Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Anabaptist

A church of nobodies

Historians appear to believe that wherever there was something important going on there must have been some big shots behind it. When they look at the history of Christianity, the Catholics and Protestants had all the big shots. Since they find no big shots on the side of those we call Anabaptists, they assume that nothing was happening.

But the very essence of Christianity is that there can be only one big shot, and that is God Himself. Even Jesus did not conduct Himself as a big shot. That was the problem the Scribes and Pharisees had with Him; they wanted a Messiah who would sweep away the Roman oppressors and rule the world from Jerusalem. Dispensationalists are in full agreement with that, and say that since His plan was foiled the first time the earthly kingdom will be established at His Second Coming. The problem with that line of thought is that it would make Jesus a fomenter of sedition and provide just cause for the Romans to execute Him. But Jesus said plainly “My kingdom is not of this world”, and the Roman governor found no fault in Him, going so far as to wash his hands of the whole affair.

So Jesus is not our big shot. He is the most important man in the history of the world, but a nobody in the eyes of the world. His followers, from the apostles to the present day, have also been nobodies.

We should not, however, read too much into the opinion of the Sanhedrin that the apostles were unlearned and ignorant men. The apostles were fluent in Aramaic and Greek, knew the Scriptures better than most of us do today, and were well acquainted with the Greek culture around them. But they were not learned in all the petty intricacies of rabbinic interpretations and regulations.

Once we stop looking for the big shots in the movement variously known as Donatist, Cathar, Anabaptist, Waldensian, etc, it becomes obvious that there was a whole lot going on. Thieleman van Braght scoured the ancient records and published his findings in the Martyrs Mirror.

A more recent book is The Anatomy of a Hybrid by Leonard Verduin. The hybrid in the title of the book refers to state churches which united secular authority with spiritual authority, beginning when the Roman Emperor Constantine professed Christianity and then assumed authority over the Roman Catholic Church. Verduin is a thorough scholar who shows clearly the evidences of a continuing alternate church movement from the time the hybrid first departed from the faith once delivered to the saints. He points out that the Mennonite movement began in locations where the Waldensians had recently flourished.

Another facet of looking for the big shots is evident in the attention church historians pay to councils of Roman Catholic bishops, called by a Roman Emperor, to decide matters of essential Christian doctrines. I believe those matters were decided long before the councils by the Holy Spirit working through a bunch of nobodies.

Let the world have its dynamic and charismatic preachers. We pray that they will do some good in making known the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. But we fear, as Menno Simons once wrote: “so long as the world donates such splendid houses and large incomes to their preachers, the false prophets and deceivers will be numerous.”

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The blog formerly known as Antiquarian Anabaptist

After six years and 1,127 posts it is perhaps time to refurbish this site, and Canada Day, July 1, seems a good time to do it.

The first thing I have done is drop the Antiquarian Anabaptist title. It seemed like a good idea six years ago but has begun to sound kitschy to my ears. Besides, didn’t it seem bizarre to enter the flatlanderfaith.com URL and have it open up a blog with a different title? Now the URL and the blog title are the same, and I have added a header photo to illustrate what this flatland province looks like.

I have also changed the background colour and the typefaces also. I might change them again in the coming days as I tweak the appearance of the blog. The “Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective” slogan will remain. That defines the purpose of this blog.

Maybe I can improve the quality of my writing, too. When I read something I wrote 25 or 30 years ago my first reaction is: “Wow! That is good. Did I really write that?”

Then another little voice in my head says: “Of course it sounds good to you, your style of writing follows the familiar path of your style of thinking. But what makes you think that anybody else would want to read it?”

It’s not that I think everything I have ever written should go in the garbage can. Sometimes I have written things, on this blog and elsewhere, that readers connected with. My resolution is to learn how to do that consistently.

I would love to hear from you. Please take a little time to tell me what you like or don’t like about the things I write. If you don’t want your comment to appear publicly, use the email address under Contact Me above.

Another dead end

I began checking out other varieties of Mennonites, and there were a lot to choose from. Many of them turned out to be Mennonites in name only, and a little embarrassed about being encumbered with the name. Nevertheless, many of them had a deep affection for the Low German language and culture. I didn’t, so I stroked them off my list.

