Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Menno Simons

A church of nobodies

Historians appear to believe that wherever there was something important going on there must have been some big shots behind it. When they look at the history of Christianity, the Catholics and Protestants had all the big shots. Since they find no big shots on the side of those we call Anabaptists, they assume that nothing was happening.

But the very essence of Christianity is that there can be only one big shot, and that is God Himself. Even Jesus did not conduct Himself as a big shot. That was the problem the Scribes and Pharisees had with Him; they wanted a Messiah who would sweep away the Roman oppressors and rule the world from Jerusalem. Dispensationalists are in full agreement with that, and say that since His plan was foiled the first time the earthly kingdom will be established at His Second Coming. The problem with that line of thought is that it would make Jesus a fomenter of sedition and provide just cause for the Romans to execute Him. But Jesus said plainly “My kingdom is not of this world”, and the Roman governor found no fault in Him, going so far as to wash his hands of the whole affair.

So Jesus is not our big shot. He is the most important man in the history of the world, but a nobody in the eyes of the world. His followers, from the apostles to the present day, have also been nobodies.

We should not, however, read too much into the opinion of the Sanhedrin that the apostles were unlearned and ignorant men. The apostles were fluent in Aramaic and Greek, knew the Scriptures better than most of us do today, and were well acquainted with the Greek culture around them. But they were not learned in all the petty intricacies of rabbinic interpretations and regulations.

Once we stop looking for the big shots in the movement variously known as Donatist, Cathar, Anabaptist, Waldensian, etc, it becomes obvious that there was a whole lot going on. Thieleman van Braght scoured the ancient records and published his findings in the Martyrs Mirror.

A more recent book is The Anatomy of a Hybrid by Leonard Verduin. The hybrid in the title of the book refers to state churches which united secular authority with spiritual authority, beginning when the Roman Emperor Constantine professed Christianity and then assumed authority over the Roman Catholic Church. Verduin is a thorough scholar who shows clearly the evidences of a continuing alternate church movement from the time the hybrid first departed from the faith once delivered to the saints. He points out that the Mennonite movement began in locations where the Waldensians had recently flourished.

Another facet of looking for the big shots is evident in the attention church historians pay to councils of Roman Catholic bishops, called by a Roman Emperor, to decide matters of essential Christian doctrines. I believe those matters were decided long before the councils by the Holy Spirit working through a bunch of nobodies.

Let the world have its dynamic and charismatic preachers. We pray that they will do some good in making known the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. But we fear, as Menno Simons once wrote: “so long as the world donates such splendid houses and large incomes to their preachers, the false prophets and deceivers will be numerous.”

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Time to make a decision

At least I thought we had exhausted all the possibilities in trying to find a church that still believed and lived the old Anabaptist faith. Could I have missed something? Or had I misunderstood something?

If I was honest with myself, I had felt more at home in congregations of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite than anywhere else. But the fear of being deceived was holding me back from considering whether this church might be what I was looking for.

Just what does “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5) mean? I went alone to pray and ask God to help me see what the Bible really taught about the church. As I rose from the prayer, I felt a need to read again what Menno Simons wrote about the signs by which the true church of God could be identified. He listed six:

1. By an unadulterated, pure doctrine.
2. By a scriptural use of the sacramental signs.
3. By obedience to the Word.
4. By unfeigned brotherly love.
5. By an unreserved confession of God and Christ.
6. By oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word.

As I read them this time, and considered all the churches we had known, it was suddenly crystal clear that there was no other church to which even one of these signs could be applied. We had met many friendly and helpful people, they seemed from the outside to get along well together. But could it be called unfeigned brotherly love when they didn’t really trust each other? Many churches talked about the new birth, and about spiritual unity. Yet they baptized anyone who said they had been born again and had communion at appointed times, even though they were not fully at peace with one another.

These thoughts were pointing me strongly toward the Holdeman Mennonites. But what about the claim of exclusivity? Once again, I looked to see what Menno said. It wasn’t hard to find and again I understood something I had missed before. Here is what Menno wrote:

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 Elias ; 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 obviously believed there were many Christians in other churches; he was not saying that there was only one church in which one could be saved. But he was concerned that other churches were offering comfort to the unsaved and not guiding and supporting those who were saved.

My heart was settled. I knew where God wanted us to be and where I wanted to be. I made several two hour trips to visit a minister in the Linden Congregation of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite and knew that was where I wanted to be.

