Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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The Christian nation heresy

Time was that most Canadians attended a church where Christian values were taught and claimed to govern their lives by those teachings. In such circumstances governments found it expedient to pay lip service at least to Christian principles and to legislate accordingly.

Times have changed. A survey several years ago found that 16% of Canadians attend church each week and only 5% of us read the Bible daily. 55% have never in their life opened a Bible and read a few words in it.

The few of us who still read, believe and endeavour to live by the Bible are left in disarray by this shifting of the ground beneath our feet. It’s all the fault of the government, we say. This was once a Christian country, but it doesn’t feel like it anymore.

We are avoiding reality when we say such things. The government did not create the situation we find ourselves in and has no ability to remedy it. Political activism is a snare for the Christian, a means of diverting us into fruitless activity while the world around us pursues its downward course.

Another danger for Christians is to draw apart from the troubles of the world and concentrate on being ready for our Lord’s return. But this is just the self-centred attitude that has allowed the society we live in to drift into its present situation.

For as Christians we have a responsibility to our fellow citizens. Jesus said we are the salt of the earth. He was talking of salt as a preservative, the only means available in those times to prevent food from spoiling. What good is salt if it is deposited in little piles that have no contact with what it is supposed to preserve?

He also said we are the light of the world and warned us not to hide our light under a bushel. If we cannot talk about our Christian faith in terms that are readily understood by others, isn’t that hiding our light under a bushel? Worse still is to think we don’t have to say anything, people will observe us and be drawn to enquire about our faith. Really? When we don’t even know how to articulate that faith?

When the people of God were taken captives to Babylon, the Holy Spirit inspired Jeremiah to tell them to “seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.”

Paul told Timothy: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”

Can we say that we love God with all our being and our neighbour as ourselves if we decide the best thing for us to do is live in peace and quietness and let the world go on its merry way to destruction?

That wasn’t the way the early Christians thought, nor the Anabaptist martyrs whom we call our forefathers. There is no such thing as a Christian country. Never has been. There used to be Christian people. Do they still exist today? Do our neighbours know anything about them?

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?

The things I believe

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Image by Heidi B from Pixabay

I believe in the God revealed in the Bible. The great and terrible Almighty and Eternal Creator of all things, who hates all unrighteousness. I believe that He is at the same time loving, merciful and compassionate, a father for the fatherless. He knows everything about us and wants us to know Him and be with Him for eternity.

I believe the Bible as it is written. It was written by many different men over several thousand years, yet the more I read it the more I see that there was one mind guiding it every step of the way, the mind of the Holy Spirit. I believe the Bible interprets itself, providing we read it all. Each time we read it a little more of God’s great design opens up before our eyes. We cannot discover that design by reading little bits here and there, or by looking for some external key to unlock its mysteries. That is a way that leads to deception.

I believe in the church revealed in the New Testament. I believe that it was God’s plan from the beginning to draw all those who put their trust in Him into one body, with Jesus Christ as both the foundation and the head. God is calling all mankind, but only those who are born again and led of the Holy Spirit may become members of His church. The church described in the New Testament cannot be an amorphous confusion of disembodied body parts, or living stones scattered here and there. The picture given by the New Testament is of a living, functioning and coordinated body or temple.

I believe that Jesus’ call to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations is still being obeyed. The door is yet open for those who are willing to consecrate their lives to Jesus, not only as Saviour, but as Lord of their lives.

I believe the time is short; judgment is coming.

Faith vs doubt

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Image by Lorraine Cormier from Pixabay

Doubt sees the obstacles
Faith sees the way.
Doubt sees the darkest night
Faith sees the day.
Doubt dreads to take a step
Faith soars on high.
Doubt questions ‘who believes?’
Faith answers, ‘I.’

Author Unknown

The dinosaur question

In 1991 an archaeological research team discovered dinosaur bones in the Frenchman River Valley of south-western Saskatchewan. Over 20 years of painstaking work by hand uncovered the almost complete fossilized skeleton of a T. Rex and then removed it from the rock in which it was embedded.

Named Scotty, the massive reconstructed skeleton is now on display at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum in Regina. Scotty is the largest T. Rex ever discovered, 50 cm longer and 400 kg heavier than the Chicago Field Museum’s Sue.

The R.S.M., formerly known as the Saskatchewan Natural History Museum, displays 3-dimensional scenes of Saskatchewan flora and fauna, both of the present day and of the past. This includes lifelike re-creations of smaller land-dwelling and water-dwelling dinosaurs.

