We're back again for another look at the mental contortions required to keep the flock in line when you are part of an extremely conservative and coercive religious sect.
If you haven't read yesterday's post, I recommend that you do so first, because this post builds on that one.
As you recall, Menno and Paul are building a church and discussing church authority as it relates to the individual conscience.
Menno has clearly come out against the idea that the individual conscience is supreme, and posited that "the true church" has authority from Jesus to carry out His Word.
Before we go any further, I want to point out that this issue is incredibly complicated and thorny, and that no authority, whether the individual conscience, or the state, or the church is absolute.
If someone was part of a cult that required him to sacrifice humans, for instance, he would have to be stopped by any means necessary, even though it would be against his conscience not to sacrifice people.
That's an extreme case, but it makes my point, which is this: Authority structures are not cut and dried. There are overlaps and exceptions, and over-simplifying it is something that tyrannical systems do, in order to exert their authority over others.
Furthermore, there are other factors that play in.
Sometimes authorities, whether church or state, require people to do things that their own consciences would not require. For example, I could not conscientiously drive down the street at 150 miles per hour, whether the law said it was OK or not, because it would be morally wrong for me to put others in that kind of peril.
But I would happily drive 80 miles per hour on the freeway if the law didn't demand I keep my speed at 70. So the state requires something from me that my conscience does not. This kind of thing happens all the time, and it is foolish to pretend that this is a conflict between the authority of my conscience and the state.
The overarching point that we need to see here is this: The only conflicts that matter between authorities and individual conscience are those issues in which the conscience of the individual would be violated by obedience to the authority.
In all other cases, there is no true conflict, except that of preferences.
Menno tries to create false equivalency in his discussion of these issues by comparing true conflicts with preferences.
With that unusually long introduction, let's dig in.
Paul's hammer came to rest on a plank. He pinched his chin thoughtfully. "Is there ever a time when the individual conscience is all right?"
"Only within the bounds of the church standard and the unity of the church," Menno spoke confidently. Unfortunately there is no link whatsoever between confidence and correctness. I have never met anyone so confident as an ill-informed fool.
"Now suppose, Paul, you and I would decide that to be faithful to the Lord we must cut and comb our hair in a strikingly different way from everyone else in the church. We would go around twisting Scripture to support our practice and would teach that the whole church should practice this. What kind of submission and unity would that be? Would it look to the world like we all speak the same thing?"
"If our faithful brethren could not agree from the Scriptures that this would be a good practice, then you and I should submit to them."
This line of reasoning is so dishonest, and dodges so many minefields that you would have to get up early and sit up late to ever convince me that there is not truly careful calculation behind it.
Menno's argument sounds fairly sound on the surface, especially if you already come from his type of background.
But let's look at what he neglects to address.
1) What if he could get 67% of the church to agree with him? Then would it be OK to force everyone to change? Of course it would. Unless it was something that conservatives didn't like, in which case, they would be free to follow their individual consciences and split away to a new church.
2) What if he and Paul just decided for themselves that they wanted to wear their hair that way, but not try to force it on others? Why wouldn't that be acceptable? Because they would not be submitting to the authority of the church in all things. And going and starting their own group would be wrong, too. Only conservatives are allowed to do that.
3) Why did the early Anabaptists decide to practice adult baptism, even though their church said it was wrong? How did they decide? Did they use their individual consciences and put them above that of their faithful brethren? The church at that time was corrupt, but our church is not corrupt. So it's not the same at all. (Never mind the fact that the church at that time would have claimed not to be corrupt either.)
Notice that it is perfectly acceptable for Menno to leave the church at Pinecliff, and not submit to its decisions, but others don't have that same right.
Fact: When conservatives claim that the individual conscience is trumped by the church, they lie. They believe that their own consciences trump those of others. That is all. If the church disagrees with their consciences, there is never submission to it. Rather, they either kick up a fuss, or leave, and usually both. But they never submit, as they command others to.
Now, let's check out their sly counter-example.
Paul nodded. "How about Brother Harvey, then? He feels that he shouldn't own a telephone because his witness to his relatives carries more weight if he doesn't. But all the rest of us do have telephones."
