Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Mennonite

Only an empty box

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Agnes grew up 100 years ago on a farm in southwestern Saskatchewan. Her parents were members of a church which called itself Mennonite and worshipped in the German language. At home the family spoke a Low German dialect called Plautdietsch, and English.  There were 14 children in the family, spaced about two years apart. Agnes was number six.

The church claimed to hold to the original Mennonite faith. In her teens Agnes memorized a summary of the teachings of that faith, a German catechism which dated from 1792 and the bishop baptized her. She was the only one in her baptismal class to memorize the whole catechism, yet they were all baptized. The catechism said that they needed to be born again to become Christians and eligible for church membership, but the bishop said nothing of that.

Agnes was the last child in the family to learn German. As time went on, she realized the church had nothing for her younger siblings. Really, it had nothing for her. The catechism told of a faith that had once been, might yet be in some other place, but had died in this church. All that remained were traditions that could only be taught in the German language.

The church was like a box with ornate German lettering claiming to be the faithful remnant of the ancient Mennonite faith. But when Agnes had opened the box, she found it empty. So she threw it away. She remembered what the catechism said about Christian life, but did not found that life in the box.

Agnes was my mother; I am my mother’s son. That is why I have never found the “Mennonite culture” to be attractive. I didn’t want the box, I wanted to find the faith. In my adult years I searched for a place where the ancient Mennonite faith was still a living thing, not just words in the ai in a language I couldn’t understand. And I found it.

A Christ-centred faith

The Anabaptist/Mennonite faith is Christ-centred in a way that differs significantly from other Christian traditions. We believe in the virgin birth, the sacrificial death on the cross, the resurrection and the second coming of Christ. But what is most important to us is the life of Jesus between his birth and the cross.

There are six ways in which this matters:

1. Jesus is God in human form, therefore He is the clearest revelation of what God is like.

2. Jesus is the clearest revelation of what God intends human beings to be like. Jesus tells us many times in the gospels to “follow me.” The new birth is just the beginning of being a Christian, it is what enables us to follow Jesus.

3. Jesus reveals how God works in history. The Old Testament accounts of Abraham, Moses and Israel are incomplete without Jesus. His life reveals what Old Testament history was all about.

4. For Jesus to be central to our life we must be united with His church. It is not a viable option to be united with Jesus and stand apart from His body, the Church.

5. The work of the Holy Spirit is experienced through Jesus. Any claim for the work of the Spirit that is not in harmony with the life and teaching of Jesus must be judged false.

6. To make Jesus central to our life is to be concerned for the salvation of the world. If there is only one God, and He is revealed in Jesus, then those who know Jesus have an obligation to introduce the rest of humanity to Him.

-adapted from A Third Way, Paul M Lederach © 1980 Herald Press, Scottdale PA

Christ is in all

The following question came in my email this morning and I decided to post it and give my thoughts.  Feel free to join the conversation.

I enjoy many of your inspiring blogs and this morning read “A matter of the heart, not the head.” You wrote: “ …and there did not seem to be a closeness, a genuine trust and fellowship among the members.”

I understand the line and have noticed or experienced this too; but my question is: what specifically brings us to “closeness, genuine trust and fellowship” ? Not to downplay faith in Christ, I am thinking that a common practiced tradition and custom also play a part of the closeness you refer to. Can such closeness and fellowship exist without a common tradition ? What do you think ? H. W.

I believe that “a common practiced tradition and custom” can lead to a form of closeness.  Just not the kind we were looking for. Some of the churches we visited did have the form of unity produced by a common ethnic and religious heritage, but as I wrote “it was never clear to us how many of them might actually have a relationship with the Shepherd.”

