There was an incident, years ago, that pretty much perfectly encapsulates the difference between rules-based religion and Christian love. I was in a wedding party, the reception had started and then, abruptly, the parents of the groom got up and left. As it would turn out what had caused them to leave in a huff was sparkling grape juice.
No, despite their being part of a teetotaling sect, the problem was not that they thought it was alcohol in the bottles. They knew it was only grape juice as it had been cleared ahead of time to prevent issues. So what was the problem? The servers didn’t get the memo, they poured directly from the bottles, which looked like wine bottles, and had committed a ‘sin’ of creating the *appearance* of evil:
Prove all things; hold fast that which is good. Abstain from all appearance of evil.
(1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 KJV)
Of course, the absurdity of those who claim to follow after Jesus whose first miracle was to turn water into “good wine” at a wedding in Cana being completely opposed to drinking is bad enough. But for them to go even further and get hot around the collar over grape juice because of the container it was poured out of is astounding. Ultimately they were more worried about what people thought than they did sharing the joy of their son and new daughter-in-law.
I’m not sure if there has been any regret and repentance since. This post is not about this couple or a judgment of their salvation. I think they made peace with their son over this years ago. But it is a prime example of being more focused on what others think, or remaining within the rules of a religion, than showing love.
Even if drinking alcohol were truly forbidden in Scripture, which it is not, there was no alcohol involved at this reception. The real concern was how it appeared to their peers. But the worst part is that this isn’t at all what 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 is talking about. Other translations have it saying “reject every kind of evil” and thus is not about how things look. So these parents were in the wrong on multiple levels and, for all I know, may still feel completely righteous about it.
False religion is all about maintaining outward appearances and at the expense of the command of Christ to love. It relies on rules that stem from a misunderstanding of Scripture or ignorance. It is an application that is always void of the spirit of the law even when they are supported by the letter. It is the very same thing Jesus encountered with those who pridefully clung to their own ‘Biblical’ tradition and were offended by Him.
But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.
(1 Timothy 5 KJV)
I had to think about that verse when reading an article about terrible dating advice given out by an Evangelical superstar shared by a friend. The article itself may be a bit unfair, in that we can rip quotes from a book and make almost any point we want. But I do believe that it raises an important point. A man who does not provide for their own family (and wife) is worse than an unbeliever.
There are so many highly motivated religious men that should never be married. As cited in the article, St Paul gave this advice:
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided.
(1 Corinthians 7:32-34 NIV)
In Orthodoxy, a priest must be married prior to ordination or remain single. Bishops are unmarried. This, I believe, is to help prevent conflicts of interest and so they remain ministry focused. Of course, if someone is so completely ‘sold out for Christ’ then they should not marry at all. And yet there are some who seem to want both the pleasure of marriage and also credit for their ‘missionary’ devotion. In other words, they neglect their responsibilities at home because they must be seeking their own personal vision. They want to have their cake and eat it too. Someone is getting shortchanged:
He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)
(1 Timothy 3:4-5 NIV)
Red flags should go up when a church leader’s children do not respect their authority or leadership. It reminds me of the pastor that I knew, all of his children seem to be sexual addicts at a young age, they were totally wild, and most not in the church anymore. But, when this man was approached about stepping down or even taking a sabbatical, he would always find justification for not doing what Scripture clearly instructs. He reasoned that his leaving the pulpit would mean Satan win, and yet I’ll have you know that Satan won because he refused to repent or be humbled.
No, that is not to say a parent is completely responsible for the choices of their children either. However, there is influence there. And, if his example wasn’t working at home, why would he be so sure that it was beneficial to the church? He should have obeyed the word of God, that he would preach of so vigorously, and focused on the salvation of himself and his own children.
Being Truly Devoted To God
For those married being truly devoted to God means caring for those entrusted to us. The King James translation of 1 Timothy 5 may be use “he” and yet other translations do not. When men and women are too focused on career or climbing the social hierarchy, even if it appears righteous, they are betraying Christ. Even to neglect care of our elderly parents is in opposition to the word of God:
Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ a and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.
(Matthew 15:1-5 NIV)
This rebuke reminds me of a man that was always so devoted to beautifying the parish. An Orthodox of Orthodox, by appearances, and yet had emotionally and otherwise neglected his home. In fact, he had once bought a Christmas tree for the church and, meanwhile, left his wife fending for herself to decorate their home. I know this may seem insignificant. Still, it reflected some seriously screwed up priorities and, while his hidden infidelity was a disappointment, it was also not a big surprise. A righteous man should, first and foremost, be the priest of his own home.
So, in conclusion, devotion to the cause of Christ that results in a man who does not devote himself first to the needs of his own family is false devotion. It is the same spirit of the Pharisees (passage above) who would set aside care for their elderly parents and use it for a visible religious purpose. They would claim these resources were ‘devoted to God’ and yet God had told them to honor their parents first and foremost. In the end they were only virtue signaling and deceiving themselves, but Jesus was not fooled.
What is the highest form of a loving relationship? Many would probably say marriage. Marriage is the recognition of two committing to oneness, involves physical intimacy, and is supposed to last “till death do us part.” What could be more wonderful than romantic love?
But, truth be told, people get into romantic relationships for some very biological reasons. As in pheromones and sexual attraction play a large role. It is why Mennonites marry young, they burn for sexual gratification, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, while this can develop into something deeper, it does not always and marriage can very quality become an unwanted obligation. Divorce rates would be much lower if people married for deeper reasons than merely getting something for themselves.
And that is why marriage and romance is not the ultimate expression of love. Admitted or not, it usually centers on sexual appetites, this special person may become your best friend and yet that does not negate the start. It began with physical attraction and is tied up in our reproductive instincts. So what is more wonderful?
The Love of David and Jonathan
I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.
(2 Samuel 1:26 NIV)
This lament of David, in the quote above, the phrase “more wonderful than that of a woman” in particular, is supposed to stand out. It is a comparison for sake of showing how special and significant this relationship was to David.
But what made it so wonderful?
David, the Biblical character known for his fight with a Philistine giant among other things, had been secretly picked and annointed to be the next king of Israel. King Saul, despite his unusually tall stature, was a cowardly man and poor leader who blamed the people for his own incompetence. He was jealous and identified David as a rival for the throne.
But Jonathan, Saul’s son, who potentially had more to lose than his father immediately showed fondness towards the newly arrived giant slayer:
After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. From that day Saul kept David with him and did not let him return home to his family. And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.
(1 Samuel 18:1-4 NIV)
They were “one in spirit” and made a covenant to express their love. Which became more important as David’s popularity, as a heroic military leader, grew:
When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres. As they danced, they sang:
“Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.”
Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?”
And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David.The next day an evil a spirit from God came forcefully on Saul. He was prophesying in his house, while David was playing the lyre, as he usually did. Saul had a spear in his hand 11and he hurled it, saying to himself, “I’ll pin David to the wall.” But David eluded him twice.
(1 Samuel 18:6-11 NIV)
King Saul was, quite evidently, a very insecure man and couldn’t stand being shown up. Despite David being loyal, rage would get the better of Saul, as in the account above, and this would become a theme.
But Jonathan warned David and stood up to his father on behalf of his friend:
Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan had taken a great liking to David and warned him, “My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you. Be on your guard tomorrow morning; go into hiding and stay there. I will go out and stand with my father in the field where you are. I’ll speak to him about you and will tell you what I find out.”
Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, “Let not the king do wrong to his servant David; he has not wronged you, and what he has done has benefited you greatly. He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistine. The Lord won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad. Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?
(1 Samuel 19:1-5 NIV)
Jonathan, unlike his spiritually corrupt father, Saul, recognized that David had done no wrong and had actually secured their power. He put his neck out for David by standing up to his moody and unpredictable father. He had as much reason to be threatened by the rise of David, he could have simply kept his mouth shut to save his own skin, but instead he risked being the next to have a spear chucked at him defended his spiritual brother.
What Made This Love More Wonderful?
Some modern commentators try to pervert and sexualize the love between David and Jonathan. To them any intimate relationship must revolve around gratification of physical desires. But there is nothing in the text that suggests this was the case.
The fundamentalist religious types also dismiss love and intimacy that does not revolve around romance. They may not try to redefine the relationship of these two characters, but it is also an anomaly and mystery to them. Where I came from, there was no true brotherly or sisterly relationship, it was expected that people find their intimate connection in biological family or marriage.
David and Jonathan had a spiritual connection. It was a love that wasn’t self-centered. Jonathan was loyal, he eventually died beside his father in battle. Likewise, David had solid character, he absolutely refused to kill king Saul, the Lord’s annointed, despite being unjustly hunted and having to run for his life. Their love was more wonderful because it defied expectations, it went beyond the typical and was deeper connection.
My parents, like my grandparents have remained faithfully devoted to one person their entire lives. This was not always easy, people grow and change, there were failures and financial hardships along the way, and those initial feelings of love faded long away ago. And yet, through these trials of life and tribulations, there has been a stronger bond of love that emerged that is far more profound.
My own life experience has been different from that of my father and grandfather, both whom married in their early twenties and never looked back. They remained fully one woman men. And it doesn’t even seem as if the serious possibility of another woman has ever crossed their minds. That is what I had wanted. Unfortunately, life had different plans for me, I have both imagined myself with many women and have had none. I’m a virgin, having never been married, but have also had my thoughts of liberation from this system that has disadvantaged me.
Call it egalitarian or call it egotistical, but there has also been this alternative of being intimate with multiple women does have some appeal. For me, outside looking in, it could feel a bit unfair that some men could hoard for themselves what some of us could not have at all. So wouldn’t it be better to erase this patriarchal structure entirely and make manifest that heavenly ideal of Matthew 22:30, when we “will neither marry nor be given in marriage” and all are one?
It is no big surprise that sexual liberation is a feature of many ‘Christian’ reformation attempts, including a more radical faction of the early Anabaptist movement in Münster, where they indeed shared more things in common than mere material possessions in their rejection of stuffy tradition. And such things, polygamy and sexual sexual orgies, have been a regular feature of various contemporary cults as well. For whatever reason it does feel right, in theory, but in reality is a self-serving disaster.
From ‘Free Love’ To Hook-up Culture
The 1960s and 70s were supposed to introduce this wonderful new age, free from the bonds of organized religion and stifling tradition. The communal living, the flower children, Woodstock, it all seemed so wonderful in that generation. But, besides music, it has left very little in terms of true positive legacy and ended up an ideal as naïve as the 1950s culture it was supposed to replace. The old hippies are a sort of comical absurdity anymore.