I know there are Christians who recoil at the subject of dinosaurs. “The Bible never mentions dinosaurs, so I don’t see why I should believe they ever existed,” some say “It’s just a story made up by evolutionists.”

People who say, or think, things like that aren’t as common as they once used to be. But if you are one of those who still has qualms about the dinosaur question, here are a few points that might calm your fears.

  1. It’s hard to argue with a pretty much complete fossil skeleton. Fossils are being found all over the world. Those as complete as Scotty are uncommon, and it’s possible that sometimes bones have been assembled incorrectly, but that isn’t enough to explain away all the evidence that has been discovered.
  2. Richard Owen coined the word dinosaur in 1842 after bones were discovered in various places that did not match any creature now living. It combines two Greek words and means “terrible lizard.”
  3. The Bible speaks of dragons, sea monsters, behemoth and leviathan. These could well be descriptions of the beasts we now label dinosaurs. Bible commentators in the past thought the description of behemoth in Job 405-24 sounded like a hippopotamus. They were doing their best to match it to some animal that they knew existed. Does it really match? I don’t think so. The hippopotamus is a fearsome beast, but this sounds like something even bigger and more fearsome. “He moveth his tail like a cedar,” cannot describe a hippopotamus which has a tail like a rope that is less than 20 inches long. Leviathan also sound like something bigger and more fearsome than a crocodile. 
  4. Many folktales about dragons are too fantastic to be believable. Yet the great number of such stories, and the fact that the dragons they describe are a lot like dinosaurs, leads one to believe there is some underlying truth. It’s not necessary to believe every detail of these stories, but neither is it wise to dismiss them altogether.   
  5. The book of Job appears to have originated as oral history some centuries before the development of a phonetic writing system. Behemoth, leviathan and the unicorn (not a cute cousin of the horse, more likely something like a humongous rhinoceros), likely describe animals which later became extinct and whose bones we have been digging up over the past two centuries. 

Wringing our hands doesn’t help

It is possible that the contemplation of cruelty will not make us humane but cruel; that the reiteration of the badness of our spiritual condition will make us consent to it.
-Lionel Trilling

Let’s apply Trilling’s observation to ourselves as Christians, on a personal level, or as a family, a congregation, or even on a national level. We thought we knew where we were going, but we find ourselves in a cul-de-sac.  We’re not sure how we got here, and we have no map in our head to show us the way out. Many possible solutions come to our minds, we tried some of them, but they got us nowhere.

So here we sit and wring our hands.  We have memories of once being on a road with a clear idea of where we were going. Or are they just dreams?

Saul of Tarsus found himself in just such a situation, but he didn’t stay there long. He asked “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” And the Lord answered, one step at a time.

He will do the same for us if we ask the same question and are willing to follow, one step at a time.

The bishop said I needed a new heart

In January 1953, Dad told the preacher I would attend the catechism classes, then came home and told me I was going. So I went. I didn’t dare defy my Dad; besides I was with the four guys closest to my age, Leonard, Larry, Carman and Allan. I suspect their dads had done the same thing.

Once a week after school we walked to the Vicarage to study the Anglican catechism. Reverend Brown explained each article, as much as eleven year old boys could understand. The confirmation service, where the bishop would be present to lay his hands on our heads and pray for us, making us full members of the church, came in June.

We five boys had a meeting with the bishop before the service began. The Right Reverend Michael Coleman, Bishop of Qu’Appelle, was a kindly, white-haired gentleman. He spoke to us of how the service would be conducted. Then he told us:

When I was your age, I had the idea that after the bishop laid his hands on me and prayed for me, I would not be able to sin anymore. When we got home after church, I went out behind the barn to see if I could still say the words that I had used before. They came just as easily as they ever had! When I lay my hands on your head today and pray for you that will change nothing inside of you. To overcome sin you will need something that I cannot do for you. You will need a change of heart.

I didn’t understand what they meant, but those words stuck in my mind. They would resurface occasionally over the years, but it took another 17 years for me to understand. I had grown up in a home where the Bible was read, we attended church faithfully, but nobody else ever spoke to me about the need of a changed heart.

I quit going to church after I left home and tried to enjoy the pleasures of the world, but didn’t find them very gratifying. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what it was. In my reading I had come across the story of people long ago who had refused to deny their faith, even when threatened with death. Many of them did die. They were called Mennonites and it seemed to me that they had been real Christians.

I wondered if there were any people like that left in the world. Twice I attended a worship service in a church in a nearby city that called itself Mennonite. No one spoke to me or gave any indication that they knew I was there. I gave up on that, but started reading the Bible for the first time in many years.

