The God-and-country religious belief system is the low-hanging fruit of compromised Christian types. These types, a branch off of Protestant fundamentalism, are easily identified and frequently lampooned by the cultural elites in this era of deconstruction and ‘woke’ self-loathing. It is highlighted, aptly, in this picture and the accompanying caption:
Sadly, many of us have an “uncle or aunt” in our lives who non-ironically post things like this on social media… thinking they are doing something good by obliviously spewing compromised civil religion thinking—that it is anywhere close to authentic Christianity.
This, of course, is correct. Jesus was not an American and civic religion is not the Christianity of the New Testament. Those of this category are pretty much putting Uncle Sam in equal standing with the son of God or, at the very least, blending two very different things in a way that only lowers the more significant of the two. It would sort of be like saying “I love my wife, and chocolate chip cookies!”
These are people similar to Peter in this passage and elsewhere:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
(Matthew 16:21-24 NIV)
Peter, like all of the true disciples, had been oriented towards a worldly kingdom led by Christ. This is why he swung his sword to defend Jesus from being arrested by the corrupt religious authorities. He was misguided, yes, but also sincere and truly loyal to Christ despite his vastly incorrect understanding of the Gospel. Eventually he became the example of self-sacrificial love and led the church before his death as a martyr—crucified upside down on a Roman cross.
It is not my place to question the salvation of anyone. However, I will say that if anyone puts their faith in their nation for salvation they will be sorely disappointed in the end and many are learning this hard lesson as institutions fail them. As Scripture says, “put not your faith in princess or mortal men in whom there is no salvation.” Great leaders come and go, nations rise and fall, but there is one Lord and Savior of all who reigns supreme from everlasting to everlasting. Amen.
The More Sinister Betrayal of Christ
However, now that we covered the easily ridiculed simpletons, let’s move on to the more sophisticated. There are many critical of this latter type, who also profess to be Christian, and yet themselves are tools for a form of nationalism. Indeed, the rulers of our time are not those embarrassing older relatives called out on social media. No, it is those who reject all religion—Christianity most especially—or at least do until it is useful for manipulation.
Unlike the God-and-country religious types, who wear their cartoonish devotion to consumer Jesus on their sleeves, the subscribers to ‘woke’ nationalism position themselves in opposition to traditional American iconography, recast the stars and stripes as a symbol of oppression, and present love for country as being some form of fascist. The church of “social justice” being merely a branch of this popular political movement.
The irony being that they themselves, the ‘woke’ nationalist, are more in alignment with corporations and machinery of the national politics than those whom they most frequently condemn. Nine out of ten times, those using the word “Christian nationalism” act in alignment with the most violent (and excused by elites) elements in our time, have worked for the government in some capacity, and then, with prissy indignation, blast their working poor “blue collar” neighbors.
This ‘woke’ nationalism is the current civil religion of the Democrat party elites and establishment Republicans alike. The evangelists being the supposedly edgy late night hosts and corporate media. Their dogmas enforced via Big Tech monopolies with doctrines reinforced by their paid shill fact-checkers. Those at the top of this hierarchy mock Christianity and find more in common with Karl Marx than they do Jesus Christ. But they are happy for the help of the religious useful idiots.
Indeed, like Zionism takes eyes off of Christ to the nation-state of Israel, this woke nationalism also takes the eyes off Jesus and places it on those designated victims of oppression. Sure, they can claim that this as part of their obligation to the Kingdom of God—a fulfillment of the Christian mission prophesied by Isaiah 61:1: “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.” Unfortunately it is anything but that.
No, woke nationalism, along with most of neo-Anabaptism, is the modern-day equivalent of Judas throwing the words of Jesus in his face. Under the facade of correct language and noble sounding intent, these are a scornful and nasty people who attack those who are actually most vulnerable in this present time. They, like Judas, use the words of Jesus as a means to attack even the good-faith efforts of others:
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
(John 12:3-8 NIV)
Judas pitted the words of Jesus against him. Unlike Peter, who once unwisely rebuked Jesus, the betrayer spoke in arrogance. He, like Satan twisting Scripture to tempt Jesus, was malicious and a hypocrite (stealing from the collective pursue) under his phony virtue-signaling about the poor. Sure, Peter was also oriented towards a worldly kingdom, and yet Judas seemingly had a lust for power that he thought would be fulfilled in Jesus.
Who does this today?
How about the kind who attack those using the expression “thoughts and prayers” in response to tragedy?
Or maybe those who made their wealth at taxpayer expense writing Tweets targeting the projects and achievements of others couching this in concern for the poor?
The word of God is powerful and I believe that there is good reason why we have the detailed account of Judas attacking the worshipful act of this woman. It is to highlight the toxic mentality of those who can quote the words of Jesus when it is politically (or otherwise useful) and yet have a heart far from God. We are told that the Pharisees diligently studied Scripture. But they did it for personal advantage over others and to attain rank in their social or religious circle.
The reason that I have spent far more time trying to expose woke nationalism, as opposed to other forms of civic religion, is because it is both the more dominant force right now and also the most blatantly anti-Christian. Despite the clever packaging as being opposition to racism or concern for the poor, woke nationalism is all about political power and having absolute control over others.
These are people who can’t love their own literal neighbors and somehow delude themselves to thinking themselves saviors of the oppressed. They don’t merely misunderstand and mischaracterize Christ as the God-and-country religious types. No, they believe that they are essentially His equal and twist His words to their political ends while imagining themselves to be better than everyone else.
They are out saving the world and can’t even save themselves.
‘Tis the season for conservative Mennonites to preen on social media about their apolitical “kingdom Christian” stance. These Biblical fundamentalists, with an Anabaptisty twist, talk about worldly politics more than many in the voting public do and never miss an opportunity to distinguish themselves with their rude apologetics.
Any more I try to ignore this noxious grandstanding display of religious elitism. But then I saw a video post, with a title proclaiming a change of mind about voting and featuring someone that I’ve run into on various occasions in my travels and as part of an online Mennonite discussion forum. I’m quite familiar with his long-held positions and this claim of transformation astonished me.
Perhaps he had voted in a mock election in grade school or something?
Anyhow, starting in general…
The Utterly Non-Revolutionary Act of Not Voting
Mennonites, like other Anabaptists, have built entire religious doctrines around cherry-picked Biblical phrases. The words “be not conformed to this world,” lifted from Romans 12:2, is used to justify everything from not driving motorized vehicles and dressing like it is still the 1800s to condemning military service and not voting in elections. That is standard fare for all traditional or Old Order Anabaptists.
But Fundamentalized Mennonites, unlike their Amish and Old Order Mennonite cousins, feel this unquenchable need to broadcast and announce all that they do. Ignoring the not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing advice that Jesus gave, while slamming hypocrites. Mennonite fundamentalists, taking their cues from Protestant fundamentalists, are all about political influence and religious apologetics.
The disdainful retort of a Mennonite gentleman to those who dared to talk about voting in his presence, “I vote on my knees!” This sanctimonious announcement, alluding to prayer rather than direct involvement in the political process, was met appropriately with humorous remark to the effect that crawling to the ballot box being an odd way to vote. But it does also describe the strange dichotomy, or rather the inconsistent application, of non-conformity rules.
The grand irony is that this kind of political non-participation does not make someone unique from ‘the world’ as religious separatists claim.
Well, voting or not voting is a habit, they do not believe that their vote matters, or simply do not care about the outcome one way or another. So this idea that not participating in elections is some sort of notable stand or great sacrifice is pure delusion. Not voting is literally as much like ‘the world’ as you can get. It is not revolutionary. It is a nihilistic cultural default, a bit Gnostic, and requires doing nothing. However, unlike most non-voters who have no need to explain their apathy for the democracitic process, conservative Mennonite fundamentalists have a great need to spiritualize and broadcast their decisions.
Sure, unlike other fundamentalists, who do vote and promote political involvement, the conservative Mennonite variety proudly distinguishes themselves in other ways. But they still go to universities like Bob Jones or Liberty University, fundamentalist bastions, and pick up the Evangelical attitude to apply to their Anabaptist doctrinal defaults. So, rather than simply live out their faith, like their forbearers, they must be “in your face” about their views, constantly propagandizing and promoting their supposedly ‘Anabaptist’ or purportedly ‘kingdom’ perspectives, and otherwise making sure that you notice them. If it seems self-aggrandizing and obnoxious, then it most certainly is. Worse, they are completely arbitrary and inconsistent in how they apply these supposed “Biblical principles” that justify positions they’ve inherited, never seriously reconsidered, and want to ram down your throat.
How do I know?
I was one of them. I would argue my Mennonite fundamentalism confidently with my teachers in high school. In college, I wrote a position paper to explain my inherited non-resistance dogma, thinking that my take would be fresh. But, for my efforts, ended up with a classroom more fully unconvinced of non-resistence than they would be had I said nothing at all.