The only actually lasting legacy of that era is the American cultural institution of marriage becoming a mockery of the relationship that my parents and grandparents maintained throughout their decades. Fewer young people are even bothering to say vows as they’ve basically become meaningless in this age governed by immediate feelings and shunning of any type of binding commitment. Many today have never experienced the stability that I have had with two parents who didn’t quit on each other when times got tough.
Worse many in the current generation have gone a step further and pretty much entirely given up on love. They go to Tinder looking for a hook-up, or the whole “Netflix and chill” short-term sexual liaison, which makes very little attempt to treat physical intimacy as something special. It is crass, it is completely centered on the body and cares nothing about the soul. The young and beautiful can trade partners as casually as deciding what fast-food to order in.
Most young people today, even if they do not hook-up per se, think nothing about serial monogamy or living with multiple sex partners over their lifetimes. I’ll hear things like, “how can anyone really know what they want in their early twenties?” It is simply an expectation now that relationships are transitory and not meant to last. Although, for some reason, most do seem to cling to exclusive rights or at least so far as they themselves can’t find anything better.
The Harsh Realities of the Sexual Economy
In the religious subculture that formed me there was always this idea of “meant to be” that accompanied romantic relationship that ended in marriage. Divorce was not an option. The relationship of a man and woman was spiritual. We would barely talk about sexual attraction as a factor in this decision making process. We were told that our being pure and being the right one would bring about success.
This denial of the sexual motivation is what would later lead to my disillusionment when I discovered things truly weren’t as they were being framed. The reason I had been overlooked did not have to do with my character, the impossibly (before I had expressed any interest in her) had told me I would make a “great husband” and wasn’t the first to say so either, but for some reason they weren’t lining up for the opportunity to experience my greatness first-hand.
The reality is that marriage is not only about the completely virtuous pre-destined love of two people as advertised. It is also about climbing the social ladder, gaining access to the resources that another person has, and basically being able to routinely do the nasty with the hottest piece of Mennonite asset available. Yes, it is sexual. Yes, there’s a reason why my Mennonite marriageability rating blog struck a chord with so many in my former religious culture.
Marriage is a type of economic transaction, there is a sexual economy, and some simply bring more to the table in terms of excitement than others. There areas where some of us got the short end of the stick and could not compete. This was not spoken about honestly, for many years it felt like a judgment of my character rather than what it was and would have been much better if it had been acknowledged. At least hook-up culture is honest and doesn’t pretend to be about more than it is.
Why Hook-up Culture Does Not Work
On the surface being able to sleep with anyone seems like freedom. I know it would not take much convincing for me to have sexual relations with multiple women. I mean, there are many different women that I appreciate, with unique personalities, black, white or Asian, all beautiful. Why not take turns, spread the love and share a little, right?
Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. First, there’s this thing of STDs, multiple partners means a wildly increased chance of an incurable and painful disease. Second, hook-up culture is not free love. No, it is actually more exclusive than traditional monogamy in that only the most superficially desirable specimens have a chance of success. Fall under the height requirement, have a few too many extra pounds, and you’re out of luck with no chance at all.
Yeah, sexual promiscuity may have been good to Wilt Chamberlain, who claimed to have had twenty thousand female sexual partners, but it doesn’t work out the same for the average guy who ends up going home with nothing. This is, in fact, the biggest issue with polygamy, some men get more of what they want, even the women may be satisfied with the arrangement, and yet there are also many disgruntled men without a chance. Marriage increases equity by helping with the fairer distribution of a limited resource.
And, considering how many young women get chewed up and spit out by a world full of guys willing to say anything to “get in her pants” only to change their tune later, the traditional arrangement doesn’t seem so bad after all. It is simply mind-blowing how many women, otherwise intelligent, believe that giving a guy what he wants upfront, without anything in writing to prove he is not simply playing around, will help their chances of securing his continued interest in them.
Marriage is About Equity and Protection
Multiple partners and sexual liberation only benefits some. The current paradigm favors attractive men, who are able to select from a large group of willing women, they get what they want and then are on their way again to the next hot body as soon as things become a little difficult. Meanwhile the guys who fall a bit short of female aspirations get nothing at all, permanently friend-zoned, with no chance of sex.
With traditional marriage there’s also some equity there, or at least in theory, in that the hottest players don’t get everything for themselves.
More importantly, saving sex for real commitment means that a woman is not stuck raising a child alone. It also helps to establish consent. Marriage is truly a safeguard against the exploitation of women. Women literally bear a larger burden from sexual relations, emotionally or otherwise, and are often better off with the less flashy faithful men than those more likely to sweep them off their feet.
Lastly, it is also an arrangement that considers the long-term good. And not only of the children who are provided security from a stable established relationship, but also of an aging woman who no longer has that youthfully attractive body and would be left with nothing. Sure, traditional marriage never guarantees success, nevertheless it is better than the alternative of loveless sex and no commitment.
The nail in the coffin of sexual liberation is that sex is more fulfilling in the context of a committed relationship. This is what makes me most sad about the current pursuit of carnal appetite over a selfless and more satisfying (over time) alternative. My parents and grandparents had it right, that’s what I want more than anything else.
One could say, that as one raised in a religiously fundamentalist setting, I’m especially sensitive to the signs of this mindset. And, by signs of fundamentalist mindset, sometimes literally signs. Whether it be their fifteen passenger van plastered with “Jesus loves you” stickers or a sort of passive-aggressive message using a judgmental sounding Bible verse in their front lawn. This sort of display is their version of Evangelicalism.
This Evangelicalism, if it can truly be called that, has never really appealed to me for various reasons. No, there’s nothing wrong with religious expression in words. But, that said, this is not the “true Evangelical faith” that early Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons, highlighted in a poem that used the words of Jesus urging faith of action rather than mere words. It comes off as more of a virtue signal, arrogant, like the Pharisee praying loudly about his own moral superiority to the Publican, than it does real self-sacrificial love and true Christian virtue.
Some of problems with this sort of thing is that it can give a security of doing something when it is likely of very negligible value. No, I’m not saying that we can’t put our signs up and also minister in more effective ways. However, this sort of well-intentioned effort can easily be misunderstood and actually detrimental to the cause. It can also tell people something about us that we do not intend. Preaching and proselytizing certainly has a place, but this kind of signage is not a replacement for that and can also put an unintended highlight on an overly simplistic perspective.
Public Displays of Progressive Religion
There are many well-intended people who sympathize and support the far-left. The left does a good job of seizing upon social issues and creating compassionate sounding slogans that have broad appeal. There is no need to question the sincerity of those who believe leftist dogma. However, the dogmas themselves should be examined.
In my own community, a college town, there are many yard signs proclaiming the virtues of the inhabitants. From the signs in various languages telling passersby “no matter where you are from, we’re glad to have you as our neighbors” to the ever-popular “black lives matter” proclamation that has popped up everywhere, these people feel the need to signal to the world with their political platitudes. Of course, with political platitudes, there is often over-simplification and misrepresentation of complex issues.
This essay is a closer examination of the “we believe” sign and what it misses…
Each of these points, while having one face-value meaning that most would agree with, is loaded up to be partisan accusations. In other words, if you disagree with their interpretations, disagree with the narrative that they accept uncritically, then you are the problem. They assume that everyone who disagrees with their sloganeering is a denier, racist, bigot, xenophobe, or generally hateful, and yet they themselves aren’t nearly as virtue-filled as they presume themselves to be and are often in closer alignment with the violent and abusive elements in our time than those whom they condemn.
The display of these dogmas is truly a sign of ignorance rather than virtue or enlightenment. It is a sign that the occupant is probably a leftist Kool-Aid drinker and not a free-thinker forming their own opinions based on the facts.
Let’s unpack these statements…
Black Lives Matter
An Associated Press story from 1997 cited a poll that indicated almost nine out of ten black teenagers said that racism had a negligible impact on their lives. However, if we were to do the same poll today, I doubt we would get the same results. What changed? Has this country actually become more racist in the last two decades or is there something else going on?
The implication of the statement “black lives matter” is that black lives do not matter to many of us. That, of course, is not true. Speaking for myself, I took the idea to heart that “content of character” matters more than color skin and try to treat everyone according to their actions rather than their superficial differences. I’m also fully cognizant of the past injustices faced by many black Americans, along with the continuing differences in outcomes, and this is all concerning to me. There is no denial on my part.
But the left does misrepresent the issue. The left denies that individual behavior matters. They would have us believe that the exceptions, where a black person engaged in criminal or otherwise suspicious activity and has a negative outcome, an anecdote, is somehow representative of “systemic racism” against all black people. This, of course, is completely racist and wrong thinking. No, if Barack Obama had a son he would not be like Trayvon Martin, he would be like Obama’s daughters who went to elite schools and live extremely privileged lives.
This popular assumption that police brutality is exclusive against black men is in denial of the many (lesser-known) examples of white people who died in similar circumstances. Names like Daniel Shaver, Tony Timpa, or Zachary Hammond, and many others may not be part of the “say their names” list, they are certainly not household names like George Floyd, but they also left behind loved ones and were potentially the victims of injustice. White men are, in fact, disproportionally killed by police when crime rates are factored into the analysis.
It is a huge disservice to the black community to tell them that the unfortunate outcomes are all about skin color and completely leave out other very significant contributing factors. The truth is that anyone engaged in criminal behavior, using dangerous drugs, and actively resisting arrest is at many times more risk at a violent end than those who do not do these things. There is zero evidence that a law-abiding black person is at more risk of being a victim of police brutality and, if anything, given the excessive coverage of a handful of cherry-picked anecdotes, black lives matter more.
The “black lives matter” narrative is false. Black men are not being hunted down and killed. Many black people are quite successful and would be even better if they were not lumped in with those few “bad apples” that are having negative outcomes related to their own decisions. What has changed since 1997 is that, for divisive political reasons, racial minorities are being constantly told that everything is a result of their skin color. The left has taken control of the black vote through fear-mongering and many well-meaning people think that they are helping to further the myth.
No, this is not to say that racism does not exist. When a troubled white teen, Dylann Storm Roof, murdered nine people, all black, in their house of worship during a Bible study, it is quite clear that racism is a serious issue that must be dealt with.
However, it is equally racist, and likely much more damaging, to play white savior, or to hold black people to a lower behavioral standard. The racism of lower-expectations is a tacit agreement with white supremacy and unhelpful. Racial minorities are not children in need of our special protection, they can and should be treated like unique individuals and responsible for the consequences of their own behavior like anyone else.
Unfortunately, the black lives moniker is being used to push a far-leftist ideological agenda. The organization Black Lives Matter is thoroughly Marxist and has little to do with actually addressing issues that lead to negative outcomes. Feeding black anxieties, thinking that we are helping people by making them feel even more different than they already feel, is wrong and racist. Frankly, once the thin veil of good intentions is removed, putting “black lives matter” on a yard sign is patronizing and pandering, it is a promotion of racial tribalism and exploitative.
