There are many things in life that depend on a smell test or an intuitive sense. When the religious hypocrites brought a woman before Jesus the legal prescription was simple, she was caught in sexual sin and deserved death according to the law of Moses. They knew of his compassion for sinners and had hoped to trap him. If Jesus spared her he would break the law, but if he condemned then he would be just like her judgmental accusers.
What happened next in that narrative totally upended their simplistic conception of the law and application. To them, it was all very black and white. They were very thorough in defining the limits, of their legalism, and this adulterous woman fell well outside the bounds of any gray area. But Jesus defied them. We don’t know what he wrote in the dust at their feet, but we do know that Jesus, in response to their demands for an answer, told them “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” and that after this they left one by one.
Growing up in a fundamentalist sect, in the shadow of purity culture teachings, it was always about meeting expectations. If only you could follow the rules, then you might be accepted, then her dad (or your own) would be pleased and no longer harbor those often unspoken negative opinions. Sure, maybe those in this culture knew better than to be as open about their disapproval, like the men accusing the woman, but they still miss the point and will attempt to explain away the full significance of what Jesus did. To them, the goal is to be undefiled enough to cast the first stone.
Those blinded by a legalistic mindset only comprehend the letter of the law without ever understanding the spirit or true purpose behind it. When they are not onerously enforcing the technicalities of their own (often errant) interpretations of Scripture then they are carving out special exceptions for themselves and in all circumstances are missing the spirit or intent of the law. (Romans 2:29, 2 Corinthians 2:4-18) They see the law as a means to gain God’s favor or as means to gain rank on their more sinful neighbors rather than what it truly is.
First of all, the law was not established for Pharisees past or present to play morality police. Yes, we’re told to work out our own salvation. We need to confess our sins and admit our falling short as often as we do. But it is the role of the collective body of the Church to apply the law to others and not our own. In other words, we should stay in our lane, and use the law for introspection rather than as a hammer to beat over the head of our neighbors. Our obligation to others is to do as Jesus said and learn the meaning of the phrase, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”
Second, the law isn’t just an arbitrary set of rules to prove our worthiness to God. No, it is rather something established for our good and as a protection from harm. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was “made for man” and not the other way around, which is why he let his disciples violate the rules. In other words, the law is very practical, for our good, and can be bent when need be. Sure, we may not always understand the reasons and thus we should obey even when we do not, but there is always room for exception. This is what freedom in Christ entails—the ability to live by the underlying intent rather than only by the technicalities of written codes.
Those in the construction industry know about building inspectors who are ‘by the book’ to the point of being ridiculous. It isn’t actually making anyone safer. These types often lack hands-on experience, seemingly even basic comprehension of what makes a structure work, and they just make life harder for everyone. They can be technically correct, according to line three of page 395 of the code book, while still being clueless and unhelpful. This kind of expert has the letter of the law and lacks the spirit. This is to say that they have useless knowledge that makes them feel qualified when, in reality, those in the field know better.
And religious fundamentalists all end up like these building inspectors, hung up on details and never adding any real value to the project. They condemn everyone around them, in violation of the commandment of Christ, while they themselves have a beam in their own eyes. They think they are moral people because they can follow a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” and yet fail to comprehend the meaning of “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Indeed, we may not allow our children to cross the street without permission, it may also be jaywalking to cross in certain areas, and yet would the legal statute matter if there was an urgent need to cross?
Politicians and lawyers can find ways to be technically ‘legal’ while also immoral or violating the principle of the law. They can also point out when others do what is right when it is technically illegal or when others fail to dot an ‘I’ or cross a ‘T’ as is required. But they fail to apply the law correctly because they miss the actual intention or purpose behind the law. They do not know the Jesus who makes even our righteousness seem like filthy rags and are trying to earn God’s favor instead.
This is to be lost, like the rich young ruler, who was still trying to save himself through his own works. You can do everything right according to the Scripture (or at least your own understanding of the writing) and still be lost. You can do everything wrong and still be saved. This is because we always depend on the mercy of God rather than our ability to be perfect.
Much of what we believe is inherited and that includes how we interpret certain passages of Scripture. It is just the way things are, we do not independently arrive at our own conclusions and could very well have been taught wrong. Those who believe that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they’re standing on it have no potential for growth in understanding or perspective.
Many in a purity culture would squeal their displeasure at the term “legalism” being used to describe their ‘Biblical standards’ and hide behind mantras such as “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It!” Unfortunately, while this kind of obstinate stance may be good as far as resisting temptation, it basically amounts to confirmation bias on steroids in a search for truth.
This is exactly the attitude of those who took issue with Jesus breaking the Sabbath and how they absolutely refuse to see their own application of Scripture as entirely missing the point:
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
(Matthew 12:1-14 NIV)
The Pharisees, like religious fundamentalists today, believed that they were the experts and examples of righteousness. They would know that Moses, by order of the Lord according to Numbers 15:32-36, had a man put to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. It is very likely that many of them were very sincere in their saying that Jesus was possessed by a demon. How dare this teacher allow his followers to break the law and then defiantly double down in response to their concern!!! Weren’t there six other days to heal?!?
Now some commentators may try to square this legalistically, by claiming that Jesus was not truly going against Scripture. But I do not believe this is the case. The Pharisees were obsessed with the letter of the law and technically right in their complaint against his breaking the Sabbath. Jesus, by contrast, was focused on the reason behind the law, or spirit of the law, and pointed to Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” to establish the vast difference between the ritualistic devotion to a set of religious rules and genuine love for people.
Legalism, by this standard, is a use of the law that is negligent of the purpose. What is the purpose of law? The law is supposed to be for our own good, to protect us from harm, and thus the exceptions that Jesus mentioned in response to his critics. A legalist, in their strict adherence to rules, loves their rules, and yet they lack love and mercy for people. Thus, a legalist, in their no-compromise application of the law, defies the actual purpose for which the law was established and, therefore, are no longer under the law themselves:
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
(James 2:12-13 NIV)
Legalism: Divorced From the Issue
This blog is not meant to be a theological tome. For a more exhaustive look at the divorce and remarriage topic, especially for those of an Anabaptist background, I would suggest reading Dwight Gingrich who has covered the issue exhaustively in a series of blogs. I’ve already covered Biblical proof-texts in prior postings as well. Instead, I’ll stick to a discussion of the hardness of hearts and economia (special exception) as it applies to divorce and remarriage.
First of all marriage, by original intent, is until death do they part and there’s no exception to this. If men and women would live up to their vows, not make promises they not keep, this would solve the entire issue. If people would act responsibly and remain faithful in relationships then there would be no broken homes. That is certainly ideal, it was also the privilege of being born into conservative Mennonite culture for me—in that my parents were encouraged, through peer pressure, to overcome doubts and make it work.
However, this ideal simply is not available to many in the world. Many do marry, or have children, with someone whom they intend as their soulmate and it doesn’t end in a happily ever after for them. This failure of adults can have disastrous consequences for the next generation, the less desirable outcomes for children of single-parent homes are the evidence:
Children who live with only one of their parents do less well in school, obtain fewer years of education, and have trouble keeping a steady job as young adults. Children from single parent families are six times more likely to be poor.
“Single Parenthood and Children’s Well-being,” Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars
Now maybe this is genetic, that the children have the same commitment issues as their parents, and this strong correlation of single-parent homes with poor outcomes for children does not automatically equate to environmental causation. Maybe we need an adopted twin study? But it is pretty safe to say, without a complex analysis, that the insecurity and chaos of a home with one parent will have an impact on children that is undesirable.
So there’s a question: If the law is there for our good and single-parent homes are bad, what should happen after divorce or abandonment?
In the culture that I came from, there was a hardline stance on divorce and remarriage that even nullified the “exception clause” of Matthew 19:9. This perspective, from my personal experience as one who defended it, is about the preservation of an ideal and even at the expense of people. I could reason, like Moses having the man killed for picking up sticks, that allowing one exception would be a slippery slope and lead to far greater social disorder.
And yet this “greater good” logic is exactly why Jesus was put to death:
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
(John 11:47-50 NIV)
They both missed out on Jesus, their king, and also did not save temple worship. Also equally ironic is that the high priest unintentionally spoke the truth.
Anyhow, maybe, in the time of Moses, sacrifices of animals and the sons of Abraham were needed for the health of the nation. But now, after the death and resurrection of Christ, we are clothed in his righteousness and thus free from the letter of the law that kills:
He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
(2 Corinthians 3:6 NIV)
You’ll need to read further about the context of that statement to fully grasp what St Paul is saying in that letter. But the short version is that he’s contrasting the understanding of the law prior to Christ with that which only comes with the Spirit and seeing the intent behind laws as being greater than the laws themselves. This is different from the Pharisee men who carved out legalistic exceptions for themselves to divorce and were confronted by Jesus for their hardness of heart:
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
(Matthew 19:3-9 NIV)
The audience is men. The ideal is marriage until death do they part. And the rebuke is against the hardness of hearts. This is what makes it so egregiously wrong that men, in fundamentalist communities, will apply this passage (usually excluding the exception clause) to women who were abandoned by their husbands. It is, at the very best, taking the words of Jesus out of context and it is too often used rather hard-hearted response to those who have no chance of restoring what is ideal.
Jesus was not answering the question of what a woman is supposed to do when left to raise her children alone. And I’m also quite confident that he was not intending for his prescription to these men to be applied in the same dogmatic manner as they approached the Scriptures. It was their lack of mercy and compassion, how these men would misuse of the law of Moses (which did allow divorce) to escape their own responsibilities, that is the focus of his words.
As was explained to me concerning the Orthodox position on divorce and remarriage in contrast to that of fundamentalists:
As to sticking with what is written, I think here you can see the difference in how the Orthodox view the Scriptures—as part and parcel—but never the entirely of the whole Tradition—all of which has been handed down to us. The Orthodox do not take divorce and re-marriage lightly—it’s a complicated process to get a bishop’s blessing to undertake second and third marriages and the blessing is not always given. But the primary issue here is that the Orthodox confess God to be a God of mercy, love, and forgiveness—not a law-obsessed judge who keeps a record of pluses and minuses in order to play “gotcha” with those who fail.
