Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Demonstration of power

A mortar and pestle used to be standard equipment in kitchens, pharmacies and high school science labs. They could be made of stone, wood or metal, but most often they were ceramic, as in the picture below.

Image by ariesa66 from Pixabay 

Sixty-five years ago I sat in a high school classroom as our teacher demonstrated how gunpowder was made. He took charcoal, sulphur and saltpetre and used the mortar and pestle to grind them to powder. As he was doing so, he placed his left hand over the top of the mortar to keep it from moving around on his desk, holding the pestle between the thumb and forefinger of that had and using his right hand to move the pestle around to grind and mix those three ingredients.

DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!!!

As he was doing that, he continued to talk to us, explaining the history and use of gunpowder. I’m not sure what his plan was for demonstrating the explosive power of gunpowder, but he achieved something much more persuasive than he could have planned. His left hand pretty much sealed the top of the mortar and his manipulation of the pestle cause friction, which produced heat, which led to

Shards of pottery shot across the classroom; students dived for the floor on the side of their desks away from the source of the explosion. The teacher was as startled as the rest of us but quickly gathered his wits and asked if anyone had been hurt. No one had, except I think the palm of his hand must have suffered some burns and scratches. Then he asked one of the students to get a broom and dustpan to clean up the debris.

That was the coolest science experiment ever (but don’t try it at home). It didn’t turn out as the teacher had planned, but we all left school that day with the recipe for gunpowder and the knowledge of its power permanently engraved on our minds.

There is another situation where a man stands in front of a group of people to talk, and power is unleashed. The apostle Paul called it the foolishness of preaching.

For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. 1 Corinthians 1:21

How can saving power be produced by an ordinary guy standing in front of a group of people and talking? Well, first of all, the guy doing the talking is not the source of the power. But as he speaks, he must blend together three essential ingredients: the Word of God, faith and love. Leave any one of them out and there is no power. A man may have a profound and true faith, but without the Word of God his words sound like his own ideas, without love, his words sound like accusations.

It is good to study the Scriptures, the historical setting in which they were written and the original meaning of the words. But that is not an essential ingredient in effective preaching. Taking shortcuts to that learning can lead to pre-packaged distortions of the truth of God’s Word.

Learning to speak clearly and effectively is good, but we need to steer clear of trying to manipulate people’s emotions. The essential ingredients of preaching with power are the Word of God, faith and love. These three work together even in the mouth of those of little learning or speaking skill.

When they are brought together, the Holy Spirit provides the spark that produces an explosion that blows away our pride, our self-righteousness, our hurt feelings, our suspicions and all the other walls we have built that we think are protecting us, but which are really barriers to fellowship with God and with other believers.

To be sure, the explosion is silent and invisible. The results are nonetheless real. Let’s sweep all that rubble onto the rubbish heap rather than trying to use it to rebuild those walls.

What is baptism all about?

Folks talk about baptism as a public profession of faith in Jesus Christ. That it is, but when I was baptized I was asked to go a step further. I was asked if I would be willing to accept reproof from members of this faith community and if I would be willing to give reproof to other members. This is asked of all candidates for baptism.

What is that all about? It is saying that I want these people to be my people; I want them to care enough about me that they will talk to me when something doesn’t seem quite right. I want to care enough about them that I feel I can do the same to them.

God does not want us to just be Christians at large; he wants us to be Christians with a home, a spiritual family.

When a church has a group and a program for every imaginable need, that does not mean that those needs are being met.

A church does not function well as a top-down organization. It was never meant to. A church is meant to function as a community of ordinary people who don’t feel like they’ve got it all together as individuals, but who care about each other, bear with each other and help each other.

There is a famine

Image by nancygebhardt from Pixabay 

Rural and small town churches across Canada are rapidly disappearing.  Fifty years ago, the town where I grew up had five churches.  Only two remain, and they are the churches where one is least likely to ever hear Bible-based preaching.  Smaller towns nearby have no churches at all.

