Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: church discipline

Am I a suspect?

We lived in a village in south-western Ontario for 12 years. The United Church Manse was right across the street from our home. Several ministers and their families came and went during that time. We exchanged a few pleasantries, but never really got to know them.

One couple was different. The husband had been raised in Québec as a Roman Catholic, but had undergone a spiritual crisis in his younger years and had switched to the only other church in his area, which was the United Church of Canada. We felt that he had truly had a new birth experience and we enjoyed visiting with him and his family. Our daughter babysat his children on occasion; one summer they sent their children to the Vacation Bible School of our church.

Some members of our congregation were interested in learning French, so I asked if he would be willing to try and teach French to a bunch of Mennonites. He agreed and we got together once a week all through one winter to be exposed to a little French. Many were complete beginners, others already had some knowledge of French. He even taught us a few hymns.

Being Mennonites, there had to be a lengthy coffee break in the middle of each evening with lots of time for visiting. He told me later that those evenings had been the high point of the whole winter for him.

During one visit he had some questions about church discipline. Then he told me that he wished that the United Church could tell people that “this is what we believe, and if you don’t believe it you have no right to be a member.” During another visit he told me that he believed there were nine real Christians in his congregation. He didn’t give names, but by then I had lived long enough in the community to have an idea who he might be thinking of. There were a few elderly people whose lives seemed to speak of an inner grace and one young couple who had recently been converted (and left the United Church a couple years later).

That minister moved on to another community, then died suddenly of a heart attack a number of years ago. Thinking back of that time, and of times before that when we had been “church shopping,” I remember congregations of one denomination or another where we fellowshipped for a time. In each place we found many fine people with good intentions, but only a few that we could feel truly knew God.

Which leads to a sobering question: Does my life, my conduct, my attitude and relationship with others convey that I am walking in fellowship with God, by the leading of the Holy Spirit? It is a fine thing to have a love of the truth and a keen nose for all that is false in others, but a critical, fault-finding attitude is no help to them. If someone is looking for a person with whom they could share their struggles and questions about life and faith, would I be a likely candidate?

In short, if someone was searching for a real Christian, would I be a suspect?

Be not conformed to the world (the present age)

And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.  Romans 12:2

Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  1 John 2:15

These two verses are often quoted by those who call themselves Anabaptists in support of the doctrine of non-conformity to the world.  But there is a subtle difference in the meaning of these two verses that I fear is often missed.

Let me explain.  World in 1 John 2:15 is kosmos, the physical universe, the earth and its riches, the people of the world, especially those without God.  World in Romans 12:2 is aion, the age or period of time we live in, the spirit and values that are highly esteemed in a particular epoch.  Note that the verse says this world.  French translations say the present age.

1 John 2:15 is cautioning us not to fall in love with the things of the world.  Romans 12:2 is cautioning us not to allow our thoughts to be shaped by the spirit and values that are held dear by the world in the time and place that we live.  In other words, it is possible to identify certain things and actions as worldly, and scrupulously avoid them, yet be entirely worldly-minded.

Buttons were originally hand-made from clam shells, metal, porcelain and other materials.  These buttons were valued for their ornamental function and were priced beyond the reach of the common people.  Most buttons today are mass-produced out of plastic and cost only pennies, yet there are folks today who call themselves anabaptists who refuse to wear buttons because they were used for ornamental purposes three hundred years ago.

I don’t mean to ridicule such people, buttons are not essential to a happy and fulfilling life.  Yet there is a danger that in focussing on avoiding something that was a temptation to pride three centuries ago they may miss more immediate and pressing temptations.

In 1697, Gerrit Roosen, elder of the Mennonite church at Hamburg-Altona in Germany, wrote a letter to Mennonites in Alsace from which I will append some excerpts.  The advice he gives concerns clothing, but could be applied to many other areas of life.  He regards luxury, pride, high-mindedness, fleshly lusts, and stubbornness as being our greatest threats and points out that the objects of our pride and fleshly lusts will vary from country to country and epoch to epoch.

“Moreover, I am heartily sorry that you have been so disturbed by some that think highly of themselves and make laws about things that are not required in the Gospel.  Had the apostolic writings stated how and wherewith a believer should clothe himself, and a person travelling in other countries would find people living contrary to these rules, then this stand might be valid.  But to contradict the Gospel in binding the conscience to a certain form in hats, clothes, shoes, stockings or hair, which forms differ from country to country, and to take upon himself to bann those who will not accept such rules; also to cast out of the Church as leaven those who will not avoid such, is something that neither the Lord Jesus in the Gospels, nor the holy apostles have commanded, to be bound by these outward things, and have given neither laws nor rules in this matter . . .

“In all of Paul’s letters we do not find a single word that he has given commandments to believers what form or style of clothing they should have, but rather he admonishes to condescend to men of low estate in all humility.  I consider it to be proper and right to conduct oneself like the customs of the country in which you sojourn.  But it is reasonable and just that all luxury, pride, high-mindedness and fleshly lusts be avoided (1 John 2), and not quickly accept new styles of clothing nor alter them to conform to fashion.  That is something to be disciplined.  But where it has become common usage in a country it is honourable and proper to accept such usage, but to walk in humility.  Thanks be to God, I do not want lust of the eyes nor pride of this world, but have always worn nearly the same pattern of clothing; but if I put on another style, according to the common usage of the country, should I have been banned because of it?  That would have been unreasonable and contrary to Scripture.  The Lord has, of course, ordained that there should be discipline in the Church of God for stubborn members and such as resist the law of God in the Gospel.  Therein it must arise whether that which we intend to bind will also be bound there, or is commanded to be bound.

“The Holy Scriptures must be our measuring standard.  To them we must submit; not run ahead but follow them; not too rashly, but in carefulness, fear and affliction; for it is a perilous thing in the judgement of God, to bind that which is not bound in heaven.” (From a letter of Gerrit Roosen, dated December 21, 1697.)

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