Anyhow, while most from my own religious communities lean towards conservative politics. A few got out of this Mennonite intellectual ghetto long enough to read a little Karl Marx, meet some Socialists. And, now, armed with this new knowledge, come back to their conservative peers with a superior attitude and a whole new set of empty platitudes, borrowed from ‘the world’ they claim to stand apart from, that require nothing of them. They proclaim themselves to be different, imagine themselves to be the revolutionary thinkers, yet are really nothing but a new blend of the same old political ideologies, tired religious dogmas, and general nonsense.
It was one such story of a ‘transformation’ that caught my eye because I actually knew the guy and know him too well to be bamboozled by his slickly packaged testimonial.
The Completely Non-Transformative Transformation
I’m not going to reveal the source. More clicks will only encourage them. But it did not take long into the apologetics video to reveal that the title a bit deceptive, when this conservative Mennonite apologist confessed, “the truth is I’ve never actually voted.”
So, I guess a more upfront and honest title, such as “Mennonite-born Confirms His Confirmation Bias,” isn’t propaganda-ish enough to sell the point?
Anyhow, to be clear, he never changed his mind, he might have momentarily been slightly more open to the idea of political involvement before reverting back to the Mennonite default position. And, sure, his political positions may have evolved slightly from right-wing anarchist and anti-government to being slightly more left-wing anarchist, definitely anti-conservative and even more anti-government. But, in the decades that I’ve known him, he’s always had this smug sounding “voting only encourages them” signature line.
What is truly interesting is that this particular individual?
Simultaneous to his decrying the violent and coercive means of the state, he had also worked as a government employee and profited by these means for many years. That’s right. This man who claims that voting is some big moral quandary, because government uses force and threats, had no issues with taking money obtained by those means for years.
And yet, somehow, to merely cast a ballot is too much for them to stomach?
If voting is wrong, if political solutions are wrong, then how isn’t his taking through this system is extremely wrong?
If he really believes that the government is illegitimate, that we should not participate so much as to cast a ballot, then he ought to do as Zacchaeus did. He should return all of his ill-gotten gains, he should pay it all back with interest to us who paid his salary, and put his money where his fundamentalist Mennonite mouth is.
But what is, by far, the most disturbing thing about this video is the shameless promotional for progressive politics it contained. While claiming to be apolitical. He pushed the far-left social justice agenda as if this is what Jesus taught. Confusing what we should do as individuals, as a church, with the obligations of a nation. How disengious an argument. How heretical a theological position. How contradictory with his own religious tradition.
In short, the kingdom of heaven, especially their conservative Mennonite version, does not have open borders and will turn people away for falling short of requirements. Scripture lists whole long lists of who will and will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (false teachers one of them) and this studious fellow would certainly be aware. And, no, it is not cruelty or indifference that keeps some out. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Kingdom has borders to keep unrepentant murderers, rapists and other abusers away from those whom they exploited. So this criticism of nations for enforcement of reasonable border policies, for the protection of the nation and those trying to escape horrendous conditions, is asinine.
Imagine that, a conservative Mennonite, part of a denomination known for their strict standards for entry (oftentimes over the slightest minutia of application) taking issue with a nation for taking some precaution and vetting immigrants.
I mean, as one practically engaged to a woman who needs to navigate our immigration system, I have every reason in the world to want the current system to be made easier. And, despite that, despite my own personal struggle waiting on the cumbersome process, I still completely understand and appreciate that we have civil authorities to protect citizens and promote peace. I love her, and my neighbors, enough to want to keep evildoers out. Her uncle was murdered in her home country, as was her grandpa, both good men, it would be absolutely immoral for me to open the flood gates so that their murderers could follow her in.
Ultimately, had this fundamentalist Mennonite commentator stayed politically neutral (rather than parrot a leftist ideological position while falsely claiming to be apolitical) I may have let the duplicitous transformation claim slide.
I’m completely okay with someone being apolitical and not voting if they believe that is what their religious beliefs require of them. But I am completely not okay with? I’m completely not okay with misleading testimonials and phony claims of being apolitical while promoting a political position. I’m especially not okay with the hypocrisy of saying the government is violent, therefore we must not cooperate so much as to vote, while also being on the take end and unrepentant about it.
This one was a little more personal because I knew the character making the claim and it was so typical of the fundamentalist tainted brand of Mennonitism that I came from. Mennonite Evangelicals love to distinguish themselves from other Evangelicals, both products of Fundamentalism, by pointing to their Anabaptist doctrines (namely non-resistance and non-conformity) as if it is something revolutionary when, in fact, they are often religious promoters of progressive politics who oddly also decide they are also above voting.
Voting bad, taxes good…
Drinking the Kool-Aid of Evangelical Humanism
It started so wonderfully, a charismatic young leader blended concern for the poor and racial inequality with a Gospel message. Eventually this “Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ” moved from Indiana to sunny California where this social justice preacher, James Warren Jones, found a more receptive and racially diverse audience. He grew his following to a few thousand members, enough to gain the attention of left-wing political leaders, and hired an African-American preacher to further the social justice message.
Jones and his so-called “Peoples Temple” moved progressively in the direction of openly displaying their true Marxist intentions. Their home for senior citizens directly quoted Karl Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” and drew parallels between this political ideology and Christian teachings. Jones became increasingly divisive, increasingly open with his far-left rhetoric, and increasingly controlling as time went on. Jones, the cult leader, preying on the urban poor and minorities, now pushed an idea of “religious communalism” and used various passages of Scripture to justify this aggressive push towards Socialism.
Of course, maybe some of you already know how this story ends, at Jonestown, where Jim Jones, the leader of this nasty narcissistic polygamous mess, ordered his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. The infamous Jonestown Massacre, in the Socialist paradise (or rather a hellhole) in Guyana, totaled 909 dead, either by suicide or murdered outright, including a Congressman sent to investigate allegations of abuse. Jones was always only a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he was merely using a twisted version of Biblical texts for his political and personal ends. He was able, with this heretical blend, to lead hundreds of people to their deaths. And sadly, despite this sobering example, many still “drink the Kool-Aid” of social justice and end up spiritually dead having jettisoned the true Gospel.
Those who fall for the social justice ‘Gospel’ have indeed traded their birthright for a bowl of pottage. They, like Judas, have interpreted the words of Jesus through the lens of their worldly aims. They, like the betrayer of Christ, take the instruction of Christ, “sell all and give to the poor” as some kind of end in itself and not in the context of divine pursuit. It is not because they are far from Jesus. No, in fact, there is only a subtle difference. Judas may well have been the best of the disciples, trusted with the common purse, and able to quote the words of Jesus concerning the poor right back at him. And he was not alone in his confusion about the words of Jesus either. All of the disciples seemed to have worldly power and prestige in mind. They did not anticipate the life of suffering and sacrifice.
The close counterfeit is the most dangerous. Many warn of the crude caricatures and obviously flawed copies of the truth. However, when they encounter something that appears, on the surface, to be the genuine article, what do they do? They let down their guard, may even praise the effort, and never realize the missing substance behind the effort. The substance, of course, being that the purpose of everything a Christian does is worship. True, following after the instruction to give to the poor, in the context of Christian faith, will create a better world. However, when turned into some legalistic prescription and for the intention of political end, like social justice, it very quickly becomes abusive.
But Jim Jones wasn’t the first to start to push a brand of Socialism and defiance against ordained authority, there was an Anabaptist cult with similar views. The Münster Anabaptists were the true radicals of the so-called “radical reformation” and are the likely cause of the eventual crackdown on all Anabaptists. They too promised ‘the kingdom’ siding with the poor and the peasants, but their “new Jerusalem” very quickly ended up a polygamous nightmare. This disaster is why the “non-resistent” theology won out. This is why conservative Mennonites and Amish have remained relatively apolitical.
Returning to the Vomit of Münster
Modern Mennonites, of all stripes, share a similar antipathy towards authority. Those on the ‘conservative’ end of the spectrum are defiant towards things like Covid-19 restrictions or anything that interferes with their own agenda, while those on the ‘progressive’ side stand against everything from the punishment of evildoers and even national borders. The only significant difference is that the conservatives, like most other conservatives, mostly want to be left alone to practice their religion. While the progressives would be happy to use government to enforce social obligations on their neighbors. Where the conservatives can be neglectful of their neighbors, the progressives (like their worldly counterparts) are enthusiastically abusive.
I’ve noticed many privileged Mennonites, raised in conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist churches, in reaction to their own former ignorance, veer hard to the left.