This was too abrupt a change in direction for Chris. She was frightened and not at all willing to make another move. She felt at home where we were and was sure that I was deceived. We hashed this over many times without getting any closer to seeing things the same way. The possibility that we might have to part ways loomed before us.

Finally we knelt together and prayed about the direction we should take. When the prayer was finished, Chris said she still felt the same apprehension about the direction I was taking, but she would go with me.

The night before we left, the bishop and his wife invited us for supper. Before we parted, he had one last warning for me. “You have expressed some misgivings in the past about the Holdeman church. I share those misgivings. We have never seen it happen that a church could drift from full obedience to the truth and recover itself. When a church has drifted, it is time to come out and start over again on the gospel ground.”

As I listened to those words, I realized the bishop understood a church to be merely a man-made entity. What he meant as a warning I took as a confirmation that God was leading me to a church where He was doing the building and the refining.

Disappointments

Pastor Harvey* was immediately hired by another congregation of the same denomination. The young people followed and so did we. This church was the same distance from our home, but out in the country on gravel roads. Before long there was a baptism service for several of the youth and for Chris and me.

Now we were officially Mennonites.  It wasn’t long before I began to wonder how Mennonite these people really were. There were copies of the Martyrs Mirror and The Complete Writings of Menno Simons in the church library. It wasn’t clear to me why, as no one seemed familiar with them, or even mildly interested in becoming familiar. No one seemed concerned whether this church still held to the faith described in those books.

Business at the grain elevator had increased substantially over the past couple years, more and mre farmers were switching their grain deliveries to my elevator. My decision to just stick it out had been vindicated. But now I was spending more and more time in the grain dust while unloading trucks and loading grain cars. And my respiratory allergies were becoming more and more of a problem.

Finally, I decided I couldn’t keep on and began casting about for another way to make a living. There was an opportunity to become a life insurance agent, so I resigned my job with United Grain Growers and signed on with Mutual Life of Canada.

This involved a move from the company owned house to an apartment in Carman. Then I went through the training sessions, wrote the exam and passed it.

About this time we took a trip back to Moose Jaw for a few days. Michelle was an active and happy little girl, walking and beginning to say a few words. Grandma was happy to have her spend a littlke time with them.

One evening Chris and I went bowling  with my cousins Dennis and Ted and their wives. My cousins freely shared their convictions that term life insurance was the only type worth having. Whole life insurance plans, the type that includes a savings portion and pays the largest commission to the one selling them, were just a scam according to them.

Well, that really gave me something to think about. I had done a good job as a salesman at the grain elevator, selling farm input products. But I knew that I would never be able to sell something if I was not fully convinced that it was a good deal for the buyer. Maybe I wasn’t the type of person who could succeed at selling life insurance. What should I do?

I didn’t have long to wonder. A fefw days after we got home there was a meeting at the Mutual Life of Canada office in Winnipeg. The meeting was brief and to the point: the district manager who had hired me was being fired. Along with him went the last two people he had hired. That included me. What now?

Chris got a job as a waitress at the restaurant a block from our apartment, but that wasn’t going to keep us going. We spent an evening talking over our situation and considering if there were any options to find our way out of this bind.

I knew that Dennis was farming around 2,000 acres and it would soon be seeding time. As far as I knew he didn’t have any help lined up. I also knew that the house on one farm that he had bought was now empty. That seemed like a possibility worth pursuing. By that time it was late and we went to bed planning to call him the next morning.

An abiding church

As soon as we were married my wife and I set out on a search to find people who still believed and lived the faith once delivered to the saints. I firmly believed we would find that faith among the spiritual descendants of the Anabaptist & Mennonites of long ago. Time and again our search ran aground, and we would sadly move on to search somewhere else.

We met many fine, warm hearted people along the way, but their understanding of the faith always fell short. Some would say that wearing the style of clothes prescribed by their church was evidence of being born again. Others thought that the mere fact of wanting to be a Christian was evidence you were one. Some said that it was better to follow Billy Graham than Menno Simons. I mean no disrespect of Billy Graham, but I fear such a statement indicates a lack of a spiritual foundation and they would just as readily follow the next big name that came along, whatever kind of gospel he would preach.

