A Man Under Authority

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At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdowns transportation in the Philippines ground to a halt and left Charlotte with a dilemma. She had started a new job and didn’t want to lose her spot in this highly competitive market where the position would soon be filled. But how would she safely get there from her apartment?

A world away, and definitely sympathetic to her plight, I did not want my ‘bhest’ to throw away the time that she had spent training. She has studied for this new job diligently, had made me proud, and it was not an effort that I wanted her to sacrifice. However, I was also very much concerned about her well-being. Baguio City is not like small-town Pennsylvania, her uncle Roland had been murdered a little over a year ago, and it isn’t recommended to walk in the dark all alone.

How was I supposed to advise her?

In the absence of a firm understanding of all of the dynamics of her circumstances, not wanting to impose too much on her autonomy and push her one way or another, I equivocated. My answer was a meandering non-answer where I expressed my thought that she should do what she could, within reason, to keep her new job. But then, I also restated the risk of her attempting to go try to find a way, in the early morning hours, with the uncertainty of the shutdowns.

She would do what she knew was appropriate, all things considered, right?

Then, in the early evening, her morning, I received her call and was greeted by Charlotte’s harried voice. She had decided, interpreting my indecisive words as an encouragement to go, to set off for work by foot, in the darkness, and was now a little spooked. And, obviously, in no position to offer any form of physical protection.

Now I was both worried and feeling guilty, I had failed in leadership, she had sought my direction and my non-committal tendencies had seriously endangered her.

Anyhow, we were debating, should she continue on or go back when the call abruptly dropped. I tried to call and nobody picked up. She did not respond to messages either. Now, service is spotty in some parts of the city, all of those steep inclines and valleys, and we will routinely need to call again. But this time around there was silence. No message, no nothing. What happened? Something horrible, unthinkable? I tried to keep those thoughts minimized, and prayed, as the minutes became an hour.

As it turns out, she had made her way to work, after the cell service had got spotty, and went right to her duties having arrived a bit late.

All is well that ends well?

But that whole episode made me think very seriously about my role in Charlotte’s life. Had something gone terribly wrong that day, wouldn’t I bear some of the responsibility? She wanted my input, invited me to help her to decide and I refused to offer the clear guidance she needed. That is not a mistake that I wish to repeat. Leaders are called upon to make decisions and should not be neglectful of their duties.

What Does It Mean to Be a Man Under Authority?

The blog title phrase, “a man under authority,” comes from this Gospel account:

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.” Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that moment.

(Matthew 8:5‭-‬13 NIV)

There is so much going on in that passage that it is very easy to miss the commentary on what makes this man’s faith, a pagan soldier, greater than that of an entire religious nation. This detail, while overshadowed by the response of Jesus, seems to be an extremely significant and is context completely necessary for understanding the statement about “great faith” that follows directly after it. What was it about this man that made him such an extraordinary and commendable example of faith?

The answer, of course, is that he was “a man under authority,” a soldier able to both give orders and also to take orders. He, a good soldier, understood his place, that he was a part of something bigger than himself and was, therefore, able to submit to those in positions of authority greater than his own. He, unlike the faithless Israelites who rejected the authority of Jesus, saw someone who was doing extraordinary things, had a need, had faith, and went to him for help. He realized that the word of Jesus had authority, like that of a military commander, and trusted.

So a pagan soldier knew more about faith than all of the unruly religious snobs who thought of themselves as God’s chosen people and yet rejected that same divine authority come in human flesh when they should have believed. Unlike the Roman centurion, who submitted to something bigger than himself as a way of life, as a soldier, they were too arrogant, elitist, and pig-headed. These sanctimonious religious zealots claimed to have faith in God, but really only believed in their own authority and supposed right to rule.

It is, incidentally, why these unbelieving rebellious hypocrites would eventually get crushed by Rome despite having the fortification of Jerusalem. They, rather than unite against their common enemy, even fought for supremacy amongst themselves, within the walls of the city, rather than submit to each other and do what needed to be done. Sure, they all may have claimed God as their authority, but they truly lacked faith and, for this reason, were routed by the well-disciplined Roman soldiers who did know how to fall into rank and fight together as a unit. A Roman soldier understood that falling under authority was necessary to win battles. They could overcome superior numbers because of their discipline.

Abuse, Neglect and the Leadership Gap

A man unwilling to submit to those whom God ordained is unfit to lead. There are many who fall on this side of the spectrum in the Protestant church, men who demand that their own wives and families submit to their own “headship” in the home while absolutely refusing to fall under the greater authority of the church. It is very little wonder that women and children, raised under such hypocrisy, end up following in this example of rebellion rather than submit. A true leader is someone who leads by example, is someone willing to sacrifice their own privilege, even their life, both for the greater authority and those under their protection. A man who cannot submit to those above or before him and also demands the respect of others below or after him is in it for his own personal gain. They are not leading as Christ led. Period.