They were raised in Mennonite homes, lived in Mennonite communities, went to Mennonite schools and a few finished their education in fundamentalist institutions. Most of their lives, unlike my own, they spent in this Mennonite cloister, then they go to the big city somewhere and find out other people see a different perspective from the only one that they knew existed. But rather than apply a grain of salt, or show any spiritual discernment whatsoever, they swallow the newly discovered grievance narratives lock, stock and barrel. They cheer on, from their ivory towers, the “people power” of those disrupting their neighbors, ignore or justify the violence of those destroying cities, and think their support for Barrabus is doing the Lord’s work.
They are blind guides, more misguided than the Mennonite traditionalists whom they frequently condemn, condescend and criticize, and yet imagine themselves to be the true standard-bearers for Anabaptism. And they are, but Anabaptist in the same way as Münsterites and of the same spirit as those religious elites whom Jesus taunted in this passage:
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!
(Matthew 23:29-32 NIV)
I mean, woe…
Leftward aligned, and “kingdom Christians” are less committed than their Anabaptist predecessors and yet making the same mistakes. They claim to be above the politics of this age, apolitical even, and pose as the enlightened minds, but are really lacking in introspection and this:
These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.” If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”
(2 Peter 2:17-22 NIV)
Few Mennonites actually read the writings of Menno Simons, but many are familiar with his poem, “True Evangelical Faith,” a presentation that orients the reader towards the earthy and practical ministries of the church, and some of the reason he is described as an “evangelical humanist” by various sources. No, he would certainly not support the leftist policies of our day nor was he completely aligned with the Anabaptist comrades in Münster. But this understanding of the words of Jesus too easily transforms into left-wing anarchist politics and is very often misconstrued as an endorsement of Socialism.
Couple this with the Zwinglian denial of spiritual and mystical aspects of what Jesus taught, common to all Anabaptists, along with the political ambitions of the historical Anabaptist leftists, who in their zealousness, overthrew the ordained government of a German city named Münster, and you can know where this ‘kingdom’ is headed.
The contempt for authority is already there, the loss of a truly divine orientation is already there as well, and now they align themselves with those rebellious against all authority and acting out in violence.
This turn towards left-wing politics, those doing apologetics for grievance culture, are urging the faithful to take a big gulp of the same Kool-Aid that was passed around Jonestown. It is the same spirit that led to the horrendous violence of the Münster Rebellion. It is not remotely Christian even if it uses the words of Christ as justification.
Judas too used the words of Jesus. He deceptively used the words of Jesus, “sell all and give to the poor,” as a means to admonished a faithful woman for her impracticality worship of pouring out perfume on the feet of the Lord. He, like a Marx-inspired fundamentalist calling ornate houses of worship a waste, told this woman that she should have sold the perfume to give to the poor. He used his position, as follower of Jesus and disciple, an advocate of the ‘kingdom’ as he understood it, to hide his actual political ambitions. For this smug comment he earned the sharp rebuke of Jesus.
Those lapping up the radical leftist vomit of Münster Anabaptists, in modern forms, will be worse off than their more-traditional Mennonite counterparts. Marxist philosophy is not compatible with the message of the cross nor is this ‘kingdom’ opposition to the established government Christian. They might be sincere. Many are misled by them. But there is no reason for me to suspect that Judas, or others like him who betrayed Christ and the church, were insincere. Had Judas been only a fraud, why would he have despairingly taken his own life?
Oh proud Anabaptist. Oh fundamentalist with all of the answers and no actual wisdom. Oh you Evangelicals who are all talk and very little understanding, who flail to the right or to the left every time, desperate to be relevant. Oh you closeted Marxists, with worldly ambitions, posing as agents of the kingdom. Repent now, before it is too late!
Turn Not to the Right or the Left
Every so often a quote pops up, at the right exact time, so poignant, that it appears to be a gift from God. And such was the case when this quote was shared on my news feed while contemplating politics and examining my own stance as far as ideological positions. I tend to be right-wing. I do believe that the role of government is to set some basic boundaries, look out for the “common good,” and stay completely out of my personal business. But I also see the folly of individualism, the need of communities and voluntary cooperation between people.
I see both right and left-wing extremes, both totalitarianism and anarchism, as unChristian and dangerous. But never had succinct words to describe why this is, at least not before reading this quote:
There are two kinds of ‘atheism’: the atheism of the right, which professes to love God and ignores neighbor; and the atheism of the left, which professes to love neighbor and ignores God.
This quote hits the problems of both sides squarely on the head. The ‘right’ frequently takes their independence too far, they become neglectful in regards to loving their neighbors and in this have rejected God. The ‘left’ on the other hand, professes their compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden, but this often is nothing but human effort that neglects worship. Both the right and left are motivated by selfishness. Both, at different levels, are looking for freedom or control. However, the left is much better at hiding their lust for power and true atheism under a veil of altruism.
It is interesting that frequently, in Scripture, we see passages warning against veering right or left, like this one:
Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.
(Joshua 1:7 NIV)
My guess is that partisan alignments, rightward or leftwards, take our focus off of the divine. Instead of being focused on Jesus, and theosis, we become mired in political controversy and tribes. It is true, we cannot serve two masters. And political ideologies, on a horizontal plane, will distract us from the vertical alignment. No, we do not stop eating worldly food or drinking physical water as ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven. Nor do we cease to choose McDonald’s rather than Burger King. But, as the Divine Liturgy reminds the faithful, “put not your trust in princess and sons of man in whom there is no salvation.”
A Christian Perspective of Government
There is a vast difference between the glutton, who looks to food as an end unto itself, and the traveler on the path of repentance who eats to be nourished enough for the days work. Political involvement, preferring candidate A over candidate B, is not sinful anymore than eating or any other choice. We are in the world, even if not of the world, and it is silly to pretend to be aloof from it all. But when politics becomes an obsession, when ideologies become idols, when we veer too much the right or the left, the look out. We imperil our own salvation when we turn to the political philosophy and economic systems of men for our help rather than God.
The Kingdom of Heaven is not a rival to any earthly kingdom. No, it is on an entirely different plane from any worldly government and those saying otherwise are false teachers. Sure, yes, the political and religious leaders of the time saw Jesus as a threat to their power, they were confused about the Kingdom as much as the disciples. But never did Jesus show any interest in overthrowing them. Instead, he acknowledged the authority of those who “sit in the seat of Moses” (Matthew 23:21) and told his followers to do what they instructed.
Jesus and those who followed him never once questioned the legitimately applied authority of Rome. St. Paul, even despite enduring brutal mistreatment at the hands of Roman authorities, having every reason to be scornful of them, instructed thusly:
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. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
(Romans 13:1-7 NIV)
It cannot be spelled out any more clear than that. The authorities, in their capacity to punish evildoers, are divinely ordained, acting on behalf of God, and not to be resisted. To rebel against them, we are told, is to rebel against God.
Of course, this is where some smarmy Anabaptist ‘kingdom’ pusher will interject, to excuse their own topic and rebellious spirit, by saying “Well, America was started by a rebellion,” or “occupies stolen land” and go on to suggest this excuses or exempts them from applying St. Paul’s instruction. They, in their woeful arrogance, have appointed themselves to be the judge of nations rather than simply pray for their leaders and obey Jesus as they ought. And this is because they, like Judas before them, are duplicitous and truly more obsessed with worldly power than they let on. For them, the ‘kingdom’ is merely a front for political ambitions, it is so they can feel righteous in their contempt for what is ordained by God.
The idea of “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV) and the refusal of Jesus to even stand up to the miscarriage of justice, should put to rest this notion that there should be a rivalry between the Christians and civil authorities. If Jesus even refused to stand up to their abuses, how much more should we be willing to respect and submit to what is truly part of their God-ordained mission?
Both the church, and government, are ordained authorities. One is established for our own good as those traveling through this world and the other is a Kingdom that transcends everything in the world. I have no problem with those who do not vote because they do not believe worldly governance is the right place for a Christian. But it is incredible hypocrisy that those won’t so much as vote will turn the teachings of Jesus into a political message and use this in confrontation with civil authorities. Who are we to judge another man’s servants?
Instead of competition with God’s ordained authorities, snide remarks or violent protests, try this instead:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
(1 Timothy 2:1-4 NIV)
In conclusion, those so delusional that they can’t fathom God using imperfect men probably should not vote. In their arrogance and delusion of their own righteousness they would be incapable of making a sound decision. Again, I have absolutely no problem with anyone who chooses to abstain from political involvement. The further along we are in our faith the more we will trust the means of prayer and leave our worldly concerns behind. But, that said, I likewise do not stand in condemnation of those who, out of love for their own families and neighbors, appreciation for their nation, participate in the most peaceable manner possible.
