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)
Let’s talk about consciousness and infant Baptism, shall we?
My entire life, as a child of Anabaptism, I was taught a doctrine called “Believer’s baptism” (or credobaptism) which a) tied Baptism to church membership and b) teachings that Baptism requires a conscious or adult decision. The irony of that is that many Mennonites are Baptized as children, as a result of indoctrination, and not after an exhaustive search for truth that ends with Christ.
It makes sense, at one level, that a believer in Christ must be able to “count the cost” (Luke 14) of discipleship, right?
And yet, if we look at the Apostles themselves, were any of them actually ready when they were picked by Jesus?
No, if Peter had counted the cost, if he truly understood what it meant to enter the kingdom, he would never have denied Christ. The doubts of Thomas, and the betrayal of Judas, all point to a group of men who did not fully comprehend the words of Jesus prior to their Baptism.
#1) We don’t choose, we’re chosen and drawn to Christ:
No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. […] The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”
(John 6:44-45,63-65 NIV)
#2) We did not decide the hour of our first birth nor do we decide the second birth:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. you should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
(John 3:2-8 NIV)
#3) We were dead, dead people aren’t conscious to make adult decisions:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
(Ephesians 2:1-10 NIV)
By adding the requirement of adult comprehension, the teachers of credobaptism turn Baptism into a work and base salvation on our consciousness of the need. That’s rational, yet humanistic and not the process we see outlined in Scripture. Lazarus, dead for four days, did not have the mental capacity to listen to the command of Jesus, “Lazarus, come out!” No, we understand that this would be impossible. And, likewise, when the Rich Young Ruler (asks “what must I do to be saved,” the final answer is not “sell all and give to the poor,” as some Anabaptists believe—it is “with man this is impossible, with God all things are possible.”
The real problem with this idea that Baptism requires a certain level of consciousness (and the invented concept of an “age of accountability”) is that it is totally arbitrary and would exclude those not fully capable of making an adult choice. I mean, truly, will we refuse to Baptize the mentally disabled because they can’t count the cost of discipleship? Should we have an IQ test? Maybe make applicants provide proof of their faith? At the very least, if this notion of Believer’s baptism is correct, and adult consciousness necessary to appreciate Christ, then should we cut this silliness of a baby leaping in the womb (Luke 1:41) out of the Gospel narrative?
There is evidence, in Scripture, of whole households being Baptized. But there is little to support this idea that one must reach a certain level of consciousness to be Baptized. It is really like some people think they’ve saved themselves and this misunderstanding of the significance of Baptism, starting five centuries ago, got turned into theological hubris. If Baptism is about being born again or spiritual rebirth—and our first physical birth was not a willful choice—why would we ever conclude that Baptism must be a choice, a matter of age or adult comprehension?
What is Baptism truly about?
Baptism is the start of a journey of faith, like birth, and something to accompany repentance.
But wait, there’s more…
Baptism and the Nuptial Bath
Up until very recently, being unfamiliar with Jewish wedding traditions, I would never have made the connection between Baptism and a Jewish bride’s nuptial bath. A friend of mine shared a podcast that dove into that topic (listen here) and the parallels seem to be very real. Upon further research, this ‘other” meaning is also something understood historically by the church and quite clearly implied in this passage:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
(Ephesians 5:25-27 NIV)
Baptism, in effect, is a symbolic representation of the start of this ritual cleansing that doesn’t end with the act. The Christian life is a life of repentance, of continually turning towards Christ. Our spiritual cleansing doesn’t end with the water of our physical Baptism either.
After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.) An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
(John 3:22-30 NIV)
It was directly prior to this that we have the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus where we get the phrase “born again” and where Jesus tells the perplexed Jewish religious leader about this rebirth “of water and the Spirit” like the wind that goes wherever it pleases. That is an indication of the mysterious origin of Baptism, that it is not something that comes about through our own rational thought processes.
So what is this “ceremonial washing” about?
And how does Baptism relate to brides and bridegrooms?
A few months back I worked on a truss layout for a religious building project, a Mikvah bath, and learned more about the Jewish ritual cleaning process and something observant women of that religion must do on a regular basis.
However, most significantly, it is something they do prior to marriage, which seems to be the connection between the quarrel about everyone getting this ceremonial washing and the response of John the Baptist.
The point and purpose of John’s ministry, like the pre-marital ritual washing of a bride when her groom arrived, Baptism was to make people ready for the marriage to Christ. It was not symbolic of the commitment itself—rather it was only a part of the process leading up to the commitment. So, sure, Baptism is the start of an important transitionary moment and yet our salvation comes through a life-long Theosis, through our being washed, sanctified, and justified by the Spirit of God until the time we depart this world.