However, there’s another type of man, equally unfaithful, possibly in overreaction to the controlling hypocrites, who neglects his duties. He, in his passive approach, also disobeys the authority of God and leaves those under his roof vulnerable. In reality, this kind of leader is as much (or more) in rebellion against his own head (Christ) than the abusive hypocrites. Sure, he may claim that his easy-going and tolerant approach is to demonstrate Christian love. However, that is a lie. Men who refuse to lead, as commanded, force others into chaotic and dangerous situations.

My reluctance to offer clear direction could be some of my own natural disposition and a tendency to be indecisive. It also could be in reaction to patriarchal abuse. I did not want to be one of those domineering and controlling men. I would rather empower others to make their own decisions. But, that is the positive spin, my equivocating was also a product of not wanting to take responsibility for the decision. Instead of putting someone at ease who was looking for advice, by offering them something concrete, a clear “I think you should stay home to avoid the risk,” I forced Charlotte to guess what I truly wanted and made her vulnerable. It was neglectful, weak, and not any better than the patriarchal abuse on the other end of the spectrum.

Yes, a good leader empowers those under them. But this empowerment comes from their offering a hedge of protection, through loving guidance, rather than throw them to the wolves of anxiety, doubt, and indecision.

This running joke about a man asking his wife, “where do you want to eat?” and getting an ambiguous non-committal answer, demonstrates this. This is supposed to highlight a tendency of women, but also perfectly describes a male weakness. It is actually both a symptom of a faithless people pleaser (ie: Adam disobeyed God to eat the apple because Eve handed it to him) and plain old laziness. It takes effort to lead. Sure, the man could’ve taken some time to contemplate what restaurant options there were, came up with his own preference, and then presented the list to his significant other. But it was far easier for him to put her in the hot seat and then pretend that the indecision was her problem.

Male lack of leadership, at least when leadership requires sacrifice, is a chronic issue. Many men need a good hard elbowing in the ribs, like Mary urging Jesus “do something” when the wine ran low at the wedding of Cana, or they will never step up to the plate. Ironically, it does often take a woman to bring out a man’s strength. And yet the chances of a linguini-spined sad excuse of a man getting married or landing a date is in the negative. Most women want to be heard. However, if they wanted a faithful companion and follower, a creature that waited attentively on their every whim or never offered any kind of loving direction, they would get a dog.

Weak Non-commital Men Need Not Apply…

There is this misconception, in this democratic age of female ’empowerment’ and feminism, that sameness of roles will lead to happiness. Many have confused equality of rights or opportunity with the sameness of roles, responsibilities, and outcomes. Both men and women, in this paradigm, have been done a great disservice.

As a reformed “nice guy” who refused to lead for fear of stepping on toes, then complained how women would choose those arrogant self-serving jerks instead, I’ve learned that there is a third and better option.

Women don’t actually want a “yes man” and will, in fact, run from men with insecurities. Sure, they may complain about the opposite extreme, of an overconfident and domineering male specimen, some of those abused by men will decry “toxic masculinity” and find a pushover excuse for a man to feel safe. But most women long for the security of a man that both listens to them and knows who he is enough to kindly tell them when they are wrong. It is sad, this composite of strength and gentleness, of meekness, is a rarity in this world of feminized men and overcompensating fools, but a man who gets it right is irresistible.

There is nothing in this world more pathetic than a man devoid of passion and, rather than take the risk of responsibility, waits on others to make decisions for him. A man who speaks with authoritative power is attractive. Nobody wants that milquetoast, weasel-worded, and non-committal “nice guy,” and too often this display is little more than a lame attempt to curry favor with the female gender anyway. Women want, and frankly need, a man who can say what he means and mean what he says. No, not an authoritarian, not a man lacking in the humility to be wrong either, but someone with the wisdom and discernment that comes from life experience. The man without passion never goes outside of what is familiar and comfortable, is afraid to fail, and has nothing to offer that is uniquely masculine.

I can most certainly understand the frustration of single men. The world is full of mixed media. On one hand, women are demanding power and control for themselves, on the other hand, they are showing up in the millions to watch movies like “50 Shades of Grey” about the perverse and abusive sexual domination of a woman. Secular women fantasize about a “Handmaid’s Tale,” even wear this weird costume as a protest of the patriarchy, and yet these same women apparently long for a government that can exercise absolute control and will keep them safe. It is contradictory and exasperating. Men are told things like “must be 5′-10″ or taller to ride” and then also told not to objectify women. It is a hot mess.

