Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Church of God in Christ Mennonite

Moving on, or pressing on

I really thought that spring would be here in just a day or two. The sun shone warmly on Saturday, the few patches of snow left were becoming smaller and smaller, we heard of birds coming back to a place just a few hours south of us.

Alas, it was but a dream. We awoke Sunday to a thick covering of fresh snow and rapidly cooling temperatures. Today the wind is blowing fiercely, cleaning the snow from open places and packing it into firm drifts in other places. The forecast doesn’t offer any hope of warmer weather until the 21st when spring officially begins.

No wonder the Romans named this month after Mars, their god of war. Many of the worst blizzards I have experienced arrived without warning during this month.

Wouldn’t it be better to live in a part of the world that never has winter? That sounds like a good idea on days like today. But – I have visited Arkansas and Mississippi at the end of March, when the weather was beautiful and I don’t know how I could survive a summer in those places. Besides, winter provides us with an all natural, ecologically safe barrier to things like fire ants, brown recluse spiders, Burmese pythons and other such creatures. Tornado season here is much shorter and less destructive.

I could go on, but you get the picture. I am accustomed to the hazards of living in this climate and know how to cope with the unpleasant aspects of it. If I moved somewhere else to avoid those issues, would I know how to cope with unfamiliar and unexpected aspects of the new locale?

A Saskatchewan politician visiting in British Columbia once said “A lot of Saskatchewan people move to B.C. because of the climate. Most of them move back because of the weather.” My father-in-law was one. He got so depressed by week after week of clouds, rain, and no sunshine in B.C. that he came back to Saskatchewan.

I think that applies to other aspects of our life. Someone grows frustrated in his job, his marriage, his church, the place he lives, and thinks a change will make things better. (I used the masculine pronouns because that is what I am and what I am most familiar with, not to imply that persons on the feminine side may not have the same temptations.) Most often the result is not what was anticipated.

Often a person will explain the change in one of these relationships by his need to get away from persons who are causing him trouble. Oddly enough, the same kind of persons, causing the same problems, are usually found in the next job, church, town, or marriage. And the next one after that.

If we take an honest look at ourselves, we are apt to find we have a full time job looking after the troubles caused by our own attitudes and actions. If we occupy ourselves with that, we will usually be quite content to stay where we are.

Sometimes there are legitimate reasons to move on, other than discontent with the people we have to do with. My wife and I tried out a number of churches years ago. We met a lot of fine people, but not the spiritual fellowship that we longed for. We have belonged to the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for 37 years now. That doesn’t mean we have found nicer people, or better people, it just means that we are content that we are where God wants us to be.

Here in the Swanson congregation we have been trying for over a year to decide what to do about our aging church building. Such a situation provides endless possibilities for conflict. But it also creates possibilities for confession and apology when attitudes and words have been uncharitable. It feels like this process is drawing us closer together.

Attitude correction

For more than 200 years, the government of Canada has graciously extended the privilege of exemption from military service to members of religious denominations which objected to participation in warfare for reasons of faith and conscience. At first, the law required conscientious objectors between the ages of sixteen and sixty to register annually and pay a special tax. These provisions were dropped in the 1850’s.

When the Parliament of Canada passed a conscription act in July of 1917, there was some confusion at first as to how this exemption should work. The Mennonite churches advised their members that when a young brother received notification that he was being called up for military service, he should report to the place assigned and submit to what was required of him Meanwhile, a committee of ministers would present a claim for his exemption.

Before long a system was worked out whereby a member would be given a certificate stating that he was a member in good standing of a specific congregation. The certificate would be signed by a minister of the congregation and this certificate was recognized by military officials as sufficient evidence to grant an exemption.

Before this system was put in place, one young Mennonite lad in Ontario received his call, but his mother would not let him report to the military as the church had asked. She probably thought she was protecting him, but it backfired. The army picked him up and carried him off to training camp. Minister Thomas Reesor was asked to intervene on his behalf.

