The US Constitution is a prime example of how the same words can be interpreted in many different ways. Sometimes this is just a way to get around the clear meaning and other times it is simply a problem with language. There are many cases, with this founding document of a nation, that it would be nice if we could have some further explanation. Sure, you can read some of what the writers and signers said elsewhere in order to try to fill in the blanks. But, in the end, without them here, we don’t truly know how they would respond to the demands of our modern economy, technology, and needs.
This only gets murkier when dealing with Scriptures written two millennia ago. Yes, every Bible-thumper and their brother thinks they have a clear understanding while everyone else is just making things more difficult than they really should be. I mean, “The Bible Says It, I Believe It, That Settles It,” right? And yet, if I were to answer that with, “do you bury your poo outside of your property, in a hole you dug with a trowel, as instructed in Deuteronomy?” I’m guessing that suddenly what the Bible says would become a bit less settled as those using this phrase made some sort of theological exemption and that’s okay, there are things in Scripture that aren’t perfectly clear without some further explanation.
But what is more intriguing to me is what is completely left out that would be so obvious to early Christians that it wouldn’t even be worth mentioning in the letters. As the saying goes, more is caught than taught, and sometimes the most important things never do get written out. In other words, if we were writing instructions on how to drive a car, we would probably assume that the person knows how to get into the vehicle or sit facing forward. However, from the Bible, do we know how the early church structured their services or generally lived? Would they even recognize us as Christians? The reality is that there are gaps that many today just fill in with assumptions and it is usually these different extra-Biblical assumptions that lead to many divisions.
In the Protestant world “extra-Biblical” is practically a curse word. How dare you ever have a rule, custom, or tradition that goes beyond the written text! That’s false religion or something! This is why Orthodoxy is often dismissed by those seeking to strip down Christianity to the Biblical bare bones. It is a special kind of ignorance.
A good illustration? In World War II there was a study of returning aircraft and the damage that they had to determine how to better prevent future losses. The Center for Naval Analyses concluded from this that the aircraft needed more protection in these most heavily damaged areas. However, Abraham Wald, a Hungarian mathematician, begged to differ. He reasoned that the aircraft returning had survived and those that had been hit in more critical areas did not. In other words, what needed to be done was the very opposite of what the others had concluded. They needed to better armor those areas that weren’t damaged in the returning aircraft. This tendency to misinterpret evidence, based on what we have rather than what is missing, is called “survivorship bias” and can lead to woefully incorrect ideas.
This is what the Bible says about what is written versus what is not:
So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.
(2 Thessalonians 2 NIV)
The “letter” is what we have received in Scripture. These are the books of the Bible, canonized by the Church and believed to be truly inspired writing for this reason. But the “word of mouth” is where things are more interesting. What of the Apostle’s teaching (or tradition according to the KJV) is not written in their letters and how do we know what is missing?
The Orthodox, of course, say that this is the tradition of the Church and tie their legitimacy to the fact that there is a line of secession going all the way back to the Apostles, by the laying of hands and ordinations, and this only makes sense. The Church (note, not an individual or even the institutions) is what keeps the spoken teachings of the Apostles preserved like it did the Bible, and also serves to provide the correct understanding of Scripture. Because we should know, as Peter warned, that the Bible does not provide its own interpretation: “[Paul’s] letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” (2 Peter 3:16 NIV)
However, it isn’t just the non-Orthodox that fall victim to their own bias. There are parts of the Church tradition, whether spoken or written, that slip through the cracks. We all have blind spots. We all have our distortions of concepts and errant assumptions. The difference is, that the Orthodox, if they are truly seeking to be Orthodox, are at least making some effort to incorporate the sayings of the Fathers and have a grasp of those “word of mouth” traditions not necessarily ever expressed in Scripture. In doing this, in understanding how Christianity was practiced by the faithful throughout the centuries, it becomes that much harder to distort the words of the Bible.
In the end, Christianity is about Communion, not easy textbook answers, not following an instruction manual, not standing alone, but real relationships. The more important being that between ourselves and God. However, a relationship with God implies love for our brothers and sisters. It means we are rubbing elbows with other Christians and the Saints. As Fr. Anthony put it, in his fatherly council to me, “there are no Lone Rangers” in Christianity, we can’t put the words of Jesus to practice in solitude or isolation. It’s not in removing ourselves that we are purified, it is in our getting messy and involved in the life of the Church of imperfect people (like us) that we are changed. That is taking up our cross. That is the hard part of Christianity we would rather run from.
Learning never stops in relationships. Christ Jesus did not come so we could house church with the few other perfect people who have the proper understanding of a book according to us. Instead, the very act of Incarnation was God choosing to be around those undeserving and impure, to identify with them and their suffering, which should be the impulse of those filled with the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit, St Paul tells us, that will bring “unity” and a “bond of peace” which should span centuries or the current divisions because: “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 4:4-6 NIV)
If there’s one pet peeve of mine, greater than all of the many others, it is the misuse of language that destroys meaning. Sure, words evolve, their usage changing from one generation to the next, but it is religious terms that get watered down that are most offensive to me. The word “miracle” is the chief amongst them.
A miracle, at least according to proper use, is supposed to be something that is completely inexplicable and deviates against natural law or is supernatural. No, you getting all green lights on the way to your nephew’s piano recital is not a miracle! That is easily explained as simply good timing and does not require any angels holding back traffic or special Divine intervention to explain.
So, a few years back I made a wonderful friend, a beautiful Algerian woman named Hajar. Other than being full of life and laughter, even telling my car that she missed it on our second meeting, she was a devout Muslim. She prayed five times a day, ate Halal food, and frequently used the Arabic term “inshallah” as part of discussing future plans. The meaning? If God wills.
Anyhow, back on words and pet peeves, it really should be part of our vocabulary to say “if God wills” rather than simply declare. I know, we’re bold Westerners, things usually do go our way, we’re lazy efficient, and do not think we need to acknowledge our lack of control on a regular basis. But this is, indeed, a wholly appropriate and strongly recommended Christian practice:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”
(James 4:13-15 NIV)
The reason James mentions this, and that we should employ the advice liberally, is because we can so easily slip into a mode of self-sufficiency and arrogance. This is also an attitude that Jesus spoke very strongly against, read the parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21), and, therefore, frequent use of the phrase “Lord willing” is something worth considering for the faithful.
Even if someone doesn’t believe in God, or at least not the Biblical version, this ability to comprehend one’s own place in the universe can help to guard against deadly hubris. We are simply not able to dictate outcomes, no matter how advanced our science has become, and are better to remain humble and understand our own place as those created from the dust of the cosmos. We are at the mercy of forces far beyond our own control.
Going full circle, what is a word that could be used, better than using miracle, to describe good fortune or our getting things right? I like Providence. It both acknowledges God and also is not an overstatement. It was a word once more frequently used and bringing it back into circulation is the perfect antidote to the dumbing down of culture.
Conflict is everywhere, anywhere there are two are more gathered there is potential for conflict. We currently watch the lingering hostilities between the West and Russia unfold into open war in Ukraine, between people of a common Kyivan Rus’ religious and cultural heritage. The reasons are complex (watch this video for a deeper dive) and beyond the scope here.
Nevertheless, the same things that cause wars between nations also lead to schism and splits in the church, and despite the exhortation of St. Paul to make every effort to maintain unity:
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 4:2-4 NIV)
If we would ask most who profess Christ, they would probably agree that the Church should be united, there should not be rifts or denominations, yet that’s probably where the agreement would end. The body of believers has split hundreds of different ways, over matters of theology, history, structure, worship style, politics, or personalities.
But, before we get to the broader conflicts and division within Christianity, I’ll confess that I’m currently in my own conflict. This is why I am both the right and the wrong person to write about this topic. I am the wrong person because the impasse has not been resolved yet despite a small gesture on the part of the other person. My anger has exasperated the issue. And yet I’m also still wanting to find peace with this other person and honest resolution.
Conflict is Nothing New or Unexpected
If an enemy were insulting me, I could endure it; if a foe were rising against me, I could hide. But it is you, a man like myself, my companion, my close friend, with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship at the house of God, as we walked about among the worshipers.
(Psalms 55:12-14 NIV)
I believe we can all identify with the text above. We expect an enemy to do us harm and will find ways to maintain distance. However, when someone that we trust acts in a deliberately hurtful way, exploiting our vulnerabilities, the betrayal of a friend is the worst kind of pain. It is hard to come back to the table when someone professing Christ, who worshipped with us, seemingly close in spirit, totally destroys our trust.
That said, restoration of what is broken is part and parcel of Christianity. Indeed, we’re told that if we can’t forgive a person who owes us, then we will not be forgiven by God. (Matthew 6:4,5) This is something that Jesus expounded on in the parable of the unforgiving servant, a man who begs for mercy for a vast sum of money he owed, is forgiven, and then turns around to demand from a fellow servant.
And yet, no teaching of Jesus should be taken out of context either. Jesus was not, I repeat, was not telling us to sweep sin under a rug or not hold people accountable for their abuses. This certainly was not unilateral and unconditional forgiveness without repentance:
“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. 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.’ 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 18:15-17 NIV)
So many conflicts within the Church could be solved if we would go directly to the other person who had caused our offense. This process above is prescriptive and may keep a mere misunderstanding from blowing up into something that leads to separation or divides a congregation. First, before consulting anyone else, we should try to settle the issue amongst ourselves. Then, if that doesn’t work, it is time to seek the counsel of others and confront together. And, if that fails, if they refuse collective council, we should part ways.
It is similar to this explicit command from St. Paul:
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”
(1 Corinthians 5:9-13 NIV)
Forgiveness is not the same thing as tolerance for unrepentant sin. The church cannot be a hospital if we let the infection of sin to spread, like a superbug, untreated and ignored. The antiseptic is to confront the issue, to give opportunity for confession and repentance to begin the healing process. But, if the limb refuses treatment, then (as an absolute last resort) it must be amputated to save the body, as St. Paul had asked rhetorically in the lead up to the verses above: “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?”
In cases of actual unrepentant sin, conflict is entirely appropriate. The church cannot be allowed to become an incubator for sin. The toxicity can quickly spread and destroy the fellowship and health of a congregation. It takes proactive pastoral involvement, like that of St. Paul, to keep things from spiraling out of control. Yes, we should pray about all things. Sure, we should not judge without mercy and willingness to forgive the repentant. Still, we must confront sin, endure the discomfort of effective conflict resolution, and not simply resign to fate.
Not All Separation is Sin
Too many seem to skip over the book of Acts and miss the opportunity to see how Christianity played out in the early church:
Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.
(Acts 15:36-40 NIV)
This seemed like an amicable separation between Paul and Barnabas. Nevertheless, it was an unresolved conflict and they parted ways over it. There is no indication that either of the men was harboring an unforgiving spirit or in the wrong for this and, in the end, it probably helped the Gospel to reach more people than if they had stuck together. That is why with my own current conflict I may simply move on rather than make an effort to settle things. It is sometimes not worth the energy to continue with someone that does not see things the way we do.
Going separate ways, rather than trying to push through a conflict, may serve a greater purpose. At the very least, as with Abraham and Lot who parted ways over the turf wars between their respective herdsmen, we’ll gain a little peace. The key is that we don’t harbor ill-will or bring any hostilities with us Note that Paul and Barnabas did not go out and start competing church groups. They stayed within the same body of faith, carried on the same tradition, and simply moved in a different direction.
Is Ecumenicalism the Answer?
A church unified in teaching and mission should be the desire of all Christians. Some achieve this by declaring themselves the remnant and carrying on the great tradition of Diotrephes who turned away even the Apostles:
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)
Declaring yourself to be the true church and everyone else imposters is certainly convenient and yet not really employing be completely humble. I mean, sure, when I was Mennonite I wanted a church unity built around the doctrines that I was taught. It is easy to assume that the ground that we stand on is sacred simply because we’re standing on it. However, that is not an attitude or spirit that will ever overcome our existing conflicts.
