Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Anabaptist

The quiet in the land

According to the Scriptures, Christians should lead quiet and peaceable lives. Is that the same as being “the quiet in the land?” That slogan has taken deep root among many who call themselves Mennonite.

The words come from Psalm 35:20: “For they speak not peace: but they devise deceitful matters against them that are quiet in the land.” This psalm is a prayer of David when he was being hunted by Saul and his army. Both Saul and David knew that it was God’s plan to make David king in the place of Saul. Yet David attempted to live peaceably until that day should arise, twice refusing to take Saul’s life when the opportunity was given him. Saul, on the other hand, was determined to slay David and retain the kingship for himself and his family.

I believe we can take from David’s example that it is not God’s plan for us to become politically active, nor to agitate to replace a government that we feel to be misguided and oppressive. But I do not believe it is God’s will to take this further to the point of being quiet about our faith in order to avoid persecution. This is what the German Pietists did by remaining in the Lutheran Church and partaking of its sacraments. This is what the Mennonites in Russia did when they banned the reading of the writings of Menno Simons.

I do not believe that being “the quiet in the land” to such an extent is compatible with true Christian faith. Peter admonished us to “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear,” (1 Peter 3:15). There is a real danger that we can become so quiet about our faith that no one would ever have cause to ask us about it. And if they did, we might not have a clue what to say.

In our search years ago for a church that still held to the old Anabaptist faith, we found many Mennonite churches that were like that. They called themselves Mennonite, but had no idea what that signified.

Even for those of us who retain the faith that was held by Menno Simons, it is time to strengthen those things that remain. Let’s not be shy about talking about that faith with each other, endeavouring to discern how the Spirit is leading in our personal lives and in our collective life. I believe there are people around us who will find the old faith attractive, offering something solid to hold on to in a world that appears to be crumbling. Let’s not be so quiet that they cannot hear.

Are we still walking on the old paths?

“The believer, in his baptism, is baptized into the body of Christ, the church, 1 Cor. 12:13,27. And then he puts on Christ and unites himself to him to follow him truly and constantly, and bearing his cross after him. And should the believer be called on to suffer for the name of Christ and to lay down his life for his name, he should be willing to be baptized with the same baptism of suffering and shedding of blood wherewith his Lord and Master was baptized when he laid down his life to redeem man from death, and this is the allegiance of all the true disciples of Jesus Christ in this world. Ye shall drink indeed of my cup, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with, Matt. 20:23. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you, John 15:18,20. They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service, John 16:2.”
-Henry Funk, A Mirror of Baptism, page 83

“Anabaptism was essentially a movement which insisted upon an earnest and uncompromising endeavour to live a life of a true discipleship of Christ, that is to give expression in fellowship and love to the deepest Christian faith, with full readiness to suffer in conflict with the evil world order. So long as this willingness to suffer was an expression of deepest faith, and this readiness to enter into a nonresistant struggle for salvation, was a living reality, just so long was Anabaptism a great and powerful movement.”
-Robert Friedman, Mennonite Piety through the Centuries, page 11

Must we only talk about Anabaptism in the past tense, as if it were a spent force? I don’t believe so, but I fear that we have reached a perilous point in our history.

Many of those who call themselves Anabaptist do not appear to have much understanding of what that implies. Over the past century, pietism has been creeping into Anabaptist/Mennonite circles, to the point that many of us now accept their definition of true Christian faith to be the authentic definition. But pietism was not the faith of our spiritual forefathers. They taught the need of the new birth, but for them the religious experience was the beginning of Christian life, not its essence. It was the starting line, not the finish line.

The way of the cross is not a quick first step, leading to a life of joy and peace, unruffled by opposition from the world. The Holy Spirit gives joy and peace within, but the cross is rough and heavy, speaking of blood, death and opposition from the world.