One last point, and related to this nuptial bath tradition and the parallels to Baptism. Jewish brides did choose their partners nor the time of their wedding like we do. No, they practiced arranged marriage and the arrival of the groom was at the appointed time of his father once the preparations were complete. So again, where does this idea come from that the bride must choose the time or place of this meeting and bath? Wouldn’t responsible Christian parents want to prepare even infant children for their groom?
The expanded consciousness that comes through our prearranged nuptials with Christ can come after the ritual washing of Baptism—as it did for the disciples who didn’t know what they were being signed up for when they began their journey of faith.
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.
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.
There are many desperately trying to push back against the march of progress. I’ve seen the Ted Kaczynski’s (aka “the Unibomber”) Manifesto popping up lately because of how his predictions are coming true. Even those at the cutting edge of the current technological revolution, men like Elon Musk, are terrified of the implications of this rapid change.
Things like transhumanism, cashless society, social credit scores, next level automation and artificial intelligence are upon us. The internet, this once free space, that reduced the friction of communication and allowed the masses to bypass the established gatekeepers of information, is now enabling a new generation of tyrants with power that their predecessors couldn’t have even begun to imagine.
There is a feeling of helplessness against this faceless emerging (and present) threat, we know that they work behind the scenes to control the narrative. The NSA, Big Tech corporations, existing institutions, they’re all competing for their place at the top of this new order, often colluding and conspiring when their goals align. To them we’re ants, pawns to be manipulated and moved.
It is inevitable. Removing a few key players may be a speed bump. However, nothing short of an asteroid hitting the planet and mass extinction will stop this transition. To resist is to be like the Luddites who thought destroying a few industrial looms would preserve their trade. Their movement was destined to be steamrolled by the invisible hand of market realities. It would be easier to stop a freight train by standing in it’s path than to stop this.
That is what the conspiracy theorists and end time prognosticators get most wrong, they see this wind of change as being directed by a particular group of people, a few elites and celebrities, when it is truly a spirit of our time that even they themselves are participating in. I mean, how many posts do you need to read on Facebook decrying what it does to hijack our minds before the universe explodes because of the massive irony? We can’t help ourselves.
Even the Amish, who are way ahead of the curve as far as identifying the social danger of technology, cannot resist that sirens song and love their smart phones as much as anyone else. And they’re the experts at banning technology they’ve decided is bad for their communities and way of life. If they cannot collectively stop this influence, with their strong religious tradition, what chance do we have to hold back this flood of change?
Still some delude themselves, they believe they’re going to run into the hills and escape this onslaught. I’m thinking of the Rod Dreher types who believe that they will somehow be able to remove themselves, this isn’t the Eastern Roman Empire we’re dealing with. There is no place to hide, no place on this planet out of reach, maybe you’ll fall through the cracks or fly beneath the radar and yet I doubt it.
What we are seeing is the merger of something extremely old with some brand new means. There have always been those with an insatiable lust for power and control, those like the men of Sodom who believed that they should have access to Lot’s angelic guests. It will never be enough for them to rule their own domain. They will use the new technology to search out anyone who would resist them. They get off on your resistance and now have new tools.
The thing about the Biblical antichrist is that it is first and foremost a spirit. You can’t keep it out by walls or physical distance, we can see the manifestations, but we do not battle against flesh and blood. No, it is a war with isms, systems that deny Christ and put try to order the world without God. This always comes in such a glowing colorful and exciting form, but under this cover it is the same perversion of beauty and love.
The world isn’t ever going back to that of our childhood or parents and grandparents. For better or worse, the only constant in life is change. Yes, the pace now seems greater than ever, we are certainly finding ourselves with fewer places to hide. The surveillance state has never been stronger, privacy is a thing of the past, the new tools we use too complicated for most of us to understand and only give us an illusion of control.
Alas, all the things we face today are new forms of the same evils that have existed from the beginning of civilization. The only difference is that now it is on a global scale, with more sophisticated means and ability for centralized administration. The fake news, propaganda and misinformation is more subtle and convincing than ever. It all comes at us so fast anymore. It is easy to become disillusioned and demoralized, but we can’t let the giants defeat us.