Thomas Reesor and the young man were granted a hearing with the commanding officer. The officer questioned the lad closely, then turned to Thomas Reesor. “I am going to grant this exemption,” he said. “But I think you are wrong in your attitudes. You are living under the protection of the best government on the face of the earth and you are doing nothing to show your gratitude or appreciation.”

Those words rang in the ears of Thomas Reesor all the way home. He shared them with other ministers and leaders in the Mennonite churches of Ontario. In November, 1917 a committee was formed to help relieve some of the suffering of the war and to express in a practical way their gratitude for the privileges granted to them. The Non-Resistant Relief Organisation set a target of raising $100 for every young man granted exemption from military service.

Thomas Reesor was made treasurer of this organisation. In the early stages, one congregation sent a cheque for $130. He returned it, with a letter saying that if this was all their privileges meant to them they might as well keep the money. Not long after, he received a cheque for $3,500 from the same congregation. $75,000 was raised by the end of the war. This was a very impressive sum 100 years ago.

The money was dispersed to the Merchant Seaman’s Relief Organisation for the relief of widows and children of men lost on torpedoed vessels, the Soldiers’ Aid Commission of Ontario for help to wounded and disabled returning soldiers and to relief agencies working in the war ravaged countries of Europe.

I believe Mennonites have always endeavoured to be good neighbours, but it took the reproof of a military officer to launch us into organized relief efforts in Canada. In the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, young men and women are encouraged to volunteer for a term of service in one of the many programs operated by the church: children’s homes, guest homes for families with a loved one in the hospital, units that repair or rebuild homes after a disaster, or Christian Public Service units in a number of cities where young people volunteer in hospitals, rehab centres, nursing homes, etc.

Worship then and now

Then was sixty years ago when I was a teenager and member of the Anglican Church of Canada. Services would begin with this exhortation:

Dearly beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness; and that we should not dissemble nor cloke them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father; but confess them with an humble, lowly, and obedient heart; to the end that we may obtain forgiveness of the same, by his infinite goodness and mercy.

The service would continue with words of like eloquence, interspersed with a reading from the Old Testament, another from the New Testament, the reciting of some poetic passages of Scripture, either in unison or as a responsive reading. There would be a few hymns mixed in plus a sermon. All followed the familiar pattern of the Book of Common Prayer, which was little changed since it was formulated by Thomas Cranmer 400 years earlier.

It didn’t take long until you had the services memorized and didn’t need to follow in the book any longer. This was the great danger: the words were beautiful, meaningful and true, but one could recite them with nary a thought as to what one was saying. I have no doubt that many Anglicans were born-again people, but many, probably the majority, just droned along with their mind somewhere else altogether.

I remain very thankful for all the Scriptures read and recited in the Anglican services. I suppose this began in the day when most attendees were unable to read and this was the only exposure they had to the Word of God.  It was still good for those who were readers.

Now, in the Mennonite church to which I belong today, the services might seem a little tohu-bohu (the Hebrew words translated without form and void in Genesis 1:2). There is a certain order to the services, but they are informal and unstructured compared the church of my youth. Still, just as in Genesis 1:2, the Spirit of God is present.

Most congregations have more than one minister. None of them are professionals, they do not derive their income from the church but earn their living much as other members of the congregation. The hymns we sing are not chosen in advance but are chosen in a seemingly random manner by members of the congregation as the service progresses.  Lay brethren are often invited to volunteer to present some thoughts and a prayer to open the service. It may take some time for one to get up from his seat to do so. The sermons are extemporaneous, not written out beforehand. Sometimes there are no ministers present and the whole service is conducted by lay brethren. 

It works. We are fed, encouraged, reproved, inspired. We trust that everything, the hymns that are chosen, the words that are spoken, is prompted by the Holy Spirit.

This type of service goes back to long before Archbishop Cranmer. The apostle Paul wrote:

How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying. . . Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge. If any thing be revealed to another that sitteth by, let the first hold his peace. For ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints.

A fading faith

[This is one of my earliest posts on this blog, dating from four and a half years ago.]

