Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Free will

We must believe in free will — we have no choice. Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Hmm. I wonder what he was getting at? Having nothing more to go on to discern a more complex meaning in Mr. Singer’s thought than this fragment, I will say that I agree.

When Moses told the people “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life;” and Joshua later said to the same people “ Choose you this day whom ye will serve,” we must assume that the people really were free to make the choices offered to them.

Yet many Christian denominations, probably most, teach that we do not have free will to choose our own destiny. They magnify the sovereignty of God to the point of saying that if humans can choose whether or not to answer God’s call then we are saying that God is less than almighty.

But if words mean anything, the Bible is offering us just such a choice, from Genesis to Revelation. Where then do people get the idea that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says?

Determinism, the belief that the gods, karma, fate, or whatever you want to call the ultimate power in the universe, have pre-determined every detail of one’s life, has always been part of Eastern religions. It entered Western thought through Zeno, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy.

It entered pseudo-Christian thought through Augustine, who laid the intellectual foundation for Roman Catholic policy. Augustine adapted Zeno’s thought, saying that God has predestined some people to be saved, and some to be damned. Since it is not given to mankind to know into which category they fall, the church has the right to compel all people within its territory to be members of the church and to turn the non-compliant over to the civil authorities. And since the church and the civil power were in complete unity, disobedience to the church was treason to the state and must be punished by death.

Since it could not be known who was predestined to salvation or damnation, then one could not discern that by the moral conduct of the person. In fact, those who led a pure and holy life were deemed to be deceived and the worst of heretics. This led to such aberrations in the Middle Ages as girls being led to the executioner because they refused the advances of the priests.

During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin refined the doctrine of Augustine; the essence of Calvin’s doctrine is often described by the TULIP formula:
Total depravity – the depravity of mankind prevents them from choosing to answer God’s call.
Unconditional election – The conduct of the elect has no part in determining their salvation.
Limited atonement – Christ only died for the elect, those predestined to be saved.
Irresistible grace – the grace of God is imparted to the elect, who have no power to resist it.
Perseverance of the saints – The elect can never lose their salvation.

This is the explicit doctrine of the Presbyterian, Reformed and most Baptist churches. Other churches believe much of what Calvin taught, but may be a bit nebulous about the origin of their beliefs.

The problem with believing Calvin’s doctrine is that church pews are occupied by people who believe that they have been born again through the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, but show little evidence of leading a Christian life. The old Westminster Confession got around this by saying that a born again person may take many years to develop an assurance of salvation. The modern teaching is that the new birth and conversion are quite different things, the new birth being instantaneous and conversion being a slow, almost imperceptible process.

The Bible makes no such distinction, the words are used interchangeably. There was a transition period for the disciples who walked with Jesus but did not receive the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost. Jesus told Peter “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” It was only a few days later that Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized. After that, the Apostle Paul says “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

Some may be confused by Paul’s thoughts on predestination. Read the passages as a whole. He is saying that God had predestined that there should be no more division between Jews and Gentiles, but that all could be saved in the same way. He is not speaking of individuals being predestined to salvation. At the end of one long passage on predestination, he writes: “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.”

Paul, the master apologist

Being an apologist for the Christian faith may sound like expressing our regrets for being Christians. The true meaning is quite the opposite; it means being able to talk about our faith without fear or embarrassment, and to always be ready to “give an answer” (apologia) to those who ask about it.

The apostle Paul believed that the salvation that had been freely given to him made him a debtor to others. He owed it to the civilized and the uncivilized, the learned and the ignorant. (Romans 1:14) to tell them the good news of salvation . His faith in Jesus Christ empowered him to speak and write without shame or reticence (verses 15 & 16).

In order to fulfill this obligation he became all things to all people, able to relate to all people, no matter what their religion, ethnic origin or social status.

He used examples from the popular culture of the day to describe how a Christian should live. The Olympic Games had been held for over 800 years at the time of his ministry. So Paul spoke of Christian life as a foot race, an effort to reach the goal; and he spoke of the training, discipline and temperance that were required of an athlete.“They do it to obtain a temporal crown, we an eternal.”

He spoke of wrestling, explaining that our opponents in the wrestling match of life are not other people, but spirits and powers from the realm of darkness.

The Roman Empire extended over southern Europe, North Africa and Eastern Asia. Roman soldiers were seen everywhere, ready to maintain order. Paul spoke of the discipline required of a soldier and how he must not entangle himself with things that would hinder his service.