There has always been an ebb and flow, the rise and fall of empires and epochs. The most cunning have always found ways to consolidate power and exercise control over the masses through various means. The times we live in could easily be compared to the “bread and circuses” of the Roman Empire. Now we have Netflix and the welfare state, enough entertainment and ease to keep us subdued. Maybe this is the time when the types who desire complete supremacy finally win?
We must pick our battles. There is probably not much you are going to do against the weight of the wealthiest most calculated and powerful of our time. What will be will be. Freedom and equal rights have pretty much always been a fantasy to keep us from being trouble to the elites. Most of us are slaves via debt. Step out of line, be the slightest threat to their rule, and they’ll put you in your place.
One of the markers of Protestantism, from the start and especially in the current evolutionary stage, is the purity spiraling of those still seeking the perfect church on their own terms. In a sense, the protest of Protestantism never has ended and continues to fracture the Western church into oblivion.
As a product of that way of thinking, I had always sought after and argued for my own ideal for the church. It could very well, if I was slightly more ambitious, had eventually led to the formation of the Perfect Church of Joel. That is what many Protest-ants do when they become disillusioned with the tradition they were born into, they protest and start their own new and ‘perfect’ church.
Of course, the shine of these fresh attempts to reform or restore the ‘original’ church is soon burnished. The next generation comes along, or disagreement comes up between these idealistic individuals, and soon spawns the next Protestant group, and the next after that, and the next after that, ad infinitum.
The Seeker Versus Slanderer
The concluding end of Protestantism is only perfect disunity, with everyone staying at home on Sunday as to be away from those other hypocrites and to do church right their own way. And, yes, if you’re thinking of the retired Burger King “have it your way” slogan, that might as well be the banner over these endeavors. Protestantism is the church for the consumerist age. It is defined by individualism, marketing campaigns, and seeker-sensitivity, or alternatively, pride, perpetual discontentment, and perfectionism.
There is nothing new under the sun.
Like now, there was also self-aggrandizement in the early church:
I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.
(3 John 1:9,10 NIV)
There was plenty to criticize in the early church. There was sin overlooked or even celebrated locally, there were cliques of those of higher social status and those left out, arguments among leaders, and plenty for someone to be dissatisfied with. But Diotrephes took things a step further, he rejected church unity altogether, refused even the Apostles, and I’m sure, in his own eyes, his theology was impeccable. However, it is quite evident that Diotrephes had put himself first and, despite his inflated ego, was as sinful as those whom he arrogantly slandered or shut out.
There is no indication that Diotrephes ever wavered in his commitment to himself and his own understanding, it is quite possible that he remained inordinately impressed with himself until his last breath, but we certainly should not follow his example.
This is what we should seek after:
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
(Ephesians 4:1-6 NIV)
Casting Pearls Before Swine
Had I still been seeking a perfect church I would not have become Orthodox and I would not have joined your silly cult group either. I can pretty much rip anything to shreds with my critical spirit and, at the right point in my life, would’ve been one of those that Jesus advised his disciples about, saying:
Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.
(Matthew 7:6 NIV)
It is likely not a coincidence that this quotation above follows Jesus saying “judge not, or you too will be judged” and recommends us taking the beam out of our own eyes first.
There is nothing to be gained by dialogue with a cynical and divisive skeptic. They aren’t there to learn, they are there to tear you apart as a means to prove their own superiority or justify themselves. Their goal is not to understand, it is to trip you up so that they can smear mud in your face. I think we all know the type. They live for controversy, for an opportunity to debate and disparage.
Do not engage these people. They are not seeking after the unity described by St Paul. They are proud, self-righteous, demanding, and never satisfied.
No, these contentious people are no more hopelessly lost than anyone else. They may be sincerely seeking and yet will not be argued or logically driven from their own position. However, despite their perpetual restlessness as a result of hidden uncertainty or insecurity, they cannot see the folly of their own way and are only engaging you to feel better about themselves. They will ridicule and mock because it distracts from their own inner lack of peace.
It is not worth arguing with someone who is focused on the imperfections of everyone else. They will need to come to terms with their own imperfection first and by not arguing with them you give them that space they need to turn their inquiry inward. Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us, he did not say to try to argue and persuade those not truly interested in hearing or considering their own need for repentance.
I’ve spent years of my life trying to convince people. I believed that people were changed by means of the mind, that we were rational creatures, and could employ reason to drive people to a correct perspective. But there is more to than that and, as a wise uncle recited to me years ago, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” The pigheaded, those blinded by their own bias, will stomp, snort and sneer at anything they don’t want to accept. Without a change of heart, without repentance, trying to engage with them is a waste of time.