In the spring of 1970 things came to a head. I was facing many troubles that seemed insurmountable. I opened the Bible at random and a verse stood out before me that told me I was a sinner. I knelt and prayed for forgiveness and promised to do whatever God wanted me to do.

Nothing happened that I was aware of. It took several months before I took stock of how much my life had changed and realized that something had happened. Silently, unseen, my heart had changed. It clicked that this must be what people called the new birth.

In 28 years, no one had told me that I needed to be born again, much less explain what that meant. In 28 years, only one person had ever told me that I needed a changed heart.

I’m sure things haven’t improved in the last fifty years. Whose fault is that? How many people have I told that they need a new heart? A few. Reflecting on all this leaves me uncomfortable. I think that’s a good thing. I have been too comfortable for too long, thinking others were doing the telling. I need to get out of that comfort zone.

The fulness of the time – today

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

News reports are dismal: mass shootings; random killings; skyrocketing suicide rates; ethnic conflicts; antisemitism; recreational drug use on the rise, with fatal consequences for some; economic instability; political instability; refugees fleeing conflict in search of safety, many dying in the attempt; violence against women; and on and on.

It would seem that the condition of mankind today cries out for the saving gospel of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed. Does anybody believe it anymore? In most countries the agnostics and atheists outnumber those who call themselves Christian. Even those who call themselves Christian don’t appear to have much of an answer. Many have detoured into save the planet activism; others into pop psychology and others into feel good emotional revivalism. None of these offer a genuine solution or a durable healing of the gaping wounds in the souls of men and women.

The gospel of Jesus Christ offers exactly the healing balm that allows men and women, young and old, rich and poor, of any skin colour or ethnic identity to be made whole and to be able to love and respect others, and to be loved and respected by others.

The gospel needs to be proclaimed, and today we have the modern equivalent of the Roman road system that allows the gospel to be carried into all the world. It is called the internet. Yes, there is immorality being offered on this highway. Yes, there are other wares being offered that are harmful; Yes, there are deceptions and dangers out there on this highway. Christians of two millennia ago faced exactly the same dangers along the Roman roads; but they went out to proclaim the gospel and the gospel changed the world. Can that happen again?

Part of the inspiration for this post comes from Bill Sweeney’s blog, Unshakable Hope. Bill suffers from ALS and cannot speak or move any part of his body – except his eyes. He has a computer that is controlled by his eye movements and he is able to share his testimony and the saving truth of the gospel with people around the world. I first read the comparison of the internet to th Roman road system in his blog.

Gospel Tract and Bible Society of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, of which I am a member, has a web site offering free gospel tracts to people around the world. Tracts are available in 100 languages, they can be read online or printed. Copies can be ordered at no charge for distribution, questions can be asked (though perhaps in only about 20 of those languages). Of course there comes a time when interested people need a personal contact. Visits are made and when there is a need missionary couples are sent to mentor and disciple. Churches exist in many countries today which originated from some individual reading a tract and then sharing it with friends.

I have a French-language blog. Last month at least one person in 65 different countries looked at that blog. I take no credit for that as most of what I post there is writings of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith from hundreds of years ago. Are people reading out of curiosity or out of a hunger in the soul? Does it matter? It would be enough for curiosity to be a beginning.

To return to where I began, I believe there is a hunger in the souls of men and women the world around that is not being satisfied. Most cannot even identify what they are hungry for and try to satisfy it with things that do not satisfy. That leads to despair. Christians need to proclaim the message of hope, and with the internet I believe we have the means at our fingertips.

Persecution of the Lollards

William Swynderby (sometimes spelled Swinderby) and Walter Brute were active exponents of Lollard beliefs in the last 20 years of the 14th Century. Swynderby was burned at the stake for his faith in 1401 at Smithfield, London.

G. M. Trevelyan, while not entirely sympathetic, gives a glimpse of the views of Brute and Swynderby on page 325 of his book England in the Age of Wycliffe, © 1909:

Another Lollard of the neighbourhood was a man named Walter Brute, of Welsh parentage but educated at Oxford, where he had written theological works in support of Wycliffe. He was Swynderby’s friend and companion and adhered to all his teaching. Like Swynderby, he hid from the ecclesiastical officers and sent a manuscript into court as his only answer to the Bishop’s summons.

This strange piece has been fortunately preserved for us at length. It is full of Scripture phrases, applied in the strained and mystical sense which we associate with later Puritanism, though it really derives its origin from the style of theological controversies older far than the Lollards themselves.