There were several groups of Conservative Mennonites and I obtained some of their literature. A hope began to grow in me that I had found what I had been looking for: churches that held to the old Anabaptist-Mennonite faith but did not claim to be the only representatives of that faith.

One day we had a phone call from Mervin Baer. He and his wife were passing through Mooses Jaw and staying at a motel a few blocks away. Would we be interested in coming over to meet them. I recognized the name, Mervin was from McBride B.C., a bishop and well-know leader in Conservative Mennonite circles.

Mervin and his wife were friendly and warm people, we hit it off right away. In the course of our visit Mervin mentioned that he had recently visited at Belleville, Pennsylvania. “There is a group of Old Order Amish people there who have been born again and have formed a new congregation entirely made up of born-again peole. That’s proof that you can have a spiritual church without joining the Holdemans.”

That was music to my ears. We had another visit from Mervin several months later, then began to visit the nearest congregation of that group, about two hours away in Alberta. They were friendly and welcoming and we really hit it off with one couple in particular. We decided to move there and join that group. In the summer of 1975 we quit our jobs, packed up and moved to Alberta.

It didn’t take long for me to feel that I had fallen down a rabbit hole into a place where nothing was what it seemed at first to be. It started the evening we arrived. We were invited to have supper with the bishop and his family. He had two daughters still at home, around 18 and 20. They were church members and Chris asked one of them when she had become a Christian. “I don’t know, I just kind of grew into it.”

As if that wasn’t shocking enough, we found that there had been a falling out between husband of the couple we had liked so much and Mervin Baer and they had up and moved away.

The women here wore cape dresses, a full dress with an extra piece of material over the front for modesty’s sake, and white mesh head coverings. Chris had adapted her wardrobe to their standard before we moved. The men were clean shaven and wore a plain coat on Sundays. This was a suit jacket without lapels or a collar that buttoned all the way up the front. I shaved off my beard, but never adopted the plain coat.

They had a little booklet of church standards that governed the clothes you wore and how you were to conduct yourself. People wanting to join the church were on probation for six months. If you wore the right clothes and behaved yourself you could then become a member. I began to notice that people watched each other closely for any deviation from the standards, and many young people did try to push the envelope without being too obvious about it.

One Sunday the bishop preached on how wearing plain clothes was proof of being born again. My heart sank, I saw that we had hit another dead end. The people here were friendly and earnest. I was sure that a couple of them were born again, the others were mostly just following the rules. Visitors would come from other plain groups and be welcomed as brothers and sisters. After they had gone we would hear what the local people really thought of them.

What now? Chris thought I was losing t way. She had formed a close friendship with one of the ladies and didn’t want to leave. I knew we had to get out, there was no way we could live a real Christian life and have any chance of passing it on to our daughter in a place such as this. But where could we go? We had exhausted all the possibilities.

An answered prayer

We had talked over our situation that night, prayed for direction and believed we had been shown a direction that we should pursue. There still remained the question of whether Dennis would need or want my help.

It didn’t take long for the answer to come. The phone rang the next morning before we had time to eat breakfast. It was Dennis. He started out as he always does: “How are you doing? How is Chris? How is Michelle?” Then he started talking about the ranch land that he and Ted were buying south of Moose Jaw and wondered if I wanted to come in as a partner. Well, maybe I wanted, but we had no money laying around for such an investment.

Then he said that looking after the pasture land would give him even less time for field work and wondered if I was available for that. “And the house on the half section is empty. It would make a nice little house for the three of you if you were interested.”

We were definitely interested. And so it happened that the spring of 1973 found us on our way back to Moose Jaw. We settled into the house and soon I was putting in long hours helping to get the machinery ready and then seeding.  Later in summer there was work like tilling the summerfallow and hauling grain to the elevator.

The main farm was 2½ sections, a mile wide and 2½ miles long, 1600 acres. The soil  started out light and stoney on the south end and got heavier as we went north. The north half section, where we lived, was Regina Plains heavy clay gumbo. There was another ¼ section a few miles further north and ½ section of cultivated land with the ranch land, 2,080 acres in total. At that time the practice was to seed 2/3 of the land each year. That meant seeding 1,380 acres, with older, smaller equipment.

