One Nation or the Divide

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“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

(Malachi 4:5-6 NIV)

That end to the Old Testament has intrigued me.  It contains a very clear either/or option.  Either the people heed the message of Elijah or the land will be totally destroyed.  God desired all to be saved, to be united in love for each other, and yet also doesn’t force the relationship and eventually the opportunity for reconciliation will end.

This is how John the Baptist was introduced in the New Testament:

He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

(Luke 1:16‭-‬17 NIV)

Very aspirational. 

Unfortunately, we see how this would eventually work out for the nation, as a whole, of those who didn’t repent or turn from their religious elitism.  We see it in the following pronouncement of Jesus:

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to turn “ ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother,  a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

(Matthew 10:34‭-‬36 NIV)

Many picked or else. 

They choose their own destruction rather than heed the message and accept the offer of repentance and life. 

I’m convinced it didn’t need to be that way, that had the people accepted their Lord and Savior, the city of Jerusalem would’ve stood and would not have been destroyed by the Romans.  It was political division, the insanity of the zealots (including Judas) pursuing their own version of social justice, the complacent ruling class unable to make up their minds, that ultimately doomed the city to destruction.

Jesus is uniting or divisive.  The choice is ours.  Like it or not, the Gospel lays out a choice between unity or division.  The truth will set you free or you’ll stay in bondage to your sin, to your preferences, your prejudices and perish.  If we would truly choose Jesus then we would let go of all of our other identities, grievances and special privileges, we would be united in love. 

Many who profess Christ today are more like those who rejected him.  They choose tribe over unity, they choose political gain over peace, they accuse others while being as guilty or more guilty themselves.  We would be wise to do as Jesus told his disciples regarding those who refuse to hear, to kick the dust from our sandals and move on to those more receptive.

Peace Through Separation 

This theme of peace through separation is throughout Scripture, one example being Abram and Lot:

“…quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. The Canaanites and Perizzites were also living in the land at that time.  So Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives.  Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.”

(Genesis 13:7-13 NIV)

Lot picked the area close to the city, pitching his tent towards Sodom, Abram went the other way, and the strife between their clans ended.  Nobody was offended, there was no reason to be offended, seperation to avoid unnecessary conflict is a peaceable solution. 

We see the same happen in the New Testament:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, 40 but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord. He went through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches.

(Acts 15:36-41 NIV)

Imagine that.  A sharp disagreement, even within the early church, leading to a parting of ways.  And it actually seemed to work for the best.  Sometimes the best solution to an irreconcilable difference is to go different ways.  It seems that actually enhanced rather than take way from their respective ministries.  At the very least, we see this affair being stated matter of factly and not a cause for additional drama.

There is, however, at least one case of separation gone awry and that’s when Pharoah refused to let the children of Isreal go.  He had refused after first bring asked nicely, relented only after a series of plagues that increased in severity, then changed his mind once again and pursued those seeking freedom from him.  Why?  Well, because he was exploiting their labor and knew letting them go would cost him.

That is also how an abusive spouse acts.  They simply can’t tolerate someone wanting to get away from them, they’re insecure, they need to have control, and would sooner murder the other person than allow them to go in peace.  They can’t stand that someone would dare to expose their own ugliness and will slander the other party rather than repent of creating the conditions that led to the other party being uncomfortable remaining with them.

A Christian is able to walk away in peace, without things ending on their own terms, but those who are exploiting others or trying to advantage themselves cannot.  Is it better that there is no seperation?  Sure.  Is separation wrong when remaining together becomes unbearable?  Absolutely not!  In short, seperation is a peaceable solution for peaceable people.  But tyrants, who must have their own way, will refuse to leave others be.

Two Groups, Presenting an A-B Option

About six months ago, in response to the increased promotion of tribalism, I started a group on social media “One Nation Under God…”  The point was to present an alternative to these divisive forces.  A place where people of all colors, creeds, genders, or orientations could celebrate our common humanity together.  The idea being that we could act “one nation” rather than allow our differences to divide us.  I featured a picture of a diverse group of American children and posted feel-good stories of people overcoming conflicts, Good Samaritan acts, and kindness. 