This is more than a demographic curiosity.  It means that in whole swaths across our nation people are deprived of a readily accessible place to hear the Word of God preached.  In times past many people deemed this a necessity.  Families would invest money, time and labour to ensure they would have a place of worship.

What has caused the decline?  One part of the problem is the cost of maintaining a minister.  To provide suitable living accommodations and a decent salary for a minister and his family was by far the greatest part of the operating cost of most small town churches.  Some denominations would have one minister serving congregations in three or four towns.  Over a period of years the smaller congregations died out one by one.  Other denominations merged rural and small town congregations into a congregation in a larger town.  Many people find it too far to drive and now many congregations in the larger towns are struggling.

Ministers do not want to stay long in a low-paying church; the parishioners find the constant turnover of ministers discouraging.  Some ministers are young and find it hard to develop a rapport with parishioners older than themselves.  Others have been taught new ideas in the Bible Schools and Seminaries that do not resonate with their staid small-town parishioners.  Old-fashioned Bible truths and the old hymns are laid by in favour of teachings and choruses thought to be more appealing to younger people.  None of it seems to have worked.

The real problem is the notion that a church cannot survive without a trained and salaried minister.  The pattern shown in the Scriptures is for believers to meet together for worship and mutual edification.  In such a setting, The Holy Spirit will eventually give direction to choose one or more brethren to be ordained as ministers.  They will minister to the needs of the brothers and sisters, while continuing to earn their own livelihood.  The congregation may provide help for expenses incurred in their ministry, but they will not need a salary.

The preparation needed for the ministry is not training in Bible School or Seminary, but a genuine spiritual life, with love for God, the brotherhood and all mankind.  Such a minister is well equipped to minister to the needs of people and point them to the same Saviour who has delivered him in all his times of need.

The preaching of the Word should not be a lecture by someone who is considered to have superior knowledge, but an exposition of Bible truths that relate to the very real present day needs of every man and woman, including the preacher himself.

This is the pattern of the New Testament and of Anabaptists of former generations.  Congregations organized in such a manner can prosper and grow and multiply.

There was once much sound Bible-based preaching in most denominations.  I fear that over time the reliance on trained and salaried ministers introduced unsound teachings, as well as creating a financial burden that small-town congregations could not manage.

Are there still people in the small towns and rural areas with a longing for Christian fellowship and sound Bible-based preaching?  Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost and to gather together His scattered sheep.  Such sheep are not only to be found in the glamour of foreign mission fields or big city missions, some might be found in the very prosaic setting of a small town.

The quiet in the land

According to the Scriptures, Christians should lead quiet and peaceable lives. Is that the same as being “the quiet in the land?” That slogan has taken deep root among many who call themselves Mennonite.

The words come from Psalm 35:20: “For they speak not peace: but they devise deceitful matters against them that are quiet in the land.” This psalm is a prayer of David when he was being hunted by Saul and his army. Both Saul and David knew that it was God’s plan to make David king in the place of Saul. Yet David attempted to live peaceably until that day should arise, twice refusing to take Saul’s life when the opportunity was given him. Saul, on the other hand, was determined to slay David and retain the kingship for himself and his family.

I believe we can take from David’s example that it is not God’s plan for us to become politically active, nor to agitate to replace a government that we feel to be misguided and oppressive. But I do not believe it is God’s will to take this further to the point of being quiet about our faith in order to avoid persecution. This is what the German Pietists did by remaining in the Lutheran Church and partaking of its sacraments. This is what the Mennonites in Russia did when they banned the reading of the writings of Menno Simons.

I do not believe that being “the quiet in the land” to such an extent is compatible with true Christian faith. Peter admonished us to “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear,” (1 Peter 3:15). There is a real danger that we can become so quiet about our faith that no one would ever have cause to ask us about it. And if they did, we might not have a clue what to say.

In our search years ago for a church that still held to the old Anabaptist faith, we found many Mennonite churches that were like that. They called themselves Mennonite, but had no idea what that signified.

