Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Menno Simons

An abiding church

“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 Elijah; 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 Simons, 1554

This statement reveals a fundamental difference between the historic position of the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith and other faith traditions. We are concerned that the faith be transmitted unchanged in spirit and life from one place to another and from one generation to following generations. Granted, there are Mennonite denominations which have majored in preserving cultural traditions to the detriment of genuine faith. This is a departure from the faith.

As I look at other denominations, the change and decline of their faith during my lifetime is something that, if it had been foretold 50 or 60 years ago, I would not have believed possible. Even the Anglican Church of today bears faint resemblance to the Anglican Church of which I was a member in my youth.

It has been ever thus. My paternal ancestors were English Puritans who in 1638 removed to Massachusetts in search of religious liberty. When churches were established in the towns of Massachusetts, membership was restricted to those who could tell of an experience where the Lord forgave their sins and spoke peace to their hearts. Feeling assured that God would bless their commitment by leading their children to the same salvation, they continued to have their babies baptized.

Alas, the Christian experience is not automatically transmitted from one generation to the next. The majority of those children did not get converted. In 1662, a Synod of the New England Congregational churches enacted a new policy. Those who had been baptized in infancy but had not come to a personal experience of saving faith were members and could have their own children baptized, as long as they professed the doctrines of Christianity and lived a life free from scandal. However, they would henceforth not have the right to vote in church affairs, nor to take part in the Lord’s Supper. This is known as the Halfway Covenant.

A few years later, John Stoddard began to admit all members to communion in his church, considering the sacrament  a means by which the grace of God was extended to mankind and arguing that it was not right to refuse the means of grace to those who were most in need of it. Despite opposition from the Cottons and Mathers, this position spread to other churches and by 1700 all Congregational churches practiced open communion, making no distinction between the converted and unconverted.

The New England Congregationalists had now come full circle to the position of the Church of England that their fathers had felt the need to flee. Then in 1748 Jonathan Edwards, Stoddard’s grandson and his successor in the pulpit at Northampton, Massachusetts, announced that he could not admit members to communion without evidence of saving grace.

This was the beginning of the Great Awakening which revitalized New England Christianity. In later years, others opted for Unitarianism or just abandoned any pretense of Christian faith. And the circle goes round and round.

This is the merry-go-round that Menno wanted to avoid. And so do we in our day. Our desire is for an abiding church where the true faith will be taught and lived by our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.

Pietists, Quietists & Anabaptists

I have been reading some of the writings of François Fénelon and find some moving passages. I plan to post some excerpts in coming days.

Fénelon was a Quietist, that is a Roman Catholic who believed that salvation had to come through a personal relationship with God, rather than through the forms of liturgical worship. So far, so good. Yet, there is a niggling little thought that troubles me – Fénélon appears to have had a genuine faith, but was that faith passed on to following generations? He remained a Roman Catholic all his life. The same question applies to those who were Pietists within the Lutheran Church.

The Anabaptists took a different approach. They believed that Scripture and Spirit called them to remain outside the established state churches and maintain a pure church. This often led to persecution and they accepted that as a necessary consequence of their commitment to God.  Menno Simons wrote:

“Reader, understand what I mean. We do not dispute whether or not there are some of God’s elect in the before-mentioned churches; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the  just and gracious judgment of God, hoping that he has many thousands unknown to us, as they were to holy Elijah. But our dispute is in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinance and life it is with which Christ has commanded us to gather unto Him an abiding church, and how to keep it in His ways.”

It is my conviction that Menno’s faith has more fully endured and been passed on to subsequent generations than has the faith of Fénelon.

Holdeman Mennonites

I have been a member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for half my life (in a few weeks it will be 37 years out of 74). The church name is a bit of a mouthful. Ideally we would like to simply call ourselves the Church of God, but at least 50 other denominations have had the same idea.

Some denominations seem to have tried to pack their doctrinal statement into their name, for example The House of God, Which is the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Inc. I’m not trying to make fun, that’s just an illustration of how difficult it is to come up with a name that clearly differentiates one church from another.

There are those among us, at least in Canada, who would like to drop “Mennonite” from the church name. The problem with that is there is already a Church of God in Christ and it happens to be the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the U.S.A., claiming 200 times as many members as the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. Besides, they were using the name before we were. So that’s definitely a no go.

Early copies of the church periodical gave the name as the Church of God, a Branch Mennonite. That sounds suspiciously like it may have originally been written in some other language (namely German) and awkwardly translated into English. The current name was adopted about 100 years ago.