Many are tempted to see ecumenicalism as the better alternative. Let’s all just give up on the particulars, find our common ground in Jesus, sing kumbaya while holding hands together, and move on, right?
But this is a race to the lowest common denominator, we would need to throw out almost everything to reach some kind of consensus. We would end up with a vague picture of the real Jesus and only end up creating one more faction. That’s the grand irony of universalist, non-denominational or ecumenical efforts, they never do actually solve the divisions and only end up creating another group of those willing to compromise for sake of creating a kind of unity that doesn’t really amount to much.
Eccumenticalism tends to be a denial of the reasons why the conflicts exist. It glosses over serious differences in theology and practice. It appeals to a “can’t we all just get along” sentiment, it is modeled off of the democratic process that many in our time embrace rather than the Gospel, and is not the way of the early church.
How Did the Early Church Settle Disputes?
The early church was not conflict-free. And had a fair amount of heretical teachings and false prophets that needed to be addressed. But one of the big disputes was between the Judiazers, those of Jewish background who wished to impose Jewish law on all new converts, and those who did not see this as necessary:
Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted. This news made all the believers very glad. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them. Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” The whole assembly became silent as they listened to Barnabas and Paul telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them. When they finished, James spoke up. “Brothers,” he said, “listen to me. Simon has described to us how God first intervened to choose a people for his name from the Gentiles. The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written: “ ‘After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, even all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things’— things known from long ago. “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.
(Acts 15:1-19 NIV)
This conflict was not solved by democracy or popular vote. No, it was decided by a council of elders and Apostles, who then told the rest of the Church what the right approach would be. It also went against a strict interpretation and application of Scripture. It was both hierarchical and required submission. We might not like that this dispute was decided from the top down. We can question the authority of this council or those that followed after, nevertheless, this was how conflicts over theology and practice were settled.
This is the strength of Orthodoxy; Orthodoxy centers on the Orthodoxy rather than hierarchy and that does mean the tradition of the Apostles, passed on “by word of mouth or by letter,” (2 Thess. 2:15) a canon of teachings (including Scripture) that have been established as authentic through councils of the Church, and has been held fast by the faithful throughout the centuries.
So Orthodoxy is the Answer to Conflict?
Many Orthodox Christians will tout their unbroken lineage all that way back to the Apostles. Our way of worship goes back over a millennium, the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated from the 5th Century on and is unrivaled in terms of the beauty of the content and structure. We are the ancient Church tradition and, indeed, Holy Communion is a mystical experience when in the presence of all those through the centuries who have participated. Such unity!
We’ll talk about the Great Schism and do some of that necessary handwringing about the literally thousands of divisions within Protestantism. I mean, judge for yourself, is there any civilization more divided against itself than the West? Even Roman Catholicism, with its progressive Pope and sex abuse scandals, is quite at odds with itself despite having a defined hierarchical structure.
Had I entered Orthodoxy with blind idealism, expecting the perfect church, I would probably have left even before getting started. The Orthodox may have the richest of Christian traditions, it is certainly a treasure trove for those who appreciate history and want to participate in a Christianity recognizable to those in the early Church. There is also a defined hierarchy to settle disputes. I mean, what could possibly go wrong? And yet the same conflicts of personalities and politics happen here as much as anywhere else.
Pretty much simultaneous to my entering the fold, the Ukrainian Schism took place. The gist of the dispute was that the Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew decided unilaterally to grant autocephaly (or independence) to the Ukrainian church. The problem was that this overstepped canonical law and violated the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. For sake of context, Bartholomew is pretty much the patriarch of a city that no longer exists, is supported by American churches, and is acting outside of his authority in a way reminiscent of the very Papal abuse that led to the Great Schism between East and West in 1054.
And then there were those families that left my own parish, led by a homeschooling mom from a Protestant background, who made some vicious (and completely unfounded, I was on the council and reviewed the books) accusations against the new priest. This woman, one of those pious and outwardly perfect types, the kind that can fool all of the frivolous old ladies, sends up all of the red flags of a classic manipulator. Things didn’t go her way and, therefore, that was proof of abuse and fraud. I tried to be her friend. I don’t completely connect with our new priest myself, and yet she’s way out of line.
Of course, I come from a Mennonite background, where no dispute is too petty to divide over. We would part ways over hairstyles.
The most disappointing fissure, however, other than my own personal conflict with someone that I thought was a real friend, is that between Abbott Tryphon and Ancient Faith Ministries. Tryphon, a convert to Orthodoxy, is a great writer and a favorite of my parish priest. I follow him on social media. He had a falling out with Ancient Faith over his more overtly political content. Of course, the accusations fly between sides, some say that one side has been compromised, has connections to this industry, or that, while the other would say it was over someone getting too entangled in worldly politics.
In other words, both sides are making essentially the same claim about the other and it probably does stem from both sides holding slightly different partisan perspectives. I can understand the perspectives that both sides have. I do not see worldly politics as being a good mix with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and yet I also see that a prophetic voice must speak to the issues relevant to the time. Still, Tryphon, though very eloquent, seems the more butt-hurt of the two parties and even alienated some of his own audience with his lashing out.
I would actually side against Tryphon, based on his visible conduct, if it weren’t for one thing and that thing being that I’m just like him when hurt. He’s a passionate man, someone who speaks with conviction, a bit black and white, and completely like me.
Division Makes Us All Weak
There is no religious system or culture that can prevent conflicts. We can go through all of the correct motions, speak all of the right words, have a perfect understanding of Christianity at a theoretical level, and yet totally fail to resolve conflicts.
Returning to the passage from Ephesians, from the start of the blog, the “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” is preceded by “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” That’s the hard part. When hurt or offended we don’t want to wait, we want to speak out rashly and let them feel a little of our own anguish.
And yet St Paul does not tell us to bury our grievances in the name of keeping unity and peace either:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
(Ephesians 4-14-16 NIV)
We should not lose our sensitivity:
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.
(Ephesians 4:17-25 NIV)
Instead, we need to find a way to navigate through conflicts, to speak truthfully and reject falsehood, while still being completely gentle, humble, and patient at the same time. It is both prayerful and proactive. The potential growth of the church is stunted both by those aggressively confrontational and overly passive in their approach. Again, what good is a hospital that only ever talks about infection without ever treating it? Likewise, who would go to a hospital where they a browbeaten and belittled constantly?
Having the right spirit is the start to resolving (or even completely avoiding) conflicts. There is a need for open and direct communication. We should also not let things stretch out too long, where we let things stew, as Ephesians 4:26-27 says: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” The more that I think about something the more upset I can become. I tend to soften up very quickly when face-to-face with someone, it is harder to hold on to the grievance.
Oh No, Here We Go Again!
When I entered Orthodoxy, trying to put the deep disappointments behind me, and already having the romance question answered by Charlotte, I was determined to remain friendly, and yet aloof and impersonal enough not to get hurt. The people were nice at the small parish, a good mix of ages, coffee hour conversations could go deep and I very quickly warmed up to most of the regular attenders.
In the intervening years, there has been some change and conflict. The long-serving Fr. Dan, who helped to build the parish, retired (his last service my Chrismation) and the search was on for a new rector. Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with the choice and almost immediately set to undermine the new priest. I tried to steer clear of those politics, choosing to remain faithful to the parish community despite my own personality conflicts with the burly bearded Harley riding Baptist convert. He’s a gruff man with a golden heart.
It was in the midst of the pandemic, after that initial quarantine phase in the spring of 2020, that a new person started to attend. She looked like someone who could be cradle Orthodox, with dark curly hair, and her veil with a long dress reminded me of the traditional Mennonite style that I loved. So I pretty much had to introduce myself and make them feel welcomed. I can’t really remember how that went, she was reserved and a little standoffish, and yet Orthodoxy provided a bond that allowed us to develop what seemed to be an authentic brotherly and sisterly relationship.
We spent a fair amount of time talking about our long-distance love interests, we became a sort of two-person support group for those waiting on their significant other to arrive, comforting and encouraging each other, and I found the greatest joy when her tall handsome man arrived one evening for vespers. I was so excited, in fact, that I offered to play the part of the photographer to make sure that this moment was captured.
I didn’t realize then that this would be the high point of the relationship. Uriah’s death meant I needed some space to process and mourn. I pulled back. And pulled back even more after a sarcastic remark was directed at me. It wasn’t meanspirited or meant to hurt, but I simply didn’t have the emotional armor for it and decided to let her be with her new nihilistic Ortho-bro Millennial buddies. A church isn’t supposed to be a social club or clique of cool kids snickering at everyone else, I could find more neutral company until I got my feet under me again, and that’s what I did.
It was mutual avoidance at this point. I wanted space, she never really loved me anyway (later revealing that our friendship was fake when I did try to reconcile) and this was fine.
However, eventually, this arrangement started to wear thin for me. It seemed dishonest or out of sorts with the loving claims we made with our mouths during worship together. It was too reminiscent of those cold shoulders Mennonite girls give when they want the pudgy less than hygienic misfit to get the hint and not Christian. So I did what I thought I do well, wrote an email, shelved that one, and wrote another less emotionally charged version that I sent.
Unfortunately, the signals that I got back were not conciliatory and some of the comments seemed to be very intentionally aimed at my known vulnerabilities, I was falsely accused of being romantically interested (100% not the case) and pretty much had everything thrown back in my face. It was at this point some of my past started to bubble back up, seeing her would trigger severe discomfort and a flight reflex. She did gesture to try to make it right and try I have not seen much evidence of a change of heart either.
Rather than reconcile with me directly and be honest, she seems determined to maintain the distance by getting intermediaries involved. And my initial anxiety attacks have morphed into intense feelings of anger from what feels like a betrayal and lies. I don’t trust her anymore and I don’t trust anyone to mediate. I can’t see platitudes or empty motions as being a way forward and would rather stick to the avoidance strategy. So the one triumph for true brotherhood in Christ ends in a messy quagmire.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
“We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The truth is that my interpersonal conflict, like all in the Church, is a problem with me as much (or more) than it is them. I have trust issues and an impossible ideal, the initial estrangement was my fault, she has her own baggage to deal with and is now moving to protect herself from me. In her mind, and in the mind of her allies, I am the unstable and manipulative party in this conflict. She is, no doubt, being encouraged to write me off and move on. I’ve given her reason (like telling her “stay away from me”) to never talk to me again.
So, what is my reason for spilling my guts in a blog once again?
Maybe so that someone reading can offer a solution or that those who are prayer warriors can help by begging God to remove those blinders from our eyes and free us from the bindings of fear. I had initially loved this person because they appeared to be sincere and that (during a sermon about martyrs and contemplating my own weakness of faith) I decided it would be worth dying beside her rather than leaving her to face death alone. It is tragic that we should end up dying now in opposition to each other due to our past. Please pray for me, a sinner, that I can learn humility and live a life of repentance.
This brings me to the final point and another reason why I’m sharing this openly: We cannot solve those broader schisms and divisions within the Church if we can’t even love those who are right in front of us enough to lower our defensive posture or give a second chance to those undeserving. Healing, within the body of Christ, can only be accomplished by working locally to resolve our own conflicts with humility, gentleness, and patience. We cannot conquer the world for the Kingdom when we’re at war with ourselves.
Furthermore, it takes being at peace with who we are as individuals, petty, unworthy, afraid and broken, to solve our own inner conflicts, before we’re going to do much good in our communities. My own insecurities, no doubt, are what cloud my judgment and lead to the wrong kind of response. The Gordian knot that I project onto this situation is less an external reality and more a reflection of my internal state. I am frustrated with my lack of progress. I did find great comfort in this friend who is complex and conflicted like me.