For twelve years we lived in a little village in Ontario.  Directly across the street from our home was the United Church manse.  The minister and his wife were a pleasant older couple, professional and polished.  There came a Christmas Day where we were all snowbound after a three-foot snowfall that began the day before.  Some people’s children couldn’t make it home for Christmas, family gatherings were cancelled.  In the evening, after the storm had ended, the minister and his wife invited their neighbours to gather in their home.  We appreciated the gesture, but this was about the only time we really had occasion to visit with them.

Eventually, they moved on and were replaced by a young couple with small children.  These people were different — not much polish, but downright friendly.  We visited on our way to the corner store while waiting for the mail, in their home, in our home, our daughter babysat their children, they sent their children to our congregation’s Vacation Bible School.

I began to realize there was something else different about this United Church minister: he appeared to be a man of genuine faith.  Over the course of our visiting his story came out.  He had been raised in a locale that was pretty solidly Roman Catholic.  In his youth, he had searched for answers to his inner spiritual need and had met the Lord.  He no longer felt at home in the Catholic church and the only alternative in the area was the United Church.  He had joined that church, went to theological college and become a minister.

During that time a TV program did a show on the practice of excommunication.  One half dealt with the practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the other half with the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.  They interviewed a few people who had been expelled from the church and who seemed to relish the opportunity to vocalize their bitterness.  The next time I talked with my neighbour from across the street, he mentioned seeing this program, then said, “I have only one question.  Is there a way for someone who has been excommunicated from your church to become a member again?”

I explained that it was indeed possible and that most of those who were excommunicated were later re-accepted into full fellowship in the church.  The church only excommunicated those who had lost contact with God and the purpose was to awaken them to the seriousness of that loss and move them to re-establish their relationship with their Lord and Saviour.  I also explained that I had never observed that those who had been excommunicated and re-accepted carried any stigma among the brethren.  The re-acceptance was genuine and complete.

His response floored me: “I wish we could do that in the United Church of Canada.  I wish we could say to our people that this is what we believe and if you don’t believe it and live by it, you have no right to be members here.”

Another time this minister told me, “I believe there are nine real Christians in my congregation.”  I think I could have guessed the names of the ones he was thinking of.  Most of them were older, in their seventies, and I sensed something in them that closely resembled what I felt from this minister.  I think there must have been a lingering evangelical witness in parts of the United Church during their youth and they had caught something that carried on to the end of their lives.  There was also one younger couple who were born again during the time that our neighbour was ministering in the local United Church.

The years have gone by, the newly-converted young couple moved to a more evangelical church, the older true-hearted folks have passed on without passing their faith to their children.  The minister too died suddenly some years ago.  His wife was also our friend, but I don’t believe she ever shared his faith.

The United Church of Canada appears to be slowly dying.  One would be hard-pressed to find much trace of spiritual life among the adherents.  Neither is there much social advantage to be found anymore in attending the United Church.  Rural churches have been closing and consolidating for several generations.  Urban churches are declining in membership and beginning to ask for help to maintain their magnificent buildings.

Sadly, I am seeing the same kind of rot developing in churches that were once considered evangelical.  People are transferring from church to church in search of one that will be more spiritual than the last one.  Whole congregations are transferring from one denomination to another for the same reason.  What is the answer?

Keeping the faith

Most Amish trace their families back to Mennonites from the Canton of Berne in Switzerland. An Old Order Amish bishop once said to me, “There must have been a special strength of character in those Bernese Anabaptists that has enabled their descendants to keep the faith for hundreds of  years.”

The Amish divided from the Mennonites after some of them fled from persecution in Switzerland and resettled in Alsace. Some of the main issues were that  church members should not wear moustaches or buttons. (Soldiers had moustaches and buttons in those days were much like jewellery, made of silver, gold and other costly materials.) In my friend’s view, the fact that the Old Order Amish still shave their upper lip and fasten their clothes with hooks and eyes was evidence that they were keeping the faith.

