In Search of Authenticity at an Amish Wedding…

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Protestantism aimed to strip away the inauthentic part of Christian tradition and, in the process, fractured the church into many competing sects all claiming to be the authentic article.

I was reminded of this while attending an Amish wedding and thinking of how quickly many outside of this peculiar tradition would dismiss Amish forms as dead religion.  The rituals of the service, all in German, while beautiful in their own rite, did not speak to me as an English speaking person.  I’m also doubtful the words did much for the many dozing throughout the three hours of singing and sermon.

Many Evangelicals, because Amish do not hand out tracts or speak of their “born again” experience and whatnot, openly question the salvation of Amish.  This includes many conservative Mennonites who (while also denouncing other Evangelicals as being too unorthodox) at least go through the motions of missions and schedule “revival meetings” every year to remind each other to be more authentic.

The Dilemma of a Doubly Non-conformed Mennonite…

Normally, in a traditional Mennonite context, non-conformity means conforming to their written (and unwritten) standards and being intentionally different from their “worldly” neighbors.  But for me non-conformity has always meant more than only doing things acceptable for a Mennonite.  For me non-conformity meant a) independence from public school peers and also b) authenticity at church.

I have spent my life as a non-conformed Mennonite.  This was a constant tension for me.  It made me uncomfortable with inauthentic conformity to Mennonite culture yet also always longing for full acceptance and wishing to be fully conformed.  I never wanted to be anything other than Mennonite and accepted there.  But it was equally important, as one seeking to be authentic as a matter of conscience, that I never do anything just to be accepted.

In practical terms this meant that I would not go to Bible school or to the mission field hoping to find a mate.  I know this is how many Mennonites do find a partner (despite their stated intentions and anti-fraternization policies) but it seemed dishonest to me.  So, as a result of this conviction to be forthright, I didn’t go and planned to go only when the reasons for going fully matched my expressed aims.  That, more than anything else, is probably what ensured my bachelor status and one of many ways my desire for authenticity cost me.

Doing anything without a full commitment, including singing hymns while down and only half-hearted, was painful for me.  I would sooner risk offense and remain silent than utter words without being completely genuine.  For me authenticity meant not going through the motions and not doing cliché things only to please culture expectations.  Unfortunately, in a culture that values conformity over authenticity, this was at odds with my hope for full acceptance.

What Does It Mean to Be Authentically Christian?

The other day I was talking to a couple curious about my religious roots.  The question came up, “Do Mennonites love Jesus?”  To that I answered “yes” but then went on to explain what differentiated Mennonites from other denominations.  Mennonites, like their Amish cousins, claim to love Jesus.  However, to be one of them you will need to prove your authenticity by keeping their traditions and following their rules.

Sadly, being authentically Mennonite does not make a person is authentically Christian.  Even assuming that Mennonite standards were absolutely correct, even if a person were able to follow those standards perfectly to the letter, and even if these forms are of temporal benefit, there is no salvation to be found in religious conformity.  We know this because Jesus said this when he encountered a man who had kept his religious tradition perfectly and was still lacking something:

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

“Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:16-21)

We read that the disciples were “greatly astonished” by what Jesus had told this man.  How could anyone be saved by this new standard that Jesus gave?  This man had followed all the rules.  He was the good Mennonite, did his missionary service, attended every service, tithed faithfully and was a reputable man, perhaps even homeschooled his children, but somehow this was not enough for Jesus.

1) Authenticity is not preserved in keeping tradition…

Tradition is intended to guard authenticity.  Many measure the authenticity of others by how they measure up against their own tradition.  Mennonites question if authenticity can be found amongst Amish singing their centuries old Ausbund hymns.  Those not Mennonite, despite admiring our devotedness to our religious practices, question if we love Jesus.

Early Anabaptists and early Christians were right to understand that authentic Christianity was about more than keeping religious traditions.  In fact, they often, to the vexation of the religious, dispensed with the established rules and defied tradition.  They are like Paul and Barnabas who were adamant in their opposition to defenders of tradition:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. (Acts 15:1,2)

Basically these Judaizers (Galatians 2:14) were trying to force non-Jewish converts to keep Jewish customs and be circumcised as a condition for acceptance.  But the apostle Paul preached against this and used language quite strong to express his contempt:

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:2-12)

Paul is saying that these traditionalists are at odds with authentic faith.  He comically calls these defenders of circumcision to go further and completely emasculate themselves.  It seems that the real problem with the Judaizers was not that they followed Jewish customs themselves, but that they tried to force to new converts to keep their traditions as if salvation depended on them and this came at the expense of authentic Christian love.

