Book Review: 82 Sins of the Church

(No longer a Fair Trade Book, which makes reviewing it much easier.)

Book Review: 82 Sins of the Church

Author: Cobus Van Der Merwe

Date: 1995

Publisher: Jacobus Van Der Merwe

ISBN: 978-1494432362

Length: 230 pages

Quote: “Children with good manners are always pleasing to every­one.”

Jacobus Van Der Merwe was a Boer, or South African of Dutch descent, who spent his old age in Kingsport, Tennessee. His English was fluent, but irregular. His understanding of the Bible was likewise…not so much irregular as foreign. Although he joined a charismatic church in Kingsport, his Dutch Reformed background comes out in the form of unusual attitudes.

Although it’s meant to provoke discussions among Christians in any country, 82 Sins of the Church was recognizably shaped by Kingsport. I think this book is part of Kingsport’s history and should be preserved as such. Kingsport has attracted some very distinguished engineers and inventors from all over the world, and Van Der Merwe was one of them.

For devotional use, the value of 82 Sins of the Church may actually be negative. There’s politically incorrect, and then there’s…well…

I’m put off by the sexism on pages 108-109: “A couple should never get married if they cannot make do on the man’s income. The main reason for the job shortage in the world we live in today, is directly ascribed to the greedy women, taking away men’s jobs…God’s Word says clearly that the man is the breadwinner.” Actually, the Bible mentions women musicians, scholars, builders, merchants, and “prophets.” When a Bible writer describes the ideal wife, in Proverbs 31, he spends as many words praising her business acumen as her religious devotion. The perfect wife doesn’t just weave; she has a home textile business that employs several “maidens,” delivers finished products to the merchants, and expands her business by investing in real estate: “She considers a field, and buys it.” Sociologists have generally ascribed the job shortage to technological development, laborers being displaced by machines.

There is much to recommend the idea that being the mother of small children is a full-time job, in and of itself, and should provide the same kind of automatic recess from a corporate “career” that military service does…but “women shouldn’t take away men’s jobs” thinking doesn’t even work out well for young mothers. Some families preserve the biblical family-as-business model, using their home as their business base and integrating their children into the business. But the 1950s TV family structure, where childless wives stayed home all the time and made dusting and polishing into a job, was not an approach that ever served many people well. Nor was it biblical.

The Bible writers don’t prescribe one particular pattern for family life. The economic pattern they describe is the one where both parents lived and worked at home. Everyone was a “breadwinner.” Even small children were “known by their work” as soon as they were able to do any. Even disabled old ladies, like Dorcas, wove and sewed. The lady described in Proverbs 31 was an especially desirable wife because her weaving skills were good enough to earn money as well as saving money. When Paul wrote, “I would have the younger widows (re)marry (or) keep house,” he was telling the early church that his use of the masculine form in “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat” was applicable to able-bodied people of both sexes.

More confusion is to come. Van Der Merwe cites a letter from a friend in South Africa: “What the outside world (that’s you) does not real­ize, is that we do not have to do with civilized people, but barbarians—a sub-race that can never reach the standard of the [W]hite Christian race.” The writer of this letter complains that Nelson Mandela, like every other person who had a complaint against a non-Marxist government during the twentieth century, received some support from the Communist Party. He overlooks the fact that the Communist Party in its heyday treated it as their duty to try to support, and co-opt, every dissident on Earth; what people did with this support was up to them.

More disturbingly, he also overlooks the fact that Mandela was mentored by the nonviolent, non-Communist, committed Christian Albert Luthuli…and greed-blinded “Afrikaners” managed to ignore Chief Luthuli. The Christian magazine Van Der Merwe’s friend addressed had ignored his letter because Christians around the world felt that, when people refused to hear a message of peace from a man of God, those people invited a twisted version from the Evil Principle. Many were surprised and grateful that Mandela emerged as a left-wing Humanist leader rather than a violent, vengeful Communist Party dictator. Van Der Merwe complained that Christians in the United States had no right to denounce Bill Clinton unless they prayed for him. He does not write as if he spent much time praying for Nelson Mandela.

And what exactly was “sub-race” supposed to mean? Because the Republic of South Africa incorporated several pre-existing ethnic groups who had weakened themselves by wars with one another, it’s possible that Van Der Merwe understood Lane Sherman, as quoted on page 192, to be expressing resentment of the Zulu “sub-race,” or ethnic group, as distinct from the Venda “sub-race,” of which Van Der Merwe has written with less resentment earlier in this book. However, one can hardly blame uneducated readers for hearing in “sub-race” an echo of “subject race.” Like “niggardly,” “sub-race” is almost always an ill-chosen word.