I ran into a different version of this impossible expectation in conservative Mennonite women. They are reminded, ad nauseam, about women needing to submit to men. They are deathly afraid of being stuck with some dude who will stifle their dreams, is unworthy of their respect, and holds the trump card of submission over them. This pushes normal female choosiness to a whole different level. The only control they have is the veto before a relationship even begins. Like the young woman who lamented not being able to pick her own clothes after marriage. Insane! Is it any wonder that many are terrified to date and some flee to leave this nonsense behind?

Here’s a hint: If your religious culture needs to continually pound instruction to women to submit, then you’re 100% without-a-doubt doing it wrong.

In the end, most women do not thrive with a man who isn’t a man. Sure, some women who suffered abuse may gravitate to weak and ineffectual men, as to be in control. But most men value a man who is strong, who is able to protect them from threats (both physical and emotional); one that both listens intently and speaks with a comforting authority that is rare in this tumultuous time. I mean, not every man is cut out to be Keanu Reeves. We can’t all be six feet tall and appear to be chiseled from rock either. However, a man should learn to be reliable and committed, unselfish, and protective.

Christ the Paradox…

Leadership is not about calling the shots, being the boss, or the big man in charge. It does not stifle or rob others of their autonomy and ability to speak to things that matter to them either. No, rather it is being Christ-like, being the strength, and an example of self-sacrificial love, to those more vulnerable. The kingship of Christ is not tyrannical nor passive, firm or gentle depending on the need, he both knew how to submit unto death and also how to speak in an authority unrivaled. He’s both lamb and lion, teacher of the faithful and protector of the flock, merciful to the sinner, and a judge of all.

One of the most interesting icons portraying Jesus is called the “Pantocrator” (Greek for Almighty) shows his face with two different halves. One half shows the compassionate Good Shepherd, giving a blessing, the other shows a stern expression of a mighty ruler. It is very interesting when you cover one half of his face and see the contrast. Many today seem to follow after their own hippy-Jesus, a “you do you” bro dude, but that is not the man we see in Scripture who confronted and will judge the world. He’s Lord of all. That teacher and judge is the image below:

Pantocrator

That in mind, Jesus, while sometimes giving a sharp rebuke, also did not simply bark orders at the disciples while refusing to fall under authority. No, he was also in submission to his own head, the God the Father. One of the most profound statements in Scripture, given the divinity of Christ, is this, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

I’m not sure how all of that works, how someone can be both fully human and fully God. But we do know that Jesus, the man, had to submit to God the Father and with that led by example.

Ultimately, the example of leadership Jesus showed is one of self-sacrificial love. Jesus was a man with divine authority, but also a man under authority and willing to suffer for the good of others. He did not lead in a spirit of entitlement nor use his authority to privilege himself at the expense of those under his leadership. He protects his flock, he is their advocate and defender. He prayed alone while his disciples slept. He suffered and died for our salvation rather than take the easy way out. A man following in the example of Christ steps up to the plate. He does his job without complaining. Taking full responsibility for those under his care. He commands respect due to his character, not because he demands it and, like a good soldier, is a man under authority.

Charlotte needs me to man up, take responsibility and not be a pathetic mess of excuses and equivocation. But I can’t expext her to respect me if I’m simply doing everything for myself, addicted to substances or even just my own selfish ambitions. She should have a man who is confident, in his place, and offers her security rather than leave her feeling uncertain. A good man, a true Christian leader, gives others a place to thrive.

As a final thought, men must be allowed to grow into their leadership role, a man never given a chance can’t show his potential. And sometimes those men who appear to have it all together in their teens and twenties aren’t all that they seem. Look at Judas compared to Peter. Judas had his act together, he was trusted with the money, had all the answers, yet betrayed Jesus at the end and took his own life rather than accept his failure. Peter also denied Christ three times. But, unlike Judas, he repented and became the leader of the church. So, don’t lose hope simply because you are not where you want to be and don’t try to do things on your own strength either. We are not worthless nor are we gods, but we are soldiers of faith and only as ever as worthy as the authority we are under.

Going Full Circle, I’ve Decided to Start a House Church…

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Life is full of strange and unexpected twists.

Upon leaving the denomination of my birth, I had joked that my two choices were to a) start “The Perfect Church of Joel” or b) become Orthodox. But, since I lacked the ambition and other qualifications for being a cult leader, the latter was my only option and became Orthodox.

However, now, only a year and a half after my Chrismation, and due to circumstances that are beyond my control, I am currently in the planning stages of a house church.

Yes, I realize that this might come as a big surprise to many of you, it could appear like a complete one-eighty and reeks of instability, but it is a necessary step.