Then there was this group that claimed to be the true church. I balked at that idea, which I took to be evidence of pride. But after encountering so many “wrong” churches, Mennonites and a variety of others, I began to reconsider. Doesn’t every church claim to be more on the right path than any other? Otherwise there would be no reason for them to continue to exist.

Finally I knelt in prayer and asked for help to understand what the Bible teaches about the church. I found there is nothing in the Bible that gives room to think that competing bodies, differing in doctrine, can all be churches of God. Neither did there seem to be any way to fit the idea of an invisible church into the New Testament teachings about the church.

Then I was led to Menno Simons list of signs by which the true church of God may be known:

Scriptural use of the sacramental signs – by that time I had seen the confusion in so many other churches and knew of only one that carefully proved those who requested baptism to see that they had indeed been born again and the congregation could testify of a Spirit-led life. This same church was the only one I knew of that would not have a communion service unless the congregation was fully united and any sins repented of and quarrels reconciled.

Unfeigned brotherly love – again we had seen many churches that tried to practice brotherly love, but didn’t really trust each other. Only one church seemed to have genuine brotherly love.

Unadulterated, pure doctrine – check

Obedience to the Word – check

Dietrich Philip added another sign – ministers that are faithful in word and deed. I had already noted that in this church there was the power to deal with ministers who crossed a line in doctrine or conduct without disturbing the unity of a congregation.

Thus, on February 11, 1979, Chris and I were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, the same church that we had earlier vowed to avoid.

One last thought: the doctrine of the true church does not mean that we think no one else outside the church can be saved. Here I’ll quote Menno Simons again:

“Reader, understand what I mean ; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen ones 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 Elias ; 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.”

Looking for real Mennonites

All I learned about Mennonites while I was growing up was that my mother had been one and had left because the German language was more important than the faith and that my grandma, a dear sweet old lady, was one and wanted me to learn German so I could be a Christian.

Perhaps there was one more thing. My mother, though no longer member of a Mennonite church, seemed to have carried some of the faith in her baggage when she left. There was something about her that was more peaceful and attractive than the argumentative faith of my father.

In my mid twenties I decided I wanted to know more about Mennonites. This was half a century ago, long before you could go to your computer and ask google to find the information you wanted. Encyclopedias offered a little information, but I wasn’t sure they were getting it right. So I bought a book, probably more than one, I forget.

As I read Mennonite history I discovered a group of people who truly believed in God, who loved God, knew they were loved by God, and believed God wanted them to love everyone else. For some reason the state churches believed such a faith was subversive and persecuted the Mennonites. The Mennonites treasured their faith more than their homes, material possessions, even their lives. They were burnt at the stake and kept telling the bystanders about the love of God as long as they had breath.

I read about a time when soldiers seized a stock of books written by Menno Simons and were about to burn them in the town square. Several daring men began grabbing books from the pile and passing them to the bystanders, who immediately fled. It all happened so quickly that the few soldiers present were unable to prevent it and were left with almost nothing to burn.

There had been a power in that faith that I longed for. I knew there were many kinds of Mennonites in our province and hoped that somewhere I could find that old faith sill living.

I got up early one Sunday morning, dressed in my best clothes and drove into a nearby city to attend a Mennonite service. I was impressed by the simplicity of the non-liturgical service, don’t remember anything about the sermon, but hoped to learn more about this church. However, it appeared that I was an invisible person. One or two people nodded to me as we left that service, but none appeared interested in the stranger in their midst. I tried again several weeks later, with the same result.

I still thought that the faith I had read about must surely exist somewhere, but I gave up looking until after I was married. We experienced more disappointments and came to realize that most churches that called themselves Mennonite had no idea what the name meant. But we still kept looking.

A living faith

I CAN NEITHER TEACH NOR LIVE BY THE FAITH OF OTHERS. I MUST LIVE BY MY OWN FAITH AS THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD HAS TAUGHT ME THROUGH HIS WORD.
-MENNO SIMONS

THE TITLE ITSELF (MENNONITES) HAS NO SAVING POWER, IT’S VALUE LIES ONLY IN THE FACT THAT MENNO’S TEACHING IS ENTIRELY IN ACCORD WITH THE TEACHING OF JESUS AND THE APOSTLES.
-REUBEN KOEHN

*These were among a series of quotations posted yesterday on Operation Noh’s Ark. To see all the quotations click on the link at right under Blogroll. I first translated these two into French and posted them on my French blog – Témoin anabaptiste

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

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