Now my true character has been revealed. I’m not this wonderful even-keeled guy. My emotions do get the best of me. I’m not at peace with myself all of the time and sometimes do look outward for a resolution to this inner battle. Unfortunately, looking to others for security and stability, will leave us further hurt. They have their baggage too, they respond wrong, misunderstand, misrepresent, manipulate, lie and will otherwise disappoint. That’s why spiritual healing has to start with me—with getting my own conflicted heart right.
Recently I was asked, by a friend on Facebook, a Social Justice Anabaptist, to participate in a “focus group” discussion with Conservative Anabaptists who Support Trump (which they refer to as CAST) and for the stated purpose of finding common ground. I have no reason to doubt the intentions of such an effort, although there is a sort of wariness that comes from having observed these kinds of conversations, it reminds me a bit of the foot-in-the-door tactics of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries. This “having a conversation” can be code for a sort of Evangelical push of agenda.
But, my initial skepticism aside, I’m not truly part of the Anabaptist church anymore and I’m not sure how they would find common ground with me except they abandon their “former delusion,” stop dividing themselves into political categories, conservative and liberal, truly follow Christ and become Orthodox Christians. So, if they want my advice on how to heal their current schism, perhaps they should look to reconciling the much more significant division from the Apostle’s church first and leave their political disputes to a different venue?
Furthermore, I’m not sure that I “support Trump” so much as I oppose partnering with corporate elitist interests, in bed with a Chinese Communist dictatorship, against my neighbors. I did not vote for Trump in 2016 and even wrote several blogs (1,2,3) to persuade my conservative Mennonite and Amish peers to reconsider. It was only since then, since observing the viciousness of the assault against Trump and reconsidering my own perspective of the man, that I realized I had been duped by some very sophisticated propagandists.
No, that is not to say that my criticisms of the man were invalid, but understanding the other side, knowing their agenda and tactics, certainly can put him in a different light.
While I do not support those who confuse the American flag with the cross, I likewise have must warn those who are fooled into believing that the Gospel of Jesus is compatible with the divisive Social Justice narrative and grievance culture. As I’ve said in another recent blog, there is no rivalry between the kingdom of heaven and the ordained governments of this world. They are two parallel systems, one for our physical protection from evildoers and the other for our salvation from sin and death.
I don’t have a problem with voting for a leader who best fills the role of government described in Romans 13, providing some general protections for all people, but I do think it is problematic to use the government to enforce Christian morality and values. The point of Jesus saying “sell all and give to the poor” was not to express a Socialist ideal, or else he would’ve joined Judas in his rebuke of that woman’s worshipful display of pouring out expensive perfume, but rather it was to point people to the kingdom of heaven. In other words, Judas was trying to turn the words of Jesus into a political solution for social inequalities, while Jesus was primarily interested in the salvation of souls. So, unlike a leftist who looks to government as savior, I do not look to Trump (or any man) to fill the role of Christ. The President, in my view, is put in his position for a purpose different from my own. I do not look to civil authority to bring salvation to the world any more than I look to the fast-food employee flipping my burger to be my bread of life.
So, with all that in mind, here are my responses to the questions offered by the Social Justice Anabaptist:
1) What are the top three issues in ranked order you think best answer the first title question?
Rational, issues-based, voting is a myth. We make decisions based on our intuitions, our experiences, and what we know (or think we know) about the options available. Most elections come down to a choice between two candidates and are decided on the basis of their individual character or that of the ‘side’ which they represent. I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 because I had questions about his character that could not be resolved. But, that said, I certainly did prefer the risk-taking approach of Trump over that of the careful, yet seemingly dishonest and conniving words of the alternative, and was proven right when she suddenly changed her tune about accepting election results to push a relentless “resistance” campaign based upon a fictional Russian collusion narrative.
2) Would you say the Bible has much to say to guide us in our political choices?
Men look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart. There are many chosen by Jesus, to lead his church, who did not measure up to the standards of the smug and sanctimonious religious leaders of that day. Trump is outwardly flawed, he wears his faults on his sleeves, he is called a narcissist and other nasty things, but the blue-collar guy (hurt by ‘progressive’ tax, trade, and border policies) saw his heart better than the truly privileged social elites who hate him. Ultimately, God is sovereign, parsing the Bible for a concrete answer or justification for every choice is foolishness, and my stating some eloquent theology in defense of my choices wouldn’t persuade a skeptic regardless.
3) If so, what Bible verse or spiritual concept guides your political thinking most?
Nothing specific. But generally, God gives us freedom and choice. God also, for our own common good, provides boundaries and divisions. Cities had walls, civilizations have laws. The kingdom of heaven, while open to all who repent, has clear entry requirements.
4) I have heard a lot of folks say that they support the platform though they don’t particularly support the man, Donald Trump, his personal behavior, rhetoric and swagger. Do you feel like that is the consensus of CAST you know?
This question reminds me of the Pharisee, whose house Jesus was visiting, and protests the blunt commentary, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” (Luke 11:45). He gets bulldozed. Jesus doesn’t lose a beat. Jesus continues to hammer his point home. There are several times when Jesus gets questioned for offending the elites and he doubles down rather than soften his tone.
The political class often hides their corruption under pious speech and pretense of righteousness. Trump is hated by these people for his crudeness of speech and swagger. But the working class is more concerned with actual substance over style, they aren’t at all offended by a little shop talk, and there’s also a reason for Trump being extremely popular in hip-hop and rap culture. Or at least Trump was popular before his political enemies poisoned this connection.
Incidentally, those who have a problem with Trump’s flamboyant style are probably also, for strategic or cynical reasons, holding back on their judgment of others of similar behavior. By saying Trump is “not Presidential” or complaining about his neglect of decorum, they may actually be implying that he’s not elite (or white) enough for the office. In other words, it is sort of a racist or classist thing. Trump, in being like an uncultured average person, offends those who feel superior to all and entitled to rule.
Anyhow, those who said that Trump would choose conservative Supreme Court Justices were proven right thrice. That will be Trump’s legacy more than his personality, that and the fact that he didn’t lead us into another war, that he brokered several peace deals, and was extremely restrained in his response to the violence of leftists. Sure, maybe Trump is a Twitter troll, but at least he cared enough about random Iranian soldiers to call off a retaliatory missile strike in response to the downing of a drone. So maybe it is time for you, who judge him, to start considering his actions over his rhetoric? Maybe he is right to stand apart from the fawning praise of John “bomb-bomb-Iran” McCain and to defy the neocon establishment? He was elected to put America first, to end endless wars, and that’s exactly what he did, yet some ‘Anabaptists’ still hate him because he isn’t a smooth warmongering liar like his predecessors?
5) Is there anything about his rhetoric, swagger or personal behavior, that does resonate with you or CAST? If so, can you explain that a bit?
Trump’s lack of a facade is a breath of fresh air compared to the lawyer-speak and “focus group” silliness of most in the political class. Psalm 55:21 could easily describe many others: “His talk is smooth as butter, yet war is in his heart; his words are more soothing than oil, yet they are drawn swords.” I prefer Trump’s recklessness and hyperbole, that he attacks others in the privileged class, over those who call common folk “deplorables” and “chumps” behind closed doors or in front of a partisan audience. I’ll not soon forget how Obama allowed his surrogates to slander the loyal opposition as “racist” for opposing his massive expansion of government power. The pretty “mean girls” may get away with their exclusive cliques and bullying because they have such sweet smiles and know how to use their outward beauty work the system, but that doesn’t make them good people or actually superior to those less sophisticated.
6) I assume one of the reasons, you support Trump is his opposition to the “liberal agenda.” Can you identify one part of the liberal agenda that is the most problematic to you?
Depending on coercion and threat of violence to take the property of one group to give to another, so that you can manipulate these others into being a loyal voting bloc? Do I really need to explain to an Anabaptist how unChristian that is?
7) Urban – rural divide. A look at the electoral map shows a dramatic difference in voting patterns based on population density. It seems that one of the things that resonates with Trump supporters is his disdain for the “urban elite.” Can you explain who that is because I might actually fit that category? Can you then explain what it is specifically that makes the urban elite so distasteful?
An elitist Social Justice Anabaptist won’t be able to see it anymore than those who condemned Jesus could understand their own need of him. There is much to say about the pride of the religious and social elites. The left seems to believe that they have all of the answers to everything, they condescend to minorities and treat them like helpless children, keep them dependent, and yet are truly full of themselves. Living in an urban environment is to be removed from the earth, what is natural and good, and is to have the privileged of not having to see the hard work that goes into putting bread on the shelf of that corner store. The exposure to the cosmopolitan world gives one a delusion of being more well-rounded and knowledgeable, yet also comes with a lack of groundedness and the humility of good discernment as well. That is why many elites rejected Trump. I mean, how dare he misspells a word on Twitter or be honest about the threat presented by open borders?
8) Trump has made negative comments about “democratic cities?” Do these comments resonate with CAST? Can you explain one or two top things about democratic cities that are negative?
Maybe you should look up Kimberly Klacik?
She said it best…
9) Trump supporters talk a lot about his defense of religious freedom. Can you help me understand that? What freedoms are we talking about specifically? Are these the sort of things: Right to post Ten Commandments in the courthouse, right to not sell wedding cakes to gay couples, right to not pay for abortive contraception for your employees? Right to worship in groups in spite of COVID?
Why do your ‘scientifically motivated’ Democrats make exceptions for their own, for violent protests and premature celebrations of a Biden win? Why do they support ending the life of a fetus, a separate living human, while claiming to be compassionate and concerned with rights? Why do they choose a fictional identity over biological evidence when it comes to X and Y chromosomes? Why is it okay to demand that someone bakes a cake celebrating a homosexual union, but then perfectly fine for a business to turn someone away people for not wearing something that invades their personal space?
Most conservative Christians simply want the tolerance to go in both directions. However, the left is constantly (like a domineering mother) imposing their own values and preferences on everyone else. Again, God gave us the freedom to follow Him. God also ordained the government to provide some basic order, keep the evildoers restrained and good people should not fear this. But, that is not and never will be a license for tyrannical rule.
10) Health outcomes of African Americans and also low income individuals of any race are substantially worse than the general population resulting in higher mortality rate for nearly every disease and almost every age group. Which responses do you think best describe the CAST response to this information: You may select more than one.
That’s sad, but it is not a government issue.
The Democrats’ efforts such as Medicare for All wouldn’t help this number anyway.
That’s fake news.
That’s sad and healthcare is an issue I disagree with Trump on.
I never heard that before I would have to think about that. Other.
Maybe the questioner hasn’t been around enough poor white people?
Anyhow, this idea that black and white are homogeneous groups, where all white people are equally ‘privileged’ and all black people are all hapless victims in need of help from white ‘progressives’ (you) is absolutely racist. Various studies show that liberals talk down to minorities, there is this racism of low expectations, and I’ve seen this first hand.
I’m quite familiar with the condescending ‘helpful’ attitude, the patronizing, and pandering behavior.
I’ve been around conservative Mennonite inner-city efforts, I know some of the players involved quite well and can tell you that many of the minorities whose cause they claim to champion are quite aware of this superior spirit amongst these ‘progressive’ types. Sure, these ‘helped’ might not confront the ‘helpers’ for this, they try to appreciate the attempt at support or understand even if it is misguided, and yet they really do not need the white savior ‘progressive’ swooping in. I’ve had some confide in me about this, some of the special sensitivity and exaggerated concern is extremely off-putting to minorities and, frankly, in my opinion, it is racist.
Anyhow, I think Social Justice Anabaptists, like their secular atheistic Marxist teachers, ask the wrong questions. That list of suggested responses above, for example, presupposes that government intervention is the answer to racial disparities (rather than the cause) and neglects the fact that billions have been spent to alleviate these problems with very little to show for it. It seems ‘progressives’ assume that disagreement with them stems from ignorance about the problem. In other words, a perspective so incredibly arrogant that it makes Trump look humble by comparison.