Father Anthony Roeber
That statement above, part of an email that so profoundly reframed my understanding of divorce and remarriage, cuts right to the heart of the issue. Married or single, first marriage or second, what matters more than anything else is will if help us in the journey of faith or will it hinder. And that’s the true intent behind the law, it was a tool to steer us in the direction of doing what is good and merciful, like our Father, and yet would never be sufficient to save us.
Being raised in a fundamentalist sect meant taking the Genesis accounts as being a historical narrative. I had been taught, and had for many years accepted without question, the idea that the veracity of the Gospel message hinged on the most ‘literal’ interpretation of the first book of the Biblical canon.
This understanding of this book had worked fine to get me through my school years. I gave my high school biology teacher, Mr. Toohey, an atheist who had once considered the priesthood, a headache debating the textbook claims about mutations, millions of years, and Macro Evolution. At this age, I thought this style of apologetics, debating science using the words of Scripture, was a key to securing the faithful against doubts and winning unbelievers.
Unfortunately, while this understanding may serve well those who do not venture too far from the Young-Earth Creationism intellectual ghetto, against what amounts to strawman versions of secularist arguments, it doesn’t hold up as nicely against a serious challenge and has left many religiously indoctrinated high and dry in their years in a university-level science program. There is a reason why many in my former religious tradition are terrified of higher education.
Even seminary was a synonym for cemetery to one of my childhood Bible-thumping pastors. It should make one wonder. If the foundation of faith is so flimsy that it can’t be tested, that it can only be sustained by ignorance, then what’s the point?
Sadly, it was a false choice, this dichotomy between science and religion, education and faith.
Getting the Cart Ahead of the Horse
The Biblical fundamentalists got everything exactly backward. The truth of Christ does not depend on proving the Scripture, word for word, is completely 100% historically accurate and scientifically verifiable. It is nice when those things do align, sure. And yet, no matter how many mundane parts of the Biblical narrative are established this way, the fantastic claims are never proven.
If a politician lists off ten facts and nine of them turn up true according to the fact-checkers, does that make the final most grandiose claim true?
No, no it does not.
One of the most persuasive tricks of liars is to hide their one falsehood amongst a long list of facts and true statements. And likewise, someone could prove 99.9% of Biblical claims and still not have touched anything of the miracles. The Bible is true because it says it is true might work for idiots and the indoctrinated, but it is always circular reasoning and there being a town of Bethlehem doesn’t mean Jesus walked on water nor establish His divinity and conquering of death.
No rational person believes that a prophet flew from Jerusalem to Mecca, on a half woman half horse with a tail of a peacock, because they read it in a book. I’m certainly not going to wear magical underwear because some dude, a few hundred years ago, claims he received golden tablets from the angel Gabriel. So why would any reasonable person expect someone to believe a book written thousands of years ago? Sorry, Ken Ham, I don’t care how many replica Arks you build, you’re not winning skeptical minds or hearts with this effort.
Human efforts fail.
When Sarai reasoned with Abram to produce an heir through her maidservant, how did that go for them?
We know it didn’t go too well and have the commentary of St. Paul:
Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise. These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.” Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
(Galatians 4:21-31 NIV)
Here we see the contrast of human efforts “according to the flesh” and those of a spiritual and Divine origin. St. Paul emphasizes the “son” which is “born by the power of the Spirit” as an alternative to the “son” human reasoning that produced conflict and heartache.
It is amazing how many times St. Paul, and Jesus before him, encountered those who believed Scripture word for word and rejected Jesus as Lord. They, in many ways, had a stricter interpretation of the text than many of us do and did not face the strong headwind of modern science and philosophy either. And yet, even meeting Jesus in the flesh, seeing him with their own eyes, taking Scripture as literally as anyone, they saw Jesus as the imposter and rejected Him. So, how then can we be saved?
Fortunately, that question is answered many times over and over again, by St. Paul, and has next to nothing to do with the book of Genesis. The truth of Scripture is established on Christ, and His church, which established the canon of Scripture and does those “greater things” that Jesus promised would come through the power of the Spirit. Yes, we preach and teach, but only God can bring the increase. So, the apologetics industry starts us out on the wrong foot and doesn’t produce true faith in Christ.
Our salvation does not depend on our own understanding of a book. St. Paul, in Romans 9:16, states clearly, that our sonship depends on God’s mercy, not human desire or effort. Scripture is the cart, not the horse. We accept that the Bible is true because we believe in Christ, and His Church, not because we can establish it through our human reasoning or effort. Faith is a work of the Spirit, a gift from God, not a product of our knowledge or works. Those trying to ‘prove’ the Bible are on a fool’s errand. trying to save themselves, slaves to human reasoning, lost and confused.
What Does That Have to Do with Babel?
Hopefully, the Noah rode on a T-Rex crowd is too triggered with that intro, because now we shift to something they may find more agreeable and that being the even greater monument to human reasoning and effort.
But, first, the tower of Babel narrative:
Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
(Genesis 11:1-9 NIV)
This story is likely the origin of the phrase, “men plan, God laughs.” Actual historical event, ancient myth or both, does not matter, the tower of Babel narrative is so much more. The account speaks to human limits and hubris, a true story told over and over again in history and a lesson repeated in different ways with each passing generation. The moment humans forget their place, begin to rely on their own cleverness and start to see themselves equal to their own Creator, the clock to destruction begins to tick.
These people, in the Biblical account, had somehow overcome the odds, they evidently were a resource-rich civilization, more powerful than external threats, and ready to cement their name in history. But just when heaven seemed within their grasp, the very thing that they had sought to avoid, being scattered, brought the entire endeavor grinding to a halt. Now Babel, the name a play on words that meant “to confuse,” is a synonym for colossal human failure. Sure, maybe it is an origin story for the diversity of language. But, undeniably, it is also a cautionary tale.
Other accounts tell us that this confusion of languages, by God, was to save humanity from the total destruction of another flood. In other words, it was an act of mercy to prevent an even greater calamity to end this project and scatter the people. But, more than that, it is a lesson about not leaving God out of the equation. What does that mean? Well, that means that we can’t see everything and, without humility to reign in our ambitions, we are an existential threat to ourselves. The proud fall because they cannot imagine the factors that they, in their overblown confidence, have missed.
Our Modern Towers of Human Arrogance
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
(Isaiah 29:14 NIV)
History is replete with examples of bold declarations followed by catastrophe. Neville Chamberlain’s quip of having secured “peace in our time,” through a treaty with Adolf Hitler, comes to mind. Hillary Clinton was, according to the experts, most definitely going to win over Donald Trump.
But now it is time to tie all these threads together. The same thing that brought about the Protestant schism, also led to the Enlightenment, spread of Democracy, and, ultimately, the rejection of God.
This “age of reason” got off to a relatively good start, scientific discovery, development of technology, and representive government has enabled us to be more free and prosperous that many prior generations. However, as the tower of our knowledge and independent spirit rose, as we have made leaps in medicine, even landed a man on the moon, when American exceptionalism (the ultimate expression of Protestantism) finally conquered all, and our hegemony was nearly unchallenged, suddenly a day of reckoning seems to be upon us and this colossus, this oversized imagine of human endeavor, seems in danger of collapse.
A couple of decades ago it felt as if we were on the cusp of a new epoch. Racism vanquished, our old enemies irrelevant, the world connected as never before, the internet ready to put all knowledge at our fingertips and the stars seemingly within our reach. Secularism and science had triumphed over superstition and myth, we imagined no religion, nothing to kill or die for, as Coca-cola taught the world to sing. Former seminaries, our universities, forgetting God, became temples of human reason. “We didn’t need church or religion to be good people,” the atheists cried, while standing on the shoulders of theologians whom they dismissed, “in fact, we’ll go further without it!”
However, my own optimism has unravelled over the past decade or two.
Star Trek and the Jetsons still remains, firmly, in the realm of science fiction. The internet is a cesspool, filled with crackpot opinions, censored by billionaires bullies who pretend to be gatekeepers of truth while they spread misinformation, and nothing like a child of the 90s would’ve imagined. As church attendance slips, depression and drug usage has steadily increased—along with suicides and mass shootings.
Our universities, rather than continue to value free thought and expression, now have strict speech codes and safe spaces. The minds that once sought to improve the human experience, now only deconstruct tradition and erode the very ground that their institutional ivory towers were constructed upon, too drunk with nihilism to care. Even Coke brand, that once celebrated human diversity, has joined the graceless cult of woke in attacking “whiteness” and civilization itself—as if they have forgotten what has made their own comfortable ‘privileged’ life possible.
The government, “for the people,” that at least gestured towards the needs of the citizenry, now only serves global corporations, the powerful elites and special interests. The US flag, once a symbol of hope, the American ideal, and our unity as diverse people, something black athletes proudly wrapped themselves in less than a generation ago, has now been reimagined as a representation of oppression and hate. Our faith in our institutions is failing, the left decrying systemic racism, the right suspecting election fraud, nearly everyone feeling unheard.
We’re a civilization consuming itself and maybe it is because we’ve forgotten this:
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
(Galatians 5:13-15 NIV)
We don’t go to church anymore, a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated, and “love your neighbor” is now used as a guilt trip rather than a reason to change our own toxic attitudes or be involved on behalf of others. John Kennedy’s call to service, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Those words, spoken today, would likely be derided as some kind of dangerous “ism” in today’s me-first, my tribe, my way or the highway, divisive identity driven, you’re literally a Nazi if you disagree, political environment.
Have we reached new heights only to implode?
What is really going on here?
Pride Cometh Before the Fall
Satan, we’re told, was the very best of the angels. His magnificent greatness eventually led him to believe that he was a rival to God. Jesus warned his disciples, having returned exuberant from working miracles, that he had seen Satan “fall like lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18) and reminded them of their place before the Almighty.
Hubris is the downfall of many and the idea that we can find all of the answers for ourselves is that. With each success, with every innovation and breakthrough, there is a danger and risk of overconfidence.