The apostle Paul described the church this way in Colossians 3:11: “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond [nor] free: but Christ [is] all, and in all.” Let me unpack that statement. Jews were those people who believed themselves to be God’s people by virtue of their family heritage. Greeks were everybody else in the parts of Asia and Europe mentioned in the New Testament. The circumcised were the adherents to the Jewish traditions, the uncircumcised were those for whom those traditions had no meaning. Barbarians were people who spoke an unfamiliar language. Scythians were people whose culture and customs seemed bizarre to the Jews and Greeks. Bond and free refers to social status. Paul is saying that none of those things mattered; the one thing that matters is whether one has a relationship with Jesus Christ.  “Christ in you, the hope of glory” Colossians 1:27.

That must still be the grounds of Christian fellowship. My wife and I have belonged to the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for 41 years. A majority of the members are of one ethnic heritage. We are not. It doesn’t matter. Mennonite in our day has been relegated in many people’s minds to an ethnic culture. I am not part of that culture, much of it is incomprehensible to me, but I am a Mennonite by faith.

By culture and tradition I still feel like a boy out of a W. O. Mitchell story. I listened to Jake and the Kid on radio when I was young, a few years later I read Who Has Seen the Wind. I felt like I was the kid in  those stories, I identified fully with this boy  experiencing the wind in the grass, watching people around him cope with life, feeling part of the prairie.

God has called me, I have embraced the faith once delivered to the saints, I enjoy fellowship with brothers and sisters of this faith, whatever their background. But I am not a Mennonite by birth, language, culture or tradition. In those things I am a kid from the prairie, this is my land, these are my people.

The Works of Antichrist

[From a Waldensian writing dating from the year 1120. The historical belief of the Anabaptist-Waldensian-Mennonite faith is that Antichrist refers to a counterfeit of Christ.]

  • The first is that he perverts the worship properly due to God alone, by giving it to Antichrist himself and to his works, to the poor creature, rational or non rational, sensible or senseless; rational as to man, deceased male or female saints, golden images or relics. His works are the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist, which he worships as God and as Jesus Christ, together with the things blessed and consecrated by him, and prohibits the worship of God alone.
  • The second work of Antichrist is that he robs and bereaves Christ of His merits, with all the sufficiency of grace, justification, regeneration, remission of sins, sanctification, confirmation and spiritual nourishment, by attributing them to his own authority, to a form of words, to his own works, to the intercession of saints and to the fire of purgatory,  and separates the people from Christ and leads them away to the things said above, that they may not seek those of Christ, nor by Christ, but only in the works of their own hands, and not by a living faith in God, nor in Jesus Christ, nor in the Holy Spirit, but by the will and works of Antichrist, according as he preaches that salvation consists in his works.
  • The third work of Antichrist is that he attributes the regeneration of the Holy Spirit to the dead outward work, baptizing children in that faith and teaching that regeneration must be had by baptism , and then he creates orders and other sacraments, and grounds them all in his Christianity, which is contrary to the Holy Spirit.
  • The fourth work of Antichrist is that he has constituted and built all religion and holiness of the people upon going to mass, and has patched together all manner of ceremonies, some Jewish, some Gentile, some Christian. He leads the congregations and the people to them, thereby depriving them of  spiritual and sacramental nourishment, leading them away from true religion, from the commandments of God, draws them away from works of compassion by his offerings. By such a mass he has captured the people in vain hopes.
  • The fifth work of Antichrist is that he does all his works to be seen, that he may feed his insatiable avarice, that he may make all things for sale and do nothing without simony.
  • The sixth work of Antichrist is that he allows open sin without any ecclesiastical censure and does not excommunicate the impenitent.
  • The seventh work of Antichrist is that he does not govern or maintain unity by the Holy Spirit, but by the secular power, and uses it to regulate spiritual matters.
  • The eighth work of Antichrist is that he hates, persecutes , searches out, robs and destroys the members of Christ.

These things are the principal works which he commits against the truth, they being otherwise numberless and past writing down.

What does “Mennonite” mean to you?