In Athens he was brought before the philosopher judges on suspicion of introducing a new god. Athens had many gods but the law forbade anyone trying to add more. Paul began by mentioning the altar to an unknown god and saying that he was just explaining who that unknown god was. He then proceeded to piece together ideas and quotations that were familiar to the Epicureans and Stoics, leading up to a declaration that God would judge the world by one who had been resurrected from the dead. The men sitting in judgement had followed his reasoning up to this point, but now some mocked and others wanted more time to think about what they had heard. One of the judges believed, along with a few other Athenians.

Paul did not try to tell Gentiles that they first needed to learn to think like Jews to understand the story of salvation. He made himself familiar with the Gentile culture and used everyday things to explain Christian faith and life.

We don’t have to immerse ourselves in pop culture in order to follow Paul’s example. Yet, if we hold ourselves completely aloof from the people around us, how are we going to be able to talk to them? A good place to start would be to ask them questions, show an interest in their lives, rather than hoping they will be interested in us.

Peter writes that we should be ready to answer everyone that asks us the reason of the hope that we have. (1 Peter 3:15). Often we will catch subtle hints that people want to know, but don’t quite know where to begin or how to ask. Most people have preconceived ideas about Christians and will try to fit us into the framework of what they think they know. Here is an opportunity, not to unload a long explanation, but to tell a story or make some allusion to how the longings expressed in popular culture are in fact groping towards answers that can only come from faith in Jesus Christ.

Apologetics is best done by building a relationship with others and treating them with respect. We are not teachers with all the answers, just ordinary people with insights gained from our relationship with Jesus and with fellow believers.

Telling about our failures and how we learned from them will put us on the same level as others and make them feel that the kind of Christian faith we have is not something beyond their reach.

Amazing grace

That saved a wretch like me
I am not wretched because of things others have done to me, even though those things may have been horribly wretched. I am wretched because of the things I have done, the choices I have made.

God is not a sadistic puppet master who made me do bad things, then condemned me to eternal punishment for doing them. There were always better choices available to me, but I always wanted to blame someone else for my wrong choices.

Eve did not force Adam to eat of the fruit. The serpent did not force Eve to pluck the fruit and bite into it. God did not force Satan to rebel against Him. None of these things were pre-determined. Neither were the bad choices that I made. I am wretched because I deliberately made those bad choices.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
It was hard to see that it was grace that brought me face to face with my wretchedness, that made me feel the crushing weight of my guilt and fear the utter hopelessness of my situation. Yet without that I would never have made the next step.

I admitted to myself and to God that all my problems were of my own doing, nobody had pushed me, all my problems were caused by choices I had made.

And grace my fears relieved
Suddenly, unexpectedly, that crushing weight of guilt, and the fear of God’s judgement were gone. God’s grace had come down and I was forgiven and free.

That is why grace is so amazing.

Reality

  1. This is my Father’s world. I did not ask to be here. I cannot choose to be in another world. This is it and I may as well make the best of it.
  2.  I am made in my Father’s image. Even though I am earthly, like the animals, with all the capacity for savagery that entails, I am also a spiritual being, able to know and communicate with my Father, with all the wonderful possibilities that provides.
  3.  This world, this life, is not all there is. Voices are coming to me from beyond this world, alluring me to discontent, envy, anger, rebellion. Other voices, softer voices, urge me to love and be loved. My destination after this life depends on which voices I choose to listen to and obey.

This is reality. I may wish it wasn’t like that; I may choose to believe that it is not like that. But in the end, I cannot escape reality. Denying reality will not make me happy, now or ever. Happiness is only to be found in living in this world as it really is, not as it may appear to be or as I would wish it to be. Happiness is to be found in living to make others happy, not just in looking out for myself.

There are people around me who do not accept reality – many people, probably most of the people I meet. They show it by their attitudes, the way they choose to live their lives. Yet underneath the mask there is still a person made in the image of the Father. A person who is sometimes capable of great acts of kindness, a person who might be touched by the kindness of others.

It is not up to me to unmask them, or tear off their anti-God armour, only the Father Himself can do that. Words and acts of love and kindness will do more good than cutting words of criticism. They are receiving altogether enough criticism already. And underneath that hard shell there is still the image of the Father and the realization that their rebellion against Him is not working out as they thought it would.

To show love and kindness is not to accept their rebellion against the Father. It is to show them that genuine happiness is found when we are ready to live the life that the Father made us for.

Doctrines of the Humanist Religion

 

1. Nothing is real if it cannot be explained by the human mind

I may call myself a lover of the truth, but if I am unwilling to believe anything that does not fit the measure of my mind, am I really open to consider what truth is? Scientific hypotheses attempt to fit the things observed and experienced by man into a framework that gives a logical explanation for those phenomena and events. In order to do this, they must reject anything that cannot be measured and counted. Paradoxically, occult and shamanistic beliefs are attempts to do the same thing, only with different rules of evidence.