Correcting Our Orientation
Looking back the problem is clear. The divisions in the denomination that I was born into, the conservative versus liberal, had to do with a horizontal rather than vertical focus. We were oriented wrong. We thought we should be unified by our shared standards, our understanding of theology, and purity on our own terms. But the reality is that this was an approach that led to quarrels and a form of religious pride disguised as righteousness. Had we been oriented towards Christ we would have been more understanding of our own continual need of salvation and thus been more forgiving of faults and differences.
Seeking perfection in the church brings division and self-centeredness.
Seeking perfection in Christ brings unity and healing to the imperfect church.
Many seek the perfect church at the expense of following Christ who spent his time with losers. They neglect to notice that the book of Acts and the letters of St. Paul are full of examples of failure. Even the leaders of the church, Peter himself, had to be “opposed to his face” (Galatians 2:11-13) and call him out for hypocrisy. So who are we that we think that we are somehow cut from a better cloth than the Apostle themselves and can create a better church better than the one that they left for us?
Sure, the history of the church is full of imperfection and failure. There were heresies that gained traction and even leaders that got out of line. But why are we seeking perfection in the church? Shouldn’t we be seeking after Christ, who loved us while we were still lost in sin, who forgives us as we forgive others?
This was what Jesus told the disciples:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
(John 13:34,35 NIV)
This idea of a pristine church, free of failures, abuses, or problems, flies in the face of our need for salvation and a Savior. It is pride, the biggest sin there is, and people trying to save themselves, that divides the church. It is an orientation that looks across the aisle rather than inward and upward, eyes that see every sin but our own. It is preferring that others conform to our own will and understanding over loving each other (as commanded) and valuing our Communion together.
I became Orthodox once I stopped chasing after the fantasy creature of a perfect church. I gave up on the sufficiency of my own reasoning and started putting unity in Christ over having things my own way in theology and practice. There never was a perfect church, at least not one perfect according to my own hopes, perspectives, or personal standards. But there was a church that was brought together in their following after the teaching of the Apostles and in their seeking after unity in the Spirit.
The measure of true faith is how much we love those who do not deserve it, as Christ first loved us, and this starts with loving our brothers and sisters in the imperfect church:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
(Luke 6:36-38 NIV)
To be perfect, as our Father is perfect, is to be merciful as our Father is merciful.
Those of this Protestant persuasion will, as part of their evangelical effort, ask strangers, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?”
The question, a litmus test, suggests that they do have this personal relationship and that you must be able to mirror their own language or you are not a real Christian like them.
Those asking have a religious devotion to a particular kind of relationship for a particular reason. The reason is that they are reacting to something, namely dead religion, and they are not totally wrong for saying that religious devotion is not enough. I’ll go further into the reasons for their emphasis later on. But if you break it down, nor is a personal relationship without religious devotion enough. No, in actuality, a person needs more than a personal relationship with Jesus to be truly saved.
Judas, for example, had a personal relationship with Jesus. Judas, in fact, spent years in the inner circle of the disciples, physically right beside Jesus all the time, and was close enough to Jesus to give him a betrayer’s kiss. The relationship of Judas clearly lacked a necessary component. He was literally in the presence of Jesus, having actual conversations with Jesus, yet that personal relationship did not equate to salvation. Judas was with Jesus, he had a personal relationship with Jesus, but he was not religiously devoted to Jesus.
So why is a personal relationship important if it does not mean salvation?
Relationships can be good or bad. Relationships can start well and sour later on. Relationships can be based on a misunderstanding, an idea that we share something in common with another person, and then fall apart as the disparate reality sets in. We have many personal relationships, but what we really need is a good relationship, a relationship that can stand the test of time and bring us closer together.
What Is A Good Relationship?
Many young people “fall in love” with another person and get married. They are in love with each other, but more than that they are in love with an idea of what that other person represents. They have become closer through dating and eventually, through their physical intimacy, become one flesh. But this kind of love does not last, the initial feelings fade, the responsibilities increase, and many quit the relationship altogether once it starts to require more of them than they are willing to give.
Good relationships are self-sacrificial. Is it enough for a husband to tell his wife he loves her once, on their wedding day, and then go on with his life as he pleases?
No, relationships take work, they take a kind of religious devotion, an effort to remember special days, consistently doing things in a manner that respects the other. For example, if she wants the toilet seat down, then putting that seat down becomes a test of the commitment to love and cherish her. And, conversely, if a woman constantly undermines her husband, treats him as unworthy and pathetic, is her love real? No, love prefers the other person, it encourages and strengthens.