Some people consider themselves to be birthright Mennonites because their ethnic origin is Plautdietsch or Pennsylfannisch Dietsch and their parents held to certain traditional values that they called Mennonite. Those values may have been cultural; language, clothing, lifestyle; or they may hae been intellectual: a somewhat counter cultural emphasis on peacefulness and helping one’s neighbour. Beyond these two groups there are those who cling to the Mennonite name but have become thoroughly Protestant in religion, abandoned religion altogether, or are experimenting with Buddhist meditation.

But what does it really mean to be Mennonite? Can any of the above persuasions and practices really be called Mennonite? Where does the name Mennonite come from?

The last question is the easiest to answer and may shed some light on the others. Five hundred years ago in Holland a Roman Catholic priest by the name of Menno Simons became troubled about the life he was leading. He began to read the Bible, repented and experienced a new birth. He remained in the priesthood for a time and gained some renown as an evangelical preacher. Eventually he found his situation untenable, left the Roman Catholic church and joined with those he considered to be true Christians, who had been scattered and demoralized by persecution.

MennoSimons

In the course of time he was ordained a minister in this group and set about to gather together and encourage the scattered believers. There were other noted leaders in the church during this era, especially Dietrich Philips and Leenart Bouwens. Menno does not appear to have been above the others, but became well known in the public eye due to his prolific writings. Dietrich Philips was also a prolific writer, but his writings were addressed to members of the church, while Menno often addressed his writings to the general public and to the authorities of the land.

For this reason the name of Menno Simons became very well known. The authorities put a price on his head and did their best to apprehend him, but he always managed to escape their attempts. In time, the authorities and the general public began to label as Menno’s people those who were of the same faith as Menno Simons. This was later shortened to Mennists and then Mennonites. Menno denied being the founder of the church he belonged to, and it would be wrong today to attribute such a thing to him. But it is still true that someone who is of the same faith as Menno could rightly be labelled a Mennonite.

So what did Menno believe? He once summarized the characteristics by which the true church of God would be known like this:

1. The salutary and unadulterated doctrine of His holy and divine Word. Where the church of Christ is, there His Word is preached purely and rightly.
2. The right and Scriptural use of the sacraments of Christ, namely, the baptism of those who, by faith, are born of God, sincerely repent, and have a clear conscience. And the dispensing of the Lord’s Holy Supper to the penitent, who seek grace, reconciliation and the remission of their sins in the merits of the death and blood of the Lord, who walk with their brethren in love, peace and unity, who are led by the Spirit of the Lord, into all truth and righteousness, and who prove, by their fruits, that they are the church and people of Christ.
3. Obedience to the holy Word, or the pious, Christian life which is of God.
4. The sincere and unfeigned love of one’s neighbour.
5. The name, will, word and ordinance of Christ, are unreservedly confessed, in spite of all the cruelty, tyranny, uproar, fire, sword and violence of the world, and that they are upheld unto the end.
6. The pressing cross of Christ, which is taken up for the sake of his testimony and word. That this very cross is a sure sign of its being the church of Christ, has been testified not only in olden times by the Scriptures, but also by the example of Jesus Christ, of the holy apostles and prophets, by the primitive and unadulterated church; and also, by the present pious, faithful children, especially in these our Netherlands.

This was the faith of Menno Simons. Who then can honestly say today that he has the same faith as Menno? Such an identification cannot come from natural inheritance, culture, tradition or philosophy. It can only belong to those who are truly born again and faithfully following the leading of the Holy Spirit, despite all the roadblocks and menaces which the world may place in their way?

Is that what Mennonite means to you?

The bishop said I needed a new heart

In January 1953, Dad told the preacher I would attend the catechism classes, then came home and told me I was going. So I went. I didn’t dare defy my Dad; besides I was with the four guys closest to my age, Leonard, Larry, Carman and Allan. I suspect their dads had done the same thing.

Once a week after school we walked to the Vicarage to study the Anglican catechism. Reverend Brown explained each article, as much as eleven year old boys could understand. The confirmation service, where the bishop would be present to lay his hands on our heads and pray for us, making us full members of the church, came in June.