Woman’s Rights Are Human Rights
There are many who seem to think that the fantasy world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is somehow representative of the real world. Protestors donning bizarre red robes and white bonnets, ironically attack and extremely accomplished woman, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, on the basis of fiction induced hysteria.
Barrett, by reasonable measure, by being nominated to the most powerful lifelong office in this country, would disprove the narrative that women are being denied equal rights. But, because of her Catholic faith, and anti-religious bigotry, she is being treated as if she is unqualified and dangerous by those who clearly cannot discern between reality and a television drama.
This idea that women are being denied human rights, which is implied by “woman’s rights are human rights,” is based on the assumption that equality of opportunity should lead to equality of outcomes. It is an assumption that denies the reality that people are different, choose willingly to do differently than others do, and thus do not have the same outcomes.
In other words, if there is a wage gap between genders that does not indicate discrimination on the basis of gender and could be explained by a long list of differences in interests and performance.
More to the point, the reason I do not earn the same as a CEO is not anything to do with my height, gender, or race. I do not earn what a CEO does because I have no desire to enter into the hypercompetitive world of business, to climb the corporate ladder, and do as they do. Sure, I could claim that it has something to do with my height or what have you, CEOs do indeed tend to be taller than average men, but I’m also not a candidate to do the work of a corporate executive based on many other things and would be foolish to suggest that I have a right to their greater compensation.
Another idea is that a woman should be granted special privileges, like free reproductive services and paid maternity leaves, or she is somehow being denied a human right. This is contradictory and absurd. Nevertheless, it is also part of the sentiment behind the statement on these signs. The idea that a woman deserves extra compensation and should be entitled to more legal protections, because of her natural differences from a man, goes directly against the notion of equal treatment.
Women, as those having capacities different from a man, should and do have unique opportunities and privileges from men. That is good. Men should be required to pay child support if they are a party responsible for the conception of a child. They should probably also compensate her for the wages she has lost due to her pregnancy and their copulation together. However, a woman should not have a special right to be exempted from the results of her own choices. Birth control and other products that must be paid for or provided by others are not right.
But the bigger issue on the minds of many women is the abortion question. Abortion, by the left, is often framed as a women’s rights issue. They speak of a woman’s right to choose and yet neglect the true crux of the matter. Those who are opposed to abortion do not make an argument against human rights for women. No, what is truly at stake, the real issue, is whether or not the fetus (which could be female) also has human rights and thus legal protections. Much of the anxiety about women’s rights stems from a gross mischaracterization of the alternative view.
As a religious conservative, I’ve run into a few misogynists and some patriarchal abusers. Yes, women have too often been given a second-tier status and this mistreatment should be addressed. However, first the most part, women are held in high regard and respect even in the most traditional religious circles. People have different perspectives on what role people should play in society, some think a career or money is more important than family and relationship, some rare individuals may favor denying equal rights to women.
But, that said, there are many more who believe the unborn should be denied rights. An honest discussion about abortion would be one where it is accepted, as a precondition, that both sides are arguing for human rights and irrational dystopian imaginations remained in their place as cheap entertainment.
No Human Is Illegal
It is really strange that the same people who would flippantly dismiss rights for the unborn suddenly become extremely upset with those who believe that we should have border enforcement and designating immigrants by their legal status. This comes across, again, like the other statements, as being moral grandstanding and not a truly well-thought-out position.
The statement is really no different from saying “no human is a bigot” and, if applied consistently, would mean no labels with a negative connotation ever be used. But we know that the left has no problem with applying adjectives when it comes to describing the perspectives of those who dare to question their dogmas. Terms like racist, homophobe, sexist or hateful are thrown about freely, as accusations, with very little thought of the very real damage done to the targets. So the left really has no problem with using negative words about other humans when it furthers their own agenda.
Worse, the far-left, Antifa in particular, without a doubt, does use labels as a means to dehumanize. Any disagreement with their current position could lead a person to being called a “Nazi” and murdered. It has happened on a couple of occasions, a person peacefully stands up to mob violence is killed execution-style and this heinous act is justified as “killing a Nazi” and celebrated. If the elimination of hurtful terms is really the goal, then we should start with the accusations, oftentimes unfounded, that lead to human lives ruined by “cancel culture” Marxist mobs and all stand together against extrajudicial killings for any reason.
As far as the term “illegal alien” used to describe those who illegally cross our border at night or illegally overstay their visas, we could call them “undocumented immigrants” and attempt to solve the problem through semantics. But, either way, an intelligent person understands the need for border security and vetting of those who wish to enter. It is not fascist or dehumanizing in the least, to make distinctions between legal classifications, there are citizens and non-citizens, legal and illegal immigrants, each of them has different rights given their legal status. Sure, we should most definitely treat all humans humanely, yet that does not change the legality of a resident alien.
Furthermore, as someone who has friends who would love to enter this country, who as a citizen has had to go through intrusive (arguably dehumanizing) airport security screenings and customs, I’m not sure why there should be special treatment for those who cut in line or disregard the correct process. The left loves regulations, they have no problem with onerous controls over speech or what a person can and cannot own. They dehumanize through their collective judgments all of the time. But then, suddenly, when it comes to a group to exploit for political gain, cries out “think of the children” or “oh, the humanity!”
Strangely, for caring so much about humanity, there is so very little concern about the son of a Presidential candidate with a laptop hard drive apparently containing images of underage girls and was recently turned over to authorities. It isn’t supposed to matter that this same left-leaning candidate has family financial ties to the biggest human rights violators on the planet, a country that dehumanizes ethnic minorities and others to the point of harvesting their bodily organs without their consent.
So, sure, maybe we need to find a better way of screening those who wish to enter our own country, but quibbles over language certainly aren’t helpful in that regard. Changing description or denial of the consequences associated with uncontrolled borders doesn’t make the problems go away or any less real.
Science Is Real
This statement is most likely in regard to climate policy and the Covid-19 pandemic response. It is ironic that those who want to claim to be on the side of the scientific and real would implore us to “believe science” as if to disagree with them is to be in denial of the scientific method. Although, as someone who has rejected religiously inspired pseudoscience and is alarmed at the increased popularity of flat-Earth theories, it is not that I totally disagree either.
However, I do digress, when politicians start to throw around words like “settled science” or “scientific consensus,” that is unsettling to me as someone who knows well enough that all conclusions must be questioned. That is science. Even physics, a hard science, was upended by the mysterious ways of the smallest particles or Quantum Mechanics. The simple understanding of the physical universe, provided by Classical physics, no longer works at this smaller level and there is yet to be a theory to unify the two. The point being that science doesn’t settle anything and a consensus is always something that changes as new evidence or a better explanation becomes available.
So, yes, science is real, but so are X and Y chromosomes and the fact that the unborn do not share their mother’s DNA. Those pronouncing “science is real” as a response to unpopular or minority opinions should learn how to argue their own positions convincingly, with science, rather than dogmatically bludgeon the conversation to death with tripe slogans. A person is not a “denier” for their questioning of the current models or opposition to those who wish to use their fears as justification for political policies that take away rights and are economically disastrous.
Disparaging a person as “anti-science” is not an argument, it is a manipulation tool, a slur, and only proves that the mean-spirited person using the term is trying to shut down the conversation. How quickly we forget the history of established authorities who did the same thing to the great minds who stood up to the status quo. A truly scientifically minded person understands that our understanding of the world is continually evolving and never ever completely settled. If anything, it is Big Tech monopolies, run by leftists, who are anti-science for their silencing of dissent.
In the end, pounding the phrase “science is real” is no more useful than a religious fundamentalist shouting “God is real.” Both statements prove nothing as far as the claim being made and, if used in such to way as to end a debate, only prove the real ignorance of the user. The people putting up signs with “we believe” have crossed over from science into a religious territory and are proclaiming dogma rather than proving anything of scientific value. They may think they are showing their superiority to dogma spewing Evangeli-cons, but are really only revealing their sameness.
Speaking of sameness…
Love Is Love
Love is love. Likewise, marriage is marriage. Those arguing on the side of same-sex unions being legally recognized as “marriage” have done a great job of framing the debate about the definition of marriage in terms of love. And, true, there is no way to quantify or measure love. So if marriage is indeed only about recognizing love, then so be it, let us deny no one the opportunity to marry anyone or anything they choose to love.
Nikola Tesla, for example, a brilliant man, loved a pigeon:
However, marriage was not traditionally about love only and nobody actually has a right to have their feelings legally recognized.
I mean, there’s no reason for me to judge Tesla for his strange love of a particular pigeon and I suppose there would be no harm in the state labeling that relationship in any manner they wish, but should that make a marriage?
I’m not convinced that every relationship is of equal value to society as the only relationship that can produce another generation of humans. A biological male and female, unlike other love parings of humans, has the unique potential to produce children. Well-adjusted children are needed for economies to grow and civilizations to thrive.
Marriage was instituted as protection for women, who tend to bear the brunt of the sexual union and reproduction process; and to create a stable family unit for the good of children. Fatherless homes are a better predictor of negative outcomes than race. It is the one thing that links inner-city gang violence and suburban school shooters. Yes, absolutely, there are many wonderful single mothers, two men or two women could also do a splendid job of raising a child, being in an unconventional home doesn’t doom anyone to failure, but if diversity is strength, and science is real, why be a denier?
The one thing disturbing about the redefining of marriage is this focus on love being a synonym for sexual gratification. Marriage, in the Orthodox Christian context, was synonymous with martyrdom and denial of ourselves for the good of another. It is little wonder that so many marriages, based upon these superficial self-centered ‘love’ relationships, end in divorce. In the end, the traditional should not blame those who have further redefined the meaning of marital love. There has been plenty of selfish and uncommitted love to go around in their own ranks.
In the Philippines, a marriage can only be annulled, which is to say it can only be undone by proving (through a psychological examination) that a person was “incapacitated” at the time at which they entered the relationship thus the union is deemed to be illegitimate, completely null and void. That means, in legal terms, something called marriage was not a marriage and suggests that true marriage requires something more than a piece of paper. Marriage, at the very least, is not only about the feelings that two people have or have had for one another.
Love is love. But not everything called love is love and not everything called marriage is marriage. Take that to mean what it means. Or maybe words are only words and meaning is meaningless and everything is nothing?
Sure, kindness is something, but so is introspection and being a bit more conscious of the unkindness done in the name of kindness. This statement captures perfectly the oversimplification of complex topics that the entire “we believe” list represents. It indicates a lack of serious introspection on the part of those who have sympathized and/or support the political violence that has plagued our cities.
It is not friendly or generous to call someone a Nazi for disagreeing with you nor is it considerate to advocate and excuse taking from others. It is not kind to believe that anyone who disagrees with one’s own narrow perspective is intolerant, hateful, and deserves to be silenced.
