Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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What does “Mennonite” mean to you?

Some people consider themselves to be birthright Mennonites because their ethnic origin is Plautdietsch or Pennsylfannisch Dietsch and their parents held to certain traditional values that they called Mennonite. Those values may have been cultural; language, clothing, lifestyle; or they may hae been intellectual: a somewhat counter cultural emphasis on peacefulness and helping one’s neighbour. Beyond these two groups there are those who cling to the Mennonite name but have become thoroughly Protestant in religion, abandoned religion altogether, or are experimenting with Buddhist meditation.

But what does it really mean to be Mennonite? Can any of the above persuasions and practices really be called Mennonite? Where does the name Mennonite come from?

The last question is the easiest to answer and may shed some light on the others. Five hundred years ago in Holland a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Menno Simons became troubled about the life he was leading. He began to read the Bible, repented and experienced a new birth. He remained in the priesthood for a time and gained some renown as an evangelical preacher. Eventually he found his situation untenable, left the Roman Catholic church and joined with those he considered to be true Christians, who had been scattered and demoralized by persecution.

MennoSimons

In the course of time he was ordained a minister in this group and set about to gather together and encourage the scattered believers. There were other noted leaders in the church during this era, especially Dietrich Philips and Leenart Bouwens. Menno does not appear to have been above the others, but became well known in the public eye due to his prolific writings. Dietrich Philips was also a prolific writer, but his writings were addressed to members of the church, while Menno often addressed his writings to the general public and to the authorities of the land.

For this reason the name of Menno Simons became very well known. The authorities put a price on his head and did their best to apprehend him, but he always managed to escape their attempts. In time, the authorities and the general public began to label as Menno’s people those who were of the same faith as Menno Simons. This was later shortened to Mennists and then Mennonites. Menno denied being the founder of the church he belonged to, and it would be wrong today to attribute such a thing to him. But it is still true that someone who is of the same faith as Menno could rightly be labelled a Mennonite.

So what did Menno believe? He once summarized the characteristics by which the true church of God would be known like this:

1. The salutary and unadulterated doctrine of His holy and divine Word. Where the church of Christ is, there His Word is preached purely and rightly.
2. The right and Scriptural use of the sacraments of Christ, namely, the baptism of those who, by faith, are born of God, sincerely repent, and have a clear conscience. And the dispensing of the Lord’s Holy Supper to the penitent, who seek grace, reconciliation and the remission of their sins in the merits of the death and blood of the Lord, who walk with their brethren in love, peace and unity, who are led by the Spirit of the Lord, into all truth and righteousness, and who prove, by their fruits, that they are the church and people of Christ.
3. Obedience to the holy Word, or the pious, Christian life which is of God.
4. The sincere and unfeigned love of one’s neighbour.
5. The name, will, word and ordinance of Christ, are unreservedly confessed, in spite of all the cruelty, tyranny, uproar, fire, sword and violence of the world, and that they are upheld unto the end.
6. The pressing cross of Christ, which is taken up for the sake of his testimony and word. That this very cross is a sure sign of its being the church of Christ, has been testified not only in olden times by the Scriptures, but also by the example of Jesus Christ, of the holy apostles and prophets, by the primitive and unadulterated church; and also, by the present pious, faithful children, especially in these our Netherlands.

This was the faith of Menno Simons. Who then can honestly say today that he has the same faith as Menno? Such an identification cannot come from natural inheritance, culture, tradition or philosophy. It can only belong to those who are truly born again and faithfully following the leading of the Holy Spirit, despite all the roadblocks and menaces which the world may place in their way?

Is that what Mennonite means to you?

Antichrist

The word antichrist appears in only four verses of the Bible, three in 1 John and one in 2 John. In the Authorized Version it is never preceded by the definite article.  There are mentions of “the spirit of antichrist”, “an antichrist” and “many antichrists”.

Rather than being an individual who appears at the end of time, the Bible tells us that antichrist has been present since the apostolic age. It is a spirit which promotes belief systems that counterfeit true Christian doctrine, offers counterfeit salvation or a counterfeit path to knowing God.