Love Thy Neighbor

That group, which is representative of my highest aspirations and my desire to be unified with all, only attracted a handful of friends and remains at only a few dozen members.  I would rather that we learn to get along, to hear each other’s perspectives, to find our common humanity, and respect our differences. 

That’s definitely my option A. 

However, around the start of the new year, after a contentious election season and continuing strife, seeing some voices were not being represented, I decide (on a whim) to start a group where disenfranchised rural people could find a home.  My group description contrasted “two different Americans” and went on to note the differing cultural values between rural and urban people, with a lament of double standards, and a call for a peaceful resolution.  

The point? 

Well, on one level, it was option B, to advocate for an amicable divorce rather than continue the perpetual conflict and subjugation of one half of the country or the other every four years. 

But, on another level, it was still in hopes of option A, to make those on the ‘other side’ aware of this grievance, to hopefully find a listening ear, and then find an understanding together.  In other words, it was the same reason that any other peaceful advocacy group exists, to give some a voice in the conversation, to say our culture matters, to stop sweeping our issues under the rug, and have a dialogue.

First and foremost, the group was created as a haven for rural people, who tend to be more reserved and too often get dominated by their socially adept, politically powerful, urban counterparts.  There was no hate or contempt for those on the other side of the divide, only a listing of different cultural values, a lament of double-standards, and a call for a peaceful resolution to irreconcilable differences.  Rural people have the same desire to feel safe, to feel reasonably represented, and speak against the cultural imperialism of the truly privileged as anyone else.

Many people are fleeing urban areas to escape tyranny and violence.  And they are all welcome to live in rural areas.  But, that said, those bringing their problems with them, their tribalism and hate, are best staying where they are rather than have them bring their divisiveness to us.  Little old Asian women aren’t being physically assaulted by grown men in central Pennsylvania and some of us would rather keep it that way.  We believe in equal justice under the law, merit and not quotas, and no special treatment for some over others.

Respect our values or let us go our separate ways.  That’s all.  Option A and B.  Hear the grievance and maybe we can patch things up.  That’s always possible.  But, respond with more accusations and hate?  Yeah, that will only confirm my own reason to leave.

Pharaoh’s ‘Woke’ Army Is Outraged

I was blindsided by it.  A friend went me a private message to alert me.  The eye of Sauron had found The Rural Divide and the legions of far-left sympathizing, the hoards of apologists for wokeism and closed social justice warriors were on their way to overrun this resistance to their totalitarian agenda.  Behind the buttery smooth words, of well-trained passive-aggressive Mennonite-borns, there was seething rage—a sea of hatred, irrationality and nasty accusations

Murder in words.

Only one person reached out for an explanation.  A few others to heap condemnation and clearly unwilling to listen.  Even some old friends were unwittingly used as pawns.  But the truly disappointing part is that those who led this campaign know me enough to know that their characterization of the group was a lie.

For those who don’t know me, I was the religious odd ball at my school (as a conservative Mennonite) and found my place amongst the other misfits. One of my close friends, throughout my school years, came out of the closet in highschool and never once did I think of him as less a person than me. My cafeteria clique consisted of the only Roman Catholic and Mormon guys in the school, an ethnic Indian Hindu, a Filipino Seventh-day adventist. My other closest friend was an atheist fellow.

After school, I’ve only ever dated women categorized as “people of color” according to the current jargon. I’ve punched an openly racist Kansan (not my finest moment) and lost my job as a result. I was obsessed with the Civil Rights Era and fully embraced what Martin Luther King Jr said about content of character over color of skin. My assailants are mostly whites who grew up in ethically homogeneous enclaves, homeschooled, often privileged over me and extremely gullible too. They, like their forbearers, seem to believe that their own poop don’t stink.

So Woke.

Anyhow, back to the present drama, one particularly sanctimonious religious elite, likely trying to impress his peers with this virtue signaling display, suggested that those who joined the group were not even Christian. 