I know, I’ve always questioned this new house church trend where a few Protestant fundamentalist separatists, willful people who can’t agree with anyone about anything, who claim to be copying the early church and decide they are better off doing church themselves.

Sheer arrogance, right?

I mean, the Amish do this too, I suppose, in that they do not have designated church buildings and meet in homes. Yet, they do it in a completely different spirit, they maintain a real community beyond their own immediate family and are truly accountable to an orthodox tradition that transcends them as individuals.

So how did I go completely from one end of the spectrum, from a church with two millennia of history, with ornate architecture and a strong emphasis on Communion, in a universal sense, to deciding that I need to start a church in my own home?

My Journey to the House Church…

Okay, before I give Fr. Seraphim a heart-attack, I have no plans on leaving the Holy Cross family in Williamsport. None whatsoever. In fact, my decision to start a house church has everything to do with Orthodox tradition and my beginning to comprehend the reason behind a particular practice—that practice being an iconstasis.

Orthodox churches have an iconstasis, it is basically a wall with images of Jesus, Mary, various saints and angels situated between the nave (where the congregation is gathered) and the altar where the bread and wine are consecrated. It is a reflection of how the Jerusalem temple was laid out, where the “Holy of Holies” was separated by a veil, and is symbolic of the connection between heaven and the “Holy Place” of the nave.

I had been contemplating how to incorporate an “icon corner” in my new home (a place on an East wall of an Orthodox home designated for prayer and worship) when I found out that this is also called an iconstasis.

Interesting…

As it turns out, this prayer corner in Orthodox homes harkens back to the real house churches of the early church. Every Christian home is supposed to be a microcosm of the Church, a wedding being basically equivalent to an ordination service, the parents acting as the clergy and the children being the laity of this house church. The designated area for prayer and worship in the home mirrors that of the parish church building and early house churches.

As an aside, it is necessary to note, given currently popular notions pertaining to corporate worship in modern times, that the idea of a house church being a sort of informal affair is entirely wrong. In the early church, when meeting in houses, according to first hand account, the priests and bishops were in a room east of the laymen (and women, who sat separately) with the deacon guarding the door and keeping the congregation in line. It was an orderly liturgical service and not a free-for-all. And, likewise, worship at home today should still be similarly structured.

The Very Protestant Problem of Division

Growing up, as a Mennonite, we would have “family devotions” and prayer before meals. This was always informal, where we were at, and never really patterned as a church service. It was not called or considered house church. Church for me then was the assembling together of the body of Christ on Sundays and on other days of the week—and that church service was a semi-formal affair, with a definite form and structure.

In decades since my childhood, at least in the conservative Mennonite circles that I ran in, it has become more and more commonplace to skip corporate worship services, on occasion, and to “have church” with just the youth, family members on a weekend retreat or what have you. There are some who have taken it a step further and ceased with their mixing with non-biological brothers and sisters, and cousins (or the otherwise impure) altogether and replaced it with a casual around-the-campfire or lounging-in-the-living-room kind of house church affair that can last at least as long as their biological children lack access to a means transportation and escape.

The trendline in Protestant denominations is abundantly and woefully clear. There has been a steady march away from any established order, any authority besides ones own opinion, and Protestantism has played a key role in this development. What started as an attempt at reformation has ended as a fracturing of the Western church into thousands competing and often very contradictory entities. From the dwindling Fred Phelps types on one side to growing “woke” crowd on the other, it is very little wonder that this form of Christianity has led many to abandon the enterprise of faith altogether.

There is no need for a Jerusalem council in the current climate. No, in this denominational chaos, there is no longer a need to even practice a Christian love that is willing to work through differences, no reason to submit or show deference to anyone, you just stay home or start a new even smaller, more pure and perfect group and move on.

It is a classic purity spiral, it is a result of people heading their own opinions over the urging of St Paul:

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 4:3‭-‬6 NIV)

There isn’t much effort towards that end anymore, is there?

The Protestant house church, often billed as a return to the early church, is merely a next step in the direction of individualism and it is little wonder when children raised in such an environment continue down this path of division in search of a new purity on their own terms. Many will find congregations that require less of them, others will join the growing ranks of “nones” who simply stay at home Sundays, but some of the more ambitious will attempt to recreate a perfect church in their own image.

The Church That Spans Dichtomies

Fortunately there are other options, the dichtomies of Protestantism. As it turns out, Christians do not need to choose between participation in the universal church (by attending services in a church building with other spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ) and having a “house church” primarily biological relatives, former denominational cohorts and close friends.

