Sorry Haus, Not Voting Does Not Mean Apolitical…

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‘Tis the season for conservative Mennonites to preen on social media about their apolitical “kingdom Christian” stance. These Biblical fundamentalists, with an Anabaptisty twist, talk about worldly politics more than many in the voting public do and never miss an opportunity to distinguish themselves with their rude apologetics.

Any more I try to ignore this noxious grandstanding display of religious elitism. But then I saw a video post, with a title proclaiming a change of mind about voting and featuring someone that I’ve run into on various occasions in my travels and as part of an online Mennonite discussion forum. I’m quite familiar with his long-held positions and this claim of transformation astonished me.

Perhaps he had voted in a mock election in grade school or something?

Anyhow, starting in general…

The Utterly Non-Revolutionary Act of Not Voting

Mennonites, like other Anabaptists, have built entire religious doctrines around cherry-picked Biblical phrases. The words “be not conformed to this world,” lifted from Romans 12:2, is used to justify everything from not driving motorized vehicles and dressing like it is still the 1800s to condemning military service and not voting in elections. That is standard fare for all traditional or Old Order Anabaptists.

But Fundamentalized Mennonites, unlike their Amish and Old Order Mennonite cousins, feel this unquenchable need to broadcast and announce all that they do. Ignoring the not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing advice that Jesus gave, while slamming hypocrites. Mennonite fundamentalists, taking their cues from Protestant fundamentalists, are all about political influence and religious apologetics.

An example?

The disdainful retort of a Mennonite gentleman to those who dared to talk about voting in his presence, “I vote on my knees!” This sanctimonious announcement, alluding to prayer rather than direct involvement in the political process, was met appropriately with humorous remark to the effect that crawling to the ballot box being an odd way to vote. But it does also describe the strange dichotomy, or rather the inconsistent application, of non-conformity rules.

A man actually voting on his knees

The grand irony is that this kind of political non-participation does not make someone unique from ‘the world’ as religious separatists claim.

No, in reality, over half of Americans of voting age do not vote.

Why?

Well, voting or not voting is a habit, they do not believe that their vote matters, or simply do not care about the outcome one way or another. So this idea that not participating in elections is some sort of notable stand or great sacrifice is pure delusion. Not voting is literally as much like ‘the world’ as you can get. It is not revolutionary. It is a nihilistic cultural default, a bit Gnostic, and requires doing nothing. However, unlike most non-voters who have no need to explain their apathy for the democracitic process, conservative Mennonite fundamentalists have a great need to spiritualize and broadcast their decisions.

Sure, unlike other fundamentalists, who do vote and promote political involvement, the conservative Mennonite variety proudly distinguishes themselves in other ways. But they still go to universities like Bob Jones or Liberty University, fundamentalist bastions, and pick up the Evangelical attitude to apply to their Anabaptist doctrinal defaults. So, rather than simply live out their faith, like their forbearers, they must be “in your face” about their views, constantly propagandizing and promoting their supposedly ‘Anabaptist’ or purportedly ‘kingdom’ perspectives, and otherwise making sure that you notice them. If it seems self-aggrandizing and obnoxious, then it most certainly is. Worse, they are completely arbitrary and inconsistent in how they apply these supposed “Biblical principles” that justify positions they’ve inherited, never seriously reconsidered, and want to ram down your throat.

How do I know?

I was one of them. I would argue my Mennonite fundamentalism confidently with my teachers in high school. In college, I wrote a position paper to explain my inherited non-resistance dogma, thinking that my take would be fresh. But, for my efforts, ended up with a classroom more fully unconvinced of non-resistence than they would be had I said nothing at all.

Anyhow, while most from my own religious communities lean towards conservative politics. A few got out of this Mennonite intellectual ghetto long enough to read a little Karl Marx, meet some Socialists. And, now, armed with this new knowledge, come back to their conservative peers with a superior attitude and a whole new set of empty platitudes, borrowed from ‘the world’ they claim to stand apart from, that require nothing of them. They proclaim themselves to be different, imagine themselves to be the revolutionary thinkers, yet are really nothing but a new blend of the same old political ideologies, tired religious dogmas, and general nonsense.

It was one such story of a ‘transformation’ that caught my eye because I actually knew the guy and know him too well to be bamboozled by his slickly packaged testimonial.

The Completely Non-Transformative Transformation

I’m not going to reveal the source. More clicks will only encourage them. But it did not take long into the apologetics video to reveal that the title a bit deceptive, when this conservative Mennonite apologist confessed, “the truth is I’ve never actually voted.”

Hmm.

So, I guess a more upfront and honest title, such as “Mennonite-born Confirms His Confirmation Bias,” isn’t propaganda-ish enough to sell the point?