Imagine that, you get a random request for a group, decide to accept the invite to see what it is, and bam suddenly you’re out of the Kingdom.  Wow!  Yeah, I’m thinking this extremely judgmental elite confuses Christianity with cancel culture.  Or maybe it is that they are from a conservative Mennonite background where a marriage partner who separates from their abuser is often treated as the guilty party?  The apple doesn’t always fall far from the tree, does it?

I’m sure they are too ‘woke’ to carry on the prior generation’s opinions regarding abused women leaving their abusers.  And yet, under this new facade of social justice, they carry on the exact same attitude in regards to those who wish to be separated from those that routinely accuse, slander, and belittle them?

Reminds me of this:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.  And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’  So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.  Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!  “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?  Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.  And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.  Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate.  For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

(Matthew 23:29‭-‬39 NIV)

It is interesting, first, that this passage above contains both a loving lament and harsh condemnation, both in the same thought.  This goes back to the either/or proposition of Malachi.  Second, those who killed Jesus, along with the other prophets, thought they were the enlightened and righteous ones.  Saul, who latter become St Paul, harassed, pursued and killed Christians thinking this was God’s work.  He found fault in others despite being murderous himself and it was only after repentance that he could see.

The very same people today, who are heroes in their own eyes for attacking peaceable people today, would likely be cheering loudly for Jim Crow laws a few generations ago, or aligned with Bolsheviks in Russia and Nazis in Germany before their atrocities were fully known.  It’s amazing the similarities between abusers, both then and now, rather than live and let live or leave when unwelcomed, they “pursue to town to town” and demand their piece of God’s people like the mob of degenerates in Sodom wanting a to ‘know’ Lot’s angelic visitors:

Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

(Genesis 19:4‭-‬5 NIV)

The far-left is equally aggressive today in pursuit of anyone who would rather not be with them.  If you’re putoff by their nastiness they’ll accuse you of an “ism” or being “phobic” and harass and lie in an effort to have their way with you.  To them you have no rights as an individual, you belong to them, and if you refuse their advances they will  break your door down…

And those outraged about The Rural Divide acted in the same manner.  They attacked in a swarm, relentless, demanding to know why the group existed, trying to infiltrate, and were no different than that enraged mob picking up stones to murder St Stephen for his paraphrasing of what Jesus said:

“Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.”

(Acts 7:52‭ NIV)

A Time To Reconcile, A Time To Choose A Side

If anyone in that cabal of hate and hysteria would like to approach me and apologize, I’m more than willing to forgive the slanderous attacks.  Unlike the far-left, I believe in repentance, that people should be forgiven of their faults and can change.  I’m willing to reconcile with any of those who participated in this spreading of malicious nonsense about me.  A simple apology admitting that they misunderstood or were misled into believing my group was something it was not would be sufficient enough.

There are those whom I blocked on social media for their racism or otherwise rude and elitist behavior that I would gladly welcome back into my life if there was a hint of repentance. That’s option A.

This is option B:

But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.

(1 Corinthians 5:11 NIV)

St Paul prefaces this by saying that he’s not speaking against association with sinful non-Christians, who God will judge. But he’s talking about those who profess Christ and yet refuse to repent of their sin. This excommunication is necessary to maintain our own integrity and as not to confuse our non-believing neighbors. It applies, not in cases of different preferences, but in cases of clearly defined sin and lack of repentance. In case I’m unclear:

If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions.

(1 Timothy 6:3‭-‬4 NIV)

I’m sure this was just St Paul’s white cisgender male privilege speaking right?

More toxic masculinity, I suppose?

Whatever the case, if even Paul and Barnabas had to go their separate ways over a dispute, both early church missionaries and leaders, then why is it so offensive or wrong that some would rather peaceably divide rather than continue in a quarrel?  Isn’t that what happened with Abram and Lot when their groups were in conflict?  Abraham going the way of the country and Lot picking the life of the city?

In the end, it is laughable that any Protestant religious separatist, especially these proud social justice preaching types who still identify as “Anabaptist” and refuse to seek membership with the universal church, would be at all critical of those rural folks who wish to have a separate space for themselves.  Their hateful reaction confirmed every reason why The Rural Divide exists.

