Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Fifty years ago

It is 50 years since the Jesus people movement began in California. It followed close on the heels of the Summer of Love, that brief period in time when disillusioned young people believed they had found the solution to all the world’s problems. “All you need is love” by the Beatles was their theme. They gathered in San Francisco, wearing tie-dyed clothes and flowers in their hair, smoking pot and dropping acid, strumming guitars and loving everybody. This was the dawning of a new age of peace and love.

Somehow it didn’t quite work out. A lot of girls soon discovered they were pregnant with no means of support. There was an explosion of std’s, money ran out, a few had their minds truly blown, love began to come apart at the seams.

Amidst the crushing disillusion, some began to discover Jesus and found Him to be what they had been looking for all along. Suddenly there were young people everywhere, still looking like hippies, but toting Bibles and ready to talk to anyone about Jesus. And they were serious, the Bible had the answers to life, sin was real and needed to be repented of. That was how you found genuine love for everyone around you.

The movement spread like wildfire. In 1970 a rebellious young man from a small town in Manitoba found Jesus in the streets of Vancouver. Now he was troubled about the things he had done back home, acts of vandalism, stealing gas from farm yards and disrespect for parents and elders. His new Jesus people friends told him he had to go home and make those things right. So he did.

As he went through the community confessing the wrongs he had done and doing his best to make them right, all the while talking of his new found faith in Jesus, it caused quite a stir. He was back attending the church he had grown up in and other young people began to find Jesus and set about making right the wrongs they had done.

The pastor welcomed this enthusiasm for gospel truth and did his best to encourage it. He had Bible studies with the young people and they began to hold Wednesday night coffee house meetings in town, open to young people from near and far, where they sang the songs that were coming out of the Jesus people movement and shared their testimonies.

I was born again in the spring of 1970 and married that summer. In the summer of 1971 my wife and I began to attend this church. We were enthused by the love of Jesus and the Bible shown by these youth and the genuine changes taking place in their lives. I was a little older, but also a new believer and felt a kindred spirit in most of them.

There was just one little niggling doubt. Not about the whole movement, but about a few who seemed to go along just because this was the big thing, not because they had a genuine personal faith. The pastor didn’t seem to be able to discern the difference. Nothing that couldn’t have been corrected with the help of more seasoned older Christians.

Instead of that, the congregation fired the pastor. The enthusiasm of the youth was too frightening for them. The pastor moved on to a church a few miles away, the youth followed and so did we. The lack of discernment became more evident.

I have no doubt that the Jesus People movement as a whole was a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. But churches were woefully unprepared to welcome and guide the new believers. Some were appalled, some were willing to accept everyone without discernment. An untold number of people truly met Jesus through this movement, some fell away but the majority went on to live sanctified Christian lives.

Churches today are back where they were 50 years ago. Young people are disillusioned, leaving the churches in droves to seek fulfilment elsewhere. Is it possible that history might repeat itself? Why is it so hard to transmit faith from one generation to the next?

Jesus made two statements that seem contradictory, but really are not. In Luke 9:49-50 we read: “And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” Evidently Jesus has no problem with people outside of His immediate circle working in his name. Then we shouldn’t either.

But a little later He said: “ He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” (Luke 11:23). The New Testament picture of the church is a functioning body of which Jesus is the head. Scattered body parts, each interpreting the directions from the head according to their own understanding, cannot be the church.

The immediate baptism of all who professed faith in Jesus was a fundamental weakness among the Jesus people, leading to the fragmentation of the movement. The New Testament pattern is that new believers need to be taught before they are baptized, to ensure that they have genuinely met Jesus and are following the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The pattern in Anabaptist churches has been that new believers need to tell their experience to a congregation of believers. When the congregation can say “Yes, we believe this person has truly met the Lord and we have seen the evidence that he or she is walking with Him daily,” then baptism means something. The acceptance and care of fellow believers is essential to maintaining genuine Christian faith and life.

A recent Canadian study shows that young people are more apt to maintain their faith after they leave home if they had had a meaningful relationship with adult believers other than their parents. Where else is this possible but in a congregation of true believers?

The inward and spiritual grace

What was it that I was looking for half a century ago? The Anglican Church had taught me that the sacraments were an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In time I began to see that I was not receiving any inward and spiritual grace from the sacraments. Nor did I see any evidence of inward and spiritual grace in people that I knew from other churches.