I am a Mennonite today because over 50 years ago I embarked on a search for a church fellowship that still lined up with the ancient Anabaptist faaith. In coming posts, I want to take another look at the old foundation, the old faith and the ancient landmarks.

A Mirror of Baptism, Henry Funk, Gospel Publishers, Moundridge, Kansas. Henry Funk,1697-1760, was the first Mennonite bishop in North America. The first English edition published 1851

Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries, Robert Friedman, copyright 1949 by the Mennonite Historical Society, Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana.

The temple of God

In the Old Testament the unity of worship was clearly God’s plan. That worship was to be centred on the temple in Jerusalem. While God prophesied the division of the kingdom because of sin, it was His intention that this should only be a political division, not a spiritual division. Two kingdoms were OK, two churches were not. That is why, when Jeroboam built a second temple at Bethel and another in Dan, he is forever after referred to as “Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin.”

Is it any different in the New Testament era? Let me begin with a statement that might shock some readers: Almost all the mentions of the temple of God in the New Testament refer not to individual Christians as temples, but to the collective body of Christians known as the church. Lets go through the applicable verses, one by one.

Revelation 3:12: Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God,
The promise is that the overcomer will be part of the temple, not the whole temple.

1 Peter 2:5-7 Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner,
Believers are called living stones who are built together into one spiritual house (temple) with Jesus as the corner stone.

Ephesians 2:19-22 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
This is very similar to Peter’s words, believers are the household of God built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets and Jesus the corner stone to become one holy temple.

1 Corinthians 3:9-11 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
The temple is God’s building with the help of true ministers of the gospel, the foundation is Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.
Ye is plural, these verses are addressed to Christians, as a group they are one temple. Paul does not say ye are temples of God, or thou art the temple. There is only one temple in view here., thus to defile the temple does not refer to the sins of an individual defiling his own body, rather those sins defile the whole body, the temple. Think of Achan, he thought it was harmless to take the things he did, no one knew about it, it would not bother anyone else. Yet the army of God was defeated in battle because of his sin.

2 Corinthians 6:16 And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Again, ye is plural, temple is singular.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.
This is the one verse that does speak of the body of an individual believer as the temple of God. This verse must not be taken as the key to understanding other verses which speack unequivocally of the temple as the collective body, the church. But one must first be spiritually alive, a living stone, to be added to the holy temple. “Ye are not your own,” – we have no liberty here to think independently or to think we have no need of our fellow believers.

Quotations from Anabaptist/Mennonite leaders of the past:

“For jus as there was but one Adam and one Eve; one Noah and one ark, one Isaac and one Rebecca, so there is but one church of Christ, which is the body, city, temple, house and bride of Christ, having but a single gospel, faith, baptism, Supper, and service; travelling on the same road and leading a pious, unblamable life, as the Scriptures teach.”
Menno Simons, 1539, Complete Writings, page 191

“Paul teaches us in his epistle to the Ephesians, concerning the true church, which Christ has presented to Himself, that it is glorious, holy and without blemish, without spot or wrinkle; that they are baptized together into one Spirit, and into one body, the head of which is Christ, and are joined together as members of His body. These have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father, of us all, who is through us all, and in us all. This is the true temple of God, in which dwells the Spirit of God. This church Christ has bought and redeemed with His blood.”
Claes de Praet, 1556, Martyrs Mirror, page 558

The importance of French

One of our ministers visited in Côte d’Ivoire and was invited to preach the sermon in a Sunday worship service. He spoke in English, the missionary translated to French and a local brother translated to the local language. Someone might ask, “Why didn’t the missionary learn the local language?” The answer to that is another question, “Which one?” There are around 100 tribal languages in Côte d’Ivoire.

Many languages of the world serve as a means of identifying a group of people of common heritage and distinguishing them from other tribal groups. Imagine trying to run a government, a legal system, a school system, a medical system, a police force, an army, using 100 different languages. These languages serves as barriers, walls really, around the individual tribal groups.