2) Authenticity is not a produced by destroying tradition…

Many in search of authenticity abandon tradition and try to rebuild from scratch.  This has been the modus operandi of many since Martin Luther hammered out his ninety-five theses in 1517 in protest of the selling of indulgences and has led to the great fracturing of the church.  Those seeking authenticity apart from established church traditions have gone in a thousand contradictory directions.

Some think authenticity comes from spontaneous and disorderly outbursts during church services, which goes against Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40:

If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret.  If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.  Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.  And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop.  For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.  The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets.  For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

Originality is not evidence of faith, innovation in worship is not a sign of deeper spiritual life, and being anti-formality does not make a person more authentically Christian.  And, according to Paul, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace…”

In practical terms, this means God is probably not bedazzled by our light shows and high-powered musical programs.  Conversely, nor is God likely to be impressed by our long-winded sermons, our wielding of giant leather-bound Bibles on Sunday mornings, our flowery prayers with “thees” and “thous” nor any of our other attempts to create authenticity apart from living in true faith and loving as Jesus commanded.

In a generation or two those who attempt to remedy dead orthodoxy by destroying tradition often end up in a weaker position and with a tradition more corrupt, more incomplete and more unbalanced than the one they left behind.  Their innovations evolve into forms and soon the only stability they have comes from their condemnation of everyone who doesn’t conform to their own particular denominational brand.

3) Authenticity transcends our dichotomies…

Evangelicals (especially conservative Mennonite evangelicals who fear being confused with their more non-conformed brethren) look down on Amish and question the authenticity of their faith because they don’t use evangelical terms to describe their experience.  But, in my working with Amish, I have found them to be very genuine and generous towards me.  I do not see them as much different from conservative Mennonites in their focus on outward conformity and there is nothing that makes the conventions of modern Evangelicalism more authentic than the more traditional alternatives.

You can worship in a non-denominational house church or recite liturgy in a cathedral in Rome and miss the point of Christian faith entirely in both places.  As many Mennonite ordained men lament, pleading and trying to prod through the blank stares of their congregations, “Did you think about the words you just sang?”  And thus they prove that even the best-written hymns of the past couple hundred years can be sung beautifully and yet the meaning of the words missed.  Which makes me wonder why they think their own appeals will be heard?

Whatever the case, true authenticity is not a product of the religious form one follows, it is not a matter of being more or less traditional.  I have actually found it easier to worship God in a liturgical service than I did in the less ordered and less orthodox Mennonite setting that I grew up in.  Why?  Well, because it is an authentic love of God that gives our worship life.  I’ve found it easier to lay aside all earthly cares while in a liturigical service.  For me there is greater peace in the cloud of witnesses and ancient tradition than there is in the many opinions of a men’s Sunday school class.

That said, I firmly believe there are authentic Christians in the whole swath of traditions old and new from Anglican to Zionist and everything in between.  What matters, what makes a Christian authentic, is not the costume that a person wears nor the prescribed language they use, what truly matters is whether or not we love each other as we were commanded.  All tradition, and all abandonment thereof, is only meaningless noise without love:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

The Lost Witness of Christian Community and Finding it Again

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There has been much focus on the family in the church.  Popular media commentators (like James Dobson, Michael Pearl, Bill Gothard and Doug Philips) encourage making a high priority of our own immediate families. 

Family is important.  But the “no greater joy” in 3 John 1:4 is not written about a man’s own family or his blood relatives.  Instead the letter is written about the church.  John is describing love for spiritual children and the family of God.  Do we find as much joy in the church family as we do in raising our own children?

Christian community has been watered down over the years.  Yes, we might have more ‘church’ activities than ever and yet, as far as real interdependence, we are lacking.  Those of you from good homes, who are happily married and in your prime, may not notice.  But there is great social need beyond your doorstep.

This blog will explore where we are, where we were and where we need to go from here; it will address the enemies and also the benefits of faith community.  One blog can’t even begin to do the topic justice, but hopefully it will spark thoughts and discussion.  My prayer is that those reading will take faithful steps to restore the Christian community where they are.