The beast rising from the sea in Revelation 13 is a picture of how the spirit of antichrist works. The beast is a counterfeit of Christ with crowns, titles, power, death and resurrection and demand to be worshipped.

John, who wrote to warn Christians against the blasphemous powers wielded by the empire, identifies the beast as Rome (“the city on seven hills,” c.f. Rev. 17:9). But his images reveal that the power of antichrist residing in the beast is far bigger than Rome. It lives on beyond the first century, to the present and the eschaton, wherever the nature and message of Christ are refuted in the service of fraudulent demands for absolute loyalty.
– Dictionary of Bible Imagery

An abiding church

As soon as we were married my wife and I set out on a search to find people who still believed and lived the faith once delivered to the saints. I firmly believed we would find that faith among the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptist & Mennonites of long ago. Time and again our search ran aground, and we would sadly move on to search somewhere else.

We met many fine, warm hearted people along the way, but their understanding of the faith always fell short. Some would say that wearing the style of clothes prescribed by their church was evidence of being born again. Others thought that the mere fact of wanting to be a Christian was evidence you were one. Some said that it was better to follow Billy Graham than Menno Simons. I mean no disrespect of Billy Graham, but I fear such a statement indicates a lack of a spiritual foundation and they would just as readily follow the next big name that came along, whatever kind of gospel he would preach.

Then there was this group that claimed to be the true church. I balked at that idea, which I took to be evidence of pride. But after encountering so many “wrong” churches, Mennonites and a variety of others, I began to reconsider. Doesn’t every church claim to be more on the right path than any other? Otherwise there would be no reason for them to continue to exist.

Finally I knelt in prayer and asked for help to understand what the Bible teaches about the church. I found there is nothing in the Bible that gives room to think that competing bodies, differing in doctrine, can all be churches of God. Neither did there seem to be any way to fit the idea of an invisible church into the New Testament teachings about the church.

Then I was led to Menno Simons list of signs by which the true church of God may be known:

Scriptural use of the sacramental signs – by that time I had seen the confusion in so many other churches and knew of only one that carefully proved those who requested baptism to see that they had indeed been born again and the congregation could testify of a Spirit-led life. This same church was the only one I knew of that would not have a communion service unless the congregation was fully united and any sins repented of and quarrels reconciled.

Unfeigned brotherly love – again we had seen many churches that tried to practice brotherly love, but didn’t really trust each other. Only one church seemed to have genuine brotherly love.

Unadulterated, pure doctrine – check

Obedience to the Word – check

Dietrich Philip added another sign – ministers that are faithful in word and deed. I had already noted that in this church there was the power to deal with ministers who crossed a line in doctrine or conduct without disturbing the unity of a congregation.

Thus, on February 11, 1979, Chris and I were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, the same church that we had earlier vowed to avoid.

One last thought: the doctrine of the true church does not mean that we think no one else outside the church can be saved. Here I’ll quote Menno Simons again:

“Reader, understand what I mean ; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen ones of God, in the before mentioned churches ; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elias ; but our dispute is in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways.”

Is your church a theology-free zone?

I became aware of the declining interest in theology on the part of most churches shortly after my conversion and marriage. Both happened in 1970 and I mention my marriage because it was only after we were married that my wife and I began to attend church and look for spiritual fellowship.

There was the Western Canada Revival that swept through the prairies in the early’70’s, uniting all evangelical denominations in sponsoring city-wide meetings where revival was preached in bigger and bigger venues. This co-operation was achieved by a tacit agreement to avoid denominational distinctives in doctrine.

A few years later there was the “I Found It!” outreach, which included an even wider group of churches to encourage the people around us to seek some kind of meaningful encounter with Jesus Christ. The nature and significance of this encounter was purposely left vague in order to involve as wide a range of professing Christians as possible.