Do we object to being called Holdeman Mennonites? Well, we do it ourselves, at least in casual conversation, so we can’t very well object to others doing it. But there is a little problem with both words: neither John Holdeman nor Menno Simons considered themselves to be the founders of a church.

Menno Simons was a 16th century Roman Catholic priest in Holland who experienced the new birth and began preaching evangelical sermons in the Catholic church. After a year he withdrew and began to associate with the remnant of the Anabaptists, who had been scattered and demoralized by persecution. Soon he was asked to become a minister. He wrote extensively to explain and defend the faith to others. Soon his name was indelibly associated with the faith and all who were of the same faith were considered followers of Menno. Which wasn’t exactly true, there were other prominent leaders, but Menno was the name best known to those outside the church.

John Holdeman was a 19th century member of the Mennonite Church who felt it had drifted away from the historic faith . His intention was not to start a new church but to encourage the Mennonites to return to the Old Ground and Foundation (that was the title of his first book). No such return happened so a small group of Mennonites, at three different locations, began holding separate services. John Holdeman was the main leader in the early years, but as the church grew many others worked along side of him.

Thus it is not wholly inaccurate for us to be called Holdeman Mennonites, though I am quite sure that neither John Holdeman not Menno Simons would approve.

[By the way, I have added a Contact Me page with my gmail address and questions are welcome.]

The true signs by which the Church of Christ may be known

1. By an unadulterated pure doctrine. Deuteronomy 4:6, 5:12; Isaiah 8:5; Matthew 28:20; Mark 16:15; John 8:52; Galatians 1

2. By a Scriptural use of the sacramental signs. Matthew 28:19; Mark 16; Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:22,23

3. By obedience to the Word. Matthew 7; Luke 11:28; John 7:18, 15:10; James 1:22

4. By unfeigned brotherly love. John 13:34; Romans 13:8; 1 Corinthians 13:1; 1 John 3:18, 4:7,8

5. By a bold confession of God and Christ. Matthew 10:32; Mark 8:29; Romans 10:9; 1 Timothy 6:13

6. By oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word. Matthew 5:10, 10:39, 16:24, 24:9; Luke 6:28; John 15:20; 2 Timothy 2:9, 3:12; 1 Peter 1:6, 3:14, 4:13, 5:10; 1 John 3:13

-Menno Simons, 1554 AD

Am I a uniter or a divider?

During a recent visit in the home of a young couple in another congregation, the wife talked about the church her parents had attended when she was a child. The membership of that church is now down to the pastor and a few women; no man has been able to abide the pastor’s controlling ways. That pastor may well have a sound grasp of the Christian faith and how it should be lived, but he is a divider, not a uniter.

My spell-checker doesn’t like the word uniter, and I don’t much care for it either. I would prefer to use the French word rassembleur, as that carries the implication not just of drawing people together, but of drawing them together for a common purpose. However, rassembleur would not be understood by most English-speaking people, so I will stick with uniter.

Can a revival have an enduring effect if it does not instill in believers a united vision of the purpose of Christian life? I am thinking of the Western Canadian Revival of 40 years ago. It swept through city after city, bringing together people from the whole spectrum of evangelical Christianity to hear messages calling on them to deal with sin in their lives. I believe many people were genuinely touched and their faith renewed or restored. But were they united? I don’t think so; the churches remained as before with all their internal and external frictions and divisions.

The church of God is often in need of revival. Anything that involves people will tend to get messy. Many people do not see the problems, they need to be stirred and awakened. A revival that only seeks to restore the purity of practice as it was formerly will not be durable as there is no vision of the purpose of that purity of practice. Some people see needs in the church, but have no patience for the slowness of others to see. If they attempt to impose their vision on others, some may abandon the faith. Or they themselves will abandon the assembly of the saints and wander here and there seeking others who see things as they do. These people are dividers.

Menno Simons was a true rassembleur (or uniter if you prefer). He was a priest at Witmarsum in Friesland who was converted almost 400 years ago through studying the Bible. While still in the Roman Catholic church he taught against the zealous and misguided people who took over the city of Muenster, expecting the Lord to return and establish His kingdom there. When 300 people took over an old monastery near where he lived and were killed in the ensuing siege, the burden of his conscience became almost unbearable. He felt that some had left the Roman Catholic church because he had revealed its errors, but he had not led them further in the truth.