There is a solution to this paradox where you can both have your cake and eat it too: You can (and should) have a house church with your families, but can (and should) also maintain the unity of the faith and be in Communion with the Church body that transcends denominationalism and has an unbroken chain of ordinations back to the time of the Apostles.

In Orthodox Christianity, every man is a priest and his wife co-ordained as the leaders of their own church/home, that is what their marriage implies. But there are also priests over priests, and everyone (man and woman alike) is still accountable to the “priesthood of all believers” (which is to say the Church) and must submit to each other, especially the elder, as St Paul instructs:

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)

It is impossible to obey that teaching above while being your own boss.

I’m under no delusion about the Orthodox hierarchy, there are problems there like anything else people are involved. I do not submit to their perfection. I do, however, submit in Christian love, to honor my Lord, and in knowing my own unworthiness. I have no need to be the priest, at least not until God ordains it through his Church, but do see an urgent need for all Christians to submit one to another as we are told many times in Scripture.

You can have a house church and be Orthodox. In fact you should have a house church if you are Orthodox and that is historically well-established.

But you simply cannot be Orthodox or truly Christian and refuse to acknowledge that the church is bigger than you and your own comprehension or ideas.

Orthodoxy, once again, simultaneously occupies both sides of an argument in both strongly encouraging home church while also—at the same time—rejecting the spirit of Diotrephes of those who acknowledge no authority besides their own and set about to create a new pure church in their own image.

The NEED For Loving Touch

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A few years ago mom and sister, sensing my need for physical touch, made giving me a hug on Sunday evenings as I left for home and another week out on the road. It was a small gesture, a single suture on a gaping wound of loneliness and years of an unmet need for more intimate human relationship, but—nevertheless—it was something that kept me at least partially sane.

Not everyone is the same in regard to how they handle isolation. However, it is known that solitary confinement is extremely detrimental psychologically and is equivalent to torture for some. It is even worse for children deprived of healthy touch and, according to research, babies in orphanages with inadequate human interaction die at a rate of 30 to 40% and even survivors of the negligence often suffer terrible life-long consequences as a result.

We live in a culture that celebrates connectivity and social media. Unfortunately, those things, seeing words on a screen or having a “friends” list of thousands, do not fill the void or need for real physical interactions and touch. When my hopes of meaningful human connection faded away with another crushing rejection my mind slid back into solipsism—the ultimate aloneness, a disconnect from belief in anything outside of my own mind or imagination—the nightmarish hell put into words by Trent Reznor:

Yes I am alone
But then again I always was
As far back as I can tell
I think maybe it’s because
Because you were never really real
To begin with

I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
I just made you up
To hurt myself
And it worked
Yes it did

The reality is that healthy people live for connection and survive periods of aloneness on their hopes of future intimacy and interactions. We were created for relationship, both with each other and with the one who walked with Adam in the garden. It is through relationships that we gain our personhood and purpose. The lack of real community, of physical touch and healthy interaction, has come at a great cost and, sadly, few seem ready to take the necessary action to change this for those most in need.

Some of the reason for this neglect is a misconception about the true meaning of the Gospel message…

“All you need is Jesus”

This is one of those religious clichés that is true in one sense, yet is completely untrue the way some people use it and is often nothing more than an excuse for their real indifference.

People need more than words to thrive.

Yes, we do not live by bread alone and we always depend wholly on God’s grace at all times. However, that doesn’t mean we do not have need of food, clothing, shelter or many other things that make our life complete.

Those who spiritualize and who dismiss the human needs of others should be locked for a week in a box naked, without food or sunlight, and then they can discuss what “all you need is Jesus” means to them as someone who was without anything else.

For those who think their offering mere words about an abstraction of Jesus are an indication of their faith and is doing enough, I will offer the words of James:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

If I could have a dollar for all the times that people expressed sympathy for my circumstances, and then assured me that things would magically work out for me without doing anything to help, I would probably be a millionaire. The whole book of James tells me that such people who do not offer anything in the form of concrete help, despite what they might profess, do not really know Jesus and are still in need of salvation themselves. Christian faith that does not express itself in meeting needs both spiritual AND PHYSICAL is not real Christian faith.

“The word became flesh…”

One of the deficiencies of the theological indoctrination that I received in the denomination of my birth was a lack of explanation for the full significance of incarnation. Incarnation tends to be explained as a historic event, that Jesus provided an example to follow, and yet very little is said about the what this says about the human condition and need for touch.

The incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, is the centerpiece of what John says at the start of his Gospel account and is something that has great significance as far as how it relates to church life. Jesus came so that the Spirit, something not physically defined and the same Spirit “hovering” over the waters in the Genesis creation narrative, could be made one with human flesh and so that through that we also (the church together as the “body of Christ”) could become the incarnation of Christ.