The Rural Divide is a group open to all shades of skin color, even those of other cultures, but only where there is mutual respect and not cultural imperialism. And, yes, the unrepentant ‘woke’ nationalists can stay out.

Relax, folks, it is just a Facebook group.

Everyone else has their safe space, wants their communities and values to be respected.

Why not the rural minorities?

A Modest Proposal and Petition to the Anabaptist Faithful—Will You Take a Clear Stand Against Sexual Abuse?

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As one baptized in the Mennonite church, having been a part of that denomination for over three decades, the revelation of the grotesque abuses of children by a man claiming to be a representative of Christ felt very personal to me. That man, a known pedophile, was allowed to continue as a missionary in Haiti by an organization that many conservative Anabaptists have trusted with their time and resources.

However, rather than join in one voice against the abuse and call for accountability for those who enabled it, some have instead attacked the messenger and accused those upset of gossiping for speaking out against this awful exploitation of innocent Haiti boys over a period of many years. They, like Mennonite leaders who shielded a confessed pedophile from criminal prosecution, seem less concerned about this man’s so-called “moral indiscretions” and more about saving the reputation of organizations.

It is for this reason that I wish to give those who find this abhorrent to make a clear stand against the abuse and apologetics on behalf of those who failed to act in a timely and appropriate manner. Please read the following statement and join the petition by adding your name (with your location) to the post on social media and the comments below. Consider this to be a template for statements to be brought before your own congregations and conferences:

As a follower of Christ, I abhor all evil and especially evil perpetrated by those who claim to be Christians and do not turn from their wicked ways. Yes, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but as the apostle Paul commanded “expel the wicked person from among you” (1 Corinthians 5:13) we also affirm our commitment to do the same. Furthermore, we believe that leaders in the church should be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and have put away dark and deceitful ways.

We hereby renounce the sin of sexual abuse and, citing clear instruction of Scripture, refuse to associate ourselves with any leader, congregation or religious organization that shelters sexual abusers from facing civil authorities. For, as it is written:

“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.” (Romans 13:1‭-‬5 NIV)

It is on the basis of Scripture that we stand opposed to those who claim to be believers yet, through their actions and words, usurp God’s authority and rebel against what has been instituted by God for their good. It is clear we are to submit to the authorities when they serve their role to punish the wrongdoer as a matter of Christian conscience. Therefore to do otherwise is an act of rebellion against God’s design and a sign of an unrepentant spirit.

We will not tolerate sexual abusers nor enablers of sexual abuse who use forgiveness incorrectly as a means to escape accountability or manipulate. Instead, we will call out these wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15), implore them to repent, turn from their wicked ways and face the consequences of their sins—as true repentance requires. For, as our Lord and Savior said: It is better they have a millstone put around their necks and have them thrown in the sea than they offend little ones.

We stand with the Jesus who stood up to the sanctimonious and self-righteous hypocrites and “blind guides” who would “strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:24) We oppose them even if they profess Christ because we are told that in the last judgment there will be many who will plea, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” And Jesus will say, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:22‭-‬23 NIV)

We agree that sexual abuse should not be given shelter in our midst and also that forgiveness should never be turned into a tool of manipulation of the abused or for enabling abusers to continue in their sinful lifestyle. We will not be unequally yoked with those who claim to be Christian and show the fruit of corruption rather than that of humility, repentance, and submission to what God has ordained.

Binding, Loosing and the Authority Given to the Church

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This is the third part of a four part series about law, legalism, church authority and economia.

It is quite clear, according to Scripture, that we have no right to judge anyone. The words “vengeance is mine” are found first in the Old Testament and Jesus left no doubt about what it means.

Our obligation, as individuals, is to love—to love even our enemies and even to do good to those who despitefully use and persecute us. This is what it means to be Christian. It means acknowledgment that we are as condemned by the law as anyone else and responding to that with the humility and mercy understanding that reality requires of us. If we forgive we will be forgiven. If we judge we will be judged.

Simple, right?

