Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Self-chosen humility

Peter Toews was the Elder, or bishop, of the portion of the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites who emigrated from Ukraine to Manitoba in the 1870’s. (Kleine Gemeinde means little church, a means of distinguishing themselves from the large Mennonite church among whom they lived.) Another portion of the Kleine Gemeinde, led by Elder Abram Friesen, settled around Janzen, Nebraska. Yet a third group, led by Elder Jacob Wiebe, whose wife was Peter Toews’ sister, settled around Hillsboro, Kansas.

Evidently there were some differences in how these groups viewed Christian faith. Peter Toews experienced the new birth while still living in Ukraine and before his ordination. By all accounts he endeavoured to teach and lead his congregation according to his spiritual convictions. But the Kleine Gemeinde had never seen the new birth as being a necessary qualification for baptism and membership in the church. They believed that the important thing was to live a devout and holy life according to the rules that they believed were taught in the Bible.

By 1880 Peter Toews was ready to admit that many, perhaps the majority, of the members of his congregation were not Christians. Some of the other ministers and members felt as he did and they began to search for a solution. That search led Peter Toews to take a trip to Kansas in the summer of 1881 to visit John Holdeman and the congregations of his church in central Kansas. While there, he also visited his brother-in-law Jacob Wiebe. It appears the two were united in believing the lack of a requirement of the new birth for church membership was a fatal flaw in the Kleine Gemeinde, but did not agree on a solution.

Upon returning home, Peter Toews resigned as elder of the Kleine Gemeinde and wrote a letter outlining his reasons. He wrote “We are not baptized into one body, but are torn and divided, some walking in self-chosen humility, and worshipping of angels (of whom we should not be beguiled, lest we lose our reward).” “I fear to build with members of torn and divided groups which are not baptized into one body, the Church of Christ–to build a kingdom to which only a few of us belong. We all profess that we are baptized into the body of Christ, even though many are merely walking in voluntary humility.”

The upshot was that John Holdeman and Mark Seiler came to Manitoba the following winter, upon the invitation of Peter Toews and some of the other Kleine Gemeinde ministers. Over the course of several months of preaching in various communities of Southeastern Manitoba, about one third of the members of the Kleine Gemeinde were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, becoming the first members of that church in Western Canada. Many had not been born again prior to the evangelistic services of that winter. The remaining members of the Kleine Gemeinde asked elder Abram Friesen to help them ordain a new elder to replace Peter Toews, who was one of those baptized by John Holdeman.

It seems that Peter Toews felt that “self-chosen humility” was a major weakness of the Kleine Gemeinde. What is wrong with trying to be humble? There are numerous warnings against pride and a haughty spirit in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Doesn’t the Bible tell us to humble ourselves? James says: Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up, (James 4:10). Peter writes: Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, (1 Peter 5:6).

Let’s consider those verses. James is not telling us to become humble in our own eyes, but in the eyes of God. That isn’t necessarily the same thing. Peter does not say that we should take ourselves in hand to make ourselves humble, but allow God to take us in hand, which is quite different.

A few verses earlier in the fourth chapter of James, he writes “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” (Verses 6 and 7). I believe this is the key to genuine humility. It is not something that we can do ourselves, but is the fruit of submission to God.

Why can’t we make ourselves humble? Maybe you are not like me, but I’m afraid that if I would believe that the Bible is telling me to make myself humble, I would very soon believe that I was doing a much better job of it that you were. That is the snare of voluntary or self-chosen humility. I believe Peter Toews hit the nail on the head.

There is an oft misunderstood verse in the Old Testament. Isaiah 64:6 says: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” I’m not sure why the translators chose the word rags, it really should be filthy garments. What the prophet is saying is that when we try to establish our own righteousness, even our own humility, we are sewing a garment that in our own eyes is spotlessly, dazzlingly white. But when God looks at it he sees that it is saturated with our sweat, the evidence of our own work. It is filthy and it stinks to high heaven.

Life takes some unexpected turns

Alcohol had once enabled me to admit my interest in some day becoming a Mennonite, but the three other people who heard that statement didn’t take it seriously and never again mentioned it. My two trips into Regina to attend a Mennonite church had gone completely unnoticed by those who knew me. I was quite content to leave it that way as I still at a stage where I had no desire to be identified as someone with any interest in Christianity.