To give an idea of how heavy clay gumbo soil behaves I’ll describe how we drove away from our home when it rained. Field work stopped when it was wet, so we would want to go into Moose Jaw. The east-west road south of our yard was not gravelled, therefore impassible when wet. The road north was gravelled, yet there was a slight uphill grade. As soon as we ventured up that incline the tires became coated with greasy clay. The road was greasy, despite the gravel, and it was impossible to steer in a straight line. I would let Chris drive and I would walk beside to push the car straight when it began to slip sideways. The road was that greasy that it didn’t take a lot of effort. Once we got to level ground we were OK.

The yard should have been a great place for our almost two year old daughter to play. But by midsummer we were plagued with grasshoppers. We found them annoying, Michelle found them terrifying. The grasshoppers became more than annoying when they harvested Chris’s garden.

As soon as we moved back to Saskatchewan we began to attend the one church in Moose Jaw that called itself Mennonite. I don’t wish to name any of the churches we attended over the first years of our marriage, nor their pastors or other people in the churches. I hold no animosity towards them and don’t wish to hold them up to ridicule. We met a lot of fine people and enjoyed the time we spent with them, but we were looking for a genuine Anabaptist-Mennonite church and weren’t finding it in any of these places.

I eventually began to understand what was going on. When the apostle Paul wrote: “Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1), his intention was that we would follow him in acquiring the same faith that he had.

A true living faith will cause us to live a life that is patterned after Christ, not after the zeitgeist of the era in which we live. There is an ever present danger that Christian faith will grow lukewarm, or even cold, yet a lifestyle pattern has been established that people will follow without comprehending that this lifestyle pattern is not the faith. It is faith that creates a lifestyle, but a lifestyle has no power to create faith.

This seems to have happened to many Mennonites in past generations. The faith gradually died out, yet the lifestyle was maintained for a time, sometimes a long time. Eventually their descendants became alarmed and sought a renewing of faith, but instead of returning to the faith of their forefathers, which by now was unknown to them, they turned to pietistic protestantism. Some of them gained a genuine saving faith, but now there was no reason to retain the old patterns and they began to run as hard as they could to avoid any hint that they were living by some external rule.

Then the pietistic faith itself became a pattern that their descendants tried to maintain. By now many of the current generation has little idea of what constitutes genuine Christianity. This was where we came in and it wasn’t at all what we were looking for.

An entry level Mennonite church

“I like to use the New English Bible, it’s easier for people of our time to understand.” We had eaten supper with Peter Dueck and his wife in their home near Lowe Farm. Mr. Dueck (he didn’t want to be called Reverend) was the senior minister of the Lowe Farm Mennonite Church. Chris and I shared our wish to become Mennonites and we received a warm invitation to make ourselves at home in their congregation. Towards the end of our evening, Mr. Dueck shred his preference of Bible versions.

So I went out and bought a copy of the New Englsih Bible and we used it in our family Bible reading time at home. We began attending the Lowe Farm church and soon felt at home.

In the fall it was announced that catechism classes would begin for those wanting to join church. We enrolled and spent an evening a week through the winter studying Mennonite doctrine. The others in the class were youth from the congregation.

Things were going smoothly; I was excited that soon we would be members of a Mennonite church. When we came to the end of the catechism and the day of baptism was just a week away, Mr. Dueck drew us aside and informed us that we would not be baptized. Chris had been baptized as a baby and I at the age of nine and they would accept those baptisms and just take us in as members.

I was stunned. I had read enough history and doctrine to know that baptism of believers had always been a distinguishing characteristic of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith. And we had most certainly not been believers when a form of baptism had been applied to us years earlier.

I was baffled, hurt and confused. We had made no secret of our wish to be baptized, based on our belief that the baptism of unbelievers had no validity. No one had suggested anything different, now our expectations were shattered.

We decided to look for another church, but which one? There were many around, including the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. I enjoyed visiting with the members of that church at the elevator, but shrank from actually attending their church. I guess we were looking for an entry level Mennonite church.

Mennonites are not Protestants

I applaud the sincerity and courage of Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg 500 years ago. I am appalled by the savagery of his address to the armies fighting the peasants’ revolt, when he called on them to “slash, stab, kill as many as you can,” and promised them a sure entrance to heaven if they died in the battle. He found a way to use Scripture to show that this killing would be an act of mercy, as he did later when he called for the extermination of Anabaptists and Jews.