All but one of the options offered by the questioner suggests the ignorance or lack of compassion of those who disagree with their presumption of government as a solution. Extremely loaded, more statements than questions, and pretty much designed to trip up the person trying to answer in succinct manner. Of course, the expectation is that their conservative opposition, not as educated or articulate, will sputter something incoherent in response to this deceptive “galloping Gish” rhetorical strategy and look bad.
But, this strategy doesn’t get past me.
The Social Justice Anabaptists have nothing on me as far as compassion and desire to help others. However, what they lack and I do not, is a basic comprehension of economics and the history of these occasionally well-meaning big government efforts. Furthermore, minorities dying due to inadequate care is very personal to me. Saniyah, my little hope who died unexpectedly, was African American. And, yes, she had access to medical care despite her mother being an illegal immigrant. But the doctor? Had I known how potentially deadly her respiratory ailments were and how incompetent inner-city physicians are, I would have made sure she had a qualified physician in conservative rural Pennsylvania.
Here are some of the right questions to help get our far-leftist friends pointed in the direction of solutions that actually work:
Why has the decades-long “War on Poverty” been a dismissal failure? Could it be that the government is not positioned well to address those problems? Didn’t Jesus tell you to personally intervene on behalf of the poor rather than use government as a means to force your neighbors to do something? And, if all poor people are our personal responsibility then what are you doing for Filipinos, in the Philippines, who have less access to quality care than those in our own inner-cities?
11) In a CAST world view, what is racism and what should be done about it?
Racism is to abandon the standard of Martin Luther King, where people should be judged by “content of character” and not their skin color. Racism is to collectively blame or exempt people according to their skin color and to assume that skin color, not the difference in behavior, is the lead determiner of outcomes. Racists treat everyone differently, raising or lowering expectations, based only on skin color. In other words, if one man rapes a woman this is explained away as something in his environment or mostly ignored. But if another does the same, he is roundly condemned and his evil treated as if it is somehow reflecting upon all men of his skin color or class. Racial tribalism is as racist and bad now as it was when white supremacists had the numbers advantage and the KKK roamed at night. The conservative stands against all racially motivated violence. But Social Justice Anabaptists refuse to condemn those behind the current violence. What should be done about racism? Well, stop being racist, stop excusing racial tribalism, start treating all people as unique individuals, that’s what should be done.
12) What core Anabaptist value most drives you or CAST?
The Golden Rule.
13) If you or CAST found out your pastor voted for Biden, would you have trouble listening to his sermons or receiving counsel from him on other issues?
One of my priests, Fr. James, I suspect would be a Biden voter. But, the Orthodox, unlike most Protestants, understand that “my kingdom is not of this world” means segregation of worldly politics from the church environment and worship. One of the reasons that I left the Anabaptists is because both conservatives and their ‘progressive’ activist counterparts do not know how to keep worldly concerns separate from their worship and Communion together. I suppose this is a tendency to confuse Christian and civil duties goes all the way back to the Münster Rebellion? Wherever the case, I’ve scolded Mennonite pastors who brought their conservative anxieties into the church sanctuary, preached their fears, and also confront those who bring far-leftist political agenda in as well. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not about the establishment of a Socialist state and those preaching the Social Justice message are preaching a false Gospel and heretical.
14) What do you think a church that is politically divided should do about that?
Stop pushing politics down throats and start loving as Jesus loved. Or, rather, understand that ‘progressive’ politics are as unChristian as any other politics, humble yourselves, and lead by an example of love rather than continue in the politely condescending tones. If you really want to overcome the divisiveness of Protestantism, stop being a separatist, take a step of faith towards Orthodoxy, and being in Communion with the truly kingdom oriented church of the Apostles. Repent! Because the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
15) What does the phrase “Make America Great Again” mean to Conservative Anabaptists that support Trump (CAST)? Is it referencing the period in the 50’s, prior to the modern socially liberal agenda that included Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation, R v. W, Gay Rights, etc.?
Obviously, MAGA is not about any of those things listed. Sure, that is how the far-left controls minorities, through fear-mongering and lying about Trump’s intentions. It is also how smarmy Social Justice Anabaptists try to distinguish themselves as superior-minded and social elites. However, no Trump supporter that I know understands it to mean what the left-wing propagandists say and what it truly means is restoring the status of the United States as a world leader, building a strong middle-class (of all colors or creed) again and nothing to do with that leading question nonsense.
16) Do you think Trump’s strong economy (before COVID) is a key thing that contributes to CAST’s support of him?
Minorities did better under Trump, up until Democrat governors shut down their economies, and only a racist would not support the growing independence of minorities. Many do not realize that George Floyd had lost his job as a result of Democrat-imposed economic shutdowns. He had also been infected with Covid-19 despite these draconian measures. He may very well still be alive and well had it not been for ruinous ‘progressive’ policies. But the controlling left doesn’t seem to care about the consequences of their policies. They seem to believe that only their good intentions matter more than the actual results. Why aren’t you asking about the uptick in suicides and drug overdoses, depression, and quality of life concerns? The economy is life, conservatives intuitively understand this, they understand trade-offs, but ‘progressives’ routinely fail to recognize the folly of their utopian theories and disastrous outcomes of their solutions.
17) Is it a God-given right/responsibility for the secular government to maintain a strong military?
The common defense of a nation is the only legitimate reason why government exists, to physically defend people from evildoers within and without the borders, which is to provide for the general welfare of all citizens. One only needs to look at what happens when this God-ordained order breaks down to see how bad it can get. People need to be secure in their person and property to flourish. The weak and vulnerable suffer most from the neglect of these structures and institutions. That is why God ordained the structure of the family and church to care for our social needs, it is also why St Paul said we should not oppose this legitimate role of government to punish and protect us from evildoers.
18) All other things being equal, do you think it is more likely that a successful businessman would be Christian, or a government executive with a modest income?
Not my place to judge. Jesus had both a repentant tax collector and fishermen. As far as honest labor, certainly, the fishermen outranked a man who lived off what others produced. That’s not to say that those who truly work as public servants have no value, but they should also be appreciative that someone (often without a choice) is providing their income and needs. A business person, by contrast, cannot (outside of collusion with the corrupted government) cannot force you to buy their products and therefore must produce things of actual value or they would not be successful.
19) Is strong border security important?
Does your house have a roof, four walls, a door that can be locked?
Does your body have skin?
Of course, border security is important, President Obama articulated that on multiple occasions and echoed prior administrations about the need for secure borders. It is important for the same reasons why many people flee from other places to come here. They flee from places impoverished by corruption and unrestrained evildoers. Those who do evil would love to follow those fleeing them and many do get in as a direct result of lax enforcement of borders and immigration law. It is compassionate to let the good in and keep the bad out.
The real question is how can an intelligent and compassionate person not be in favor of vetting immigrants?
20) Do you see hunger as a moral issue?
The question is unclear. There is nothing immoral about hunger. Or maybe the question is whether or not it is moral to leave others hungry? If so, maybe we should establish some context first.
Are we talking about this:
Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?
(James 2:15-16 NIV)
Are talking about the rich man stepping over Lazarus on his doorstep or the Priest and Levite who didn’t offer aid in the good Samaritan story?
If so, if we are talking about needs in the church and needs in our immediate physical proximity, then absolutely it is a moral issue. If God puts a need in our path then we should take care of it by the means God has given us. We are clearly instructed to provide for the needs of those in our church and extend a hand of charity to those whom we come in contact with. This is local, it is our individual duty, and not a responsibility that should be shunted off or delegated to the secular government.
If feeding the world is a Christian priority and moral prerogative, then let’s turn this around: How much food have you produced? I know farmers, conservative Mennonite, and many of them Trump supporters, who farm acres of land at a far lower cost than prior generations. They, through their labor, have done far more to feed the multitudes than anyone sitting on some ivory tower somewhere, would you dare speak down to them with this kind of inane question?
21) What are the top solutions to crime issues?
Definitely not Joe Biden’s 1994 Crime bill in light of his son still being a free man nor the zealous drug prosecutions of Kamala Harris who joked about using illegal drugs. Scripture says that crime should be punished. However, I am concerned with some crimes, because of political connections or being of the right class, being totally ignored for some and applied strictly for others. Favoritism is a sin in the church and, likewise, a legal double standard is an injustice. Equal protection under the law is ideal.
So that pretty much wraps it up.
Still, I would love to hear a Social Justice Anabaptist answer my questions scattered throughout this post and also would ask why one would believe that a political party, known for historically treating some as chattel, is actually any different today?
The big difference is that Social Justice Anabaptists, like their forebearers in Münster, believe that the role of government and church should be combined into one kingdom. Their more conservative (or traditional) counterparts have learned the hard lessons of Münster. The ‘progressives’ merge the message of the cross with a political agenda and join those who look to the government for salvation. The conservatives, by contrast, want a President that allows them to live peaceably, a government that fulfills a basic role of military defense and necessary punishment of evildoers, and they do not seek to impose religious moral obligations on their neighbors.
In conclusion, my advice to the ‘progressives’ is that they not hold their traditional counterparts hostage to their political ideologies. If they must, that they find one of the many mainline Mennonite groups (beholden to the Social Justice Agenda) to hitch their wagons to and not drag the rest of their brethren down with them into that divisive and nasty place. And my advice to the conservatives is not to engage in the conversation at all. If you must vote, do it quietly, otherwise, live out the commandments of Jesus, and don’t get sucked into the black hole of politics. For all, seek after Orthodox Christianity rather than political solutions. There is one church and it is not divided between conservatives and liberals.
It is hard to believe that another decade has already come and gone. This past decade has been one of many transitions for me, from the launch of this blog in 2014 to a big change in career a few years later and, on top of all that, a departure from the only religious identity I had ever known for another.
It was a decade marked by an extreme of faith, the high-water mark of my spiritual life, leading to the most profound of disappointments and suicidal despair, all followed by a rise again from the ashes. If there is such a thing as living a second life, a life after death, then I am living proof of that concept despite the scars.
Delusion, Disappointment and Divine Humor
This blog was started, mid-decade, to be a record of my journey and also a story of the triumph of faith within a Mennonite context. However, things did not go as anticipated, my enthusiasm was not shared by those who had the power to make a difference, and my misplaced faith ended up being fully exposed by the end of it all. That was the lowest of lows for me.
However, even in my lowest moments, in the midst of that, there was a moment of levity where my sharing my disgruntlement with the impossible Mennonite marriageability expectations went viral. That remains my most viewed and shared Irregular Ideation blog to date (and recently vastly eclipsed by a blog on another blog I curate) and my proof that God does indeed have a sense of humor.
It would be hard to give that up. And I knew the newfound popularity of my blog would likely suffer once I formally announced my departure from Anabaptism—which does seem to be the case as traffic has diminished since then—but that is also the kind of sacrifice that a Christian commitment requires:
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 NIV)
For the first time in my life, I had left the comfort of the Anabaptist fishbowl for something bigger. Who knows what that will bring?
Dramatic Changes and Delicious Ironies
The move to Orthodoxy has been part of a huge paradigm shift and was pretty much the only option that I had left. It was a refuge to preserve the little faith that survived the collision with a terrible reality of my misplaced hopes. I certainly didn’t go to replace what had been devastated in me. And there are all of the problems found in every group of Christians from those recorded in the book of Acts onward—all of the silly squabbles and turf wars included.
Nevertheless, the beauty of Orthodox worship, the focus on Scripture and glorifying God in our song (rather than human emotion, etc) along with a simple (and timeless) Gospel message, helped me to move forward. Orthodox worship centers on our Communion together with God and (unlike the traditions I was most familiar with as a Protestant) they do not attempt to explain the explainable. At some point, we need to let go of our own understanding and embrace the mysteries beyond our comprehension.