“I thought to myself — I, miserable man, what am I doing?” “I began in the name of the Lord to preach publicly from the pulpit the true repentance, to point people to the narrow path, and in the power of the Scripture to openly to reprove all sin and wickedness. . . to the extent that I had at that time received from God the grace.”

Nine months later he left the Roman Catholic church, abandoning his reputation and easy life. “In my weakness I feared God; I sought out the pious and though they were few in number I found some who were zealous and maintained the truth. I dealt with the erring, and through the help and power of God with His Word, reclaimed them from the snares of damnation and gained them to Christ. The hardened and rebellious I left to the Lord.”

A year later , a group of brethren came to him and urged him to put use the talents he had received from the Lord to build up the church of God. “I was sensible of my limited talents, my unlearnedness, my weak nature and the timidity of my spirit, the exceeding great wickedness . . . of the world, the great and powerful sects, . . . and the woefully heavy cross that should weigh on me should I comply. On the other hand I saw the pitiful great hunger and need of these God-fearing, pious, children, for I saw that they erred as do harmless sheep which have no shepherd.”

He accepted the plea of the brethren to be ordained as an elder of the church and could later say: “The great and mighty God has made known the word of true repentance . . .through our humble service, doctrine, and unlearned writings, together with the diligent service and help of our faithful brethren in many towns and countries. It has been made known to such an extent that He has bestowed upon His churches such unconquerable power that many proud and lofty hearts have become humble; the impure, chaste; the drunken, sober; the avaricious, benevolent; the cruel, kind; and the ungodly, pious; but they also left their possessions and blood, life and limb with the blessed testimony they had, as it may be seen daily still. These are not the fruit of false doctrine. Neither could these people endure so long under such dire distress and cross were it not the power and word of the Almighty which moves them.”

In the 16th Century, church and state were closely bound together and any deviation from the state church was considered subversive, even the peaceable Anabaptists. There were many other sects at the time, due to widespread dissatisfaction with the state church. The Anabaptists taught and lived a Biblical faith that answered the cry in the hearts of many people. Attempts to destroy this faith by persecution only drew more attention to it and it continued to grow. There were many other leaders, but Menno Simons was the one who was best known to those outside the church. Thus, the members of the church came to be known as Menno-nites.

The mark of a Christian

All Scriptures teach and enjoin. . . that we should love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength, and our neighbours as ourselves. On these two commandments, says Christ, hang all the law and the prophets.

Love is the total content of the Scripture. Everyone that loveth, says John, is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love. And he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him. Without this love, it is all vain, whatever we may know, judge, speak, do, or write. The property and fruit of love is meekness, kindness. Love is not envious, not crafty, not deceitful, not puffed up, not selfish. In short, where love is, there is a Christian. We are urged to love by the Scriptures and cannot be Christians without love.

-Menno Simons, 1556MennoSimons

No compulsion in matters of religion

Around 204 AD, Tertullian wrote: “As the religion of others does not concern us, and neither profits nor harms us; therefore it does not become any one religion to force itself upon another; since it must be accepted voluntarily, and not by coercion, for what is required is the offering of a willing mind.”

In 320 AD Lactantius Firmianus wrote these words to the Emperor Constantine:

“The more the religion of God is suppressed, the more it breaks forth and grows; hence they should employ reasoning and admonition, it is not necessary to proceed with violence. For religion admits of no compulsion; persuasive words can do more to promote the cause than blows.”

In another place he wrote: “We Christians do not desire that any one should serve God, the Creator of all, against his will; neither are we angry if he does not serve Him; for we trust His Majesty, who can easily avenge Himself against those who despise Him, as He does the vexations and injuries inflicted upon His servants. Therefore, when we suffer such shameful things, we say not one word against it, but commit all vengeance to God; not doing as those who would be regarded protectors of their gods; and very cruelly assail those who do not worship them.”

In 1554 Menno Simons wrote: “Faith is a gift of God, therefore it cannot be forced upon any one by worldly authorities or by the sword; alone through the pure doctrine of the Holy Word and with humble ardent prayer it must be obtained of the Holy Ghost as a gift of grace. Moreover, it is not the will of the Master of the house that the tares be rooted up as long as the day of reaping is not at hand, as the Scriptural parable shows with great clearness.

“Now if our persecutors are Christians, as they think, and accept the Word of God, why do they not heed and follow the word and commandment of Christ? Why do they root up the tares before the time? Why do they not fear, lest they root up the good wheat, and not the tares?  Why do they undertake to do the duty of angels who, at the proper time, shall bind the tares in bundles and cast them into the furnace of everlasting fire?”