Rome is the daughter of Babylon, “the great whore sitting upon many waters with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication.” “With her enchantments, witchcraft and Simon Magus merchandise the whole world is infected and seduced.” Brute prophecies her fall in the language of the Revelation. The pope is the beast ascending out of the earth having two horns like unto a lamb, who compels “small and great, rich and poor, to worship the beast and to take his mark in their forehead and on their hands.”

It is easy to perceive, after reading such phrases, one reason why the Bishop objected to the study of the Bible by the common people.

General Epistles

Most of these epistles are more like essays addressed to a wider audience than letters addressed to a particular individual or congregation.

Hebrews
My Bible says the epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews. I don’t know who inserted that, or when, but it has never been the consensus of believers. The writer never identifies himself in the essay and that should be sufficient for us to conclude it is not important to know who he was. There appear to be equally valid arguments in favour of Paul, Apollos or Silas, but it seems pointless to enter into that argument.
The essay is directed towards Jewish Christians who were under intense pressure to observe all points of the Jewish law. It is useful to us today as an antidote to those who argue that certain aspects of the Old Testament Law are still valid. It can be considered a lengthy commentary on Psalm 110, and must have been written before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

James
The writer’s name was Jacob; James is the English form of the Greek form of that name. The writer feels no need to offer further identification, thus we must conclude that he was the most prominent James in the church at that time: James the brother of our Lord. Since he met a martyr’s death in AD 62 the letter probably dates from shortly before that.
Some writers consider James the Less, the son of Alpheus, to be the brother of our Lord. That is problematic, as the brethren of our Lord were evidently not His supporters during His ministry, but became so after His resurrection. The attempt to make the sons of Alpheus to be the brethren of Jesus is based more on the Roman Catholic dogma that Mary was a perpetual virgin than upon any Scriptural evidence.
James’ message is valid for all times and places, but may have been inspired by the growing resentment of the poor and landless in Judea and Galilee towards wealthy landowners. This resentment boiled over a few years later in the revolt of 66 AD led by the Zealots. He admonishes the readers to have a living faith, to be patient in trials, to be free of jealousy and hypocrisy and warns against the dangers of an unbridled tongue. He has admonitions for the rich but gives no encouragement to those with Zealot tendencies.

1 Peter
This letter was dictated by Peter to Sylvanus, who is referred to in Acts as Silas, a shortened form of the name. It is quite possible that he was also the scribe for 1 and 2 Thessalonians. All three letters are reputed to be written in a better Greek style than most other epistles.
Babylon is probably a veiled reference to Rome and it seems likely that this epistle was written at the time of Nero’s persecution of the Christians at Rome. Nero was still held in high esteem by the Christians in Asia Minor to whom the epistle is addressed, but Peter is warning that the persecution might soon come their way and admonishing them to steadfastness in the faith.

2 Peter
According to those who know Greek, this epistle is written in a different style than the first, indicating a different scribe. It is a warning against false prophets who claimed spiritual insights unknown to ordinary Christians. This may refer to early manifestations of what developed into the Gnosticism of the 2nd Century. There are obvious parallels with the epistle of Jude; it is probable that Peter saw fit to include them, or asked his scribe to do so. The epistle was probably written not long before Peter’s martyrdom.

1 John
The author of this epistle does not give his name, but there can be no doubt but that it was the apostle John, probably written towards the end of his life. Some had left the faith, either to return to legalistic Judaism or to follow false prophets. He gives two tests of genuine faith: love of the brethren and a correct belief in Jesus as the Messiah.

2 John
Written by the Apostle John, probably from Ephesus. There are two possible ways of understanding the elect lady to whom this short letter is addressed. She is either an eminent Christian lady in another city, or a Christian congregation in another city. In either case the counsel is the same: Do not receive in your home, or allow to preach in your home, anyone who teaches an incorrect view of who Jesus is.

3 John
Christians met in homes in the beginning and there might be several house churches in a large city. This short letter appears to address a situation where the leader of one of house church, Diotrephes, refuses to receive anyone sent by John. Thus John is writing to Gaius, the leader of another house church to ask him to receive Demetrius, probably a travelling evangelist.

Jude
This Jude is the younger brother of James and of our Lord. Neither James nor Jude attempt to trade on their family relationship, Jude here calls himself a servant of Jesus Christ. He is writing to counter those teachers who would condone immorality in the church. The references to Michael the archangel disputing with Satan over the body of Moses and to the prophecy of Enoch may be a corrective to false teachers who used such passages to defend their teaching.The last two verses are beautiful and reassuring words of praise.

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