We five boys had a meeting with the bishop before the service began. The Right Reverend Michael Coleman, Bishop of Qu’Appelle, was a kindly, white-haired gentleman. He spoke to us of how the service would be conducted. Then he told us:

When I was your age, I had the idea that after the bishop laid his hands on me and prayed for me, I would not be able to sin anymore. When we got home after church, I went out behind the barn to see if I could still say the words that I had used before. They came just as easily as they ever had! When I lay my hands on your head today and pray for you that will change nothing inside of you. To overcome sin you will need something that I cannot do for you. You will need a change of heart.

I didn’t understand what they meant, but those words stuck in my mind. They would resurface occasionally over the years, but it took another 17 years for me to understand. I had grown up in a home where the Bible was read, we attended church faithfully, but nobody else ever spoke to me about the need of a changed heart.

I quit going to church after I left home and tried to enjoy the pleasures of the world, but didn’t find them very gratifying. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what it was. In my reading I had come across the story of people long ago who had refused to deny their faith, even when threatened with death. Many of them did die. They were called Mennonites and it seemed to me that they had been real Christians.

I wondered if there were any people like that left in the world. Twice I attended a worship service in a church in a nearby city that called itself Mennonite. No one spoke to me or gave any indication that they knew I was there. I gave up on that, but started reading the Bible for the first time in many years.

In the spring of 1970 things came to a head. I was facing many troubles that seemed insurmountable. I opened the Bible at random and a verse stood out before me that told me I was a sinner. I knelt and prayed for forgiveness and promised to do whatever God wanted me to do.

Nothing happened that I was aware of. It took several months before I took stock of how much my life had changed and realized that something had happened. Silently, unseen, my heart had changed. It clicked that this must be what people called the new birth.

In 28 years, no one had told me that I needed to be born again, much less explain what that meant. In 28 years, only one person had ever told me that I needed a changed heart.

I’m sure things haven’t improved in the last fifty years. Whose fault is that? How many people have I told that they need a new heart? A few. Reflecting on all this leaves me uncomfortable. I think that’s a good thing. I have been too comfortable for too long, thinking others were doing the telling. I need to get out of that comfort zone.

The fulness of the time – today

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News reports are dismal: mass shootings; random killings; skyrocketing suicide rates; ethnic conflicts; antisemitism; recreational drug use on the rise, with fatal consequences for some; economic instability; political instability; refugees fleeing conflict in search of safety, many dying in the attempt; violence against women; and on and on.

It would seem that the condition of mankind today cries out for the saving gospel of Jesus Christ to be proclaimed. Does anybody believe it anymore? In most countries the agnostics and atheists outnumber those who call themselves Christian. Even those who call themselves Christian don’t appear to have much of an answer. Many have detoured into save the planet activism; others into pop psychology and others into feel good emotional revivalism. None of these offer a genuine solution or a durable healing of the gaping wounds in the souls of men and women.

The gospel of Jesus Christ offers exactly the healing balm that allows men and women, young and old, rich and poor, of any skin colour or ethnic identity to be made whole and to be able to love and respect others, and to be loved and respected by others.

The gospel needs to be proclaimed, and today we have the modern equivalent of the Roman road system that allows the gospel to be carried into all the world. It is called the internet. Yes, there is immorality being offered on this highway. Yes, there are other wares being offered that are harmful; Yes, there are deceptions and dangers out there on this highway. Christians of two millennia ago faced exactly the same dangers along the Roman roads; but they went out to proclaim the gospel and the gospel changed the world. Can that happen again?

Part of the inspiration for this post comes from Bill Sweeney’s blog, Unshakable Hope. Bill suffers from ALS and cannot speak or move any part of his body – except his eyes. He has a computer that is controlled by his eye movements and he is able to share his testimony and the saving truth of the gospel with people around the world. I first read the comparison of the internet to th Roman road system in his blog.

