There are many things in life that depend on a smell test or an intuitive sense. When the religious hypocrites brought a woman before Jesus the legal prescription was simple, she was caught in sexual sin and deserved death according to the law of Moses. They knew of his compassion for sinners and had hoped to trap him. If Jesus spared her he would break the law, but if he condemned then he would be just like her judgmental accusers.
What happened next in that narrative totally upended their simplistic conception of the law and application. To them, it was all very black and white. They were very thorough in defining the limits, of their legalism, and this adulterous woman fell well outside the bounds of any gray area. But Jesus defied them. We don’t know what he wrote in the dust at their feet, but we do know that Jesus, in response to their demands for an answer, told them “let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” and that after this they left one by one.
Growing up in a fundamentalist sect, in the shadow of purity culture teachings, it was always about meeting expectations. If only you could follow the rules, then you might be accepted, then her dad (or your own) would be pleased and no longer harbor those often unspoken negative opinions. Sure, maybe those in this culture knew better than to be as open about their disapproval, like the men accusing the woman, but they still miss the point and will attempt to explain away the full significance of what Jesus did. To them, the goal is to be undefiled enough to cast the first stone.
Those blinded by a legalistic mindset only comprehend the letter of the law without ever understanding the spirit or true purpose behind it. When they are not onerously enforcing the technicalities of their own (often errant) interpretations of Scripture then they are carving out special exceptions for themselves and in all circumstances are missing the spirit or intent of the law. (Romans 2:29, 2 Corinthians 2:4-18) They see the law as a means to gain God’s favor or as means to gain rank on their more sinful neighbors rather than what it truly is.
First of all, the law was not established for Pharisees past or present to play morality police. Yes, we’re told to work out our own salvation. We need to confess our sins and admit our falling short as often as we do. But it is the role of the collective body of the Church to apply the law to others and not our own. In other words, we should stay in our lane, and use the law for introspection rather than as a hammer to beat over the head of our neighbors. Our obligation to others is to do as Jesus said and learn the meaning of the phrase, “I desire mercy not sacrifice.”
Second, the law isn’t just an arbitrary set of rules to prove our worthiness to God. No, it is rather something established for our good and as a protection from harm. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was “made for man” and not the other way around, which is why he let his disciples violate the rules. In other words, the law is very practical, for our good, and can be bent when need be. Sure, we may not always understand the reasons and thus we should obey even when we do not, but there is always room for exception. This is what freedom in Christ entails—the ability to live by the underlying intent rather than only by the technicalities of written codes.
Those in the construction industry know about building inspectors who are ‘by the book’ to the point of being ridiculous. It isn’t actually making anyone safer. These types often lack hands-on experience, seemingly even basic comprehension of what makes a structure work, and they just make life harder for everyone. They can be technically correct, according to line three of page 395 of the code book, while still being clueless and unhelpful. This kind of expert has the letter of the law and lacks the spirit. This is to say that they have useless knowledge that makes them feel qualified when, in reality, those in the field know better.
And religious fundamentalists all end up like these building inspectors, hung up on details and never adding any real value to the project. They condemn everyone around them, in violation of the commandment of Christ, while they themselves have a beam in their own eyes. They think they are moral people because they can follow a list of “do’s” and “don’ts” and yet fail to comprehend the meaning of “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Indeed, we may not allow our children to cross the street without permission, it may also be jaywalking to cross in certain areas, and yet would the legal statute matter if there was an urgent need to cross?
Politicians and lawyers can find ways to be technically ‘legal’ while also immoral or violating the principle of the law. They can also point out when others do what is right when it is technically illegal or when others fail to dot an ‘I’ or cross a ‘T’ as is required. But they fail to apply the law correctly because they miss the actual intention or purpose behind the law. They do not know the Jesus who makes even our righteousness seem like filthy rags and are trying to earn God’s favor instead.
This is to be lost, like the rich young ruler, who was still trying to save himself through his own works. You can do everything right according to the Scripture (or at least your own understanding of the writing) and still be lost. You can do everything wrong and still be saved. This is because we always depend on the mercy of God rather than our ability to be perfect.
Much of what we believe is inherited and that includes how we interpret certain passages of Scripture. It is just the way things are, we do not independently arrive at our own conclusions and could very well have been taught wrong. Those who believe that the ground they stand on is sacred simply because they’re standing on it have no potential for growth in understanding or perspective.
Many in a purity culture would squeal their displeasure at the term “legalism” being used to describe their ‘Biblical standards’ and hide behind mantras such as “God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It!” Unfortunately, while this kind of obstinate stance may be good as far as resisting temptation, it basically amounts to confirmation bias on steroids in a search for truth.
This is exactly the attitude of those who took issue with Jesus breaking the Sabbath and how they absolutely refuse to see their own application of Scripture as entirely missing the point:
At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to bring charges against Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.
(Matthew 12:1-14 NIV)
The Pharisees, like religious fundamentalists today, believed that they were the experts and examples of righteousness. They would know that Moses, by order of the Lord according to Numbers 15:32-36, had a man put to death for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. It is very likely that many of them were very sincere in their saying that Jesus was possessed by a demon. How dare this teacher allow his followers to break the law and then defiantly double down in response to their concern!!! Weren’t there six other days to heal?!?
Now some commentators may try to square this legalistically, by claiming that Jesus was not truly going against Scripture. But I do not believe this is the case. The Pharisees were obsessed with the letter of the law and technically right in their complaint against his breaking the Sabbath. Jesus, by contrast, was focused on the reason behind the law, or spirit of the law, and pointed to Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” to establish the vast difference between the ritualistic devotion to a set of religious rules and genuine love for people.