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. (Revelation 12:1-2, 4-5a NIV)
Mary is described in splendid terms in the account above. She is wearing a crown with twelve stars symbolizing the tribes of Israel, clothed with divinity and standing above creation. As she gives birth the dragon stands ready to “devour her child the moment he was born,” an allusion to Herod who ordered male children to be killed after Jesus was born to prevent a potential challenge to his throne, yet she prevails. It takes a queen to give birth to a king and Mary is described in precisely those terms.
Growing up in a Protestant fundamentalist church the role of Mary was almost always dismissed or downplayed. While nobody in these churches would argue against the significance of Abraham, Elijah, King David, John the Baptist or the Apostle Paul, many do brush off the significance of Mary in the Biblical narrative and, despite claiming that Jesus is their king, would scoff at the idea that Mary should be regarded as Queen Mother. In this view, Mary is basically interchangeable with any other woman and nobody special or worthy of the veneration given to faithful men.
The disregard for the example of womanhood that Mary embodies is not without consequence. In fact, it is a disrespect that I would argue leads to male abuses, abuses that lead to female reactions and greater dysfunction. In other words, feminism is a response to traditional female roles being dismissed and downplayed in the same way that Mary’s role is disregarded. Many women feel that the only way they can be recognized is by thriving in what has historically been a male domain and it is no wonder that they do. Why pursue womanhood when only male roles are worth celebrating?
Mary, the answer to Eve…
One Biblical character Protestant fundamentalists have no problem talking about is Eve. They have no problem talking about how Eve was the one first deceived or quoting verses about male authority over women. I know many men who spend an awful lot of time discussing bad female characters, like Jezebel, or any woman who would dare challenge their authority, and continually attempting to blame women for their own failures.
For example, I recall a morbidly obese man who faulted his wife’s cooking for his condition and I know many more men who try to use female immodesty as a means to offload responsibility for their own lusts and abuses. And so it goes. These men are imposters rather than Christian leaders. They want to claim authority for themselves and yet, at every turn, blame women for their failures. They resemble Adam who blamed Eve more than Jesus who took up the cross despite being blameless.
To solve this age-old problem we should go back to the beginning and right after the fall of mankind:
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15 NIV)
This was what God told the serpent who deceived Eve. It is a prophecy about “the woman” and also specifically a woman. This woman would produce a child that would crush the head of this serpent and this is exactly what we read happened in the book of Revelation:
The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him. (Revelation 12: 9 NIV)
The woman with “enmity” towards the serpent triumphed over the dragon through her offspring and that woman is the answer to those still deceived and stuck with Eve. The parallels between Eve and Mary, the antidote, are too great to ignore and were well-understood by the faithful in the early church:
As Eve was seduced by the word of an angel and so fled from God after disobeying his word, Mary in her turn was given the good news by the word of an angel, and bore God in obedience to his word. As Eve was seduced into disobedience to God, so Mary was persuaded into obedience to God; thus the Virgin Mary became the advocate of the virgin Eve. (St Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies” [A.D. 175-185])
His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. (Galatians 4:23 NIV)
The comparison above is between Abraham’s two sons, one born by human effort to the slave woman and another by divine origin to his wife Sarah, but the greater context Paul speaks of is of our own divine sonship and salvation. The sons of Eve lives in bondage, they are subject to the law and perpetually trying to escape the condemnation of the law through their own efforts. But he writes of another son “born of a woman” who provides an opportunity for us to be an heir of God and a son of the free woman.
Jesus is understood to be the new Adam. Or the Adam who brought the “life-giving spirit” rather than death like his predecessor (1 Corinthians 5:45) and salvation from sin. And, his mother, in the same way, is understood to be the woman whose obedience overcame the curse of Eve’s disobedience and undoes the curse upon women. It is through the man Jesus, born of a woman, Mary, that we are saved. But it was not any woman, it was not a woman under the bondage of sin—it was a free woman.
“Behold your mother!”
There are those who use references to brothers and sisters of Jesus as proof that Mary, after giving birth to Jesus, conceived to Joseph and didn’t remain a virgin. This is another subtle way to belittle her and the significance of her role in the story of our salvation. It is also something routinely used by men to undermine the authority of the church. The perpetual virginity of Mary, for that reason, is important as a theological point and a misunderstanding of Scripture that is easily cleared up.
First of all, because it was not uncommon for older men to marry younger women in Biblical times, Ruth and Boaz for example, and it is widely accepted that there was an age differential between Mary and Joseph. It is quite possible, even probable, that Joseph was an older widower and had other children to another woman. So, in other words, the references to the “brothers” and “sisters” of Jesus could be step-brothers and step-sisters rather than other sons and daughters of Mary his mother.
Second, it is possible that we are misunderstanding the words used. Indeed, the same words translated as “brothers” and “sisters” could denote a close relative as Aramaic, the language being spoken, didn’t distinguish between brother or sister and a cousin. It seems similar to how Filipinos use the word “Tito” (literally uncle) and “Tita” (literally aunt) to also refer to a cousin or respected elder. So we may be dealing with a language translation issue.
Whatever the case, it is definitely not advisable to take our cues from those who were in doubt of Jesus, who identified him as “the carpenter’s son” and didn’t accept him as God’s son:
Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. (Matthew 13:55-57 NIV)
Note, the passage does not say that Mary is the mother of the other “brothers” and “sisters” mentioned.
If we should not be offended when Jesus claims to be God’s son rather than that of Joseph, then we should not be apt to resist the idea that his brothers and sisters could be from another woman and the real possibility Mary remained a virgin. This is the view of early church writers:
The Book [the Protoevangelium] of James [records] that the brethren of Jesus were sons of Joseph by a former wife, whom he married before Mary. Now those who say so wish to preserve the honor of Mary in virginity to the end, so that body of hers which was appointed to minister to the Word […] might not know intercourse with a man after the Holy Spirit came into her and the power from on high overshadowed her. And I think it in harmony with reason that Jesus was the firstfruit among men of the purity which consists in [perpetual] chastity, and Mary was among women. For it were not pious to ascribe to any other than to her the firstfruit of virginity. (Origen, “Commentary on Matthew 2:17” [A.D. 248]).
And the doubt of this answered emphatically by St Jerome:
[Helvidius] produces Tertullian as a witness [to his view] and quotes Victorinus, bishop of Petavium. Of Tertullian, I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But as regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proven from the gospel—that he [Victorinus] spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship, not by nature. [By discussing such things we] are […] following the tiny streams of opinion. Might I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against [the heretics] Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views and wrote volumes replete with wisdom. If you had ever read what they wrote, you would be a wiser man. (Jerome, Against Helvidius: The Perpetual Virginity of Mary 19 [A.D. 383]).
We believe that God was born of a virgin, because we read it. We do not believe that Mary was married after she brought forth her Son, because we do not read it. […] You [Helvidius] say that Mary did not remain a virgin. As for myself, I claim that Joseph himself was a virgin, through Mary, so that a virgin Son might be born of a virginal wedlock. (ibid., 21).
If that isn’t enough to clear up the issue, the emphasis that even Joseph became purified through Mary’s virginity (similar to what Paul says about believing spouse “sanctifying” their unbelieving partner and children in 1 Corinthians 7:14), then we should consider again what Jesus did on the cross:
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!” Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-29 NIV)
Jesus, in agony on the cross, soon to say “it is finished” and give up his spirit, and his concern is who would care for his mother. Not only does this highlight how important Mary is to Jesus, but it would also be completely unnecessary for Jesus to assign someone to care for his mother if she had other sons and daughters. What we do know is that Jesus had to assign someone to care for his mother, to a disciple, and that would be odd if she actually had many children.
But there’s a twist…
Mary, in the same way, we have become sons of Abraham through faith (Galatians 3:29) and similar to how Jesus became a son of Joseph through adoption, has also become our mother. If we are coheirs of Christ, sharing in his divinity through our adoption, then we are, likewise, are sons and daughters of Mary his mother. So, rejoice, our inheritance through Eve (sin and death) has been overcome through the Blessed Virgin and by her Son!
“From now on all generations will call me blessed…”
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:46-55 NIV)
It is sad that those words above do not carry much weight in some quarters who claim a ‘literal’ understanding of Scripture. I suppose they may think that Mary, a young woman, should not be taken seriously and her words are merely the product of unchecked female exuberance?
In that case, these doubters should look at a declaration made by Elizabeth, full of the Spirit, in the verses right before Mary’s exclamation:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:41-43 NIV)
If the witness of two women and the Spirit isn’t enough, what will be?
Mary is most certainly blessed among women. If we should believe anything else said in Luke, then we must accept this is the reality, that it is something spoken through Elizabeth by the Spirit, and should join the generations of the faithful who call Mary blessed.
Mary is the Ark of the New Covenant!