I’m afraid that Martin Luther took a wrong turn when he decided to rely on the secular power to establish his reformation of the church. He was able to effect a reformation of some of the more egregious practices that were characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, but even Luther did not believe his reformation had produced people who were more Christian.

Anabaptists and Mennonites have always held to the concept that only Christian people should be members of the Christian church. That is, people who have been born again and whose life bears evidence of an inner transformation. We have never taught that salvation can be earned by works, as the Roman Catholics did in Luther’s day. But neither do we believe that a person whose life is devoid of all evidence of regeneration can be a Christian, as Luther seemed to say with his emphasis on Sola Fides.

When a person is born again a new life begins. Works are the life signs. If there are no works, the faith is dead, or nonexistent. A born again Christian is never fully aware of how much his life has changed. He is simply thankful for the peace God has given and tries to maintain his connection with God. His works are not done to obtain the approval of others, nor is his assurance dependent on what other people think. There are simply the effects of an inner transformation.

The Protestant reformers believed that the survival of their reformed churches was worth killing for; Anabaptists believed that the survival of their peace with God was worth dying for.

A living faith

I CAN NEITHER TEACH NOR LIVE BY THE FAITH OF OTHERS. I MUST LIVE BY MY OWN FAITH AS THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD HAS TAUGHT ME THROUGH HIS WORD.
-MENNO SIMONS

THE TITLE ITSELF (MENNONITES) HAS NO SAVING POWER, IT’S VALUE LIES ONLY IN THE FACT THAT MENNO’S TEACHING IS ENTIRELY IN ACCORD WITH THE TEACHING OF JESUS AND THE APOSTLES.
-REUBEN KOEHN

*These were among a series of quotations posted yesterday on Operation Noh’s Ark. To see all the quotations click on the link at right under Blogroll. I first translated these two into French and posted them on my French blog – Témoin anabaptiste

Worship styles – what is essential?

I was reading articles about the history of church pews and it seems most writers feel that pews became important at the time of the Reformation. In Roman Catholic worship the focus was on the communion and provisions for congregational seating were not of major importance. With the Reformation, the focus switched to the sermon where the congregation remained seated for a lengthy period of time and where and how they sat became more important.

That may be true, but I was raised in the Anglican tradition which did not fit neatly into either category. There were two Bible readings in every service, one from the Old Testament and one from the New. In addition there were a few significant passages of Scripture that were spoken aloud, either in unison or as responsive readings. There was a sermon, usually not lengthy, and often there was communion, but the real emphasis seemed to be on the Bible.

Contemporary worship music seems to have come front and centre in most evangelical churches today. Thus the worship leader who leads and directs this aspect of the worship service seems to be as important as the preacher.

Early Christian worship took place in places like private homes, forests, or the catacombs of Rome. This type of worship did not require a special church building, nor did it require pews or musical instruments. This was worship stripped to its bare essentials: Bible reading, prayer, and exhortation to faithfulness. And people risked their lives to be at these worship services.

Anabaptists retained that simple style of worship throughout most of their history. One could question whether the many persecutions they suffered made that the only feasible style of worship, or whether they were persecuted because they chose to avoid the worship style of the official churches. Both were probably factors.

Today, we of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite consider ourselves to be linear descendants of the Anabaptists. Bible reading, prayer, hymns and a sermon all have a place in our worship services. The sermon usually consists of some combination of exposition of a Bible passage, teaching, testimony and exhortation to faithfulness. It is not a prepared, scholarly discourse, but flows from a heart inspired by the Holy Spirit.

We sing both old and new hymns, without musical accompaniment. The message of a song remains with us much longer when we all sing together, rather than just listening. Many have testified of times of difficulty or crisis when part of a song has popped into their mind with words that brought comfort and direction.

Sin

“Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep,  We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders..”

“Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Maker of all things, Judge of all men: We acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness, Which we from time to time most grievously have committed, By thought, word, and deed, Against thy Divine Majesty. We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings.”

These quotations come from the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican Church of Canada. The first is part of the confession in the Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer services. The second is from the confession in the Communion Service. The capitalization is the way it was in the book. For ten years in my youth I, along with the whole congregation,  recited one or the other of these confessions aloud every Sunday.

These are only words printed in a book, readily memorized and often pronounced without giving much thought to them. Still, for those with ears to hear and hearts to consider, they were a constant reminder that we are miserable sinners and there is no health in us.