Legalism, by this standard, is a use of the law that is negligent of the purpose. What is the purpose of law? The law is supposed to be for our own good, to protect us from harm, and thus the exceptions that Jesus mentioned in response to his critics. A legalist, in their strict adherence to rules, loves their rules, and yet they lack love and mercy for people. Thus, a legalist, in their no-compromise application of the law, defies the actual purpose for which the law was established and, therefore, are no longer under the law themselves:
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
(James 2:12-13 NIV)
Legalism: Divorced From the Issue
This blog is not meant to be a theological tome. For a more exhaustive look at the divorce and remarriage topic, especially for those of an Anabaptist background, I would suggest reading Dwight Gingrich who has covered the issue exhaustively in a series of blogs. I’ve already covered Biblical proof-texts in prior postings as well. Instead, I’ll stick to a discussion of the hardness of hearts and economia (special exception) as it applies to divorce and remarriage.
First of all marriage, by original intent, is until death do they part and there’s no exception to this. If men and women would live up to their vows, not make promises they not keep, this would solve the entire issue. If people would act responsibly and remain faithful in relationships then there would be no broken homes. That is certainly ideal, it was also the privilege of being born into conservative Mennonite culture for me—in that my parents were encouraged, through peer pressure, to overcome doubts and make it work.
However, this ideal simply is not available to many in the world. Many do marry, or have children, with someone whom they intend as their soulmate and it doesn’t end in a happily ever after for them. This failure of adults can have disastrous consequences for the next generation, the less desirable outcomes for children of single-parent homes are the evidence:
Children who live with only one of their parents do less well in school, obtain fewer years of education, and have trouble keeping a steady job as young adults. Children from single parent families are six times more likely to be poor.
“Single Parenthood and Children’s Well-being,” Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars
Now maybe this is genetic, that the children have the same commitment issues as their parents, and this strong correlation of single-parent homes with poor outcomes for children does not automatically equate to environmental causation. Maybe we need an adopted twin study? But it is pretty safe to say, without a complex analysis, that the insecurity and chaos of a home with one parent will have an impact on children that is undesirable.
So there’s a question: If the law is there for our good and single-parent homes are bad, what should happen after divorce or abandonment?
In the culture that I came from, there was a hardline stance on divorce and remarriage that even nullified the “exception clause” of Matthew 19:9. This perspective, from my personal experience as one who defended it, is about the preservation of an ideal and even at the expense of people. I could reason, like Moses having the man killed for picking up sticks, that allowing one exception would be a slippery slope and lead to far greater social disorder.
And yet this “greater good” logic is exactly why Jesus was put to death:
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
(John 11:47-50 NIV)
They both missed out on Jesus, their king, and also did not save temple worship. Also equally ironic is that the high priest unintentionally spoke the truth.
Anyhow, maybe, in the time of Moses, sacrifices of animals and the sons of Abraham were needed for the health of the nation. But now, after the death and resurrection of Christ, we are clothed in his righteousness and thus free from the letter of the law that kills:
He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
(2 Corinthians 3:6 NIV)
You’ll need to read further about the context of that statement to fully grasp what St Paul is saying in that letter. But the short version is that he’s contrasting the understanding of the law prior to Christ with that which only comes with the Spirit and seeing the intent behind laws as being greater than the laws themselves. This is different from the Pharisee men who carved out legalistic exceptions for themselves to divorce and were confronted by Jesus for their hardness of heart:
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
(Matthew 19:3-9 NIV)
The audience is men. The ideal is marriage until death do they part. And the rebuke is against the hardness of hearts. This is what makes it so egregiously wrong that men, in fundamentalist communities, will apply this passage (usually excluding the exception clause) to women who were abandoned by their husbands. It is, at the very best, taking the words of Jesus out of context and it is too often used rather hard-hearted response to those who have no chance of restoring what is ideal.
Jesus was not answering the question of what a woman is supposed to do when left to raise her children alone. And I’m also quite confident that he was not intending for his prescription to these men to be applied in the same dogmatic manner as they approached the Scriptures. It was their lack of mercy and compassion, how these men would misuse of the law of Moses (which did allow divorce) to escape their own responsibilities, that is the focus of his words.
As was explained to me concerning the Orthodox position on divorce and remarriage in contrast to that of fundamentalists:
As to sticking with what is written, I think here you can see the difference in how the Orthodox view the Scriptures—as part and parcel—but never the entirely of the whole Tradition—all of which has been handed down to us. The Orthodox do not take divorce and re-marriage lightly—it’s a complicated process to get a bishop’s blessing to undertake second and third marriages and the blessing is not always given. But the primary issue here is that the Orthodox confess God to be a God of mercy, love, and forgiveness—not a law-obsessed judge who keeps a record of pluses and minuses in order to play “gotcha” with those who fail.
Father Anthony Roeber
That statement above, part of an email that so profoundly reframed my understanding of divorce and remarriage, cuts right to the heart of the issue. Married or single, first marriage or second, what matters more than anything else is will if help us in the journey of faith or will it hinder. And that’s the true intent behind the law, it was a tool to steer us in the direction of doing what is good and merciful, like our Father, and yet would never be sufficient to save us.
Jesus was an extremely divisive figure. He said insulting things, routinely called out the religious elites, and was ultimately nailed to the cross for the inflammatory things that he said. Some of what Jesus said, if taken in context, would make Donald J Trump blush. And, lest someone say that this role was reserved for him, as son of God, Saint Stephen was cancelled by an enraged mob for doubling down on what Jesus said and St Paul literally told his religious rivals to emasculate themselves in one of his rebukes.