Mary is blessed because she, set apart by her parents, allowed herself to be a vessel. Mary is referred to as the “Ark of the New Covenant” and that is because of the direct parallels in Scripture made between her and the holiest of vessels in Israel…
Mary is overshadowed and filled:
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called b the Son of God. (Luke 1:35)
As the ark of the Lord (in the tabernacle) was overshadowed and filled:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. (Exodus 40:34,35 NIV)
David, a man after God’s own heart, revered the ark:
David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” (2 Samuel 6:9)
Likewise, righteous Elizabeth says the same thing about Mary:
But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? (Luke 1:43)
David, to the scorn of his wife, celebrated the ark of the Lord:
Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouts and the sound of trumpets. (2 Samuel 6:14,15)
Likewise, unborn John the Baptist, in defiance of those who do not honor the mother of our Lord, also leaped at the sound of Mary’s voice:
As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:44)
Finally, the ark of the Lord took a detour:
He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household. (2 Samuel 6:10,11 NIV)
And that parallels this:
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, […] Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. (Luke 1:39,56 NIV)
So, given these clear parallels, it is only right Mary is called the “Ark of the New Covenant” and Theotokis (“Bearer of God”) and to say otherwise is to be ignorant of Scripture.
And, yes, all those filled with the Spirit do, in a way, parallel Mary in this regard. Christians are told, by St Paul, that they are the “temple of the Holy Spirit” and to “glorify God in your body” by remaining free of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 19:18-20) and this is following the example of Mary in being a vessel. However, Mary literally carried our Lord and Savior in her womb, we are told she is blessed among women and for that she is worthy of our honor and veneration—in the same way as the Ark of the Covenant.
Mary, like that Ark, is also set apart as holy and not to be touched.
“Do whatever he tells you.”
Mary was also an example of motherhood. She did not keep her son for herself by refusing to let him go or holding him back and enabled him to fulfill his purpose instead.
Peterson says Mary is the archetype of a good mother for offering her son to the service of God and as a sacrifice to the world. That is what good mothers do, rather than hoard (or, heaven forbid, destroy) the blessings of their womanhood, they give their children for sake of the world.
Anyhow, let’s take a look at the events leading up to the first miracle attributed to Jesus in Scripture:
On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:1-5 NIV)
Some Protestant commentators take the inflection of the English translation (when Jesus says “woman, why do you involve me?” in response to Mary) as evidence that Jesus didn’t have any special regard for his mother. This is to suggest that Jesus would blatantly disregard the commandment to “honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:1–21, Deuteronomy 5:1–23) and go against his own words rebuking those who defied God’s command (Matthew 15:3-9) and basically make him a hypocrite.
This word “woman,” according to what I’ve read, is more to the effect of “madam” than the English translation suggests and is also the same word used to denote a man’s wife elsewhere in Scripture. There is no reason to suspect that Jesus would be disrespectful of his mother and those who suggest that this is the case should probably consider the actions that accompanied his words.
We know what Jesus did immediately thereafter. He, like a good son, does and honors his mother by doing what she requests of him. Mary, for her part, does what a good mother does, she prompts her son to action and encourages others to give her son the respect he is due. We should not forget that Mary, in the same way as God the Father (yet as a human mother), also willingly gave her only son.
More on sons and their mothers…
Mary, mother of the King?
When Bathsheba went to King Solomon to speak to him for Adonijah, the king stood up to meet her, bowed down to her and sat down on his throne. He had a throne brought for the king’s mother, and she sat down at his right hand. “I have one small request to make of you,” she said. “Do not refuse me.” The king replied, “Make it, my mother; I will not refuse you.” (1 Kings 2:19-20 NIV)
It is interesting how good mothers intercede and especially on behalf of their sons. We see how Bathsheba (treated with reverence by Solomon) brought a petition to him and his response. There are also many stories of faithful mothers who prayed, with tears, every day for their wayward sons and I do believe that God hears their prayers. We also see this in the story of a mother who made a request to Jesus on behalf of her sons:
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:20-21 NIV)
This account is told differently in Mark 10, where the sons of Zebedee, James, and John, to the indignation of the other disciples, make this request themselves rather than through their mother. I’m not sure how to reconcile the two accounts, but I do see the role of mothers as significant. Let’s not forget that it was Bathsheba who prompted King David to name her son, Solomon, as his successor:
Then Nathan asked Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, “Have you not heard that Adonijah, the son of Haggith, has become king, and our Lord David knows nothing about it? Now then, let me advise you how you can save your own life and the life of your son Solomon. Go in to King David and say to him, ‘My Lord the king, did you not swear to me your servant: “Surely Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he will sit on my throne”? Why then has Adonijah become king?’ (1 Kings 1:11-13 NIV)
Now, clearly the prophet Nathan could’ve gone directly to the king himself and made this request on behalf of Solomon. But it seems Nathan, as a man of God, knew a little about the persuasive power that a woman has over a man and therefore makes his request to Bathsheba instead. Good men, like good Kings who listen to their Queen Mother, listen to women, especially their wives and even more especially their own mothers.
Honor goes to the humble…
Going back to the question of who sits at the right and left hand of Jesus. We read the answer Jesus gave:
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” (Matthew 20:22-23 NIV)
Unlike worldly leaders who privilege themselves, in God’s kingdom “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16) or, in other words, those who have suffered most in this life will hold the highest places of honor in the kingdom.
My own thought is that there is one person who fits this description of suffering more than any other and that being the mother forced to watch her precious child, literally the perfect son, be falsely accused, brutally tortured, viciously ridiculed, and murdered in the most horrible method.
Can you imagine how Mary, a mother, would’ve felt as Jesus hung there dying?
I’ve heard that women, due to their giving birth, have a higher threshold for physical pain than men. Since pain is subjective, I’m not sure if that is true. But I do know, from personal experience, the sound of a mother’s wail upon the loss of her only and most beloved child. It was something that cut me to my soul.
It would be quite ironic, given that men argued for the honor to bestowed upon them, if the humble mother of our Lord and Savior was given that seat of honor beside her son. We can recall Peter boldly saying to Jesus, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you,” (Mark 14:31) and how the other disciples quickly agreed. But this male bravado quickly faded away as Jesus was taken away to be killed. It was Mary, not Peter, who remained beside Jesus until the end.
Can you think of anyone more worthy of sitting at the right hand of Jesus than his mother?
Anyhow, regardless of where Mary sits in the minds of some, she is the Queen Mother and worthy of our honor or Jesus is not King. Because if we deny this we are basically joining those who used “king of the Jews” as a mocking description. But, if Jesus is Lord, and the lineage to David coming through his mother, then we ought to show due respect to the queenship of his mother. And, given that Jesus listens to his mother and since we already do ask others to pray for is all the time, it doesn’t like a bad thing to follow the lead of Nathan.
Mary, the prayerful mother…
Had anyone a few years ago asked me about the importance of Mary I would’ve probably said she was a good woman and shrugged. I would not have understood why Orthodox Christians venerate her (with all the saints) and would say that all we need is Jesus.
However, I was ignorant. Of course, Jesus is the center of our faith, he is our Lord and Savior, we worship only the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But that doesn’t mean the other examples in Scripture (and in the history of the church) are worth nothing for us. No, their unique stories of faith are there for our benefit, to encourage us, and as examples that we can emulate.
Mary stands out as one of these faithful examples. Her contemplation, how she “treasured” things and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19,2:51), and her strength in remaining with her son, her willing response to the angel (“I am the Lord’s servant” Luke 1:38), the proper honor she is given by the faithful, provides a restored vision for womanhood.
Certainly, there are many good women. Many have even seen their children martyred for the sake of the Gospel. But Mary was the mother of our Lord and Savior, the vessel God chose for his son, and (like Eve) not just any woman. She should be honored, her true feminine strength should be praised, and it is through her womb that salvation came to the world.
In three prior blogs (on topics of law, legalism and church authority) I’ve tried to present the Biblical basis and lay the theological groundwork necessary to establish concepts I will introduce in this post. I wish to remind my readers once again that I do not speak in any official capacity, I am not ordained, and encourage y’all to investigate these matters for yourselves rather than just take my word for it.
There are several cases in Scripture of people asking what they must do to be saved. In Acts 2:37-39, when the crowd asks what they must do, Peter answers:
Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.
Later, in Acts 16:31-34, a Roman jailer asks: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
This is how Paul and Silas replied:
“Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.
We read the testimony of the apostle Paul, in Acts 22, where he describes his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. He describes a blinding light, being confronted by Jesus, and how he asked what he should do. He is told to continue on the road and meet a man named Ananias who restores his sight and then tells him: “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
And we also have this explanation of salvation by Peter:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Peter 3:18-21 NIV)
All of those passages answer the question of what a person must do. All of them mention water baptism as a necessary step in this process. This emphasis on baptism reflects the preaching of John the Baptist who tied the practice with true repentance. It also is what Jesus clearly taught:
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. (John 3:5 NIV)
This is likely the reason why baptism is a sacrament that, traditionally, in an emergency or circumstance where there is nobody else, can be administered by anyone. One can repent and believe in their mind, but baptism should follow—because that is what Jesus taught, it is what the early Church believed and to this very day is still the tradition of the Church.
