Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Ultimate Tragedy: A look at Matthew 10:35

There are many scriptures used by dysfunctional groups to change the thinking and so the actions of those on the inside as they look outward towards relationships beyond the boundary of the group. One of the most tragic is the application of Matthew 10:37 as it is used to justify severing ties with those most close to them – Fathers, Mothers, Sisters, Brothers even to the point of Husband and Wife. So, let’s look at this scripture:

Mt 10:37: "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”

It is Christ’s undisputed right to make such a statement. In fact, it is applauded and stressed. However, one must be careful as to what one calls the ‘Christ’ here. It is not a dogma or even doctrine, He spans denominations and all that Christendom holds dear concerning His person. Christ cannot be limited to a set of code and will and has always super-ceded it. The Emphasis of this scripture should be the capital ‘Me’. To blur following Christ with the following of some group or way of belief, is very dangerous and damaging and needless to say presumptuous.

Context, Context, Context!

In the context the tenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus spends a great deal of time on what true discipleship is. It is interesting, that in the body of this chapter, the stress is on the future situations that the disciples might encounter. It can well be imagined that when a Jew decides to become a disciple of Christ, there will be tension with relatives. Why? The family is of a different faith and so way of life – in their minds, the ‘would be’ disciple has turned their back on all the family holds dear and to the family, perhaps even God Himself. In addition, this applies to a gentile household as well. The scriptures and perhaps your own personal life well document the stress one goes through when they decide to follow Jesus. So, in context, this scripture does not cover the situation where both parties are believers in Christ, yet have differences that are fundamental. It does not address the situation of believers on both sides of any particular issue or teaching. What is the crux of truth? Wars have been fought and people have died not over Jesus but over a doctrinal position – THEY ARE NOT ONE AND THE SAME. Dysfunctional groups usually fall into this ‘mea culpa’ because of their general conviction that their body of doctrine reflects the truth of the Bible so their practices, as contrived by the leaders, become the codex upon which one in their group functions. The mindset is quite simple: ‘We are right, and everyone else is not…' While they might not fully admit this assertion, their actions confirm that this is usually their stance. What are their actions? Let’s enumerate:

1> They do not accept teaching outside of their own sphere
believing it is heresy or it is not worth anything. Only
writers condoned by the leaders are worth studying
2> They usually do not support community events with other
local churches or religious organizations outside their group
or sphere.
3> Their mission is to proselytize and not to preach Jesus.
4> Those in the group who beg to differ with the leaders are
soon confronted to gain compliance or to mark as rebellious.
5>There is little dialogue and debate over issues of their doctrine.
It is considered in most cases infallible as are its leaders.
Again, this might not be said but it is actions and behavior
that confirms this.
5> Those that leave under the auspices of ‘biblical discipline’
, are treated as anathema.

This is similar to excommunication in the historical sense. It is usually accompanied with extreme malice and severity. There have been reported cases where a family member has contacted the local police to discourage contact by other family members.

The Fruit of Dysfunction and How to Combat It

In the end, families can be severed and Mt 10:37 is the basis of it. The main reason for it is one’s non-compliance with Leaders not the Lord. Many times family members out of devotion for the Lord, cut off other family members believing that is what Jesus wants them to do when it is ultimately and solely the leaders code of living. In final assessment, this is plain and simple idol worship from the leaders’ standpoint and by those in the group. I am reminded of the scripture in Galatians where Paul is combating the Judaizers who seek to impose on the church the rite of circumcision. In the first chapter Paul makes a stunning statement regarding the place of man as it concerns any possible role that one could hold or purport to possess:

Gal 1:10 "For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ."

It is quite clear that the order of precedence is to please God first and not men. If a believer ‘prefers’ to please men in the sense that they look to the leaders to condone and even direct their convictions, this is where they can get into trouble. The blurring of the Sovereign Lord and Leaders is quite understandable to those in such groups because usually they see no separation between God and the form of church government they practice. In many groups, the leaders are seen as extensions of God’s hand to them and therefore, the direction and will of God is known through the leaders. This is where the rights of the individual as a believer and a proper understanding of biblical authority can be very valuable to one both inside and outside the group who desire contact (see my entries: The Pursuit of Happyness and The Emperor’s New Clothes). While leaders need to be revered, respected and even followed, there are limits to these activities. First and foremost, disciples are to please God before any other ‘authority’. In Paul’s case it was choosing God over the Judaizers and perhaps even the church in Jerusalem (see Galatians chapter 2). What did Paul call those who ‘added’ to the gospel? He called them ‘false brethren’. How does one know what might please God? They have but to ask Him and go with what has been confirmed from Him – no matter what. Here is where one needs to be careful. A disciple must allow God to take precedence even in the face of opposition by those who might lead them. If one chooses to take such an action, it is normal to ponder the questions below:

1> Is this in any way a proper course?
2> Can I really reject my leaders when they have
claimed God has set them into my very life to help
me along? If so, would that not be rejecting God?
3> Have I taken vows before men and God
to obey my leaders?

