Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: excommunication

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?

Gerhard Roosen and the Amish division

The year was 1697. Mennonites fleeing persecution in Switzerland had been living in Alsace for some time. There was danger without because Louis XIV had sent his troops to annex Alsace to France. There was trouble within because Jacob Amman, one of the Mennonite ministers, accused the church of apostasy and worldliness. He demanded a strict conformity to a certain form of clothing and other outward things. Jacob Amman excommunicated all the Mennonites in Alsace, Switzerland and the Palatinate who did not see things his way. He and his followers were in turn excommunicated by the Mennonites. The followers of Jacob Amman came to be known as Amish.

In the midst of all this confusion, someone wrote to the aged elder Gerhard Roosen of Hamburg. The paragraphs below are excerpts from his reply. Roosen was 85 years old when he wrote this and remained active until his death in 1711 at the age of 99.

It should be noted that the original Mennonite settlers in Pennsylvania had fled from Switzerland to Holland before the division and later emigrated to America. Thus they had no part in this unedifying affair.

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I am heartily sorry that you have been 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 ban those that  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 law nor rule 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 them of low state, 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, highmindedness and fleshly lust 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 usage of the country, should I have been banned because of it? That would have been unreasonable and contrary to Scripture.

The Lord has ordained, of course, that there should be discipline in the Church of God for stubborn members and such as resist the law of God in the Gospel. Therefore 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 judgment of God to bind that which is not bound in heaven.

 

Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace

The first Mennonites to settle in Canada came from Pennsylvania in 1786 and settled near Sherkston, along Twenty Mile Creek in the Niagara region of Ontario. The church membership increased rapidly. Dissension arose between two of the ministers in the later 1840’s. Bishop Benjamin Eby of Waterloo county was called in to make peace between Dilman Moyer and Daniel Hoch. For a short time he appeared to have succeeded. But in 1849 the dissension flared up again and Daniel Hoch left the church and was excommunicated. Benjamin Eby wrote the following letter in November of 1850.


This is a matter of which I would rather be spared; since it might only serve to raise Hoch’s hostility, which I hate to do, for my calling is to seek peace, according to the Lord’s word, where he says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Since you, however, so urgently urge me for an explanation of the above question, I feel prompted by my honest love for you to give you a scriptural answer, to enable you to prove it by God’s word.

Jesus commanded his disciples to preach and to baptize; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. Under this doctrine we have pledged ourselves; it leads us on the narrow way, the strait gate; on this way of the cross we are enlightened through the Holy Ghost, and learn to deny our innate carnal reasoning and self will; walk in obedience to Christ’s teachings; (excluding weakness) we share the divine nature; then we learn meekness and humility from Jesus; we love God with our whole heart, and our neighbour as ourselves; we thank God for His many benefits, and beseech Him for further protection according to His Holy will; we pray for our fellowmen, even our enemies who offend us; and when we see their souls in such great danger on the road to eternal perdition, we come before the Lord with fervent tears in prayer, and pray for grace for them. This is only a little of the fruit and nature of the regenerated children of God; and it is the duty of a faithful shepherd, earnestly and diligently to seek to lead the flock to this doctrine, and strengthen it therein; for the office of a preacher is a serious calling. Paul says, “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God.” And Peter says, “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.” And Paul, “Take therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock, over which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood.” Paul also admonished the church when he said, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves; for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do mit with joy and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you.”

Many more passages can be quoted out of the old and new Testaments on the duty of preachers, but I consider the above to be sufficient, whereby you can realize why I gladly hold to God’s word unwaveringly. And because of the conviction of my conscience, I can do not other as in my insignificance with the gifts which the Lord in His grace gave me, than to deal honestly, and not to deviate from God’s commandment. This is the reason why I cannot be in unity with Jacob Grosz and his followers, because they have begun to associate with those who do not walk in the doctrine which Christ and the apostles taught.

I admonished them to confess the truth of the Gospel and hold fast thereon, which they do not wish to do, but rather took their own way. I beseech you, you may take time to understand the full meaning of this proposition. I do not wish to judge other religions. But these were of our own church members, therefore I wished to admonish them to steadfastness, that they might not break their baptismal vows. For there where at that time they began to associate with, it is allowed to baptize children, contrary to God’s command, for He commanded to baptize believers. Christ commanded His disciples to preach the Gospel freely; those preach for wages. Christ commended His disciples to flee from one city to another when they are persecuted; those seize the ones who cause unrest, and bring them before judgments. Christ prohibited the swearing of an oath; those do not avoid the swearing of an oath. Christ commanded His disciples to wash each other’s feet; those say that was only a custom in the east, of which we have no need to do. They do not seem to remember that the rest of the commandments were also given in the east. Christ gave His communion to His disciples and said, “This do in remembrance of me.” Acts 2:42 it says that the believes at Jerusalem remained steadfast in the apostle’s teachings, and in communion, and in breaking of bread, and in prayer. They were as one heart and one soul. Those want to make the Lord’s communion common, and allow such the privilege to take it who do not remain in the doctrine of Jesus Christ. Christ commanded, “teach them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” We promised to follow this commandment of Christ at our baptism; those wish to follow their own imagination.