So, we can all agree that baptism is a requirement for salvation, right?
This is one point where legalists might carve out exemptions, turn Scripture against Scripture, or otherwise downplay the necessity of baptism. But no amount of theological twisting can overturn the rule. Baptism is absolutely a requirement for salvation and to argue against that is to deny what is clearly recorded in Scripture. Jesus says that “no one can enter the kingdom” without being “born of water” and we must assume that is exactly what he meant.
The Thief On the Cross, Judas, and the Kingdom
Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant. For I will not speak of Thy Mysteries to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss. But like the thief will I confess Thee: remember me O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.
One of the starkest contrasts in Scripture is between the thief on the cross beside Jesus and Judas who betrayed Jesus. It wasn’t a comparison I had considered before hearing the Orthodox liturgy (in the quotes above) and yet is a parallel that is quite poetic and very significant.
On one side of the comparison, we have the man who did everything right from a legalistic standpoint. Judas had followed Jesus for years, from all appearances he had done everything required of a disciple and was even trusted enough to carry the common purse. But Judas, despite his outward devotion, seems to have been full of bitterness and ends up betraying Jesus with a kiss—before he took his own life. His name has become synonymous with betrayal and treason.
On the other side we have the account of two criminals crucified beside Jesus on the cross:
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43 NIV)
This man called “the thief” was a criminal who acknowledged that his punishment was just and defends Jesus against the mocker on the other cross. We have no reason whatsoever to believe he lived an upright or righteous life. There is no evidence of this man being baptized. He doesn’t ask Jesus into his heart nor does he recite a creed. He simply pleas, with his dying breaths and a little faith, “remember me” and Jesus, in response, tells him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Does this mean that we should stop baptizing people?
Does this mean that we can continue in sin that grace may abound?
No and no.
There is no excuse for sin and there is no exemption for baptism either. There is, however, an order or a hierarchical arrangement of priorities and at the top of it is something beyond mere religion. What matters most is God’s grace and having the faith to fully put our trust in Him as our salvation. This something the thief could do and that Judas could not. Judas, for all his outward displays of righteousness and despite doing everything that was required of a disciple, had faith in his own understanding rather than in Jesus.
There are many sincere folks today who try to reduce Christianity to a list of dos and don’ts. And, instead of an abundance of life or resembling Jesus, they are rigid, anxious, jealous, judgmental, unforgiving and too often a stumbling block to those young in the faith. They believe that they are receiving salvation as a trade for their own righteousness and careful obedience. They often end up like Judas, bitter and critical, and refuse to truly put their faith in Jesus.
No amount of ritual obedience or religion can save a person who has faith only in themselves. We should like the thief who knows they are doomed without God’s mercy and not Judas who was righteous by outward appearance and lacked faith. Being a lowly criminal with a repentant heart is eternally better than being a disciple who judges others by his own standards and betrays Jesus.
God’s Economy Is Different From Our Own
Those trying to earn God’s favor, like the Pharisee who boasted in prayer about his righteousness compared to another man, have a desperate need to justify themselves. And, like the Prodigal son’s older brother who was angry because of the grace shown to his openly rebellious younger sibling, many have an entitled attitude and believe that their obedience and works means they are owed. It is because they believe that God’s economy is merit-based like their own. They try to earn points by obeying the law and fail to comprehend their own woefully inadequate position before Almighty God.
Jesus, in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, contrasts God’s economy and our own:
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ “ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:1-16 NIV)
It is easy to understand why those who started early in the morning and worked all day might feel slighted at the end. They had spent their entire day sweating it out, trying to earn their wage, only for some to come during the day or even at the last hour and receive the same compensation. From a laborer’s perspective, it seemed unfair. Shouldn’t those who did more also get paid more for their efforts?
But the landowner had not hired them to judge such matters for themselves. It was the landowner’s money to spend as he wished, he was not obligated to hire anyone, he had gone out to find them, they had all agreed to the wage they were paid and were truly owed nothing more than what they had received. It was a fair wage when they were hired and that fairness did not change because of the landowner’s generosity to those hired later.
But what point was Jesus trying to make with this story?
It is interesting that this story comes right in the heels of the account of the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to be granted eternal life—which contains the same “the first shall be last” refrain. This man had kept the law from his youth. But when he asked what he lacked, this is how Jesus replied:
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21 NIV)
If you stopped reading there you might end up like Judas who used those words of Jesus as a means to criticize an extravagant act of worship and to hide his own corrupt self-centered motives. There are many today who read the words of Jesus legalistically, they see the story of the rich man then add one more item to their list of religious requirements, and entirely missing the point.
However, there’s more to what Jesus said. If you keep reading you will see how the disciples were “greatly astonished” and ask Jesus “who then can be saved?” They, even as those who had already left everything behind to follow Jesus, understood the severity of what Jesus told the inquiring rich man. If keeping the law wasn’t enough, what then?
How Jesus answers is clear: “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.“ (Matthew 19:26 NIV)
That is the answer to the rich man’s question.
It is impossible.
That is also what the parable of the laborers is about. Those who had started early in the day represent those relying on their own efforts and are completely lacking appreciation for the one who made their earning anything possible. They were upset that the landowner was paying those who came later the same as them because they felt their labor had been devalued and yet the only value their labor had was what the landowner was willing to pay them. They didn’t create the circumstances of their own employment, how could they possibly be in any position to judge what was fair compensation for someone else?
The point Jesus is making is only God can save us. If you believe your works can save you, even if you sell all and give to the poor, you are no better than that rich man. The rich man had kept the law and yet lacked true faith in Jesus. He had faith in himself as a good religious person, he thought he could do something to save himself, and yet salvation does not come from our own effort.
The reason why it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom is that they are able to depend on their own effort and thus are adequate without faith in their own minds. It was that self-sufficiency, the idea that a human can earn their way into eternal life, that Jesus confronts in the rich man. A person relying on themselves does not understand that without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6) or that their salvation depends fully on God’s choice and not their own:
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. (John 15:16 NIV)
Akribeia: We Cannot Please God Through Perfection on Our Own Terms
There are many trying to please God with their own righteousness. That is to assume that God will somehow want or need us if we are good enough and that is completely absurd. It is a path to misery or arrogance. If you try to win God’s favor through your works and have any grasp of how your own best efforts compare to absolute perfection, you will be miserable. And, if you can delude yourself into believing that you are able to live to a perfect divine standard you are an insufferable moron.
Our salvation is not based on our own effort and cannot be. The rich man’s perfect obedience to the law of Moses couldn’t please God. And those trying to save themselves by turning the words of Jesus into a new law will likewise fail. Being a Christian requires obedience to a standard that goes well beyond the law of Moses and even beyond a legalistic interpretation of Jesus. It requires absolute and impossible perfection.
This is where the word “Akribeia” comes in. It is a Greek word (ἀκρίβεια) that means exactness or precision and refers to strict adherence to the law in Christian usage. We are all judged according to Akribeia and found lacking in comparison to this absolutely perfect standard. Even if you have followed the words of Jesus perfectly as a law you will still have fallen infinity short of God’s glory and are no better than the rich man or Judas.
No amount of obedience to the law, outside of God’s grace, can save anyone. Salvation is not something we receive in trade for our works. Our perfection doesn’t come from our works. We can’t even know what perfection is at God’s level, let alone live it out, and even if we could, that would still not entitle us to anything and would still leave us condemned to death with no hope of eternal life.
This is our salvation:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8-10 NIV)
Jesus is what gives us currency in God’s economy and not our own righteousness. A person who even begins to comprehend how their own righteousness stacks up compared to absolute perfection will know that even their best efforts to follow the law will fall infinitely short. The very idea of pleasing God through our own works of righteousness is an insult and is basically to try to put ourselves on the same level as Almighty God.
To please God you need to be on an equal basis with God and that is not something we as a created being can do for ourselves. Our own righteousness is nothing but a filthy rag by comparison to the glory of God. That is why we must be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus (Romans 13:14, Galatians 3:27) and are made worthy through his work rather than our own.
Legalism doesn’t comprehend Akribeia. Legalists believe they can win God’s favor and therefore are always trying to prove their righteousness compared to others. They seem to believe that being perfect is like outrunning a bear in that you only need to be faster or better than the guy beside them. That is why they are critical rather than helpful, judgmental rather than merciful, and self-righteous rather than humble. They are like that unrepentant thief on the other cross who continued to mock and ridicule despite being condemned.