What was the inward and spiritual grace? Would I know it if I saw it? My reading in history eventually led me to the Mennonites and Anabaptists of long ago. Those people seemed to actually know God. They were persecuted, tortured, executed and continued to testify that God gave them strength to bear it all. Their lives also demonstrated a real love for one another and hatred for no one.

So then the inward and spiritual grace must be the reality of Jesus summary of the commandments: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31).

What must this look like in practice? Where might I find it? This was the era of the Jesus people movement, young people sang “We are one in the Spirit, We are one in the Lord . . . And they’ll know we are Christians bu our love.” It felt good at times, I’m sure that many of those young people really meant what they sang. But the movement didn’t last.

That brought another thought. Shouldn’t the inward grace bring together people of all ages in a genuine, enduring brotherhood?

I believe that I have found such a brotherhood. The outward evidence might not always be as it should: I’m afraid that anything that involves people is going to get messy at times. But there is a genuine connection to God and to one another that may stretch at times, but always draws us back together. I believe this is the inward and spiritual grace.

I have come to know many other Christian people as I go through life. Some are trying mightily to conform to what they believe the inward and spiritual grace should look like from the outside, and it just doesn’t even look right. Others appear to have the inward and spiritual grace, they are genuinely warmhearted people who love the Lord, but they find so few who believe just like they do.

I guess I need to add an unconditional love of the truth to my description of the inward and spiritual grace. A love for the truth that allows one to let go of his own picture of what the truth should look like and accept God’s picture.

They’ll know we are Christians by our love

We are one in the Spirit
We are one in the Lord
. . .
We will work with each other
We will work side by side
. . .
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

-Peter Scholtes, © 1966 F.E.L. Publications Ltd.

For the young folk out there who might not recognize these words, they are from the song that best captured the aspirations of the Jesus People movement that began in the late sixties and extended through the seventies. “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” was sung in churches, around campfires, in coffee houses and wherever Christian young people gathered.

The Jesus People movement was in some respects a rejection of both the hippie, or “flower power” movement of the sixties and the Christian church establishment. In many ways the movement was a genuine moving of the Holy Spirit and many young people who met the Lord during this time went on to lead dedicated Christian lives.

However, the enthusiasm and the longing for peace and love allowed many streams of thought to float through the movement. Some young people fell under the sway of charismatic leaders such as David Berg and found themselves in rigidly controlled communal movements. David Berg called his group the Children of God and the weirdness of his interpretation of Christianity became a tool that the media would use to stigmatize the whole Jesus People movement.

On the other side were church leaders to whom this sudden outpouring of enthusiasm among their youth was frightening. This was something they had not planned for and could not control; it challenged their complacent way of doing church and made them very uncomfortable. Therefore, instead of seeking to channel the enthusiasm in a constructive direction, they sought to stifle it. If truth be told, many of them did not possess any spiritual direction that they could have given to this movement.

While contemplating all this, my mind went back to the very beginning of Christianity. The Christian movement of the apostolic era had just such an explosive impact on both the Jewish and the Roman societies of their day. The movement continued its rapid spread and growth for several centuries. Finally the Roman authorities saw that the only way to control this movement was to make it the state religion. This subverted the very nature of Christianity and turned the state church into a persecutor of every Christian movement that did not bow to its authority.

Nevertheless, such movements continued to exist and many common people found their Christianity more attractive than the state-endorsed variety. In the 1500’s, new state-authorized forms of Christianity were imposed on parts of Europe, breaking the monopoly of Rome. Printed Bibles were available by this time and many people hungered for an authentic Christianity, such as described in the pages of the Bible.

The Anabaptist movement had never been totally destroyed or suborned by official Christianity and its remnants seem to have been the starting point for movements springing up here and there in attempts to establish a genuine Christianity. The most cohesive and long-lasting of these groups was labelled Mennonite, after one of its leaders.

Was there a common thread in the original apostolic movement and the Mennonite movement that would explain their cohesiveness and longevity? My conclusion is that the elements that Menno Simons listed as evidences of the true church of God are also the key ingredients in the nature of the true church.

Unadulterated, pure doctrine & obedience to the Word of God: The Bible must be the foundation for the teachings of the church, uncontaminated by personal interpretation of religious experiences or dogmatic pronouncements from authoritarian leaders.