Moving on from religion to real estate and other miscellaneous items, I started the decade paying down my debt for my first home and driving cars that probably belonged in a scrapyard. But then, in 2014, spurred by my other and disappointments, I bought my first new car, paid cash for a handsome black Ford Focus—my best purchase to date. In fact, I was so pleased with that purchase that I sold my prized (but high mileage) Jaguar XJR and bought a brand new Shelby GT-350 two years later when they first came out—an extravagant purchase which also led to some very meaningful friendships.
Anyhow, having reached the pinnacle of automotive excellence (at least for a working man’s salary) it was time to rest comfortably, save my money and relax a bit. Or, rather, that had been the plan…
But somehow (possibly working in an office with a bunch of restless Amish investors rubbing off on me?) I ended up buying a second property with the thought (at the time of purchase) that I would move in to and sell my old place in Milton. But suddenly that plan didn’t make sense anymore, why not rent the new house and build some equity instead? Needless to say, my ideas for a comfortable existence went out the window and, only two years later, now I’m working on house number three. Not exactly a business empire, yet more than calculated risk than I’ve ever taken on before.
In the time since my blinding hopes ran into a young Mennonite woman’s all-consuming ambitions, my feet have landed in three different countries (read more here and here) and all on the opposite side of the world. As it turns out, despite my self-doubts, all that I really needed was a good enough reason to go. I had started the decade thinking that I was incapable of finding my own direction in life, that I needed to hitch myself to someone else’s ambitions to get anywhere, and yet here I am moving on. Yes, very soon, echoing the central complaint of the young woman who rejected my offer of the impossible love, I will no longer be thirty years old living in Milton.
Where False Devotion Fails, True Love Prevails
I was wrong to hope to find the kind of love that is only possible with faith within the Mennonite context.*
That said, I was right about one thing: It is only that kind of love could ever motivate me to do anything worthwhile with my life.
Truly I did nothing, over the past few years, on the strength of my own effort. No, I’ve needed physical therapists, family, spiritual fathers, sisters, and brothers. Not to mention those friends on the road who made my loneliness bearable, also those who know my name at the various establishments that I frequent, my generous current employer and the many others who have positively impacted my life over the past decade. To all those people I owe a debt of gratitude.
However, there is one who has been there for me unlike any other, the one who didn’t lose hope in me despite my delusions and attachments to Mennonite dogma; the one who told to be strong for her, to get out of bed and go to church again. Everything I’ve done over the past few years would not have been possible apart from the investment of faith that she has made in me. She, as a person who has experienced her own personal misfortune, showed more love for me than those who claim to travel the world as a display of their Christian love.
In this coming decade, I plan to spend far less time trying to please the falsely pious and proud, who can’t be pleased and are obsessed with their own image, and more time with the downtrodden and truly humble.
That is the vision behind FACT, an organization of one, so far, that has already given me some hope that my seemingly divergent strengths and interests can finally be combined into something useful and good. I hope the vision of FACT will soon grow into concrete steps towards truly meaningful actions and compassionate solutions for OFWs and their families. But that, of course, will take more than my own personal efforts and I hope there will be others willing to put aside their doubts and help those who are already doing all they can do to better themselves.
*Mennonites, like people of all established religious traditions, are really good at carrying out their own particular programs and denominational prescriptions. Similar to their Anabaptist cousins more known for their barn-raisings, Mennonites love to help in disaster relief projects. They will also dutifully staff and fund their own private schools (or homeschool if they are more trendy) and now even travel the world as missionaries. All good things, I suppose. But all those things do not require any real faith on the part of Mennonite individuals, they are a cultural inheritance, a good way to find a romantic partner, an acceptable path to rise through the ranks, and are not truly sacrificial acts of faith or love.
Entering Into A Strange New World
In the past decade, my plans got turned upside down. I gave up on old dreams and, from the wreckage of my hopes, found some new vision. Had anyone said, ten years ago, that I would have three properties, traveled to the opposite side of the world, and converted to Orthodoxy, I would have probably laughed at them. But here I am, having started a journey to the impossibility and ended up here, perplexed.
We started the decade with a president who would seem more comfortable in a lecture hall and ended it with a persona built for professional wrestling, reality television, and trolling on Twitter. Yet, contrary to popular opinion or at least in contrast to the fears of half the population, the earth has not fallen from orbit nor has the moon disappeared from the night sky, life has gone on. Albeit, my assumptions, the idea that our political decisions are rationally based, had to change overnight. Scott Adams has persuaded me.
Over the same time, I’ve been processing the battle with cancer of a younger cousin and good friend, who just finished college and plans to marry soon, who already sacrificed a leg (in the past year) and now has new growths in his lungs.
So the fight will continue for him as it does for all of us.
One day at a time.
None of us knows what trials we will face in the next decade and yet need to continue to live in faith. I hope to be done with my inventory taking, soon break free of the transitional time I am presently still in, and finally have some of those long-awaited triumphs that have eluded me in certain areas of my life. But, at the end of it all, I can’t really tell you what this next decade will hold, whether Trump will win in 2020 or if there will even be a year 2030.
There is no point in getting stressed out about what we can’t know. Our life is a vapor, it appears for a little and then it is gone. So make the best of the time you have and don’t worry about tomorrow!
Upon leaving the denomination of my birth, I had joked that my two choices were to a) start “The Perfect Church of Joel” or b) become Orthodox. But, since I lacked the ambition and other qualifications for being a cult leader, the latter was my only option, and became Orthodox.
However, now, only a year and a half after my Chrismation, and due to circumstances that are beyond my control, I am currently in the planning stages of a house church.
Yes, I realize that this might come as a big surprise to many of you, it could appear like a complete one-eighty and reeks of instability, but it is a necessary step.
I know, I’ve always questioned this new house church trend where a few Protestant fundamentalist separatists, willful people who can’t agree with anyone about anything, people who claim to be copying the early church and decide they are better off doing church themselves.
Sheer arrogance, right?
I mean, the Amish do this too, I suppose, in that they do not have designated church buildings and meet in homes. Yet, they do it in a completely different spirit, they maintain a real community beyond their own immediate family and are truly accountable to an orthodox tradition that transcends them as individuals.
So how did I go completely from one end of the spectrum, from a church with two millennia of history, with ornate architecture and a strong emphasis on Communion, in a universal sense, to deciding that I need to start a church in my own home?
My Journey to the House Church…
Okay, before I give Fr. Seraphim a heart attack, I have no plans on leaving the Holy Cross family in Williamsport. None whatsoever. In fact, my decision to start a house church has everything to do with Orthodox tradition and my beginning to comprehend the reason behind a particular practice—that practice being an iconstasis.
Orthodox churches have an iconstasis, it is basically a wall with images of Jesus, Mary, various saints, and angels situated between the nave (where the congregation is gathered) and the altar where the bread and wine are consecrated. It is a reflection of how the Jerusalem temple was laid out, where the “Holy of Holies” was separated by a veil, and is symbolic of the connection between heaven and the “Holy Place” of the nave.
I had been contemplating how to incorporate an “icon corner” in my new home (a place on an East wall of an Orthodox home designated for prayer and worship) when I found out that this is also called an iconstasis.
As it turns out, this prayer corner in Orthodox homes harkens back to the real house churches of the early church. Every Christian home is supposed to be a microcosm of the Church, a wedding being basically equivalent to an ordination service, the parents acting as the clergy, and the children being the laity of this house church. The designated area for prayer and worship in the home mirrors that of the parish church building and early house churches.
As an aside, it is necessary to note, given currently popular notions pertaining to corporate worship in modern times, that the idea of a house church being a sort of informal affair is entirely wrong. In the early church, when meeting in houses, according to first-hand account, the priests and bishops were in a room east of the laymen (and women, who sat separately) with the deacon guarding the door and keeping the congregation in line. It was an orderly liturgical service and not a free-for-all. And, likewise, worship at home today should still be similarly structured.
The Very Protestant Problem of Division
Growing up, as a Mennonite, we would have “family devotions” and prayer before meals. This was always informal, where we were, and never really patterned as a church service. It was not called or considered a house church. Church for me then was the assembling together of the body of Christ on Sundays and on other days of the week—and that church service was a semi-formal affair, with a definite form and structure.
In decades since my childhood, at least in the conservative Mennonite circles that I ran in, it has become more and more commonplace to skip corporate worship services, on occasion, and to “have church” with just the youth, family members on a weekend retreat or what have you. There are some who have taken it a step further and ceased their mixing with non-biological brothers and sisters, and cousins (or the otherwise impure) altogether and replaced it with a casual around-the-campfire or lounging-in-the-living-room kind of house church affair that can last at least as long as their biological children lack access to transportation and a means to escape the inflated ego of their parents.
The trendline in Protestant denominations is abundantly and woefully clear. There has been a steady march away from any established order, any authority besides one’s own opinion, and Protestantism has played a key role in this development. What started as an attempt at reformation has ended as a fracturing of the Western church into thousands of competing and often very contradictory entities. From the dwindling Fred Phelps types on one side to the growing “woke” crowd on the other, it is very little wonder that this form of Christianity has led many to abandon the enterprise of faith altogether.
There is no need for a Jerusalem council in the current climate. No, in this denominational chaos, there is no longer a need to even practice a Christian love that is willing to work through differences, no reason to submit or show deference to anyone, you just stay home or start a new even smaller, more pure and perfect group and move on.
It is a classic purity spiral, it is a result of people heading their own opinions over the urging of St Paul:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6 NIV)
There isn’t much effort towards that end anymore, is there?
The Protestant house church, often billed as a return to the early church, is merely the next step in the direction of individualism and it is little wonder when children raised in such an environment continue down this path of division in search of a new purity on their own terms. Many will find congregations that require less of them, others will join the growing ranks of “nones” who simply stay at home Sundays, but some of the more ambitious will attempt to recreate a perfect church in their own image.
The Church That Spans Dichotomies
Fortunately, there are other options from the dichotomies of Protestantism. As it turns out, Christians do not need to choose between participation in the universal church (by attending services in a church building with other spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ) and having a “house church” primarily biological relatives, former denominational cohorts, and close friends.
There is a solution to this paradox where you can both have your cake and eat it too: You can (and should) have a house church with your families, but can (and should) also maintain the unity of the faith and be in Communion with the Church body that transcends denominationalism and has an unbroken chain of ordinations back to the time of the Apostles.
In Orthodox Christianity, every man is a priest and his wife co-ordained as the leaders of their own church/home, that is what their marriage implies. But there are also priests over priests, and everyone (man and woman alike) is still accountable to the “priesthood of all believers” (which is to say the Church) and must submit to each other, especially the elder, as St Paul instructs:
Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you. (Hebrews 13:17 NIV)
It is impossible to obey that teaching above while being your own boss.
I’m under no delusion about the Orthodox hierarchy, there are problems there like anything else people are involved. I do not submit to their perfection. I do, however, submit in Christian love, to honor my Lord, and in knowing my own unworthiness. I have no need to be the priest, at least not until God ordains it through his Church, but do see an urgent need for all Christians to submit one to another as we are told many times in Scripture.
You can have a house church and be Orthodox. In fact, you should have a house church if you are Orthodox and that is historically well-established.
But you simply cannot be Orthodox or truly Christian and refuse to acknowledge that the church is bigger than you and your own comprehension or ideas.
Orthodoxy, once again, simultaneously occupies both sides of an argument in both strongly encouraging home church while also—at the same time—rejecting the spirit of Diotrephes of those who acknowledge no authority besides their own and set about to create a new pure church in their own image.
Christianity was systematically opposed and oppressed in the Soviet Union. The Russian Orthodox church, said to have been founded by the Apostle Andrew, was heavily persecuted under Marxist rule. Atheism was promoted in government schools, speaking against it outlawed, and it seemed that Orthodox Christianity did not stand a chance against this irreligious secular state.