If kindness were everything, then Antifa violence would be condemned, like the KKK before it, rather than downplayed or ignored. If kindness were everything, the knee jerk resistance to everything the President says or does would end. If kindness were everything, having a different perspective of when human life begins would not be mischaracterized as “war on women” or any other such slanderous fantasy nonsense.
In reality, kindness is not everything. Martial love, even redefined, is alway to the exclusion of others. Why else would we marry anyone? The consensus of social elites and established institutions has been wrong many times before. Science questions science. That is how we advanced. It is not dehumanizing to identify someone as a jaywalker who jaywalked. But it is dehumanizing to kick someone in the skull because they aren’t a Marxist thug. There is legal and illegal. Human rights should extend to all and not only those who have a voice to protest. And last, but not least, behavior matters.
Virtue starts with humility, not yard signs or mindlessly repeated mantras. Statements, especially those that come across as veiled accusations, are not an effective way to produce change. It is a religious fundamentalism in a new ‘progressive’ package. And may, like the old fundamentalisms of the past, be too oriented on religious displays or devotion in the external social realm and not enough on inner spiritual transformation. It is easy, on a sign, to proclaim love for the world. But very hard to treat the ‘deplorable’ neighbor across the street as a person with a valid perspective even if different from our own.
And that’s not to say that those putting up these signs are smug and sanctimonious. Not at all! Many progressives, my friends, are genuinely compassionate people and do practice what they preach. They were taught a certain perspective or values, it feels right to them, and are simply doing what they were programmed to do in the same manner of any other religious fundamentalist. But too often their repeated statements become a wall of ignorance and are, in fact, dogmas rather than reasoned out positions. A sign certainly is not going to convince anyone to believe as they do. So what is it really about?
Those of this Protestant persuasion will, as part of their evangelical effort, ask strangers, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
The question, a litmus test, suggests that they do have this personal relationship and that you must be able to mirror their own language or you are not a real Christian like them.
Those asking have a religious devotion to a particular kind of relationship for a particular reason. The reason is that they are reacting to something, namely dead religion, and they are not totally wrong for saying that religious devotion is not enough. I’ll go further into the reasons for their emphasis later on. But if you break it down, nor is a personal relationship without religious devotion enough. No, in actuality, a person needs more than a personal relationship with Jesus to be truly saved.
Judas, for example, had a personal relationship with Jesus. Judas, in fact, spent years in the inner circle of the disciples, physically right beside Jesus all the time, and was close enough to Jesus to give him a betrayer’s kiss. The relationship of Judas clearly lacked a necessary component. He was literally in the presence of Jesus, having actual conversations with Jesus, yet that personal relationship did not equate to salvation. Judas was with Jesus, he had a personal relationship with Jesus, but he was not religiously devoted to Jesus.
So why is a personal relationship important if it does not mean salvation?
Relationships can be good or bad. Relationships can start well and sour later on. Relationships can be based on a misunderstanding, an idea that we share something in common with another person, and then fall apart as the disparate reality sets in. We have many personal relationships, but what we really need is a good relationship, a relationship that can stand the test of time and bring us closer together.
What Is A Good Relationship?
Many young people “fall in love” with another person and get married. They are in love with each other, but more than that they are in love with an idea of what that other person represents. They have become closer through dating and eventually, through their physical intimacy, become one flesh. But this kind of love does not last, the initial feelings fade, the responsibilities increase, and many quit the relationship altogether once it starts to require more of them than they are willing to give.
Good relationships are self-sacrificial. Is it enough for a husband to tell his wife he loves her once, on their wedding day, and then go on with his life as he pleases?
No, relationships take work, they take a kind of religious devotion, an effort to remember special days, consistently doing things in a manner that respects the other. For example, if she wants the toilet seat down, then putting that seat down becomes a test of the commitment to love and cherish her. And, conversely, if a woman constantly undermines her husband, treats him as unworthy and pathetic, is her love real? No, love prefers the other person, it encourages and strengthens.
A good relationship means a loving relationship and a loving relationship is always self-sacrificial. A personal relationship, without a religious devotion to love, is not enough to sustain a marriage and it is not enough in the context of Christian faith either. No, Jesus asked for far more than a personal relationship. In fact, he asked for religious devotion as a prerequisite to a true relationship:
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:15-18 NIV)
Jesus said, “if you love me, keep my commandments.” It is then, and only then, does he promise that the Spirit will come. In other words, the personal relationship is contingent on our keeping the commandments, a religious devotion to be a fulfillment of his words, and not simply on our profession of having a relationship. Indeed, Jesus warned of those who never knew him, despite their use of his name, and it is because they did not put his words to practice. Having a good relationship with Jesus implies having a religious devotion to keeping his commandments.
How Do We Keep the Commandments of Christ?
Many are turned off by Christian tradition when the rituals and religious practices become separated from real love. They, rightfully so, see this sort of devotion as lacking a critical element and that being the indwelling of the Spirit. That is where the emphasis on “personal” and “relationship” came into the revivalist’s lexicon, they were confronting a kind of devotion that was separated from spiritual life and had a good reason for this.
Unfortunately, this newfound freedom from religion has often come at the expense of needed accountability and a true understanding of what a true commitment to Christ really is. Too many who claim a personal relationship, they claim to love Jesus, but do not keep his commandments and thus this personal relationship that they claim is really nothing more than the feedback of their own ego. A relationship with an imaginary friend based on their own personal ideas and not on the true person of Christ as they believe.
I’m not here to judge the authenticity of any commitment to Jesus Christ. However, like a marriage union produces children, there should also be signs of our commitment to Christ being more than something superficial, more than something we talk about. Those who truly love Jesus do not simply profess his name or claim to have a personal relationship, but they will also keep his commandments.
But what does that even mean?
What does it mean to keep the commandments of Christ?
I know some, from my Anabaptist roots, who try to turn the words of Jesus into a new law. When they say “keep the commandments of Jesus” they mean being duty-bound to a particular legalistic prescription (based on their own understanding of his words) and totally miss the point. In the end, those who do this, who exclude and refuse accountability to anyone besides themselves, are no different from Diotrephes who refused to fellowship with the actual Apostles of Christ. Legalism, a concern with words that supersedes relationships, is not keeping the commandments of Christ.
Rather, keeping the commandments boils down to simply this:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35 NIV)
To truly keep the commandments of Jesus means to love as he loves and to love those whom he loves. In other words, to have a good relationship with Jesus means to have a good relationship with his Church and your fellow man. Can a person who claims to love Christ, but can never get along with their brother and sister, be telling the truth?
True Relationship Bears Fruit Of Love
I’ve struggled recently over things related to money and relationships. We do not wish to be taken advantage of, especially not by other Christians, and I was beginning to have a bad attitude. I mean, am I not entitled to compensation, an explanation, a better attitude and more appreciation from them, etc?
In was in the midst of this that various family members, asking nothing in return, allowed me to use their vehicles, even accompanied me and gave hours of their time. Upon reflecting on this, and recalling the story that Jesus told of a man forgiven a great debt who goes on to try to get a little owed to him, I have endeavored to correct my attitude. If I were to demand everything owed I would be showing my lack of appreciation for God’s mercy towards me and set myself up for judgment.
My knowledge of that story of the ungrateful servant did not come to me through Jesus personally by some special revelation. No, rather it came to me through the religious devotion of those who taught me that story and by my continued desire to live by a Christian example, that this story was able to bear spiritual fruit. The seed was planted, it was watered by the work of the Spirit in me, and bore fruit in my actions. It is this kind of fruit that indicates a true relationship with Jesus, that which is described by St Paul:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV)
It is interesting to note that Judas, despite his personal relationship with Jesus, did not demonstrate the fruit above. Instead, he was sharply critical of a woman for her extravagant display of worship, for her pouring out a year of her wages onto the feet of Jesus, and even used the words of Jesus in his rebuke, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” But this was not out of genuine love for the poor nor was it born out of true love for Jesus. To Judas, the commandments of Jesus were merely a political tool, a way for him to prove his superiority to others or gain resources for himself, and a disguise for his true corruption.
Those who truly love Jesus bear the fruit of his love in their lives and that spiritual fruit is manifested in their personal relationships with those whom Jesus loves. It means esteeming others to be better than ourselves and having true humility (Philippians 2:3-5) rather than always be right. It also means being accountable to each other, holding fast to the traditions passed both in word or letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and being in Communion together with each other. We cannot claim to love God or have a true relationship with Jesus if we do not heed this warning:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:20-21 NIV)
Can we really claim to love those who we want nothing to do with, refuse to associate with, etc?
True Relationship Means Real Communion
The one potential issue that I have with the “personal relationship with Jesus” emphasis is where it reflects the individualism of our current age. Not everyone preaching Jesus is preaching the same Jesus and there are many who use their own personal version of Jesus as a means to their own ends.
To some, it seems “personal relationship” means they do not need to answer or be accountable to anyone besides themselves or those who mostly agree with them. They have a personal relationship with Jesus and, therefore, don’t dare ever question their understanding of Scripture or lifestyle choices! Nope, no matter how far their interpretations deviate from what has been long-established, they believe that their authority (as an individual) trumps all Christian tradition before them.
For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:4 NIV)
Ultimately, this claim of a personal relationship too often implies that an individual need not answer to anything besides their own personal interpretation of the Bible and/or feelings. It is indeed strange, given how even revivalists claiming personal relationships with Jesus can’t agree, that Jesus seems to tell his various personal friends contradictory things. But that’s not a problem, I suppose, those with a personal relationship can simply assume that others who disagree with them don’t have the same special connection that they do, that other people who disagree are either deceived or lying and go on believing their own Jesus?
This idea that Christians are all independent contractors, accountable only to their own personal Jesus, flies directly in the face of what the Apostle Paul taught about Christian love and the need for unity in the Church:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6 NIV)
And goes on to explain:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-15 NIV)
A true relationship with Jesus should bring a person into the body of Christ, which is the Church, where they can become mature and reach that unity in the faith that. But you can’t do that while playing lone-ranger or imagining yourself to be some special remnant and claim to “love one another” as Christ commanded. Unity requires agreement and agreement requires seeking each other out, it means submission to the entire body of believers, especially our elders, and being accountable to more than ourselves or only those who agree with us.
A person can profess anything, they can claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus all day long, but the truth of their profession rests on their keeping the commandments of Christ and that is to love those whom he loves, to humbly submit to each other in love, and realize that the world does not revolve around us or our own understanding of things. We should prefer unity over having things our own way, love requires sacrifice, love means religious devotion to the good of another (as in a marriage) and even admitting that we need other people in our lives to be accountable to for our own good. Our love for Jesus is expressed in our love and devotion to those whom he loves.