When someone uses “unChrist-like” to describe something another person did that offended them, it immediately flags that person as an unthoughtful and reactionary person. It is a favorite term of Mennonite religious snobs, with an extremely black and white perspective on everything, and seem to think that Jesus was some kind of Marxist hipster douche, like them, rather than a man who could throw a rhetorical punch, call people out for their hypocrisy and made many enemies within the ranks of the self-righteous religious elites.
If Jesus were in the flesh today he would enrage the ‘woke’ social justice left like he did the Pharisees. He would violate their speech codes, intentionally, like he did by healing on the Sabbath and allowing his disciples to ignore the cleansing rituals:
“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’”
(Matthew 15:2-9 NIV)
These studious religious experts, looked up to within their own religious circles, point out that the disciples of Jesus are not behaving correctly according to their standards. But Jesus, rather than apologize, instead uses what would now be called a “whataboutism” by those trying to deflect legitimate criticism. He goes after their own crafty violation of the law, their legalistic approach that neglected the spirit or intention of the law, and then attacks them personally, calling them hypocrites, with empty words, who merely follow after human rules.
However, what is most interesting about the Gospel account is that those who loathed Jesus couldn’t condemn him on the basis of his inflammatory rhetoric alone. No, they still had to connive to misrepresent the actual intent of his words to paint him as violent and a threat to the powers that be. They maliciously twisted his words to suggest that he was planning to lead a violent insurrection and should therefore be condemned:
The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’ ” Yet even then their testimony did not agree.
(Mark 14:55-59 NIV)
That passage (above) would, if they had social media then, would likely be rated as being false by the fact-checkers. Why? Well, Jesus did indeed say that the temple would be destroyed:
“Destroy this temple…”
(John 2:19 NIV)
See! Right there it is! Incitement to violence! Jesus, speaking to the crowd, with his followers listen and willing to obey, says “destroy this temple.” Clearly a madman, speaking in a fit of rage after assaulting money changers on sacred ground, attacking established institutions, and a man clearly leading an insurrection, right? No wonder the frenzied mobs wanted him dead, permanently removed, his followers purged from polite society, they were being misled and used as pawns by the powers that be who saw Jesus as a threat to their own religious/political racket.
Follow the Real Jesus—Reject the Leaven of the Pharisees
Christianity, real Christianity, did not parrot the popular narrative. It was extremely divisive, although not along lines of gender, race or superficial difference, and it was those with the blessing of the established institutions who pursued and persecuted his followers. The followers of Jesus, for their part, were defiant like Him, they refused to stop speaking the truth even against the orders of governing authorities. These weren’t no limp-wristed mealy-mouthed educated folk, trying to position themselves for the approval of others.
The followers of Jesus today, as simple blue collar workers, would be called ‘deplorables’ by the elites who despised them. Some of them, as Romans or former collaborators with Rome, would be hated “fascists” or any other of a long list of names used by social justice activists to silence, marginalize or dehumanize their political opposition.
And, yes, the hypocritical religious elites of our day will use “unChrist-like” in an attempt to discredit and shame legitimate critics. They see themselves as being the pure and undefiled arbiters of truth. And you? Well, you’re the unwashed masses, those not privileged with their superior intelligence or education. No, they are, in their own minds, more truly compassionate, those who listen to and represent the downtrodden, while you are too dumb or hard-hearted to comprehend. Of course, it is all hogwash. Nevertheless, they do have a power to lead silly women and weak men astray with their nonsense.
Ultimately, contrary to the myths of the sanctimonious Mennonite progressives, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a divisive message. It calls all to repentance, it stands in opposition to all tribalism and identity politics, and offends the elites who are not accustomed to being put in their place. It is not all kumbaya, linking hands singing “praise and worship” around a fire while shaking a tambourine, or unity around the lowest common denominator. No, sometimes it is harsh, raw and divisive truth, like this:
“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
(Matthew 16:6 NIV)
Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.
(Luke 12:1 NIV)
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’
(Matthew 10:34-36 NIV)
Those of the prideful social justice mindset, like those of any other errant ideology, the Pharisaical “leaven” of our own time, should be called to repentance. They, themselves, are not arbiters of truth, who can declare a person as not Christian for belonging to a group not their own. No, they are like the self-righteous religious elites who confronted Jesus for his incorrect, according to their own rules of conduct, teachings and example. The religious ‘progressive’ today would imagine themselves on the “right side of history” the same as Jesus sarcastically and very caustically condemned:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
(Matthew 23:29-32 NIV)
“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar.
(Matthew 23:33-35 NIV)
Religious elites today never understand that the words of Jesus address them, personally, as much as anyone else nor are capable of understanding that those who were called “you brood of vipers” were the polished, the educated, those of correct pedigree and how dare this uncouth uneducated man tell them otherwise! They were completely justified in their own minds and this man had no business name calling! I mean, how unChrist-like can you be? The real Christ, according to their own experts and expectations, would be a religious bigot like them, would talk down to those lacking sophistication, and endorse them as rulers.
Let My People Go!
The sanctimonious never mind their own business. No, they’re always out to prove themselves more righteous, thus must pursue and destroy anyone who stands in their way, points out their egregious doublestandards or otherwise triggers the privileged religious elites. They are entitled, they have the credentials, who are you to stand up to their bullying and abuse?
They need a captive audience.