I’m sure that many lives were touched and changed by both of these movements. Nevertheless, they did something else – they sowed the seeds of a belief that theology is divisive and a hindrance to reaching unbelievers with the gospel.

What are we then left with? A belief in a benevolent Deity who wants us all to get along and who wants to help us when we are in trouble. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not enough. Does anyone really believe there is power in moralistic, therapeutic deism to rescue us from our sins? Does anyone believe in sin anymore?

What happened to truth? Where is it to be found?

No doubt some of the old denominational distinctives were somewhat off the mark. But there was a day when people believed fervently in them, and quoted chapter and verse of the Bible to support them. Were they worse off spiritually than the bland, theology-free folks of today?

Do we search the Bible for truth today? Or do we search for encouraging, heart-warming verses that don’t ask too much of us? I believe that God had more than that in mind when He gave us the Bible. and the Holy Spirit, to guide us into all truth. I believe that truth is necessary for our salvation in the present time and for eternity.

Any church, preacher, or book that doesn’t in some way encourage my search for the truth is subtly deceiving.

What am I looking for?

I appear to haveinspector-160143_1280 a talent for spotting faults. I worked as a grain buyer for a number of years, which involved scrutinizing a sample of grain to detect foreign matter and any type of damage to the kernels. Later, I worked as a quality assurance inspector in an auto parts plant. The job was much the same, look for damaged or mis-assembled parts that we did not want to get to our customers for them to assemble onto a car travelling down the assembly line.

When it comes to things I read, I am quick to notice bad spelling, misused words and poor sentence structure, as well as urban legends told as facts and statements in Christian writing of dubious doctrinal legitimacy.

This is all well and good, and useful – up to a point. I’m not always sure where the point is when I should stop looking for faults. I am pretty much oblivious to what ladies are wearing and what they do with their hair. I think this is a good thing. My wife does wish I was not so clueless when she holds up a piece of material and asks me how I think this colour or pattern would look on her.

Lately I’ve been thinking that I don’t have much of a problem letting people know when I notice something that’s not the way it should be (according to my point of view, at least), but I’m not nearly so apt to point out things that I appreciate. Like the young lady in one place of business that I frequent who has such a warm and caring way of dealing with all the customers, even the difficult and annoying ones. Or the grand-daughter who is quick to see when something needs to be done and goes ahead and does it. Or the friend who has a knack for asking a question that will start a long and interesting conversation.

Maybe if I l speak up and let these people know how much I admire what they do, just maybe, some of their admirable qualities might rub off on me. At the very least, I have decided that I need to make a conscious effort to look for the good that others are doing.

The parable of the train-chasing dog

Many years ago, in the time of small farms, one such farm was located beside a railway that connected several of the big cities of the area. The farm consisted of a number of small fields, cultivated by a small tractor, and a pasture containing a few cows and their calves. There was a little valley running across one corner of this pasture with a creek where the cows could drink.

In this bucolic setting there lived a farmer with his wife, their three children, and a dog. Now this was a noble dog, whose heart was set to protect the farmer and his family from all dangerous intruders. And he proved this determination eight times a day when a great growling and howling creature approached on the railroad tracks. The dog immediately began to bark and to run towards this oncoming threat, reaching the tracks just as the last car of the train passed by. The dog continued to bark and to follow until he was satisfied that it was gone, then returned home.

There was in the same neighbourhood a person whose motives were not as noble as those of the dog. He observed that the farmer and his family grew accustomed to the barking of the dog and took no notice. This person began to walk by the pasture at odd hours, always bringing with him some treat for the dog, who soon came to regard him as a friend. Thus when this person came one night with a truck and loaded up some of the calves, the dog made no barking, for was not this his friend?

It occurs to me that I have known in my time several persons who resembled this dog. They fancied themselves to be watchmen of Zion, and began to bray loudly at the approach of any innovation that they regarded as a threat. People learned to ignore them, for were they not always braying? And did not the imagined threats always pass by harmlessly?