Anyhow, to be clear, he never changed his mind, he might have momentarily been slightly more open to the idea of political involvement before reverting back to the Mennonite default position. And, sure, his political positions may have evolved slightly from right-wing anarchist and anti-government to being slightly more left-wing anarchist, definitely anti-conservative and even more anti-government. But, in the decades that I’ve known him, he’s always had this smug sounding “voting only encourages them” signature line.

What is truly interesting is that this particular individual?

Simultaneous to his decrying the violent and coercive means of the state, he had also worked as a government employee and profited by these means for many years. That’s right. This man who claims that voting is some big moral quandary, because government uses force and threats, had no issues with taking money obtained by those means for years.

And yet, somehow, to merely cast a ballot is too much for them to stomach?

If voting is wrong, if political solutions are wrong, then how isn’t his taking through this system is extremely wrong?

If he really believes that the government is illegitimate, that we should not participate so much as to cast a ballot, then he ought to do as Zacchaeus did. He should return all of his ill-gotten gains, he should pay it all back with interest to us who paid his salary, and put his money where his fundamentalist Mennonite mouth is.

But what is, by far, the most disturbing thing about this video is the shameless promotional for progressive politics it contained. While claiming to be apolitical. He pushed the far-left social justice agenda as if this is what Jesus taught. Confusing what we should do as individuals, as a church, with the obligations of a nation. How disengious an argument. How heretical a theological position. How contradictory with his own religious tradition.

In short, the kingdom of heaven, especially their conservative Mennonite version, does not have open borders and will turn people away for falling short of requirements. Scripture lists whole long lists of who will and will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven (false teachers one of them) and this studious fellow would certainly be aware. And, no, it is not cruelty or indifference that keeps some out. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Kingdom has borders to keep unrepentant murderers, rapists and other abusers away from those whom they exploited. So this criticism of nations for enforcement of reasonable border policies, for the protection of the nation and those trying to escape horrendous conditions, is asinine.

Imagine that, a conservative Mennonite, part of a denomination known for their strict standards for entry (oftentimes over the slightest minutia of application) taking issue with a nation for taking some precaution and vetting immigrants.

I mean, as one practically engaged to a woman who needs to navigate our immigration system, I have every reason in the world to want the current system to be made easier. And, despite that, despite my own personal struggle waiting on the cumbersome process, I still completely understand and appreciate that we have civil authorities to protect citizens and promote peace. I love her, and my neighbors, enough to want to keep evildoers out. Her uncle was murdered in her home country, as was her grandpa, both good men, it would be absolutely immoral for me to open the flood gates so that their murderers could follow her in.

Ultimately, had this fundamentalist Mennonite commentator stayed politically neutral (rather than parrot a leftist ideological position while falsely claiming to be apolitical) I may have let the duplicitous transformation claim slide.

I’m completely okay with someone being apolitical and not voting if they believe that is what their religious beliefs require of them. But I am completely not okay with? I’m completely not okay with misleading testimonials and phony claims of being apolitical while promoting a political position. I’m especially not okay with the hypocrisy of saying the government is violent, therefore we must not cooperate so much as to vote, while also being on the take end and unrepentant about it.

This one was a little more personal because I knew the character making the claim and it was so typical of the fundamentalist tainted brand of Mennonitism that I came from. Mennonite Evangelicals love to distinguish themselves from other Evangelicals, both products of Fundamentalism, by pointing to their Anabaptist doctrines (namely non-resistance and non-conformity) as if it is something revolutionary when, in fact, they are often religious promoters of progressive politics who oddly also decide they are also above voting.

Voting bad, taxes good…

Okay.

Drinking the Kool-Aid of Evangelical Humanism

It started so wonderfully, a charismatic young leader blended concern for the poor and racial inequality with a Gospel message. Eventually this “Peoples Temple of the Disciples of Christ” moved from Indiana to sunny California where this social justice preacher, James Warren Jones, found a more receptive and racially diverse audience. He grew his following to a few thousand members, enough to gain the attention of left-wing political leaders, and hired an African-American preacher to further the social justice message.

Pastor Jim

Jones and his so-called “Peoples Temple” moved progressively in the direction of openly displaying their true Marxist intentions. Their home for senior citizens directly quoted Karl Marx, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” and drew parallels between this political ideology and Christian teachings. Jones became increasingly divisive, increasingly open with his far-left rhetoric, and increasingly controlling as time went on. Jones, the cult leader, preying on the urban poor and minorities, now pushed an idea of “religious communalism” and used various passages of Scripture to justify this aggressive push towards Socialism.