They need to have you around, as their whipping boys, to feel better about themselves.
Cutting to the chase, after years of seeing good rural people belittled and falsely accused, having their grievances ignored by the coastal elites, I decided to start a Facebook group to highlight this growing divide. It was a semi-serious solution, where urban and rural people, with their vastly different needs, would be governed separately and in a way better matched to their own needs. The key operant words words being “peaceful partitioning” of the two divergent Americas as a means to avoid violence.
Unfortunately, and predictably, while enjoyed with light-hearted amusement by the rural folks invited, it was soon met with an extremely vicious response. As aggressive as those men in Sodom knocking on Lot’s door, demanding access to his angelic guests, and not taking “no” for an answer, the assault was on. By the direction of a few agitators mischaracterizing the group according to their own blinding prejudice, many in the social justice mob (or sympathetic) began to stalk the group and harass me. How dare rural people seek to be separate and safe from them! [Insert popular false accusations here.]
It was “unChrist-like,” they cried, with a collective banshee howl, and heaped condemnation.
And yet, those who tell you that there is no Christian precedent for peaceful separation between disagreeing parties are either ignorant or liars. In Scripture there are multiple times when conflict between parties led to separation, as a means to keep the peace, starting with Lot and Abraham who went their different ways to end conflict between their parties. And, even in the New Testament, there was a time when St Paul and St Barnabas, had a severe disagreement and decided to go their separate ways.
The only time where this sort of separation did not go smoothly was when Moses asked Pharaoh, “let my people go!” Evil Pharaoh had initially balked, he didn’t want to lose his source of cheap labor and felt he had all of the power on his side. But Moses persisted, and God assisted by visiting Egypt with a series of plagues, until the tyrant was forced to loosen his grip. Finally, only when the cost became too high, the beleaguered abuser of the children of Israel allowed them to go—only to go against his own word later and pursue them to his own peril.
Maybe Pharaoh is the Christ of the social justice Mennonite?
I’m sure he was polished and prestigious.
Whatever the case, insisting that every American be under the same national flag has nothing to do with Christ or his teachings. I have worshipped in foreign nations, amongst those who didn’t share my political affiliation, and it never ever took away from unity in Christ. No, only when Christianity is corrupted, turned into a political ideology, does this difference in national identity become an issue. And it is not coincidence that those influenced by Marxist political ideology cannot see the vast difference between the two kingdoms. They profess faith, they condemn us as nationalists, yet are the ones who are truly blending religion and politics.
Lastly, there’s something deliciously ironic about a bunch of religious separatists, proud of their Anabaptist heritage, lecturing peaceable folks about keeping unity in the church.
You’re joking, right?
These are people who have no desire to reconsider and reunite with the historic church, that transcends nations, is timeless and complete.
No, they see themselves as superior-minded, able to discern for themselves what is correct ‘Christ-like’ teachings. There is zero self-awareness or introspection as they parrot popular leftist slogans and copy cancel culture against those who dissent to their rule. They are always looking outward, at the Publican over there, praying in his unsophisticated humble manner, trying to justify themselves. They see themselves as the gatekeepers of the kingdom and yet, if they do not repent, they too will be shut out and condemned to outer darkness.
Some day Jesus will divide the sheep from the goats. I ask everyone to consider what side they want to be on in that final judgment. Rural or urban, none of us are in a position to decide who belongs in the church or does not. Those suggesting that being a part of a Facebook group they disapprove of are any less Christian than them? They are delusional. Full of themselves. It is cultural imperialism at best (no surprise some of these are in that special self-congratulatory ‘missionary’ class, who travel over land in sea like those addressed in Matthew 23:15) and is an attitude that will only drive the wedge deeper.
Nobody wants to stay in a toxic relationship. Nobody wants to share a home with their unrepentant abusers. If these elites want to be heard by those of us who have listened to them lecture and condemn year after year, then it is time for them to start listening to our grievances too. If not, if they are incapable, then the most Christ-like thing they can do is let us go our separate ways. It is not peaceable to demand that others see things your own way, there is no reason why Christians can’t go their separate ways, and being in two different nations doesn’t mean we should be at war with each other.
Two people responded to my last blog. One said that I had not said enough about the exploitative nature of the porn industry and the abuses common in purity cultures. Another claimed that I had overstated and generalized about purity cultures and tried to point out the good.
First, there is not enough that can be said about the ugliness of pornography and how it is harmful on both ends. My previous blog had primarily focused on the consumer end because it was about how pornography and purity cultures hurt those under their influence. However, many blogs could be written about how pornography is produced and we should not forget those many who are used (or abused) in this industry—they also need to experience the pure love of Jesus.
Second, the other person responding to my prior blog seems to have assumed that my comments, specific to purity culture, applied to my Christian experience in general. That is incorrect. I have actually had great experiences with those who were able to transcend the cancerous influence of purity culture. I have met many who are more committed to Christian love (and faith) than they are to maintaining an appearance of purity (for sake of religious peers) that comes at the expense of those aforementioned things.
What purity culture is is a misuse of a set of teachings in the same way that pornography represents a misuse of sex. It sees a corrupted version of purity as an end to itself rather than a part of something more comprehensive and complete. It leads to the same kind of dissatisfaction as pornography and that is because it has, in a similar fashion, taken a good thing in the right context and twisted it into something that it was not intended to be. Purity culture, under the pleasant facade, is always about fear, control and shifting blame rather than true Christian love.
