Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Mennonites

25 Flavours of Mennonites

When we lived in Ontario it would happen from time to time that someone I had just met would ask me what kind of Mennonite I was. “Does your church allow cars? electricity? telephones?”

I knew these questions arose because there were at least 25 flavours of Mennonites within a 100 km radius of where we lived and for many of them things of this nature were a big issue. I would gladly have avoided these questions because I couldn’t see what they had to do with being Christian, which should be the most essential part of being a Mennonite.

People were curious and they didn’t know where else to start. It was so easy to answer the questions and wander down a rabbit trail that didn’t lead anywhere, leaving the questioner no wiser than when he started and leaving me feeling that I’d failed to say anything really helpful.

What I wanted to say was that the way we use the things available to us in this world can reveal something about our relationship with God. But making rules about things results in a group that is impressive in their outward unity, but does not ensure that they have a relationship with God. It does not even ensure that the members trust one another; sadly, the unity is often only apparent to outsiders.

What I wanted to say was that the essence of Christianity is to be filled with love, joy, peace and all the other qualities described as the fruit of the Spirit. To do that, it is often necessary to avoid things that will feed our pride. Pride is a sneaky thing that tries to enter our lives in so many ways that no amount of rules could ever cover them all. We must each deal with pride on a personal level.

What I wanted to say was that the making of rules provides fertile ground for thinking that I am doing a better job of following the rules than others. That feeds my pride and a critical, suspicious attitude towards others. That would be to head in altogether the wrong direction.

What should I have said? What would you say? What are your questions about being Mennonite?

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.

An entry level Mennonite church

“I like to use the New English Bible, it’s easier for people of our time to understand.” We had eaten supper with Peter Dueck and his wife in their home near Lowe Farm. Mr. Dueck (he didn’t want to be called Reverend) was the senior minister of the Lowe Farm Mennonite Church. Chris and I shared our wish to become Mennonites and we received a warm invitation to make ourselves at home in their congregation. Towards the end of our evening, Mr. Dueck shred his preference of Bible versions.

So I went out and bought a copy of the New Englsih Bible and we used it in our family Bible reading time at home. We began attending the Lowe Farm church and soon felt at home.

In the fall it was announced that catechism classes would begin for those wanting to join church. We enrolled and spent an evening a week through the winter studying Mennonite doctrine. The others in the class were youth from the congregation.

Things were going smoothly; I was excited that soon we would be members of a Mennonite church. When we came to the end of the catechism and the day of baptism was just a week away, Mr. Dueck drew us aside and informed us that we would not be baptized. Chris had been baptized as a baby and I at the age of nine and they would accept those baptisms and just take us in as members.

I was stunned. I had read enough history and doctrine to know that baptism of believers had always been a distinguishing characteristic of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith. And we had most certainly not been believers when a form of baptism had been applied to us years earlier.

I was baffled, hurt and confused. We had made no secret of our wish to be baptized, based on our belief that the baptism of unbelievers had no validity. No one had suggested anything different, now our expectations were shattered.

We decided to look for another church, but which one? There were many around, including the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. I enjoyed visiting with the members of that church at the elevator, but shrank from actually attending their church. I guess we were looking for an entry level Mennonite church.

No longer alone

It was a small wedding, just a few of our family and friends. I remember that we barely made it to the church on time and I remember when we signed our marriage certificate. My meory doesn’t seem to have recorded anything else, but that’s the important stuff anyway – we were there and we got married. Later that afternoon we left to spend our honeymoon at Lake Waskesiu in Prince Albert National Park. In the middle of our first night together Chris woke up, startled and a little disoriented, saying, “I just dreamed that we were married!.”

We’ve been living that dream for almost 48 years now. Like most dreams, it has had twists and turns when we wondered how it would turn out. Now we’re old folks and still together.

They tell you that two become one when you marry. They don’t tell you (or maybe I just wasn’t listening when it was told) how hard it will be to change the old habits of singlehood. As a bachelor, I had washed dishes when I had nothing left to cook with or eat from. Socks and shirts stayed where they dropped when I took them off. Every couple weeks I would go round the house, gather my dirty clothes and take them to the laundromat. I kind of knew my bride wouldn’t be charmed by those old habits,  but they died hard.