In the past few centuries have seen our knowledge and abilities increase like no other time in recorded human history. The West threw off the authority of Rome, with the reasoning that every man was able to comprehend Scripture outside of the tradition of the church. Not long after, the authority of Scripture itself was called into question. Why do we need a book of myths written by those who lack our sophistication and understanding of the world? God was erased from our institutions, prayers only a ceremonial and many imagine themselves to be self-made or little gods. It is the height of ignorance:
You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me” Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?
(Isaiah 29:16 NIV)
But it isn’t only the cultural elites, the atheists, the politicians who only pay lip service or liberal theologians whittling away at morality until there’s nothing left. This spirit of self-reliance, and arrogance, permeates through the whole civilization. We are blinded by information, buried in jargon, tangled in complexity, yet think we’re englightened.
We should be pumping the brakes, as technology advances faster than our ability to comprehend the consequences, I see it even (or especially) in those emerging from sheltered religious cloisters. Sure, the are the reactionaries, afraid of all change or improvement, but then there are those who have a little education and embrace it all nof realizing the potential. Our brightest minds are working on things much more dangerous than nuclear weapons, creating biological agents, developing artificial intelligence, considering climate altering measures, all potentially having the possibility of irreversible side-effects, and truly playing with fire.
We believe we are in control but are most definitely not and, with our new power, are one or two mistakes from an unmitigated disaster.
Like the tower of Babel, which likely took years of planning and building layer upon layer, our modern civilization was built. Our confidence has grown and exponentially along with our accomplishments. We’re clever, we found cures for disease, invented means to travel to the ends of the earth and beyond. But the higher we ascend the easier it is to forget what we are and where we came from. We didn’t create ourselves nor do we know as much as we think we know and this should always keep us humble.
Thinking we are God or next thing to God will, inevitability, lead to chaos, confusion and ultimate collapse into disorder. The bigger our collective endeavor gets, the more we live on our own reasoning and strength rather than depend on faith, the less able we are to cooperate, we erode the very foundations of civilization and the destruction will be swift. God, in His mercy, will scatter us before we become too foolish, with our great knowledge, to be saved. Human reasoning is a dead end, we cannot transcend ourselves outside of God’s help. If we reject that help we will fall.
One of the markers of Protestantism, from the start and especially in the current evolutionary stage, is the purity spiraling of those still seeking the perfect church on their own terms. In a sense, the protest of Protestantism never has ended and continues to fracture the Western church into oblivion.
As a product of that way of thinking, I had always sought after and argued for my own ideal for the church. It could very well, if I was slightly more ambitious, had eventually led to the formation of the Perfect Church of Joel. That is what many Protest-ants do when they become disillusioned with the tradition they were born into, they protest and start their own new and ‘perfect’ church.
Of course, the shine of these fresh attempts to reform or restore the ‘original’ church is soon burnished. The next generation comes along, or disagreement comes up between these idealistic individuals, and soon spawns the next Protestant group, and the next after that, and the next after that, ad infinitum.
The Seeker Versus Slanderer
The concluding end of Protestantism is only perfect disunity, with everyone staying at home on Sunday as to be away from those other hypocrites and to do church right their own way. And, yes, if you’re thinking of the retired Burger King “have it your way” slogan, that might as well be the banner over these endeavors. Protestantism is the church for the consumerist age. It is defined by individualism, marketing campaigns, and seeker-sensitivity, or alternatively, pride, perpetual discontentment, and perfectionism.
There is nothing new under the sun.
Like now, there was also self-aggrandizement in the early church:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
(3 John 1:9,10 NIV)
There was plenty to criticize in the early church. There was sin overlooked or even celebrated locally, there were cliques of those of higher social status and those left out, arguments among leaders, and plenty for someone to be dissatisfied with. But Diotrephes took things a step further, he rejected church unity altogether, refused even the Apostles, and I’m sure, in his own eyes, his theology was impeccable. However, it is quite evident that Diotrephes had put himself first and, despite his inflated ego, was as sinful as those whom he arrogantly slandered or shut out.
There is no indication that Diotrephes ever wavered in his commitment to himself and his own understanding, it is quite possible that he remained inordinately impressed with himself until his last breath, but we certainly should not follow his example.
This is what we should seek after:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Ephesians 4:1-6 NIV)
Casting Pearls Before Swine
Had I still been seeking a perfect church I would not have become Orthodox and I would not have joined your silly cult group either. I can pretty much rip anything to shreds with my critical spirit and, at the right point in my life, would’ve been one of those that Jesus advised his disciples about, saying:
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
(Matthew 7:6 NIV)
It is likely not a coincidence that this quotation above follows Jesus saying “judge not, or you too will be judged” and recommends us taking the beam out of our own eyes first.
There is nothing to be gained by dialogue with a cynical and divisive skeptic. They aren’t there to learn, they are there to tear you apart as a means to prove their own superiority or justify themselves. Their goal is not to understand, it is to trip you up so that they can smear mud in your face. I think we all know the type. They live for controversy, for an opportunity to debate and disparage.
Do not engage these people. They are not seeking after the unity described by St Paul. They are proud, self-righteous, demanding, and never satisfied.
No, these contentious people are no more hopelessly lost than anyone else. They may be sincerely seeking and yet will not be argued or logically driven from their own position. However, despite their perpetual restlessness as a result of hidden uncertainty or insecurity, they cannot see the folly of their own way and are only engaging you to feel better about themselves. They will ridicule and mock because it distracts from their own inner lack of peace.
It is not worth arguing with someone who is focused on the imperfections of everyone else. They will need to come to terms with their own imperfection first and by not arguing with them you give them that space they need to turn their inquiry inward. Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us, he did not say to try to argue and persuade those not truly interested in hearing or considering their own need for repentance.
I’ve spent years of my life trying to convince people. I believed that people were changed by means of the mind, that we were rational creatures, and could employ reason to drive people to a correct perspective. But there is more to than that and, as a wise uncle recited to me years ago, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The pigheaded, those blinded by their own bias, will stomp, snort and sneer at anything they don’t want to accept. Without a change of heart, without repentance, trying to engage with them is a waste of time.
Correcting Our Orientation
Looking back the problem is clear. The divisions in the denomination that I was born into, the conservative versus liberal, had to do with a horizontal rather than vertical focus. We were oriented wrong. We thought we should be unified by our shared standards, our understanding of theology, and purity on our own terms. But the reality is that this was an approach that led to quarrels and a form of religious pride disguised as righteousness. Had we been oriented towards Christ we would have been more understanding of our own continual need of salvation and thus been more forgiving of faults and differences.
Seeking perfection in the church brings division and self-centeredness.
Seeking perfection in Christ brings unity and healing to the imperfect church.
Many seek the perfect church at the expense of following Christ who spent his time with losers. They neglect to notice that the book of Acts and the letters of St. Paul are full of examples of failure. Even the leaders of the church, Peter himself, had to be “opposed to his face” (Galatians 2:11-13) and call him out for hypocrisy. So who are we that we think that we are somehow cut from a better cloth than the Apostle themselves and can create a better church better than the one that they left for us?
Sure, the history of the church is full of imperfection and failure. There were heresies that gained traction and even leaders that got out of line. But why are we seeking perfection in the church? Shouldn’t we be seeking after Christ, who loved us while we were still lost in sin, who forgives us as we forgive others?
This was what Jesus told the disciples:
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)
This idea of a pristine church, free of failures, abuses, or problems, flies in the face of our need for salvation and a Savior. It is pride, the biggest sin there is, and people trying to save themselves, that divides the church. It is an orientation that looks across the aisle rather than inward and upward, eyes that see every sin but our own. It is preferring that others conform to our own will and understanding over loving each other (as commanded) and valuing our Communion together.
I became Orthodox once I stopped chasing after the fantasy creature of a perfect church. I gave up on the sufficiency of my own reasoning and started putting unity in Christ over having things my own way in theology and practice. There never was a perfect church, at least not one perfect according to my own hopes, perspectives, or personal standards. But there was a church that was brought together in their following after the teaching of the Apostles and in their seeking after unity in the Spirit.
The measure of true faith is how much we love those who do not deserve it, as Christ first loved us, and this starts with loving our brothers and sisters in the imperfect church:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
(Luke 6:36-38 NIV)
To be perfect, as our Father is perfect, is to be merciful as our Father is merciful.
There are many things largely forgotten to history, one of them a horrendous tragedy that took place on June 15th, 1904, near “Hell’s Gates” on the East River, which would forever change one ethnic community in New York City, and that being the General Slocum ferry disaster.
What had started as an annual church excursion of German-Americans, mostly women and children, from their community in the city’s East Village to Long Island, ended with terror and over 1000 deaths. The poorly maintained boat caught fire, while underway, fire fighting equipment failed and the wooden craft quickly became an inferno.
Helpless mothers, unable to swim themselves, especially not in the heavy clothing of the time, put life preservers on their children only to see them sink like rocks into the river as the cork in the flotation devices had degraded. The Captain, likely trying to avoid causing a more devastating fire on shore, decided to head for some islands, into the wind, which only made the wooden ferry into a blow torch before it felt apart.
The result of this hell on earth was the eventual dissolution of the German-American community in New York City and one can only imagine the personal torment this left for the survivors and the fathers and husbands left behind.
My worse nightmare is not being able to help those whom I love. I had, in casual conversation with a psychiatrist, been told that I showed symptoms of PTSD after the unexpected death of Saniyah and judging from my current awful feelings and tears right now, from writing this, I would guess that they were right in their analysis.
If only seeing someone I loved deeply wail the loss of their daughter could rip the fabric of my being to such an extent, I can’t even begin to imagine what seeing them roasted alive would do. Lord have mercy!
My Covid-19 Mini-Crisis
Being raised in an American culture that too often confuses health and prosperity with God’s favor, the idea that someone that I love could be felled by a virus seems obscene. But, faith, right? Shouldn’t faith prevent my family members and loved ones from dying prematurely from a virus?
But it seems that the truly Orthodox have no such delusion. True, Fr. Seraphim expressed his belief that one cannot become sick through their participation in the body of Christ. However, even still, that does not preclude the possibility of our becoming sick during the fellowship and interactions afterward, does it?
It is was in the contemplation of father’s words that I ran across the story of early Christians who, unlike their pagan neighbors who fled, deliberately went into harm’s way to attend to their plague suffering neighbors. They attended to the sick, taking the illness upon themselves in many cases and succumbing in as much agony as anyone else.
