Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Menno Simons

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.”

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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

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?”

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