Purity culture is, by definition, a misapplication or overemphasis on some teachings at the expense of others. In other words, purity culture is a perversion and, like pornography, not enough can be said in condemnation of this wrongful and abusive use of Biblical teachings. There is a vast difference between purity culture appearances and actual righteousness. There is nothing good about purity cultures, the bad cannot be overstated and that is a generalization we should make.
Jesus Rebuked Purity Culture
The difference between being pure in heart (as is taught in Scripture) and purity culture is as different as Jesus was from his self-righteous critics:
On a Sabbath, Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17 NIV)
Had you run into this “synagogue leader” he would have appeared to be a very pious man. He was likely there every time the synagogue doors were open, probably spent hours of time devoted to reading Scripture and may have even tithed everything even down to his spices. But under this man’s righteous outward display was a corrupt and unloving heart that placed strict adherence to Sabbath laws above the actual reason for the laws.
Jesus, who had a pattern of healing on the Sabbath as if intentionally trying to antagonize these religious elites and expose their hard hearts, rebukes this leader’s misplaced priorities. Because, while this religious leader was technically correct that this woman could’ve been healed any other day of the week, his thinking was not centered correctly, he should have been rejoicing that this woman was healed and not obsessing on when or how it happened.
A “tell” refers to those unconscious actions that betray a person in a card game. A person can bluff or deceive others with a display of confidence and yet there are often small signs that give them away to an astute observer. Purity culture also has tells. One of the biggest tells of purity cultures is it does like this religious leader Jesus rebukes and puts emphasis on the letter of law or appearances over what is healing and helpful to other people.
Here are some other tells of purity culture…
Purity Cultures Blameshift
Purity cultures always release men from being completely responsible for their own sin. Instead, they use male failure as an excuse to manipulate and control others.
For example, in a purity culture, when a man was caught by his wife viewing pornography, and the matter went before church leaders, he was treated as the victim and his wife (along with every other woman) was made responsible. In this case, they urged his wife to dress plainer and they encouraged her to become pregnant, I kid you not, meanwhile this man goes around condemning those who do not ‘dress right’ or otherwise live to a standard that would keep him from sin.
Women are often blamed for male lusts in purity cultures and this goes completely contrary to anything Jesus taught on the subject. Hyperbole or not, we are told by Jesus to pluck our own eye out if it causes us to sin. But never are we told that it is a woman’s responsibility to keep a man’s thoughts pure. Men who shift blame for their own sinful thoughts and actions have no business calling themselves Christian leaders. A real Christian leader takes full responsibility for their own sin, falls on their knees and repents.
But in purity cultures, a man is more concerned with maintaining an image. And, for that reason, he cannot repent or take complete responsibility for fear of being exposed and losing social status. So, rather than admit it was his own weakness that led to failure, he must find some reason outside of himself for the failure.
In other words, a purity culture response is like that of King Saul who pointed a finger at the people when he willfully disobeyed God and not like King David who took full responsibility for his own sin when confronted. Had David been like Saul, and not “a man after [God’s] own heart,” he would have likely blamed Bathsheba rather than actually repent and made a royal decree banning roof bathing in the kingdom of Israel.
Purity Culture Is About Outward Appearances
True purity comes from the inside out and never the other way around. Purity cultures, on the other hand, are centered on maintaining an outward appearance of purity and never leads to an inner change. The Pharisees are a pristine example of purity culture and how those in one respond when corrected:
When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal. Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. “Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces. “Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” (Luke 11:37-45 NIV)
These guys were so oblivious to their own spiritual deadness that they couldn’t even believe that Jesus was talking about them. But Jesus didn’t slow down when one of the experts said he had insulted them, he stepped on the gas and continued on with his critique. In the verses that follow those above, Jesus decries the burdens these religious elites heap on others (without lifting a finger to help them carry) and compares them to those who killed the prophets. We are told that after this they peppered him with questions and tried, desperately, to catch him saying something wrong.
What should have happened is that they should’ve recognized themselves in his words, then made no more excuses for themselves and repented. Unfortunately, pride is the most difficult sin to confess for a person who is concerned with maintaining appearances, because admitting pride is admitting that their righteousness facade is just that, a show, and means lowering themselves to the level of the more visible sinners—whom the self-righteous hypocrites think that they compare favorably to.
Purity Culture Is Itself Impure
The dirty little secret of purity culture is that it, like the pornography and sexual immorality it decries, is not what it appears to be. Yes, they, like the Apostle Paul before his conversion, may be able to follow the letter of the law and even win the praise of their religious peers. They may present themselves as completely humble and meek if that is the religious cultural expectation. However, beneath this well-manicured appearance of holiness, they are totally faithless and spiritually dead.
Purity culture depends on human effort, conformity of visible behavior, and never a true transformation of heart. It is a culture concerned with outward appearance or physical cleanliness, like the Pharisees with their ritual washing, that neglects what is actually important and totally misses the point. Many in purity cultures have bamboozled themselves with their own act, they become defensive when confronted and refuse to humble themselves when exposed as fakers.
The outward appearance of a purity culture and true holiness is so similar and that is why it is so difficult to address. Those in a purity culture, in most cases, think of themselves as the good people, and while blaming everything but themselves for their own failures, are actually making a sincere effort. But true holiness does not start with human effort, it starts with recognizing that our own effort is nothing compared to the Holiness God and is depending fully on Him.
Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:6 NIV)
If I wear an expensive suit and fancy tie to an event, that will probably result in my being treated differently than if I show up in street clothes. Having “PhD” behind my name would earn me more respect in some circles.
The world judges by outward appearance.