How could this be?
Did their faith mean anything at all?
My own thoughts continued an ongoing internal discussion about the evidence (or lack thereof) for a God that actually cares. In my American-tinted perspective, they should have been protected from disease to prove God’s sovereignty over all of creation and show the truth of their Christian testimony, that’s only logical, right?
I can’t claim to understand. All I know is that many of them died, yet the stories of their extraordinary faith spread throughout the Roman world and you can still read of their testimony even in Foreign Policy articles published in our time. They died and yet they also demonstrated an example of love that has lived on to this very day and have defied my own logic in that.
We have but one life to live, all people die eventually, yet it is said that all people have two deaths: The first death being their physical death, when their body is put into the grave. Then a second ‘death’ at some point in the future when their name is said for the last time. And, I would argue that, in that light, those who, in faith, sacrificed their lives for their neighbor’s sake have actually outlived those who fled in fear.
It turns out that the Christ of Christianity only ever promised a life of suffering for others to those who would follow him. The ‘faith’ of those seeking health and wealth is shallow and will fall apart in times of crisis. But true faith lives for the good of others, despite uncertainty and fear, the proof is not in their own health so much as their faithful and lasting impact on the world.
No, your faith will not spare you, but if you live in love you will find God waiting on the other side of your suffering.
How I Have Seen God At Work
This may be a strange way to make an announcement of sorts, but I’ve never professed to be anything other than strange. I mean, I’ve tried to act normal, yet it never seems to work out for me. And so I guess I work with what I’m given, right?
Anyhow, I mentioned a bhest in past blogs, including my last blog, and haven’t really explained what bhest really means.
Right now, on the opposite of the world from where I am currently writing, lives a beautiful flower, her name is Charlotte. I found her in a moment of great faith, when my life remained consumed in my Mennonite identity and struggle with the father of a young woman, and had agreed to participate in her life as only an encouragement. She had moved to Taiwan, from her mountain home in the Philippines, as a means to support her son and secure an annulment from the father of her son.
Given her marital situation (along with my Mennonite and purity culture priorities) and my continued faithful pursuit of the impossibility, I told her that our relationship would have to remain platonic (which is something she allowed without any protest) and offered to be her encouragement. My commitment was to show her that someone still cared about her life, despite her being separated from family and not having anyone else to turn to at the time. At the time I was also on the road, away from home, so I understood the loneliness that comes with separation from family and friends.
There was a bit of a pattern that developed. I would be her faithful wake up call, to wish her a wonderful day, but later (with the stress of a high-pressure work environment and conflicts with coworkers) she would come back online with the crying puppy emoticon, which was my signal to get to work, and I would make it my mission to cheer her up again. Soon, by whatever miracle, I would have her laughing and smiling again.
At some point, pretty early on, she asked me if it was okay if she would call me “bhest” and (after a momentary hesitation to consider the potential damage of letting her use a term of endearment in our context) I decided to give her permission. It is a term that I had no idea what it meant really then and still am not entirely sure. But, eventually, it felt dumb to let her be alone in using that term, there was no term and thus she too became my bhest.
Bhest, according to Charlotte, meant this: “the very best best person, who is my friend, who is always beside me, to pray for me, advise me, cheer me up and who really shows care for me.”
Bhest, best explained, is a word mystical in meaning, has become a sort of joint identity and not something my words can easily explain. But I do know that it stands for a commitment to care. And, when my own road reached an end in the Mennonite church, like hitting a brick wall, it was the hand of my bhest reaching through, telling me in a moment of suicidal darkness, “if you go, take me with you,” and demonstrated a level of commitment to me even greater than my mother. It was then that I decided to stay to serve this lost sheep that I had found and if only for her good.
Charlotte’s happiness, I decided, was worth my suffering through another day of this life. The seed of faith that I gave to her months before, in my pure concern for her, grew into a limb that I could hold onto until my own feet again. She was the one who told me to “be strong for her” and gave me the courage to walk through the doors of Holy Cross, in Williamsport, on the road to my Orthodox conversion. And it was Charlotte who finally gave me that reason to no longer be “thirty years old living in Milton” (as the faithless alternative explained) and compelled me, months later, to board a Boeing 747 headed for the other side of the world.
Bringing This to the Present
There is so much I could say about Charlotte and her son. So many moments, from profound moments of sadness together (after the murder of her uncle Roland) to those of our greatest joy and many others somewhere in between. Her family has embraced me, reposed uncle Roland especially, welcomed me with open arms, and made me feel right at home twelve timezones from my current residence. I honestly felt like I had experienced a taste of heaven in Baguio City and in our various excursions.
Now that country, like my own, is experiencing the same Covid-19 lockdown (albeit stricter than my own) and our hopes for the future are overshadowed with even greater uncertainty than before. But at least Charlotte is stranded, for once, with her son Y-dran, whom she loves deeply despite being separated from him for years. He’s a real handful, a biter when I met him (who learned quickly that, unlike his grandma and aunts, I bite back), and has since matured to a bright (while still completely energetic) eight-year-old. His wide smile always welcomed me and I’ve missed him since our first meeting.
More recently, due to his history of illness, and a recent bout with pneumonia (he’s still coughing), along with the spread of Covid-19 worldwide, along with my own struggles due to some history of my own mentioned earlier, it has been exceedingly difficult for me to rest easy and trust God in this moment of chaos.
In one of my silly, more romantic moments, after Charlotte watched one of my favorite movie classics, “The Last of the Mohicans,” I recited to her the words of Hawkeye, “You be strong, you survive! You stay alive, no matter what occurs, I will find you! No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!” Which was a promise said with a little smile and laughter, nevertheless pretty accurately represents the commitment that I’ve made to her. I’ve nearly had to make real on that once when she called me after almost being abducted by two men, while in Taiwan, and our current situation has left me wondering what extreme measures might be necessary to bring her here to my side, with her son, our son, Y-dran?
As of today, upon the request of Y-dran (a shortened version of his full name, pronounced yid-run) himself, that I will begin to call Y-dran my son. I had worried a few months ago whether or not a young Igorot boy, with his own biological father, would ever accept this goofy overwrought religious refugee American. But we hardly even speak the same language yet (although he was actually using sign language today and will likely learn English far quicker than I learn Tagalog and his tribal tongue) and yet he has asked me if I could be his father. *gulp* I really didn’t know how to express all my excitement, he had completely pre-empted all of my preparations for the future where I would need to explain this, where I would have to walk gingerly to avoid undermining the man that is his biological father, and now I do not have to worry about that.
And, speaking of prayer, unprompted, Y-dran, after all that, requested that I lead the prayers before he went to bed. So, being as Orthodox Christian as I know to be, I gathered myself and my phone, we went to the prayer corner of my house and led in the Lord’s prayer before praying for our future together, that it may come quickly and that he can remain healthy until then.
Dreams and Prayers
I have big dreams of what to do as a father with his son. But I also have a fear that hangs over me. My own life has been full of hopes ripped away from me right at the time when I thought things were in the clear. Now, before I can have my happy and simple life, with a little broken and repaired family, there is this monster called Covid-19 lurking in the darkness. I have full awareness of the terrible tragedies that have cut down the faithful and heathen alike, sometimes on a bright sunny day, like that day those German-Americans boarded General Slocum before their final hellish terror.
However, come hell or high water, I am determined, as determined as I am to pursue impossibility in faith, to not live my life in fear. I believe that God exists and that God is good because I have not alternative. I believe in God because without God there is no good. Logic and reason cannot explain away the feelings I have for my precious bhest and her livewire son. Even if we are cruelly kept apart for many more years, due to legal nonsense or plague, I know we will be together again and someday soon.
May God have mercy on us!
Only will tell if my dreams for this life will ever come true. It is easier for me to predict a global pandemic than to know if my next few days, weeks, or years on this planet will be happy or harrowing. Maybe my battered faith will finally meet it’s match, in something awful yet to come, and my hopes finally drown in a seas of despair. Nevertheless, as long as I’m alive, let my hymn be this: “Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have set our hope in Thee.” And, in the perilous days ahead, may I cling all the more to the words of St Paul:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39 NIV)
P.s., Y-dran, like his father, is also a fan of Dunkin donuts, which they do have in the Philippines, so the apple really doesn’t fall far from the tree!
I do not call for the judgment of anyone, but it seems only right that good behavior is rewarded. And yet it is often unruly people who get the loving attention when they do bad and then the accolades when they begin to do what the well-behaved have been doing quietly for years.
The conscientious person feels bound to their duty to righteousness. They are driven by loyalties to people, motivated by moral obligation and take responsibility for the welfare of others. It was not out of a desire to be recognized, it is a burden they’ve been carrying since birth, it is never a choice for them, but rather is something inescapable, a prison and hell.
I’ve been that tortured soul. I’ve always wanted to do everything right and for the right reasons. While definitely wanting to be my own person and entitled to my own thoughts, I had no desire to be a troublemaker or disruption. I tried to be cooperative and compliant, to make the lives of my teachers and authorities easier, because I knew the greater social good was dependent upon this and would not be served by my selfish outbursts.
I could never live this ideal out perfectly. I had a standard for myself, a part of the religious inheritance I received as a Mennonite, that was impossible to live out. My frustration with this reality of my own failure would sometimes come bubbling up. Something would set me off and, in the privacy of my parent’s home, I would rage against this awful predicament and the unfairness of it all.
The carefree (and careless) younger brother…
A week or two ago some resentment returned. This change in mood was likely triggered by two things (or rather two conversations) and one of them being an encounter with David Bercot on the topic of divorce and remarriage. The other thing? I had a run-in with my own Prodigal side.
We claim there are consequences for sin. This is how we convince ourselves that our righteous inclinations are correct and there is really no other way to justify depriving oneself of hedonistic pleasure. If it doesn’t matter what we do, no real score kept for right or wrong in the end, then we might as well just have some fun, right?
I’m friends with one of those “bad boys” who (despite his heart of gold) doesn’t care what other people think and has done things at his age that were unimaginable for me. He is a ladies’ man, he’s that guy the young women (yes, even the ‘good’ ones) feel comfortable playing around with, and is basically my antithesis.
