Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: Faith and life

Are You Perfect?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructed his disciples: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:46). Instructions like this are found all through the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis 17:1, God said to Abraham: “I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.”

Some people say that the only way that we can be perfect is by faith in Jesus Christ so that His perfection is imputed to us. How does that fit with God’s instruction to Abraham?

There are 12 Hebrew words that are translated perfect in the Old Testament, and 8 Greek words that are translated perfect in the New Testament. These Hebrew and Greek words are often translated by other words in the Bible, usually words like complete or finished.

The Greek word teleios, which is twice used in the first verse that I quoted, means brought to an end, full grown, adult, mature. In 1 Corinthians 14:20 the same word is translated men: “Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.” And in Hebrews 5:14 it is translated of full age: “ But strong meat belongeth to them that are of full age, even those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”

The English word perfect is defined thus by Oxford: 1 complete; not deficient 2 flawless; without defect 3 very satisfactory 4 exact; precise 5 entire; unqualified 9 eminently suitable. Meanings 6, 7 and 8 deal with grammar, botany and sports. In English grammar the perfect past tense refers to an action that was completed in the past before something else happened; the imperfect past tense refers to an action that began in the past and was not complete at the moment being spoken of.

Too many people get hung up on definition 2 and think it is the only meaning of perfect. In fact, that meaning does not seem to be implied in any of the Scriptural uses of the word perfect. Most often the intended meaning, when referring to people, is grown up, mature. Maturity does not make us flawless, it makes us responsible. We make mistakes, confess them and do our best to make amends. That is what God wants of us.

We read in history of some Christians of many years ago who referred to their leaders as the perfect. If we understand the true meaning of perfect, that amounts to much the same thing as calling them elders. The use of the word perfect by those people is not enough in itself for us to judge them as having a false belief.

So, yes, we are called to be perfect, in the sense of being mature and responsible. It is a high calling, but God has given us the Holy Spirit to help us fulfill that calling.

Pray for them which despitefully use you

Job didn’t know why this was happening to him. All his children and all his livestock were suddenly gone, then his body became covered with oozing sores. He used dust and ashes in an attempt to calm the itching.

His three closest friends came to commiserate with him and at first had no words to say in face of such a calamity. It seemed logical to them that Job must have somehow brought this on himself. The more Job protested his innocence and his trust that God would vindicate him, the more his friends became convinced that he was hiding a great sin.

“Miserable comforters are ye all,” Job responded. “No doubt but that ye are the people and the truth will die with you.” In frustration, Job demanded an explanation for his suffering from God.

The three friends ran out of accusations and fell silent. Another person, Elihu, began to speak, saying “God is greater than man. Why dost thou strive against him? for he giveth not account of any of his matters.”

In the end Job repented of asking for answers, but his trial was not quite over. God spoke to Job’s three friends and told them to bring animals for a sacrifice to Job and ask him to pray for them. It was only when Job prayed for these men who had spoken falsehoods against him that God set Job free from his troubles.

That is still the only way to experience peace and freedom. Jesus said “Pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” In other words, when we face criticism and unjust accusations, rather than thinking of ways to cut our accusers down to size, let’s pray for them.

What is Christian mission?

Do we think of mission as a structured work of the church whereby we elect a committee, choose a location to do mission work and then choose people to go there and be missionaries? What are the missionaries supposed to do when they get there?

The starting point for all Christian outreach is to tell others what God has done for us. Do we need a committee to tell us to do that? I hope not. It is possible for every person who has experienced the forgiveness of sins and freedom from the power of sin to tell others about what they have experienced and are experiencing daily as they walk and talk with God.

Sometimes organisation is needed to share the gospel in places far from home. But people are ill-equipped to be missionaries far from home if they have never been missionaries close to home.

Let’s not make it complicated. This is not an intellectual exercise, it is a matter of sharing from the heart about the most important thing in our life. Let’s encourage one another to freely tell what God has done for us.

Connecting the dots

In our small town school, there was a two shelf bookcase in the Grade 11 and 12 classroom. That was our library, and I read every book in those shelves during my last two years in that school. During the reading of one of those books, a historical book, I had a moment of enlightenment. This was over 60 years ago, thee name and subject of the book have vanished into the mists of time, but I remember that it dealt with the same period of history that we were studying in class. It named the same people and places, the same events, but the narrative was different. That was when it dawned on me that the way history is told depends upon the point of view of the writer.