John Holdeman was also descended from Mennonites who originated from the Canton of Berne and was also concerned about keeping the faith. His idea of the essentials of the faith was quite different, though. The concerns he mentioned were that only truly born again people should be baptized and that parents should have a proper love and care for their children that would guide them to avoid the dangers of youthful immorality.

John Holdeman’s concerns were shared by a few others in the Mennonite church of his day, but most seemed to think all was well. Almost 160 years ago those who felt that the old church was drifting away from the faith began holding separate services. That was the beginning of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.

John Holdeman’s first book was entitled The Old Ground and Foundation. That title portrays his concern to maintain the purity of the faith that has been handed down since Apostolic times. The essentials of that faith never become stale and outmoded, it can be adapted to every nation and era, yet still be the same faith. We cannot bind it to fashions and forms of a past era without deforming the faith and rendering it powerless.

Could this be idolatry?

Aaron, an elderly brother from the congregation whee we used to live, had been driving down a lonely highway in Texas. After an hour or two he saw a young man hitchhiking and offered him a ride. The young man got into the back seat and they chatted a little. All was silent for a while, then the hitchhiker said “Jesus is returning soon.” Aaron looked back, but the back seat was empty. He had not stopped the car, but the hitchhiker had vanished.

Or so I was told. When I asked brother Aaron about this he said it had never happened. This story was heard often about 35 years ago, always about a friend of a friend, never a first hand account. Perhaps it is still being told. What makes people want to believe stories like this?

A few years later thee was a story going around in Amish and Mennonite communities about an Old Order Amish family with eleven sets of twin boys. Pretty soon the number was up to an even dozen. Then they were reported to be moving to Tennessee, to join a Church of God in Christ, Mennonite congregation. Brother Rodney from our congregation was travelling in Pennsylvania with his family at this time and news came back that he had met this family. I asked him about them when he returned home. He had never seen them. It appears that nobody else ever did, either.

A few years after that, there were news articles in the local daily newspaper about a young father with incurable cancer. The family heard about a clinic, in Texas again if I remember rightly, with a promising new therapy. They would take the patients urine, extract antibodies from it and inject them into the cancer patient. There were glowing testimonials of the success of this therapy. But it was prohibitively expensive.

The young couple sold their home, there were community fundraisers to help cover their costs, and they set out with high hopes. There were a few early reports in the paper telling how he was beginning to feel better already.  Then nothing.

Two months later there was a tiny item in the back of the paper reporting the death of this young man. He left a wife and several small children who were now completely destitute. However, the clinic in Texas was probably doing quite well financially. (I believe they were later shut down by the authorities.)

Why are people tempted to believe such stories? Why are so few motivated to seek out the truth? When people choose to believe a lie, either because it is interesting or because it offers hope in a hopeless situation, is this not a form of idolatry?

The quest for health

Some trust in doctors

Folks today seem to accept it as fact that this life is all they have. They turn to doctors for help in staying alive as long as they can.Sometimes people blame the doctor when someone dies – it would not have happened if the doctor had done his job.

People also turn to doctors for help in staying happy, or dealing with emotional trauma. Yeats ago, they would have gone to their pastor, priest or rabbi for help in such troubles.

I believe most doctors are trustworthy. I also believe they can help with many emotional, mental and developmental issues. But genuine healing can only come from God. The doctor can help, but he is not infallible, and we are all going to die sometime.

Some trust in natural remedies

My wife and I visited a young wife and mother who had cancer. She knew her time on earth would soon be over. Yet she faced the future with faith, peace, and even joy. She told us that the thing that troubled her the most was Christians who came to her to propose one kind of herbal remedy or another. These were well-meaning people who were true believers in the remedies they suggested and made her feel that they thought that if she didn’t try their remedy it would be her fault if she died.

Some people spend their life savings on a new remedy or therapy that is not approved by the medical profession, but which promises to cure their ailment. Reports come back that they are feeling better every day. Then we hear that they have died.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that many prescription medicines are plant-based. I know that many herbal and vitamin supplements will enhance our health. I also know that many “natural” remedies do not deliver on the promises made for them and may even have harmful side-effects or interactions with other medications.