During that dark period, thousands of church leaders were killed. Many more were imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals or the “gulags” to do forced labor. From 1917 to 1935, 130,000 Russian Orthodox priests were arrested and 95,000 of them were executed by firing squad. Later, from 1937 to 1938, in another anti-religious purge campaign, 168,000 Orthodox clergymen were arrested and, of them, 100,000 shot. Religion was ridiculed in the public sphere, believers were harassed and deprived of parental rights, church properties were seized by the state and buildings, including the beautiful Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, were destroyed:
The Russian Orthodox church, that extended into the Americas (where they didn’t kill the Native populations like their Western counterparts) and had an estimated 54,000 parishes in Russia before WW1, was reduced to only 500 parishes in the 1940’s under the Communist dictatorship. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 left Russian Orthodox churches in Japan, United States, Manchuria, and elsewhere effectively orphaned and without support. Patriarch Tikhon, in 1920, issued a decree for these churches to operate independently until normalcy could be restored and, as a result, many of these churches (because of financial hardship and/or need of pastoral care and governance) were turned over to the Orthodox churches of their national homelands—which is why there is the current disorganized mix of Greek, Antiochian, ROCOR and OCA parishes in America.
However, Orthodoxy has since triumphed over Marxism in Russia. An average of three churches a day are being opened by the Orthodox faithful in Russia, there are currently 40,000 churches and, at the current pace, that number may double in the next decades. In addition, there are now 900 active monasteries (down from 1000 pre-revolution) and this is an expansion based on demand. This resilience against the odds, against the world’s only other superpower besides the United States, is a testament to the strength of Orthodox religious tradition. Orthodoxy in Russia could not be driven into extinction by one of the most powerful and brutal regimes in human history and is as strong today as ever.
The divided (and dying) church of America
America has traditionally divided up according to ethnicity or race. Churches (Protestant, Roman Catholic or otherwise) are not exceptional in this regard. Many churches, including Mennonites and Amish, came as a result of immigrants taking their religion with them rather than as a missionary endeavor. It is not a surprise that traditionally German churches, like the Lutherans, are mostly populated by white people nor is it unexpected that people go to churches that are reflective of their own cultures or where their own language is spoken. People tend to gravitate to other people who look like them.
But this “homogeneity principle” also extends beyond skin color as well. A church that is racially or ethnically diverse is probably homogeneous in other ways (things like level of education, political affiliations, etc) and thus not truly diverse. For example, American Mennonites, from the most progressive or liberal to the most ultra-conservative and traditional Old Order end of the denomination. are (with the exception of a few adoptions and inner-city outreaches) ethnically homogenous. But, as centuries of divisions have proven, that shared genetic ancestry and skin color certainly does not make us the same. And so it is with Protestantism in general. A multi-ethnic church probably has very little diversity in terms of educational level, ideological bent, or income and this is because we prefer to be with people who share something in common with us.
The end result is that everyone claims that they are loyal to Christ and his love. Yet, in reality, there are hidden loyalties that are actually taking precedence. We are divided by our loyalties to our race, our religious/cultural heritage, national/political identities, denominational affiliations, personal preferences, and feelings or any combination of the preceding items. In other words, our pet issues and petty differences are what truly matters to us despite what we profess. And this doesn’t get better for those who are non-denominational or believe they are independently guided by the Spirit and are truly only loyal to themselves. Saint Paul, the Apostle, said that the Spirit brings unity to the body (Ephesians 4:1-6) and spoke out against disunity brought about by their misplaced loyalties:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, a in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (1 Corinthians 1:10-15)
Note, Paul calls out even those who claim “I follow Christ” in his rebuke and that is not because Christ is not the head of the church either. No, it is because loyalty to Christ means loyalty to his church, to true believers past and present (and future) who together represent his body, and who we are to seek Communion with rather than chase after our own personal ideals. True Christianity is about forbearance, forgiveness, and humility, realizing our own fallibility and showing mercy to others as we have been shown mercy by God. It is little wonder that many are confused about Christianity in America and increasing numbers are checking-out of their denominational and ever-dividing churches. It is because many professing Christians say one thing and do another. They say they love as Christ loves, even call someone a “brother,” but are completely unwilling to sacrifice anything of true consequence to themselves in love for the body of Christ.
Is Orthodoxy any different from this?
Yes and no.
At the time I am writing this there is a break in Communion between the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarchate of Constantinople over a Ukrainian schism. In 1992, following the breakup of the Soviet Union, some Ukrainian Orthodox wanted their independence from Moscow (understandably so given regional politics) and, unfortunately, went ahead without having appropriate permission. Making matters worse than they already were, Archbishop Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, decided to recognize the schismatics and over the protests of Moscow. This, of course, is not acceptable, important church decisions have been always made by a council or through the correct channels, rather than independently, and this is reminiscent of the unilateral decision-making that divided the Roman Catholics from Orthodox in the Great Schism.
The explanation above probably comes off as Greek to those outside of Orthodoxy and took some time me to wrap my own head around. However, it is also a good way to illustrate a key difference between Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic perspectives of authority in the church. In Roman Catholicism, the Pope, as “Vicar of Christ” and supreme by his own decree, rules the roost. Protestants, by contrast, essentially believe that every man (and his Bible) is their own Pope and need not be accountable to anyone besides themselves. Orthodox Christians, on the other hand, do not see even their highest-ranked individual as being infallible or outside need to be accountable and rather (like the early church) build upon consensus and through councils—which means even Peter, the first amongst equals, can be set right as need be.
(On an aside, Anabaptists, in that they believed in individual submission to the group, were traditionally sort of a half-step between Orthodoxy and Protestantism in this regard. The difference being that Anabaptists are only accountable to the local church (and what they cherry-pick from Scripture or early church writings) rather than the universal church and an ordination faithfully passed down, generation to generation, from the time of the Apostles. This unique Anabaptist perspective, while still preserved by the Amish and other Old Order groups, has been largely supplanted by Biblical fundamentalism in “conservative” Mennonite churches and secular/progressive group-think in the “liberal” side—both sides with zero real accountability to the historic church including even their own Anabaptist forebears.)
The Ukrainian schism, while a black mark on the testimony of the those who caused it if left unresolved, is actually proof the triumph of Orthodoxy over the spirit of division or unity formed around the wrong loyalties. The consensus across the Patriarchates seeming to be that the Ecumenical Patriarch went outside the bounds by recognizing the Ukrainian schismatics. The unity of the church is not mere unity for the sake of unity, but a unity of Spirit that doesn’t neglect sound doctrine or the traditions (“whether by word of mouth or by letter,” 2 Thessalonians 2:15) passed down by the church. In other words, the established Orthodoxy has more authority than any one person or group within the church. Orthodoxy is something that transcends all individuals in the church and protects against both abusive patriarchs and also the divisions over personal opinions. The Spirit of truth, the foundation of Orthodox tradition, is what preserved correct doctrines against heresy and false teachers.
Orthodoxy is what delivered the Biblical canon. The same Biblical canon that many Protestant fundamentalists and other separatists idolize as an infallible object equal to God while simultaneously not recognizing the authority of the church that wrote, authenticated, and compiled it for them. It is strange that a council was only good for that one thing, creating a collection of books that can’t be changed, and not anything else before or after, isn’t it?
But, I do digress…
Yes, Orthodoxy is messy because, as with the church of Acts, there is still a difference of opinion, politics, legalism, favoritism, and imperfection. We can’t get away from conflict, not even in the church founded by Christ himself and that is disheartening to us idealistic types. But that was also the case from the earliest days of Christianity and that is why there was a need of the Jerusalem Council recorded in the book of Acts. The church had councils to establish who was right or wrong and how to correctly interpret Scripture.
Orthodoxy (that is to say “right opinion”) is something worthwhile and should be the goal of every Christian. It is that sincere desire to find and hold to what is true that is leading many from the ranks of the most divided and disillusioned branches of Christendom and to the “ancient faith” of the Orthodox Christians.
The triumph of Orthodoxy…
Like King Josiah hearing the Scripture read for the first time, many are discovering the elegant theology and awe-inspiring, aesthetic appeal, and ancient beauty of Orthodox worship. Divine liturgy carries depth, history and meaning unrivaled in an age of flashing lights, cheap gimmicks, and consumerism. This is why people from all denominational backgrounds are finding a home in Orthodoxy today. The majority of those in my parish is not “cradle Orthodox” in that they were born in the Orthodox church and this seems to be the trend. In fact, nearly half of the million Orthodox Christians in the United States are converts and I am just one of the many who did.
It is very exciting to see the interest of those who have read this blog and want to know more. Several are either now attending services, have visited or are planning to visit when they have a chance. There is one, in particular, a single lady born into a conservative Mennonite church, never baptized and made a member, who left the church disillusioned by the pettiness, abusive leadership and message of condemnation, describes the Antiochian parish she is currently attending as “St Philips is beauty for the mind and spirit. A haven, a calm, a refuge,” adding that it is the “truest example of Jesus words put into my own, ‘Come just as you are.'” I have also had the pleasure of conversing with several who are converts from Anabaptist background, including a man who is my cousin through marriage, and have had the same hard-to-put-into-words experience I have had.
To be clear, the Orthodox church, like other churches, did come over with ethnic communities from Greece, Russia, Syria, Africa, Egypt and other parts of the world. Many Orthodox churches in America did often start as a part of an ethnic community and a decade ago may have been compromised mostly of people from one ethnic background. However, as that immigrant population declines it is being replaced by those who come from all sorts of Christian backgrounds. In my own parish, there is everything from non-denominational to Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic. Many of these converts were, like me, at the end of their ropes with religion as it had been presented to them, some agnostics, who were drawn to Orthodoxy through various means and have been forever changed by the experience. The most recent converts at my parish: Two women, one of them a Mennonite pastor, who were Chrismated and welcomed home a few weeks ago.
There is a great documentary on religious “nones” called “Becoming Truly Human,” that describes the journey of various people who have left the version of Christianity they were raised in and have simply stopped attending any religious services. There is clearly a need for an answer, people long for a connection to the historic church, worship that transcends current fads and trends, something real and authentic, and Orthodox Christianity provides this. Orthodoxy, made “perfect through suffering” (Hebrews 2:10), has withstood the persecution of the past century like it did in the first century and is a bastion for the faithful. Orthodoxy, the church that Jesus promised the “gates of hell would not prevail against” (Matthew 16:18), has and will continue to triumph against the odds.
I was speaking with a friend a week or two ago (a conservative Mennonite searching for his place in the church) and he shared this quote:
“Doctrine is dead as a doorknob without the presence of the Holy Spirit in an individual’s life.” (Paul Washer)
That quote drop of a Calvinist commentator was annoying to me. It was annoying because it was shared in the context of a conversation about Orthodox worship and prayers. The clear implication being that established doctrine is somehow in conflict with spiritual life.
So, without hesitation, I asked my friend: “How do you know Washer’s doctrines (like the one you just quoted) are inspired by the Holy Spirit?”
My question was based on my own experience as one who had put his full confidence in the Holy Spirit and has since learned (the hard way) the need to be grounded in sound doctrine as well. In fact, it was my desire to follow the Spirit without compromise which had led to my pursuit of the impossibility, which led to my eventual disillusionment with the Mennonite denomination, which led me to the ancient faith of Orthodoxy and new spiritual life.
So, getting back to Washer’s quote, he presents a false choice between doctrine and the Holy Spirit. He, like many Protestant commentators, seems to equate established religious dogma with spiritual deadness. His quote suggests that we devalue church traditions (those pertaining to worship and prayer in the case of my friend) based in an assumption that what is new or spontaneous is somehow more authentic and real than something that has been passed down through many generations.
But is that truly the case?
Do we ever need to choose between established doctrine and authentic faith?