A good relationship means a loving relationship and a loving relationship is always self-sacrificial. A personal relationship, without a religious devotion to love, is not enough to sustain a marriage and it is not enough in the context of Christian faith either. No, Jesus asked for far more than a personal relationship. In fact, he asked for religious devotion as a prerequisite to a true relationship:
If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (John 14:15-18 NIV)
Jesus said, “if you love me, keep my commandments.” It is then, and only then, does he promise that the Spirit will come. In other words, the personal relationship is contingent on our keeping the commandments, a religious devotion to be a fulfillment of his words, and not simply on our profession of having a relationship. Indeed, Jesus warned of those who never knew him, despite their use of his name, and it is because they did not put his words to practice. Having a good relationship with Jesus implies having a religious devotion to keeping his commandments.
How Do We Keep the Commandments of Christ?
Many are turned off by Christian tradition when the rituals and religious practices become separated from real love. They, rightfully so, see this sort of devotion as lacking a critical element and that being the indwelling of the Spirit. That is where the emphasis on “personal” and “relationship” came into the revivalist’s lexicon, they were confronting a kind of devotion that was separated from spiritual life and had a good reason for this.
Unfortunately, this newfound freedom from religion has often come at the expense of needed accountability and a true understanding of what a true commitment to Christ really is. Too many who claim a personal relationship, they claim to love Jesus, but do not keep his commandments and thus this personal relationship that they claim is really nothing more than the feedback of their own ego. A relationship with an imaginary friend based on their own personal ideas and not on the true person of Christ as they believe.
I’m not here to judge the authenticity of any commitment to Jesus Christ. However, like a marriage union produces children, there should also be signs of our commitment to Christ being more than something superficial, more than something we talk about. Those who truly love Jesus do not simply profess his name or claim to have a personal relationship, but they will also keep his commandments.
But what does that even mean?
What does it mean to keep the commandments of Christ?
I know some, from my Anabaptist roots, who try to turn the words of Jesus into a new law. When they say “keep the commandments of Jesus” they mean being duty-bound to a particular legalistic prescription (based on their own understanding of his words) and totally miss the point. In the end, those who do this, who exclude and refuse accountability to anyone besides themselves, are no different from Diotrephes who refused to fellowship with the actual Apostles of Christ. Legalism, a concern with words that supersedes relationships, is not keeping the commandments of Christ.
Rather, keeping the commandments boils down to simply this:
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35 NIV)
To truly keep the commandments of Jesus means to love as he loves and to love those whom he loves. In other words, to have a good relationship with Jesus means to have a good relationship with his Church and your fellow man. Can a person who claims to love Christ, but can never get along with their brother and sister, be telling the truth?
True Relationship Bears Fruit Of Love
I’ve struggled recently over things related to money and relationships. We do not wish to be taken advantage of, especially not by other Christians, and I was beginning to have a bad attitude. I mean, am I not entitled to compensation, an explanation, a better attitude and more appreciation from them, etc?
In was in the midst of this that various family members, asking nothing in return, allowed me to use their vehicles, even accompanied me and gave hours of their time. Upon reflecting on this, and recalling the story that Jesus told of a man forgiven a great debt who goes on to try to get a little owed to him, I have endeavored to correct my attitude. If I were to demand everything owed I would be showing my lack of appreciation for God’s mercy towards me and set myself up for judgment.
My knowledge of that story of the ungrateful servant did not come to me through Jesus personally by some special revelation. No, rather it came to me through the religious devotion of those who taught me that story and by my continued desire to live by a Christian example, that this story was able to bear spiritual fruit. The seed was planted, it was watered by the work of the Spirit in me, and bore fruit in my actions. It is this kind of fruit that indicates a true relationship with Jesus, that which is described by St Paul:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23 NIV)
It is interesting to note that Judas, despite his personal relationship with Jesus, did not demonstrate the fruit above. Instead, he was sharply critical of a woman for her extravagant display of worship, for her pouring out a year of her wages onto the feet of Jesus, and even used the words of Jesus in his rebuke, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” But this was not out of genuine love for the poor nor was it born out of true love for Jesus. To Judas, the commandments of Jesus were merely a political tool, a way for him to prove his superiority to others or gain resources for himself, and a disguise for his true corruption.
