Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Fifty years ago

It is 50 years since the Jesus people movement began in California. It followed close on the heels of the Summer of Love, that brief period in time when disillusioned young people believed they had found the solution to all the world’s problems. “All you need is love” by the Beatles was their theme. They gathered in San Francisco, wearing tie-dyed clothes and flowers in their hair, smoking pot and dropping acid, strumming guitars and loving everybody. This was the dawning of a new age of peace and love.

Somehow it didn’t quite work out. A lot of girls soon discovered they were pregnant with no means of support. There was an explosion of std’s, money ran out, a few had their minds truly blown, love began to come apart at the seams.

Amidst the crushing disillusion, some began to discover Jesus and found Him to be what they had been looking for all along. Suddenly there were young people everywhere, still looking like hippies, but toting Bibles and ready to talk to anyone about Jesus. And they were serious, the Bible had the answers to life, sin was real and needed to be repented of. That was how you found genuine love for everyone around you.

The movement spread like wildfire. In 1970 a rebellious young man from a small town in Manitoba found Jesus in the streets of Vancouver. Now he was troubled about the things he had done back home, acts of vandalism, stealing gas from farm yards and disrespect for parents and elders. His new Jesus people friends told him he had to go home and make those things right. So he did.

As he went through the community confessing the wrongs he had done and doing his best to make them right, all the while talking of his new found faith in Jesus, it caused quite a stir. He was back attending the church he had grown up in and other young people began to find Jesus and set about making right the wrongs they had done.

The pastor welcomed this enthusiasm for gospel truth and did his best to encourage it. He had Bible studies with the young people and they began to hold Wednesday night coffee house meetings in town, open to young people from near and far, where they sang the songs that were coming out of the Jesus people movement and shared their testimonies.

I was born again in the spring of 1970 and married that summer. In the summer of 1971 my wife and I began to attend this church. We were enthused by the love of Jesus and the Bible shown by these youth and the genuine changes taking place in their lives. I was a little older, but also a new believer and felt a kindred spirit in most of them.

There was just one little niggling doubt. Not about the whole movement, but about a few who seemed to go along just because this was the big thing, not because they had a genuine personal faith. The pastor didn’t seem to be able to discern the difference. Nothing that couldn’t have been corrected with the help of more seasoned older Christians.

Instead of that, the congregation fired the pastor. The enthusiasm of the youth was too frightening for them. The pastor moved on to a church a few miles away, the youth followed and so did we. The lack of discernment became more evident.

I have no doubt that the Jesus People movement as a whole was a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. But churches were woefully unprepared to welcome and guide the new believers. Some were appalled, some were willing to accept everyone without discernment. An untold number of people truly met Jesus through this movement, some fell away but the majority went on to live sanctified Christian lives.

Churches today are back where they were 50 years ago. Young people are disillusioned, leaving the churches in droves to seek fulfilment elsewhere. Is it possible that history might repeat itself? Why is it so hard to transmit faith from one generation to the next?

Jesus made two statements that seem contradictory, but really are not. In Luke 9:49-50 we read: “And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” Evidently Jesus has no problem with people outside of His immediate circle working in his name. Then we shouldn’t either.

But a little later He said: “ He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” (Luke 11:23). The New Testament picture of the church is a functioning body of which Jesus is the head. Scattered body parts, each interpreting the directions from the head according to their own understanding, cannot be the church.

The immediate baptism of all who professed faith in Jesus was a fundamental weakness among the Jesus people, leading to the fragmentation of the movement. The New Testament pattern is that new believers need to be taught before they are baptized, to ensure that they have genuinely met Jesus and are following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The pattern in Anabaptist churches has been that new believers need to tell their experience to a congregation of believers. When the congregation can say “Yes, we believe this person has truly met the Lord and we have seen the evidence that he or she is walking with Him daily,” then baptism means something. The acceptance and care of fellow believers is essential to maintaining genuine Christian faith and life.

A recent Canadian study shows that young people are more apt to maintain their faith after they leave home if they had had a meaningful relationship with adult believers other than their parents. Where else is this possible but in a congregation of true believers?

The inward and spiritual grace

What was it that I was looking for half a century ago? The Anglican Church had taught me that the sacraments were an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In time I began to see that I was not receiving any inward and spiritual grace from the sacraments. Nor did I see any evidence of inward and spiritual grace in people that I knew from other churches.

What was the inward and spiritual grace? Would I know it if I saw it? My reading in history eventually led me to the Mennonites and Anabaptists of long ago. Those people seemed to actually know God. They were persecuted, tortured, executed and continued to testify that God gave them strength to bear it all. Their lives also demonstrated a real love for one another and hatred for no one.

So then the inward and spiritual grace must be the reality of Jesus summary of the commandments: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

What must this look like in practice? Where might I find it? This was the era of the Jesus people movement, young people sang “We are one in the Spirit, We are one in the Lord . . . And they’ll know we are Christians bu our love.” It felt good at times, I’m sure that many of those young people really meant what they sang. But the movement didn’t last.

That brought another thought. Shouldn’t the inward grace bring together people of all ages in a genuine, enduring brotherhood?

I believe that I have found such a brotherhood. The outward evidence might not always be as it should: I’m afraid that anything that involves people is going to get messy at times. But there is a genuine connection to God and to one another that may stretch at times, but always draws us back together. I believe this is the inward and spiritual grace.

I have come to know many other Christian people as I go through life. Some are trying mightily to conform to what they believe the inward and spiritual grace should look like from the outside, and it just doesn’t even look right. Others appear to have the inward and spiritual grace, they are genuinely warmhearted people who love the Lord, but they find so few who believe just like they do.

I guess I need to add an unconditional love of the truth to my description of the inward and spiritual grace. A love for the truth that allows one to let go of his own picture of what the truth should look like and accept God’s picture.

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.”

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.

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