Feminists are supposed to oppose “patriarchal” social structures, so I’ve always taken some contrarian pleasure in expressing love and pride about the patriarchs in my family. I know what Van Der Merwe has in mind when he writes about “Sin #49: Husbands Are Not Always Real Men” and praises the Real Man who “opens God’s Word at the breakfast and supper table…tells the truth at all times, regardless of the cost or consequences…provides for his family even if he has to do without…can give some leadership at home and work and is always prepared to listen to good advice” (pages 120-121), “rises early enough, works hard enough to provide enough…can apologize for any mistake…sets the example…visits the sick and bereaved and provides for the needy” (page 198).

Opposing patriarchal systems does not imply failing to appreciate that sort of men when we find them. What we oppose is the idea that a Y-shaped chromosome is enough to make any man a patriarch. In the Bible, Abraham travelled around with his flocks and herds and his extended family, apparently opposing cults that practiced human sacrifice. Kings called on Abraham for help and advice, yet he never called himself a king. Abraham listened respectfully to the advice of his wife and foster son, although they were less enlightened than he. When other people were around, his wife Sarah enjoyed basking in his glory by calling him “milord.” Privately, Sarah was a nagger (her name changed from “Quarrelsome” to “Princess” as her social status rose) whose demands reduced Abraham to tears. A patriarch never demands respect. He earns it—but, even so, he does not always get it. As C.S. Lewis once put it, he wears two crowns, but one is made of paper and the other of thorns.

Of course, many of the 82 Sins are theological rather than interpersonal issues. Van Der Merwe rebukes churches that are non-charismatic, that “do not seek or expect miracles, do not teach and practice demon exorcism.” He believes in “mandatory forgiveness”; some Christians believe that it is possible to talk about “forgiving” people who are still actively sinning. He thinks special liturgical interest should be given to Psalms 113 through 118. He objects to historical reading of the Bible when “the New Testament is not recognized as being directed to the church at all times.” He has an interpretation of the prophecies in the Bible, and thinks churches need to give more attention to this interpretation.

Others of the 82 Sins are social and political. Van Der Merwe identifies with those who seem to believe that “resistance” to abortion is a matter of political agitation, rather than personal ministry. He rebukes Christians for suing each other in court. He rebukes both the churches that “do not teach against divorce” and the ones that “condemn divorced people.” He complains, in his charmingly eccentric use of English, that “Pastors are fearful, muzzled, proud, greedy and affirmative.” (It takes him three pages to explain what he means by this, but he does have a point.) He thinks children need to participate in formal, audible prayers at school. He has been active in prison ministries, and thinks more Christians need to be. He thinks secular commentary, at least jokes and sports stories, have no place in the sanctuary and should not be used to liven up sermons.

Other “sins” are matters of church subculture. Kingsport is more heterogeneous than some of the towns around it, less dominated by First Families, more open to immigration. Cultural differences among its churches reflect the economic status as well as the temperaments of the congregations. So many of Kingsport’s churches do stress greeting rituals and eye contact that I suspect Van Der Merwe’s complaints here come from his having chosen a church where he seemed to “fit in” economically, and then realized that affluent Anglo-Americans look down on the folksy Dutch cultural customs Van Der Merwe wanted to bring with him.

Intensive eye contact is typical of mainstream Anglo-American culture. Apparently it’s also typical of mainstream Dutch or Boer culture, since Van Der Merwe fails to recognize it among the “bad manners” with which he reproaches “Ugly Americans”; much of the world would place our shameless eyeballing behavior high on the list of obnoxious American manners. Some cultures have rules that a modest person never holds eye contact with a member of the opposite sex, other than the person’s own wife or husband, for longer than a moment; or that younger people, or subordinates, never hold eye contact with senior or superordinate people; or that eye contact is optional, usually used for emphasis after a conversation has begun. Van Der Merwe places great emotional emphasis on people’s being able to “look you square in the eye.”

His list of 82 Sins is random, as his short reflections on these practices occurred to him, rather than categorical. There are sequences where one thought seems to have led to the next, and sequences where he seems to have put down his list for a few days and come back to it on a whole new train of thought. I’ve discussed the list in a more organized way than Van Der Merwe presents it.

So, this is not a book to share with non-Christians or with very young people. It is a book mature Christians can appreciate as historical commemoration of a distinguished resident of Kingsport. It could even be used by groups of mature Christians as a starting point for study and discussion—Bible and otherwise. It should never be used in such a way as to give Christian-phobics the idea that Van Der Merwe ever spoke for any substantial number of American Christians.

82 Sins of the Church ceased to be a Fair Trade Book last winter. I sold the copy I physically owned before that. Prices for this privately published book are already rising. At the time of writing I can offer it, should you want to buy it here, for $10 per book + $5 per package. But Van Der Merwe no longer needs $1.50, so if you don’t need this one to complete a collection of Kingsport history…there are better devotional books in the world, even at this web site.

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