However, when you serve a God who is impossible to please by your own efforts you will not be jealous or upset about the grace that is shown to others. Instead, you will come beside the weak, forgive their sins as you have been forgiven, and help them to bear their burdens rather than pile more on. A humble person understands “there but for the grace of God go I” and realizes that even by their best efforts they would only be condemned by the perfect law of God. It is then, and only then, after we have exhausted our own riches and righteousness, that we can be saved.
Oikonomia: The Economy Of Jesus and the Church
The Old Testament law is severe by our modern standards and many believe that Jesus relaxed these standards. But that is incorrect. The law of Moses only addressed outward behavior, but Jesus emphasized that even our thoughts could make us guilty of sin. The reality is that Jesus added to the severity of the standard. In the Sermon on the Mount, he taught that lust was comparable to the sin of adultery and equates hatefulness to murder. By that standard, we are all condemned to die.
Yet, while Jesus is making things literally impossible for the rich man and other good religious people, simultaneously he’s allowing his disciples to break the written law:
One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:23-28 NIV)
Didn’t Moses, by command of God, have a man executed for merely picking up sticks on the Sabbath?
Note Jesus did not take the Pharisees to task for their interpretation of the law. But he does give times when the law was set aside and then goes on to explain something that is key—he turns attention from the letter of the Sabbath law to the spirit or reason behind it. He tells these religious experts that the Sabbath was created for the man rather than man for the Sabbath. In other words, the Sabbath law was instituted for the good of men and that reason for the law triumphed over the strict legalistic application.
Jesus can do that. He can for the same reason he could heal the blind, walk on water or turn water into wine. The one who created all things is not subject to anything and that includes the moral laws he created. Furthermore, the purpose and or intent of the law always supersedes the letter and therefore the one who knows the reason behind the law perfectly is free from the letter. And, while the written law is essentially the God of the legalist, we (together, as the Church) who are clothed in Jesus are given the same authority over the law and this authority is demonstrated in the early Church.
Jesus, in giving his authority to bind and loose, through the promise of the Holy Spirit, made it possible for the Church to rule on circumcision in a way that went directly against what the written law taught. Physical circumcision is still an explicit requirement according to the book of Leviticus, yet physical circumcision was dismissed by the apostle Paul. That loosing from the law led to conflict in the early church. Some were teaching that circumcision was still necessary for new converts while others were saying that this Scriptural requirement could be ignored. So the Church held a council in Jerusalem (Acts 15) and decided to waive the requirement.
We, as individuals, can’t pick or choose for ourselves what Biblical requirements apply to us. However, the Church (collectively) has the same authority as Jesus on matters of the law and can show the same grace (in other areas of law) that was argued in Jerusalem as far as circumcision. The Church can also expel an unrepentant evildoer as Paul demanded to be done in a letter to the Corinthians. The word for this is Oikonomia (οἰκονομία or “economia”) and literally means “household management” and is basically the same concept that allows anyone to be saved. If the written law cannot be overruled by God’s economy, we would all be condemned to death—who then could possibly be saved?
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:1-6)
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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)
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.
The latest salvo in the fight is over the current segregation of public restrooms. The proponents of change and traditionalists battle it out for control on social media and in the public arena.
Both argue the moral inferiority of the other side. Both claim to be defending the security of their loved ones. Both threaten to take punitive measures against those who do not comply with their demands.
It is a fight where nobody seems to win and everyone comes out a loser. But what if this two sided debate is actually false dichotomy? Could there be a third option solution where all could win?
Perhaps, if all sides of this struggle for control could put down their rhetorical and political weapons for a moment, there is a better example to follow?
I believe there is a better ‘third’ way that is neither dogmatically religious nor demandingly progressive. I believe there is an alternative where all can win and none lose.
However, before I can get to the solution I need to discuss where the other options fall short and to do this I have defined a few categories.
(Please understand in advance that there is overlap between my categories and many people may not fall neatly into one or another.)
1) Liberal ‘progressive’ or secular values are marketed as love, tolerance, inclusion and open-mindedness. The promise is a more fair or high-minded society, but the result is often as petty and even more divisive than what it seeks to replace. It is morally incoherent, in one breath claiming to be non-judgmental and making more allowance for free expression, but in the next moment enforcing strict dogmas of politically correct language and behavior.
Those who do not comply with the moral edicts of progressives should be prepare to be shamed, belittled and bullied into silence. Those who fall away, question or challenge the new orthodoxy will be labeled as a bigot, racist, homophobe, misogynist, hateful or insensitive. The shouts of “don’t judge me” are often only a tool to drown out dissent and not a consistently applied principle. These bleeding hearts are out for blood as much as those they accuse of lacking understanding or compassion.
2) Conservative ‘nationalistic’ or established values are the present cultural norms and current notions of common sense. This is the flag waving proud patriotic perspective held by those who believe their own values (football, freedom and frequent beer consumption) represent the greatness of the American past, present and future. These are the biggest defenders of the status quo, their status quo, and never minding that their current cherished culture was formed yesterday.
These are the people who complain about outsourced jobs while simultaneously shopping at Walmart and criticizing as lazy those who aren’t as successful as them. This is the moral majority of the moment that sees their own privileges and preferences as fundamental rights without respect or consideration of those who see differently. They have also abandoned the traditional values of their parents and grandparents yet still condemn those who go a step further than them.
In their eyes America was almost always right. Historic injustice is white washed with a brush of romanticism. Slavery, racial inequality, segregation of schools, massacres and other abuses against native people are forgotten. The sins of our modern imperialistic aggression and global hegemony are downplayed. “It’s ‘merica, baby, land of the free, home of the brave!”
3) Religious ‘fundamentalist’ or traditional values are those out of the mainstream who claim to represent God’s will and freely judge all people—especially those outside of their own sub-cultural group. These self-proclaimed sanctimonious gatekeepers to the realm of moral truth annoy everyone who doesn’t share their own interpretations. People call them the “Bible-thumpers” and they come with a “holier then thou” attitude that is a major turn off to those outside their own cult.
They pose as authorities on spiritual matters. However, their knowledge doen’t seem to know much beyond their proof-texting and dogmas. They use “the Bible says” and selectively quote the Old Testament when it suits their own agenda. But gloss over and don’t deal honestly with other culturally inconvenient Biblical realities like captured brides, naked prophets and daughters sacrificed in God’s name.
They make fun of the sensitivity of the progressives and then cry “persecution” when they themselves are opposed. They feel entitled to a special privileged position in society as God’s favorites. They use grace as a cover for their own sins without extending the same to those who sin differently or disagree.
4) Faithful ‘Spirit And In Truth’ followers are those who pick up the cross and live to be a consistent example of self-sacrificial love. These are those who seek to be the literal embodiment of Jesus Christ. This means they follow his commandments to love their neighbors as themselves, to do unto others as they would have them do for us and, while seeking to purify themselves of evil, leave judgment outside to God.
It is a way that doesn’t seek power to impose on others and instead is committed to self-sacrificial love and leadership by example. It is the beautiful alternative to the endless cycles of reaction, retaliation and repeat again. It forgives and frees others of their sin debt to us. It builds a new identity in Jesus and is a truth that is lived more than preached.
How are Christian values different from progressive values?
There are some similarities. Jesus broke from the established religious and cultural standard. He identified with the societal outcasts and was full of compassion for hurting people.
But Jesus did not turn to more law or greater regulation of offending behavior as the solution. He did not urge a political fight or demand his voice be heard by government authorities. He did not lead massive protests against the privileged and powerful. Instead Jesus showed the example to follow, he offered his own life as atonement for the sins of others and forgave offenses.
How are Christian values different from ‘traditional’ American values?
There are many who characterize America as a ‘Christian’ nation and really do a disservice to the truth in this. America does have some ‘Christian’ values reflected in its history and did certainly provide a haven of religious freedom.
However, this conveniently glosses over the fact that founding fathers were not faithful. Thomas Jefferson, for example, cut out portions of the Bible he found disagreeable. Ben Franklin lived immorally according to a Christian standard.
The individualism, materialism and entitlement mentality of modern America is not in the least bit reflective of the teachings of Jesus.
How are Christian values different from religious and Biblical fundamentalist values?
Oftentimes it seems those who are closest to the truth who are the furthest away. Or, at least, this was the case with those who inherited the Scripture in Jesus day and thought of themselves as experts in morality. But human efforts, even the most diligent of human efforts, cannot bring anyone a step closer to the truth.
The truth, as found in Jesus, is not an accumulation of knowledge and careful application that leads to moral superiority. No, the way of Jesus is acknowledgement of our inability—it is humble, repentant and is fully dependent on the grace of God.