A ‘kingdom’ perspective

Of course, maybe some of you already know how this story ends, at Jonestown, where Jim Jones, the leader of this nasty narcissistic polygamous mess, ordered his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. The infamous Jonestown Massacre, in the Socialist paradise (or rather a hellhole) in Guyana, totaled 909 dead, either by suicide or murdered outright, including a Congressman sent to investigate allegations of abuse. Jones was always only a wolf in sheep’s clothing, he was merely using a twisted version of Biblical texts for his political and personal ends. He was able, with this heretical blend, to lead hundreds of people to their deaths. And sadly, despite this sobering example, many still “drink the Kool-Aid” of social justice and end up spiritually dead having jettisoned the true Gospel.

Jonestown Massacre

Those who fall for the social justice ‘Gospel’ have indeed traded their birthright for a bowl of pottage. They, like Judas, have interpreted the words of Jesus through the lens of their worldly aims. They, like the betrayer of Christ, take the instruction of Christ, “sell all and give to the poor” as some kind of end in itself and not in the context of divine pursuit. It is not because they are far from Jesus. No, in fact, there is only a subtle difference. Judas may well have been the best of the disciples, trusted with the common purse, and able to quote the words of Jesus concerning the poor right back at him. And he was not alone in his confusion about the words of Jesus either. All of the disciples seemed to have worldly power and prestige in mind. They did not anticipate the life of suffering and sacrifice.

Do not drink that social justice Kool-Aid

The close counterfeit is the most dangerous. Many warn of the crude caricatures and obviously flawed copies of the truth. However, when they encounter something that appears, on the surface, to be the genuine article, what do they do? They let down their guard, may even praise the effort, and never realize the missing substance behind the effort. The substance, of course, being that the purpose of everything a Christian does is worship. True, following after the instruction to give to the poor, in the context of Christian faith, will create a better world. However, when turned into some legalistic prescription and for the intention of political end, like social justice, it very quickly becomes abusive.

But Jim Jones wasn’t the first to start to push a brand of Socialism and defiance against ordained authority, there was an Anabaptist cult with similar views. The Münster Anabaptists were the true radicals of the so-called “radical reformation” and are the likely cause of the eventual crackdown on all Anabaptists. They too promised ‘the kingdom’ siding with the poor and the peasants, but their “new Jerusalem” very quickly ended up a polygamous nightmare. This disaster is why the “non-resistent” theology won out. This is why conservative Mennonites and Amish have remained relatively apolitical.

Returning to the Vomit of Münster

Modern Mennonites, of all stripes, share a similar antipathy towards authority. Those on the ‘conservative’ end of the spectrum are defiant towards things like Covid-19 restrictions or anything that interferes with their own agenda, while those on the ‘progressive’ side stand against everything from the punishment of evildoers and even national borders. The only significant difference is that the conservatives, like most other conservatives, mostly want to be left alone to practice their religion. While the progressives would be happy to use government to enforce social obligations on their neighbors. Where the conservatives can be neglectful of their neighbors, the progressives (like their worldly counterparts) are enthusiastically abusive.

I’ve noticed many privileged Mennonites, raised in conservative Evangelical/fundamentalist churches, in reaction to their own former ignorance, veer hard to the left.

They were raised in Mennonite homes, lived in Mennonite communities, went to Mennonite schools and a few finished their education in fundamentalist institutions. Most of their lives, unlike my own, they spent in this Mennonite cloister, then they go to the big city somewhere and find out other people see a different perspective from the only one that they knew existed. But rather than apply a grain of salt, or show any spiritual discernment whatsoever, they swallow the newly discovered grievance narratives lock, stock and barrel. They cheer on, from their ivory towers, the “people power” of those disrupting their neighbors, ignore or justify the violence of those destroying cities, and think their support for Barrabus is doing the Lord’s work.

They are blind guides, more misguided than the Mennonite traditionalists whom they frequently condemn, condescend and criticize, and yet imagine themselves to be the true standard-bearers for Anabaptism. And they are, but Anabaptist in the same way as Münsterites and of the same spirit as those religious elites whom Jesus taunted in this passage:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

(Matthew 23:29-32 NIV)

Woah!

I mean, woe…

Leftward aligned, and “kingdom Christians” are less committed than their Anabaptist predecessors and yet making the same mistakes. They claim to be above the politics of this age, apolitical even, and pose as the enlightened minds, but are really lacking in introspection and this:

These people are springs without water and mists driven by a storm. Blackest darkness is reserved for them. For they mouth empty, boastful words and, by appealing to the lustful desires of the flesh, they entice people who are just escaping from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.” If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”

(2 Peter 2:17-22 NIV)

Few Mennonites actually read the writings of Menno Simons, but many are familiar with his poem, “True Evangelical Faith,” a presentation that orients the reader towards the earthy and practical ministries of the church, and some of the reason he is described as an “evangelical humanist” by various sources. No, he would certainly not support the leftist policies of our day nor was he completely aligned with the Anabaptist comrades in Münster. But this understanding of the words of Jesus too easily transforms into left-wing anarchist politics and is very often misconstrued as an endorsement of Socialism.