Well, yes, it is that simple as far as our own individual right to judge another person. In light of God’s goodness to us despite our being totally undeserving, what choice do we have besides that? Do we want to be as that foolish servant who was forgiven a debt impossible for him to pay then turns around and doesn’t forgive? No, we do not, we have no other choice, and we must forgive all who trespass against us or we are in danger of inviting God’s judgment upon ourselves.

However, it is not truly that simple. Because, while true that Christianity means giving up our individual right to judge, God will still judge sin harshly and has as clearly ordained the punishment of evildoers. It is something endorsed fully in Romans 13:1-7 as it applies to civil authorities and this does not contradict the teachings of Jesus in the least. It is vigilante justice, our taking matters into our own hands, that is forbidden—not properly administered and appropriate punishment of evil.

Jesus did not come so that evil men could abuse with impunity and he never protested against the punishment of evil. He actually spoke quite strongly about what should happen to those who harm the vulnerable:

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (Matthew 18:6‭-‬9 NIV)

Those aren’t the words of an enabler telling us to sit on our hands and do nothing while the most innocent of us suffer abuse. And I would not assume that he is speaking only metaphorically either. If you are doing evil that might cause others to stumble there will be literal hell to pay when you face eternity and especially if you claim to be a Christian. Therefore do everything it takes to reign in your rebellious flesh, cut anything off that would cause you to harm others, and do what is pleasing to God.

But this goes beyond an individual obligation to ourselves. The church is a hospital for sinners, a place where everyone is welcome regardless of their sordid list of sins, but the church was not instituted to be a safe-haven for sin. In other words, grace is not given so that sin may abound, there is no excuse for sin in the church community and when dealing with unrepentant sin in our midst we must deal with it firmly as Paul commanded the Corinthian church: “Expel the wicked man from among you!”

How should we deal with sin in the Church?

Our individual judgment is often clouded by our loyalties. We tend to excuse the sins of those whom we love (including our own sins) and then harshly judge those who offend us or our friends. And this is another reason why we should, as individuals, defer judgment to God rather than demand our pound of flesh. We must realize that our own judgment is skewed and that all sins against us fade into nothingness when compared to the eternal reward that awaits the faithful. So, therefore, remember what Jesus said: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

If God is able to forgive, for eternity, our infinite lacking in comparison to His boundless perfection, then a little grace towards others (who owe us for their few moments of weakness) is the least we can do to show our appreciation to God.

However, our personal withholding of judgment and forgiveness of those who trespass against us does not mean we should not confront the sin. No, quite the contrary—We have a moral obligation, as a loving brother or sister in Christ, to keep the church free from sin and this does require us to act as individuals to address sin in our circles. This is the beginning of a process Jesus himself outlined as the appropriate process for addressing sin in our midst. In the same context of millstones and maiming ourselves, he says this:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. (Matthew 18:15 NIV)

That is our individual role.

Jesus does not tell us to ignore sin. No, to forgive sin means first confronting the sin. But this confrontation should not be to shame or punish the offending individual. Rather it is to give a chance for resolution of the matter in private when that is possible. This could mean repentance and forgiveness. It could also mean simply an opportunity to hear the other side and adjust our own perspective.

So what happens when the matter can’t be resolved in a private one-on-one exchange?

Jesus continued:

But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ (Matthew 18:16 NIV)

This is after the private confrontation has failed and still in an effort to restore the offending person without making an unnecessary public spectacle of them.

Too often we skip that first step of private confrontation and move directly to the stage where we tell all of our friends about how we were mistreated and never do get around to the direct confrontation. We are wrong to do that and should love the offending person enough to go through a simple procedure to resolve the matter in the most gracious manner possible. Christ died for our sins so we can be forgiven and extend forgiveness to others—not so we could go on without mercy towards other sinners or demanding justice for ourselves.

So what happens when a sin problem cannot be resolved in private?

Jesus continued:

If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17 NIV)

Three strikes and you’re out. The matter moves up the chain, follows a procedure that helps prevent a mob spirit on the basis of an accusation, and helps to ensure a just outcome for all involved—including the accused. This process ensures that personal vendetta and a vengeful spirit does not get in the way of a just response. Both parties, both offender and offended, are ultimately accountable to the judgment of God and the authorities He has ordained for our benefit. All are subject to the civil authorities and the Christian is also to submit to each other and their elders.

