Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: new birth

Another dead end

I began checking out other varieties of Mennonites, and there were a lot to choose from. Many of them turned out to be Mennonites in name only, and a little embarrassed about being encumbered with the name. Nevertheless, many of them had a deep affection for the Low German language and culture. I didn’t, so I stroked them off my list.

There were several groups of Conservative Mennonites and I obtained some of their literature. A hope began to grow in me that I had found what I had been looking for: churches that held to the old Anabaptist-Mennonite faith but did not claim to be the only representatives of that faith.

One day we had a phone call from Mervin Baer. He and his wife were passing through Mooses Jaw and staying at a motel a few blocks away. Would we be interested in coming over to meet them. I recognized the name, Mervin was from McBride B.C., a bishop and well-know leader in Conservative Mennonite circles.

Mervin and his wife were friendly and warm people, we hit it off right away. In the course of our visit Mervin mentioned that he had recently visited at Belleville, Pennsylvania. “There is a group of Old Order Amish people there who have been born again and have formed a new congregation entirely made up of born-again peole. That’s proof that you can have a spiritual church without joining the Holdemans.”

That was music to my ears. We had another visit from Mervin several months later, then began to visit the nearest congregation of that group, about two hours away in Alberta. They were friendly and welcoming and we really hit it off with one couple in particular. We decided to move there and join that group. In the summer of 1975 we quit our jobs, packed up and moved to Alberta.

It didn’t take long for me to feel that I had fallen down a rabbit hole into a place where nothing was what it seemed at first to be. It started the evening we arrived. We were invited to have supper with the bishop and his family. He had two daughters still at home, around 18 and 20. They were church members and Chris asked one of them when she had become a Christian. “I don’t know, I just kind of grew into it.”

As if that wasn’t shocking enough, we found that there had been a falling out between husband of the couple we had liked so much and Mervin Baer and they had up and moved away.

The women here wore cape dresses, a full dress with an extra piece of material over the front for modesty’s sake, and white mesh head coverings. Chris had adapted her wardrobe to their standard before we moved. The men were clean shaven and wore a plain coat on Sundays. This was a suit jacket without lapels or a collar that buttoned all the way up the front. I shaved off my beard, but never adopted the plain coat.

They had a little booklet of church standards that governed the clothes you wore and how you were to conduct yourself. People wanting to join the church were on probation for six months. If you wore the right clothes and behaved yourself you could then become a member. I began to notice that people watched each other closely for any deviation from the standards, and many young people did try to push the envelope without being too obvious about it.

One Sunday the bishop preached on how wearing plain clothes was proof of being born again. My heart sank, I saw that we had hit another dead end. The people here were friendly and earnest. I was sure that a couple of them were born again, the others were mostly just following the rules. Visitors would come from other plain groups and be welcomed as brothers and sisters. After they had gone we would hear what the local people really thought of them.

What now? Chris thought I was losing t way. She had formed a close friendship with one of the ladies and didn’t want to leave. I knew we had to get out, there was no way we could live a real Christian life and have any chance of passing it on to our daughter in a place such as this. But where could we go? We had exhausted all the possibilities.

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Our granddaughter becoms our sister

Friday evening two young ladies stood in turn before our congregation and told how God had called them, how they had felt troubled and fearful and how they had prayed and found forgiveness, happiness and freedom. A few questions were asked and the congregation found their testimonies genuine.

This morning they were baptized. One of those girls is our granddaughter Tami, the first of our grandchildren to become a born again child of God. Thus this 13 year old girl (she will be 14 this summer) is now our sister in the household of faith. (As is the other girl, of course.)

Blessed is every one that feareth the LORD . . .Yea, thou shalt see thy children’s children, and peace upon Israel. Psalm 128:1 & 6

A new course in life

If you’ve followed me this far you have no doubt gathered that I wasn’t a romantic kind of guy. I had strong emotional feelings, but I woud have been horribly embarrassed if anyone got a glimpse of them. Circumstances told to me that now I needed to do something to let my bride-to-be know how I felt about her.

So I sat down and wrote my very first love letter. I quoted some lines from a song by the Bee Gees that was popular at the time: “It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away,” and tried to put my feelings into words. I don’t remember writing any more letters, mostly we talked. That meant collect phone calls from Chris to me. I didn’t call her, since her uncle would have answered the phone and that wasn’t what I wanted.

As for the suspicions that some farmers may have harboured, it seemed best to me to just carry on without saying anything more. I had done nothing wrong and I had been careful not to accuse the former manager of wrongdoing. That proved to be the right course of action, as everything went well from then on.

It took several months for it to dawn on me that something had changed in my life. I was no longer turned off by Christian radio broadcasts, there were a couple that I began to listen to regularly. I bought some Christian books. I read more about Mennonite history.