Yet these same self-appointed watchmen were prone to become intrigued by a speaker or a book that professed to uphold the faith, yet contained some unorthodox line of thought. As these watchmen considered and digested these ideas, they spoke of them often to others. The result was that a few others found the new way of looking at things so captivating that they left the fold to follow the errant doctrine. And no one quite knew what had happened.


A short while ago I published an item in this space entitled The Millionaire and the Scrublady, having no knowledge of who had written it.  A reader informed me that it came from Parables of a Country Parson by William E Barton. I have since obtained a copy of the book. Therein is the story of The Dog and the Limited, wherein the writer observes a dog futilely attempting to catch a passenger train. It seemed to me that the dog was not trying to catch the train but to chase it away. And in this he succeeded, as far as he could understand. Those thoughts led to the writing above.

Living in the presence of the Shepherd

There are well-meaning Christians who put much emphasis abiding by correct doctrine, even adding numerous rules of guidelines as rules of conduct. The intention is to construct a barrier around the people of God so that they would know not to stray far from the truth as given in the Word of God.

But where is the Shepherd in this scene? It often seems that He has been relegated to a supporting role, the barrier that surrounds the flock is considered greater protection than the Shepherd.

Well, fences work well for cattle. When a herd of cattle is turned out into a new pasture, they will follow the fence around until they are sure that there are no weak spots. Then they will settle down and not trouble the fence again. Oh sure, there will often be one fence jumper in a herd, but the rest will contentedly ignore him and feed on the pasture.

Sheep are not like that. If the flock sees that one sheep has found a weak spot in the fence, they will all follow. That is why sheep need a shepherd, and that is why the Bible depicts the people of God as a flock of sheep. If left to ourselves, we are all inclined to follow the wayward sheep.

In the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd. He calls His own sheep by name; they know His voice. They stay close to Him because they know He will lead them to good pasture and water, He will protect them from danger, He will care for the weak and injured.

Why then does the Bible spend so much time teaching doctrine? Why do we need doctrines if we are in the presence of the Shepherd? The doctrines are a big part of what enables us to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd from all the impostors out there. Jesus spoke of thieves, robbers and hirelings. They all call at first with pleasant, enticing voices. Some are trying to steal and destroy the sheep. Some are merely mercenaries who are acting as shepherds for personal benefit and do not care enough for the sheep to put themselves in the way of danger. “The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”

Jesus says He is the door of the sheepfold. The sheepfold was a walled enclosure to protect the sheep at night during the colder months. The shepherd stood at the door to examine his sheep as they came in, to make sure that all his sheep made it safely into the fold and that no others tried to crowd in. Often he would sleep in the doorway at night to make sure no wild animals tried to get it.

The sheep knew and trusted their shepherd. They would not go out to pasture until the shepherd called them by name and went ahead to check for danger and to lead them to the best pasture.

Here is a God given picture of the ideal state of the children of God. To live constantly in the presence of the Good Shepherd is to live in peace and assurance that all is well. I am where the Shepherd wants me to be; I am doing what the Shepherd wants me to do.

By all means, let’s study the Word of God and learn the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. They all point us to the Shepherd and help us to know Him better. But may we never begin to think that our safety is simply in knowing and obeying the doctrines. It is in knowing and obeying the Shepherd who is revealed by the Word and the doctrines.

The Dogma is the Drama

[Excerpts from Letters to a Diminished Church, Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Dogma, by Dorthy L. Sayers (1893-1957). © 2004 by W Publishing Group, a division of Thomas Nelson, Inc. My copy is the ebook version, purchased from Kobo and read on my Kobo ereader and the Kobo app on my Android smart phone.]

Christ, in His divine innocence, said to the woman of Samaria, “Ye worship ye know not what” — being apparently under the impression that it might be desirable, on the whole, to know what one was worshipping. He thus showed Himself sadly out of touch with the twentieth century mind . . . . The only drawback to this demand for a generalized and undirected worship is the practical difficulty of arousing any sort of enthusiasm for the worship of nothing in particular.