I can’t help but love him. He was my true friend a few years ago, heard me spout venom at those who had hurt me with their self-righteous indifference, and never said a word of condemnation. That said, his recklessness and lack of my seriousness, while I was fighting for all I was worth to stay glued together after a devastating announcement, had also sparked my most violent and evil imaginations.
I can’t hold him accountable, though. I look at his freedom with a bit of envy in that at any moment he could decide to settle down, marry the perfect girl (drawn by his charm) and carry no stigma. Me, however, I was always outside looking in, I wasn’t allowed (by character or circumstance) to partake of that “wild” youth nor given the legitimacy that is his for the taking once he decides to settle down.
I’m not jealous of or bitter toward him. Why should I be? But what I do struggle with is anger towards the religious culture that made me, that fed me a steady stream of false promises and left me feeling completely betrayed in the end. Specifically, I’m still upset with the fathers who dismissed me with their cynical calculations and their daughters who continually rejected my sincerest efforts—while meanwhile crawling all over the reckless and indifferent guys.
It is bad enough to go unrecognized. But we seem to live in a world where no good deed goes unpunished, where caring (when others do not) is mischaracterized as creepiness and doing right for the right reasons is often stigmatized. It seems my obeying conscience doesn’t allow me the freedom of rebellion nor does it gain me the approval of those who told me that my conscientious is a good thing when I do what is right in spite of their opinions.
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:28-30 NIV)
This anger is likely due to a misconception the older brother had about his father. He obeyed. However, he obeyed for fear of consequences rather than purely as a matter of conscience. His motivation, while in some respects a devotion to his father, was also a desperate effort to secure his place in the family and a mistrust of father’s love. He, like the servant who buried his talent for fear of punishment, couldn’t comprehend being loved for anything other than his performance and had lived in fear rather than faith.
Can you imagine having spent years trying to hold up your own end of the bargain, working hard to produce because that’s how your father’s love is earned, only to have the bubble burst?
In my own case, it was not entirely my own fault that I saw God, my heavenly Father, as this sort of vengeful tyrant. As one raised in a fundamentalist setting there is plenty of reason why I would assume that God’s love is based on my own performance rather than something freely shared to all who accept it and that’s because my earthly fathers often did keep me in limbo. Revivalistic preaching undermined any assurance of salvation, my life could never measure up to their purity standards, and their love for me was limited by what I was able to provide for them.
For years my hopes for love outpaced my resentments. I would tell myself that next time will be different, that my fears of always being on the margins of their paradise were unfounded, and eventually Christian love would triumph over my inadequacies. However that paradigm came crashing down in spectacular fashion when a young woman, someone to whom my hope against hopes (in respect for her professed devotion) were fully invested, said “I can’t love you like that,” which was to say that she really could not love me at all, and destroyed that last hope of a way to her or rather her father’s world.
Trying to please the lawyer’s God…
Over the past weeks, I’ve felt whipsawed. That is to say, I’ve felt pulled between two seemingly opposed views that together undermine my peace with God and the ability to live a victorious life. The first being how the Prodigal gets the embrace while I’ve often been ignored or, worse, had those whose love I had desired recoil as if I was some sort of monster. The second being the inescapable legalistic mindset that is at complete odds with true Christian love.
I have nothing against men like David Bercot personally. In fact, I see them as men very much like myself a few years ago, they diligently search Scripture trying to find their salvation, and yet they are far more capable than I’ll ever be. Their dedication and discipline would seem to be commendable and even something enviable. However, their standard is something I’ve found to be out of my own reach and their religious prescriptions often come at the expense of love.
Bercot, like so many others including myself, is law rather than love oriented. By this I mean we prioritize precise legal interpretation and application of law above the loving purpose behind it. In other words, we are like those religious experts Jesus encountered, who do things like tithe spices, are more concerned with the day someone is healed than the fact that they have been healed, remained as dogmatic even when entering the church and had to be put in their place:
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.” I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves! (Galatians 5:1-12 NIV)
Paul’s pun at the end does not take away from the serious warning in his words. Those trying to please God through their careful obedience to the law “have fallen away from grace” and are thus obligating themselves to an impossible standard. They will either end up deluded (like the Pharisee praying loudly about his own superiority to others) or desperately trying to cross all the T’s and dot all of the I’s and ending up in despair when his/her effort falls woefully short of God’s perfection.
Where I’ve found God’s love…
My goal is not to be the rebellious Prodigal son or the one whose careful dedication ended in bitter disappointment. Both of them have fallen short in love for their father or in understanding their father’s love for them and have suffered consequences as a result. The story isn’t intended so that we go out to sow our wild oats, enjoying the pleasures we are afforded us as a result of our inheritance, and then come back to our father’s house again. It isn’t just a warning against a superficial closeness either.
The true meaning of the story is for us to be more like our heavenly Father, who is perfect in mercy and loves even when His love is not reciprocated. Yes, there is a law, not the kind of law that pleases a sanctimonious religious lawyer, but a law summed up by Jesus:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV)
When we love God we do not worry about being stigmatized like Jesus and his disciples were for breaking with the harsh and unloving application of the law. We stop trying to please those impossible to please, stop believing God is some tyrant finger over the “smite” key waiting for us to slip up, and start doing what is possible to do out of love for our neighbors. It is in remembering that Jesus came to save and not to condemn the world—that through his love even the vilest of sinners can find eternal life.
I still struggle with my hurts despite God’s grace towards me. I still find myself trying to please people who have made pretty much zero real investment in my well-being spiritual or otherwise—who absolutely refused to reciprocate my love for them. I could easily become unsettled again, reject the greater blessing I’ve received by pursuing the promises of those who attempt to live by a standard impossible to please.
But I choose to love those whom God has entrusted to me instead and even if it costs me what little remains of my Mennonite reputation. I would rather lose it all for sake of the kingdom than to return to the bondage of fundamentalist expectations. Jesus loved despite the disapproval of his religious peers and that’s the love that will overcome my feelings of resentment as one who followed the rules and got burnt. It is a rough road some days, but we are called to suffer rejection and carry our cross.
This is the third part of a four part series about law, legalism, church authority and economia.
It is quite clear, according to Scripture, that we have no right to judge anyone. The words “vengeance is mine” are found first in the Old Testament and Jesus left no doubt about what it means.
Our obligation, as individuals, is to love—to love even our enemies and even to do good to those who despitefully use and persecute us. This is what it means to be Christian. It means acknowledgment that we are as condemned by the law as anyone else and responding to that with the humility and mercy understanding that reality requires of us. If we forgive we will be forgiven. If we judge we will be judged.
Well, yes, it is that simple as far as our own individual right to judge another person. In light of God’s goodness to us despite our being totally undeserving, what choice do we have besides that? Do we want to be as that foolish servant who was forgiven a debt impossible for him to pay then turns around and doesn’t forgive? No, we do not, we have no other choice, and we must forgive all who trespass against us or we are in danger of inviting God’s judgment upon ourselves.
However, it is not truly that simple. Because, while true that Christianity means giving up our individual right to judge, God will still judge sin harshly and has as clearly ordained the punishment of evildoers. It is something endorsed fully in Romans 13:1-7 as it applies to civil authorities and this does not contradict the teachings of Jesus in the least. It is vigilante justice, our taking matters into our own hands, that is forbidden—not properly administered and appropriate punishment of evil.
Jesus did not come so that evil men could abuse with impunity and he never protested against the punishment of evil. He actually spoke quite strongly about what should happen to those who harm the vulnerable:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (Matthew 18:6-9 NIV)
Those aren’t the words of an enabler telling us to sit on our hands and do nothing while the most innocent of us suffer abuse. And I would not assume that he is speaking only metaphorically either. If you are doing evil that might cause others to stumble there will be literal hell to pay when you face eternity and especially if you claim to be a Christian. Therefore do everything it takes to reign in your rebellious flesh, cut anything off that would cause you to harm others, and do what is pleasing to God.
But this goes beyond an individual obligation to ourselves. The church is a hospital for sinners, a place where everyone is welcome regardless of their sordid list of sins, but the church was not instituted to be a safe-haven for sin. In other words, grace is not given so that sin may abound, there is no excuse for sin in the church community and when dealing with unrepentant sin in our midst we must deal with it firmly as Paul commanded the Corinthian church: “Expel the wicked man from among you!”
How should we deal with sin in the Church?
Our individual judgment is often clouded by our loyalties. We tend to excuse the sins of those whom we love (including our own sins) and then harshly judge those who offend us or our friends. And this is another reason why we should, as individuals, defer judgment to God rather than demand our pound of flesh. We must realize that our own judgment is skewed and that all sins against us fade into nothingness when compared to the eternal reward that awaits the faithful. So, therefore, remember what Jesus said: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
If God is able to forgive, for eternity, our infinite lacking in comparison to His boundless perfection, then a little grace towards others (who owe us for their few moments of weakness) is the least we can do to show our appreciation to God.
However, our personal withholding of judgment and forgiveness of those who trespass against us does not mean we should not confront the sin. No, quite the contrary—We have a moral obligation, as a loving brother or sister in Christ, to keep the church free from sin and this does require us to act as individuals to address sin in our circles. This is the beginning of a process Jesus himself outlined as the appropriate process for addressing sin in our midst. In the same context of millstones and maiming ourselves, he says this:
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. (Matthew 18:15 NIV)
That is our individual role.
Jesus does not tell us to ignore sin. No, to forgive sin means first confronting the sin. But this confrontation should not be to shame or punish the offending individual. Rather it is to give a chance for resolution of the matter in private when that is possible. This could mean repentance and forgiveness. It could also mean simply an opportunity to hear the other side and adjust our own perspective.
So what happens when the matter can’t be resolved in a private one-on-one exchange?
But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ (Matthew 18:16 NIV)
This is after the private confrontation has failed and still in an effort to restore the offending person without making an unnecessary public spectacle of them.
Too often we skip that first step of private confrontation and move directly to the stage where we tell all of our friends about how we were mistreated and never do get around to the direct confrontation. We are wrong to do that and should love the offending person enough to go through a simple procedure to resolve the matter in the most gracious manner possible. Christ died for our sins so we can be forgiven and extend forgiveness to others—not so we could go on without mercy towards other sinners or demanding justice for ourselves.