Some trust in faith healers

Another young lady was dying of cancer. A minister anointed her and prayed for her healing, and she was healed. She then was called upon to speak to groups of people and interviewed on radio to tell of her healing. A year later she was again dying, of the same cancer that she had been healed of. Her friends hardly knew how to talk to her – wouldn’t it be unbelief to admit she was dying?

This happens all too often, yet people want to believe that there is someone out there with the gift of healing who can help them.

Some trust in God

Isaac Mastre was a well-known minister and travelling evangelist in the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. There were times in his travels when he was asked to pray for a sick person. A number of remarkable healings occurred. In writing about one such incident he said “This is given to the church.” In other words, Isaac  Mastre did not see himself as someone with the gift of healing – all healing comes from God.

“Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: and the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him” (James 5:14-15). Please note that this does not say “call for an elder whom you know has the gift of healing.”

These verses are not just about physical healing. They point to the need for spiritual healing. That is the most important healing of all, because this life is not all that we have.

 

Holdeman Mennonites

I have been a member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for half my life (in a few weeks it will be 37 years out of 74). The church name is a bit of a mouthful. Ideally we would like to simply call ourselves the Church of God, but at least 50 other denominations have had the same idea.

Some denominations seem to have tried to pack their doctrinal statement into their name, for example The House of God, Which is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Inc. I’m not trying to make fun, that’s just an illustration of how difficult it is to come up with a name that clearly differentiates one church from another.

There are those among us, at least in Canada, who would like to drop “Mennonite” from the church name. The problem with that is there is already a Church of God in Christ and it happens to be the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S.A., claiming 200 times as many members as the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Besides, they were using the name before we were. So that’s definitely a no go.

Early copies of the church periodical gave the name as the Church of God, a Branch Mennonite. That sounds suspiciously like it may have originally been written in some other language (namely German) and awkwardly translated into English. The current name was adopted about 100 years ago.

Do we object to being called Holdeman Mennonites? Well, we do it ourselves, at least in casual conversation, so we can’t very well object to others doing it. But there is a little problem with both words: neither John Holdeman nor Menno Simons considered themselves to be the founders of a church.

Menno Simons was a 16th century Roman Catholic priest in Holland who experienced the new birth and began preaching evangelical sermons in the Catholic church. After a year he withdrew and began to associate with the remnant of the Anabaptists, who had been scattered and demoralized by persecution. Soon he was asked to become a minister. He wrote extensively to explain and defend the faith to others. Soon his name was indelibly associated with the faith and all who were of the same faith were considered followers of Menno. Which wasn’t exactly true, there were other prominent leaders, but Menno was the name best known to those outside the church.

John Holdeman was a 19th century member of the Mennonite Church who felt it had drifted away from the historic faith . His intention was not to start a new church but to encourage the Mennonites to return to the Old Ground and Foundation (that was the title of his first book). No such return happened so a small group of Mennonites, at three different locations, began holding separate services. John Holdeman was the main leader in the early years, but as the church grew many others worked along side of him.

Thus it is not wholly inaccurate for us to be called Holdeman Mennonites, though I am quite sure that neither John Holdeman not Menno Simons would approve.

[By the way, I have added a Contact Me page with my gmail address and questions are welcome.]

Problem or blessing?

At 10 a.m. last Sunday morning half of our congregation was seated in the pews. The song leader rose, walked to the mike and announced the first song. Then he stood there patiently as the other half of the congregation walked in and were shown to their seats.

(We don’t use musical instruments in our churches. Congregational singing is a capella in four part harmony. The song leader sets the pitch and starts the hymn.)

This is quite a common scenario in congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. People walk in the door of the church, see their friends, share greetings, ask what’s new and start to visit; soon it’s time for the service to start and they are still visiting in the foyer. I remember much the same thing happening the very first time we attended a service in this church, 41 years ago at Linden, Alberta.