From what I can tell, church doctrine and real spiritual life originate from the same source (that source being the Holy Spirit) and thus we should not ever have to choose between the two. The traditions passed down by the church (including the canon of Scripture) and the Holy Spirit are never at odds. To deny the importance of church doctrines and tradition is basically to speak against the authority of Scripture:
“For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 NIV)
Nowhere in Scripture do I see sound doctrine being presented in contrast with living according to the Holy Spirit. However, I do see James tells us “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26) and also know, according to the Gospel (Matthew 7:22-24), that there will be those who have professed faith in Jesus, even worked miracles in his name, whom he will tell to depart because he never knew them and therefore authenticity of faith is about more than making a claim.
Thus I do question the basis for this commentator’s opinion and the many others out there of those who speak with a similar confidence about spiritual matters. By what authority do they speak? How do we know that they, along with their devoted followings, are not deceived? I mean these ‘spiritual’ commentators are often at complete odds with one another. Don’t believe me? Do a Google search “Paul Washer false teacher” and you’ll find dozens of articles denouncing him and his teachings.
So who is right? Who is wrong? How do we know?
My contempt for commentators…
My reaction to the Washer quote isn’t something unusual for me. I have a near-universal contempt for commentators and especially those who can’t at least ground their statements directly to something found in Scripture. And perhaps that strong aversion is because I have enough strong opinions of my own, more than my fill, and therefore seek something a little more grounded than mere opinions?
Not to be misunderstood, that’s not to say that I find no value in reading commentators. I do believe we can gain many valuable insights from listening to various men and women sharing their personal perspectives on spiritual issues.
But, that said, not all commentators are equal and anyone can say anything and our feelings (one way or another) about what someone says doesn’t make it any more or less true. There are likely false teachings that would resonate with any one of us and we should guard against being closed off to truth based on our emotions. We should remember that all religious groups are able to justify their own understanding of spiritual matters, many of them live morally upright lives, and can be very convincing to those who don’t know any different.
And, to be clear, I’m not just talking about those commentators who say “the Holy Spirit tells me thus and such” without offering any corroborating evidence from church history or Scripture. Being a Bible scholar or well-educated and intelligent does not make a person less susceptible to confirmation bias. No, if anything, being well-studied and smart brings a danger of pride and pride can prevent us from seeing our own biases and the many things we have missed in our studies.
Proof-texting, when a person soundbites Biblical texts at the cost of context, is a real problem for any commentator. That is why we have a multitude of denominations all claiming their authority comes from Scripture and, yet, can’t agree on some very basic issues. It isn’t that one side is more ignorant of the book than another nor that one side is less sincere about their profession of faith than another either—the problem is a lack of accountability to anything more than what feels right to us.
My own commentary on spiritual life…
Going back to Washer’s quote, I believe we can all agree that there is no life in the church or elsewhere without the Holy Spirit.
As the Orthodox pray on a regular basis:
“O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere and fillest all things; Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life – come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.”
We know, from the creation narrative, that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:2) and is also the “breath of life” (Genesis 2:7) that entered Adam. Life, both physical and spiritual, comes from the Holy Spirit, and we see this pattern throughout Scripture and even at the end of the Gospel when Jesus empowered the disciples to continue his ministry of forgiveness:
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 20:22-23 NIV)
Note how that parallels with the Genesis account where God breathes life into Adam. Note also that this being “breathed on” comes after the resurrection, after Jesus spent years teaching these men, and is what enabled them to fully understand what he had taught:
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:45-49 NIV)
The disciples being “clothed with power from on high” (a step that should happen before we go out on our own commission) is something that happened in the book of Acts, on the day of Pentecost, when they received an outpouring of the Spirit and many came to believe in Jerusalem.
Truth, according to Paul’s commentary, in 1 Corinthians 2:6-16, is something revealed by the Holy Spirit. That is something that mirrors what Jesus said in his promise of a “Comforter” that would “guide you (his disciples) into all the truth” (John 16:13), and there is no way around it. All the Bible study and religious knowledge in the world cannot breath spiritual life into anyone.
All that said, sound doctrine and spiritual life are never at odds with each other. That it took a special outpouring of the Spirit before the disciples could understand what Jesus taught doesn’t make his prior effort useless. His teachings, if anything, provided substance, like the dust God formed up into a man in Genesis, and his breath the catalyst.
Furthermore, those waiting on the right feelings, or teachings that resonate with them and their own prior experience, will likely be like the rich young ruler who left disappointed after asking what he must do to be saved. Faith demands we go outside of our own comfort zone, that we go beyond our own understanding, preferences or calculations, and begin to walk before we have our eyes opened. In fact, the Spirit is something promised only to those who those who love Jesus and keep his commandments:
“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. […] “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:15-17a, 23 NIV)
So, what comes first, belief and obedience to Jesus or is it the revelation of truth via the Holy Spirit that enables us to understand what we read?
That is a paradox and something that has always made me uncomfortable. Jesus appears to make obedience a prerequisite to spiritual revelation, which ran counter to my own intuition, and why I had always stressed the second half of the teaching rather than the first part. How could I know what is sound doctrine (as in the correct understanding of what Jesus taught enabling my obedience) without the Holy Spirit coming first?
My understanding was clouded by an individualistic filter…
One would think that I, as one raised in a church with Anabaptist heritage, would understand that interpretation of Scripture and establishing doctrine is something we do together, empowered by the Holy Spirit, as a church.
But somewhere along the line (somewhere between urban myths being shared from the pulpit and men like Bill Gothard being given a platform), I had lost trust in the ‘ordained’ leadership and other members to discern truth. And, as a result, I began to look beyond my religious peers for answers. Eventually, after an epiphany about faith, I began to find answers in Biblical passages that had once confounded me and became more confident in my own individual discernment through the Spirit.
However, that paradigm of understanding was incomplete and all came crashing down when my own individual ability to discern spiritual truth came into serious question.
It is easy to claim the Holy Spirit is leading you while you remain safe within the boat of religion. But true faith requires going beyond our own established range of possibilities, to let go of our own human logic and reason, and step out of the boat. I did that. I stepped out. I took a few steps across the waves and then was promptly overwhelmed by doubts—doubts that were, in part, a product of running headlong into the plans, prejudices and cynical calculations of those in the church whom I had still counted on to mirror my faith.
I had questions that I could not answer nor could be answered in the Mennonite context. I had lost faith in my Mennonite identity and Anabaptist heritage to provide reliable guidance. I felt I had been fooled, once again, misled by the desire to find meaning in my struggles and a delusional faith that the impossible would be made possible. I had nothing, besides an obligation to continue to fight for the hopes of my bhest, and needed answers.
Fortunately, I ran into a man, a fatherly figure, who did have answers that I needed and set me right again.
Fr. Anthony, an Orthodox priest, arrived in my life as if by divine appointment. He had the right attitude, asked the right questions, never said a disrespectful word about my Mennonite identity (offering praise for our “peace witness” instead) and could speak with an authority that was missing where I was coming from. There was no pressure. However, he always seemed to show up at the right time and was always able to explain things in a way that made sense to me.
The timing was right for me in the same way it was for the man St. Philip encountered on the road:
The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:29-31 NIV)
In an individualistic understanding, this man (the eunuch) should’ve had all he needed to find salvation—I mean, according to what many Biblical fundamentalist commentators put forward, Scripture is basically self-explanatory and all we need to do is believe what we read, right?
But clearly, that is not the case.
The Bible itself tells us that somethings in it are difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16) and this eunuch, an important and likely very intelligent person, could not discern for himself what was written in Isaiah.
The Holy Spirit did provide him with an interpretation, yet that interpretation came through a man named Philip. Philip did not speak his own “private interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20) as a mere commentator offering an opinion. He was a representative. He was a man both directed by the Spirit and also commissioned by the church in the book of Acts:
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. (Acts 6:1-6)
Philip was chosen and ordained to be a representative of the apostles, the apostles who themselves were representatives of Christ. His authority to interpret Scripture went beyond being merely a product of his own religious studies. He was not simply a religious commentator spouting his own opinions. No, rather, he was ordained as a representative, as one judged to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” by the church, and therefore had an authority greater than a mere commentator with an opinion.
My individualistic filter was wrong, I could not understand everything on my own, we still need those representatives who are sent:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-15 NIV)
Why I prefer representatives…
Anyone can offer commentary, we hear ‘expert’ commentators tell us their opinions of sports, politics and the economy all the time. Some people prefer Paul Krugman, others Rush Limbaugh, and typically we choose those who confirm our existing biases to those who would challenge them. That is also true of Biblical commentators as well. We like those men whom we choose based on our own feelings, on what resonates with us or provide our itching ears with what we wish to hear. Unfortunately, commentators are not accountable to anything besides their own understanding and too often play to the prejudices of their particular audience.
A representative, by contrast, does not speak on their own authority and is ultimately accountable to the authority that sent, commisioned or ordained them.
For example, in a Republic, like the United States, we elect Representatives to speak on our behalf and represent our interests. There are also representatives of a corporation authorized to act on behalf of the collective group and must also answer to the other representatives of the group.
Jesus, likewise, came as a representative of the Father who sent him, on several occasions he tells his audience that he speaks on behalf of the Father and not by his own authority:
Not until halfway through the festival did Jesus go up to the temple courts and begin to teach. The Jews there were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?”
Jesus answered, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me. Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own. Whoever speaks on their own does so to gain personal glory, but he who seeks the glory of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him. (John 7:14-18 NIV)
Jesus is imploring his audience to test his credentials. He is saying that those who choose to do the will of God, by following his teachings, will find out if his words are true or not. In other words, his teachings are a testable hypothesis, established directly on the authority of the Father, and not just his opinions that can’t be verified one way or another. Jesus is not a commentator speaking by his own authority, but a representative, commissioned by the Holy Spirit (confirmed with a voice from heaven and dove descending upon him at his baptism) and spoke with the authority of the Father rather than his own.
The difference between a commentator and a representative is accountable to an authority beyond their own. If a representative goes beyond their commissioning they can be voted out or brought before a council and condemned. A commentator, on the other hand, only needs to be accountable to their own understanding and the whims of their particular audience—their authority rests on their own credentials rather than on a true commissioning by an authority already established.
Doesn’t the Holy Spirit make us representatives as well?
My answer to this question, with my shift in paradigm, has changed.
The answer is both yes and no.
Yes, in that we do, as individuals, receive authority from the Holy Spirit.
But, no, as far that authority giving us license to be free from accountability and operate apart from what has been established by Christ and his church.
The Holy Spirit, the true spiritual guide sent by the Father rather than a counterfeit spirit, should lead us into unity together rather than to divisions. The early church was full of commentators, some who claimed to have the authority of the Spirit or Scripture on their side, but the book of Acts shows us that not all commentators were equal and some had to be rebuked:
Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and elders met to consider this question. After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them: “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.
They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. With them they sent the following letter: The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings. We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said… (Acts 15:5-8,22-24 NIV)
Heretical teachings in the church have always been sorted out by council and consensus.
Even St. Peter and St. Paul were accountable to the body of believers represented in this coming together of apostles and elders.
It is by this process we were even provided with a canon of Scripture: Councils, representatives of the church, decided what books belong in the Bible and which ones (while possibly still useful) did not meet the criteria of Orthodox teachings. Not every book, not every person, is equally authorized to speak on behalf of Christ and his church. The Holy Spirit does work in the life of the individual, but the Holy Spirit also speaks through the church and especially through those sent, ordained or commissioned by Christ and is church:
But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2 Thessalonians 2:13-15 NIV)
We are told the church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15) and that is to say that the church does have authority over the individual as a representative of Christ. We really do need that—we really do need to be accountable to something more than our own ideas and/or interpretations—and should seek to hold fast to the teachings that have been passed by “word of mouth or by letter” of those who, through Christ and his church, have more authority than their own personal opinion.