So what happens when a sin problem cannot be resolved in private?
If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17 NIV)
Three strikes and you’re out. The matter moves up the chain, follows a procedure that helps prevent a mob spirit on the basis of an accusation, and helps to ensure a just outcome for all involved—including the accused. This process ensures that personal vendetta and a vengeful spirit does not get in the way of a just response. Both parties, both offender and offended, are ultimately accountable to the judgment of God and the authorities He has ordained for our benefit. All are subject to the civil authorities and the Christian is also to submit to each other and their elders.
I’ll note here that in cases involving criminal behavior, especially things like child molestation and sexual abuse, we have an obligation to go to the civil authorities or risk being complicit in a cover-up of the crime. The outline Jesus gave does not mean we should worry about following a tedious procedure before protecting the innocent. Sometimes we need to intervene aggressively on behalf of others and sort the details out later.
The extraordinary role of the Church in judgment and forgiveness sin.
In our individualistic age, it is easy to take things in Scripture out of context and apply them personally to ourselves. I believe this tendency to personalize everything is to blame for much of the confusion in the church. And, whether it is a situation of having too many Chiefs and not enough Indians or everyone doing what is right in their own eyes, this is not the church instituted by Jesus. The early church had elders, there were those ordained to act on behalf of Christ, and Christianity is not centered on the individual or their own personal opinion.
We individually should confront sin, but—as those subject to civil authorities and the church as originally instituted—can not unilaterally render judgment.
However, continuing with what Jesus said, there is a judgment to be made and on earth as in heaven:
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:18-20 NIV)
Those words, spoken in a conclusion of how to deal with sin in the church, are extraordinary in the authority they give. It is easy to forget, in a time of easy forgive-ism, that forgiveness is something divine and not something we should treat lightly or as being without consequence. The religious authorities, in my own estimation, correctly deduced that Jesus was asserting his own divinity by offering forgiveness of sin:
Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man. (Matthew 9:1-3, 5-8 NIV)
It is one thing for one sinner to show mercy to another sinner. It is quite another to declare “your sins are forgiven” and do something on behalf of God. Even when a person sins against us personally and we forgive then of what they have personally cost us, they still owe a debt to God that can only be forgiven by God. To forgive on behalf of God is to essentially declare oneself to be God and, unless you are in perfect unity with God, is truly blasphemous.
On an aside, it is terrifying how vainly the name of God is used. And, no, I’m not talking about those who are irreligious who merely utter it as an epithet or expression. What I’m referring to is when those who claim to reverence God, declare things on behalf of God that are not clearly expressed in Scripture or established by the Church. Whether it is words of condemnation against someone or any other bold proclamation of God’s will—we would be wise to consider our own fallibility and learn to speak for ourselves rather than bolster our own opinions by invoking God’s name.
That said, we read Jesus speaking with this divine authority in Scripture and bestowing this same authority to his disciples:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:19-23 NIV)
Should everyone go out speaking on behalf of God?
No, not everyone.
Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. (Acts 19:13-17 NIV)
These men, sons of an actual Jewish priest, understood the power of Jesus name and arguably were doing the greater things Jesus has promised (John 14:12) would come as a result of his departure and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Evidently, it had been working out for them to use the name of Paul and Jesus without their direct authorization. That until the one day where an evil spirit called their bluff and gave them a beating that made them the talk of the town.
It is no small thing to invoke God’s power and is, in fact, a very dangerous thing to do.
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.” He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20 NIV)
Jesus specifically ordained these seventy-two to go out in his name and yet speaks a very serious warning to them. The original sin is pride and it is one small step between going out on behalf of God and declaring oneself to be God. For this reason, we should probably think twice before dabbling in the spiritual realm without a specific ordination to do so. There is plenty of good that can be done, many ministries in the church to be filled, that belong to those of us who struggle against arrogance and pride. It is better to be humble than to be out of place, out of our league and defeated.
We have every reason to be cautious if even those specifically ordained were warned by Jesus. The gift of salvation is for all who repent of their sin and believe. But that does not make the Church a free-for-all where everyone does what is right in their own eyes.
Christianity is not a schizophrenic delusion.
We are not individually Jesus.
No, rather it is the Church (collectively) that represents the body of Christ and we are just part of that work. And, like anybody, different parts are assigned to different tasks, each part must do the work that it is assigned to do, and in perfect cooperation with those who God has ordained as leaders.
Who is ordained to do the binding and loosing of the Church?
There has always been a hierarchy in the church, the head is always Jesus and, from the beginning, there where always those given special designation to administer on behalf of Jesus:
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17-19 NIV)
There are many who teach this ordination of the Church has been overwhelmed somewhere in the time of Constantine. They apply the words of Scripture liberally to themselves and those who agree with their own particular interpretation. They deny apostolic succession and any kind of accountability to a historic Church. For them Church history is a smorgasbord, everyone has equal authority to choose for themselves, they pick and choose whatever suits them individually and do not really submit to anything besides their own personal understanding of things.
But that was not what the early Church taught. The church has leaders and we are to humbly submit to them:
In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6 NIV)
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)
We all may have some authority as individual Christians. But the full authority of the Church is bestowed collectively and to those ordained to speak on behalf of the Church. We should be mindful of this and submit to each other and especially to those who are ordained by the Church—the Church that was established by Jesus.
The power of “binding and loosing” is something Jesus spoke to Peter and the disciples. In other words, it was something he gave to those whom would eventually become the leaders of the early Church. This is an authority given to the Church, which is not to all Christians individually, the collective body of the Church which is represented by those ordained as leaders from those early days until the present time. It is not a power of human origin or something to be wielded by those who are not fully prepared for the responsibility and is rather a duty reserved for our elders.
We should forgive those who personally offend us and ask for forgiveness. We should also judge our own hearts and motives and repent of our sins. But we are not individually given authority to judge others. Individual judgment often leads to vengeance and never justice. For judgments of others, we should defer to civil authorities (where it is necessary or required) and to the collective authority of the Church.
Instantly I’m making judgments about that person’s lack of driving skills. How dare they interrupt my text messaging and topple the donut that was perched precariously on my lap!
However, later that same day, I’m cruising along in bumper to bumper traffic, my exit is coming up, I see an opportunity and take it. The guy behind me blows the horn, he obviously cannot appreciate my superior skills and that I had no other choice.
That, of course, is a composite of many true events out on the road. When I do something wrong, there’s always a good reason for it and if there isn’t a good reason—Well, nobody is perfect, everyone makes mistakes, right?
People believe they see things as they are.
We feel we are a fairly good judge of ourselves and others.
This trust in our own abilities is what enables us to navigate life. If we couldn’t judge up from down or left from right we would have no means to make a decision or progress in a direction. We are aiming creatures. We have two eyes pointed frontward, stereoscopic or “binocular” vision, so we can judge distance and aim correctly at a target down range. That is what our mind does, it prioritizes one thing over another, it is a sorting machine, we are built to judge and—unless sleeping or in a vegetative state—we are always making judgments.
Unfortunately, this forward facing vision gives us big blind spots. We can only see in one direction at a time. When we are locked in on a particular subject we can lose grasp of the bigger picture and possibilities outside of our range of vision. We are creatures with a finite mind and ability to comprehend. We need our judgment to navigate through life and yet our judgment is not perfect, we are short-sighted, biased and often inconsistent. We project into our environment. We judge people based on our presumptions about them and their motives.
We tend to justify or rationalize our own bad behavior, see our mistakes or the mistakes of those whom we love as being the result of circumstances, then turn around and mercilessly judge the faults of others as being serious character defects. This tendency—called fundamental attribution error—leads us to judge ourselves only by our own intentions and others only by their actions. It is extremely common, if not completely universal, and shows up constantly in political and religious debates. The other side is evil, corrupt and inexcusable—our own side is righteous, well-intended and misunderstood.
We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.
Truth be told, many people are not good at judging others as they imagine themselves to be and are wrong more they realize. Our memory is selective. On one hand, we sort out examples that go against our fundamental assumptions about reality and, on the other, we can easily recall those things that confirm our existing ideas. This confirmation bias, combined with fundamental attribution error and our many other cognitive limitations, unless humbly considered, will make us a very poor judge.
Legalism is a misuse of the law by those who do not understand the intent of the law.
The basic intent of the law is to create order out of chaos and yet law itself can become a source of confusion and conflict. The problem with any law is that it requires interpretation and understanding of the intent. This is why we have lawyers, judges, juries, and courts—to safeguard the intent of the civil law from abuse.
Legalism abuses the intent of the law.
Legalists incorrectly use the technicalities of language to find loopholes and carve out special exemptions for themselves. Legalists also apply their own interpretation of the law to others in a way that is harsh and often hypocritical. For them, the law is a tool to help them achieve their own personal or political ends.
That is not to say legalists are lacking in sincerity either, they are often diligent students of law, they have zealously committed the letter to memory and know the words inside and out. But what legalists lack is the spirit of the law and their knowledge is a hindrance to them.
#1) The rich man who relies on his own abilities rather than live in faith. (Matt. 19:16-30, Mark 10:17-31 and Luke 18:18-30) In this story, we are told of a young man who is wealthy and also very religiously devoted. He comes to Jesus, whom he addresses as “good teacher” and asks “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, upon hearing this man’s diligence, tells him to sell all he has, to give the proceeds to the poor and then to follow him.
Sadly, and ironically, this account is often used by modern legalists to make a new religious formula rather than understand. This man was a legalist who succeeded in following the law and still lacked one thing and that thing being faith. There are a few who are able to keep the letter of the law and miss the intent of the law because of this. The intent of the law is so we depend on God for our salvation rather than our own works:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Galatians 3:10-14 NIV)
The law is not there so we can believe we will impress God with our careful obedience. No, the intention of the law was to do the opposite—it was to remind us that we do not measure up to the righteousness of God and that we are therefore condemned to death. This rich young man had achieved the letter of the law, he had done everything that could be done through his own abilities, yet lacked the most important thing and that being faith in God. Jesus gave the answer to how we are saved: “What is impossible for man is possible for God.”