I wanted a Christian home, but had little idea what that might involve. The first night after we settled into our home in Sperling, Chris told me she wanted us to read the Bible and pray together. That is, she wanted me to take the lead in doing it. I resisted, she insisted. Once begun it became a practice that has continued to this day.

Chris had finished Grade 11 when living at Kelliher with her uncle. Now she enrolled in Grade 12 in Carman, the second town west of Sperling and caught the school bus early each morning.  That didn’t last long. Being a newcomer and the only married person in the class left her out of the social whirl of school. She decided that she had more important things to do at home.

Before we were married, I tried teaching her to drive my pickup truck. It had a standard transmission with the shift lever on the steering column. We drove out of Belle Plaine onto Highway Number One, the Trans-Canada, and I sat close beside her to coach. This was easier back in the days before seat belts and bucket seats. An RCMP officer stopped us and asked what was happening. Chris showed her learner’s permit and I my driver’s license and explained that I was trying to coach a driver who was unfamiliar with manual transmissions. He was a nice guy, he didn’t snicker or give us a ticket, just suggested that Chris might manage better if I didn’t sit so close.

Now that we were settled down, she enrolled in Driver’s Ed in Carman. I had traded the pickup for a car with automatic transmission and soon she was able to do the grocery shopping while I was at work.

Chris had never heard of Mennonites before she met me, but decided that if I wanted to be a Mennonite she did too. There were Mennonite churches of various kinds within a 15 or 20 minute drive from Sperling. I didn’t know much about any of them and stalled at trying to find out. One day I came home from work and my young bride informed me that she had talked to a minister at Lowe Farm, a town straight south of us, and we had an invitation to go and visit him and his wife.

Belle Plaine, continued

My prescription for the heart pills ran out about as soon as I got settled in Belle Plaine. The doctor who had originally prescribed them had retired in the meantime so I saw Doctor Gass. He flatly refused to renew the prescription. I thought I needed it and tried to argue with him. “You don’t need them,” he told me and that was that. I guess he was right, that was over 50 years ago and I’ve managed quite well without them. Somewhat later I figured out that Phenobarb wasn’t a heart medication anyway.

That ended the problem with being able to drink alcoholic beverages. I tried just about every variety of alcoholic drink and liked them all. This was thankfully before the days when recreational drugs were so readily available, or I might have tried them, too.

It was at Belle Plaine that someone suggested taking an antihistamine for my allergy problems. I have been taking them ever since and they make a difference. They haven’t made my problems go away, but they have enabled me to cope, most of the time.

In January of 1967 there was a two week training session for new UGG elevator managers in Winnipeg. We were put up in one of the better downtown hotels, just a few blocks from UGG headquarters. One morning we were given a tour of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. Our tour guide was none other than Bill Parrish, president of Parrish & Heimbecker, one of our competitors. He was also chairman of the grain exchange at that time and not many years older than I was.

Joe and I had spent the night in the bar and it was around midnight when we arrived back in Belle Plaine one night. We weren’t ready to call it a day, so when we saw a light in Bill and Wilma Paskaruk’s house we went and banged on the door. They let us in and we sat around, drank coffee and made small talk.

As we were leaving I turned and blurted out “Someday I am going to be a Mennonite and wear a beard!” I was just as shocked at that revelation as my friends were. Where did it come from?

I had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol, yet I knew this was not some drunken whimsy. My memory of that moment is crystal clear and I knew it was somehow connected to the thoughts that had been tumbling around in my mind.

As I mulled that over I decided the time had come to visit a Mennonite church. I searched the phone book and discovered there was a Mennonite church on the west side of Regina. I drove by the church the next time I was in Regina and checked the time for worship services. A Sunday or two later I got up early, dressed for church and drove into Regina. I was impressed by the simple form of worship, but found that I was invisible. I walked into that church, sat down in a pew just before the service began and walked out when it was over and nobody seemed to notice. I went again the next Sunday, with the same result. That was the end of that little experiment, I decided to try again some other time, some other place.

There were thousands of wooden grain elevators in the Western Canada grain belt. But trucks were getting bigger, able to haul more grain over longer distances, and the days of  small elevators were numbered. In January of 1969, at a district meeting in Regina I was informed that my elevator was being closed. I would be going back to being a helper until something else opened up. For the next two months I was located in Markinch, north of the Qu’Appelle Valley, again with an older manager who would soon be retiring.

