Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Uncomfortable truths taught by Menno

Yes, dear reader, true Christian faith as it is required in Scripture, is so living, active and strong in all those who through the grace of the Lord have rightly obtained it, that they do not hesitate to forsake father, mother, wife, children, money and possessions for the Word and testimony of the Lord; to suffer all manner of scorn, disgrace, hardship and prison, and finally to have their weak bodies burned at the stake, as may be frequently seen in many pious children of God and faithful witnesses for Christ especially in these our Netherlands.

Those who trust in their works or ceremonies for salvation deny thereby the grace and merits of Christ. For if our reconciliation consisted in works and ceremonies, grace would come to naught and the merits and virtue of the blood of Christ would all be void. O no! It is grace and will be grace in all eternity, all that the merciful Father, through his dear Son and Holy Spirit has done for us grievous sinners.

This is my joy and the desire of my heart, that I may extend the borders of the kingdom of God, make known the truth, reprove sin, teach righteousness, feed the hungry souls with the Word of the Lord, lead the stray sheep to the right path, and win many souls for the Lord through his Spirit, power and grace.

To this end we preach as much as opportunity and possibility affords, both in daytime and by night, in houses and in fields, in forest and wilderness, in this land and abroad, in prion and bonds, in water, fire and the scaffold, on the gallows, and upon the wheel, before lords and priests, orally and by writing at the risk of possessions and life, as we have done these many years without ceasing.

-excerpts from the Complete Writings of Menno Simons.

These words of Menno make us squirm, don’t they? But can we deny them, disregard their truth, and still call ourselves Mennonites? or even Christians?

Mennonite vs Menno

After centuries of persecution, the defenceless Christians of Europe were scattered and demoralized and the persecutors began to feel they were rid of these people whose existence was so troubling to them. They were troubling because they taught, and lived, a faith that testified of the truth and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Then these supposedly defeated Christians reorganized, began to once more boldly preach the gospel and their numbers grew rapidly. Three of their most prominent leaders were Dietrich Philips, Menno Simons and Leenart Bouwens. Leenart Bouwens left no writings but baptized over 10,000 during his evangelical ministry. Dietrich and Menno travelled much, often at the risk of their lives, and also wrote much. Many of Menno’s writings were aimed at people outside of the church, explaining the faith and pleading for tolerance from the authorities. This made him especially dangerous and a large reward was offered for his capture. This notoriety led to all those of the same faith being called Menno’s people, Mennists and finally Mennonites.

Menno adamantly denied being the founder of a church or religious movement, rather seeing himself as a shepherd to the sheep who had been scattered by persecution. There are dozens of denominations in our day calling themselves Mennonite. Most of them are made up of linear descendents of people who once were of the same faith as Menno, but have little idea what that faith was. The majority have never read Menno’s writings, there are even some who call themselves Mennonites but have no idea where the name came from.

Among those whom we might call ethnic Mennonites, those of Netherlands descent have much less interest in the writings of Menno Simons than those who are of Swiss descent. Why is this?

In the 1820’s several men in the Molotschna Mennonite settlement in Russia (composed of people whose family lineage went back to the Netherlands) took it upon themselves to have a new printing made of the writings of Menno Simons. This alarmed the leaders and in 1829 a statement was issued, signed by all 29 Mennonite elders and ministers in Molotschna which forbade their church members to read, or even own, such a book. The letter demanded that all the copies that had been printed should be destroyed. The reason given was that these writings might fall into the hands of neighbours of a different faith, or even government officials, and thereby cause trouble for the churches. To refute that thought, Peter Toews* mentions a couple of instances from Prussia where government officials had read Menno’s writings and found nothing objectionable, even expressing the wish that more of the Mennonite people should read them.

Toews* quotes one of those responsible for printing the Menno Simons books as saying: “I only fear that a different matter in their own conscience aroused hatred in themselves because Menno Simons’ teaching severely reproves the Mennonites of the present and especially the ministry. Consequently they feel ashamed and reproved and therefore prefer not to have these books in their congregations.”

*Toews, Peter (1841-1922), By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them

The cult of celebrity Christians

Some folks adore Christian superstars,
Athletes, singers, politicians, preachers,
Who profess faith in the saving blood,
Seeing in them proof of Christ’s good.