After that I looked on historical research as a page covered with dots, some small, some large. Different historians studied the information provided by those dots and each one connected the dots he felt to be most important to produce a recognizable picture. Some may do it with the intent to deceive, but I believe most are honestly trying to create a clear picture for their readers.

Even the Bible has examples of histories told from different points of view. There are two histories of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The first, 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings, was written before the Babylonian captivity by Jeremiah, or by someone else under his direction. The unity of purpose linking these books with the book of the prophet Jeremiah is underlined by the fact that the same four verses form the conclusion of 2 Kings and Jeremiah. Jeremiah consulted the records of those kingdoms and pointed out the episodes of disobedience and idolatry that led to the judgment of God.

The second history, written by Ezra after the people returned from their captivity, is drawn from the same records as the first. But Ezra points out how God was faithful and had often poured out blessings upon His people. He tells how King Manasseh, the most evil king Judah ever had, repented and spent the last years of his life labouring to undo the evil he had done. The link between 1st and 2nd Chronicles and Ezra is evident in that the two final verses of 2 Chronicles are repeated in the beginning of Ezra.

In the New Testament we have four accounts of the life of Jesus. The Gospel of Mark is an eyewitness account, generally understood to have been told to Mark by Peter. Matthew was writing for Jewih readers and pointed out in great detail how the life of Jesus fulfilled the prophecies about the Messiah. Luke, wrote as a Greek historian and told a coherent, well documented story of Jesus’ life from beginning to end, including the resurrection. John put more emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit. Each writer told the story in a different way, sometimes choosing different dots. There is no contradiction, we are enriched by having all four.

We need to be very careful in accepting all that we read in the news of current events. News reporters often choose the dots that fit a predetermined point of view. Here is one instance. We are often told that the income disparity between black people and white people in the USA is positive proof of racism. But if you look at the incomes of married black people and married white people, that disparity disappears.

That should cause us to look for the causes of the difference in the number of stable marriages among black people and white people. Then we see the same forces working among all groups of people to undermine the family. There is a war on the family in the world today. This war is not going to be won on the battlefield of politics. It is a matter of faith.

WASP to Woke

In my school days, over 60 years ago, I learned that anyone who wasn’t a WASP was less than the ideal Canadian. WASP stood for White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I could check all the boxes, and felt good about it.

What I received in school was an indoctrination into the Orange Order perception of Canada and Canadian history. The Orange Order frequently resorted to riots to get their point of view across to governments. They believed that people who were not white, Anglo-Saxon protestants should have no influence on Canadian society. They did not share the moral values or the nobility of character that was characteristic of WASPs. Perhaps it was not stated so blatantly, but that point of view permeated our curriculum. The books we read portrayed WASPs as noble and true, other people were shifty-eyed and untrustworthy.

There is a segment of our society that still thinks that way; I don’t anymore. One reason was my mother’s quiet influence. She was much more open-minded and that gradually undermined my tendency to be dogmatic in my attitudes. I read a lot, from many points of view, including books in French, that challenged the Orange Order view of the world that I had learned in school.

Woke is the correct way to think nowadays. The woke perception of Canadian society and history now permeates our educational system, the media and the political parties. The term originated among African-American people in the 1940’s to refer to those who were awake the the social injustices inherent in the structure of society.

The meaning has grown to encompass every perception of injustice and the need for a revolutionary restructuring of society. To those who are woke, it seems imperative to erase all prior history. The views of those who are not woke should not be allowed to be disseminated in any form to the public. In other words, we are now facing an ideology that is every bit as intolerant as the Orange Order, right down to the riots.

As Christians, we must not let ourselves be drawn into such ideological strife, either for or against the prevailing attitudes. We are part of the heavenly kingdom, a kingdom of peace and love; we serve the Lord Jesus Christ. The devils must laugh with glee when Christians get emotionally involved and make statements that do not come from the Spirit of Christ.

Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom. But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth. This wisdom descendeth not from above, but [is] earthly, sensual, devilish. For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace. (James 3:13-18).

Defenceless Christians?

As Anabaptists/Mennonites we call ourselves nonresistant, or defenceless, Christians. Let’s take a moment to examine ourselves in one small aspect of what this means, or should mean.

The question is, how should we relate to persons in our congregation whose ethnic, social or cultural identity differs from that of the majority of the members? Do we expect all the adaptation to come from their side, so that they fully identify with the cultural norms of the majority? Is that even possible?

We must, of course, be fully united on all points of the faith. The problem is that when almost all the members of a congregation are of the same background, we tend to think that everything we do is based on our faith. We can’t imagine doing things any other way. It wouldn’t seem right.