People rank and categorize other people based on what clothing they wear and what positions they hold. Wear the wrong dress to an occasion and expect to be shamed in the gossip columns. The climb up the social ladder can be brutal.
The church, unfortunately, is not much different. The expectations and dress standards might vary, but the harmful focus on distinction of title or outward appearance is the same.
What did Jesus say about obsession with dress and titles?
Jesus, continuing his rebuke of unhelpful religious elites, said…
Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called “Rabbi” by others. ‘But you are not to be called “Rabbi,” for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:5-12)
The religious elites were obsessed with what other people thought and how they appeared.
Jesus mentions the “phylacteries” and “tassels” they wore, meant as symbolic reminders of their devotion to God, became about drawing attention to themselves. They pranced to the front benches, loved to be noticed when out in public, and sought titles to impress their religious peers.
Jesus was unimpressed. It is apparent that their religious devotion was not about God’s glory and honor as they would claim, it was all to draw attention to themselves and prideful. Jesus again alludes to the tables being turned and roles being reversed—a time when the first shall be last and last shall be first.
But how is this applicable today?
Nobody I know wears phylacteries or tassels.
However, I believe the warnings against obsession with appearance still apply as much to religious people today as it did then. We have different versions of the same prideful behavior in our churches today.
Here’s what we are doing:
1) Seeking the important seats: I sit anywhere in the church because it does not matter. There is nothing wrong with sitting in the back benches in an age of microphones and amplifiers. Socially awkward people do not enjoy parading up to the front of the church; they don’t want the attention. And so what if the rebels sit in the back, at least they are at church, right?
Funny how some Mennonite leaders have apparently not gotten the memo about those who love the “place of honor” and “most important seats” in a religious setting. From the way they commend people who sit in the front benches you might be led to think that Jesus said that makes a person special or better.
Yes, there is something to be said for accommodating visitors and mothers with young children. There’s also something to be said for not creating a distraction by yukking it up with your buddies. We should always be considerate of others.
That said, seating position is no indication of spiritual condition.
2) Loving important titles: There are some people who use the letter of what Jesus said as a means to bash Catholics for their use of “father” in reference to church leaders past and present.
Unfortunately they entirely miss the point being made and in their arrogance are potentially slandering those who appropriately use these terms. The admonition against calling anyone “teacher” or “father” is not about the specific words used, but about how and why they are used.
How do I know this?
Well, the Apostle Paul refers to himself as “father” (1 Corinthians 4:15, Philippians 2:22) and I’m doubtful he did it in ignorance of or contradiction to what Jesus said. I believe he used it as a description of his true fatherly love and affection for the children of the faith and not vainly as a means to secure unearned respect from others—which is what Jesus was speaking about.
Sadly, those who turn the words of Jesus into a legal code miss the spirit of what he is saying. Sure, they might never use the words he mentioned to describe themselves, but they do use words like “reverend” or “evangelist” in the same way as a Pharisee. With different words they embody the same self-seeking spirit of the religious elites condemned by Jesus.
And we do this too. We may not seek fancy titles outright. However, I was turned down by a young woman who wanted someone who used “missionary” or “pastor” to flaunt their ambitions and I was uncomfortable describing my calling in those terms. Love of religious importance is not unusual amongst Mennonites even if not as openly stated.
There is nothing new under the sun when it comes to spiritual pitfalls. As my sister would say: Same manure, different piles. Except she doesn’t use the word “manure” when she says it…
3) Dressing distinctly: It blows my mind how far off the mark people can be when it comes to matters of dress. There are some churches where people will frown on those who do not wear a suit and tie (while some conservative Mennonites will frown on those who do) and for some reason carrying a big leather-bound Bible is important too.
It makes me wonder what these proper religious people would do if a man like John the Baptist showed up in camel’s hair. They might be suffering from the same ailment as Saul’s daughter; Michal, when she saw David dancing in a “linen ephod” and called him a “vulgar person” for it (2 Samuel 6:14-23). Apparently God was not impressed with her judgment of propriety according to what I read.
That is not to say we should intentionally draw attention to ourselves and dress in a provocative or ostentatious manner.
Which leads to my next point…
Many conservative Mennonites look to distinctive dress as a means to be a witness. They claim this is an act of “non-conformity” and taking a stand against “worldly” fad and fashion. And I do appreciate the idea of not being jerked around by every whim and fancy of the mainstream culture.
Unfortunately, this non-conformity of outward appearance does not always reflect change at a heart level. We might not look like our “worldly” neighbors in the way we dress and yet many of us are even more obsessed with fashion than they are. The smallest differences (the number of pleats in a dress or the collar of a suit coat) can lead to venomous accusations and division.
Distinctive dress has become a stumbling block for conservative Mennonites. We judge each other based on our differences, we shut people out for not meeting our own dress standards, and forget to love each other as Christ commanded. We have taken Scripture that instructs Christians to be focused on inner change rather than outward adoring (1 Peter 3-4, 1 Timothy 2:9-10) and turned it into a fixation about outward appearance.
Perhaps we forget what Scripture tells us about pride and clothing?
Peter describes the true distinctiveness of being “clothed” with sincere faith:
All of you, clothe yourself with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble yourself, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Peter 5:5-6)
We are told to be distinctively dressed. However, that distinction of dress means to “clothe yourself with humility” and to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3:27, Romans 13:14) rather than with our own religious works–that is a far deeper distinction than mere outward appearance. Our distinctiveness should be less about what we wear on the outside and more about being a manifestation of this:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34,35)
Distinguished titles and distinctive outward appearance is vanity when it causes strife or leads to a pecking order. We must embody the character of Christ by loving each other as he commanded. It is not about looking different or having a fancy title, it is about being different in heart.