These are questions one must always confront. They are common amongst those who are pondering leaving such a group. Please understand, they are meant to be bars to the door of freedom and in most cases they are very effective. Many due to their own desire to please God are trapped by these questions; from my own personal experience, they can cause delay of making a decision for finding an exit long after it is time to do so. A believer’s own faith is used against them. It must be said that no one gets out unscathed and everyone who stays in or gets out bears scars from their experience. But I have to personally say God will be with you in your decision to leave. You must understand it is a war and as Jesus has said, you must force your way into freedom. What is the good news about all this? One person can be held as an example of resolving this conundrum: Martin Luther. I am sure Luther asked these questions. He was a catholic priest – and so under the binding vows of the priesthood as commitment to the Mother church and its leader the Pope- who had to address himself to all these questions. One can learn much from his personal struggle when he could no longer live in a system that was not truly built solely on a biblical foundation. What was his premise for rejecting them and so freeing himself and all that would follow him in the Reformation? Luther, as Paul had earlier done, had seen the gospel added to and as such was no gospel at all it was a codex of man. The freedom from such bondage is always that one is free to reject authority, vows or any other constraint others would foist on them if the fact is that the group is not preaching the gospel but their own doctrine. William of Ockham ( the grandfather of the Reformation – whose works Luther studied) cited the limited authority of any spiritual leader in the church using the Pope – touted to be the ultimate spiritual authority during his lifetime- as an example. His premise is applicable in our day to those who claim the status of Apostle, Prophet, Pastor, Teacher or Evangelist when they use those roles as a basis for authority over others: ”

The Pope {sic any ‘spiritual authority’ you wish to insert} can be convicted of heresy, if he solemnly defines an error against the faith and asserts that it should be held by Christians.”

This principle was the spark of the Reformation. There is only one infallible person in the Church, it is Christ. All others are subject to Him and the Holy Scriptures. What is a common application of Ockham’s principle? It is that each believer has a right to bring any question or concern to the leaders of their church or religious organization regarding the Faith. They also have the right to follow their own convictions, right or wrong in the eyes of the leaders – if they have been given different direction by the Lord Himself. Lack of being able to query those in charge is a prime indicator of dysfunction and starts one on a slippery slope into bondage. Lack of being able to dissent when there is reason for it, is as well an indicator.

What about those Who Dissent?

Contrary to the mindset in these groups – that is, ‘do not question’ – the New Testament is a study in dissent. Its major leaders were mostly martyred for refusing to be silent and to continue exposing the Truth to a dying world. It is not that it was in any way violent. No, the means of dissent was the refusal to be dominated by a world or religious system and to those who would even use the scriptures to bind up and hold prisoner those who have found total freedom in Christ. What are examples of these groups? Well, the Pharisees and even the Judaizers and Gnostics are very good examples of those that sought to impose complex religious systems on believers. Regarding the Judaizers, it is easy to glean form the scriptures their response if non-compliance was returned to them. They responded that those rejecting their teachings were not following the will of God or being obedient to the Truth - sounds familiar to most if us doesn’t it? It is the same old tired game just replayed in our time.

I have even heard of the following scriptures being used to identify those to dis-fellowship. Again, context is the key to understanding exactly how to apply the scriptures. Here are a few more:

Tit 3:10 - "Reject a factious man after a first and second warning,"

Here again, context very useful. In the immediate verses above, Titus is warned by Paul to not engage in controversies and genealogies which in Paul’s assessment were pointless. Exactly what did Paul mean about ‘controversies and genealogies’? Historically, Titus was located in Crete when he received these letters of instruction. Cretans were well known to be an argumentative people by culture. On top of this, the genealogies Paul addresses to Titus here had to do with the Gnostic variants of the Christian faith. In essence, the genealogies referred to here had to do with the genealogies of the Aeons - in their teachings, these were entities emanated from the divine and unknowable god. These entities were those beings from which the Divine essence was transmitted to the material world –Christ being the Aeon that was to bring back order into material world . There are dozens of variations of Gnosticism that attacked the church during the first two to three centuries. The factious nature to reject here had to do with changing the Jesus that was revealed by Paul and the other Apostles into a Jesus that fit Gnostic modes of religion. At the very heart of their doctrine was that Christ in being the Incarnation, was called into question. The Gnostic teachings were at times ridiculous suggesting that Christ had no real physical body – ever. Why reject them… because they were preaching another gospel. The heart of it was they changed Jesus and His role to mankind. This goes beyond a difference in doctrine but attacks the very position and role of Christ. So, if it is decided to reject another, it cannot be that they choose to follow another code of conducting one’s life . If Jesus is believed by them as He is revealed by the scriptures, what real leg is there to stand upon to reject or simply not fellowship them? If this scripture is used to cut ties for believing differently yet trusting and serving the same Lord, it is being used out of context. Finally on this scripture, Jesus Himself reproved His disciples when they wanted to condemn a man that was delivering people from demonic possession because he was not a part of their group. Let Jesus words stand to those who would do the same – “Don’t hinder him…anyone who is not against us if for us…” (Mk 9:38-40). Enough said.