Couple this with the Zwinglian denial of spiritual and mystical aspects of what Jesus taught, common to all Anabaptists, along with the political ambitions of the historical Anabaptist leftists, who in their zealousness, overthrew the ordained government of a German city named Münster, and you can know where this ‘kingdom’ is headed.

Jan van Leiden baptizes a woman in Münster, painting by Johann Karl Ulrich Bähr.

The contempt for authority is already there, the loss of a truly divine orientation is already there as well, and now they align themselves with those rebellious against all authority and acting out in violence.

This turn towards left-wing politics, those doing apologetics for grievance culture, are urging the faithful to take a big gulp of the same Kool-Aid that was passed around Jonestown. It is the same spirit that led to the horrendous violence of the Münster Rebellion. It is not remotely Christian even if it uses the words of Christ as justification.

Judas too used the words of Jesus. He deceptively used the words of Jesus, “sell all and give to the poor,” as a means to admonished a faithful woman for her impracticality worship of pouring out perfume on the feet of the Lord. He, like a Marx-inspired fundamentalist calling ornate houses of worship a waste, told this woman that she should have sold the perfume to give to the poor. He used his position, as follower of Jesus and disciple, an advocate of the ‘kingdom’ as he understood it, to hide his actual political ambitions. For this smug comment he earned the sharp rebuke of Jesus.

Those lapping up the radical leftist vomit of Münster Anabaptists, in modern forms, will be worse off than their more-traditional Mennonite counterparts. Marxist philosophy is not compatible with the message of the cross nor is this ‘kingdom’ opposition to the established government Christian. They might be sincere. Many are misled by them. But there is no reason for me to suspect that Judas, or others like him who betrayed Christ and the church, were insincere. Had Judas been only a fraud, why would he have despairingly taken his own life?

Oh proud Anabaptist. Oh fundamentalist with all of the answers and no actual wisdom. Oh you Evangelicals who are all talk and very little understanding, who flail to the right or to the left every time, desperate to be relevant. Oh you closeted Marxists, with worldly ambitions, posing as agents of the kingdom. Repent now, before it is too late!

Turn Not to the Right or the Left

Every so often a quote pops up, at the right exact time, so poignant, that it appears to be a gift from God. And such was the case when this quote was shared on my news feed while contemplating politics and examining my own stance as far as ideological positions. I tend to be right-wing. I do believe that the role of government is to set some basic boundaries, look out for the “common good,” and stay completely out of my personal business. But I also see the folly of individualism, the need of communities and voluntary cooperation between people.

I see both right and left-wing extremes, both totalitarianism and anarchism, as unChristian and dangerous. But never had succinct words to describe why this is, at least not before reading this quote:

There are two kinds of ‘atheism’: the atheism of the right, which professes to love God and ignores neighbor; and the atheism of the left, which professes to love neighbor and ignores God.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “Those Mysterious Priests”

This quote hits the problems of both sides squarely on the head. The ‘right’ frequently takes their independence too far, they become neglectful in regards to loving their neighbors and in this have rejected God. The ‘left’ on the other hand, professes their compassion for the oppressed and downtrodden, but this often is nothing but human effort that neglects worship. Both the right and left are motivated by selfishness. Both, at different levels, are looking for freedom or control. However, the left is much better at hiding their lust for power and true atheism under a veil of altruism.

It is interesting that frequently, in Scripture, we see passages warning against veering right or left, like this one:

Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go.

(Joshua 1:7 NIV)

My guess is that partisan alignments, rightward or leftwards, take our focus off of the divine. Instead of being focused on Jesus, and theosis, we become mired in political controversy and tribes. It is true, we cannot serve two masters. And political ideologies, on a horizontal plane, will distract us from the vertical alignment. No, we do not stop eating worldly food or drinking physical water as ambassadors of the Kingdom of Heaven. Nor do we cease to choose McDonald’s rather than Burger King. But, as the Divine Liturgy reminds the faithful, “put not your trust in princess and sons of man in whom there is no salvation.”

A Christian Perspective of Government

There is a vast difference between the glutton, who looks to food as an end unto itself, and the traveler on the path of repentance who eats to be nourished enough for the days work. Political involvement, preferring candidate A over candidate B, is not sinful anymore than eating or any other choice. We are in the world, even if not of the world, and it is silly to pretend to be aloof from it all. But when politics becomes an obsession, when ideologies become idols, when we veer too much the right or the left, the look out. We imperil our own salvation when we turn to the political philosophy and economic systems of men for our help rather than God.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not a rival to any earthly kingdom. No, it is on an entirely different plane from any worldly government and those saying otherwise are false teachers. Sure, yes, the political and religious leaders of the time saw Jesus as a threat to their power, they were confused about the Kingdom as much as the disciples. But never did Jesus show any interest in overthrowing them. Instead, he acknowledged the authority of those who “sit in the seat of Moses” (Matthew 23:21) and told his followers to do what they instructed.