If a person professes faith in Jesus, then accept them as a brother or sister and don’t be a religiously pretentious snob. Jesus, as far as I know, did not dress like a Mennonite, Amish man or Baptist. I’m doubtful he was much concerned about solids or stripes and the size of floral prints.
Jesus may have said his yoke is easy, but it is not easy for someone born and raised outside the conservative Mennonite culture to become Mennonite—especially not a woman.
Mennonites are not the only ones that demand conformity to a list of cultural expectations. Fundamentalist sects all have their fundamentals, their own special set of rules, cultural expectations, or doctrinal essentials that they use as tests for membership.
For example, a very sincere and sweet Christian friend of mine was asked about her view of “Once Saved, Always Saved” theology. Her questioner, someone who believes in eternal security, did not like her answer and now counts her as lost. To them salvation depends on our ability to parrot a theological position, a work of the mind, and no nuances are allowed.
And these false dichotomies, based on personal opinion, exist at all levels. If your hermeneutic allows for some flexibility interpreting the creation narrative of Genesis, then Ken Ham (including his partner in self-promoting pseudo-scientific dogmatism, Bill Nye) will insist that you should be an agnostic.
Nothing is further from the truth.
Jesus rebukes religious gatekeepers and damned missionaries.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are. (Matthew 23:13,15)
Jesus confronts the religious elites, who had positioned themselves as the final arbiter of truth, and he rudely knocks them off their pedestal. He confronts them for shutting people out who might otherwise enter and says they make those few they do convert “twice the child of hell” as that they are. That is a shocking reproach for those who are diligently religious.
Missionary service is typically unquestioned and perhaps that is because many of us feel guilt for not doing enough ourselves? But missionaries get no free pass from Jesus; on the contrary, he rebukes them even more severely and describes them as being counterproductive. I hope, after considering that, it goes without saying that missionary service can be a false indication of sincere faith and love for God.
There are many reasons why a person might want to be a missionary other than pure love for God and other people. Traveling, in our day and age, is fun and many enjoy the adventure. There are also the duty-bound “do-gooder” religious types, motivated more by fear than love. But there is an even more insidious reason why a person may choose to be a missionary service, and that is the power over others it offers:
1) Power of peer respect: There is no question that being a missionary is considered honorable amongst religious people. It draws positive attention. Those who have served in a visible way are often given special praise and in my church it is almost a prerequisite to being ordained. It can become a basis for ranking members of the church into higher and lower tiers. When used that way, it goes directly against the admonition of Jesus to be a brotherhood of equals earlier in his sermon.
2) Power of material resources: I know missionaries who go out like Jesus sent his disciples (Mark 6:7-13) in the power of the Spirit and with little more the shirts on their backs. Unfortunately, we do not embody that kind of faith anymore. Our missionaries rely on the power of their own calculations and often with enough resources to live comfortably beyond the reach of the people they are trying to evangelize. This can create a situation where people serve the missionaries’ whims for no reason other than attaining access to their resources. Being treated as royalty can also be gratifying to those who hold this power.
3) Power to be a religious gatekeeper: Everyone, including the religious elites condemned by Jesus, believes they are right, and that sanctimonious feeling can be the basis to becoming an evangelist. Recently a friend shared the testimony of Megan Phelps-Roper who was raised in Westboro Baptist Church and joined in their protests as a child. It was through conversation with the “other side” that she realized her spirit was wrong and repented.
Unfortunately, there are many who never do get knocked off their pedestal, never do humble themselves in the light of God’s grace, and do damage to the cause of Christ. They position themselves as the final arbiters of truth, as gatekeepers to the kingdom with the licence to shut people out, and the words of Jesus apply to them just as much as they did to the religious elites in the original audience.
Knowledge can become a barrier to truth when it leads to dead religion rather than following in faith.
We shut people off from the truth when we center our faith on our own religious “knowledge” rather than on the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. These “all or nothing,” black-and-white propositions are a distraction from the substance of Christian faith. Obsession on theological minutia causes confusion rather than bringing clarity, and our additional requirements take away from the simple truth of the Gospel message:
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)
We should remember what Jesus said to his disciples when they took issue with someone speaking in the power of Jesus name outside their exclusive club:
“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:49-50)
It should be noted that in the verse just prior to this, the disciples were having an argument over who amongst them would be greatest. Jesus answers them by bringing a child beside him and declaring that whoever would be most welcoming to that child in his name would be greatest. I’m guessing that child wasn’t 100% theologically correct.
We should serve others in truth of self-sacrificial love and in humility rather than in superiority of knowledge.
There are many who go out in the strength of their own knowledge. They never do comprehend the significance of God’s grace, and are blind though they think they see:
We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God. (1 Corinthians 8:1b-3)
Some say it is the thought that counts.
It is also said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
But before we say or think too much, we should take heed of what Jesus said and consider it a warning against an idea that our salvation comes from our religious diligence or right ideas. Instead we must be an example of the grace shown to us while we were yet dead in our sins.
We need to hold the door open for those wishing to enter and lower the threshold, rather than trip them up with our own pet doctrines.
We are not called to be gatekeeper; instead, we are called to serve in love and humility.
I’ve always respected my father as a leader. I consider it a privilege to have his example of Christian leadership in my life. He’s a man who leads by example. He does his best to get the job done right and always treats those under him with respect.