Scriptural use of the sacramental signs: Care must be taken in admitting members, personal testimony of the new birth is essential, but the testimony of fellow believers that a convert’s life has truly been transformed is equally necessary. Communion is symbolic not only of the Saviour’s love, but of the love and unity of His followers. All strife and ill-will must be resolved before Holy Communion is truly possible.

Unfeigned brotherly love: It is not enough say that we love God. That has a false ring if we do not also love our fellow believers, and all mankind, as ourselves.

Bold confession of God and Christ & oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word:  These two have normally gone together throughout history. If there is not much of the latter, it may be a sign of a lack in the first – how bold are we in making our faith known to others?

Another common thread is found in the leadership of the church. The apostles were the original leaders, yet they claimed no lordship over the church and ordained elders and deacons in every city. In the early 1500’s, Dietrich Philips, Menno Simons and Leonard Bouwens were considered the leaders of the church that became known as “Mennonite.” They also ordained elders and deacons wherever there was a congregation. These leaders were united in faith, none claiming preeminence over the others. Menno was probably considered more dangerous by the authorities because he directed many of his writings to those outside the faith. Dietrich Philip’s writings were directed to members of the church. Leonard Bouwens left no writings, but baptized more persons than any other minister, more than 10,000 during his ministry.

Heat: physical and spiritual

We are sweltering in a heat wave here, with temperatures up to 32° with a humidex of 35°.  (That translates into 90° & 95° for those still using Fahrenheit.)  I realize that many readers might even consider those temperatures cool for this time of year.  But I live in Saskatchewan where we haven’t had a long summer of similar temperatures to get us acclimatized.  There is the added factor of being 71 years old — I don’t remember that such temperatures were much hindrance to me 50 and 60 years ago.

Anyway, as I was lolling around trying to avoid any activity that might generate heat, my mind went back to a time around 40 years ago when my wife and I were newly married.  (I should qualify the first part of that statement. At dinner time I rode my bike 2 1/2 kilometres to the seniors’ home where my wife was cooking dinner.  I was fine as long as I was pedaling along, since I created my own little breeze, but as soon as I got off my bike the heat washed over me.)

Back to forty years ago, we witnessed heat of another kind — young people on fire for the Lord.  One young man, around 25 I believe, had kind of slipped into the hippie movement, then encountered some ‘Jesus people’ in Vancouver who challenged him to commit his life completely to Jesus.  He did, then returned home to Manitoba to face up to all the things he had done in the past.  As much as he could remember, he confessed to those he had wronged and paid restitution where needed.

The change in this young man had a tremendous impact on other young people in the church where he had grown up.  Many were convicted and made genuine new commitments to follow Jesus, whatever it would cost.  One young lady had shoplifted items of considerable value from a store and didn’t know how she would ever be able to pay for them.  Nevertheless, she went to see the store manager, shaking in her boots (or whatever she had on her feet) and told him the full story, including how the testimonies of the peace the other young people experienced moved her to want to come completely clean.  The manager listened to the whole story without comment, then said “Do you think your youth group could come to our church and share their experiences? The young people in my church need to hear those testimonies.”

Thus the influence of this group of young people began to spread beyond their home congregation.  The pastor was supportive, but perhaps not quite discerning enough.  I have no doubt at all that most of those experiences were entirely genuine.  But it seemed that there were a few who felt that they had to come up with testimonies like their peers.  I don’t want to sound too judgmental, however some testimonies sounded a little flat and there didn’t seem to be a corresponding change in their life.

The congregation became alarmed, not about the experiences that did not seem genuine, but about those that were.  All that enthusiasm!  This could not be a good thing.  So they dismissed the pastor.

The pastor moved to another congregation of the same denomination in a neighbouring town and the youth followed.  So did we for a time, then we moved to another province and lost track of what happened in the years since.

I want to believe that those who made such a genuine commitment of their lives to Jesus have remained faithful.  It would have been a wonderful thing if the whole church could have experienced a revival.  But it rather seemed that the weight of tradition was going to smother the enthusiasm and stifle the revival before it could really start.

Many voices today are pleading for Christians everywhere to pray for a revival.   It’s not apt to happen if what we really want is a nice tame revival that won’t shake things up too much.

 

 

 

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