Another language is needed to serve as a bridge to connect all these tribal groups and enable the unified administration of the country and all its functions. This is where French comes in. Many people may still speak their tribal language, but it is apt to be only an oral language. For business and many other purposes the usefulness of French as a national language has become more and more evident. Not only within Côte d’Ivoire, but also in their relationship with other countries and for the ability to access all the resources that are available in the French language.

There are 75 million people in the world who speak French as their mother tongue. If we stop there, French does not appear to be a very important language. But if we consider French as a bridge language, a language that people use on a daily basis, that number is much higher, probably about four times higher. And that number is growing rapidly. It is estimated that 100 to 125 million people are learning French and that by 2050 the number of French speaking people in the world will reach 500 million. Some say 600 or 700 million.

English and French are the only two languages that are spoken on every continent and by at least a few people in every country of the world. There are other languages that are spoken by large numbers of people, but do not serve as bridges between people of different ethnic origin. Swahili serves as a bridge language in parts of eastern Africa, but isn’t particularly useful in Europe or North America.

On a local level, there are 6,000 children in Saskatoon, our nearest city, who are receiving their education in French. Some are from French-speaking families and attend a French school, most are attending French immersion schools. Among these are many new Canadians of Asian and Hispanic background.

What are all these people reading? There is an abundance of information and entertainment available in French, but the supply of literature that portrays an authentic Anabaptist-Mennonite faith is limited. That is the reason for the existence and activity of the French editing committee of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, of which I am a member.

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.

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.

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.

The church-state hybrid

“We must begin by pointing out that with the launching of the New Testament vision a new idea was being broached; the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely, that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine. The New Testament conceives of human society as a composite thing, that is, composed of factions. . . It thinks that even though men differ basically and radically at the shrine they need not clash in the market place.”
-Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, pp. 11-12, copyright 1964 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

As Leonard Verduin saw it, when church and state unite so that being a citizen and being a Christian are the same thing, a hybrid has been created. This hybrid may call itself Christian, yet its nature is contrary to authentic Christianity. Authentic Christianity is characterized by faith and love, neither of which can be produced or enforced by the power of the state. The religion of the hybrid is not based upon beliefs or doctrines, but by participation in the religious ceremonies and sacraments mandated by the state. There can be no mission in such a setting, no sense that some might be saved and others unsaved, as all are saved by virtue of citizenship and church membership. To refuse to participate in government-mandated sacraments is an act of treason.

“During the past half-century the world has witnessed the rise of totalitarian governments and monolithic societies, that is, societies in which all are expected to share in the same ultimate loyalty. These are socieities in which there is no room for diversity of conviction. I view this development with alarm. My conviction is that for a person to be his proper self he must live in the presence of genuine options, must be able to exercise choice, must, in a word, be free to enjoy a measure of sovereignty. In order to be fully human, a person must be part of a composite society.

“Moreover, it is my conviction that the composite society is to a large extent the product (albeit a b y-product) of the world-view of authentic Christianity.”
-Leonard Verduin, The Antomy of a Hybrid, page 7, copyright 1976 Wm B. Eerdmand Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan

This has been the vision of the Christians known as Anabaptists, Waldensians, Mennonites, etc. throughout history. Their refusal to compromise their faith by submitting to the hybrid has led to intense persecution on many occasions. Will we, who claim to be descendants of the Anabaptists, have the same steadfast faith when persecution comes again?

A Christ-centred faith

The Anabaptist/Mennonite faith is Christ-centred in a way that differs significantly from other Christian traditions. We believe in the virgin birth, the sacrificial death on the cross, the resurrection and the second coming of Christ. But what is most important to us is the life of Jesus between his birth and the cross.

There are six ways in which this matters:

1. Jesus is God in human form, therefore He is the clearest revelation of what God is like.

2. Jesus is the clearest revelation of what God intends human beings to be like. Jesus tells us many times in the gospels to “follow me.” The new birth is just the beginning of being a Christian, it is what enables us to follow Jesus.