I’ll note here that in cases involving criminal behavior, especially things like child molestation and sexual abuse, we have an obligation to go to the civil authorities or risk being complicit in a cover-up of the crime. The outline Jesus gave does not mean we should worry about following a tedious procedure before protecting the innocent. Sometimes we need to intervene aggressively on behalf of others and sort the details out later.

The extraordinary role of the Church in judgment and forgiveness sin.

In our individualistic age, it is easy to take things in Scripture out of context and apply them personally to ourselves. I believe this tendency to personalize everything is to blame for much of the confusion in the church. And, whether it is a situation of having too many Chiefs and not enough Indians or everyone doing what is right in their own eyes, this is not the church instituted by Jesus. The early church had elders, there were those ordained to act on behalf of Christ, and Christianity is not centered on the individual or their own personal opinion.

We individually should confront sin, but—as those subject to civil authorities and the church as originally instituted—can not unilaterally render judgment.

However, continuing with what Jesus said, there is a judgment to be made and on earth as in heaven:

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:18‭-‬20 NIV)

Those words, spoken in a conclusion of how to deal with sin in the church, are extraordinary in the authority they give. It is easy to forget, in a time of easy forgive-ism, that forgiveness is something divine and not something we should treat lightly or as being without consequence. The religious authorities, in my own estimation, correctly deduced that Jesus was asserting his own divinity by offering forgiveness of sin:

Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man. (Matthew 9:1‭-‬3‭, ‬5‭-‬8 NIV)

It is one thing for one sinner to show mercy to another sinner. It is quite another to declare “your sins are forgiven” and do something on behalf of God. Even when a person sins against us personally and we forgive then of what they have personally cost us, they still owe a debt to God that can only be forgiven by God. To forgive on behalf of God is to essentially declare oneself to be God and, unless you are in perfect unity with God, is truly blasphemous.

On an aside, it is terrifying how vainly the name of God is used. And, no, I’m not talking about those who are irreligious who merely utter it as an epithet or expression. What I’m referring to is when those who claim to reverence God, declare things on behalf of God that are not clearly expressed in Scripture or established by the Church. Whether it is words of condemnation against someone or any other bold proclamation of God’s will—we would be wise to consider our own fallibility and learn to speak for ourselves rather than bolster our own opinions by invoking God’s name.

That said, we read Jesus speaking with this divine authority in Scripture and bestowing this same authority to his disciples:

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 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 20:19‭-‬23 NIV)

Should everyone go out speaking on behalf of God?

No, not everyone.

Here’s why:

Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. (Acts 19:13‭-‬17 NIV)

These men, sons of an actual Jewish priest, understood the power of Jesus name and arguably were doing the greater things Jesus has promised (John 14:12) would come as a result of his departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Evidently, it had been working out for them to use the name of Paul and Jesus without their direct authorization. That until the one day where an evil spirit called their bluff and gave them a beating that made them the talk of the town.

It is no small thing to invoke God’s power and is, in fact, a very dangerous thing to do.

Remember this:

The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17‭-‬20 NIV)

Jesus specifically ordained these seventy-two to go out in his name and yet speaks a very serious warning to them. The original sin is pride and it is one small step between going out on behalf of God and declaring oneself to be God. For this reason, we should probably think twice before dabbling in the spiritual realm without a specific ordination to do so. There is plenty of good that can be done, many ministries in the church to be filled, that belong to those of us who struggle against arrogance and pride. It is better to be humble than to be out of place, out of our league and defeated.

We have every reason to be cautious if even those specifically ordained were warned by Jesus. The gift of salvation is for all who repent of their sin and believe. But that does not make the Church a free-for-all where everyone does what is right in their own eyes.

Christianity is not a schizophrenic delusion.

We are not individually Jesus.

No, rather it is the Church (collectively) that represents the body of Christ and we are just part of that work. And, like anybody, different parts are assigned to different tasks, each part must do the work that it is assigned to do, and in perfect cooperation with those who God has ordained as leaders.