The third scripture used here is below:

Rom 16;17 Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them.

Again, in context, the purpose of this scripture is revealed clearly. The ‘dissensions and hindrances’ here refer to the dividing of the church in Rome on the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. To the Jewish believers, this was extremely offensive. To the gentile, it was not as important. Such an issue obviously was very significant given Paul addressed it in the principles expressed in chapter 14 of this epistle. What Paul was trying to say is that on either side if the person was a cause for the division in the church on such matters, they were to be disciplined for doing so. What the Jew saw as a holy conviction, Paul saw as a division and tool of the enemy to divide the body of Christ. Ironically, this is what dysfunctional groups and sects do most effectively. However, in the end there is no real scriptural grounds for their offense. That basic principle in Romans 14 will always prevail:

Rom 14:4 “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand."

Calvin expresses it best in his commentary of Romans 16:17, regarding those who take up offense in others holding different convictions yet trusting in the same Lord:

“ is shameful sophistry to defend, under the pretext of peace and unity, a union of lies and impious doctrines {sic the Catholic faith ) . There is therefore no ground for the Papists (Catholics) to seek countenance (sic and so justification for their actions in eschewing the dissenters ) from the passage (sic Rom 16:17), in order to raise ill-will against us; for we do not impugn and tear asunder the gospel of Christ, but the falsehoods of the devil…”

It could be said that it is even a believer’s duty to dissent when teachings of a group of which they are a part of goes off kilter from the scriptures. It is ironic that in most dysfunctional groups, this quote of Calvin resonates. It is because the leaders, like those of the Catholic faith, are convinced that their leaders are God’s conduits and it is through them grace, life and direction to the body of Christ flows. This usually converts to very high and thick walls when it concerns outsiders. They are seen as heretics as historically the Reformers were seen by the Catholic hierarchy during the period of the Reformation – and still are to an extent. Those that hold such positions in dysfunctional groups are merely imitators of those whom the great Reformers struggled to wrest free the believers in Christ from their religious bondage.

Finally, the fourth scripture:

Heb 10:26 "For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins,"

How is this used to disengage and sever? Well it all has to do with the definition of the ‘knowledge of the truth”. In dysfunctional groups, the ‘knowledge’ here is the teachings of the group. Again the mistake made here is a blurring of the practices of groups with the scriptures. Many inside such groups cannot tell the difference because they are taught that there is no difference. Let us allow the scriptures of chapter 10 to frame the phrase the ‘knowledge of the truth’. If the chapter is analyzed for context, the main subjects are:

1> how the Law has been super-ceded by Christ,
through His sacrifice.
2> how the one-time sacrifice of Christ is and always
will be sufficient for the forgiveness of sins and the
sanctification of the believer.
3> The futile actions of the Old Testament priests
regarding their ability to remedy sin.
4> The inscribing of the Law of God on our very hearts
and minds by the sacrifice of Christ. Note: in verse 22,
the sprinkling here is a corollary with the day of atonement,
but it is our hearts that are impacted (circumcision of
our hearts) .
5> There is to be no other sacrifice for sins. Moreover,
if rejected, there is no remedy having trampled underfoot
Jesus and regarded His blood as unclean when it is the
sole element of the New Covenant.

This is the ‘knowledge of the Truth’ in the context of this scripture. We are all frail and weak. If the Savior is recognized as the provider of all of the above by the person who does not follow a particular practice or code of living, then does all the above fall? No it does not and never has. We must be militant as Luther was in defending the person and role of Christ, He said to all who would add further to the simple truth and power of faith in Jesus:

“Since our opponents will not let it stand that only faith in Christ justifies, we will not yield to them. On the question of justification we must remain adamant, or else we shall lose the truth of the Gospel.”

Concluding Remarks: “It is in the Text”

Simply stated, it is context that derives the full meaning of the scriptures concerning the Ultimate tragedy: The severing of the family unit. While there are times and circumstances where this is required, it is never to be among believers. It is debate and discussion that has hardened the armor of the Church against heretical teachings. We are protectors of the truth never its revealer. It is in the name of man made doctrines that tragically the body of Christ is divided. One bright spot is that truth will endure and falsehood and error will survive only a season. In the end, errant teachings will either be revealed as error or burn out under their own destructive fire – the fuel being the very people who follow them.

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