2. We are inherently good – our failures are due to a lack of knowledge. The best informed person will always make the best decisions.

The knowledge required might be a better understanding of how to appease the pagan gods and spirits. It might mean getting psychiatric counselling to discover the root causes of troubled emotions and relationships. Or it could mean getting a university education to better face the challenges of life. We often hear it said “If only I had known before what I know now I wouldn’t have got myself into the mess I’m in.” Most often the cause of the trouble was not a lack of knowledge but a decision to follow the baser inclinations of human nature.

3. It is a great evil for people to be deprived of the things that could bring them pleasure.

Why can’t my wife, husband, parents, friends, or boss treat me with the consideration that I deserve? If only I had a little more money, a better house, more time for recreation; if only I lived somewhere else, things would go better. Is our happiness really based on things, or other people?

People tend to think they have a right to physical health. Well-meaning Christians sometimes think that admitting their illness would be a lack of faith and live and die in unreasoning fear. Others spend all their substance, travelling over land and sea, in a desperate search for a healer in whom they can trust. Often they leave their families destitute.

4. The evil that men do is caused by factors outside of themselves. If society can only be restructured to remove all the causes of injustice and lack of fulfilment.

The social gospel and other movements that aim to eliminate inequities and provide fair and just treatment for all began with good intentions and great expectations. Are people happier as a result? Or are we just hacking away at the leaves and branches and completely missing the root of the problem?

All of the above ideas shape our thinking about how to raise our children. We have come to understand that children can only develop their true potential when given maximum access to information and the freedom to decide for themselves what to believe and do. Now it seems that many parents to consider their children to be burdens. And when the parents come to their declining years, their children consider them to be burdens.
Everything we do is governed bu our religious beliefs, even when we profess to have no religion at all. There is within every person a longing for answers to the questions of life. Who am I? Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? The answers to those questions make up our religion and become the reference point for the choices we make in life.

Man-centred religion makes human wants and aspirations its reference point. Upon this foundation are built myriads of elaborate structures, each claiming to be the best road to true happiness. These structures include everything from rigid adherence to man-made beliefs about God, to mysticism, to atheism. Almost everyone we meet is a missionary for some form of the humanist religion. Businesses, banks, schools and the media do their utmost to persuade us to follow the way of humanism.

Only a few have a truly God-centred religion that makes God the reference point for all the decisions of life. They acknowledge God as Creator, Lord and Saviour, devoting their lives to serving Him

There is no neural point; every person on the planet adheres to one of these two religions. The man-centred religion is built over, and tries to conceal, the pit of hell. The God-centred religion is built upon the eternal and unmovable rock -– Jesus Christ.

God’s way is best

I watched bemused as Michelle pedalled her tricycle back in forth on the sidewalk in front of our house. Then she saw a bus coming and pedalled to the bus stop at the end of the block. After a passenger or two had dismounted or mounted the bus, she lined up beside it. When the bus began to move she did too, pedalling for all she was worth to beat the bus to the other end of the block. She never quite beat it, but she could keep up.

“She’s just a little girl trying to amuse herself,” I thought. “She knows to keep out of the way of pedestrians and she never leaves our block. But I’ve got to get my family to a place where she has something better to do than drag race with a city bus.”

January 18 of 1978 was my mother’s 70th birthday. That was also the day my Dad suffered a stroke. He lived for two more days and passed away early in the morning of the 20th. Dad had been fading away for some time; after the stroke we had known the end was near. But that knowledge didn’t insulate me from the shock of him actually being gone. That shock triggered an allergy attack.

Mom’s life had centred around visiting Dad in the nursing home, but she was a resilient person adn soon settled into the new reality in her life. Circumstances made it necessary for Dennis to stop farming. I helped him for a few weeks that spring, cleaning up around the yard and getting machinery ready for the auction sale. After the sale it seemed that we were now free to leave for a congregation where we could make our home. Mom was quite capable of looking after herself and said nothing to discourage us from leaving.

But where would we go? Congregations in Western Canada were rural and there didn’t seem to be work available anywhere near them. At least not for someone with my allergy problems. When a new congregation began to form that spring at Swanson, my hopes were aroused. Some families from Linden were moving there, as well as all the members from Hague. We looked around there in May. Swanson was west of the South Saskatchewan River. There was an irrigation district on the east side with the main crop being potatoes. My hopes began to rise.