Even for those of us who retain the faith that was held by Menno Simons, it is time to strengthen those things that remain. Let’s not be shy about talking about that faith with each other, endeavouring to discern how the Spirit is leading in our personal lives and in our collective life. I believe there are people around us who will find the old faith attractive, offering something solid to hold on to in a world that appears to be crumbling. Let’s not be so quiet that they cannot hear.

The fear of some people who called themselves Mennonites

Beginning in the 16th century many Mennonites fled persecution in Friesland and Flanders and settled in the Vistula delta region of Poland. Here they gradually lost their evangelistic fervour and their faith dwindled to a mere outward conformity to some principles that they felt to be the essence of the faith. It seems they ceased to read the writings of Menno Simons and lost any concept of what it meant to be of the same faith that he upheld.

When Prussia annexed the Vistula delta region in the late 18th century, many of these people moved into southern Russia (today Ukraine). Here they could live in peace and began to feel that their peace depended upon keeping quiet about the real foundations of the Mennonite faith. When two men had Menno Simon’s writings printed for the benefit of those who called themselves Mennonites in the Russian colonies, the Mennonite church reacted strongly.

In August of 1835, all 29 elders and ministers of the Moltotschna colony signed a letter demanding that all copies of Menno’s book should be confiscated and destroyed. The pretext was that some people of other faiths, or some government officials, might read those writings and cause trouble for the so-called Mennonites.

Abram Friesen, one of those who had arranged for the printing, had a different impression of the true motive for banning the book:

“One would like to ask these men: How come do you want to put the lighted lamp under a bushel? Oh, that they might take the words of Christ in Matthew 5:13, 14, 15 to heart! They would have to call out woe upon woe for having done so foolishly. For what do these good men think of this? Menno feared neither tyranny nor persecution, neither pressure nor disfavour, hatred nor poverty, but in this book has freely professed before all men his ground and faith, and confessed the Lord Jesus Christ before men according to Matthew 10:31-39. But without imminent threat of danger these good elders and teachers are afraid without reason, for the hearts of the higher authorities are favourably inclined concerning freedom of conscience and worship and rule over the pious with great gentleness. Not only do they refrain from interfering in their faith and principles but often refer us back to them.

“On the contrary, the elders and teachers, who should be more in favour of the work consider it a great risk, and fear hatred from people of other religious persuasions. I only fear that a different matter in their own conscience aroused hatred in themselves because Menno Simon’s teaching severely reproves the Mennonites of the present and especially the ministry. Consequently they feel ashamed and reproved and therefore prefer not to have these books in their congregations.

The last two paragraphs are taken from By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them, by Peter Toews, emphasis added.

Pietism

Oxford gives these definitions for pietism: 1 a a pious sentiment. b an exaggerated or affected piety. 2 (esp. as Pietism) a movement for the revival of piety in the Lutheran Church in the 17th c.

Perhaps the best dictionary definition of what a pietist is is this one that I translated from le Petit Robert, the most popular French dictionary: Member of a Lutheran sect that put more emphasis on the necessity of personal piety and religious feelings than on strict doctrinal orthodoxy.

The same dictionary gives this definition of Quietism, a similar phenomenon within the Roman Catholic Church: Mystical doctrine in which Christian perfection consists of a continuous state of quietness and union with God, where the soul becomes indifferent to works and even its own salvation.

To make my meaning clear, piety that deepens one’s relationship with God is a good thing. Pietism as a movement is not. There were earlier individuals that one might label as pietists, but as an identifiable movement it began in the Lutheran Church in the 17th century. These pietists were disappointed in the lack of spiritual life in the Lutheran Church and sought a meaningful relationship with God. They continued to attend the Lutheran services and take part in the sacraments, but also met privately to share their experiences and the vitality of their newfound faith. Heartwarming experiences were highly valued among them and taken as evidence of a living relationship with God.