3. Jesus reveals how God works in history. The Old Testament accounts of Abraham, Moses and Israel are incomplete without Jesus. His life reveals what Old Testament history was all about.

4. For Jesus to be central to our life we must be united with His church. It is not a viable option to be united with Jesus and stand apart from His body, the Church.

5. The work of the Holy Spirit is experienced through Jesus. Any claim for the work of the Spirit that is not in harmony with the life and teaching of Jesus must be judged false.

6. To make Jesus central to our life is to be concerned for the salvation of the world. If there is only one God, and He is revealed in Jesus, then those who know Jesus have an obligation to introduce the rest of humanity to Him.

-adapted from A Third Way, Paul M Lederach © 1980 Herald Press, Scottdale PA

A pure faith

Catholic originally meant a faith accessible to all people, in all countries, in all eras. Early in the Christian era, imperial pretensions developed in the church at Rome toward other churches in the empire.

That process sped up when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 313, granting religious freedom in the Roman empire. Again it was a gradual process, but by the next century the only freedom left was to be a member of the Roman Catholic Church.

Augustine of Hippo aided that process (he died in 430). He borrowed the determinism of Greek philosophy, Stoicism in particular, and interpreted it to mean that God has predestined certain people to salvation. Since only God knew the identity of those predestined to salvation, the church should compel all people within reach to become church members. The church ceased to be a company of the redeemed, but the body which ministered the grace of God to believers and unbelievers alike through the sacraments.

As soon as the Church of Rome began to deviate from being a company of the redeemed, there were churches who stood aside and would have no fellowship with that body which they deemed to be corrupt. People gave them many names, one that stuck for centuries was Cathar, meaning pure.

The Roman Catholic Church tried to wipe out the Cathars. Sometimes local officials acted as a buffer between the Cathars and the demands of the imperial church.

That changed in the 11th century when Gregory VII became pope (1073 – 1085). He believed that God had entrusted the church with embracing all of human society, giving it supreme authority over all human structures. He concentrated all church authority in Rome. He decreed that all priests and members of religious orders must be celibate. This was not mandatory before Gregory. He also reinforced the teaching that when a priest consecrated the bread and wine of the mass, they became the real body and blood of Jesus.

The church grew stronger and the empire weaker. Pope Gregory asserted his authority over the monarch of the Holy Roman empire. The church instituted the Inquisition and the Crusades to eliminate all dissent from the catholic church within the empire.
There is little information for earlier years, but the records of the Inquisition bring to light a network of churches in Languedoc, a region of southern France. We know these churches as Albigensians, from one of the larger towns in Languedoc, or more often as Cathars.

The Roman Catholic Church accused Cathars of non-Christian beliefs and practices. French historian Anne Brenon has researched the documents of the Inquisition. Rather than accept the accusations of the persecutors, she has looked for the responses made by the Cathars. The picture that emerges reveals a people living peacefully among catholics and others who did not share their faith. Until the Inquisition this posed no problems to anyone.

The Bible was the foundation of the Cathar faith; they rejected all other writings, including of the Roman Catholic church fathers. They claimed to be the true successors of the apostolic church, recognized only two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper and were remarkable for the purity of their lives. When the catholic church launched a crusade against them, they did not take up arms to defend themselves. However, the local authorities, who were often close friends, or even family members, attempted to prevent the massacre of the Cathars by armed combat. The Cathars of Languedoc had links to the Waldensians, and some fled to them for refuge from the persecution.

Anne Brenon has spent decades researching the Cathars. I am reading Cathares, le contre-enquête. Anne Brenon writes that she is an unbeliever, disillusioned with contemporary manifestations of what passes for Christianity. Yet the genuine faith of the Cathar people of many centuries ago touches and inspires her.

Cathares, la contre-enquête,  Anne Brenon and Jean-Philippe de Tonnac, © Éditions Albin Michel, 2011

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