This idea that the Gospel is about an abstraction, some kind of spiritual experience or journey and theological/theoretical construct that has little to offer in physical substance, is wrong. It is part of the issue that early Anabaptists would’ve had with Luther and Protestantism. It is also something Orthodox Christians cannot accept. There is no salvation without incarnation. We cannot live the Chrisitan life alone or without real and tangible love for other Christians.

Christianity is something that must be communal, it must involve actual physical interaction with other members of the body and our partaking of the real flesh and blood of Christ together with other believers, or it is not real. Faith is, as James clearly says, something that changes how we interact with each other in the material world, it should remove barriers (like favoritism or separations within the body between higher and lower social/religious/economic tiers) and make us do something about the physical needs of other Christians.

Feeding people with platitudes does not make you Christ-like or spiritually-minded. No, it is only living in denial of the needs of others, profoundly unloving and disobedience. Yes, certainly, the point of Christianity goes well-beyond mere humanism or making the world a better place to live for others. The kingdom is something that cannot be defined in the material world. That said, Christianity without any fleshing out or being an incarnation of the Spirit ourselves, like Christ, in our Communion together and providing for the physical needs of others is truly not Christianity anymore.

Those who spiritualize physical needs really should consider the question of why Jesus came in the first place. Why didn’t God just send his good news message on tablets of gold from heaven?

The answer is that our body is not something bad or that God has given up on. We are not a mind with a body as many seem to perceive themselves. No, the body and mind are as interwoven as soul and spirit. Sure, you may be able to intellectually conceptualize things like love and theorize about salvation. But the reality is that we do have physical needs, what happens to our bodies does have an impact on our minds, and thus we should take care of our own bodies and also be concerned with the physical well-being of our fellow Christians. The incarnation is important because we are creatures of flesh and with real physical needs. We need other Christians to flesh out Christ today for the same reason Thomas needed to touch the wounds of Jesus to know that he had truly conquered death.

Not just talk, touch…

There is no shortage of advice in the world and much of it unsolicited. Tell a person about your needs and you are bound to get an earful of their opinions. They, like those who claimed faith without works, think that they can talk away your problems and/or need a way to dismiss your needs when you do not take their bad advice. They can say, “Well, he should just listen to me and then things might go better.”

Jesus condemns this sort of aloofness:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)

That is not to say that we should never give any weighty advice. However, when our advice is not accompanied by helpful action, then it will simply be adding another burden to someone already struggling under the weight of life. Having real faith, embodying Christ, means offering real substantive help to those who ask. Again, there might be a place for speaking against sin, there is also a good case to be made for teaching people how to help themselves, yet we also need to get our own hands dirty sometimes and help to dig people out of the mire they are in or at least lift their load until they can get their feet under them again.

Jesus said, “Give to those who ask” (Matthew 5:42) And, given that he does offer himself to anyone who asks, it is very likely meant those words take be taken literally. He didn’t say only to give what rationally makes sense to you at the time, he doesn’t say to give only money or time, he tells us to give and our willingness to give is the true measure of our faith. It is our job, as Christians, to give of ourselves for the salvation of others, that is what marriage is about and why we should attend church—and be all the more involved when those in the church need Jesus more than we do.

The point of Christianity is to be part of the body of Christ, to do what he did for others and the “greater things” he promised would come as a result of his leaving. We are to touch and heal the wounded like he did.

The need for non-sexual physical touch…

In many parts of the world, it is not unusual for men to hold hands with other men nor a scandal for men and women to exchange a familial kiss. But somehow here, in the United States, we have managed to sexualize everything and this is especially true fundamentalist Mennonite/Protestant sects. In fact, I have had a young woman from such a setting, in her early twenties as I recall, worried about somehow defiling herself just to be in my physical presence and unsupervised. And that, needless to say, made the conversation extremely awkward.

This aversion to touch does not seem to be found in Scripture. Jesus healed using physical touch, he allowed a woman to wash his feet with her hair and there is (at least according to less sanitized translations) a description of a disciple “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13:23) while they ate in a reclined posture. There is no indication in Paul’s letters that the “holy kiss” was a gendered practice, he mentions both men and women in his list of those to greet, nor that it was only for their time. It certainly doesn’t seem like physical touch was such a big deal for Jesus and early Christians.

Consider the following:

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. (Matthew 9:27‭-‬30b NIV)

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12‭-‬13 NIV)

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15‭-‬16 NIV)

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. (Matthew 17:5‭-‬8 NIV)

And did I mention that Jesus touched?