So far so good. Up to this point a Pietist and an Anabaptist would seem much the same. The difference was that the Anabaptist believed that the Holy Spirit expected obedience. Obedience meant self-denial, bearing the cross, avoiding compromise, seeking baptism and communion with true believers and a fearless confession of Christ, even when it meant almost certain death. The Anabaptist would not hide the light of God’s truth under a bushel to avoid persecution.

Pietism, the capital P kind, has pervaded much of modern Christianity, even among those of us who claim to be spiritual descendants of the martyrs. I am not intending to criticize or blame anyone. No one opened the door wide and invited it in, it just seeped in under the door when we were looking elsewhere. Neither do I pretend to see all the ramifications of the danger of Pietism. But I do want to point out some of the things that I do see.

The temple of God

In the Old Testament the unity of worship was clearly God’s plan. That worship was to be centred on the temple in Jerusalem. While God prophesied the division of the kingdom because of sin, it was His intention that this should only be a political division, not a spiritual division. Two kingdoms were OK, two churches were not. That is why, when Jeroboam built a second temple at Bethel and another in Dan, he is forever after referred to as “Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin.”

Is it any different in the New Testament era? Let me begin with a statement that might shock some readers: Almost all the mentions of the temple of God in the New Testament refer not to individual Christians as temples, but to the collective body of Christians known as the church. Lets go through the applicable verses, one by one.

Revelation 3:12: Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God,
The promise is that the overcomer will be part of the temple, not the whole temple.

1 Peter 2:5-7 Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner,
Believers are called living stones who are built together into one spiritual house (temple) with Jesus as the corner stone.

Ephesians 2:19-22 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.
This is very similar to Peter’s words, believers are the household of God built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets and Jesus the corner stone to become one holy temple.

1 Corinthians 3:9-11 For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
The temple is God’s building with the help of true ministers of the gospel, the foundation is Jesus Christ.

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.
Ye is plural, these verses are addressed to Christians, as a group they are one temple. Paul does not say ye are temples of God, or thou art the temple. There is only one temple in view here., thus to defile the temple does not refer to the sins of an individual defiling his own body, rather those sins defile the whole body, the temple. Think of Achan, he thought it was harmless to take the things he did, no one knew about it, it would not bother anyone else. Yet the army of God was defeated in battle because of his sin.

2 Corinthians 6:16 And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Again, ye is plural, temple is singular.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.
This is the one verse that does speak of the body of an individual believer as the temple of God. This verse must not be taken as the key to understanding other verses which speack unequivocally of the temple as the collective body, the church. But one must first be spiritually alive, a living stone, to be added to the holy temple. “Ye are not your own,” – we have no liberty here to think independently or to think we have no need of our fellow believers.

Quotations from Anabaptist/Mennonite leaders of the past:

“For jus as there was but one Adam and one Eve; one Noah and one ark, one Isaac and one Rebecca, so there is but one church of Christ, which is the body, city, temple, house and bride of Christ, having but a single gospel, faith, baptism, Supper, and service; travelling on the same road and leading a pious, unblamable life, as the Scriptures teach.”
Menno Simons, 1539, Complete Writings, page 191

“Paul teaches us in his epistle to the Ephesians, concerning the true church, which Christ has presented to Himself, that it is glorious, holy and without blemish, without spot or wrinkle; that they are baptized together into one Spirit, and into one body, the head of which is Christ, and are joined together as members of His body. These have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father, of us all, who is through us all, and in us all. This is the true temple of God, in which dwells the Spirit of God. This church Christ has bought and redeemed with His blood.”
Claes de Praet, 1556, Martyrs Mirror, page 558

Recipe for poverty

A home with a revolving set of parents

A home where parents scream at each other and at the children

A home where parents throw things at each other and at the children

A home where parents have no interest in what children are learning in school, or whether they are learning anything at all

A home with no books

A home where relatives, neighbours and friends all have that kind of home.