Those who truly love Jesus bear the fruit of his love in their lives and that spiritual fruit is manifested in their personal relationships with those whom Jesus loves. It means esteeming others to be better than ourselves and having true humility (Philippians 2:3-5) rather than always be right. It also means being accountable to each other, holding fast to the traditions passed both in word or letter (2 Thessalonians 2:15) and being in Communion together with each other. We cannot claim to love God or have a true relationship with Jesus if we do not heed this warning:
Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:20-21 NIV)
Can we really claim to love those who we want nothing to do with, refuse to associate with, etc?
True Relationship Means Real Communion
The one potential issue that I have with the “personal relationship with Jesus” emphasis is where it reflects the individualism of our current age. Not everyone preaching Jesus is preaching the same Jesus and there are many who use their own personal version of Jesus as a means to their own ends.
To some, it seems “personal relationship” means they do not need to answer or be accountable to anyone besides themselves or those who mostly agree with them. They have a personal relationship with Jesus and, therefore, don’t dare ever question their understanding of Scripture or lifestyle choices! Nope, no matter how far their interpretations deviate from what has been long-established, they believe that their authority (as an individual) trumps all Christian tradition before them.
For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough. (2 Corinthians 11:4 NIV)
Ultimately, this claim of a personal relationship too often implies that an individual need not answer to anything besides their own personal interpretation of the Bible and/or feelings. It is indeed strange, given how even revivalists claiming personal relationships with Jesus can’t agree, that Jesus seems to tell his various personal friends contradictory things. But that’s not a problem, I suppose, those with a personal relationship can simply assume that others who disagree with them don’t have the same special connection that they do, that other people who disagree are either deceived or lying and go on believing their own Jesus?
This idea that Christians are all independent contractors, accountable only to their own personal Jesus, flies directly in the face of what the Apostle Paul taught about Christian love and the need for unity in the Church:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6 NIV)
And goes on to explain:
So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-15 NIV)
A true relationship with Jesus should bring a person into the body of Christ, which is the Church, where they can become mature and reach that unity in the faith that. But you can’t do that while playing lone-ranger or imagining yourself to be some special remnant and claim to “love one another” as Christ commanded. Unity requires agreement and agreement requires seeking each other out, it means submission to the entire body of believers, especially our elders, and being accountable to more than ourselves or only those who agree with us.
A person can profess anything, they can claim to have a personal relationship with Jesus all day long, but the truth of their profession rests on their keeping the commandments of Christ and that is to love those whom he loves, to humbly submit to each other in love, and realize that the world does not revolve around us or our own understanding of things. We should prefer unity over having things our own way, love requires sacrifice, love means religious devotion to the good of another (as in a marriage) and even admitting that we need other people in our lives to be accountable to for our own good. Our love for Jesus is expressed in our love and devotion to those whom he loves.
The short version is that we need each other to be strong, so we are no longer tossed about by every new teaching (or repackaged heresy) that comes along, and that is how we (the body) are connected to Christ, our head. In other words, it is through our Communion with the body of Christ, the Church, by our religious devotion to study and pray together, that we have our real relationship with Jesus. Therefore, it is through our partaking Communion together, by our real connection to the body of Christ, not only our professing of a personal relationship, that we show our love for God, our Father, his son Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
A week ago someone had called my grandpa and identified himself as being my younger brother. He needed to be bailed out after some kind of traffic law infraction. My grandpa, not one quick to give vast sums of money over a phone call, quizzed his ‘grandson’ and inquired as to why he did not ask his parents first. The spoof caller answered that he wasn’t getting with his parents, at which point it was obviously a scam and my grandpa hung up.
The other day my grandpa called to inform me that someone had just called claiming to be me, his eldest grandson. This time he hung up without hearing another word.
On the same day my grandpa told me about this I had a plea for help, on social media, from an orphanage in Pakistan. Their profile pictures featured a bunch of dear children and those images momentarily tugged at my heartstrings. However, there was no way to verify who they really were. So, I tried to kindly explain my brotherly assistance was required elsewhere. When continued to repeat the request for a Christmas donation, like a broken record, I blocked them. I’ll probably be slower to accept a similar friend request in the future to avoid the need to try to reason with someone only interested in my wallet.
The communication era has brought the world together in ways unimaginable a century or two ago. And, with that development, predatory hoards from around the world can now invade our personal space at any given moment. The marauders no longer need to travel in longboats over dangerous seas, they simply pick up the phone and pretend to be your grandchildren.
This is frustrating for me. There are so many legitimate needs, including that of my family in the Philippines, and these are the real victims of the scammers and schemers. Those who exploit our kindness and generosity do a great disservice to the people around the world who work hard, experience hardship, and could use a little help. It is easy to become callous and uncaring under the deluge of requests. But we must have the courage to care even when there’s a chance of being exploited.