When someone who is new to the faith asks why we look at aspects of daily life a certain way, we can’t understand why there is even a questions. No one has ever questioned those things before. Our reflex is to become defensive. And when we become defensive, we stop listening.

Image by maestrosphere1 from Pixabay

When the person asking the question senses our defensiveness, he will often draw back and stop asking questions. But the questions don’t go away, over time they accumulate. Finding no answer to what he considers legitimate questions, he may cease to feel at home in the congregation.

The apostle Paul tells us “Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits” (Romans 12:16). The modern meaning of condescend is to be gracious to those who are of a lower state than we are, while maintaining an awareness of our superiority. To read the verse with this meaning is to miss what the apostle was trying to tell us. French translations say to accommodate ourselves to men of low estate, which I believe is the original meaning. Conceits has also shifted in meaning over the years, the last sentence tells us to not think of ourselves as being wiser than others.

Adam Clarke concludes his commentary on this verse with “Believe that you stand in need of both help and instruction from others.” Isn’t that the attitude we need in order to accommodate ourselves to people of other backgrounds? If we expect that all accommodation must come from their side, we cannot be successful ambassadors for Christ.

Let’s lose the defensiveness. Let’s stop expecting square pegs to fit into round holes. If we can see Christ in people who came from a different cookie cutter that we did, our eyes may be opened to see fields ripe for the harvest all around us.

Without me ye can do nothing

The words of Jesus are blunt; unless we submit our lives, our being, to His control, we are not capable of being a Christian. We can pretend, we may think we are doing a great job on our own, but sooner or later something will happen and whatever is really in our heart will show up.

To take just one example: we read exhortations in the Bible about being humble and set about to make ourselves humble. It goes well; soon we think we have this down pat, we’re doing a much better job of being humble than most of the people around us. . .

Whoa! See the problem? We’ve become proud of our humility.

To become a Christian, we must admit that we have hopelessly messed up our life and cannot clean up the mess by ourselves. It’s pretty humbling isn’t it? That’s a good start in Christian life, the right start. However, as time goes on, we start thinking that we’ve got this figured out, we can complete the task of making ourselves Christian by our own understanding and will. When that doesn’t seem to be working out some folks wonder what the problem is. Others see that they have messed up again and turn to Jesus to make a new start.

Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He has sent the Holy Spirit to help us do what we cannot do. We all know that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy and peace. But we don’t always remember the other qualities, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance. Aren’t they a good description of humility?

It is the work of the Holy Spirit in our heart that makes us humble. Our own work on the outer man can’t do it. Our own work can’t do anything at all that will count in eternity.

Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen. (Jude 24-25)

The foolishness of preaching

Singing and prayer have always been important ingredients of worship in the Anabaptist – Mennonite faith, but the focal point of a worship service is that which the apostle Paul called the foolishness of preaching. It appears to be foolishness because there are not many powerful orators amongst us, not many who make a great impression by their knowledge or wisdom, and very seldom are the effects of the preaching readily apparent. We don’t expect any of those things, but we do believe that Bible-based, Spirit-led preaching from the heart of godly ministers feeds the listeners with spiritual manna that enables them to persevere in the faith unto the end.

Many years ago we went to hear David Wilkerson preach at the Centennial Auditorium in Regina. Now there was a powerful preacher! And there were visible results, decisions made. The lady who came with us was bubbling over with new-found commitment on the way home. Her life was going to be different, she was not going to go to the dance the following Saturday night and partake of the atmosphere and beverages found there. That commitment lasted through Monday and Tuesday, but by Wednesday it was gone and she did go to the dance on Saturday. David Wilkerson’s message was good, but I question if one message is enough to make a lasting change in someone’s life.

I have heard several thousand sermons, from perhaps 200 different preachers, in the years that I have been a member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. About the only things I remember of what all those preachers said was that when Wildoer Losier of Haiti was in Montreal for revival meetings 25 years ago he began every sermon with “Je vous souhait la paix,” (I wish you peace). and that when Arverd Wiggers was at St Marys, Ontario 10 years before that he told how Christian life is sometimes like a mountain climber descending the face of a mountain in the dark . He comes down the face of a cliff, reaches the end of his rope and still cannot find any footing for his feet. He hears a voice from somewhere saying “just let go.” He is certain that will mean falling to his death on the rocks below, so he keeps feeling around with his feet, desperately searching for a ledge. Finally he can hold on no longer, lets go and falls – about ten inches, and his feet are on solid ground.