Jesus and those who followed him never once questioned the legitimately applied authority of Rome. St. Paul, even despite enduring brutal mistreatment at the hands of Roman authorities, having every reason to be scornful of them, instructed thusly:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

(Romans 13:1-7 NIV)

It cannot be spelled out any more clear than that. The authorities, in their capacity to punish evildoers, are divinely ordained, acting on behalf of God, and not to be resisted. To rebel against them, we are told, is to rebel against God.

Of course, this is where some smarmy Anabaptist ‘kingdom’ pusher will interject, to excuse their own topic and rebellious spirit, by saying “Well, America was started by a rebellion,” or “occupies stolen land” and go on to suggest this excuses or exempts them from applying St. Paul’s instruction. They, in their woeful arrogance, have appointed themselves to be the judge of nations rather than simply pray for their leaders and obey Jesus as they ought. And this is because they, like Judas before them, are duplicitous and truly more obsessed with worldly power than they let on. For them, the ‘kingdom’ is merely a front for political ambitions, it is so they can feel righteous in their contempt for what is ordained by God.

The idea of “my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 NIV) and the refusal of Jesus to even stand up to the miscarriage of justice, should put to rest this notion that there should be a rivalry between the Christians and civil authorities. If Jesus even refused to stand up to their abuses, how much more should we be willing to respect and submit to what is truly part of their God-ordained mission?

Both the church, and government, are ordained authorities. One is established for our own good as those traveling through this world and the other is a Kingdom that transcends everything in the world. I have no problem with those who do not vote because they do not believe worldly governance is the right place for a Christian. But it is incredible hypocrisy that those won’t so much as vote will turn the teachings of Jesus into a political message and use this in confrontation with civil authorities. Who are we to judge another man’s servants?

Instead of competition with God’s ordained authorities, snide remarks or violent protests, try this instead:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

(1 Timothy 2:1‭-‬4 NIV)

In conclusion, those so delusional that they can’t fathom God using imperfect men probably should not vote. In their arrogance and delusion of their own righteousness they would be incapable of making a sound decision. Again, I have absolutely no problem with anyone who chooses to abstain from political involvement. The further along we are in our faith the more we will trust the means of prayer and leave our worldly concerns behind. But, that said, I likewise do not stand in condemnation of those who, out of love for their own families and neighbors, appreciation for their nation, participate in the most peaceable manner possible.

“Why Don’t Mennonites Pay Taxes?” And Other Similar Questions…

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Growing up conservative Mennonite and going to a public school opened me up to many questions about my religion. However, while these inquiries were presented in form of a question, they often came off as statements:

“Hey, don’t Mennonites have horse and buggies, where’s yours?”

“Why don’t Mennonites pay taxes?”

Understand, this wasn’t intended as obnoxious, this was in elementary school and these classmates were genuinely curious. They were trying to take what they knew about Mennonites (or thought they knew) with what they observed in me and reconcile the two. I suppose these could be called “micro-aggressions” according to the currently popular terms, but I prefer a more gracious explanation.

Still, while I prefer to be gracious, the presumptions still annoyed me. This exposure might explain my sometimes strong visceral reaction to being pigeonholed in a debate. It might also have contributed to my desire to be a non-conformist in a culture that took pride in being non-conformed and did things a little different from other Mennonites. I’ve always wanted the right to speak for myself and for that reason have tried to give others the same respect and let them speak for themselves.

Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that any conservative Mennonite who spent time outside of their own religious cloister has experienced much of the same thing. The people asking if they are Amish, those inquiring if they ever considered the possibility there is no God, etc. And presumably, this would make us more careful not to do the same others. But that’s not always the case, as I’ve discovered…

Oh No, Not Again!!!

Since becoming Orthodox I’ve encountered the same kind of presumptions in a different form. This time, rather than public school peers, it is Mennonite family and friends. And it is not that I mind the questions either, but when someone starts with “I know a Catholic…” it reminds of those who cannot distinguish conservative Mennonites from Amish or Old Order Mennonites.

So I’ll start with that one…

“Aren’t Orthodox basically Catholics?”

Yes and no.

The word “Catholic” means universal. In the words of St Paul, there is “one body” (Rom 12:5, 1 Cor 10:17, 12:20, Eph 2:16, 4:4, etc.) and that is what universal or catholic means when applied to the Church. There may be multiple denominations, differences, and divisions within the Church, but there is only one universal Christian body of believers and that is what Catholic means. So, yes, all Orthodox Christians believe in a Catholic church, in that they believe there is only one universal Christian Church—that is what Biblical tradition tells us and that is what we must believe is true.