Where we are…

The loss of community in the world around us is profound and the results are tragic.  Isolated people are unhealthy people.  The family unit itself has been degraded.  Many children do not have opportunity of dinner time conversations together with their parents at home.  Child care is increasingly outsourced.  More people survive on food cooked by strangers than ever.  The elderly are interned for sake of convenience, out of sight and out of mind.  It is madness.

The church has not fared much better.  People in many churches have very little meaningful interaction with each other during the week.  After the church service is over most go their seperate ways and expect the needs to be taken care of by those appointed to do so.  There is very little difference between the mainstream church and the world in regards to community.  Sure, many churches bustle with activities, and there are many good people who are trying to make a difference, but there are many unmet social needs.

My conservative Mennonite culture has a more distinct history of community.  Other Anabaptist groups, our spiritual (and often biological) cousins, have a stronger community emphasis than our own.  Amish have taken dramatic steps and have rejected technology (starting with the automobile) in an effort to preserve the integrity of their communities.  The Hutterites have a long communal tradition.  But conservative Mennonites lack a clear structure and could lose this strength of community entirely.

I’ve seen changes in my own Mennonite community in my own lifetime that indicate the erosion of our community.  We are following after the mainstream and the world more than we often realize.  The Anabaptist prioritization of brotherhood has been replaced with a more individualistic mindset.  

We do not pursue the concept of Gelassenheit anymore.  Instead we turn to our own biological families for support and our fellowship is growing apart.

Where we were…

The early church example is very clear.  The family language used by early church leaders meant something.  When Paul spoke up for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-25) he speaks with the urgency of a father speaking for his son.  It is not casual usage of words.  It is not us singing “I’m so glad to I’m a part of the family of God” on Sunday mornings and then doing next to nothing for each other during the week.  The chuch then was a true family in every sense of the word…

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:44-47)

And repeated again later in the book of Acts…

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

Their commitment to each other was clearly not a superficial commitment like our own too often seems to be.  What is described in the passages from Acts above is not coincidence.  No, what is described is what will happen when people commit fully to the teachings of Jesus and love as they ought to love.

Where we need to be…

What we need, first of all, is intention—we need to want to make the ideal of community a greater reality.  We must realize our own weakness alone, confess this to each other and then bear our burdens together… 

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

It is not a meddlesome or controlling spirit, but rather a growing recognition of our own need for community and deepening commitment to the good of our Christian brothers and sisters.  This kind of love is the truest expression of obedience to the law of Christ.  

Jesus said the world would know we are his followers by our love for each other (John 13:34-35) and this is expressed in Koinonia (κοινωνία) or our common union as believers.  We are to be intimately involved in fellowship together, and in all things, or we are not fully living the example Jesus taught.  This must be made a reality today in our own time or we cannot claim to be fully living in faith. 

The church should be extending our family to those without.  Our elderly should never be left to a commercially operated nursing facility.  Young single mothers should be able to find a restful place amongst us.  We need to be less focused on our own individual family and more concerned with the family of God.

Enemies of community of faith…

There are many reasons why we do not follow the Acts church example today and it is mostly because we fear that the arrangement will not benefit us as an individual or our own family.  This is a short list of reasons why one may resist a greater expression of Christian community:

1) Individualism: There is no doubt that our American culture centers on ideas of independence and rugged individualism.  Unfortunately this has evolved into a rat race where everyone pursues a dream (unattainable for many) at the expense of real and fulfilling relationship.  We seek independence, and it is good when we are working to support ourselves, yet we have social needs that cannot be fulfilled in ourselves alone.

2) Prosperity: People can create an illusion of their lack of need for other people because they are wealthy.  Our wealth as Americans is used as defense of the status quo.  The argument goes that since everyone has food, shelter and clothing there is no need for a better application of what we read in the book of Acts.  Unfortunately government programs, while keeping people from physical death and complete destitution, do nothing for social or spiritual needs.  Even materially wealthy people can be very isolated and miserable.

3) Pride: Religious people can easily imagine they are better than other people including their own brothers and sisters in the church.  They do not want their children influenced by other children and adults, therefore they remove them, homeschool, etc.  It is the oldest sin in the book.  It was what seperated mankind from God and it is also an enemy of Christian community.  Pride is dangerous, it causes divisions in the church and decieves us into believing we are better off when we are in complete control.