What is the real war on Christmas?
Political activists are constantly claiming a war here or a war there. The left claims that not providing women with free stuff constitutes a “war on women” and the right, not to be left out of the grievance culture fun, whines about the words “Merry Christmas” not being on Starbucks cups—who can forget Joshua Feuerstein’s coffee cup fury and the backlash?
But the real war on Christmas has little if anything to do with corporate marketing and tit-for-tat politics.
Christmas is not about compelling others to use a particular greeting or ensuring that religious displays are allowed in public spaces.
Christmas is a celebration, for the Christian faithful, of the most incredible gift ever given, that being the incarnation of God’s logos in the person of Jesus Christ and the opportunity for our divine adoption. This miraculous birth, to a virgin mother, represents a new hope for humanity and a reason to change ourselves. The true Christmas spirit is our being filled with this same spirit of love and giving of life for the good of others that Jesus embodied.
Turning Christmas into the latest battleground of a broader culture war is to entirely miss the point. Giving Starbucks hell isn’t going to further the message of glad tidings and joy, that’s for certain, and is not likely to win any hearts or minds either. Pettiness is never going to convince a skeptic to consider the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a distraction at best.
The commercialization of the holiday also takes away from the true reason for the season. The birth of our Lord and Savior wasn’t really intended to inspire stampedes of shoppers hoping to wrestle a few dollars of savings from their neighbors. But Christmas has become a marketing boon for retailers and they (along with the rest of our culture) push people to spend money they don’t have for things they don’t need—things manufactured using underpaid foreign workers while the bulk of the profits enriching a few globalist elites. It is a scheme nearly as exploitative as the telephone scammers, but completely legal.
However, those two things (culture wars and commercialization) are mere symptoms of the bigger disease and the one thing that can undermine the Christmas spirit in us—the soul-eating disease called cynicism. If Christmas has a true enemy in this world it is cynicism. Cynicism is a cancerous attitude. It is natural (albeit unhealthy and inhumane) response to a world full of self-interested people and corrupt institutions. The cynical person is one who has seen behind the curtain, who may have been taken advantage of once or twice and is now too overtaken by their skepticism to truly love their neighbors.
It is often the disillusioned idealist who becomes a bitter, critical, and faithless or cynical. Cynicism is, in that sense, a product of those who exploit trust for financial gain, a result of fatigue of being hit from all angles, and a retreat to a position of disengagement. But it is not dispassionate, as it often claims to be with a shrug, nor is this retreat from personal involvement a moral high ground. No, in reality, cynicism is an excuse for being uncaring, cold-hearted and self-centered.
The clever trick of the cynic is to be uncharitable while presenting oneself as being someone concerned about morality or morally upright for being able to identify the evil intentions of others. But the reality is that cynic is a hypocrite merely using the abuses of others as a cover for their own true self-interested indifference. They might cite scams as a reason why not to care and yet will always have another excuse waiting in the wings if that one isn’t applicable. They are simply unwilling to give of themselves.
Truly the cynic is a coward. They are too cowardly to do good in the face of evil, to be vulnerable and take a chance of being exploited. They are also too cowardly, fearing the social cost of revealing the full truth of their real underlying lack of concern for others, to make a full commitment to the evil they truly envy and yet claim to despise. The irony of the cynic is that they are as selfish and as much a part of the problem as the people that they claim has caused their cynical condition.
Caring requires courage and courage requires commitment…
It takes courage to have life experience and not be cynical. I’ve held back on giving to many charitable causes because some of them did seem more like self-interested scams. There is definitely a case for good stewardship, we should be “wise as serpents” because there are “wolves” (Matthew 10:16) who would devour us and lay waste to our hard-earned savings. It does the world no good to empower criminals or encouraging laziness in those who could learn to help themselves.
However, the dividing line between a person desperately in need of love and one merely taking advantage of the generosity of others is razor-thin. In fact, in many cases, there are overlapping motives in those asking for help, some genuine and others corrupt, and knowing how to respond requires a great deal of wisdom and discernment.
For example, a single mother, raised by the system, may indeed be inclined to take advantage of the charity offered and especially the half-hearted kind that comes out of religious obligation rather than a full commitment to love. They might simply intend to get what they can get before moving on. In those cases, it is easy to dismiss such a person, to conclude that they are unwilling to make the changes necessary to be free of their current circumstance, wash our hands, and move on.