The short version is that we need each other to be strong, so we are no longer tossed about by every new teaching (or repackaged heresy) that comes along, and that is how we (the body) are connected to Christ, our head. In other words, it is through our Communion with the body of Christ, the Church, by our religious devotion to study and pray together, that we have our real relationship with Jesus. Therefore, it is through our partaking Communion together, by our real connection to the body of Christ, not only our professing of a personal relationship, that we show our love for God, our Father, his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
It might seem that pornography and purity cultures are polar opposites. One provides instant gratification for sexual appetites whereas the other promotes abstinence and encourages young people to ‘save’ themselves for marriage. However, while pornography does accomplish its short-term aims, purity cultures often fail at their intended goals.
Purity cultures, a product of Protestant fundamentalism, arose in reaction to the promiscuity of mainstream America in the 1960s and as an effort to protect the next generation. It is fueled by the regrets of some who, like Augustine, indulged in fornication themselves and is also promoted by others who were just plain fearful of outside influence. However, as with most fear-based reactions, purity culture has created as many problems as it has solved. The promise of the ‘right’ one being the reward to those who most carefully adhere to its teaching has often only led to long-term dissatisfaction.
This purity teaching, especially when introduced to the already reserved conservative Mennonite culture, has made the threshold for entering a dating relationship nearly impossible for some. It has led to paralysis for the most conscientious and added unnecessary difficulties for all but the boldest and superficially attractive. Worse, while this reactionary movement has not delivered as promised to those who most fearfully adhered to the expectations, it has done absolutely nothing to stop those said “boldest and superficially attractive” from gratifying themselves outside of a marital commitment. So the net gain is more guilt for those who already have too much guilt and increased the hardness of hearts for those who are already predisposed to do as they please.
Purity culture fails because it does not provide any real help or practical solutions to those who desire a healthy relationship and, sadly, is too often as (or more) carnally focused on carnal pleasures as the carnal-minded are themselves. Purity culture never transcends or brings us closer to holiness and, sadly, ends up often leads many young people right into pornography addiction and a self-defeating cycle of shame. Pornography use is as prevalent in these fundamentalist purity cultures (albeit almost never confessed openly for fear of the social stigma) as anywhere else.
This obsession with physical purity and on female virginity, in particular, paired with the dogmatic emphasis on female modesty, has had some terrible unintended consequences. Consequences which are all but ignored by fundamentalist leaders who think that their doubling down on preaching condemnation will someday change hearts.
Here are some observations about the similarities between pornography and purity cultures:
Two Sides of the Sex Obsession Coin
Sex, in the right context, is a wonderful thing and not something to ever be ashamed about. Unfortunately, sex is also something that can be twisted into a harmful obsession.
It is fairly obvious how pornography is degrading and a destructive habit. However, what is not so understood is how purity culture mirrors this obsession. The first notable similarity between pornography and purity cultures is that both represent an unhealthy fixation with sex and physical bodies. Both undermine us spiritually, objectify women and pervert our interactions:
Pornography and purity cultures both objectify women. The biggest irony of purity culture is that it is as obsessed with sex as the mainstream culture it decries as sinful. Yes, purity culture is in opposition to sexual promiscuity, but it is also as objectifying as pornography in that it places a woman’s value in her virginity and also spends an inordinate amount of time in discussion of the female physical form. I can still recall the men’s meetings about things like the so-called “peekaboo effect” pertaining to slit skirts (below the knees) and also hearing how some men claimed a woman’s exposed elbow somehow resembled a nipple and thus needed to be covered. To anyone outside of a purity culture, this sort of talk is perverted and ridiculous. It is little wonder why women in these cultures feel especially objectified and are often extremely distrusting or weirded out by men.
Pornography and purity culture pervert interactions between genders. This is the most insidious similarity between the two and the one that is most frustrating to me. There’s a picture of me on the beach, as a toddler, holding hands with a female cousin—our touch was friendly, completely non-sexual and entirely appropriate. But somehow, by the time I reached my teenage years, many young women were convinced that a mere conversation with a young man was a risk of defilement. This fear, sadly, is what became of the coffee date offer made in response to one of my blogs, the young woman who made the offer backtracked, and—while we did meet in the most awkward of settings—it was another bitter reminder of how perverted purity cultures have made male and female interactions. Rather than have a good time getting to know one another, as would be appropriate, we instead waded through topics of defilement and “guarding hearts” and her predetermined lack of interest in getting to know me. I don’t blame her for this nor the dozen other Mennonite girls before her who treated me more like a rabid dog than a Christian brother. It is what she was taught and it is also something she likely caught by seeing men constantly talk about her body as being this irresistible object. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, the female form is beautiful to me. But I’ve gone on many friendly dates with non-Mennonite women, even studied alone with them, and never once did we engage in sexual conversation or behavior. A good man sees a woman as more than an object, not all physical interaction is sexual, but both pornography and purity cultures pervert our interactions, make everything about sex and make it much more difficult for healthy relationships to develop between genders.
Pornography and purity cultures feed guilt without providing effective long-term solutions. Sin needs to be called out. That said, guilt-tripping a person stuck in a sex addiction is not going to stop them and, if anything, will simply keep them from speaking openly about their struggle with sin for fear of being stigmatized. Those mired in shame do not need more sermons, they need practical solutions. Feeding guilt may provide gratification for purity culture preachers, but does little more than the pornography itself to helping those who already feel shame yet are caught in a vicious cycle and defeated. Rather than obsess on sex and sin, we would be better to focus on holiness and fostering a church environment where those ensnared feel free to confess and find their salvation from the addiction.
We should—at very least—be promoting healthy relationships and providing opportunities for young people who desire relationship to interact without it being assumed to be a sexual encounter or regard every conversation between two unmarried people as a potential defilement. If we believe in a transformation of heart then we need to stop telling young women to fear their brothers in Christ, we need to humanize each other rather than treat ‘sisters’ like objects or treat ‘brothers’ as if they are animals. This means that purity culture leaders need to trust God to work in hearts, stop living in fear of losing control, and love as Christ loves them. If Jesus welcomed prostitutes, we should be fully ready to embrace and restore those who have ‘defiled’ themselves with pornography or other sexual immorality. The long-term solution is to stop promoting fearful reaction and sexual obsession and start with leaders willing to acknowledge this current quagmire and their repentance for creating it.
Both Produce Unrealistic Expectations
There is often a nasty surprise waiting for those who do manage to navigate the dysfunction of purity culture courtship expectations. The high ideal that kept them fearful of talking to the opposite gender for fear of defilement doesn’t guarantee that they will find satisfaction in marriage when they finally find someone superficially attractive enough to give a chance. No, if anything, this will likely lead to their discontentment when this magic person, who checked all the right boxes, turns out to be a sinner like the impure others they’ve rejected merrily along the way and isn’t what they thought he/she was when they married.
Purity culture, like pornography, creates this unrealistic expectation for male and female relationships. Yes, pornography is different than purity culture in that the expectations it creates are solely pertaining to the physical and yet both push for this perfect fantasy ideal. Whereas pornography often centers on perfect bodies having amazing sex, purity cultures paint the right guy as being this courageous knight in shining armor and a young woman as this pristine princess. However, in reality, a real-life relationship often falls well short of these expectations in even the best of circumstances, real people have “bad hair days” and make mistakes.
I’ve heard a purity culture pastor explain that he needs to portray is own marriage in glowing terms as an example for others. But that sort of whitewashing is in direct contradiction to what we see in Scripture where even the heroes of faith are portrayed in their flawed and very unflattering moments. King David, for example, was an adulterer who murdered the husband of the woman who he had sinned with. Elijah was working miracles before he fled like a complete coward when faced down by a female tyrant. Even Peter, the leader of the early church, denied Christ. All of these men would be unqualified by the standards of a purity culture fathers and daughters, yet they are the best examples of faith we have besides the literal son of God!
Pornography and purity cultures both imagine a world where real people do not live and true Christian love is not required. These unrealistic expectations will lead many to great disappointment when they finally get to marriage. It has led to many others giving up on marriage because they can’t get their wish list of expectations with options currently available. This goes completely contrary to a love that transcended our imperfections and died for our salvation while we were yet dead in our sin. No, not saying that we should marry someone unbelieving and unrepentant, certainly not, nor even someone unconcerned with things like hygiene, etc—but we should also show love to others as we want to be loved by God.
Both Have Diminishing Returns
Pornography, like any self-gratifying indulgence of the senses, often requires more and more novelty to have the same effect and can eventually even lead to erectile dysfunction. Likewise, fear-based purity culture preaching, rather than make us more vigilant, often deadens ears. Sure, it might get the heads nodding in agreement, it might even get the commitments to purity from the idealistic youth still trying to navigate their way through their own sexuality, and yet there is nothing in it that will lead to holiness. Just like consuming all the porn in the world won’t produce a meaningful relationship, you can’t actually “scare the hell out of people” and drive them into the kingdom of God through fear. No, salvation depends on a new birth, an encounter with God’s grace, and spiritual transformation.
Salvation isn’t pounded through skulls by screaming fits on Sunday mornings. Sure, we do see where Jesus used the threat of being thrown into a trash pit to try to knock some smug self-righteous religious folks off their high horse, but that certainly isn’t all he did nor is that what drew the crowds. We have no indication that Jesus was overly dramatic or ever raised his voice, in fact that would go against what was prophesied about him in the book of Isaiah: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.” (verse 42:1,2) What Jesus did do was heal and work miracles, his words were full of truth and love, that is why the religious needed to put him to death—he had something they themselves could not match.
We can preach sexual purity and saving oneself for marriage until the cows come home and it will not save anyone. Even this effort does actually convince some to abstain from sex before marriage, sexual purity is a false hope for winning God’s favor and especially if it comes accompanied by pride. It is very likely that many of those who rejected Jesus never viewed pornography and lived completely righteous lives according to the law and yet lacked the one critical component necessary for salvation. The bigger issue with purity culture is that it keeps us fixated on physical or emotional purity and takes our focus off of what is actually consequential.
We aren’t saved by our ability to live out a high moral standard. No, as Hebrews 11:6 tells us, without faith it is impossible to please God. So, yes, sexual purity before marriage does potentially come with some temporal returns, but eventually, it will be worth nothing unless we repent of our pride and depend fully on Jesus in faith.