4) Technology: The Amish were right.  The automobile dramatically changed and has aided in the decline of community.  Add to that the television and smartphones.  Children nowadays have more reason to stay inside and isolated.  Adults are not much better by choosing to live in some suburban home with a privacy fence.  We are increasingly buried in technology, addicted to the quick fix of social media and at the expense of true relationship.

5) Fear of commitment: It takes faith and commitment to seek after deeper relationship and many of us are simply avoiding it.  In the conservative Mennnonite church we are afraid to court and adopting the same reluctance towards marraige of the Millennial generation.  Commitment is scary.  The rewards of community (like marriage) are not immediate and the risks loom large.  Unfortunately we miss out on a blessing because of our fear.

The practical arguments in favor of community of faith…

First and formost, there is need.  Again, just because your own needs are met does not mean that there is no need.  The plight of our older singles and elderly people would be a little less severe if they were intergrated into a community rather than the afterthought that they often are.  The church shold be a place where everyone has an equal seat at the table. 

Unfortuantely many of us our too preoccupied with our own families to notice or care about those who are lacking.  That is not the spirit of Christ who told us to leave all (including family) to follow after him.  The irony is that those who actually have by some means found their security in themselves may actually have the most need.  Wealth, whether it be that of material or biological variety, has always hindered commitment to faith.  Our need to repent of our religious individualism and spiritual pride could be our greatest need of all.

Then there is the matter of efficient use of resources.  As most of us currently live there is this ridiculous redundancy.  We all need our own seperate lawn mower, garden tools, pickup truck and would be so much further ahead sharing.  That’s not to mention our reliance on commercial lenders rather than each other.  It is sad that we would rather our brothers pay interest to a bank and struggle to stay ahead than help them as we might our own son.  It is a wasteful use of resources that could otherwise be used to further the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the most spurious arguments against a more real expression of Christian community is the idea that it would come at the expense of evangelism.  The reasoning goes that existing groups that practice a community of goods concept have failed in one regard or another and often in sharing the Gospel.  This, of course, is the same argument used by those saying that we should drop other non-mainstream Biblical practices currently practiced by conservative Mennonites.  If we start abandoning practices that can somehow be associated with abuse or neglect we would probably need to join the faithless and stay home.

Community of faith is actually the most practical witness of the Gospel we have.  How better to meet the needs in the world around us than to offer them the clearest possible alternative?  There is no choice between missions outreach and Christian community because one can compliment the other.  In fact, one enhances the other and makes it much more effective.  Sure, maybe the commitment would require more of us.  However, there are many people with needs who would benefit greately from a church that truly acted as a family.  

Change comes upon us slowly…

The book of Acts describes a reality quite a bit different from our own today.  Then, unlike now, there was a willingness to give up financial independence and truly be a part in a community of faith.  This is something that must be restored for the church to function as it was supposed to fuction.

I believe that the contrast between then and now is something that must be part of our discussion.  Even in my own lifetime there seems to be a weakening of our commitment to each other.  There was a time it seemed we spent more time together visiting on a Sunday afternoon, when we worked closer together and had a more meaningful impact on each others life.

There needs to be radical steps taken in faith.  We need not recreate the past, but rather we do need to walk in obedience to the same Spirit that caused the early church to want to have a better communion (or common union) together.  We must ask what has changed between our priorities today and theirs then.

Many of us would scoff at the idea of a commune.  However, do we see the absurdity of our own time and way?  Do we see the cost of paying strangers to prepare our coffee in the morning or care for our elderly?  Do we see what the loss of community has done to our neighbors and nation?

There needs to be a vision for community of faith.  We need to take steps to get off the tragectory that the world is on and present something different and better.  My own conservative Mennonite church family can lead the way in this regard.  We have this better prioritization in our Anabaptist history and could use this as a basis for a fresh push in that direction.

We need to be intentional.  We need to challenge the thinking of the world that has crept into our lifestyle and has convinced us that we are better off in our own corners rather than in loving community together.  Jesus said “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:29) not only our own biological progeny.  The church should be our family.  

So my encouragement is that we pursue the true ideal of church community with all sincerity.  We should tune out the radio and internet commentators and commit to love each other more.  I believe we will find God faithful when we do.