That last passage, in particular, may give us some of the reason why the incarnation matters. We need more than an abstraction, more than a book or voice from heaven, we need touch. The church, as the hands and feet of Jesus, needs to be physically intimate in the same way that Jesus was to those he loved. There is healing in touch, it is healthy to touch, and Jesus touched.

Touch is good and right.

The need for good old-fashioned sex…

The person, responding to my prior blog about a failure in faith and relationship, had mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (something that I alluded to in an early blog) and how people, to reach their full potential, need food, water, shelter, clothes, and sex. They put special emphasis on sex because it is something that the spiritualizers (aka modern-day gnostics) would say sex doesn’t matter much and/or is something almost bad even in the context of marriage.

I recall being upset with a psychiatrist for describing my interest in a young woman as being sexual attraction. It was jarring to me at the time. How dare they describe my pure and lofty intentions in such a base manner? I’m not an animal! As obvious as sexual motives are now, looking back in retrospect, I truly was in complete denial then and still have difficulty now being honest about my strong desire for sex.

In fact, I had to be reminded recently that sex, within the marriage context, is something scared and thus my desire for that is not something to be ashamed of or hide.

So why did I hate and conceal this desire to the point that I didn’t even consciously recognize my motivations anymore?

Talk to anyone outside of a religious purity culture and they will be dead honest about their sexual desires. I too would never say that sex is a bad thing even while in denial of my own motivations. But, because sexuality is often discussed in negative terms, and because there was no healthy outlet for my sexual urges for all these years and also knowing that many conservative Mennonite girls share this same shameful view of sex, burying these desires seemed the only option. I mean what kind of God-fearing woman would marry a guy who openly admitted his mixed sexual and spiritual motives?

Unfortunately, this view of sex as being bad (or a shameful compromise) is completely unhealthy and needs to be addressed.

Scripture tells us “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22) and, it is important to realize, marriage is a sexual union. The idea of “two will become one flesh” includes sex and part of that “good” a man finds in a wife. The apostle Paul, while encouraging celibacy for some, says (in 1 Corinthians 7) that those who “burn with passion” should marry rather than fall into sin. He also said that married couples should not deprive each other of sexual relations for an indefinite period of time. So maybe it is time for a more affirming and positive presentation of sexual desire?

Dividing sexual touch from the sacred is unhealthy and wrong. The marital bed is sacred. Sex, in the right context, is not shameful. Most people need this kind of physical intimacy to reach their full potential and thrive. It is not lustful or a sin to want sex. Sex is something we are made for, it is part of God’s original design and something good—we might as well be open and honest about it!

True connection is a human need…

Not everyone has the same need for intimacy and touch. However, a person doesn’t really know their need of something until it is taken away along with any hope of it. Those who minimize the importance or need for real physical connection with other people probably aren’t those who have been without it for long periods of time.

I believe, as a nearly forty-year-old virgin and one who has experienced years of physical isolation, that this is a big problem that is not being addressed. I believe it is especially a problem for men who have no healthy outlet for physical touch. It is not as culturally taboo for women to touch or at least it is not unusual to see teenage girls hanging all over each other. However unmarried men, who need touch to be healthy just like a woman does, are often left to their own devices—alone, unneeded and unappreciated.

But I digress, both men and women need physical touch and to feel loved.

For those with their own physical needs met, even just keeping singles/widows/widowers involved and regularly invited to dinner with your family is a good start. I know that this, even as a token gesture, helped me have a more positive outlook on life as much as it happened. In fact, my being welcomed into homes in this way by a Charity-ish church every time I visited was nearly enough for me to overlook my differences with their perspectives of theology and application. Something real and tangible is better than nothing at all. And love—genuine, self-sacrificial and materially real love—truly does cover a multitude of sins:

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)

It is not enough to wish a brother or sister well who is starving or naked. Likewise, it is not enough to tell those who desire to be needed and appreciated that all they need is an abstraction of Jesus. Jesus came in the flesh so that he could physically interact with and touch people. We too need to incarnate the intimacy that we desire with God through our willingness to be physically connected and intimate with those whom God loves. We need to love others and not with empty words or in religious forms. We need to love them in a way that meets their real physical human needs and in the same way as we want our own spiritual needs to be met by God.

The real need is for meaningful connection. We need adequate relationships to keep our minds from falling into dark and dangerous places. Studies show a correlation between addiction and lack of adequate social connection. We are not self-sufficient, we are not mere minds in a body, we need each other, to be loved and to feel the love of others.

This is why the word became flesh and why we must flesh out the Gospel with healing and healthy touch. It is on us to be the hands and feet of Jesus—faithful love requires that we do more than talk about abstractions of love.

Hey, Christians, who do you serve?