Who is ordained to do the binding and loosing of the Church?

There has always been a hierarchy in the church, the head is always Jesus and, from the beginning, there where always those given special designation to administer on behalf of Jesus:

Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 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 16:17‭-‬19 NIV)

There are many who teach this ordination of the Church has been overwhelmed somewhere in the time of Constantine. They apply the words of Scripture liberally to themselves and those who agree with their own particular interpretation. They deny apostolic succession and any kind of accountability to a historic Church. For them Church history is a smorgasbord, everyone has equal authority to choose for themselves, they pick and choose whatever suits them individually and do not really submit to anything besides their own personal understanding of things.

But that was not what the early Church taught. The church has leaders and we are to humbly submit to them:

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.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5‭-‬6 NIV)

And again…

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)

We all may have some authority as individual Christians. But the full authority of the Church is bestowed collectively and to those ordained to speak on behalf of the Church. We should be mindful of this and submit to each other and especially to those who are ordained by the Church—the Church that was established by Jesus.

The power of “binding and loosing” is something Jesus spoke to Peter and the disciples. In other words, it was something he gave to those whom would eventually become the leaders of the early Church. This is an authority given to the Church, which is not to all Christians individually, the collective body of the Church which is represented by those ordained as leaders from those early days until the present time. It is not a power of human origin or something to be wielded by those who are not fully prepared for the responsibility and is rather a duty reserved for our elders.

We should forgive those who personally offend us and ask for forgiveness. We should also judge our own hearts and motives and repent of our sins. But we are not individually given authority to judge others. Individual judgment often leads to vengeance and never justice. For judgments of others, we should defer to civil authorities (where it is necessary or required) and to the collective authority of the Church.

Denominationalism: “My Church Is Better Than Yours!”

Standard

People divide up.  Segregation occurs naturally in groups as individuals seek out others who have something in common with them.  It students find those of common interests, social status, gender or race.  It happens in communities—people choose to live with people more similar to them.

But where division should not happen is in the church.  Not according to the Apostle Paul, at least:

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)

I believe the first sentence, “Be completely humble and gentle,” is key to the second part being true of us.  With pride comes contention (Prov 13:10) and without humility there is divisivion.

Paul further elaborates:

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. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloeʼs household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”  Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10‭-‬15)

The message is clear in the words of Paul—the church should not be divided into competing denominations and, if Scripture is to be believed, we should be grieved by division in the church and preach against it.

We should stand united against 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)

Diotrephes evidently thought he was pretty special.  He desired preeminence, made slanderous accusations and was excluding other Christians from fellowship.  We aren’t told why he was banning people, but his attitude clearly is condemned as wrong in the passage.

A church divided against itself…

The church today is divided up into many denominations.  There was the big schism between East and West that was caused by disagreement over Papal primacy, the Filioque added to the church creed, canonization of Scripture and multiple other issues.  After various attempts to reconcile differences over many years the result was eventually mutual excommunications in 1054 that are regarded as the terminal event.

Then came the series of splits in the Western church, the so-called Protestant Reformation, set in motion by Martin Luther’s protests over the sale of indulgences in the 1500s, leading to the formation of a “Lutheran” church and culminating in the 33,000 denominations that we have today.  My own Mennonite denomination was the eventual product of a radical and rebellious (sometimes violent) Anabaptist movement.

My church is part of many Mennonite “conferences” that recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree.  Some groups considered “old order” (who reject modern technology) with a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative” as broad as the overall church and spawning more variations (some who resist being called Mennonite) recognize each other to a greater or lesser degree… yet typically only allow their own members to take communion.

Mennonites today, unlike the schism in 1054 or other splits caused by larger more meaningful matters of theology and doctrine, tend to divide over the minutia of application.  Things like the style of coat, size of a floral print on a dress, color of socks, facial hair, and any number of nitpicking details which nobody in the world outside Mennodom would care about, can precipitate a church split.

For example, in my church the two big controversies that led people to leave were over hair style.  First, several families left for a more conservative conference because a little girl had bangs.  Later, a liberal contingent left because of a feud over a bit of peach fuzz.