Gospel Tract and Bible Society of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, of which I am a member, has a web site offering free gospel tracts to people around the world. Tracts are available in 100 languages, they can be read online or printed. Copies can be ordered at no charge for distribution, questions can be asked (though perhaps in only about 20 of those languages). Of course there comes a time when interested people need a personal contact. Visits are made and when there is a need missionary couples are sent to mentor and disciple. Churches exist in many countries today which originated from some individual reading a tract and then sharing it with friends.

I have a French-language blog. Last month at least one person in 65 different countries looked at that blog. I take no credit for that as most of what I post there is writings of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith from hundreds of years ago. Are people reading out of curiosity or out of a hunger in the soul? Does it matter? It would be enough for curiosity to be a beginning.

To return to where I began, I believe there is a hunger in the souls of men and women the world around that is not being satisfied. Most cannot even identify what they are hungry for and try to satisfy it with things that do not satisfy. That leads to despair. Christians need to proclaim the message of hope, and with the internet I believe we have the means at our fingertips.

The Mennonite view of the Sabbath

They keep and sanctify the Sabbath which is not the literal, but the spiritual Sabbath, which never ends with true Christians, not by wearing fine clothes, not by carousing, vanity and idleness, as the reckless world do, but by the true fear of God, by a clear conscience and unblamable life, in love to God and their neighbours ; for that is the true religion, Heb. 12:1.
Menno Simons, 1554 – Complete Works, page 680

For, understand, the prophecy is fulfilled which said with reference to this time, that such people have beaten their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into sickles, rest from their works, and truly observe the spiritual Sabbath. Isa. 2:4; Mic. 4:3; Ex. 20:10, 11.
Headrick Alewins, 1659 – Martyrs Mirror, page 755

Because man so soon transgressed God’s word, he at the same time was overtaken with unrest in body and soul. Hence God commanded him to rest on the seventh day. . . yet this rest day was to man a figure that a rest of both body and soul was awaiting mankind (Heb 4:4; 11). . .
In this Jesus there is rest for the soul, the spiritual, eternal sabbath that has not end; in Jesus this sabbath must be obtained. . .
By faith we receive Jesus, and by faith in Jesus we must make an end of the service of sin, our own sinful works, and turn away from them, and by faith in Jesus do the works meet for repentance; then the believer enters into the rest of soul, then the believer enters upon the spiritual sabbath of the soul in Jesus, which Jesus has wrought in his own body on the tree; then the believer is in the day of salvation and in the day of light (2 Cor. 6:2; John 7:12; 11:9). This is then the spiritual sabbath day for the soul of the believers, in which they shall rest and hallow in both body and soul from the works of sin.
Henry Funk, 1763 – Restitution, pages 99-100

Old Testament ceremonies did not represent literal ceremonies under the gospel, but every one met a spiritual fulfilment. The literal sabbath was bodily rest; the spiritual sabbath is soul rest. He, Christ, said, “Come unto me all yea that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. And ye shall find rest unto your souls.” We must, to be able to obtain or enter into this spiritual sabbath, cease from all our work; that is works according to our sinful will, as God did from His work of creating.
The true sabbath of the gospel dispensation is not the observance of any literal day. We have a perpetual sabbath, rest to our souls.
Wendell K. Petoskey, Messenger of Truth, 1944, Issue 19

God had set the Sabbath as a day of rest, which pointing to Christ and the rest to be enjoyed in Him. In Him is brought back the day of rest as it was enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. When man accepts Christ as personal Saviour, and lives the life of Jesus he comes into this Sabbath rest, as long as he is faithful. . . The Sabbath is fulfilled in Christ and man need not be in unrest.
D. J. H. Schmidt, Messenger of Truth, 1955, Issue 8

[The Messenger of Truth is a bi-weekly periodical of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.]

The inward and spiritual grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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