Both Render Us Impotent
The most striking similarity between pornography and purity cultures is how both effectively neuter us and keep us from healthy relationships. Prior to writing this blog, I came across a YouTube video, “Porn and You,” from a secular source, talking about the damage to men and culture as a result of porn. In the video he cites an article, “6 Ways to Develop Sexual Integrity,” (a terribly misleading title) that presents this degradation as positive:
“An interesting effect happens as people watch pornography. They become more egalitarian, and more supportive of women and men sharing roles and work, less accepting of gender-based discrimination. They also become more accepting of sexual diversity and less stigmatizing towards homosexuality. They become less religious, and may even experience more crises of faith. Enjoying porn leads to people changing their beliefs about sex and gender, and, in some cases, rejecting the dogmatically rigid sex/gender values they were taught in church.”
That could be fine for a ‘progressive’ social engineer who does not see declining birth-rates and hypofrontality as an issue. But, for the rest of us, that should be the writing on the wall. Pornography addiction is pushing us towards cultural dysfunctionality and a potential demographic disaster. There are many good reasons to stop consuming pornography now, to not wait another day, and that it renders us spiritually and sexually neutered is top of the list. A great video to watch on this topic, “The great porn experiment,” gets into some of the ill-effects and also the benefits for those who quit their pornography addictions. But quitting is enough (or even possible) without filling the void (the answer to addiction is not sobriety, but connection) and that is where the church should be stepping up to the plate.
Purity cultures, likewise, render both men and women impotent. Rather than encourage us to live in faith, to take necessary risks and seek meaningful connections, they keep us fear-bound, on the sidelines and paralyzed. Again, young Christian men are treated by young women and their fathers as threats to purity and not as true brothers. The discernment of a young man is routinely dismissed as irrelevant, he can’t even get a date until he meets a list of expectations that have nothing to do with his faith or good character, and that’s assuming he is not run out completely by jealous and competitive church leaders. Many women too are kept from fully expressing their maternal and nurturing abilities, perpetually saving these complementary strengths for the one who is deserving and never arrives.
In purity cultures, ironically, unmarried men are turned into servile drones, often failing in their frustration to the very things that this focus is supposed to guard against and basically groveling at the feet of women who see them as creepy or weak. An end result is a growing number of older unmarrieds, those with standards that can’t be pleased on one end and others defeated—might as well be eunuchs—on the other. It is not healthy, it is not a model of Christian relationship, and often goes hand and hand with pornography addiction rather than being the cure. Both pornography and purity cultures feed our fantasies in the short-term, but in the long-term, they can destroy our chances at the most meaningful relationship a man and woman can have together.
It Is Time To Get Over Sex Obsession!
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV)
One tendency of fundamentalists, as reactionaries, is to fixate on the problem so much that their own thinking is perverted in the process. Everyone sincerely seeking after righteousness already should know, at a heart level, that taking advantage of other people for our own sexual pleasure is not Christ-like and sin. But the pushers of purity culture do not seem to trust the Spirit to convict their children and rely instead on isolation from outside influence and their heavy-handed regulations.
Purity cultures are motivated out of fear and a need to feel in control rather than faith. But, while they do force conformity of visible behavior (at least when others are watching) and keep many bound in their shame, they do not lead to a transformation of heart. Faith, not keeping the outside of the cup clean, is what pleases God. And faith will keep us focused on Christ, loving others as he loves, rather than obsessed with securing our own immediate gratification or turning to our own purity in the eyes of our religious peers for salvation.
Purity is not produced in a fearful reaction. It starts in a heart that seeks after goodness, walks in true faith, and is purified in fire. As Jesus said, defilement doesn’t come from the outside in, but from what is inside and comes out. In other words, we need to be pure in heart rather than filled with fear, obsessed with sin and frozen. The idea of guarding your heart, while it will keep us from sin, has nothing to do with avoiding friendly interactions that could lead to more down the road and everything to do with knowing the intentions which come from our heart:
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips. Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your gaze directly before you. Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. Do not turn to the right or the left; keep your foot from evil.” (Proverbs 4:23-27 NIV)
A few years ago mom and sister, sensing my need for physical touch, made giving me a hug on Sunday evenings as I left for home and another week out on the road. It was a small gesture, a single suture on a gaping wound of loneliness and years of an unmet need for more intimate human relationship, but—nevertheless—it was something that kept me at least partially sane.
We live in a culture that celebrates connectivity and social media. Unfortunately, those things, seeing words on a screen or having a “friends” list of thousands, do not fill the void or need for real physical interactions and touch. When my hopes of meaningful human connection faded away with another crushing rejection my mind slid back into solipsism—the ultimate aloneness, a disconnect from belief in anything outside of my own mind or imagination—the nightmarish hell put into words by Trent Reznor:
Yes I am alone But then again I always was As far back as I can tell I think maybe it’s because Because you were never really real To begin with
I just made you up To hurt myself I just made you up To hurt myself I just made you up To hurt myself And it worked Yes it did
The reality is that healthy people live for connection and survive periods of aloneness on their hopes of future intimacy and interactions. We were created for relationship, both with each other and with the one who walked with Adam in the garden. It is through relationships that we gain our personhood and purpose. The lack of real community, of physical touch and healthy interaction, has come at a great cost and, sadly, few seem ready to take the necessary action to change this for those most in need.
Some of the reason for this neglect is a misconception about the true meaning of the Gospel message…
“All you need is Jesus”
This is one of those religious clichés that is true in one sense, yet is completely untrue the way some people use it and is often nothing more than an excuse for their real indifference.
People need more than words to thrive.
Yes, we do not live by bread alone and we always depend wholly on God’s grace at all times. However, that doesn’t mean we do not have need of food, clothing, shelter or many other things that make our life complete.
Those who spiritualize and who dismiss the human needs of others should be locked for a week in a box naked, without food or sunlight, and then they can discuss what “all you need is Jesus” means to them as someone who was without anything else.
For those who think their offering mere words about an abstraction of Jesus are an indication of their faith and is doing enough, I will offer the words of James:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14-17)
If I could have a dollar for all the times that people expressed sympathy for my circumstances, and then assured me that things would magically work out for me without doing anything to help, I would probably be a millionaire. The whole book of James tells me that such people who do not offer anything in the form of concrete help, despite what they might profess, do not really know Jesus and are still in need of salvation themselves. Christian faith that does not express itself in meeting needs both spiritual AND PHYSICAL is not real Christian faith.
“The word became flesh…”
One of the deficiencies of the theological indoctrination that I received in the denomination of my birth was a lack of explanation for the full significance of incarnation. Incarnation tends to be explained as a historic event, that Jesus provided an example to follow, and yet very little is said about the what this says about the human condition and need for touch.
The incarnation, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, is the centerpiece of what John says at the start of his Gospel account and is something that has great significance as far as how it relates to church life. Jesus came so that the Spirit, something not physically defined and the same Spirit “hovering” over the waters in the Genesis creation narrative, could be made one with human flesh and so that through that we also (the church together as the “body of Christ”) could become the incarnation of Christ.
This idea that the Gospel is about an abstraction, some kind of spiritual experience or journey and theological/theoretical construct that has little to offer in physical substance, is wrong. It is part of the issue that early Anabaptists would’ve had with Luther and Protestantism. It is also something Orthodox Christians cannot accept. There is no salvation without incarnation. We cannot live the Chrisitan life alone or without real and tangible love for other Christians.
Christianity is something that must be communal, it must involve actual physical interaction with other members of the body and our partaking of the real flesh and blood of Christ together with other believers, or it is not real. Faith is, as James clearly says, something that changes how we interact with each other in the material world, it should remove barriers (like favoritism or separations within the body between higher and lower social/religious/economic tiers) and make us do something about the physical needs of other Christians.
Feeding people with platitudes does not make you Christ-like or spiritually-minded. No, it is only living in denial of the needs of others, profoundly unloving and disobedience. Yes, certainly, the point of Christianity goes well-beyond mere humanism or making the world a better place to live for others. The kingdom is something that cannot be defined in the material world. That said, Christianity without any fleshing out or being an incarnation of the Spirit ourselves, like Christ, in our Communion together and providing for the physical needs of others is truly not Christianity anymore.
Those who spiritualize physical needs really should consider the question of why Jesus came in the first place. Why didn’t God just send his good news message on tablets of gold from heaven?
The answer is that our body is not something bad or that God has given up on. We are not a mind with a body as many seem to perceive themselves. No, the body and mind are as interwoven as soul and spirit. Sure, you may be able to intellectually conceptualize things like love and theorize about salvation. But the reality is that we do have physical needs, what happens to our bodies does have an impact on our minds, and thus we should take care of our own bodies and also be concerned with the physical well-being of our fellow Christians. The incarnation is important because we are creatures of flesh and with real physical needs. We need other Christians to flesh out Christ today for the same reason Thomas needed to touch the wounds of Jesus to know that he had truly conquered death.
Not just talk, touch…
There is no shortage of advice in the world and much of it unsolicited. Tell a person about your needs and you are bound to get an earful of their opinions. They, like those who claimed faith without works, think that they can talk away your problems and/or need a way to dismiss your needs when you do not take their bad advice. They can say, “Well, he should just listen to me and then things might go better.”
Jesus condemns this sort of aloofness:
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. (Matthew 23:4)
That is not to say that we should never give any weighty advice. However, when our advice is not accompanied by helpful action, then it will simply be adding another burden to someone already struggling under the weight of life. Having real faith, embodying Christ, means offering real substantive help to those who ask. Again, there might be a place for speaking against sin, there is also a good case to be made for teaching people how to help themselves, yet we also need to get our own hands dirty sometimes and help to dig people out of the mire they are in or at least lift their load until they can get their feet under them again.
Jesus said, “Give to those who ask” (Matthew 5:42) And, given that he does offer himself to anyone who asks, it is very likely meant those words take be taken literally. He didn’t say only to give what rationally makes sense to you at the time, he doesn’t say to give only money or time, he tells us to give and our willingness to give is the true measure of our faith. It is our job, as Christians, to give of ourselves for the salvation of others, that is what marriage is about and why we should attend church—and be all the more involved when those in the church need Jesus more than we do.
The point of Christianity is to be part of the body of Christ, to do what he did for others and the “greater things” he promised would come as a result of his leaving. We are to touch and heal the wounded like he did.
The need for non-sexual physical touch…
In many parts of the world, it is not unusual for men to hold hands with other men nor a scandal for men and women to exchange a familial kiss. But somehow here, in the United States, we have managed to sexualize everything and this is especially true fundamentalist Mennonite/Protestant sects. In fact, I have had a young woman from such a setting, in her early twenties as I recall, worried about somehow defiling herself just to be in my physical presence and unsupervised. And that, needless to say, made the conversation extremely awkward.
This aversion to touch does not seem to be found in Scripture. Jesus healed using physical touch, he allowed a woman to wash his feet with her hair and there is (at least according to less sanitized translations) a description of a disciple “leaning on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13:23) while they ate in a reclined posture. There is no indication in Paul’s letters that the “holy kiss” was a gendered practice, he mentions both men and women in his list of those to greet, nor that it was only for their time. It certainly doesn’t seem like physical touch was such a big deal for Jesus and early Christians.