With this association Daniel Hoch also left the church, (that we cast him out, as we are blamed, is an error, for he left on his own accord;) and joined himself with that association, as he himself admitted in a letter of July 31, 1849, where he writes, “We, Jacob Grosz, Jacob Albrecht, and I, came to agreement last fall,” which agreement already ended in August, 1849. Then he came, once more to unite with us, but not in the likeness of the prodigal son, who came in repentance; nor like Peter, who wept bitterly; nor humiliated like Manasse. Were any indications of repentance to be felt, we would have embraced him with love. But unless he realizes and perceives his deviation from the church, and freely confesses that he allowed himself to be led astray, no honest church member can trust him as a true shepherd. For when a shepherd leaves his flock and flees, then the sheep dare not trust him, otherwise the flock may be scattered. I hope through the above writing you may understand my mind regarding holding fast to the teachings of Christ. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. On this foundation our rules and regulations stand, upon which the church of Christ must be planted, built and founded; and when one brother has offended another, confesses his error, comes and says, “I am sorry,” he shall be forgiven; should he not repent of his error, it shall be told to the church, and if he does not hear the church, she shall set him like unto the heathen. Thus the church has the full right, from Christ himself, to keep church counsel.

When the shepherds do not choose to allow the church their rights, mistrust, hostility, and finally strife follows, whereby the enemy has the opportunity to bring heresies among them, and lead the poor souls into destruction. This was the case at the Twenty. Grosz wished to govern the church according to the Gospel, but Hoch left him and would not follow him; whereupon Grosz had to make many grievous complaints, since he could plainly see that the church, instead of being cared for, was being more and more led into confusion, until finally, as if in despair, both united [or agreed] to leave the church, and fled together.

Spiritual gangrene

I had known Roddy for years; he had given true direction and support in the early years of my Christian life.  Over the years, when problems arose in the church, he seemed to have clear discernment to clear the fog of confusion and bring peace in the storm.

Now I was beginning to notice things about Roddy that shook my confidence in him.  He seemed to assume that he was always right and had no need to consult the congregation or the other ministers before making decisions.

I made a special point once of asking him about the time he announced the decision the congregation was about to make before we had even discussed it.  He laughed it off.  Then he told me that other ministers did not listen to the people as they should, so people from all over called him because he would listen to them.  That seemed odd.  From what I was seeing, it did not seem that Roddy listened to anything that did not glorify Roddy.

Is there anything more painful than watching a beloved member of the body of Christ slide into apostasy?  That is what happened to Roddy.  He was used mightily by the Holy Spirit in his ministry and when personal idiosyncrasies manifested themselves we all shrugged them off.  In time, his ministry became ever more of Roddy and less of the Holy Spirit.  Discerning when the Holy Spirit finally departed was difficult, as Roddy retained all his charm and confidence.  He was eventually excommunicated, yet insisted all the while that he had a direct line to God and those who didn’t believe him were deceived.

We have made many attempts to help Roddy.  He weaves and twists the words that we say into something completely different from what we intended.  He has become a comforter of those who believe themselves misunderstood and mistreated, and denies many fundamental truths he once taught so clearly.

“And their word will eat as doth a canker” (2 Timothy 2:17).  Canker is an old English word meaning something that causes rot or decay or that destroys by a gradual eating away.  In this passage it is a translation of the Greek word gangraina, from which comes the English word gangrene.  False and deceptive teaching is like gangrene in the body of Christ.  The poison flows through the blood stream and will infect the whole body if the infected limb is not cut off.

There is this one difference between gangrene in our physical body and gangrene in the body of Christ.  If our leg needs to be amputated because of gangrene, we will be without that leg for the rest of our life.  However, in the spiritual body, there is always the possibility that the amputated member can come to Christ for cleansing and healing and then be attached once more to the body.  There will be no scar as a result of that re-attachment to continually remind the body of the former corruption of that member.  That is the hope that we still have for Roddy, the reason that we still try to deal with him in love and compassion.