On our way home I stopped at a potato storage plant and asked the lady in the front office if they were hiring. She said yes and handed me an application form. I took it out to the car and was going to fill it out. The first question stopped me: Do you have any allergies?

A dark cloud filled the car as we began the drive home. Then an idea popped into my mind : “Why don’t you go to St Marys, Ontario?” It was ridiculous, so far away and we didn’t know anyone there. But it seemed to bring a little glimmer of light.

We talked it over in the following days. It was such a little glimmer of light, but it was all we had. We decided I would drive out there first, find work and a place to live, then Chris and Michelle would follow.

We packed everything we could into our little Toyota and June 1, 1978 I started the long eastward drive. There is a song in the Christian Hymnal entitled “God’s Way is Best.” The first line of the chorus goes “God’s way is best, I will not murmur, although the end I do not see.” That was my situation; I certainly did not have any idea what I would find or how things would turn out when I got where I was going. Yet it seemed that this was what God wanted me to do, and I went. As I travelled I sang that hymn off and on and found that I could remember all four verses.

I got to the St Marys area Sunday afternoon and drove down the road where the church was located and where some of the families lived.  I didn’t have the courage to stop but drove on into Stratford and found a motel for the night. As I sat in that room the question uppermost on my mind was “What on earth am I doing here?” A prayer before I went to bed settled my mind again that I was where God wanted me to be.

The next morning I drove down the road by the church and saw a farmer adjusting a piece of equipment in a field. It was Howard Nickel and he directed me to a place down the road where a house was being renovated to be the home of minister Robert Toews. I stopped there and that broke the ice. I spent the next couple days looking for work and found a job at an auto parts plant in Mitchell, on the northern edge of the congregation.

There was Bible Study Wednesday evening and I sat in the St Marys church for the first time. I wanted to ask for the hymn I had been singing on the trip to Ontario, but I couldn’t remeber the number. As I paged frantically through the book, someone else called out a number. My heart sank, but when I found the place in the hymnal it was the one I had been looking for. As we sang “God’s Way is Best,” a feeling washed over me that I had arrived where I was supposed to be.

Time to make a decision

At least I thought we had exhausted all the possibilities in trying to find a church that still believed and lived the old Anabaptist faith. Could I have missed something? Or had I misunderstood something?

If I was honest with myself, I had felt more at home in congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite than anywhere else. But the fear of being deceived was holding me back from considering whether this church might be what I was looking for.

Just what does “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) mean? I went alone to pray and ask God to help me see what the Bible really taught about the church. As I rose from the prayer, I felt a need to read again what Menno Simons wrote about the signs by which the true church of God could be identified. He listed six:

1. By an unadulterated, pure doctrine.
2. By a scriptural use of the sacramental signs.
3. By obedience to the Word.
4. By unfeigned brotherly love.
5. By an unreserved confession of God and Christ.
6. By oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word.

As I read them this time, and considered all the churches we had known, it was suddenly crystal clear that there was no other church to which even one of these signs could be applied. We had met many friendly and helpful people, they seemed from the outside to get along well together. But could it be called unfeigned brotherly love when they didn’t really trust each other? Many churches talked about the new birth, and about spiritual unity. Yet they baptized anyone who said they had been born again and had communion at appointed times, even though they were not fully at peace with one another.

These thoughts were pointing me strongly toward the Holdeman Mennonites. But what about the claim of exclusivity? Once again, I looked to see what Menno said. It wasn’t hard to find and again I understood something I had missed before. Here is what Menno wrote:

Reader, understand what I mean ; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen one’s 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.

Menno obviously believed there were many Christians in other churches; he was not saying that there was only one church in which one could be saved. But he was concerned that other churches were offering comfort to the unsaved and not guiding and supporting those who were saved.

My heart was settled. I knew where God wanted us to be and where I wanted to be. I made several two hour trips to visit a minister in the Linden Congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite and knew that was where I wanted to be.

This was too abrupt a change in direction for Chris. She was frightened and not at all willing to make another move. She felt at home where we were and was sure that I was deceived. We hashed this over many times without getting any closer to seeing things the same way. The possibility that we might have to part ways loomed before us.

Finally we knelt together and prayed about the direction we should take. When the prayer was finished, Chris said she still felt the same apprehension about the direction I was taking, but she would go with me.

The night before we left, the bishop and his wife invited us for supper. Before we parted, he had one last warning for me. “You have expressed some misgivings in the past about the Holdeman church. I share those misgivings. We have never seen it happen that a church could drift from full obedience to the truth and recover itself. When a church has drifted, it is time to come out and start over again on the gospel ground.”