Consider the following:
As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, calling out, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. (Matthew 9:27-30b NIV)
While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. (Luke 5:12-13 NIV)
People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (Luke 18:15-16 NIV)
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. (Matthew 17:5-8 NIV)
And did I mention that Jesus touched?
That last passage, in particular, may give us some of the reason why the incarnation matters. We need more than an abstraction, more than a book or voice from heaven, we need touch. The church, as the hands and feet of Jesus, needs to be physically intimate in the same way that Jesus was to those he loved. There is healing in touch, it is healthy to touch, and Jesus touched.
Touch is good and right.
The need for good old-fashioned sex…
The person, responding to my prior blog about a failure in faith and relationship, had mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (something that I alluded to in an early blog) and how people, to reach their full potential, need food, water, shelter, clothes, and sex. They put special emphasis on sex because it is something that the spiritualizers (aka modern-day gnostics) would say sex doesn’t matter much and/or is something almost bad even in the context of marriage.
I recall being upset with a psychiatrist for describing my interest in a young woman as being sexual attraction. It was jarring to me at the time. How dare they describe my pure and lofty intentions in such a base manner? I’m not an animal! As obvious as sexual motives are now, looking back in retrospect, I truly was in complete denial then and still have difficulty now being honest about my strong desire for sex.
In fact, I had to be reminded recently that sex, within the marriage context, is something scared and thus my desire for that is not something to be ashamed of or hide.
So why did I hate and conceal this desire to the point that I didn’t even consciously recognize my motivations anymore?
Talk to anyone outside of a religious purity culture and they will be dead honest about their sexual desires. I too would never say that sex is a bad thing even while in denial of my own motivations. But, because sexuality is often discussed in negative terms, and because there was no healthy outlet for my sexual urges for all these years and also knowing that many conservative Mennonite girls share this same shameful view of sex, burying these desires seemed the only option. I mean what kind of God-fearing woman would marry a guy who openly admitted his mixed sexual and spiritual motives?
Unfortunately, this view of sex as being bad (or a shameful compromise) is completely unhealthy and needs to be addressed.
Scripture tells us “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 18:22) and, it is important to realize, marriage is a sexual union. The idea of “two will become one flesh” includes sex and part of that “good” a man finds in a wife. The apostle Paul, while encouraging celibacy for some, says (in 1 Corinthians 7) that those who “burn with passion” should marry rather than fall into sin. He also said that married couples should not deprive each other of sexual relations for an indefinite period of time. So maybe it is time for a more affirming and positive presentation of sexual desire?
Dividing sexual touch from the sacred is unhealthy and wrong. The marital bed is sacred. Sex, in the right context, is not shameful. Most people need this kind of physical intimacy to reach their full potential and thrive. It is not lustful or a sin to want sex. Sex is something we are made for, it is part of God’s original design and something good—we might as well be open and honest about it!
True connection is a human need…
Not everyone has the same need for intimacy and touch. However, a person doesn’t really know their need of something until it is taken away along with any hope of it. Those who minimize the importance or need for real physical connection with other people probably aren’t those who have been without it for long periods of time.
I believe, as a nearly forty-year-old virgin and one who has experienced years of physical isolation, that this is a big problem that is not being addressed. I believe it is especially a problem for men who have no healthy outlet for physical touch. It is not as culturally taboo for women to touch or at least it is not unusual to see teenage girls hanging all over each other. However unmarried men, who need touch to be healthy just like a woman does, are often left to their own devices—alone, unneeded and unappreciated.
But I digress, both men and women need physical touch and to feel loved.
For those with their own physical needs met, even just keeping singles/widows/widowers involved and regularly invited to dinner with your family is a good start. I know that this, even as a token gesture, helped me have a more positive outlook on life as much as it happened. In fact, my being welcomed into homes in this way by a Charity-ish church every time I visited was nearly enough for me to overlook my differences with their perspectives of theology and application. Something real and tangible is better than nothing at all. And love—genuine, self-sacrificial and materially real love—truly does cover a multitude of sins:
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1 Peter 4:8-10)
It is not enough to wish a brother or sister well who is starving or naked. Likewise, it is not enough to tell those who desire to be needed and appreciated that all they need is an abstraction of Jesus. Jesus came in the flesh so that he could physically interact with and touch people. We too need to incarnate the intimacy that we desire with God through our willingness to be physically connected and intimate with those whom God loves. We need to love others and not with empty words or in religious forms. We need to love them in a way that meets their real physical human needs and in the same way as we want our own spiritual needs to be met by God.
The real need is for meaningful connection. We need adequate relationships to keep our minds from falling into dark and dangerous places. Studies show a correlation between addiction and lack of adequate social connection. We are not self-sufficient, we are not mere minds in a body, we need each other, to be loved and to feel the love of others.
This is why the word became flesh and why we must flesh out the Gospel with healing and healthy touch. It is on us to be the hands and feet of Jesus—faithful love requires that we do more than talk about abstractions of love.
Early Christians, like their modern-day counterparts, had a wide variety of opinions and not all of their opinions are trustworthy or canonical. Still, their writings are often taken as 100% reliable and played like a trump card in debates over the correct interpretation of Scripture.
That is the case with some of my conservative Protestant friends when it comes to the topic of remarriage after divorce. If shown where Jesus addresses divorce as causing sin and qualifies his statement adding “except for sexual immorality” (Matt 5:32, 19:9), they will deny the implications of this clear exception and deflect to non-canonical early church writings.
It seems a fairly reasonable approach to a controversy over meaning at first glance. Why would we not trust early church writings as reliable indicators of original intent? What reason would they have to distort the true meaning of what Jesus taught? Shouldn’t we assume that they would know better than us?
However, that is not reasonable to assume. In fact, this idea that the early church was completely pure or free of heresies and false teachings goes completely contrary to Scripture. Indeed there were many errant ideas that circulated then and some very deep disagreements over practice. So, in other words, we should be testing their words against Scripture and not using their words in aid of our own confirmation bias.
Or, at very least, if you are going to quote Tertullian in a debate you should probably know a little about him before you do and also consider what else he believed.
Consider this early church writer…
Athenagoras (circa A.D. 177)
A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. “For whosoever puts away his wife,” says He, “and marries another, commits adultery”; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to many again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.
Did you catch that?
He just declared *all* second marriages, even those after the death of a spouse, to be “only a specious adultery” and forbidden.
Compare what he says to Saint Paul in the Romans 7:2-3:
For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law that binds her to him. So then, if she has sexual relations with another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress if she marries another man.
Montanism arose from the teachings of a man named Montanus, a new Christian convert from paganism, who claimed to have a special new revelation from the Holy Spirit. They taught that their own revelations superseded those of Jesus and the apostle Paul. They ordained women as bishops and basically rejected the authority of Scripture and the established church tradition as well.
And you know who else was under the influence of Montanism and also wrote against *all* second marriages?
Tertullian, a favorite of sophistical fundamentalist efforts to justify their existing positions, taught that *all* second marriages were forbidden. And by all I mean even second marriages in cases where the first spouse had died and a teaching that is certainly in direct contradiction to Scripture. That contradiction (if one truly believes that Scripture has an authority that supersedes personal revelation and not the other way around) disqualifies Tertullian as an authoritative source.
It is strange, while most Mennonites (and other Protestant fundamentalists) might denounce a modern version of Montanus as a false teacher and regard his adherents as deceived, many do accept old heretical teachings (when these old heresies argue their own established positions) and ideas that are not supported in Scripture.
All second marriages were forbidden by those misled by Montanus. However, according to Scripture, and not my own opinion, marriage can be dissolved for three reasons: Adultery, abandonment, and death of a spouse. In all three cases, a person is no longer bound to the first marriage and therefore is free to marry again.
1) The death of a spouse…
A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39 NIV)
There is no allowance for a Christian to divorce their faithful husband or wife. Marriage is supposed to be one man and one woman till death do they part. However, we live in a fallen world and that means sometimes a young married person might lose their husband or wife. For that reason, the apostle Paul provides a provision for widows and, presumably, widowers as well.
2) The abandonment of a spouse…
But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15 NIV)
A Christian is never allowed to divorce a faithful spouse. But, there are times when a couple is “unequally yoked” where one is a believer and the other is not. Paul tells those with a faithful and unbelieving spouse to remain faithful. However, he also provides a provision for brothers and sisters who have been abandoned by their unbelieving spouse. He says they are “not bound” to the marriage in that case.
3) The unrepentant adultery of a spouse…
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9 NIV)
Jesus, in response to the Pharisees who asked if it is lawful to divorce for “any and every” reason, first took the opportunity to restate the ideal for marriage as a lifetime commitment, then explains that Moses only allowed divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, and lays down the gauntlet: There is no divorce for any and every reason.
Jesus does, however, give one exception and that is in the case of sexual immorality (or porneia) when the marriage has been broken by unfaithfulness. He significantly narrows the scope for divorce and remarriage. I do not believe he is ruling out forgiveness of the errant spouse either. But marriage can be broken and it is broken by unfaithfulness to the marriage vows.
Isn’t it better to be stricter than Scripture?
The church of my youth allowed remarriage after a spouse had died, yet not when a marriage had ended by other the other means described in Scripture and has turned away those remarried who refused to separate from their second spouse. This kind of hard-line, no exceptions besides death, stance seemed normal to me. I had simply accepted what I had been told.
It would seem like a good thing to exceed a Scriptural requirement. Mennonites do this all the time, they forbidding alcohol, mandate clothing styles and often have a whole list of standards. There seems to be an idea that exceeding the requirements of Scripture makes us safer and there is definitely a case for erring on the side of avoiding things that are questionable.
But, that said, when our own personal conscience (standards in addition to Scripture) is used as a basis to exclude others, then we have become as Diotrephes, the arrogant church leader condemned in 3 John for his refusing welcome other believers, and we will be held to account. It is one thing to have high personal standards, it is quite another to make them a test of membership and reason to slam the door in the face of those trying to enter.
Do not be like those who use their own conscience to overrule the teachings of Jesus and the apostle Paul. Montanism was heretical, a false teaching, and their kind of sophistry remains a stumbling block.
A good friend of mine, a Mennonite, was quite upset with a particular social media provocateur (who self-identifies as marginally Mennonite) and his attack on Holy Communion—which he described as being “basically symbolic cannibalism” and “a man-made ritual” that “can be left on the shelf with no deleterious consequences.”
Then he goes on to say:
“I urge all liberal-minded Mennonites to just stop eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood. It holds no salvific power. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Nor does it earn brownie points with God. Further, it’s a major turn-off to people outside the church bubble (for those who care about how the church is perceived by outsiders).”