"I see a big difference there. Harvey never tries to force his individual practice on the church or teach from the Scriptures that we should all do as he does," Menno explained. "He quietly does what he feels is the Lord's will in his particular situation, but he makes no problem in the church. The unity and testimony of the church are not harmed."
It's sounds so nice and tidy, doesn't it? Unless you know the truth.
Let's imagine that a woman decided that she should wear a long flowing veil, because that is more pleasing to the Lord. Let's suppose that she never would "try to force her individual practice on the church or teach from the Scriptures that all women should do as she does."
Imagine that she just "quietly did what she feels is the Lord's will in her particular situation, but she makes no problem in the church."
Do you imagine for the briefest of moments that they would let that go?
What if Brother Harvey was the only one with a phone, because he felt it helped his testimony to his family that he wasn't in a freaky cult? Would they be OK with that? They would not!
I have had friends at churches that allowed the radio, and I can tell you that conservatives did not quietly submit to the church standard, and accept the counsel of their spiritual brethren. They perpetually complained about it, and tried to get the rule changed. But that wasn't the same as what liberals do, because the conservative conscience is superior over all. Never forget that.
"That clears it in my mind," Paul said thoughtfully. "From some of her letters, I think Rosemary is confused about some things, and I hardly know the answers well enough myself to help her. We've heard some good sermons lately along this line, and I took notes to send her."
You gotta ask yourself why this church is preaching so many sermons establishing its own authority over the individual conscience. That strikes me as a red flag, but whatever.
"Hope Valley would be a good place for Rosemary," Menno stated. "She has lost confidence in the church, but it can surely be regained." When you realize that Hope Valley is Crockett, this will be the funniest sentence you read all day long.
Sending someone to Crockett to regain confidence in the church is like sending someone to Wuhan to rebuild their immune system.
"You think so?" Paul asked anxiously, apparently unaware that this question was as likely to get an unbiased answer as asking a barber if he needed a haircut.
"Of course. In the circumstances she's in, you can see why it's hard for her to understand some things. She can't accept both what her father says and what the church teaches, and the situation at Pinecliff was enough to confuse stronger souls than Rosemary."
And here's another glaring contradiction that is completely ignored.
Menno blithely passes judgment on the church at Pinecliff as causing confusion in people's lives, without recognizing that the only way to get out of a church that causes that kind of confusion is to recognize it as a church that is wrong, which you can't do, unless the authority of your conscience supercedes that of the church. No church is ever going to admit to being in the wrong.
But that, of course, is just all the BAD churches out there. It's not OUR church. Our church is Biblical, so we can trust it.
"Paul's thoughts were frequently in Florida as he worked on the new convalescent home day after day. What was Rosemary doing? Baking bread, perhaps? He could picture her taking golden brown loaves from the oven, piping hot. (the loaves)
Was Curtis taking a better attitude? How was the churchless situation affecting them all? They could not Scripturally practice the ordinances or submit to brethren in the church.
I'm trying to figure out which ordinances that they are going to have a hard time practicing? 1) Marriage? Check. Ed's married. 2) Communion? (they haven't been gone six months yet, so don't worry about that one yet.) 3) Feet-washing? Ditto. 4) Head-covering? Check. 5) Holy kiss? Only needed when brethren meet, right? 6) Anointing with oil? No one is sick. And if so, Ed can anoint them. 7) Baptism? Ed can baptize, as needed. No prohibition on that.
Of course, we all know that Ed CANNOT perform those roles, since he has never won the Magic Book Lottery. Never mind what the Bible actually says about it.
The chapter ends with a glimpse of Rosemary's lonely life in Florida. (I'm still waiting for the huge plot twist where it turns out that Ed Witmer actually started the settlement that is now known as Pinecraft.)
Rosemary gets asked to serve at Hope Haven, which is a convalescent home in the Home Valley community. Ed is against it, telling her that he doesn't want her at Hope Valley.
When Rosemary protests that she is almost 21, Ed's response is that even though she is "of age," it does not make Ephesians 6:1 of no effect.
So, we see that Ed doesn't believe that the individual conscience of adults is paramount either.
However, God has other plans, as we will see.