I made frequent weekend trips back to Moose Jaw, with stops in Belle Plaine to visit Christine. At the beginning of March I was told that an elevator manager in Sperling, Manitoba had suffered a heart attack and I was to go there and take his place. Facing the prospect of 400 miles between us, Chris and I began making marriage plans.

Belle Plaine years

In 1966 Belle Plaine had all of 16 houses, two grain elevators, three other small businesses and a school that was no longer used. UGG rented one of the houses for their elevator manager.

I had learned the basics of weighing and unloading grain by now, how to grade it and determine dockage and how to load it into boxcars for shipping to ports for export. I was also selling fertilizer, herbicides and other farm supplies. Saskatchewan seldom gets an abundance of rain, but the land here was heavy clay, making for good crops every year and the farmers were prosperous. I got to know the people in the community and soon felt at home.

I was 24 years old and didn’t own a car. I soon remedied that, buying a 1956 Oldsmobile that let me travel at my convenience, not someone else’s. I could buy some groceries at the little store, cafe and post office in town, but did most of my shopping in Moose Jaw. I did my laundry in Moose Jaw, too, at my parents.

I began to do some serious drinking, spending at least one night a week in the bars of Moose Jaw or Regina. My drinking buddies were Joe Zagozeski,  a local farmer, Henry Antemuik, a supervisor at the Kalium potash mine near Belle Plaine and my cousin Dennis in Moose Jaw.

UGG bought a lot in Belle Plaine, built a basement, moved in a house and thoroughly remodelled it. In 1967 I traded in the Oldsmobile on a 1965 GMC pickup. I needed to haul water for the new house as there was neither running water in the village nor a well. UGG had a warehouse in Regina and now I could simply drive in and pick up whatever was needed and bring it home.

When I made those trips I often stayed in Regina enjoying the night life until midnight. On nights like that I found it hard to keep between the lines on the highway and in my befuddled mind it seemed like a logical thing to speed up to 80 mph. I found that concentrated my attention sufficiently to keep in my own lane. I would often wake up in the morning unable to remember coming home. I thought that was evidence that I must have had a good time the night before.

Other things were going on at the same time. I was reading all kinds of stuff, from occult to Ayn Rand and none of it impressed me as offering any real hope to me or anyone else. Then I began to get interested in church history, which also seemed like kind of a hopeless mess until I got to Mennonite history. Here I found people who really believed and lived what they professed and suffered persecution without hating the persecutors. I began to think that if there were any real Christians left anywhere on the planet, they would be found among the Mennonites.

The couple who ran the store, cafe and post office had a teenage daughter named Christine. I didn’t pay much attention to her, she was just a young school girl. But girls don’t stay young and after a couple of years she began to seem interesting to me.

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.”

Primitive Christianity and the Celts

As far as archeologists can determine, the Celtic peoples originated near the Danube River and spread east, south and west from there. Today, the only identifiable Celtic populations are found in France (Brittany) and the British Isles (Ireland, Scotland and Wales). Two thousand years ago they were all over southern Europe.

They lived along the Po River in northern Italy, in Switzerland, Belgium, France, Spain, all over the British Isles, into Bosnia and as far as Asia Minor (present day Turkey). The Greek form of Celts is Galatai. In France they were known as Gauls, in Asia Minor they were Galatians.

The Apostle Paul brought the gospel to the Galatians. Believers from there took it to the Gauls in southern France and from there it spread into the British Isles. It may have been Celtic missionaries from Scotland that carried the gospel to northern Italy, Bohemia and Switzerland. In time the gospel spread from the Celts to the people around them.

The Celts never organized into nation states, they were more a loose association of clans. As long as they were able to maintain their independent existence, the gospel that took root among them was of a purer form than the syncretistic gospel that was imposed in the Roman Empire after Constantine.

As Germanic peoples moved into the territories occupied by the Celts and the Roman Empire extended its reach, the Celtic peoples were absorbed into the majority culture. Nevertheless, evidence remained of their purer gospel among the faith groups known as Waldenses in the Alps, Albigenses in southern France and Bogomils in Bosnia. There is historical evidence of links between these groups, preachers from Bosnia appearing in the south of France, in Italy, Bohemia and other places.