Complete absurdity.

This is a reality in clear opposition to the teachings of Paul and the “unity of the Spirit” he describes.

What is the problem?

We have names from A to Z in front of our church buildings to proudly tell people what church tradition we follow.  We announce “I am of Menno Simons” or of this “Lutheran” theological perspective or that “Methodist” doctrinal division and promote a form of tribalism.  The result is a confusing mess that only a religious historian could untangle.

But, I can hear the protest: “Shouldn’t people know what denomination we are?  I mean, they’ll find out eventually, better to let them know before they enter and disturb us, right?”

And thus we prove we value our denomination more than we do welcoming others of Christian faith.  It is the spirit of Diotrephes, a prideful desire for preeminence and control; it is love of our own dogmatic ideas over other people.  It is the kind of attitude Jesus condemns:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. (Matthew 23:13)

The “teachers of the law and Pharisees” thought they had every right to shut people out based on their biblical standards.  But Jesus warns them that they will be shut out the way they shut out others.  It seems the same message Jesus preached of forgive as you wish to be forgiven (Matt. 6:14) and judge as you wish to be judged (Matt. 7:2) and that should give pause to anyone humble enough to know their own imperfections.

The Mennonite church I grew up in will refuse to baptize a believer who doesn’t go through a class and agree to follow their own list of standards.  They would go so far as deny communion to a person from another denomination.  And this inhospitable attitude is not a problem to most of them.

Maybe God will be inhospitable to those who have denominational pride and shut out other believers different from themselves?

Some things to consider…

1) Reconsider having a denominational name in front of your church.  Do you understand the admonition of the Apostle Paul against division?  If so, why do you see it as allowable to emphasize a man’s name, a particular doctrinal slant or denominational tradition in front of your church?  What if our true worship was supposed to be less about theological correctness and more about our truthfulness in love and forbearance?

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12‭-‬14)

2) Stop attacking, belittling, and making slanderous accusations against other denominations.  I know I know, Catholics are idol worshippers, Joel Osteen isn’t negative enough (more about hell, please) and Calvinists are too fatalistic, predetermined or something like that.  But Scripture tells us, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,” and warns: 

If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:15)

Perhaps, before we get too sanctimonious, we should consider this:

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)

3) Be less resistant to criticism and more receptive to correction regarding your own denomination.  It is easy to circle the wagons when our own church tradition is scrutinized, and to react defensively rather then be open to rebuke.  For example, nearly any time I blog about the defects of my own religious culture, there’s usually a chorus of those crying, “My Mennonite church isn’t like that!”  Many are in denial—but that is their pride.

We should practice introspection and be open to the possibility that outsiders might see our flaws better than we do, because:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8‭-‬10)

There is no weakness in acknowledgement and confession of fault.  There is no need for huffy recriminations (“Well, they do it too!”) if we are truly humble.  Christianity is about forgiving and being forgiven, not about defending the image of our denomination.

4) Baptism should be uncoupled from denominational indoctrination and membership.  There is nowhere in Scripture where baptism is seperated from profession of faith.  Yes, we should disciple young believers, teach correct doctrine and encourage good application.  However, that can come after baptism.  There is no reason why a baptism should wait weeks or months.  And, if you belong to a church that ties baptism to extrabiblical church standards, speak out against it.  We should welcome the young in the faith rather than add our own prideful denominational requirements:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:1‭-‬5)

5) Do not refuse to allow other Christians to participate in your Communion service.  Paul warns against eating and drinking unworthily (1 Cor. 11:27) and this is reason for introspection.  However, what is neither said nor implied is the idea that a church leader should determine who is worthy or not worthy.  Yes, we are told that an openly wicked and unrepentant person should be excluded (1 Cor. 5:13) and yet that doesn’t mean we should deny those of other denominational stripes from the table.

We must rebuke Diotrephes and welcome other believers even if they do not meet our own denominational standards.  There is one church and one Spirit—we must take a stand against the spirit of division.  We need to stand against sins of pride and denominationalism.