#2) The religious hypocrites who use the law to accuse others and are guilty themselves. (John 8:1-11) In our day we don’t take some sins as seriously as we do others. Many, for example, are condemning of homosexuality and yet do not seem to realize that there are many things that we take rather lightly that are sin and that all sin comes with the penalty of death. Such was the case in the following extraordinary account:
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:3-5 NIV )
We are told they did this was intended as a trap for Jesus. Evidently they knew the compassion Jesus had for sinners and wanted to present an impossible dilemma: a) He follows the law, condemns her to death as is required and proves to be no better than them or b) he contradicts Moses, can be accused of rebellion against the law and be himself condemned under their law.
He avoids their trap:
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:6-11 NIV)
We have no indication of what Jesus wrote in the dirt. However, it is fairly obvious, it takes two to tango and yet we only have a woman standing accused—What happened to the man involved in the adultery? Why was no man brought with this adulterous woman?
It is also interesting that the only tool these men seemed to have was condemnation. Perhaps this is psychological projection? Maybe deep down they felt guilty and the reason they needed to find fault with Jesus and this woman is so they could feel better about themselves?
Whatever the case, we know that Jesus did not condemn this woman. This could be interpreted as Jesus saying that what she did doesn’t matter. But, he doesn’t say her sin doesn’t matter—he tells her to go and sin no more.
#3) Judas betrays Jesus with his legalistic use of compassion. (John 12:1-8, Matt. 26:6-13) If you want to see the ultimate expression of legalism, it is Judas (and other disciples) interrupting a beautiful act of worship to criticize and, in the process, throwing the words of Jesus back in his face:
Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:3-8 NIV)
It is interesting there are many who use the words of Jesus the same way as Judas. They use them to support a socialist political agenda or as a means to condemn any extravagant form of worship. They rationalize their condemnation of others using the words of Jesus and, despite completely missing the spirit of the law, are correct according to the letter of the law—but they completely lack the joy and life of the Spirit. They might hide their legalism in compassion for the poor or in concern for the kingdom of God and yet themselves are no better in their attitudes than the legal experts who put Jesus to death.
What is the true intent of the Biblical law?
To save us from ourselves.
Those who use the law to parse away their own guilt or as a bludgeon to use against those who do not add up to their own standards, even standards that are based in the law itself, have missed the point—we don’t add up and by our own efforts we never will.
Any person, when held up to a perfect standard, will fail by comparison. How can we, as finite and limited creatures, ever compare favorably to an infinite and limitless good? This is a reality that should humble us and fundamentally change how we treat other people.
It is fitting that the first step in Christianity is repentance. If one considers the severity of the law and that everyone stands condemned before God—and that just might change our perspective about that guy who just cut us off in traffic.
The Christian answer to legalism: “Judge not lest ye be judged.”
Legalism is applying the law to others in a way we, as individuals, were never ordained to do. Yes, we must make judgments for ourselves and should always promote what is good even if it offends. Yes, there are some things that are under the jurisdiction of civil authorities (Romans 13:1-7) and sin is to be addressed by the church. However, we are not given license to go out on our own as individuals passing judgment on others, quite the opposite:
Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4:11-12 NIV)
Some religious experts, who argue the false dichotomy of faith versus works, might see James (above) as contradicting Paul’s emphasis on grace, but they can’t on this point:
You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God.’” So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (Romans 14:10-13 NIV)
Our true obligation to others is not to bring them condemnation—it is to be like Jesus and show them the love and grace we want God to show us.
The truer law is not that of the letter. It is the law of reciprocation. What we do to others or demand be done to them will be the same standard that is applied to us. In other words, if you live by the sword you will likewise die by it (Matt. 26:52) and if you judge others by the law you are putting yourself back under the curse of the law and will be required to do the impossible without God’s help—as Paul warned the Galatian church.
Jesus, when asked by a lawyer, says the entire law hangs on two commandments: He says to love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:35-40, Mark 12:28-32) and this is some practical application:
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15 NIV)
That is black and white. So is this:
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2 NIV)
The law is a means to end, to point us to our need for Jesus, and not an end in itself as many religious folks attempt to make it. The law itself can only bring condemnation and death because nobody is able to match the righteousness of God. The law is given, ultimately, not to condemn anyone—but rather so we can all know our own need of a savior and be saved.
Be perfect, not in legalism, but in mercy…
One of the starkest warnings Jesus gave (Matt. 18:21-35) was a parable about a man forgiven a debt impossible to pay and is shown great mercy by the king whom he owed. This same forgiven man turns around and demands a small sum owed him—throwing the offending party in jail. The end result is the king revoking the mercy he had shown and doing what the unmerciful man had done to the one who owned him a little. That is the response Jesus gave to how much we should forgive.
James further expounds:
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:8-13 NIV)
Merely showing favoritism is mentioned in the same breath as murder and adultery!
Presumably, given we should be one in Christ according to Galatians 3:28, that would include any kind of favoritism. In other words, sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, social elitism, or anything else used to justify the favorable treatment of some and unfavorable treatment of others, makes you condemned as much as the evilest men of history under the law. James says that a person is guilty of breaking the entire law if they show favoritism…
Who then can be saved?
It is interesting, especially in a discussion of legalism, to consider some of the discrepancies of language in Scripture. For example, one Gospel calls out only Judas for his judgmental attitude towards the woman pouring perfume while another says it was disciples (plural) and not just Judas. One Gospel account of the rich man has him calling Jesus “good teacher” while another omits this entirely and says he started by asking “what good thing must I do” instead. Perhaps the writers were a bit less concerned than we are with the legalistic details and more with the message?
There is also an inconsistency between what the Gospels tell us Jesus said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. I quoted Matthew’s version in my last blog: “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Which seems sort of vague and open to some interpretation. I mean, how does one compete with the perfection of God? However, in Luke 6:36, in the same context of love for enemies, we read: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Combining the two different tellings, it seems what is being asked of us is to be perfect in mercy towards others and not perfect in some onerous legalistic manner.
We should turn our natural tendency to fundamental attribution error around. In other words, rather than judge those outside our own social group and show mercy to our own, we should judge ourselves (our own people) more harshly and leave the others to God. Or, in more practical terms, if someone cuts us off in traffic, rather than attribute his or her annoying act to an irredeemable character flaw, we should assume the best. And, if we cut someone else off, we should not excuse our own poor driving habits and take full responsibility instead.
If we want to be judged by God’s perfect law (and condemned) we should be legalistic.
Those who are sincerely wrong are oftentimes the hardest to convince otherwise. Those who are the most sincere are also the most emotionally invested in their own position. This investment can lead to blinding confirmation bias and prevent a person from seeing the truth when it is staring them in the face.
The problem with many people raised in religious purity cultures is that they are very sincere and yet extremely misguided. Many in these cultures are convinced that their salvation is something they earn through their diligent efforts to please God and their own righteousness. Sadly, this is a complete misunderstanding of God’s grace and a form of false religion that will leave a person lost as ever despite their sincere efforts.
People often think of purity culture as it applies to romantic ideals. (And it does wreak havoc there.) However, purity culture is a religious mindset that goes far deeper than our courtship practice. It is a perspective that hurts everything we do as a church. It makes us less effective as evangelists and missionaries. It undermines the concept of church as a family and leads to division. The purity culture has produced a bitter fruit because it is based completely in human reasoning rather than God’s word.
A bold claim?
Let’s compare and contrast purity culture to the actual example of Jesus and what his ministry established:
#1) Purity culture externalizes blame for sin, but Jesus taught that defilement comes from the inside.
Many people blame external factors for the choices they make. This can be used as an excuse for sin. It is also used as justification for a long list of safeguards and arbitrary religious standards intended to preserve or protect a form of purity. They reason that since sin is a product of outside influences, they therefore must require people conform to their own rules and shelter their children carefully for fear they will be contaminated.
Obedience to rules of outward appearance and ritual purity pleased the Pharisees who trusted their Bible based tradition, but it did not please Jesus:
“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’ 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. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.'”
Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.“ (Matthew 15:1-11)
The Pharisees, like their modern day religious purity culture counterparts, put their hope for salvation in their ability to maintain an outward distinction between themselves and others.
But Jesus was unimpressed.
First he points out their hypocrisy for neglecting weightier matters and then he goes on to explain something that many still miss today: Our defilement comes from something spiritual within us and therefore our purity cannot be preserved by external or physical means.
#2) Purity culture creates walls of separation between people, but Jesus removed barriers and bridged divides.
Purity culture teaches defilement comes from an outside physical source and it is for that reason those indoctrinated into this system are obsessed with maintaining physical separation as a means to protect themselves or their children from sin. But Jesus completely defies this kind of thinking:
“A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.” (Luke 7:37-39)
This was considered scandalous by the self-righteous and sanctimious religious people then. It would also be seen as a scandal in many churches today. Even the disciples (Judas especially) found cause to question the appropriateness of Jesus allowing this kind of behavior.
Can you imagine?
A single man, a leader in the church, being touched by a woman, and a sinful woman at that!?! Outrageous, right?!?
I do not need to imagine the raised eyebrows and expressions of concern. I know them all too well. We would never allow such a thing in my own church tradition. We segregate practices like foot washing and the kiss of peace for fear of impure thoughts. It is because we believe that defilement is something that comes through our physical contact (like a grade schooler’s aversion to cooties) and do not actually follow the example of Jesus.
Ironically, those who view any meaningful relationship across gender lines outside courtship as dangerous (or see any and all physical touch as a prelude to sexual behavior) are as guilty of a the same hypersexualized view as those in the world whom they condemn. They may be outwardly pure according to an arbitrary religious standard, but they have an unhealthy obsession with sex and a fear born of their own impure thoughts. Purity cultures are fertile ground for sexual abuse.
#3) Purity culture avoids ‘the world’ as to appear righteous to religious peers, but Jesus made his place amongst the sinners.
Purity cultures build walls to physically seperate people. Those in this type of culture, not recognizing that sin originates in the heart, believe there is safety in the guard rails they create to protect themselves against sin and worldly contamination. But Jesus directly opposed this mindset, he confronted those who promoted it by exposing them as hypocrites (or only outwardly pure) and led by a completely different example:
“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13)
Those who were influenced by the modern purity culture ought to read the book of Hosea as Jesus told their religious forebears to do.
