because it does privilege some men, actually hurts men.  It may prevent some promiscuity, but it doesn’t protect people or truly show Christian mercy to anyone.  Worse, since it never gets to the heart of the matter, it often only covers for abuse.  That’s the paradoxical part: Below the surface it is not really any different from the degrading and demeaning alternative. 

1) Paradox: Both Elevates And Demeans Women

Patriarchalism is often framed in terms of dominant men who think women should follow two steps behind, which is certainly one part of it.  But it can also be much more subtle than those notions of women remaining barefoot in the kitchen, pregnant, submissively waiting on their husbands. 

In fact, many men who identify with feminism are very often unwittingly patriarchal in their overzealous protective and preferential treatment of women.  Coddling or patronizing women, assuming their motives are always pure, is ultimately another form of patriarchal protection.  This is, incidentally, the reason why some feminist women resent having the door held for them.  Is it a kind gesture or is it an assumption of her inferiority and need for male help?

What I’m talking about is this idea that a woman can do no wrong, that assumes that she is always a hapless victim of male abuses and basically lacking any agency or discerning capacity equal to a man.  

I know women like this, who look adoringly at their husband as he compliments her (patronizingly) for her being able to pick the drapes.  He gets to make all of the real decisions and she can live comfortably without the stresses of adulthood. 

And, not surprisingly, some women are completely fine with this arrangement.   Why not stay on the gravy train if you can?

However, many more women are uncomfortable with this protection.  They sense this treats them as if they’re not fully formed humans and, in the end, will stifle their God-given potential. 

Of these backhanded insults that intelligent and capable women face constantly in this current social paradigm is that they are either a) in need of some crusty politician to help them or b) they are some sort of faultless Mary Sue, with no need of character development, who only had to show up to dominate men.  Nobody truly wants to be treated as special simply because they have a certain type of genitals.  Putting women on a pedestal (even if called feminism) is patriarchalism.

The protection of patriarchalism is the wrong kind of protection.  It treats women sacred objects, idols, faultless and not real people with complexity or depth.  It protects the female body, at least in theory, yet neglects her soul.  It objectifies.

2) Paradox: Protects Some Women, But Not All

In purity cultures (both secular/political or traditional/religious) only those who meet a certain standard or subscribe to a particular ideological agenda are actually protected.  Those who do not conform the cultural expectation are not valued or respected.

In the religious culture which I was born into, the woman who follows the rules (kept up outward appearances and acted the part of innocent) is always treated as pure-minded and virtually incapable of evil.  A young woman, who outwardly obeys, is her daddy’s little angel, practically divinity, and subject to unceasing praise.  Women are protected, but not as equal to a man, and only so long as they represent the ideal.

Perhaps this ‘protection’ is motivated by guilt and a way to make up for the extra pressure put on women to conform and submit?  Or simply a way for some men to advantage themselves over other men by playing the hero?  Maybe it is just a bias of those in a culture where everything is judged by outward appearances and men can’t imagine their female counterparts as being anything but porcelain dolls, where it is unimaginable that a beautiful young woman, from a good home, wearing the prescribed attire, could be anything but sinless and a saint.  Whatever the case, it is real and is a privilege (albeit perverse) that women enjoy in patriarchal purity cultures.  

This privilege, and pedestal, of course, does not apply to ‘worldly’ women.  No, only the girl who meets the patriarchal religious standard is sort of viewed as some kind of unattainable perfection.  A woman is either a paradigm of virtue, a Madonna, or she is a Jezebel, a Potiphar’s wife and temptress, with very little room in between.  An too often, the woman who stands up for herself a bit or defies their cultural expectations, to the patriarchal men, are comparable to a prostitute and totally debased.  They need women to be weak so they can feel strong by comparison.

The patriarchal paradox is that it does elevate and protect women, but not in a way that humanizes or allows women to have the same fullness of character as a man. Patriarchalism doesn’t protect women as people, but rather as they represent an image of femininity and cultural ideal.  This is revealed or exposed, in the reality that patriarchal men do not protect all women.  No, they only protect their women and only so long as they fit the cultural prescription. 

Furthermore, the protection patriarchal purity culture is mostly focused on defending the physical body of a woman, managing her outward behavior, rather than her actual spiritual well-being.  She is the trophy on a man’s shelf, a conquest, but not recognized as a fully formed person.  Women are valued for their virginity and only protected if deemed pure by some cultural standard. A woman is only worthy of protection if his purity fantasies can be projected onto her feminine frame.

This ‘protection’ (or at least as it is combined with purity culture) labels those who fall short as “defiled” and treats them like damaged goods rather than broken people to be loved. The paradox is that patriarchalism protects a cultural ideal for women rather than protect women.  It offers condemnation, not care, for those who fall short.

3) Paradox: Hurts Rather Than Helps Most Men

Patriarchal treatment of women also leaves many men feeling inadequate amongst women who are truly their equals and not perfect as imagined.  In my own life, I’ve put Mennonite women so high on a pedestal that their rejection felt like a judgment from God.  That is unfair to the men, it is unfair to the women, and yet is very common in patriarchal religious purity cultures.