I had always considered the “born again” thing to be a sham. The people I had known who claimed to be born again were no more honest than anyone else. They boasted of a elationship with God, but their attitude of superiority towards other people was not attractive. Now my life had taken a turn, and it had happened at the time I prayed for forgiveness. Was that change what Jesus meant by being born again? I concluded it was.

At that time grain elevators often shut down for the first two weeks of August. The managers would take their vacation and return refreshed to start receiving deliveries for the new crop that would be harvested after mid-August. Chris and I set Saturday, August 1, 1970 for our wedding date and began planning.

Where were we going to get married? What minister would we ask? Neither of us had any church affiliation, I was a lapsed Anglican. Chris’s family was one that said, “If anyone asks, say we belong to the United Church,” but they never actually attended that or any other church.

It happened that Reverend Ken Vickers was now the minister at Saint Barnabas Anglican church in Moose Jaw where my parents attended. Mom asked him and he said he would be happy to do the honours. I was happy to see him again.  We had a counselling session or two with him to help us grasp the importance of the step we were about to take.

Chris has an older brother and four younger sisters, they all lived with their parents. Chris had been with her aunt and uncle ever since a health scare in early childhood caused by neglect. By this time I had met her brother and two of her sisters, but not her parents. Since Chris was only 17, her real father was going to have to give his permission for her to marry. Chris approached him with some trepidation, but he signed.

I asked Joe Zagozeski to be my best man and Chris asked her friend Sandy Carson to be bridesmaid. We were all set, all we needed to do now was get to the church on time.

Mennonites are not Protestants

I applaud the sincerity and courage of Martin Luther when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg 500 years ago. I am appalled by the savagery of his address to the armies fighting the peasants’ revolt, when he called on them to “slash, stab, kill as many as you can,” and promised them a sure entrance to heaven if they died in the battle. He found a way to use Scripture to show that this killing would be an act of mercy, as he did later when he called for the extermination of Anabaptists and Jews.

I’m afraid that Martin Luther took a wrong turn when he decided to rely on the secular power to establish his reformation of the church. He was able to effect a reformation of some of the more egregious practices that were characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church of his day, but even Luther did not believe his reformation had produced people who were more Christian.

Anabaptists and Mennonites have always held to the concept that only Christian people should be members of the Christian church. That is, people who have been born again and whose life bears evidence of an inner transformation. We have never taught that salvation can be earned by works, as the Roman Catholics did in Luther’s day. But neither do we believe that a person whose life is devoid of all evidence of regeneration can be a Christian, as Luther seemed to say with his emphasis on Sola Fides.

When a person is born again a new life begins. Works are the life signs. If there are no works, the faith is dead, or nonexistent. A born again Christian is never fully aware of how much his life has changed. He is simply thankful for the peace God has given and tries to maintain his connection with God. His works are not done to obtain the approval of others, nor is his assurance dependent on what other people think. There are simply the effects of an inner transformation.

The Protestant reformers believed that the survival of their reformed churches was worth killing for; Anabaptists believed that the survival of their peace with God was worth dying for.

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.”

Taking the long view

The proof of a living faith is seen when it is passed on intact from generation to generation. It is true to say that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is evidence of faith: brotherly love, peace of mind and peace in word and action, joy, thankfulness, contentment, humility. But when this is not passed on from one generation to the next, it would appear that something was missing.

Tradition is important. The ancient landmarks of the faith were placed for a reason. But if the next generation doesn’t understand why they were placed or just what they mean, they are apt to get their bearings from the things that seem most important in their day.

The ancient landmarks may have been interpreted in a way that met the needs of the older generation, but no longer meets the needs of the younger. Yet the basic principles remain unchanged. These principles must be continually taught, always in a way that can be understood and will meet the needs of upcoming generations. A rigid adherence to a form of words or practice will not do that.

The new birth is important. There must be a genuine repentance for the sins of the past life and evidence that a new life has begun. This would include love for everyone, new priorities in life, carefulness to avoid things that have led to the sins of the past, and a desire to make right whatever harm may have been done to others.

The danger is to mistake the experience for the change that is needed. To tell a dramatic, heart-touching experience is not proof the heart has really been changed.

Knowledge of the Bible is important. But it needs to be studied to establish a foundation for my life, not to prove a point with somebody else. it is a danger sign when one has a proof text handy for most any discussion, but can’t explain what that text means in the language of everyday life.

A living faith does not have to be loud, but it should not be silent. A living faith will be modest, but should never run from a challenge. A living faith will make a difference at church, at home, at school, at work, on vacation, and especially in those times when no one is looking.