Good commentary must be rooted in sound doctrine…
Anyone can claim to have the Holy Spirit, but not all who do are true representatives of Christ or his church, and we must use discernment. There have many heresies throughout the ages of those who felt they individually could discern truth without being accountable to anything besides their own religious knowledge and feelings of spiritual superiority to others. We need to be on the guard against their false teachings and also against being deceived by ourselves.
We are all very fortunate, we do not need to choose between the Holy Spirit and sound doctrine. This is a case where we can both have our cake and eat it. The church has preserved the teachings of Jesus, in traditions both written and spoken, as the basis for sound doctrine and that “breath of life” comes in our Communion together. We are not called to be “Lone Rangers” finding our own way, serving our own preferences, etc. We are called to be a part of the body of the church, representatives of the church past, present and future, this church:
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 16:18-19 NIV)
If you come from a conservative Mennonite background, like my own, you have likely heard many sermons stressing the importance of a woman covering her head. The headship veiling is one of those is simultaneously loved and hated topics. Many have become completely tired of hearing about it every other week and yet would, if challenged, defend the practice more vigorously than the incarnation or as if the salvation of the world depended on a few inches of fabric pinned to a female’s coiffed hair.
I’ll try not to beat a dead horse here. If you are tired of endless discussions and debates (or even church splits) over the size or style of veils, please hold your groans to the end, because I hope this is a fresh take on this all too familiar topic. But first I’ll get to the basics of the passage itself and what I believe 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 says about the veil based on both the text itself and also the historical understanding of the text according to early church leaders.
First the text:
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God. Any man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head—it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. (For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.) That is why a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels. (Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.) Judge for yourselves; is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not nature itself teach you that for a man to wear long hair is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her pride? For her hair is given to her for a covering. If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:1-16 RSV)
Now we need to answer the what is being said, why it is being said, and then, lastly, how it applies to us…
Does “her hair is given to her for a covering” mean that this passage is not truly about veiling?
Note, first off, this translation clears up the controversy over whether or not a woman’s hair is her covering. It uses the word “unveiled” where some other translations do not. This difference in words is reflective of the different Greek words used in the original manuscripts. In verse 5, for example, where it says that “any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled dishonors her head,” uses a Greek word “akatakaluptos” (ἀκατακαλύπτῳ) whereas verse 15, “her hair is given to her for a covering,” uses a word “peribolaion” (περιβολαίου) instead—which suggests the translation above is more accurate than those translations which obscure those two different words.
That alone is not enough evidence to dismiss modern commentators who say that this passage is only about a covering of long hair and not a separate veil over a woman’s hair. I’m not a Greek language expert and certainly not enough to say with authority that the two words are not basically synonymous or that the distinction (between the hair covering and a veil) of the RSV translation is incorrect.
However, the logical argument against hair being the veil gives a very strong backing to my rudimentary analysis of the words that are used. That argument being the fact that a woman’s being “covered” is paralleled with a man being “uncovered” in the same context. If the covering was the hair then all men, in order to pray and prophesy without being in violation of this practice, would need to shave their heads. So, in other words, these modern commentators, to be consistent in their perspective that a woman’s hair is her covering, would need to also require that all men shave their heads and thus by shaving would be “uncovered” according to this hairy (or, perhaps, heretical?) logic.
Still, the strongest argument is how leaders in the early church understood the practice, and what had been the established practice in both Catholic and Protestant religious traditions, and what continues to be the practice of the Orthodox Christians in most parts of the world—including North America and Europe. It is only very recently (the past century) that this practice has been questioned and dropped by many professing Christians in the West. There is a long list of Christian commentators from the early church to this very day that pushed the practice. That list including St John Chrysostom (349-407 AD), whose liturgy the Orthodox still use, and wrote this concerning the veiling of women:
“[Christ] calls her to become one with Him: to come under his side and become flesh of His flesh and bone of His bone. […] The covering of the head with a veil symbolizes the reality of woman sheltered in the side of her Source and becoming one with Him. She becomes covered and hidden in her Divine Spouse.”
A beautiful picture.
So, why was the veil dropped in the West?
The knee-jerk response of many Biblical fundamentalists (at least those that don’t mock the practice, like Micheal Pearl) is to blame feminism. After all, the passage is about headship order, right? And clearly, it makes women subject to male authority in a way that is out of step with modern ideas. The passage describes women as being created for men, it says “the head of a woman is her husband,” and that certainly does not jive well with feminism, does it?
However, good men do not blame women. A man who takes his role of spiritual head seriously will take responsibility for those under his authority and will take a deeper, more introspective, look at the issue. Sure, in some cases there is shared blame for failure, it is hard to be a leader of someone who does not want to be led. However, could it be that feminism, at least that part that has taken root within the church, is directly related to a failure in male leadership? Could this be part of an attitude, first adopted by men in the West, that has now trickled down to women, their children, etc?
I’ve heard many red-faced pulpit-pounding sermons from men, speaking to itching (conservative) ears, decrying feminism, disrespect for authority, and pushing stricter dress standards. But it seems that in this hobby horse obsession with a few favorite verses (about veiling or female modesty in general) there is also something missed. The loss of the Christian veiling tradition, in my opinion, is merely a symptom of a greater disease. The issue isn’t the feminism of the past century, no, it is the abuses of men in authority and also the attitudes of men who refuse to submit to anyone besides themselves.
1) Being the “head” means being the better example, whether others follow it or not, and not making excuses.
The discussions of 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, that I recall in a conservative Mennonite setting, more often than not, revolved around female obligation and with scant (if any) mention of what it means to be a man under the headship of Christ. Sure, there might be something said, in passing, of how men should uncover their heads to pray, should not have long hair, etc. But the passage is generally treated as pertaining primarily to women and any look at what headship means for men (besides that brushing glance or blink and you’ll miss it mention) is conspicuously absent from the discussion.
Now, that said, I’ve known many disgruntled (and faithful veil wearing) females express their frustration with the legalistic extra-Biblical requirements or making suggestions about retaliatory legislation adding to the male dress code. (A wrong approach IMO) And, yes, I do acknowledge that popular women’s styles have evolved more dramatically in the past century than that of common men as well. However, very little attention is paid to the question of authority and submission that 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, that it is absolutely about male headship over women (not a comfortable topic) and, more significantly, is a passage about men falling under the authority of other men.
Anyhow, at this point, some independently-minded men might be ready to exit. Some who have endured corrupt church leadership, others who just plain don’t like accountability due to their own rebellious hearts, (or a combination of both, I’m not here to make a judgment call as far as that) and might not want to hear this. For those men, especially them, I urge you to hear me out. This may not tickle your ears like a message that, distilled down, amounts to blame shifting, denial of personal responsibility and/or need to be accountable. Nevertheless, it is a message that is completely Biblical and could serve the church far better than another rant about female immodesty or against feminism.
What does the passage say about men and headship?
“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. “ (1 Corinthians 11:1)
St Paul, right off the bat, establishes his authority on Christ and instructs the reader to follow him as he follows after Christ. That statement (similar to his instruction to “imitate” him in 1 Corinthians 4:16) cuts two different ways. First, it suggests, rather than just take his word for it, we should check his authority against the example of Christ. Second, he is making an explicit claim of having authority himself, as the one writing the letter, as a church leader and one under the authority of Christ.
And, as if to emphasize his point, he continues with praise that they had submitted to his prior instructions (ie: “maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them”) and that they have remembered him. So, Paul, in his introduction to the topic of Christian headship, establishes himself as an authority over his audience, their head, and then goes on in the next verse:
“…the head of every man is Christ…” (1 Corinthians 11:3)
Some men today might read that (out of context) as being a contradiction to what Paul just said prior.
It is not.
Those who take it as an excuse to say “you’re not the boss of me” to church leaders, or to claim that they only need to be accountable to Christ (as their head) and refuse to submit to anyone else, are terribly mistaken. Because, while it is true that Christ is the ultimate head of the church and the one who will be our final judge, we are also told to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ“ in Ephesians 5:21.
And also this:
Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls, as men who will have to give account. Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Hebrews 13:17 RSV)
It is, in fact, a theme in the letters of Paul and the apostles that we show our love for Christ in our love for each other, and we show our love for each other in our submission to each other and also in our obedience to church leaders. There is no evidence anywhere in Scripture that a man has authority based on only his own personal interpretation of things. There is, however, ample evidence that our obedience to Christ is found in our interactions with the church body and, in particular, our submission to the church elders and ordained as leaders over us.
The call Paul, a church leader, makes to the Corinthians is for the unity of the church:
I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:10-12 RSV)
Did you ever stop to consider why Paul may have included “I belong to Christ” in this listing?
Isn’t belonging to Christ the goal of Christianity?
I believe the point being made is that some men use Christ (or rather their own personal interpretation of his teachings) as an excuse for their own unsubmissive attitudes, as a means to escape accountability to others and to create divisions within the church. In other words, these men refuse to truly fall under the headship of Christ because they refuse to fall under the authority that he established in the church (the collective body of believers together) and thus they are truly living in rebellion despite the obedience that they profess. Truly belonging to Christ means seeking unity with the church and living in submission.
It should be remembered that 1 Corinthians 11 is part of a collection of pastoral letters. These letters were compiled, along with the Gospels, by the church and thus their own authority is derived from the authority of the church. We don’t follow after one man nor do we live by our own individual understanding of a book. But there is a spiritual power given to the church collectively, an authority exercised by church leaders, and found where two or three gathers in the name of Jesus. The headship of Christ and submitting to the authority of his church might not be exactly the same thing—nevertheless the two are very closely related and both have authority over individual men.
Finally, Paul rests his case for headship:
If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognize no other practice, nor do the churches of God. (1 Corinthians 11:16)
That is an appeal, not to the authority of Scripture, not to Christ directly or the Spirit either. It is rather an appeal to the authority of church leaders (ie: “we”) and the “churches of God” as a collective entity. Paul establishes his case for headship squarely on the authority of church leaders and on the consensus of the church. Yes, in arguing for the veil, he does make appeals to nature, the creation narrative, angels, etc. However, he starts and ends with the notion that the church and leaders in the church (and himself specifically) collectively hold authority over individual men and that is significant in a discussion of headship.
2) The rejection of church authority in favor of individual interpretations of Scripture has undermined Christian headship.
Headship is where the Protestant experiment has gone very very bad. Sure, we can agree that this rejection of church authority was the result of corrupt leadership in Rome and I can’t say it was unjustified. When one of the five patriarchates of the church decides to be unaccountable to the rest and elevates themselves as the sole arbiter of truth, it is no surprise when others under that leadership protest and eventually do the same. And that is the clear pattern that has emerged in the West. The pattern has been more and more rejection of accountability and ever-increasing division in the church—which goes completely against the message of love, submission, and unity that leaders, like Paul, preached.
Sadly, there are many, in the Western church today day, who are “disposed to be contentious” and it started with men. It started with men who had a legitimate complaint with the authority over them and has grown, like a cancerous tumor, into a complete rejection of Christian authority or any claim to headship other than their own. Is it a big surprise when women have begun to follow this lead and declare their own understanding of Scripture or Christ alone to be their only head?
Whatever the case, men who do not fall under established authority themselves have no business demanding that their wife or children be subject to them.
It is incumbent on men to lead by example.
Men must submit to each other and submit to their elders in the faith (past and present) before they ask anything of anyone else. If we get that right, if we lead with our own submissive example, then everything underneath our own spiritual authority will fall into place. Truly, only men who have made themselves subject to Christ and his church, men who can themselves be led, are fit to lead.
But, when we give ourselves license to do as we think is right in our own eyes, to live only by our own interpretations, then we should not be surprised when others follow our lead and disregard our headship over them.
Feminism is not a product of female rebellion so much as it is the result of male abuses of their own authority and their unChrist-like attitudes. As the saying goes, more is caught than taught and continuing rebellion against established authority will have far-reaching consequences.
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.