They should look for themselves and try to determine what “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” means as applied to their own mentality. If more did take this recommendation of Jesus seriously it would make a dramatic change in their perspective. It could shift their focus from a ritual religious devotion to something altogether different.
#4) Purity culture attempts to manipulate God through religious devotion, but Jesus taught to authentic worship is showing true love to other people.
Purity culture, no matter what disguise it wears, is always an attempt to be control and manipulate rather than actually love God. It is an idea that “if I do A then God will do B” that treats God like a vending machine (where we insert our diligent religious practices then out pops a blessing) and really only an attempt to make ourselves master over God. Devotion in a purity culture is no more than a cynical calculation rather than a true commitment to love God.
This is exactly what was condemned in the book of Hosea. The charge made early in the book is “there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.” Later on, the Israelites, after experiencing the consequences of their neglect of true worship, try to regain God’s favor through false repentance, say “come, let us return to the Lord” and think their going through the motions of will force God to take them back. But God is not fooled and asks like a disappointed parent: “What can I do with you… Your love is like the morning mist, like the early dew that disappears.” It is at this point where the phase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” comes in and we get to the heart of the matter: The Israelites, like the Pharisees after them, and our various purity cultures today, tried to please God by a devotion expressed through religious practice. However, no amount of sacrifice, no amount of religious practice, and not even a life of poverty or missionary service can save anyone.
The message of Hosea seems to be that the mercy we show to others is the true measure of our love for God. Love for all people as expression of love for God is a theme throughout the teaching of Jesus. Jesus taught to “be merciful just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36) and left his disciples with this commandment:
“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)
True love of God is expressed in our love towards each other and most especially out mercy shown to those who need it most. We are told to love everyone and not only those who we believe are deserving according to our own religious score card. Our love must be genuine or all of our worship and diligent religious works will be in vain.
#5) Purity culture is obsessed with righteous outward appearance, but Jesus focused on religious hypocrisy and the inner reality of hearts.
Purity cultures work overtime to maintain a superficial visual distinction between themselves and those outside of their own religious group. They take pride in their maintenance of dress standards and see themselves as better than others for their ability to conform to the expectations of their religious peers. But Jesus exposed their counterfeit faith and true shallowness:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” (Matthew 23:25-28)
Some people are able to please man-made requirements and earn themselves the praise of their religious peers for this. But this righteousness of outward appearance is not evidence of an inner heart change. It is a false security established on meeting human expectations. No amount of church attendance, missionary service, or religious devotion proves a person’s heart is pure.
Jesus taught that true faith is something that transforms a person from the inside out and is something completely dependent on God’s grace. Purity cultures get things completely reversed, they put the cart ahead of the horse (put works of the flesh before God’s grace experienced through faith) and for this reason it is impossible for them to love as Jesus did.
#6) Purity culture loves selectively with a judgmental unforgiving attitude towards outsiders, but Jesus consistently showed grace to those who needed it most.
People in religious purity cultures often do the exact opposite of what Jesus did. They judge outsiders harshly and then give themselves a pass for their own grave sins of self-righteousness and pride. Jesus, by contrast, was gentle with those outside and made them feel needed, appreciated and useful:
“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ [His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.] The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ [For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.]” (John 4:7-9)
Jesus, unlike many so called ‘Christian’ evangelists today, did not try to scare the hell out of this woman. He did not condescend. But, instead Jesus made himself dependent on her (a lowly Samaritan woman) and treated her as an equal and with respect. Through this loving humility he gained opportunity explain a greater spiritual reality to her and then tactfully addressed her sin while offering forgiveness rather than condemnation.
The hellfire and brimstone Jesus preached was, without exception, reserved for the smug and sanctimious religious insiders who turned to their own righteousness for salvation. The people who had their act together according to religious standards are the ones condemed by Jesus.
Why is it that the religious can be so demeaning of those outside their tradition and yet so sensitive when criticism comes their own way?
Because they are afraid and should be, that’s why…
#7) Purity culture is motivated primarily by fear and deep down insecurity, but Jesus told us to walk steadfastly in faith and trust God with the future.
Purity cultures are negatively focused. They see only moral decay, the live in a world of slippery slopes and anxiety about the future.
“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.” (Anaïs Nin)
Those who live in fear are like the men described in the book of Numbers (chapter 14) who’s pessimistic faithless outlook led to a rout and years of wandering aimlessly.
People who are extremely condemning of others are often the most insecure themselves. Those in purity cultures are so sensitive to criticism because they are attempting the impossible without God’s help and do not know the true meaning of grace.
Perhaps they think if they throw enough people into the pit of hell behind them (through their words and judgments) that God’s wrath towards them will be somehow satisfied?
At a deeper level those in a purity culture may know their own inadequacy. They fear of not being able to measure up and therefore are competitive against those of lower social status rather than truly compassionate.
Whatever the case, true faith relies on God’s grace and leads us to love rather than fear:
“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:16-18)
True devotion to God is born of faith that comes through grace and not human effort. It is a commitment to a love that is impossible by our own standard. The love God seeks is unreasonable and irrational by human standards. It is a divine love made possible only through means of the Spirit. It is the love of Jesus who died to save us while we were yet lost in our sin and a love that takes away our fear of not measuring up.
In conclusion, we need to rid ourselves of counterfeit faith based in human ability and embrace the truth of God’s word.
Purity cultures, because they are based in human effort, do not lead to real faith or true repentance. They do little more feed obsessive compulsive disorders on one side and arrogance on the other. Those who believe that their salvation depends on reciting the right words or reading a requisite amount of Scripture daily are more hopelessly lost than their worldly counterparts.
It is what Jesus condemned in the Pharisees and also what Paul addressed as false religion in the early church:
“These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.“ (Colossians 2:22-23)
Purity cultures attempt to manipulate God rather than live in faith and genuinely love their neighbors. They are condemning rather than compassionate and are more concerned with what people may think than they are in true purity of love. For fear of being defiled or viewed as less pure they (unlike the good Samaritan) cross the street rather than address the needs right in front of them.
True faith runs like a man on fire to where the need for mercy is greatest. Those who walk in faith know the truth of God within them is always greater than the world and therefore fear no evil. Faith always rests in the adequacy of God and never in our own.
True purity of heart comes from being clothed in the righteousness of God.
The Mennonite culture I am a part of has had a tradition of music that spans a few generations. The tradition is acapella congregational singing (typically in four parts: soprano, alto, tenor, bass) and hymn music. It is my preference, it is what I am accustomed to and comfortable singing in a church worship service, but some conservatives would have it as the only right way.
The other night, as is not uncommon, we had a choral program at my church. A group of a few talented individuals (dressed with matching outfits and practiced) sang together in front of an audience of family and friends. Their selection of music had meaningful lyrics focused on distinctly Christian themes and the Christmas season. It was a beautiful presentation.
Afterwards, the pastor (asked to give the benedictory prayer) went to pains to explain that the presentation that preceded was not a “performance” or “entertainment” and was worship. I understood what he meant. However, is it actually truthful to say that a presentation to an audience is not a performance? Are concepts of worship and performance mutually exclusive?
Mennonite Tradition, Progressive Evolution and Lingering Guilt…
Mennonites have historically avoided elevation of some in the group. Leaders were expected to be servants to all rather than a privileged hierarchy. In fact, even raised pulpits were a controversial topic because of the potential for pride and spiritual inequality they represented. Traditionally there was a table for those who preached to put their Bibles on and no pulpit. Preaching was not to be done flamboyantly or in a way that drew special attention to the presenter.
Music in worship was ordered likewise. There were no solo instruments or vocals in worship services because it was believed that would draw too much attention to the individual(s) performing. In the church service singing was strictly congregational and in unison rather than divided into parts. Four part singing only became part of Mennonite practice in the late 1800’s and special singing groups likely followed some time after as Mennonites adopted more mainline practice.
But it is an uncomfortable position to the conservative Mennonite mind. There is still an urge to distinguish between performance for entertainment and worship of God. In my own congregation we allow solos and special singing groups. However, we are also dutifully reminded that the point is the worship God rather than recognize those presenting and (except for a few occasional outbursts by rebels) we do not offer any applause.
It is this careful avoidance of applause and tendency towards the over-wrought explanation that makes me wonder what is truly amiss—It seems too anxious. If nobody else but God is getting the attention, shouldn’t that just be self-evident, why the need for an explanation? Why the contrast and comparison?
Our Worship *IS* Imperfect, Be Honest…
I believe the reality is that a special group singing before an audience is obviously a performance and for entertainment. No, this does not nullify the reality it is intended as worship for God either. What we do for others is an expression of our worship for God and that can certainly include wholesome entertainment. Our performance for the good of others is ultimately what brings God honor and glory, is it not?
Furthermore, we aim to be perfect expressions, but we are not and might as well be honest about it. Of course there is potential for pride in performance. Did anyone on the stage not want to please the audience they sang to? It would be utterly absurd to claim otherwise and with that the danger of self-aggrandizement.
Yet, denial of that potential for self-centered worship doesn’t get us any closer to perfection of worship either. If anything it is the same fatal error of Ananias and Sapphira who were judged instantaneously for dishonesty in their claiming to give all while secretly withholding some for themselves. Their deception, likely rooted in their wanting to maintain appearances of perfection or religious pride, was their downfall.
We are imperfect even at our best. Yes, even in our worship we can have mixed motives. We enjoy being talented, we often keep some of the praise for ourselves, and that’s okay if we are honest about it. We are saved by God’s grace and not by our own perfect efforts. It is this admission of our own imperfection that leads us to be more gracious towards others and a more true expression of the worship Jesus described.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)
In conclusion, we should do as Jesus instructed and learn what it means in Hosea 6:6 where it says God desires mercy not sacrifice. This is a reference back to the religious sacrificial rituals observed as worship in the Old Testament. Sacrifice is an impractical expression of worship whereas mercy is not.
Our better worship is not having the right mode or music style as much as it is in our expressed in our genuine love for each other.