Again, in patriarchal purity culture, so long as a woman dressed and acted in a particular manner she was basically immune from criticism.  I’ve seen very patriarchal pastors side with a wife against her husband, when she was as much at fault, and suspect it was a matter of sexual preference.  And I do mean “sexual preference” in the crassest and literal manner, in that they were protecting women to preserve their own sexual status with her.  Somewhere, in their reptile brain, they needed to impress the woman, play savior to the damsel in distress, and did a terrible disservice to both sides with their prejudice.

Young conservative Mennonite men, unlike the females within the culture who are treated as blameless, are frequently called out for their more open expression of their lusts and pornography addictions.  It is as if it never registered to them that Jesus called out those who appeared to be righteous more harshly than those caught in their sin.  Mennonite women sin.  They have their vices, even if less obvious.  Anyhow, when some are left feeling dirty and irredeemable rather than sinners in need of God’s grace like anyone else, this is patriarchal purity culture and unChristian.

Men in patriarchal purity culture, rather than love other men, enjoy eliminating competition.  By highlighting and haranguing about the more visible weaknesses or inadequacies of other men they hope to increase their own social stature.  This is even more pronounced in purity cultures where polygamy allowed.  The “lost boys” of fundamentalist Mormonism, where young men are accused and run off, a clear example. 

Other men are a far bigger threat to abusive patriarchal men than women.  And this is why Biblical fundamentalist (Protestant) men demand submission to themselves and yet absolutely refuse to fall under any authority other than their own.  It is not so much about women or purity as it is about protecting the overblown ego of some men and comes at the expense of all.  It is actually about power not protection.

4) Paradox: Patriarchal Protection Often Covers For Abuse

The great irony of patriarchal purity cultures are that they are as focused on sex as the ‘worldly’ whom they condemn.  Even in their condemnations of promiscuity there is this “methinks thou dost protest too much” feeling and sense that this constant bluster is for their titillation or pleasure.

But, more than that, this display doesn’t mean these moralizers are free from sexual sin themselves. 

No, they are as obsessed with the physical bodies as anybody in the world outside their cults. 

And, while they consider themselves to be moral authorities, they often blame-shift responsibility for their own lust onto women.  From pulpit pounding sermons about “immodesty” (in front of an audience of women wearing  long dresses) to men who literally blame the young girls they molested for the abuse. 

However, the worst part is when those in these cultures are more concerned about the victims remaining silent than they are about the abuse.  This is probably not so much about keeping individual abusers from justice so much as it is about protecting the culture.  To feel good about themselves, to keep up the “holier than thou” show, they must conceal the impurities.  It is about protecting image not people.

Purity cultures are about preserving an outward image of purity and avoid looking inward at all costs.  They need to externalize blame, keep the focus on the sins of those outside of the group, or it would be impossible to sustain the system.  So deny the extent of their own problems, to try to keep their sins secret, is a means to protect their special identity and culture. 

The Wrong Kind Of Protection

In the end, patriarchalism protects the cultural ideal of purity rather than actually loving people.  It is concerned primarily with a woman’s body, or outward behavior, not her being.  It is centered on the physical rather than the spiritual.  It stifles women who don’t fit the cultural mold, does not protect their dreams or ambitions, and also gives cover to bad behavior that flies beneath the radar of dress standards and superficial obedience.  It protects the power of a few men at the top, but does not serve many (or most) of the males within the culture very well. 

It does not follow the example of Jesus, who did associate with prostitutes and others who did not keep up their righteous image according to the standards of the religious paradigm of that time.  He intervened on behalf of a woman accused of adultery and condemned the sanctimonious elites.  They Pharisees were obsessed with maintaining an outward image, creating physical separation between themselves and those deemed impure, yet knew nothing of spiritual transformation or even their own need of an inner change.  They loved status and outward image, they protected a religious ideal, but not real people.

The problem with the patriarchal purity culture protection is that it protects women like property, as sex objects, and not as people.  It is dehumanizing in the way that it puts women on a pedestal.  The problem is not male leadership.  The problem is any leadership that does not protect other than for it’s own benefit.  Despite what it claims, patriarchalism is about defending the status of some men, keeping their lust satiated, rather than Christian love.  It is ‘protection’ of the wrong spiritual source. 

And, thus unlike what popular mythology would suggest, this is not a problem that would be solved by replacing men in leadership with equally domineering women.  That is the one big absurdity of our time, we are told that women would be better more empathetic leaders than men and then given purple-haired Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo berating a subordinate man as an example.  That’s not an empowered woman, that’s a woman that is dangerously entitled or so uncertain of her own command that she needs to make an example of anyone who dares to question.

It is the spirit of patriarchalism that’s wrong and why it creates such resentment.  Most of us would fall willingly behind a fatherly figure that we trusted was not in it for himself and had our best interests in mind.  If we knew that our unique personhood was being protected rather than how we fit into their own cultural ideal and scheme then we would be less skeptical.  More would fall into place as God intended if we would all start here, with humility and a truly serving spirit:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Philippians 2:5‭-‬7 NIV)