However, no, despite some similarities, we are not *Roman* Catholic. The early church had five patriarchs, one in Jerusalem, one in Alexandria, one in Antioch, one in Constantinople and another in Rome. These were geographic centers and separate jurisdictions of the early church and all were basically in agreement. However, in a similar fashion to how Amish split from other Anabaptists, there was a “Great Schism” in 1054 between the four patriarchs of the “East” and the Roman “West” over a variety of issues—including Rome’s unilateral addition to the creed (called the “filioque“) and the elevation of Papal power.

The Roman side veered towards more authority being granted to “Peter’s seat” in Rome. The Orthodox, by contrast, put more emphasis on maintaining Church tradition both written and spoken (or Orthodoxy) and hold that Peter was the “first among equals” rather than the “Vicar of Christ” in the way that the Romans do. This is a very significant difference of perspective, yet Orthodox and Roman Catholics do recognize each other at some level despite not being in Communion together. Both the Orthodox East and Roman West are Catholic in the sense they are parts of the universal Church, but they are not the same.

“Do Orthodox worship Mary?”

One of the first things a non-Orthodox will notice when entering an Orthodox sanctuary is the many pictures. These are called “icons” (after the Greek word for “image”) and are a visual representation of various saints, scenes, etc. This is a Christian tradition back to depictions in the Catacombs, there are icons of many virtuous Biblical characters, and of those most prominently displayed are those of Jesus and Mary the mother of Jesus. There is also mention of Mary, the mother of Jesus, “with the saints” throughout the divine liturgy and special honor is given to her.

However, Mary, while venerated (or honored) as the mother of our Lord, is never worshipped by an Orthodox Christian. Worship is only for the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and all others are honored for their various roles. Mary’s role is more significant because her body was quite literally the ark of the new covenant. That is why Mary knew, early on, that “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:48) and why Elizabeth (who were are told was “filled with the Holy Spirit”) loudly proclaims: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” Nowhere in Scripture do we have a similar proclamation made and it is only right that the mother of Jesus is recognized by us in the same manner that she is by Elizabeth.

For Jesus to be fully man he needed a mother and his mother was Mary and that is why we celebrate her role. But that honor is not worship. In Chrismation, one has to make agree and make clear that their recognition of Mary and the saints in form of icons is “not unto idolatry” but for sake of “contemplation” and so that “we may increase in piety, and emulation of the deeds of the holy persons represented.” It is no more idolatry to venerate Mary and the saints than it is to have pictures of your grandparents on the wall or to speak of your own mother glowingly on Mother’s day or to treat your own children or spouse differently than other people. There is a vast difference between honor and worship.

“Why aren’t there Orthodox missionaries?”

This one caught me off guard. First off, every Orthodox Christian is (borrowing the words of Charles Spurgeon) “either a missionary or an imposter” and by this, I mean every member of the body of Christ is sent into the world as his representative. Sure, not every Christian is sent abroad in the manner of Hudson Taylor, but every Christian is called to be an ambassador for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) and should do this wherever they are in the world. Secondly, Orthodox Christians, from St Paul onward have journeyed physically to spread the Gospel to the four corners of the world. Again, not all traveled to far away places, but every Orthodox believer is a missionary and there are no exceptions.

Some of the confusion of my Mennonite friends (who more or less proclaimed that Orthodox lack missionaries) could a product of Evangelical Protestantism and the influence this movement has had on defining their current practice. It seems many under that influence see missionary service as an activity that Christians do rather than an all-encompassing lifestyle. In other words, according to this mindset, one is only a missionary when shoving a tract in the face of an unsuspecting passerby or when they go with a group to do a project in a country that could use jobs more than donated labor. And yet, while that may be a part of what missionary work entails, this too is how we are to proclaim the good news:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22‭-‬24 NIV)

And, as far as Orthodox being missionaries in the forms more celebrated, there are many powerful examples of wonderworkers and martyrs for the faith. Orthodox don’t just travel to tropical paradises, do fun projects, and then jet back home again (back to their privileged lifestyles) after a few days or couple years. No, the Orthodox live in some of the most hostile places for a Christian to live and many have become the truest witness of Christ—they have died as martyrs for their faith, in this century as much as any other, and not only in the history books. It was not Protestant missionaries or Evangelicals being brutalized and beheaded by ISIS.