As I listened to those words, I realized the bishop understood a church to be merely a man-made entity. What he meant as a warning I took as a confirmation that God was leading me to a church where He was doing the building and the refining.

Another dead end

I began checking out other varieties of Mennonites, and there were a lot to choose from. Many of them turned out to be Mennonites in name only, and a little embarrassed about being encumbered with the name. Nevertheless, many of them had a deep affection for the Low German language and culture. I didn’t, so I stroked them off my list.

There were several groups of Conservative Mennonites and I obtained some of their literature. A hope began to grow in me that I had found what I had been looking for: churches that held to the old Anabaptist-Mennonite faith but did not claim to be the only representatives of that faith.

One day we had a phone call from Mervin Baer. He and his wife were passing through Mooses Jaw and staying at a motel a few blocks away. Would we be interested in coming over to meet them. I recognized the name, Mervin was from McBride B.C., a bishop and well-know leader in Conservative Mennonite circles.

Mervin and his wife were friendly and warm people, we hit it off right away. In the course of our visit Mervin mentioned that he had recently visited at Belleville, Pennsylvania. “There is a group of Old Order Amish people there who have been born again and have formed a new congregation entirely made up of born-again peole. That’s proof that you can have a spiritual church without joining the Holdemans.”

That was music to my ears. We had another visit from Mervin several months later, then began to visit the nearest congregation of that group, about two hours away in Alberta. They were friendly and welcoming and we really hit it off with one couple in particular. We decided to move there and join that group. In the summer of 1975 we quit our jobs, packed up and moved to Alberta.

It didn’t take long for me to feel that I had fallen down a rabbit hole into a place where nothing was what it seemed at first to be. It started the evening we arrived. We were invited to have supper with the bishop and his family. He had two daughters still at home, around 18 and 20. They were church members and Chris asked one of them when she had become a Christian. “I don’t know, I just kind of grew into it.”

As if that wasn’t shocking enough, we found that there had been a falling out between husband of the couple we had liked so much and Mervin Baer and they had up and moved away.

The women here wore cape dresses, a full dress with an extra piece of material over the front for modesty’s sake, and white mesh head coverings. Chris had adapted her wardrobe to their standard before we moved. The men were clean shaven and wore a plain coat on Sundays. This was a suit jacket without lapels or a collar that buttoned all the way up the front. I shaved off my beard, but never adopted the plain coat.

They had a little booklet of church standards that governed the clothes you wore and how you were to conduct yourself. People wanting to join the church were on probation for six months. If you wore the right clothes and behaved yourself you could then become a member. I began to notice that people watched each other closely for any deviation from the standards, and many young people did try to push the envelope without being too obvious about it.

One Sunday the bishop preached on how wearing plain clothes was proof of being born again. My heart sank, I saw that we had hit another dead end. The people here were friendly and earnest. I was sure that a couple of them were born again, the others were mostly just following the rules. Visitors would come from other plain groups and be welcomed as brothers and sisters. After they had gone we would hear what the local people really thought of them.

What now? Chris thought I was losing t way. She had formed a close friendship with one of the ladies and didn’t want to leave. I knew we had to get out, there was no way we could live a real Christian life and have any chance of passing it on to our daughter in a place such as this. But where could we go? We had exhausted all the possibilities.

Family heirloom

Dear children, I am sending this dear old book as a Granny present. It is one of my dearest friends. I have been reading it for the last fifty years and tried to teach my children to live by its teachings and pray you may do the same by your own children. Its blessed promises are so sweet. It has helped me to bear sorrow that otherwise I’m sure I never could have borne if I had not had his strong arm to lean on.
Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take him at his word.
May the Heavenly Father care for you and help you is the prayer of your Mother.
Mattie Zarn

This note was written in pencil on the fly leaf of an old Bible. Only that page from the Bible has survived. Mattie Zarn was the mother of Bert Zarn, husband of Lottie (Goodnough) Zarn, my aunt. Bert and Lottie were married at Pipestone, Minnesota in 1900, the note was probably written a few years later.

Our granddaughter becoms our sister

Friday evening two young ladies stood in turn before our congregation and told how God had called them, how they had felt troubled and fearful and how they had prayed and found forgiveness, happiness and freedom. A few questions were asked and the congregation found their testimonies genuine.

This morning they were baptized. One of those girls is our granddaughter Tami, the first of our grandchildren to become a born again child of God. Thus this 13 year old girl (she will be 14 this summer) is now our sister in the household of faith. (As is the other girl, of course.)

Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD . . .Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel. Psalm 128:1 & 6

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