These old evangelical brethren believed that Christians were citizens of the kingdom of God and were not to take part in governing earthly kingdoms. The Roman Catholic church accused them of being dualists, of believing that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God revealed in the New Testament. There is historical evidence of that belief in many of the same areas, but the faith groups named above did not hold such a belief. It was merely a handy accusation to justify using political power to persecute rivals to the Roman Catholic church and taint all evidence of the purity of their faith.

Eventually these churches appeared to have been persecuted into oblivion. Yet the faith proved to be more resilient than the persecutors. New churches sprang up in Switzerland, south Germany and the Low Countries, professing the same old faith. They came to be known as Mennonites. There is one intriguing last glimpse of the old churches in eastern Europe. In the 16th century, three men from the region of Thessalonika travelled to Germany because they had heard there were fellow believers there. They met with a Mennonite congregation, found they were united in all points of their faith and held communion together.

The cackle or the egg?

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The cackle of a hen is a promise that she has laid an egg. But my farm boy experience taught me that sometimes the cackle was a false promise – no egg could be found.

Christians put a lot of emphasis on experiences, and rightly so. Christian life is a new life that must begin with a new birth, an experience. As we grow after the new birth, there should be other experiences: a deeper consecration, a correction in the course our life has been taking, a conviction about whom we should marry, a conviction for service.

I wonder, though, if we should put less emphasis on the experience and more on the result. Some people claim heart-warming experiences with the Lord, but nothing changes in their life. They have mistaken the cackle for the egg.

Blaise Pascal wrote that the heart of man is so wicked that as soon as he begins to think of getting converted he believes he is converted. Someone who has travelled in Christian circles long enough knows what an experience sounds like. He may want so badly to have his own experience that he manages to convince himself that he really has had one.

This is a dangerous situation. Forty years ago my wife and I went to hear David Wilkerson speak in Regina, taking a friend with us. Our friend was deeply moved during the meeting and stood when the call came. All the way home she bubbled over with how her life was going to be different from then on. The bubbles lasted a couple of days and then were gone, leaving no sign of a change in her life. It wasn’t David Wilkerson’s fault, he gave good direction, but our friend didn’t make a connection with God. The cackle filled a momentary emotional need but left no trace of changed life.

As Mennonites, we do not baptize solely on the basis of a person’s experience. The person who claims to have had a new birth experience tells that experience to a congregation made up of people who are born again and know how it transforms a life. The congregation decides on the baptism, not just on the basis of the experience, but on the substance of the changed life they have observed in the convert.

I don’t mean this to sound disrespectful of anyone. But I do want to point out the emptiness of telling a wonderful experience with the Lord when there is no evidence of a changed life. Years ago a friend told me about someone with whom he’d had some costly business dealings. I’ll call the man Andy. My friend said “Every time Andy gets into trouble, he get’s born again. He’s been born again four or five times already and he’s still the same man he always was.” I knew the circumstances and I knew my friend was telling things as they were. Andy’s multiple claims of being born again were no more than empty cackling.

I don’t want to hear that so-and-so has had an experience. I want to see that his life is transformed. Just like I don’t care how often a hen cackles, I want to see the egg.

Inherit the earth

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth

I guess by now it is evident that I have been meditating on the Beatitudes. The Sermon on the Mount is the cornerstone of Mennonite doctrine. Things like the right understanding of prophecy and the sacraments are important to us, too, but not nearly to the same extent as in many other church traditions.

God promised a land to Abraham and to his seed. Finally, during the reign of Solomon, the children of Israel possessed the full extent of the promised land, in peace. And that was it, that land has not had peace at any time since then.

What happened to God’s promise? The epistle to the Hebrews has this to say of Abraham: “For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” And a little later: “These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country. . . But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”

The promised land will have its full accomplishment in heaven, where there will be no more wars, or rumours of wars. Yet there is even now a place of safety and stability for the children of God. Perhaps not always a place of physical security, but a place of peace and contentment, and of spiritual security, for those who truly are seeking that better country.

The meek will find that spiritual land and make it their home. Those who battle for their right to be left in peace, those who feel it their duty to defeat all who are hostile to their belief, make themselves incapable of recognizing that place of peace when they see it. It is the heritage of those who are strangers and pilgrims amidst the turmoil of this world.

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