Those are the only things that remain in my conscious memory, but they seem significant. There are orators who can stir a crowd to battle with one fiery speech. But Christian ministers are trying to stir their listeners to peace. To live in peace to the end of our days requires faith, love, patience, forgiveness, temperance. As we listen to sermon after sermon touching on various facets of living by faith and in peace, the Holy Spirit impresses those thoughts upon us and they find a place within us that is somewhere deeper than our mind.

There are moments in our lives when the Holy Spirit tells us to let go of something and that makes us tremble in fear. That thing, whatever it may be, is part of us, essential to our well-being. Yet the voice keeps telling us to let go. When we do, we find we have lost nothing at all, but gained a more sure foothold in our relationship with God.

A Scottish minister was visiting the members of his congregation and came to a lady who was a storekeeper. She told him, “That was a wonderful message you preached Sunday a fortnight ago.” The minister, a wee bit skeptical of the praise, asked “What part of the message was it that impressed you?” “I don’t remember,” she said. “What were the Scriptures?” “I don’t remember.” The minister now was sure she had only been flattering him, but then she said “All I remember is that I came home and took the false bottom out of my bushel measure.”

No doubt this lady had told herself for years that she needed that little dishonest advantage to enable her to make a living in her store. The minister had said nothing in his sermon about false bottoms in bushel measures, but the Spirit had taken something he had said to impress upon this lady her need to be completely honest in her business. When she obeyed, it gave her such a relief that she had to thank the minister.

The foolishness of preaching is like that. It can go beyond the words that a preacher speaks to address a problem that is completely unknown to him.

Witnesses of the Light

As the apostle John begins telling the gospel story, he identifies Jesus as the Light of the World. Then he says “There was a man named John,” referring to another John, John the Baptist, and says of him, “He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.”

Two thousand years later the world still needs someone to bear witness of that Light. That would be you and me, all who live by faith in Jesus Christ. Are we finding it difficult to do that? Or do we think people don’t want to hear? Perhaps we have become too much at ease in the world as it is, forgetting that it is a wilderness of woe. A good starting point is to realize that most people around us are not happy with the way life is going for them. They think there must be a better way, they try to find it, but they don’t really know what it is they are looking for.

We cannot force people to see the light. Force is characteristic of the realm of darkness and we cannot use the means of the enemy of the light to bring people to the light. The first step, then, in being witnesses of the Light, is to be sure that we ourselves are wholly living in that Light.

I am not that Light. I can, and should, speak the truth boldly. But I must remember that it is the Holy Spirit that leads people into all truth, not me.

I should contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints; that is I must be steadfast in maintaining its truth, despite opposition. Yet I must not be quarrelsome, for I am not the one who delivered that truth to mankind.

I must demonstrate the reality of the faith by loving everyone as God does; even those who are opposed. I don’t know what is in people’s hearts. God knows; He will judge; I don’t need to.

Truth, or a convincing approximation of the truth, can satisfy the mind for a time, but it leaves the heart longing for something more. True faith that works by love will satisfy both heart and mind and draw people to seek fellowship with others whose hearts and lives demonstrate the work of the Holy Spirit.

Deathbed repentance

Many a person spends his life being right. He is frustrated that other people just can’t admit that he is right. Contacts with friends and family grow cool and infrequent. Despite his care to protect himself from dishonest business people, he has often gotten the short end of a deal. He is not happy, but he has never been the one who was in the wrong.

Often such a person, towards the end of his life, feels a great loneliness; not even God sympathizes with him. Sometimes that causes his to open his eyes and see that things have not been as he thought. Proving that he is right doesn’t matter any more. His problems were mostly all his own doing. What he needs is peace and fellowship with God and with his family and friends.

This is called repentance and when one repents without condition, God forgives. And when God forgives, people do too. Relationships are healed; peace and joy that were maybe a dim memory now warm his heart and guide his life.

Such a thing is wonderful to see. But it doesn’t happen to everyone, neither do we have to live in misery for years before it happens. We can make the choice much sooner, preferably in our youth, to abandon our pride and selfish desire to be right.

I believe that was what Leenaert Bouwens meant when someone came to him to request baptism and he replied “Go home and die first. I never baptize living people.”

Leenaert Bouwens was a sixteenth century Anabaptist preacher who baptized 10,000 people during the years of his ministry. He knew that we cannot be a Christian until our pride and self-righteousness die and are thrown on the bonfire of repentance.

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