Putting down Peter’s sword…
We could have everyone forced to use the ‘right’ restroom without accomplishing anything more than Peter’s sword:
“Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?'” (John 18:10-11)
Peter thought he was defending the truth and mission of Jesus, but actually stood in the way of God’s plan. Peter, who was rebuked on several occasions for his lack of understanding and overzealousness, treated the servant as sword practice.
By contrast, the John’s account treats the man Peter wounded as a unique individual with a name: Malchus. And, in a parallel account (Luke 22:51) Jesus demonstrates a different way, he heals the ear of Malchus—a man sent to bring him to his death—and showed the true Christian value.
Peter was fighting a losing battle. He had his own vision different from that of Jesus. He thought he was defending truth when in reality he was a part of the problem. He thought his act was one of total commitment to the cause when it was in fact the opposite.
Peter’s act is perfect a metaphor of what happens when those of us who claim faith in Jesus go out militantly defending our own religious values with political force—we cut off ears.
And picking up the cross to follow Jesus…
“From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’ Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.'” (Matthew 16:21-23)
Here Peter was completely willing to fight for the kingdom of God, but for his enthusiasm is called small minded, a stumbling block and mouthpiece for Satan.
Can you imagine how Peter felt?
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?'” (Matthew 16:24-26)
This was not what Peter or the other disciples had in mind. They pictured themselves as co-rulers of a worldly kingdom and had been arguing things like who would sit on the right hand of Jesus on his earthly throne when they finally defeated Rome.
But Jesus paints a picture entirely different. He’s predicting his death, a painful and humiliating death on a Roman cross, while urging them to follow the same path of self-sacrificial love. He was trying to explain a reality bigger than their worldly political visions and values.
What are Christian values?
Jesus, after being baptized, after receiving the Spirit’s anointing and being tempted in the wilderness, announced the start of his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
That is where we start. That is Christian values in a nutshell.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already…” (John 3:17-18)
That’s the good news. Jesus didn’t come to condemn anyone, but to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, forgive impossible debts, reconcile relationships with God and bring freedom to those condemned to death. It was a message of restoration and hope, not condemnation.
Christian values begin and end in living out the example of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not a progressive, not a defender of cultural status quo nor a religious fundamentalist, his values were higher and spiritual. He was not seeking legal power or political advantage so he could impose on others, that wasn’t his fight.
“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.'” (John 18:36)
Having Christian values means one shares the same priorities as Jesus. It means talking up the cross of self-sacrificial love and showing the way of grace. Jesus was not a cultural warrior seeking to impose values by force of law or a sword, instead he is an advocate for those lost in sin.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter what restroom your neighbor uses, that is an argument where both sides lose and a distraction. What matters is how our own attitudes and actions reflect those of Jesus Christ.
We must put our rhetorical swords down. We must love our (political) enemies and heal rather than cut off ears.
In America it is easy to take our advantages for granted. We have worked hard, we have invested our abilities and taken advantage of the opportunity to build our dreams. Therefore, it may seem, the fruits of our labor are an entitlement and not a gift, right?
Well, yes and no…
If we had stayed in bed all day waiting for prosperity to happen we would likely be impoverished and therefore our will to get out of bed is a big part of our success. However, was it by your own will that you were born with two good legs and are even able to contemplate getting out of bed?
If we are entitled to what we produce by will, but did not produce our legs by will, then who or what do we credit for what our legs helped us produce? I suppose we could start by thanking our parents, we could be grateful to them for the transmittal of the genetic material that produced our legs and giving them credit for our success.
Then the fact you are able to read this, we can thank are parents and teachers who taught us language. But, even if they seem older than the hills, they didn’t invent language and nor did the generation before them. So can we take credit for the ideas we gained through written or spoken language?
Our lives are inexorably intertwined and interconnected like the very internet on which you read this. The inventors mostly unknown, the contributions of many virtually forgotten and the whole maintained by a nameless mass of humanity, yet we do benefit or we would not use it.
So who or what deserves credit for our success?
We prosper to the extent that we do by ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and our own efforts amplified by these gifts providence has bestowed upon us. We cannot take for granted the privilege of a stable economic system and opportunities that even a grade school education provided for us.
If you travel to Haiti the contrast is clear. In a place where government is especially corrupt and available resources few, even the most industrious person will have a difficult time getting ahead. Oftentimes their best chance is by escaping to a better environment, yet that is not an option for all and some are stuck doing what they can to earn a meager wage.
Our success is a result of both collective and individual efforts. Therefore, we all together (personally and all contributors to our lives big or small) deserve all, partial and no credit. As a web of intersecting circular chains of causality of shared responsibility, deciding who actually deserves credit is actually a true paradox. This paradox of our own will within determinism is something I chalk up to Providence.
We are created by the dust of stars…
In nature brutal violence and exploitation is normal. A gazelle in Africa does not consider the rights of the living plants it consumes to be sacred nor does a lion that takes down a gazelle for its’ meat seem to agonize about the decision. I doubt many would consider incarceration of a lions that killed a gazelle a moral necessity.
The recorded history of thousands of years of human history show a similar disregard for the life of those in the tribe across the river. The idea of conquest or taking what you could in raids (that including enslaving members of the other tribe to labor or be concubines) was very common behavior and only very recently has become widely regarded as a morally repugnant thing. It was kill or be killed.
From a logical, reasonable and collectively minded standpoint survival of the fittest is an obvious choice. With the advent of modern science the idea that imbecile parents produce imbecile children, concerns about overpopulation and idea of gene selection became a basis for eugenics. So from whence doth this ethic of protecting the weak or nonproductive person come from?
I think it is empathy. The idea, contained in the proverb “there but for the grace of God go I” and a thought that we are fortunate for what we have been given, is that we should give to those with less because we would want to be helped. It may be against nature and impractical thinking, but it is evidence that we can think beyond a materialistic perspective. We see each other as spiritual beings with value just for our own existing.
I believe it is spiritual progress, awakening to more full awareness and transcending nature itself that drives our generosity. We recognize our own success is not a simple matter of our own individual responsibility, choice and effort. We realize we are not a product of any one person, institution or entity in this universe. We are created from star dust, we suddenly have become awake to a reality that we somehow know is unfair and unbroken.
So where does this leave us and where do we go from there?
I turn to God. I believe to acknowledge God is to humbly admit we cannot take credit for creating ourselves, that we cannot find answers for our existing in ourselves alone and we want to live out an ideal beyond ourselves.
Jesus prayed: “Thy kingdom co me on earth as it is in heaven,” which is literally asking for heaven on earth, and ultimately what faith is supposed to be about. With this my prayer, I cannot be content to hoard what gifts I have been given for myself only, my family only or my own people only. If I pray for heaven, I must be willing to create heaven and by that I must be willing to sacrifice myself to see this reality in my own life.
Love for God in the Christian Bible is always defined as giving of our abundance to those in need and commitment to self-sacrificial living. It is a message to each of us personally to do our part in bringing the ‘good news’ to the world of God’s love for humanity. It can be misconstrued as religion, as a guilt trip, as a means to judge others, and a tool of oppression, but the true calling of Jesus is for us to give what we have to give. Rich or poor, male or female, American or other, we all have something to give other and, in our giving to each other, giving to God.
God has given us the ability to create a better world and many squander the opportunity by their immorality, their selfishness, greed, envy, etc. But faith is acting despite what others do, faith is the only way we will fearlessly lead in bringing heaven to earth and faith is what is required of us. It is our job, as people of faith, to be the healing hands, the feet ready to carry a load for those struggling and the loving voice. With faith we can be the hands, feet and voice of God.
I am not talking about strictly charity either. In fact, I think most of our giving is by our careers, our talents and time. And, I will go further to say that there is nothing bad about profiting from your efforts, receiving without guilt and enjoying life. However, I would caution against an entitled attitude that fails to recognize all you have been given that amplifies your own willing effort. The investments of the blood, sweat and tears of many is what has made the American lifestyle possible.
“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” (Luke 12:48b)
Those who think their security, prosperity and confidence is something they earned—rather than a gift from God—have no need to help those who are without and assume those without have done something to deserve being without. However, those who know their affirmation and acceptance is only by the grace of God, who understand the very opportunities they have were by divine providence, they will give to those in need with a humble heart. An ungiving person is an ungrateful person.
So, why do we give gifts on Christmas?
We give because, the Christ child, Jesus was given as a gift by God and we are grateful. To those of Christian faith, Jesus is the living symbol of God’s ideal, his life the ultimate example and his laying down of his own life so we could know how to live the ultimate hope of humanity. Our giving on the holiday is symbolic of the gift of the grace of God.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
To give as much as we have been given is our expression of fullness of gratitude and that is our reasonable service to God. If everyone had will to give their all then nobody would be without and in need. Be a friend to all people of all nations, give your all and bring heaven to earth for someone this holiday besides you or your own kin.