Such a home is a breeding ground for emotional, spiritual, intellectual and economic poverty. Government programs that provide economic help offer only palliative care.

Saving faith in Jesus Christ offers hope that things can be different, peace in the midst of turmoil, joy in a relationship with a loving heavenly Father, patience when things go wrong, perseverance to keep trying, compassion and love for those near and dear who are still trapped in poverty. This is the escape route from poverty in all its forms.

Defenceless Christians?

As Anabaptists/Mennonites we call ourselves nonresistant, or defenceless, Christians. Let’s take a moment to examine ourselves in one small aspect of what this means, or should mean.

The question is, how should we relate to persons in our congregation whose ethnic, social or cultural identity differs from that of the majority of the members? Do we expect all the adaptation to come from their side, so that they fully identify with the cultural norms of the majority? Is that even possible?

We must, of course, be fully united on all points of the faith. The problem is that when almost all the members of a congregation are of the same background, we tend to think that everything we do is based on our faith. We can’t imagine doing things any other way. It wouldn’t seem right.

When someone who is new to the faith asks why we look at aspects of daily life a certain way, we can’t understand why there is even a questions. No one has ever questioned those things before. Our reflex is to become defensive. And when we become defensive, we stop listening.

Image by maestrosphere1 from Pixabay

When the person asking the question senses our defensiveness, he will often draw back and stop asking questions. But the questions don’t go away, over time they accumulate. Finding no answer to what he considers legitimate questions, he may cease to feel at home in the congregation.

The apostle Paul tells us “Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate. Be not wise in your own conceits” (Romans 12:16). The modern meaning of condescend is to be gracious to those who are of a lower state than we are, while maintaining an awareness of our superiority. To read the verse with this meaning is to miss what the apostle was trying to tell us. French translations say to accommodate ourselves to men of low estate, which I believe is the original meaning. Conceits has also shifted in meaning over the years, the last sentence tells us to not think of ourselves as being wiser than others.

Adam Clarke concludes his commentary on this verse with “Believe that you stand in need of both help and instruction from others.” Isn’t that the attitude we need in order to accommodate ourselves to people of other backgrounds? If we expect that all accommodation must come from their side, we cannot be successful ambassadors for Christ.

Let’s lose the defensiveness. Let’s stop expecting square pegs to fit into round holes. If we can see Christ in people who came from a different cookie cutter that we did, our eyes may be opened to see fields ripe for the harvest all around us.

Witnesses of the Light

As the apostle John begins telling the gospel story, he identifies Jesus as the Light of the World. Then he says “There was a man named John,” referring to another John, John the Baptist, and says of him, “He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light.”

Two thousand years later the world still needs someone to bear witness of that Light. That would be you and me, all who live by faith in Jesus Christ. Are we finding it difficult to do that? Or do we think people don’t want to hear? Perhaps we have become too much at ease in the world as it is, forgetting that it is a wilderness of woe. A good starting point is to realize that most people around us are not happy with the way life is going for them. They think there must be a better way, they try to find it, but they don’t really know what it is they are looking for.

We cannot force people to see the light. Force is characteristic of the realm of darkness and we cannot use the means of the enemy of the light to bring people to the light. The first step, then, in being witnesses of the Light, is to be sure that we ourselves are wholly living in that Light.

I am not that Light. I can, and should, speak the truth boldly. But I must remember that it is the Holy Spirit that leads people into all truth, not me.

I should contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints; that is I must be steadfast in maintaining its truth, despite opposition. Yet I must not be quarrelsome, for I am not the one who delivered that truth to mankind.

I must demonstrate the reality of the faith by loving everyone as God does; even those who are opposed. I don’t know what is in people’s hearts. God knows; He will judge; I don’t need to.

Truth, or a convincing approximation of the truth, can satisfy the mind for a time, but it leaves the heart longing for something more. True faith that works by love will satisfy both heart and mind and draw people to seek fellowship with others whose hearts and lives demonstrate the work of the Holy Spirit.

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