Is this a problem? Every once in a while someone will ask why we can’t be like other churches where people walk in, find a set and wait quietly for the service to begin. That seems much more solemn and reverent.

I’m not so sure, having visited and even been a member of churches like that. Often the people don’t know each other very well and don’t really have anything to say to their neighbour in the pew.

In one church that my wife and I visited many years ago, at the beginning of the service the pastor asked everyone to stand up, shake hands with the people on ether side and in front and behind and introduce themselves. It seemed genuinely warm – until the end of the service. When the last amen was said everyone got up, turned around and headed for the door without another glance at those around them. We didn’t go back for a second visit.

The problem we have, if problem it be, is that we actually like each other and we want to visit, before the service and after the service. And when there are visitors in church we want to meet them and get to know them. Is there something wrong with that? I thin it’s a blessing.

“Behold how pleasant and how good it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).

It would be difficult to maintain this level of fellowship if our congregations became too large. Our North American congregations average 100 baptized members. The largest has 300 members. When a congregation becomes too large for the members to know each other well, they will often decide to build a new church a few miles away and part of the membership will choose to make this their new spiritual home.

At the same time, there are always families moving out of these larger congregations and establishing new congregations in new areas. There is a special kind of fellowship that develops as brethren from different areas unite to establish a new congregation in a new location. An additional benefit is that as the local folks become acquainted with these newcomers they might allow their curiosity to be used by the Holy Spirit to investigate the faith and be drawn into the fellowship.

 

Sing Out!

Alf Soper was janitor of the school I attended as a boy. Once he had been a travelling repairman for a farm implement company, then the boss of some large construction projects. New he was old and content to tend the coal fired boiler that heated the two storey brick school, sweep the floors, carry out the garbage and do all the other little chores involved in cleaning and maintaining this building that was daily swarmed by more than a hundred children of all ages.

Alf Soper never married, didn’t appear to have much of a social life, yet never seemed grumpy about the shenanigans of the children. He often attended the same little Anglican Church that our family attended. He would sit on the second bench from the front on the side nearest the organ. Our family sat the second seat from the back on the opposite side, yet when a hymn was sung we could near Alf’s voice as clearly as if he was sitting beside us.

Alf was born in England and was probably of pretty much unadulterated Celtic heritage. The rest of us were not terribly good singers and were content to sing along with the organ, taking care not to be too loud lest someone hear our false notes. Not Alf. He was in his element when we sang the old hymns and not the least self conscious about letting his powerful voice be heard. And I don’t think he ever hit a false note.

Years later, we were members of a congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in Ontario. There was no organ in our church, we sang a cappella in four part harmony, and most people loved to sing. A song leader would go up to the front mike, use a pitch pipe to set the correct pitch and lead the singing.

Except when Frank Adams was in church. Frank was another elderly man of Celtic ancestry, Welsh to be exact, and an amazing singer. He would sit on the fourth bench from the front and give out the number for Guide Me Oh Thou Great Jehovah or one of his other favourites. The song leader would dutifully get up, blow the pitch, start the song – and from there on Frank would lead it. The song leader would be someone with a good voice and he had the advantage of the PA system, but he simply was no match for the power of Frank’s voice.

I’m glad no one ever told Frank that maybe he should turn down the volume a bit. He loved to sing, he was enjoying himself, and to tell the truth, we enjoyed it too.

Perhaps we take singing a bit too seriously, trying to get every note just right. If you listen to one of our church services, you will hear the voices of little children babbling along with the singing. They don’t know the words or the melody, but they joyfully blend their voices with the rest of the congregation and it does not distract at all from the beauty of the singing.

When these children get older they learn to read the words, they learn to read the music and hit the notes, but lose their childlike innocence and become self-conscious about letting their voice be heard. Most grow out of that stage, but not all.

I’m one of the self-conscious ones. I learned next to nothing about music in public school, in the church we attended when I was young, or at home. My mother loved to sing, but we never had any family singalongs because my father didn’t sing. I do my best singing in the shower, probably always will, but I enjoy it when I see others sing out with no thought of “what will people think?,

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