We all interact with leaders. Many direct from behind by telling others what to do rather than leading by example. We know of the parents who demand that their children do as they say and then do not live up to their own standards. We know about politicians and celebrities who lecture about social responsibility while living in mansions.
Jesus is a man who led by example.
Jesus never asked anyone to do anything for him that he would not do for them. He asked only, “Follow me” and then provided his example as a means to lead those he called to salvation.
For this, Jesus was also a threat to the established religious and social order. There are always those who are privileged by the established regimes and governing institutions.
A hierarchical system serves those at the top.
And yet Jesus (after sending a rich young ruler away disappointed) promises his followers in his kingdom that the current roles would be reversed:
Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first. (Matthew 19:28-30)
Jesus repeats this maxim, “The last will be first, and the first will be last,” at the end a parable in the next chapter. In the parable, there are workers in the vineyard show up early and then cry “unfair” when those who show up later receive the same compensation.
That is not a message the religious elites and privileged classes want to hear.
I mean, they (and their ancestors) put their time in, and therefore they deserve the place of recognition and respect. Follow the rules, earn the prize. God was obviously blessing them for their careful religious devotion… right?
Then here comes this agitator, this Jesus, who dares to challenge and rebuke them. Not only that, this provoker, he tells them the tables will be turned, roles will be reversed and their kingdom will be left desolate.
Jesus begins his sermon in Matthew 23 by taking direct aim at the unhelpful religious elites.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:1-4)
There is a derisive tone to those words. In one line Jesus tells his audience that they must respect those in the position of power and then in the next, he describes those who hold those positions of power in a way that could be considered disrespectful.
I do not take the advice Jesus gave to, “be careful to do everything they tell you,” as an endorsement of the rules. I believe it is simply an acknowledgment of the real power they held. To “sit in Moses’ seat” meant they could have you killed and that is pretty good reason to pay attention.
These religious elites, who saw themselves as better than everyone else, did not “practice what they preach”, according to Jesus. They heaped on a “cumbersome loads” of standards and yet were not living up to what they preached.
This could mean a simple double standard: one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other people. It might also indicate that they loved the “letter of the law” more than the Author of the law.
I believe it is the latter.
The “experts of the law and Pharisees,” we are told, “diligently” studied the Scriptures, thinking that in their to devotion to them they had eternal life (John 5:39) and the rich young ruler also claimed to have kept the commandments from boyhood. There is every indication that these were devout and sincere people.
However, where the Pharisees went wrong was in what they prioritized.
Jesus prioritized people over the letter of the law.
When a man was forgiven and healed, the Pharisees were more concerned with their interpretation of blasphemy laws than they were in the miracle.
The Pharisees were more concerned with looking righteous in the eyes of their religious peers than they were in the well-being of those of lower position who needed healing and salvation.
In questioning why the disciples of Jesus did not fast along with everyone else, there was a lack of understanding that unique circumstances can demand a departure from the normal religious routine.
Regarding the Sabbath they saw a rigid true-for-all-time black and white standard, but Jesus reminds them of when David’s servants violated the Sabbath and points to the humanitarian intent behind the law.
Jesus, in his anger against the legalistic thinking of the religious elites, heals a man on the Sabbath. For this defiance of their tradition they began to plot how to kill him.
The law of the Pharisees is described as a “heavy” and “cumbersome load” by Jesus. But, in describing his own way, Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
While the religious elites would not risk contamination (as depicted in the story of the Good Samaritan) and were “not willing to lift a finger” to move the burdens they put on others, those who followed after Jesus were instructed:
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)
The self-righteous elites were about preserving their status and image by following a religious code and demanding others live up to it, while Jesus led by his example self-sacrifice and urged his followers to prioritize love for others over their tradition.
The letter of the law is indifferent to the real needs of people. The law is uncompromising and cruel. It does not care about the impossible burdens it placed on those less privileged and powerful. The law condemns all people to death.
The Spirit, on the other hand, is a comfort and helper in our time of need; he brings grace to those who will receive it. A true follower of Jesus walks according to the Spirit (Romans 8, Galatians 5) and will help to carry burdens and bring newness of life.
Jesus speaks against the attitudes of Mennonite religious elites today.
I’m fortunate in that I’ve been spared the worst that the Mennonite religious culture has to offer. Yet, a lighter dose of the same wrong attitudes does surface from time to time.
My own experience with the uglier side of the denomination is pretty tame compared to what others have experienced. In the conference I’m a part of (Keystone), we didn’t have the control-freak bishops playing “religious policeman” and constantly adding to the rules or micromanaging and excommunicating people who don’t fit the mold.
However, we do have the complacent unhelpful attitudes of those Jesus rebuked and the same resistance to change. Many will only help in their religiously prescribed ways (words of encouragement, offered prayers, etc) but do not offer much burden-carrying outside the range of our established protocol.
Mennonite employers will often use their position to privilege themselves, nobly willing to move heaven and earth for their own families, but too often at the expense of employees and their families. I know first-hand accounts of men who work less than bankers hours (for good pay) while expecting those under them to pick up the slack.
There can also be the attitude that those who aren’t as successful as we are did not try hard enough or otherwise “deserve” it. We too often hold those raised outside of our communities to a standard we are only able to achieve because of our home and heritage. We expect others to rise to our own level when we should be bringing ourselves down to theirs.
To follow Jesus means to give up our special privileges for the good and welfare of others. It means to humble ourselves and lead the way he did in when he left heavenly glory to live and die for us. We too must step down to meet people where they are and help them to carry their burdens.
Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ. (1 Corinthians 11:1)