It would not perhaps be altogether surprising if . . . there were a number of people who knew all about Christian doctrine and disliked it. It is more startling to discover how many people there are who heartily dislike and despise Christianity without having the faintest notion what it is. If you tell them, they cannot believe you. I do not mean that they cannot believe the doctrine; that would be understandable enough since it takes some believing. I mean that they simply cannot believe that anything so interesting, so exciting, and so dramatic can be the orthodox creed of the church.

Let us, in heaven’s name, drag out the divine drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it upon an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious — others will pass into the kingdom of heaven before them. If all men are offended by Christ, let them be offended; but where is the sense of their being offended about something that is not Christ and is nothing like Him? We do Him singularly little honour by watering down His personality till it could not offend a fly. Surely it is not the business of the church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.

Exegesis vs Eisegesis

I know some people will see this title and will already have a pretty good idea of what I am going to say. Others may wonder why I am using such fancy words. I hope you will all bear with me, read the post and feel free to comment.

In layman’s terms, exegesis is what is happening when we search the Scriptures to find out what God is saying to us. Eisegesis, on the other hand,  is what is happening when we come to the Scriptures knowing already what we want them to say and search for verses to bolster our position. I hope I don’t have to tell you on which side I want to be.

There are several reasons why we might want to read into the Scriptures the beliefs we already hold. One is that we have been taught certain things in our denominational tradition and we very much want them to be true. Thus we select verses that seem to support this position, most likely taking them out of context, and ignore those verses that seem to say something else.

Another, more subtle, reason is that we may be afraid of being deceived if we just open ourselves to what we read in the Word of God. Much better to have a pre-established framework of belief and read only those portions of Scripture that seem to be in accord with that framework. The danger is that, even if that framework is completely true, we will not be fed by reading the Bible in this way.

I don’t believe that we will be deceived if we come to the Bible with an open mind and heart, genuinely desiring that God would reveal to us the truth that we need to know at each stage of our spiritual journey. It is important to read the whole Bible and to read it prayerfully. The things that seem to be contradictory will all make sense if we do not isolate one passage of Scripture from the rest.

Years ago, a man I worked with would often approach me with questions about Bible passages. As we discussed them, it was clear that he  understood clearly what the Bible was saying. He told me that he had been converted in his later youth and had been fearful of being deceived when reading the Bible, as he was hearing so many contradictory views. So each time he picked up the Bible he would pray that God would protect him from deception and reveal His truth to him. It was evident from our discussions that God had answered his prayers.

The sad part of the story is that he had fallen into sin and was no longer following what he knew to be true. One day he did something at work that got him fired. He moved far away and I never saw him again.

Still today I believe his approach to the Bible was right. So much of the religious confusion of our day could be resolved if Christians everywhere would just open their hearts and minds to what God is saying to them in His Word, and then be obedient to what is revealed to them.

What do we have inside?

Ravi Zacharias, in one of his books, quotes an African proverb which says: “A man shows what he has inside by what spills out when he is bumped.”  Much as we might wish to avoid it, we are going to be bumped, by circumstances that we did not foresee and by people who do not see things as we do.  If the words that then come spilling out of our mouth are caustic and foul-smelling, this is not a good sign.

The African proverb just quoted is simply a reformatting of the words of Jesus in Matthew 15:18: “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man.”

The apostles give similar instructions: “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (James 3:10).  “Wherefore laying aside all malice, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and all evil speakings, as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:1-2).   “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice” (the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 4:31).

The only conclusion to draw from this is that doctrinal truth is not the sole test of authentic Christianity.  As Blaise Pascal said, truth without love is really idolatry.  Yet we dare not make a choice between the two.  Truth is every bit as important as love to our salvation.  In 2 Thessalonians 2:10, the Apostle Paul speaks of ” all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.”

How then can we be saved?  To ask that question is to reveal doubt about the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer.  It is one and the same Spirit which guides us into all truth (John 16:13) and grants unto us the fruit of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, goodness, faith (Galatians 5:22).

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