Furthermore, having entertained (very briefly) proselytizers of a sect widely viewed as heretical (even by Protestants) and having considered the words of Jesus about missionaries that make their converts twice as damned as themselves (Matt. 23:15) or those who will cry “Lord, Lord, have we not” when standing condemned in front of Him (Matt. 7:21-23) and listing their missionary works as if that is their salvation, there is something to be said for correct teachings and practice. The Orthodox, while all over the world (including Africa, where a baptism of 556 took place), seem to be more concerned with quiet and sincere obedience than they are with loud and proud professions.

“I’ve heard Orthodox don’t believe in being ‘born again’ experience, is this true?”

Conservative Mennonites, like other Evangelicals, tend to put much stock in a “born again” salvation experience. They take a phrase out of an analogy Jesus used (while speaking to Nicodemus in John 3:1-20) to explain spiritual transformation that must take place before someone can enter the kingdom of God. He likens being born of the Spirit to the wind, it is something mysterious, and then foretells his dying on the cross by likening it to the brass serpent Moses raised in the wilderness that healed those who looked upon it. And, yes, there is an experience, at the foot of the cross, for those who look up to Jesus and cry out for God’s mercy to them as a sinner.

However, salvation is not simply saying something and having an emotional experience attached or a once and done event, there’s so much more. We are told in the letters of St. Paul to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12) and then also that we are saved by grace “through faith” and as a “gift from God” (Eph. 2:1-10) rather than by our righteous works, which (with many other Biblical texts) could seem to present a contradictory view of salvation—splitting Protestants into competing camps of works versus faith, eternal security versus potentially losing our salvation, or Calvinist and Armenian. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians avoid this debate entirely with a view of salvation that transcends easy categorization. We are saved, being saved, and will be saved so long as we continue to believe.

The Orthodox see salvation as a direction, not just a destination, as an intentional alignment with God’s perfect will and the choice we make daily in following after Jesus. In other words, salvation is less about declaring oneself to be “born again” or a singular event in time that we look back on and more about taking up our cross. Salvation is not a mere once-and-done transaction for them, it is a continuous relationship and being in Communion together with the body of Christ. So, yes, we should all be “born of the Spirit” and yet we should also be connected to the vine (John 15:1-8) or we will die as spiritual babies and never bear the fruit of salvation. Ultimately salvation is not a past event or a promised future reward, it is something we choose every day in our being faithful to God and living out the commitment to love each other.

“If we make every effort to avoid death of the body, still more should it be our endeavor to avoid death of the soul. There is no obstacle for a man who wants to be saved other than negligence and laziness of soul.”

+ St. Anthony the Great, “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” Text 45, The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1)

“I know an Orthodox and…”

It is one of the most annoying statements. Annoying because it is usually followed by some sort of negative characterization which they then use their anecdote to generalize about the entire two millennia of Orthodox Christianity and a church made up of hundreds of millions of people. It is a statement many Mennonites have encountered as well, which makes it all the more annoying when the same thing in slightly different form comes from the mouth of a Mennonite. I recall a time, broke down while driving truck, when the service technician (who didn’t know I was Mennonite) went on a long rant about some Mennonites he knew and how hypocritical Mennonites are, etc. Of course, his criticisms weren’t entirely incorrect nor are many of those leveled against the Orthodox (we don’t claim to be a church of perfect people) and yet they were definitely unfair to use as a basis to judge the entire group.

This tendency to remember their worse examples and our own best is a human universal. It is something called in-group-out-group-bias which means we tend to recall good examples of our own group (minimizing our bad) and bad examples of other groups (minimizing their good) or, in a word, favoritism. But this is especially true where the perfect church myth is prevalent or there is a lack of contemplation, introspection, and ownership. The smaller a group is, the easier it is to imagine that you are not like those others—those who do not live up to your own personal standards—and forget that a judgmental, divisive and prideful spirit is as sinful as anything else. Pointing out the faults of others is never a good defense. We should recall the story Jesus told about the confident religious elitist who thought only of his own righteousness in comparison to others and the humble man who begged only for mercy in his prayer:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

So, anyhow, maybe you know an Orthodox Christian and can only recall bad things about them. But I probably know a few more and can tell you that they are just as sincere as any conservative Mennonite or other Evangelical I’ve met. Maybe you know some Orthodox who do not live to your own religious standards or can point to a historical blemish or two from a thousand years ago? Well, I’ll raise you one pedophile ordained by a Mennonite church in the past decade (here’s a list of some other Mennonite sexual abusers, if that’s not enough) and the Münster rebellion. Every denominational group has their less than celebrated moments and members, I can assure you of that. And if a group is too small to have a history of mistakes, that is not a great strength, it is a weakness, it only means they are more vulnerable. So “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” or maybe we should just take the advice of Jesus to be humble about ourselves and understand our own continual need of God’s mercy?

