Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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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

The Works of Antichrist

[From a Waldensian writing dating from the year 1120. The historical belief of the Anabaptist-Waldensian-Mennonite faith is that Antichrist refers to a counterfeit of Christ.]

  • The first is that he perverts the worship properly due to God alone, by giving it to Antichrist himself and to his works, to the poor creature, rational or non rational, sensible or senseless; rational as to man, deceased male or female saints, golden images or relics. His works are the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist, which he worships as God and as Jesus Christ, together with the things blessed and consecrated by him, and prohibits the worship of God alone.
  • The second work of Antichrist is that he robs and bereaves Christ of His merits, with all the sufficiency of grace, justification, regeneration, remission of sins, sanctification, confirmation and spiritual nourishment, by attributing them to his own authority, to a form of words, to his own works, to the intercession of saints and to the fire of purgatory,  and separates the people from Christ and leads them away to the things said above, that they may not seek those of Christ, nor by Christ, but only in the works of their own hands, and not by a living faith in God, nor in Jesus Christ, nor in the Holy Spirit, but by the will and works of Antichrist, according as he preaches that salvation consists in his works.
  • The third work of Antichrist is that he attributes the regeneration of the Holy Spirit to the dead outward work, baptizing children in that faith and teaching that regeneration must be had by baptism , and then he creates orders and other sacraments, and grounds them all in his Christianity, which is contrary to the Holy Spirit.
  • The fourth work of Antichrist is that he has constituted and built all religion and holiness of the people upon going to mass, and has patched together all manner of ceremonies, some Jewish, some Gentile, some Christian. He leads the congregations and the people to them, thereby depriving them of  spiritual and sacramental nourishment, leading them away from true religion, from the commandments of God, draws them away from works of compassion by his offerings. By such a mass he has captured the people in vain hopes.
  • The fifth work of Antichrist is that he does all his works to be seen, that he may feed his insatiable avarice, that he may make all things for sale and do nothing without simony.
  • The sixth work of Antichrist is that he allows open sin without any ecclesiastical censure and does not excommunicate the impenitent.
  • The seventh work of Antichrist is that he does not govern or maintain unity by the Holy Spirit, but by the secular power, and uses it to regulate spiritual matters.
  • The eighth work of Antichrist is that he hates, persecutes , searches out, robs and destroys the members of Christ.

These things are the principal works which he commits against the truth, they being otherwise numberless and past writing down.

The Christian nation heresy

Time was that most Canadians attended a church where Christian values were taught and claimed to govern their lives by those teachings. In such circumstances governments found it expedient to pay lip service at least to Christian principles and to legislate accordingly.

Times have changed. A survey several years ago found that 16% of Canadians attend church each week and only 5% of us read the Bible daily. 55% have never in their life opened a Bible and read a few words in it.

The few of us who still read, believe and endeavour to live by the Bible are left in disarray by this shifting of the ground beneath our feet. It’s all the fault of the government, we say. This was once a Christian country, but it doesn’t feel like it anymore.

We are avoiding reality when we say such things. The government did not create the situation we find ourselves in and has no ability to remedy it. Political activism is a snare for the Christian, a means of diverting us into fruitless activity while the world around us pursues its downward course.

Another danger for Christians is to draw apart from the troubles of the world and concentrate on being ready for our Lord’s return. But this is just the self-centred attitude that has allowed the society we live in to drift into its present situation.

For as Christians we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens. Jesus said we are the salt of the earth. He was talking of salt as a preservative, the only means available in those times to prevent food from spoiling. What good is salt if it is deposited in little piles that have no contact with what it is supposed to preserve?

He also said we are the light of the world and warned us not to hide our light under a bushel. If we cannot talk about our Christian faith in terms that are readily understood by others, isn’t that hiding our light under a bushel? Worse still is to think we don’t have to say anything, people will observe us and be drawn to enquire about our faith. Really? When we don’t even know how to articulate that faith?

When the people of God were taken captives to Babylon, the Holy Spirit inspired Jeremiah to tell them to “seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”

Paul told Timothy: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”

Can we say that we love God with all our being and our neighbour as ourselves if we decide the best thing for us to do is live in peace and quietness and let the world go on its merry way to destruction?

That wasn’t the way the early Christians thought, nor the Anabaptist martyrs whom we call our forefathers. There is no such thing as a Christian country. Never has been. There used to be Christian people. Do they still exist today? Do our neighbours know anything about them?

The fulness of the time – today

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

News reports are dismal: mass shootings; random killings; skyrocketing suicide rates; ethnic conflicts; antisemitism; recreational drug use on the rise, with fatal consequences for some; economic instability; political instability; refugees fleeing conflict in search of safety, many dying in the attempt; violence against women; and on and on.

It would seem that the condition of mankind today cries out for the saving gospel of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed. Does anybody believe it anymore? In most countries the agnostics and atheists outnumber those who call themselves Christian. Even those who call themselves Christian don’t appear to have much of an answer. Many have detoured into save the planet activism; others into pop psychology and others into feel good emotional revivalism. None of these offer a genuine solution or a durable healing of the gaping wounds in the souls of men and women.

The gospel of Jesus Christ offers exactly the healing balm that allows men and women, young and old, rich and poor, of any skin colour or ethnic identity to be made whole and to be able to love and respect others, and to be loved and respected by others.

The gospel needs to be proclaimed, and today we have the modern equivalent of the Roman road system that allows the gospel to be carried into all the world. It is called the internet. Yes, there is immorality being offered on this highway. Yes, there are other wares being offered that are harmful; Yes, there are deceptions and dangers out there on this highway. Christians of two millennia ago faced exactly the same dangers along the Roman roads; but they went out to proclaim the gospel and the gospel changed the world. Can that happen again?

Part of the inspiration for this post comes from Bill Sweeney’s blog, Unshakable Hope. Bill suffers from ALS and cannot speak or move any part of his body – except his eyes. He has a computer that is controlled by his eye movements and he is able to share his testimony and the saving truth of the gospel with people around the world. I first read the comparison of the internet to th Roman road system in his blog.

Gospel Tract and Bible Society of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, of which I am a member, has a web site offering free gospel tracts to people around the world. Tracts are available in 100 languages, they can be read online or printed. Copies can be ordered at no charge for distribution, questions can be asked (though perhaps in only about 20 of those languages). Of course there comes a time when interested people need a personal contact. Visits are made and when there is a need missionary couples are sent to mentor and disciple. Churches exist in many countries today which originated from some individual reading a tract and then sharing it with friends.

I have a French-language blog. Last month at least one person in 65 different countries looked at that blog. I take no credit for that as most of what I post there is writings of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith from hundreds of years ago. Are people reading out of curiosity or out of a hunger in the soul? Does it matter? It would be enough for curiosity to be a beginning.

To return to where I began, I believe there is a hunger in the souls of men and women the world around that is not being satisfied. Most cannot even identify what they are hungry for and try to satisfy it with things that do not satisfy. That leads to despair. Christians need to proclaim the message of hope, and with the internet I believe we have the means at our fingertips.

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