Persecution of Menno Simons

Saturday I posted excerpts from an article by Menno Simons. He mentions several times in this article that his life was in danger. The danger was very real, there was a price on his head for teaching contrary to the official state church. In 1542, Emperor Charles V upped the reward for Menno’s capture to 100 gold guilders. Nevertheless Menno continued to go from place to place in Holland, preaching the gospel, baptizing converts, strengthening the congregations. This all had to be done in secrecy, because of the danger. In 1543 Menno moved his family to northwest Germany, where the local nobility were less antagonistic. He died there in 1561. Here are two examples of the dangers he faced, taken from his own writings.

“About the year 1539, a householder who was a very pious man, named Tjaert Reynerdson, was seized in my stead, because out of compassion and love he had received me in his house secretly. He was a few days later put on the wheel after  a free confession of faith, as  a valiant knight of Christ, after the example of his Lord, although even his enemies testified that he was a pious man without reproach.” (The wheel, or rack, was a medieval form of torture.)

“Also, in 1546, at a place where they boast of the Word, a four room house was confiscated, because the owner had rented one of the rooms, unknown to anybody, to my poor sick wife and her children.”

Peter Janz Twisck, whose wife was a grand-daughter of Menno Simons,  gave the following accounts:

“Menno Simons’ daughter in our presence related the following incident: A man who attended the meetings of the brethren agreed that he would betray him to the authorities for a certain sum of money. He pledged himself that he would deliver Menno into their hands or would forfeit his life. However, this he could not accomplish, for whenever he watched for him in the places where the meetings were to be held, Menno escaped through the providence of God. And at one time when this traitor, accompanied by an officer, undertook to find and apprehend him, Menno unexpectedly passed before them in a small boat on the canal, but the traitor kept silent until Menno had passed them some distance and had leaped ashore on the other side. Then the traitor said: ‘Behold, the bird has escaped.’ The officer was enraged and demanded why he did not speak in time, to which the traitor replied: ‘I could not speak, for my tongue was bound.’ The magistrates were angry and the betrayer had to give his head because he let Menno escape.”

“From a reliable source I have heard that Menno at Eenighenburg, a village in North Holland, at one time went into a church after the priest had completed the services for that day, and with great boldness, readiness of speech and learning he conversed with him in Latin about various Papistic superstitions. The priest was greatly surprised and after he had resigned his office, he related at length his conversation with Menno. Not infrequently Menno conversed with priests. A certain cloister he entered without disclosing his identity and spoke to the prior with great boldness, admonishing him earnestly and pointing out their great errors. Although a decree containing his name, description of his clothing, person, etc., was nailed to the church doors, with the promise of hundred or a few hundred guilders to any one who would cause his arrest, yet God preserved him from all the designs and cunning devices of the persecutors.”

Menno Simons: Why I do not cease teaching and writing

“For Zion’s sake I will not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness and the salvation thereof as as a lamp that burneth; and the Gentiles shall see thy righteousness, and all kings thy glory” Isaiah 62:1; 2.

Therefore for the sake of the chosen ones of Zion and of Jerusalem, I can no longer hold my tongue, the truth must be told, so that righteousness may go forth as a light and its salvation burn as a torch, and that all men may know the righteousness of the Lord and all tongues, generations, and people confess His glory. I have sometimes with Jeremiah thought not to teach any more in the name of the Lord, because so many seek my life. Yet, I can no longer hold my tongue, for I am with the prophet very much troubled at heart; my heart trembles in me; all my joints shake and quake when I consider that the whole world, lords, princes, learned and unlearned people, men and women, bond and free are so estranged from Christ Jesus and from evangelical truth and from life eternal.

My good reader, the whole wide world, all tongues, races, and people have in the righteous judgment of God deserted the one God-pleasing position as to doctrine, sacraments, and life. For they have desired the lie more than the truth, and evil more than good. . . The learned ones and the preachers who should reprove such things are themselves committed to such false doctrine, unbelief, and even more abominable idolatry and hellish life. Yes, these learned people diligently lead and drive all men to idolatry, unbelief, transgression, and accursed life, both by their teaching and their example, as most of the learned have from the beginning. They are usually earthy, carnal, and devilish, and they always reject the spiritual and heavenly wisdom and will of Jesus Christ in their life, which restrains carnal lusts as loathsome and fearful. Therefore, since I clearly see this awful despising of the Word of God, and the condemnation of innumerable thousands of souls whom Christ Jesus has so dearly bought and ransomed by His crimson blood, there being no salvation outside of the obedience to the divine Word, therefore I cannot be silent because of the honour and praise of my Lord and God and the salvation of our poor, erring brother, even though it might cost me my life.