Please note that Roddy is a fictional name and the details presented here are a composite of several individuals I have known over the years.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name”

It is likely that in many churches this morning, someone will mention that Jesus has promised to be present wherever two or three are gathered in His name.  This raises some questions in my mind.  Wasn’t He present with us when we got up this morning?  Wasn’t He there when we read the Bible and had our morning prayer?  Wasn’t He with us as we were driving to church?  And if He wasn’t with us before we got to church, why would we expect Him to be present when we enter the doors of the church?

When I read the whole passage of Matthew 18:15-20, it becomes obvious that the promise in verse 20 is part of Jesus’ teaching on how to help a wayward brother.  It is not about a worship service at all, it is about church discipline.

It was John Nelson Darby, a founder of the Plymouth Brethren, who first used this verse in the way we often hear it used today.  One of the foundations of his doctrine was “the ruin of the church,” meaning that the church lies in ruins and cannot be reformed or revived.  All churches and ministers are corrupt and fallen from grace, all that remained was for individual Christians to assemble together for worship on the first day of the week.  He used Matthew 18:20 to teach that any group of Christians could gather for worship and experience God’s blessing.  To this day, the Plymouth Brethren advertise their meetings, in “Gospel Halls” or “Bible Chapels,” as “Christians gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, Matthew 18:20.”

The teaching about not receiving an accusation against someone of the household of faith on the testimony of only one witness can be found in many places in both the Old and New Testaments.  This teaching presupposes the existence of an organized body of believers which can hear the accusation and decide the matter.  The passage in Matthew 18 fits into this context, as shown in the following verses:

Deuteronomy 17:6:  At the mouth of two witnesses, or three witnesses, shall he that is worthy of death be put to death; but at the mouth of one witness he shall not be put to death.

Deuteronomy 19:15:  One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity, or for any sin, in any sin that he sinneth: at the mouth of two witnesses, or at the mouth of three witnesses, shall the matter be established.

Numbers 35:30:  Whoso killeth any person, the murderer shall be put to death by the mouth of witnesses: but one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die.

Matthew 18:15-20:  Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.  But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.  And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.  Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.  For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

John 8:17:  It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true.

2 Corinthians 13:1:  This is the third time I am coming to you.  In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established.

1 Timothy 5:19:  Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.

Hebrews 10:28:  He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses:

Peter and the Keys

“And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.  And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:16-19).

This mention of the keys of the kingdom has also aroused varied and wondrous interpretations, yet the meaning is hard to miss.  Jesus is speaking to Peter when he says: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven . . .”, “whatsoever thou shalt bind . . .”, “whatsoever thou shalt loose . . .”.  The usage of the singular pronouns shows plainly that Jesus is addressing Peter only.  Two chapters later, in Matthew 18:18, Jesus again gives the commission of binding and loosing: “Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”.  Here He is addressing the apostles as a group and accordingly uses the plural pronouns, but makes no mention of the keys.  That commission was to Peter only.

A key is used to unlock a door to let someone in, or to lock a door to exclude someone.  In Isaiah 22:22 it has a figurative sense: “ And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.”  This was spoken of Eliakim, who was over the household of King Hezekiah, meaning that he had authority to decide who would have access to the king and who would not.  Revelation 3:7 identifies Jesus as having the Key of David, meaning that He has authority to receive someone into the kingdom of God or to exclude someone from the kingdom.

This is the authority that He delegated to Peter at the very beginning of the church.  On the Day of Pentecost, when the listening crowd cried out “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”, Peter answered “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38).  This was the use of the Key to receive the first Jewish converts into the church.  A little later, Peter used the Key to receive the first Gentile converts into the church.  He asked, concerning the household of Cornelius, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?  And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10:47-48).

Peter was also the first to exclude fallen believers from the church.  In Acts 5 it is Peter who pronounces judgement on Ananias and Sapphira.  And in Acts 8:21 it is Peter that excludes Simon from the church, “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.”

The special commission given to Peter ended with these steps.  It was given to him to unlock the door for both Jew and Gentile believers to be received into the church and also to lock the door to fallen believers, both Jew and Gentile.  After this initial use, the authority of binding and loosing was exercised by all the apostles and by the church that followed in their footsteps.

At this crucial moment in the beginning of the church, there was a need for an acknowledged and decisive leader to show the way to his brethren.  This was the commission our Lord gave to Peter and he was faithful in fulfilling it.  It is not necessary to imagine any greater or more long-term authority for him, and he never claimed to have it.  “The elders which are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that shall be revealed: Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1-3).

A Fading Faith

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 somehow lost contact with God and it was our desire that their relationship with their Lord and Saviour could once again become real.  I also explained how 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 most 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 remnant 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?

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