Most Mennonites, even the mainstream ‘liberal’ types, would reject this as profane and ignorant babble. It is an attack on the very foundation of Christian practice and makes me question if this individual is truly concerned with winning people “outside the church bubble” or the future of the church. His religious ideology, having myself sampled some of his writing, seems to be: Nothing is sacred.
What is interesting about this individual is their claim to be an Anabaptist radical. This claim might rankle conservative Mennonites (especially those who see themselves as the true owners of Anabaptist identity) and yet these words spoken against sacraments are truly quite consistent with the words of a feisty Dutch Anabaptist widow (recorded in Martyr’s Mirror) in response to a question about Holy Unction. This is what she said: “Oil is good for salad, or to oil your shoes with.”
I guess nobody told her “Christ” means anointed one?
Whatever the case, most modern Mennonites do not take such a cavalier attitude towards the sacred and are a bit more Orthodox than their radical roots. In fact, Mennonites more formally reintroduced sacraments (albeit in different description) by their acceptance of the “seven ordinances” listed by Daniel Kauffman 125 years ago: Baptism with water, Communion, Footwashing, Prayer Head-Veiling for the Women, greeting with the Holy Kiss, anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick and Marriage.
Kauffman’s ordinances represent a reversal of the Anabaptist woman’s hubris. He obviously saw the use of oil beyond the application to shoes and salads. But, through his use of different language and by his additions and subtractions (Women’s Head-Veils, Holy Kiss, Footwashing gave in place of Chrismation, Confession, Ordination) from the original listing of seven sacraments, he still maintained a deliberate distance from the established tradition of the Church.
What are sacraments?
Sacraments, simply put, are the “sacred mysteries” of the church. It is also important to note that Orthodox Christians, while they do recognize the seven sacraments listed by Roman Catholic, do not believe the sacraments are limited to just the seven listed and see everything the church does as a sacramental, according to to the OCA website: “All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God.”
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56 NIV)
Of the sacraments, Communion (called the “Holy Eucharist” (the word ‘eucharist” means thanksgiving) is the “sacrament of sacraments” for Orthodox Christians and the center of Church life.
Holy Eucharist is simply taking Jesus at his word:
And [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20 NIV)
Jesus clearly calls the bread his body and describes the cup as being the “new covenant” in his blood.
It is interesting that many Protestant fundamentalists—who pride themselves in being Biblical literalists, and modern self-identifying Anabaptists—who insist that they take Jesus at his word more than others do, come to passages like that above, then suddenly start to hem-and-haw and try to explain around what is plainly said.
Perhaps their discomfort is the same as is described in the following account:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:32-66)
With this, Jesus went from being an interesting teacher to being some kind of mystical weirdo and possible lunatic. It is also little wonder that pagans brought accusations of child sacrifice and cannibalism against early Christians. (Sorry, Charlie, it takes no creativity whatsoever to agree with sacrilege that dates the 2nd century AD and it is not a big surprise if this “hard teaching” continues to turn people back from outside the Christian bubble.) Not everyone can believe this claim then nor do all believe now. But that is what Jesus said and is what the faithful have taught for two millennia. The bread and wine encapsulate the sacred mystery of human relationship with the life-giving Spirit and this practice of Holy Communion is a necessary part of the Church together being the incarnation of Christ.
Human knowledge and personal ideals cloud spiritual discernment.
The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is therefore prima facie equivalent to rejection of the hero—to rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos. (“Maps of Meaning,” Jordan B. Peterson)
Unbelief takes many forms. Not everyone leaves the fold when faced with something that seems irrational to them. We know Judas remained on the margins despite his disillusionment with Jesus and his doubts eventually led to betrayal. We also know Peter’s faith seemed primarily a delusion about an earthly kingdom where he would be at the side of an important political leader and the unwillingness of Peter to accept the ultimate sacrifice (and of his personal ideals) led to denial and a sharp rebuke from 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 NIV)
The suffering and death of Jesus was something Peter couldn’t reconcile with his own ideals. It was a horrible ending to his hopes that would need to be fiercely resisted. Peter treats Jesus like I would a friend who is depressed and needed a pep-talk. Unwittingly he used the same reasoning that had tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus faced a hard choice, he needed to be courageous, focused on his mission, and face death head-on—but Peter was encouraging him to take the easy way out in the same way Satan did earlier.
Peter was guided by his personal ideals and Judas by his human rationality—both men failed to understand the divine mystery unfolding before them—both presumed incorrectly and neglected possibilities that went outside of their own established knowledge.
The whole Gospel narrative is centered on Jesus dying on the cross and conquering death. From a rational standpoint, why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins and granted us eternal life without sending an icon of himself in the person of Jesus? Surely God can identify with his creation without having to go through a physical manifestation for himself, right?
Was it symbolic?
Was it necessary for our salvation?
Perhaps both and more.
But, whatever the case, we don’t know why there needed to be an “image of God” (Colossians 1:15) or why our salvation is tied to Jesus having the experience of a very literal physical death. All we know is that this going through the motions was important to Jesus and therefore we should not be surprised when our faith requires our participation in rituals that we do not understand. We go through the motions of Baptism and Communion, not because of anything we can prove through human logic and reasoning, but simply because we believe in Jesus and accept a reality bigger than ourselves.
Saying something is *only* symbolic undermines the reason for doing it. One way to rationalize around sacraments is to divide the sacred from the symbol. That is to say, some attack the idea of sacraments by declaring the ritual part of them to be “only symbolic” and deny any actual value in the going through the motions. If that were true, then we should take the advice of provocateur and cease all activities that might make outsiders feel uncomfortable. I mean, if a practice is only symbolic and our ultimate goal is to win converts, why not?
Everything in our life can be deconstructed or explained away as meaningless. Why go to work when everything we accomplish will eventually vanish into dust? Why stay faithful to marriage knowing that sooner or later the end will come and the commitment is forgotten? All of the joy and purpose a person finds in life, depending on perspective, can be reduced to electrochemical activity in the brain and lacking in any true substance beyond that. Reason and logic are useful in debates, but they do not provide an antidote for feelings about the futility of the human experience nor answer the question of why to live.
To say a sacrament is only a symbol is like saying a baby is only a colony of cells or math is just numbers and nothing more. Our lack of understanding the significance of something doesn’t make it any less necessary, valuable or sacred—it only makes us ignorant and unwilling to transcend our own knowledge. From a rational perspective, does being dunked or drizzled in water do anything besides make someone different degrees of wet? Why bother to Baptize, take Communion or do anything if it is only symbolic? If salvation is not at stake and if there is no spiritual healing or real benefit, why even bother to go through the motions?
In Scripture, healing is often tied to physical objects and absurd actions. It is one of those curious patterns throughout the books of the Bible. People are saved from ailments and forgiven by God through various rituals. Like that time when the Israelites were complaining about basically everything, then started to get bitten by venomous snakes, and begged for help:
The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:8-9 NIV)
There is also the story of Namaan, in 2 Kings 5:1-19, who had leprosy and to be healed he was told to do something that makes no sense:
Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. (2 Kings 5:10-14 NIV)
Both of those Old Testament cases required “skin in the game” and tied an individual’s healing or salvation to their performing a specific act. There is no rational explanation as to why someone would be healed of leprosy by dipping in a particular river nor why looking at a brass object would cure a person of anything and yet that is what we read.
So what about the New Testament?
This same pattern of healing through odd and seemingly unrelated acts continues. We read how Jesus mixed spit with dirt to heal someone’s blindness (John 9) and how a woman’s touching of his garment healed her:
Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matthew 9:20-22 NIV)
Note: Jesus didn’t tell her she was silly for believing that touching his clothes would heal her or otherwise correct her action. No, she is commended for her faith and immediately healed. And, this pattern of healing through actions—through laying on of hands and involvement of objects—did not end with Jesus either. We read about it in the book of Acts as well:
God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11-12 NIV)
Perhaps we are more sophisticated than they were and thus can dispense with this kind of sacramentalism?
Truly, if there is no spiritual value to it, why should we even bother going through the motions of Baptism, Communion, etc?
We can try to turn church life into a totally rational experience and do away with all the mystical nonsense. We can re-label sacred mysteries—call them symbols, ordinances, ceremonies, signs or whatever. We can minimalize the sacraments and continue to water down their significance, condition ourselves in a way that will make the keeping of these practices optional, downplay partaking of the body and blood, do it only twice a year—eventually stop attending services altogether because it is irrational.
A church without sacraments is not a church.
The complaint of Protestants and Anabaptists was not completely invalid. Roman Catholicism had blurred the lines between sacrament and their own institutions and systems. Unfortunately, this led to an overreaction that did not always distinguish well between what was corrupted and the sacred mysteries themselves. The end result of this “reformation” has been disastrous disunity and disintegration of the church—which is not a sign of spiritual life.
One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve entered into Orthodoxy is the strong emphasis on church unity and incarnation. The emphasis is on the special spiritual connection between all Christians (past, present, and future) through partaking of the sacred mysteries together. It is, in fact, through sacraments that the church becomes necessary in the life of the individual. Baptism, Communion, Chrismation, Confession, Ordination, anointing with oil and Marriage are things we do together as a church and underscore the need for God, the things he has instituted and each other.
If the only point of sacraments were only to push against our own human rationality (which is often faulty and is always finite) and seek what is greater, then there is great value in them.
Sacraments bring us together, they give us a common identity and point us to truth beyond our own understanding. In the various examples of miraculous healing in Scripture there was often no logical connection between the action taken (or required) and the result. They didn’t know how it worked, they simply had faith, obeyed and were healed. Perhaps the only way to gain spiritual understanding is to let go, to stop depending on our own limited knowledge and start to depend on something that is greater?
Perhaps it is to counter the heresy of Gnosticism, both ancient and modern?
Whatever the case, to try to rationally explain a sacred mystery entirely misses the point. Furthermore, there is no need to separate or distinguish the healing God does in our lives from the sacraments themselves. We know that the thief on the cross was saved just for saying “remember me” and his faith in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean our own faith won’t require us to sell all we have like the rich young ruler or dip in a muddy river like Naaman. It doesn’t mean we can replace sacraments with our mere mental assent to a proposition and be healed or saved from our sins either.
The words of Jesus are useless to those who do not have faith and, likewise, sacraments are of no benefit to those who do not believe in them. The church should welcome all who wish to repent of their sins and participate in the sacred mysteries. But it does not seem at all reasonable or rational for the church to cater to those who do not hope to transcend themselves, their own experience and knowledge.
In the end, one can call sacraments by any other name and still have a church—but a church without sacraments is really only a social club and not a church.