Some may truly be pillars of the faith.
Others seem mere pretenders to the grace,
And when they fall, their sins laid bare,
The name of Christ is disgraced everywhere.

Seek not among the high and mighty
He who is known as meek and lowly.
Flickering brightness does not Christ reveal,
But the steady glow of faith that is real.

The Spirit works gently and slowly,
He who obeys will grow steadily.
Think not that human strength is blessedness,
Christ’s strength comes only through our weakness.

-Bob Goodnough

The affliction of Joseph

Judah and Ephraim were the largest tribes of Israel. Joshua was of the tribe of Ephraim; perhaps the Ephraimites carried from that some sense of entitlement that they should play more of a leadership role. When Jeroboam of the tribe of Ephraim rebelled against King Rehoboam, Mannasseh and all the other northern tribes followed his lead. The northern tribes retained the name of the kingdom of Israel, the southern tribes are hereafter called the kingdom of Judah.

This division of the kingdom was God’s plan, foretold by prophecy. But the division of the church was never in God’s plan. After Jereboam built new temples and created a new priesthood, he is referred to over and over as “Jereboam the son of Nebat who caused Israel to sin,”

From that point on the prophets referred to the whole rebellious northern kingdom as Joseph, or Ephraim, just as all the tribes united in the southern kingdom were called Judah. And Joseph was now once more separated from his brethren, not just by a border between the two kingdoms but by a separation from the true worship of God at Jerusalem. That is the affliction of Joseph of which the prophet Amos speaks in Amos 6:1-6.

Elijah and Elisha were natives of the northern kingdom, used of God to warn the people of their kingdom and call them back to the true worship of the Lord. Hosea and Amos were sent by God to call the people of the northern kingdom to repentance.

Jonah was also of the northern kingdom. The only mention of him, beside the book which carries his name, is found in 2 Kings 14:25. This is the account of Jeroboam II retaking the northern part of Israel from the Syrians, as prophesied by Jonah.

2 Chronicles 21:12-15 records the letter sent to King Jehoram of Judah by Elijah: “Thus saith the LORD God of David thy father, Because thou hast not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat thy father, nor in the ways of Asa king of Judah, but hast walked in the way of the kings of Israel, and hast made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to go a whoring, like to the whoredoms of the house of Ahab, and also hast slain thy brethren of thy father’s house, which were better than thyself: behold, with a great plague will the LORD smite thy people, and thy children, and thy wives, and all thy goods: and thou shalt have great sickness by disease of thy bowels, until thy bowels fall out by reason of the sickness day by day.”

The only other connection of Elijah to Judah is that when he felt his life threatened by Jezebel he crossed into Judah, left his servant there and continued on to Mount Horeb.

There is a revealing incident in the life of Elisha when King Jehoram of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were preparing for battle and called on Elsha to enquire of the Lord on their behalf. Elisha replied to the king of Israel: “As the LORD of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, surely, were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward thee, nor see thee” (2 Kings 3:14).

All of this is pretty conclusive evidence that the prophets regarded Judah as the people of God and Israel, led by Ephraim, to be apostate. Yet God called them to be missionaries to the people of apostate Israel to draw them back into full fellowship with His people.

Hosea spoke of a time when the two houses of Israel would be reunited. During the Babylonian captivity the prophet Ezekiel bemoans the unfaithfulness of the shepherds in chapter 34. Verse 11says: “For thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I, even I, will both search my sheep, and seek them out.”

The sending of the 70 by Jesus to seek out the lost sheep of the house of Israel should be seen as part of the fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. Note that he is referring to sheep, that is children of God. The lost condition referred to means that they had no shepherd, not that they were spiritually lost. When the Bible speaks of the saved and the lost it refers to them as sheep and goats. The sheep will enter heaven, the goats will be turned away.

There are multitudes of people in the world today who are unsaved and need to hear the gospel and see it being lived out in the lives of true children of God. But there are also the lost sheep, the children of God who wander through the wilderness of the world because they do not have a shepherd. They are also a mission field. Jesus said: “And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd” (John 10:16). Are we grieved today for the affliction of Joseph?