We can dismiss those words as meaningless rote recital. For many people that was all they were. But have we gained in spirituality when most churches today hardly talk of sin?

C.S. Lewis discovered 75 years ago that most people he talked to had no concept of sin. Many of the things that churches have always named as major sins did not seem to be sin at all to people. They had been educated out of that old-fashioned notion. Some way had to be found to deliver the diagnosis that all people are sinners before they would have any inclination to hear of a remedy for sin.

“I cannot offer you a water-tight technique for awakening the sense of sin. I can only say that, in my experience, if one begins from the sin that has been one’s own chief problem during the last week, one is very often surprised at the way the shaft goes home. But whatever method we use, our constant effort must be to get their mind away from public affairs and ‘crime’ and bring them down to brass tacks — to the whole network of spite, greed, envy, unfairness and conceit in the lives of ‘ordinary decent people’ like themselves (and ourselves).” (C.S. Lewis, from a talk given in 1945, reprinted in God in the Dock ©1970, published by Eerdmans.)

That is very much the challenge that faces us today. If we are not conscious of our own sin and sinfulness, we won’t get very far in trying to share the gospel with others. James admonishes us: “Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.” How often do we do that? How often do we talk about other people’s faults?

The Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church in the USA and most congregations of the Church of England no longer use the Book of Common Prayer. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, Anglican Churches are fast-growing evangelical bodies. They have broken fellowship with the Anglican and Episcopal churches in Canada and the USA.

Ten years ago the Anglican Church of Canada commissioned a study on their future. The conclusion was that if present trends continue, in 75 years the Anglican Church of Canada will consist of two members.The trend has continued, and will continue. A church that no longer acknowledges sin has no reason for its existence. The Anglican Church of  Nigeria is now planting congregations in North America, including one in Saskatoon.

I am an Anabaptist today, not an Anglican. I am just trying to point out a graphic illustration of what happens to a church that decides to drop the issue of sin. That is a danger for all of us. We are not apt to ever make a decision to drop it, we just let it fade away. In such a condition, we no longer have a gospel to present to our neighbours — or our children.

The fisherman’s net

fishing-net-1526496_1280

By the time I started reading the Bible for myself I had abandoned all belief in the Christianity that I had been taught at home and in the church of my youth. I had read books on philosophy and on esoteric religions. It was interesting to consider all the permutations and combinations of their explanations of the meaning of life, but not very satisfying for one looking for some clues about how to find something meaningful in the life he was living.  I began to feel there might be something in this Christianity stuff after all, but I was quite sure that I could not trust most of the Bible.

Thus I began to read the Bible, hoping to find that there were some nuggets of truth in it that I could use to realign my life. I don’t know how long it took – weeks, months – but a shocking realization began to dawn on me. The things I didn’t want to believe were linked to the things I did want to believe. Things I wanted to dismiss as mythology and the brutality of some of the Old Testament accounts, were picked up by the prophets, the apostles and Jesus Himself and shown to be part of a great cosmic story of the battle between good and evil.

I could no longer imagine that some elements of the Bible were worthy of belief and others were not. I could not separate the strands, each one was linked to others in a way that meant that everything in the Bible was linked to everything else. I was facing a decision – either the whole Bible was false and I should reject it and never open it again, or it was all true and was pointing me to a life of fulfillment that would one day lead to an eternity in heaven.

By this time I was inside the net, although I could have made my escape if I had wished. Soon after I came to the point of repentance and the surrender of my will and became a new born child of God. I have spent much time since then surveying all the strands that make up this net and the way they are tied and bound together.

Jesus told a group of fishermen “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” As we read the New Testament, we see how expertly they used the net of God’s Word, expounding  the Law and the Prophets to show how the old writings all pointed to Jesus Christ and His spiritual kingdom. This net was the primary tool that led to the explosive growth of the early church. It was used by many down through history, including our Anabaptist forefathers.

Nowadays, there are too many preachers who don’t have time for the study it takes to know the net and how to use it. Reference Bibles seem to offer an easy alternative, giving lists of supposedly related verses on a variety of topics. But how can one trust those references without a personal study of the context? Far too many people today think they are using the net when all they have is a handful of loose strings. Is it any wonder they don’t catch many fish?

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