Who knows, perhaps through me and through my beloved brethren who are and who shall be, God has chosen a means thereto and provided in His grace that some of those who now unwittingly err may yet acknowledge and confess the right way, doctrine, truth, and life, and walk unblamably in Christ before God and before all the world all the days of their lives. O Lord, let it be so. Amen.

For this reason I am not ashamed to write down, publish, and proclaim loudly, my faith, doctrine, intention, and desire before all men who will hear, no matter who they are. Yes, I do not doubt but if those could see my innermost heart who now assiduously seek my life, then their hatred against me and my brethren would change into love and friendliness.

In the first place, we desire according to the Word of God that no bishop, pastor, or minister should be admitted into the church of the Lord, to teach and administer the sacraments of the Lord, other than those who are comprised in the doctrine, ordinance, and life of our Lord Jesus Christ, and unblamable in all things. 1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6; Leviticus 21:7; Ezekiel 44:21. For the Word of the Lord is truth; it is Spirit and life. These things cannot be administered by the carnally minded, by children of death, nor by liars; but by the truthful, by the spiritually minded, and by those who rightfully confess Christ Jesus, who feel surely the life eternal in their hearts and who live unblamably before God and walk in Christ Jesus, so that they may truthfully say with Paul, Be ye followers of me, even as I am also of Christ.

In the second place, we desire with ardent hearts even at the cost of life and blood that the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ and His apostles, which only is the true doctrine and will remain so until Jesus Christ comes again upon the clouds, may be taught and preached through all the world as the Lord Jesus commanded His disciples as a last word to them while He was on the earth. Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15.

First published in 1539.

A theology of suffering

Henry Funk, whom I’ve been quoting the past few days, was only a generation of two removed from the persecution of the Mennonites in Switzerland. The reality of the possibility of suffering for the faith was real to him, and he did not shrink from it.

A few centuries have passed and Mennonites in North America have grown accustomed to thinking that persecution was a thing of the distant past, not really worth even thinking about today. Now we are beginning to wake up to the fact that the world around us has changed and the friendship and support for our faith that we thought was there is rapidly dissipating.

Genuine Christianity has been a persecuted faith throughout most of history. Of course there were churches that called themselves Christian and allied themselves with the civil powers. These churches were often persecutors of all who would not bend to their particular brand of Christianity. At the same time, there were wars between countries holding to different brands of Christianity and it became difficult to discern if the real cause was religion, political ambition, or a striving for economic advantage.

Anabaptists have stood apart from those waging religious wars and persecutions, but have often been the ones being persecuted. Despite the persecution, they have also been noted for their evangelistic fervour. Menno Simons wrote: “To this end we preach as much as opportunity and possibility affords, in forests and wildernesses, in this land and abroad, in prison and bonds, in water, fire and the scaffold, upon the gallows and upon the wheel, before lords and princes, orally and by writing at the risk of possessions and life, as we have done these many years without ceasing.”

Some people found a way to avoid persecution by conforming to the outward form of the state church, yet meeting privately to share their testimonies of faith. In the Lutheran church such people were called pietists, in the Roman Catholic Church they were called quietists.

One branch of those who called themselves by Menno’s name decided it would be better to be as quiet as possible about their faith to avoid persecution. About two hundred years ago they were invited to move to Ukraine, along with many other Germans, by Empress Catherine of Russia. Here they had peace, at the cost of renouncing any attempt to share the gospel with the Ukrainian people. They also lost the ability to evangelize their own people. They settled on self-governing colonies and people’s livelihood was tied to being a member of the church. How could they then deny baptism to their unconverted children? In time, the bishops and ministers forbade the reading, and even the possession, of Menno Simon’s writings.

Most of the descendents of these people still call themselves Mennonites, but what does that mean to them? In most cases it is simply a cultural heritage. The spiritual heritage, the evangelistic fervour, the willingness to suffer for the faith are a dimly remembered history.

Even among those who still retain a faith that is much the same as Menno’s and all the Anabaptist forefathers, the reality that such faith might entail a risk to life and property is hardly considered. I believe it is time to rediscover the theology of suffering. Do we have a faith that will not waver if it begins to cost us something?

The admonition in 1 Peter 4:12-14 was not only for that long ago  era: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy. If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye; for the spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you: on their part he is evil spoken of, but on your part he is glorified.”

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