Unfortunately, while there is a time to let people learn from their mistakes, the salvation of those who are mired in generational poverty (or otherwise unable to help themselves) often requires an investment that is beyond reasonable. In other words, it takes an investment of faith rather than of mere religious obligation. It requires the courage and commitment to look beyond the risk of being exploited and to unconditionally love another person before they have proven themselves worthy of our help. Faith means being the hands and feet of Jesus.
Had God waited for us to be worthy of his love, he would not have sent his son, we would still be waiting for a Savior and be hopelessly lost in our sin forever. The true Christmas story is God showing us how to love by becoming personally involved and being completely willing to sacrifice himself as an example for us to follow:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:3-7)
Christianity and cynicism are completely at odds with one another. They might be similar in that both see the chance of being taken advantage of and exploited, but are completely different in how they respond to that chance. The cynical person lives based on fear and uses their knowledge of the risk as a reason to do nothing for those in need. The Christian, by contrast, makes a commitment to do good despite the strong possibility they will suffer great loss for their efforts.
A Christian must go to war with their cynicism, they must help that diseased man heaped at their doorstep, they must aid the broken traveler discarded along the path they trod and must make an unreasonable commitment to overcome evil with good. That is how soldiers win wars, they understand the risk and are still willing to sacrifice themselves for the cause. It takes courage to overcome our fears, to give ourselves as a sacrifice for the good of others, and live out the true meaning of Christmas.
Be courageous and don’t let the scammers and schemers turn your Christmas spirit into cynicism!
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)
One of my favorite features of Orthodox architecture is that Jesus is always above all.
And by this I mean, literally, there is an image of Jesus painted on the ceiling, looking down from the highest point, and this is a constant reminder during worship of what it means to cast our eyes up towards heaven:
This past Sunday I had a beautiful vision while Fr Seraphim blessed the bread and wine. I saw this flow, like a vapor or a cloudburst, coming down through Jesus, pouring down on us and then fanning out in all directions into the world. It was a glimpse of what Holy Communion really is, it is God bringing life into those who are gathered so they can go out bring hope and healing to the world.
Microburst in Pittsburgh
During the liturgy (which literally means “the work of the people“) we bring our petitions to God. Our prayers, which are represented by incense, rise towards God’s heavenly throne. It is a picture of worship found throughout Scripture. It is found in the description of worship throughout the Old Testament and also in Malachi, at the end of that volume of books, in this a promise:
“Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 1:10-11 NIV)
Of course, we know that Jesus brought a permanent end to temple worship in Jerusalem. The old temple was destroyed in 70 AD, as Jesus had prophesied would happen in the generation to which he spoke (Luke 21:5-32), and now the promise of Malachi is fulfilled in the church which has been founded by Christ. We have become the new temple, the Spirit of God dwells in us, and worship in every place. It is the church that offers incense and pure offerings and makes God’s name great among the nations.
It is a picture of heaven found in the last book of the New Testament:
Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s people, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand. (Revelation 8:3-4 NIV)
Our prayers go up, with a sweet savor of incense, for the country we live in, for the city we are in and every city and land, for favorable weather, an abundance of fruit and peaceful times, for those traveling by land, sea, and air (also through space), for deliverance from affliction, wrath, danger and necessity, and asking “Lord have mercy” after each petition led by the priest. These prayers go up, culminating with the Holy Oblation, the blessing of the Precious Gifts, and we sing:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.
Those words a combination of the hymn of the Seraphim (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8) and the words of the crowd called out when Jesus made his triumphant entry to Jerusalem. It is in anticipation of what is to come. Our prayers go up and God pours out his mercies through the body and blood of Jesus, through the life of Spirit as it was foretold in the book of Joel:
And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. (Joel 2:28 NIV)
Peter quotes this on the day of Pentecost, in Acts 2, to explain the miraculous things happening then and that continues in us today as well. It is through Communion, our partaking of the body of Christ together, that we can be filled with the Spirit and flow out into the world. The life of the church comes through our Communion with each other and with God. This is the picture of what happens next:
A fountain will flow out of the Lord’s house and will water the valley of acacias. (Joel 3:18b NIV)
That is the world, people are thirsty for spiritual life and to be watered by the fountain of truth. It is in our Communing with God (and being anointed with oil) that we have a cup that runs over (Psalm 23) that brings life and healing to those whom we touch. We, as those in Communion with Christ and his Church, are the Lord’s house, we are “God’s temple” (1 Cor. 3:16) and our “body is the temple of God” (1 Cor. 6:19) and, therefore, we are the fountain of life in the world.