The use and abuse of dictionaries

Some folks scrutinize the dictionary for abstruse locutions to titillate the cerebral functions of those who peruse their literary endeavours.

This sentence is sticky in a negative way. Most readers will get stuck before they reach the end. That doesn’t matter, the sentence doesn’t have much to say. But there are people who believe that if you have something important to say, you must use words that sound important.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God

This sentence, the first verse of John’s gospel, is sticky in a good sense: it sticks in the memory. Only one word has more than one syllable, yet it will take a lifetime to plumb the depths of this sentence.

The title page of the 1611 Bible translation says: “Appointed to be read in churches.” Four hundred years ago appointed meant just what it sounds like: sharpened to a point. The translators were men of great learning, they knew words, their meaning and how best to use them. They crafted a translation that uses small words to convey big meanings in a way that is most effective when read aloud. The words are remembered with no conscious attempt to memorize them.

In a workshop during a writer’s conference, the group leader asked us to write a list of our five favourite books. Many of us had the dictionary on our list, usually near the top. That was a sure sign that I was in the company of writers. Most of us do not read the dictionary to find words to befuddle our readers, we are looking for the right word to make the meaning plain.

The dilettante, one who writes to amuse himself, uses big words, and lots of them, to say very little. The serious writer uses the fewest and smallest words possible to say something meaningful.

What do I do now?

Saturday afternoon I did my last income tax return for this year. This morning the client called to inform me that he came down with flu-like symptoms that evening and that today he tested positive for COVID19. What does that mean for me?

I used a home test kit this afternoon and it showed negative. Like this:

Image by Bastian Riccardi from Pixabay 

That at least gives me some peace of mind that I probably wasn’t contagious when I went to church yesterday.

My wife cancelled her appointment at the optometrist tomorrow morning and her cooking shifts at the seniors residence for this week. I guess I’ll just stay close to home until I know for sure that I’m not going to be a threat to anyone else’s health.

Practical Christianity

For the past two months my head has been occupied with number crunching to the point that there was little opportunity for wordsmithing. Income tax season officially ends tomorrow and I think I have finished anything pertaining to that for this year. Now I can try to capture and organize the thoughts that have been hiding in the corners of my mind.

Christian news media report that 26 million Americans stopped reading the Bible regularly during COVID19 and that thousands of pastors are nearing burnout. What has gone wrong? Is God letting us down?

I wonder if much of the problem might be an impractical view of how Christianity should work. Some 800 years ago Petr Chelćickỳ lamented that the collusion of emperor and pope had created a situation where there was no discernable difference between the people within the church and those without. How common is such a situation in our day?

Some years ago, a friend who was a pastor in one of Canada’s most liberal denominations told me he thought there were seven or eight real Christians in his congregation. He didn’t name them, but I thought a few of the older people in his church still had spiritual life. How does one pastor a church like that without burning out?

Whie visitng Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts thirty years ago, the man playing the role of Samuel Fuller told me. “The church hierarchy in England says that we are not a legitimate church, because we have no ministers. A church is made up of Christian people; they don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?” The Congregational churches of my New England forefathers soon declined to much the same state.

What would practical Christianity look like? Firstly, and most importantly, a church could not be a mixed multitude of saved and unsaved. The unsaved should feel welcome to attend. They should feel drawn to come and find out what this is all about, but to include them in the membership undermines the very foundation of the church.

Secondly, and as a corollary of the first point, the functioning of the church would not be totally dependent upon the ordained ministry. If all members are born-again Christians, then all share responsibility for the life of the church.

Thirdly, pastors are necessary. But what kind of pastors? A tentmaker like Paul is better than someone who views a costly lifestyle as evidence of his success. The biblical qualifications for the ministry are heavy on faithfulness in doctrine, in lifestyle, in family life and in hospitality. Such a pastor will no doubt face opposition and difficulties at times, but will also feel the love, respect and support of those he serves.

Does that sound like an impractical dream? I believe it is highly practical and to to attempt to do church in any other way is doomed to dissension, decline and eventual failure.