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I read a blog today that spurred my thoughts in a new direction.  The blog (read here) was about the religious owners of a small business who elected to close shop after their employees decided to unionize.

The rationale they give for their decision piqued my interest:

“…our personal beliefs will not allow our conscience the freedom to work with a labor union, as we are required by Scripture to ‘live peaceably with all men,’ and not to use force to gain what we want or for what is required to succeed.”

I am a big believer in freedom of conscience and allowing business owners to make the decisions best for them.  I understand the angst of a small business owner facing the prospect of a workforce organized against them.  I know other small business owners who said they too would close shop rather than deal with a union.

However, by a Christian standard, is it truly living “peaceably” to essentially take the ball and go home when the game isn’t played by our own rules?

The Reason for Unions and the Cost of Conflict

I understand why a business owner is threatened by the collective bargaining power of unions.  It isn’t a pleasant thing to face the prospect of a do-what-we-say-or-we’ll-strike and it does tie the hands of those trying to keep a business afloat rather than just take a paycheck.  But is it much different than the do-what-we-say-or-we’ll-fire-you that employees face?

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The reality is that unions form for a reason and the reason is that employees feel powerless and want a voice.  Unions give employees power to collectively bring their own agenda to the table and force their will on the owners of the business.  It is an attempt to rebalance or redistribute power in a way that makes a the structure of a business less hierarchical.

Unfortunately unions often only add another layer of management (often as removed from the needs of the employees as the other) and only adds to the cost of business while producing nothing besides a contentious attitude.  The end result can be an uncompetitive business model that eventually works for nobody.

What are the Christian Alternatives to Closing Shop?

First off, closing shop is not the only option a business owner has when faced by unionization, there’s more than one way to “live peaceably with all men” and avoid unnecessary conflict.  I am guessing that the employees are less at peace with the our-way-or-you’re-jobless approach and perhaps not too impressed with their ‘peaceable’ former employer.

Here’s some ideas…

Alternative #1: Partner only with like-minded people.  There would be less need for unions (or closing shop in protest of them) if we took Paul’s admonition seriously:

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?  What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6:14-15)

Much conflict between business owners and employees stem from differences of perspective that would be reduced by not hiring outside of one’s own religious affiliation.  Sure, this might reduce the amount of available employees (at a particular cost) and limit the size of the business.  But, if allegiance to faith outweighs financial gain, then the decision is clear.

Alternative #2a: Change who you serve.  Many people go into business to serve primarily their own needs.  Business is all about getting the best deal for yourself and all sides are in competition against one another (customer against producer, employee against owner, etc) trying to serve themselves.  Yet, there is an alternative and that alternative is cooperation.

What if owners served employees, customers served producers and employees served both and everyone *voluntarily* served everyone else selflessly? 

In other words, what would happen if we changed all of the force arrows pulling outward competing for their ‘piece of the pie’ and spun them 180° in the opposite direction?

That, my friends, is turning fission into fusion and (like the nuclear counterpart) has potential for more energy or profit to all than the alternative:

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What if all parts serve God by *voluntarily* serving each other rather than themselves?

Well, that’s Christianity:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Ephesians 6:5-9)

We don’t have masters and servants (unless you agree with Noam Chomsky), but the same principles could apply to both an employee working for a business or customer.  It can also apply to how a Christian business owner responds to a union, the owner can choose to resist the collective will of their employees or they can serve and honor it as an act of obedience to their Master.

If Jesus is your Master this is your obedience:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Alternative #2b: Serve all people radically.  Maybe you already have employees who aren’t like-minded and want to gang up on you or unionize, what then?

Well, if your primary purpose is to serve Jesus Christ, then this might apply:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:38-42)

That is a concept as revolutionary today as it was when Jesus spoke the words.  It is a concept, if applied evenly to all areas of life, would change everything we do and requires a faith few of us have.  Sure, most of us are willing to cooperate when we know it is to our own advantage, but Jesus goes a step beyond mutual cooperation and tells us to lead through self-sacrificial love.

The conclusion of the matter…

Many go into business primarily to serve themselves and there is nothing immoral about profitable enterprise.  However, a Christian should not go into business to serve themselves, the goal of a faithful servant of Jesus is to serve others as obedience requires and that means a cooperative—even a self-sacrificial—approach to business.

In the case with the small business of the blog post, I am guessing the separation or disunity of spirit between employees and employer existed long before the vote.  The vote to unionize only codified a division that already existed and was a move to change the terms in favor of the employees.  It backfired, in this case, because the employer chose to quit rather than serve terms not dictated by them and their needs.

I will let you decide if their response was the best Christian resolution of difference or not.  How would you decide?  I welcome your comments…

God bless.