Nevertheless, I wanted to have a Bible when I left for Manitoba. There was no way I was going to openly show that desire by going out and buying one. There was another way. My parents had a stack of worn out Bibles in a cupboard; they never threw one out. They would have gladly given me one if I had asked, but that would have been too embarrassing. Before I left, I went to that cupboard, found one that hadn’t quite fallen apart yet, and stashed it in my luggage.

The elevator at Sperling was much bigger and much busier than the one at Belle Plaine. The office was much bigger too. To start with I was provided with a roll away bed in the office for night and got my meals in the home of the former manager.

I settled into a routine, started to get to know the farmers and the people in town. The people in the community were of English, French, Danish, German and other backgrounds. Among the farmers there were members of four different Mennonite denominations. One was a group I had never heard of before, the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. The men of this group wore beards.

I made monthly trips back to Saskatchewan to see my parents and Chris. Chris and I would often visit until midnight Sunday and then I would drive the 400 miles back to Sperling, open the elevator at eight o’clock in the morning. In the summer of 1969 Chris’s Uncle moved to Kelliher, Saskatchewan to run his sister’s café and Chris went with him. Her aunt stayed in Belle Plaine to run the café there. My once a month trips became more complicated.

After several months the former manager retired for health reasons. I was given the job and UGG rented a house in town and paid to move my belongings. The former manager and his family were given time to find a new home and then the UGG carpenter crew went to work on the house.

I had left all my drinking buddies behind in Saskatchewan and didn’t make any new ones in Manitoba. I often had beer in the refrigerator but no incentive for serious drinking by myself.

There was lots of time to read the Bible and I started randomly reading here and there. I began with the belief that the Bible was a man-made book that might contain parts that were inspired by a God that I didn’t know and hardly knew if I believed in. But I was convinced that most of the book was not to be believed or trusted. As I read, a different picture began to impress itself on me. This appeared to be one book, with every part of it connected to every other part. Many things that I didn’t want to believe were quoted by Jesus. It began to sink in to me that I could not choose to believe some parts and reject the rest; it was either all true, or all false.

Now that I was officially the elevator manager, I began looking through the records and found that a number of farmers had bills outstanding for farm supplies, so I sent out reminders. I soon had irate farmers showing up in my office with receipts showing that they had paid those bills. I accepted that, but UGG had never seen those payments. Those farmers seemed to suspect me of trying to pull a fast one and get paid twice, but the people in town understood the situation. The former manage had always seemed to be in need of more money for his family and different episodes were told me of how he had gotten into a bind and money had disappeared. No doubt he had intentions of making it all right, perhaps the stress of it all led to his heart attack.

Some of my farming customers were members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, from the congregation at Rosenort, about 15 minutes away. They were friendly and often stayed to visit. One day, one of them came into my office to apologize for something he had said a few days earlier. He was afraid I might have misunderstood his remarks and taken offence at them. I was completely caught off guard. There had been no misunderstanding, no offence taken, but now I was almost offended at him for making a special effort to come and clear up such an insignificant thing. They way I looked at my life, I was leading as decent and upright a life as was possible under the circumstances and this guy had come along and kicked that support out from under me.

Early in 1970 Chris told me that she was getting cold feet and wasn’t sure that she wanted to get married. Life looked bleak, many of the farmers were looking at me with suspicion, I hadn’t made any close friends in this community and now my fiancée wanted to back out of our marriage plans.

By the spring of 1970 I had moved into the renovated house. The wall between the kitchen and dining room had been replaced by a counter and new cabinets installed. Flooding was happening around Carman to the west of us, with the threat of it coming our way. One Saturday I took a drive around to look at the situation, but my mind was churning with troubled thoughts. I wanted to just give up and disappear, but I had tried that once and it hadn’t turned out well.

I returned home and opened my Bible at random. My eyes fell on Revelation 3:16: “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.” The picture was vivid and shocking – could it be that my life was so distasteful to God that He just had to get that taste out of His mouth? I had never thought of myself as a sinner, but now the weight of sin bore down on me.

I knelt down and admitted to God: “All this trouble I’m in, I did it all by myself, nobody helped me get into this mess.” I asked Him to forgive me and promised that if He would help me now I would serve Him the rest of my life. When I got up from that prayer I had a determination to do whatever I could to work my way through my problems.

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