Henny Penny and her kindred

The story, as I heard it in my childhood, goes like this. Henny Penny, a rather ordinary hen, is contentedly sleeping in the warm sunshine when an acorn falls on her head. She awakens in a flap and begins squawking, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” The other hens are alarmed and one of them says, “Someone needs to tell the king!” Henny Penny decides that since she is the first to be aware of the impending disaster, she must be the one to go. She is joined by Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey and Turkey Lurkey, all flapping their wings and crying “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”. After travelling awhile, they encounter Foxy Loxy, who hears their story and declares his intention to join them to warn the king. “But first, he says, you must come to my place for a meal.” The others accept his invitation, only to discover too late that they are going to be the meal.

There are different versions of this story, which may be as much as 2500 years old. For at least that long there have been folks flapping their wings and saying “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” The result has quite often not been as they expected.

When the plague appeared in Europe during the middle ages and multitudes of people were dying every day, many believed it to be a judgment of God. Groups of people, believing that if they punished themselves enough the anger of God would be appeased, walked from city to city, whipping themselves and raking their backs with sharp rakes. They were called flagellants, and each group spent 33½ days on their pilgrimage, wearing hoods but no shirts, so as to continually have open wounds on their backs. And as they travelled from city to city, they spread the plague from city to city.

There seem to be many folks like Henny Penny among evangelical Christians. People who are keenly interested in knowing what is wrong with the world, and who rejoice in every bit of bad news that they can interpret as a sign of the end. Something they can point to as proof that: “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”

A few years ago, many Christians were repeating the news that a department of the Canadian government had analyzed the frequency and severity of natural disasters from all over the world over recent centuries and had solid proof that such catastrophes were increasing in frequency and severity. The story was bogus, but that didn’t prevent it from being cited over the pulpit in many churches. The department of the Canadian government named in the story has never existed and those who investigated found that in all the bureaucracy of the Canadian government there is no office dedicated to collecting and analyzing such information. An article in the Christian Research Journal analyzed the available data and determined that there has been no increase in recent history. What has changed is the ability of the media to inform us immediately of any catastrophe anywhere in the world, creating the impression that such events are increasing.

We are warned in the Bible that one day, without warning, the world will come to an end. The apostle Peter tells us that, if we really believe this, we should live accordingly (2 Peter 3:11). That is, we should stop wasting our time looking for signs of the end and rather take care to live in such a way that we will be prepared for the end, ready to meet Jesus in peace.

The alternative to a peaceful and contented heart

Neither prosperity not empire nor heaven can be worth winning at the price of a virulent temper, bloody hands, an anguished spirit, and a vain hatred of the rest of the world.
-John Milton

Thank you War Amps

My wife’s keys came home in the mail today. They went missing two months ago; it must have happened between our car in a mall parking lot and the Tim Horton’s inside the mall where we had dinner. There was a keychain with a car key, two house keys and a War Amps tag.

This will make sense to Canadians. Since I’m not sure if a similar program exists in other countries I will explain. The War Amps is an organization founded in 1918 to help soldiers who had lost limbs during the war. That work continues today, but now they are also providing prosthetic limbs, encouragement and support to children who have lost a hand, an arm or a leg.

In a stroke of genius in 1946 they began the key chain program which provides work for amputees, raises money to provide prosthetic limbs for amputees, and provides a valuable service to all Canadians.

The key tags are produced in sheltered workshops and are mailed to all Canadians. Donations are optional, but everyone should have one of these tags on every keychain that they use. Each tag bears a number that is linked to the keychain owner in the War Amps database. Someone who finds a keychain and has no other means of identifying the owner can put that keychain in the nearest mailbox. Canada Post will send the keys to War Amps who will identify the owner from their database and mail the keys back to the owner, at no charge.

That is what happened to my wife’s keys. We had one other key for the car, but the rubber facing had broken off and I needed to use the point of a ballpoint pen to push the buttons. So I bought a new key, at a cost of over $500. That is extravagant, but I really needed to replace my key. Now we once more each have a fully functional key.

We have used War Amps key tags for as long as I can remember and know that they return thousands of keys to their owners every year. This is the first time we have been a beneficiary and are thankful there was a War Amps tag on that keychain. We are also thankful to the person who found the keys and dropped them in a mailbox.

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