The Orthodox do not run from their history by starting a new denomination (or ‘non-denominational’ group) every time there’s a failure, they have their greater and lesser examples like every other group. But one thing that can be said is that they have maintained their unity centered on Christ and keeping the traditions of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the present moment. Fr Anthony, the Antiochian priest who served during my Chrismation, can trace his ordination all the way back to Peter and the first Gentile church, the church of Antioch (Acts 11:19-30) where believers were first called Christian. There is a great wealth of history to draw from, some cautionary tales, and many who were faithful until the end. Like the church that Paul preached to, the Church today is by no means perfect and yet, as Jesus promised, the “gates of hell” have not prevailed against the Church he founded.

For all of my non-Orthodox friends, the door is open, all people are welcomed, and there are good answers to questions for those who have them. There is truly a wonderful diversity within Orthodoxy, and a beauty of traditions—traditions packed with deep meaning—that span thousands of years. This is not something that one can begin to summarize in a blog post. There are volumes written and many more yet to be written about the Church.

But the best way to start learning about Orthodoxy is first-hand—to come and see.

Taking on Matthew 23 and the Uncomfortable Topic of Hypocrisy

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Several years ago, my church designated the fifth Sunday of the month as an opportunity for laymen to preach.  I passed on the invitation when my name came up.  I did not feel qualified to speak and therefore decided not to embarrass myself or bore an audience with my scattered thoughts.

Much has changed since then.  A couple years ago (upon realizing that I could no longer use the excuse of being younger than Jesus when he started his ministry) I decided to start saying “yes” when called upon.  And, surprisingly enough, I did survive my attempts at teaching and giving devotions.  In fact, I did well-enough that I started to think about what I would preach, given the chance.

What sermon would I preach?

I’ve heard dozens of sermons parsing 1 Corinthians 11.  Modesty (the word “modest” only found once in Scripture) has been a frequently preached on topic as well.  Biblical proof-texts pertaining to our doctrinal hobbyhorses make their regular appearances—I’m pretty sure my Mennonite readership is quite familiar with the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew.

I’ve heard many “fire and brimstone” messages about the danger of television, rock music, sports and “worldly” entertainment.  Where I come from there is no shortage of sensational stories and titillating tales included in the message.  Even the occasional myths about wells to hell and erroneous silver dollar arguments get mixed in to spice things up a bit when the pulpit-pounding theatrics aren’t good enough.

However, amongst those numerous messages I’ve heard from across many pulpits, there is one particular Biblical text that I cannot recall a sermon being preached on.

That text being Matthew 23, the chapter where Jesus levels seven accusations against the religious elites of that time, a sermon full of unpleasant words and bitter reproach that culminates into prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction and the ending of that age.

I have long pondered why this significant portion of Scripture (mirrored in the six woes of Luke 11:37-54) is so often neglected.

It could be confirmation bias.  It is very easy to only see evidence that confirms our existing worldview (or “cherry picking“) and ignore evidence to the contrary.  Perhaps it is preoccupation with defending the current tradition that distracts us from a sermon about the hypocrisy of other religious people?  We’d rather dismiss that as irrelevant to our own time and unimportant.

Or…does it hit too close to home?

In a denomination known to split over religious minutia a discussion of personal hypocrisy might be a sore subject.  When I read it, the parallels between the attitudes of those Jesus called out and some I’ve witnessed in our circles today are clearly recognizable.  So the passage might simply be avoided as an uncomfortable topic.

Anyhow, as one not striving to follow the path of least resistance, and as one who believes that faithfulness includes challenging the complacent, I would choose Matthew 23 for a sermon text and explain how the message Jesus gave then still applies to us today.

Blogging—today’s medium for delivering a message to a broader audience.

I felt called to be a minister of the gospel at a young age.  Back then, I had thought that meant being ordained or or serving as a missionary overseas.  Both of those things have become more and more unlikely as I’ve aged.  I do not tow the denominational line, so to speak, therefore my chances of ordaination or being sent to represent a Mennonite organization are about nil.

I may never have the opportunity to preach in a Mennonite church given my current trajectory.  But life is strange.  This thing called blogging did not exist until the mid 90s nor did social media and now it does.  My writing here reaches a larger audience than ordained Mennonite men do on Sunday mornings and that’s something I could not have imagined as a child.

So, I’ve decided to do a series of blogs on Matthew 23.  I want to be faithful with the platform I’ve been given, and I believe that you are here reading because the message is relevant to you.  My hope is that this encouragement to go beyond our own religious comfort zones is received as intended.

Part 1: Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

Part 2: What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:6-12)

Part 3: Missionaries From Hell? (Matthew 23:13-15)

Part 4: Too Focused To Be Faithful (Matthew 23:16-24)

Part 5: Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

Part 6: Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

Part 7: Jesus Longs for His People (Matthew 23:37-39)