It is best for children to grow up in a home where parents are deeply committed Christians. But it is not enough and it is not a guarantee that the children will catch their parents faith. It is far better to grow up among a united group of believers who live out their faith in all aspects of everyday life. The spiritual heritage is much more important than the family heritage. This is what allows the upcoming generation to catch the faith of their elders and then to pass it on to the next generation.

Christ in you, the hope of glory

Jesus spoke the following words while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. The words were shocking, no doubt deliberately so.

Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. (John 6:53-58)

Many who had been following Jesus turned away. These mysterious words didn’t sound at all like the Messiah they had been taught to expect. When Jesus asked the twelve if they would also turn away, Peter responded “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”

The apostle Paul explained the mystery like this in Colossians 1:26-27: “Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what [is] the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

The key to understanding Messiah’s kingdom is that the citizens of this kingdom are people who have Jesus Christ inside of them, ruling their lives from the heart. Every time a person is born again, the Lord Jesus Christ is incarnate within them.

This was Jesus’ promise to His disciples in John 14:16-18: “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.” He repeats the promise in His prayer in the 17th chapter of John: “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.”

Paul explains the promise a little further in Romans chapter eight: “ But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” (Verses 9-11).

The promise is that the believer will have both the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ dwelling in him or her. “He (the Holy Spirit) shall be in you / I (Jesus) will come to you.” “If so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you / And if Christ be in you.”

I believe this is what the apostle John is speaking of in the following verses: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (1 John 4:2-3). I don’t think he is saying that it is enough to believe that Jesus once walked this earth in human flesh. We must know that He is here right now, in my flesh and your flesh, if we are Christians.

“Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). Christ is in every Christian, no matter our ethnic background, social or economic status. This is the identifying mark of the true Christian, recognizable only by other Christians.

Inside or outside?

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There is a line that we cross when we give our hearts to the Lord. Many people stop once they have crossed the line, mill around with others they find there and wonder why they are not experiencing the blessings of Christian life that they were promised. After awhile, some of them step back to the wrong side of the line, become once more captives to sin and console themselves that Christian life wasn’t what they had been led to believe.

God’s plan is for us to keep on going after we have crossed that line and go ever deeper into His love and obedience to His will.Those who do that find the rewards and joys of Christian life are far beyond their expectations.

The tennis ball doesn’t decide which side of the line it falls on, but we can.

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.

A fading faith

[This is one of my earliest posts on this blog, dating from four and a half years ago.]

For twelve years we lived in a little village in Ontario.  Directly across the street from our home was the United Church manse.  The minister and his wife were a pleasant older couple, professional and polished.  There came a Christmas Day where we were all snowbound after a three-foot snowfall that began the day before.  Some people’s children couldn’t make it home for Christmas, family gatherings were cancelled.  In the evening, after the storm had ended, the minister and his wife invited their neighbours to gather in their home.  We appreciated the gesture, but this was about the only time we really had occasion to visit with them.

Eventually, they moved on and were replaced by a young couple with small children.  These people were different — not much polish, but downright friendly.  We visited on our way to the corner store while waiting for the mail, in their home, in our home, our daughter babysat their children, they sent their children to our congregation’s Vacation Bible School.

I began to realize there was something else different about this United Church minister: he appeared to be a man of genuine faith.  Over the course of our visiting his story came out.  He had been raised in a locale that was pretty solidly Roman Catholic.  In his youth, he had searched for answers to his inner spiritual need and had met the Lord.  He no longer felt at home in the Catholic church and the only alternative in the area was the United Church.  He had joined that church, went to theological college and become a minister.

During that time a TV program did a show on the practice of excommunication.  One half dealt with the practice of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the other half with the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite.  They interviewed a few people who had been expelled from the church and who seemed to relish the opportunity to vocalize their bitterness.  The next time I talked with my neighbour from across the street, he mentioned seeing this program, then said, “I have only one question.  Is there a way for someone who has been excommunicated from your church to become a member again?”

I explained that it was indeed possible and that most of those who were excommunicated were later re-accepted into full fellowship in the church.  The church only excommunicated those who had lost contact with God and the purpose was to awaken them to the seriousness of that loss and move them to re-establish their relationship with their Lord and Saviour.  I also explained that I had never observed that those who had been excommunicated and re-accepted carried any stigma among the brethren.  The re-acceptance was genuine and complete.

His response floored me: “I wish we could do that in the United Church of Canada.  I wish we could say to our people that this is what we believe and if you don’t believe it and live by it, you have no right to be members here.”

Another time this minister told me, “I believe there are nine real Christians in my congregation.”  I think I could have guessed the names of the ones he was thinking of.  Most of them were older, in their seventies, and I sensed something in them that closely resembled what I felt from this minister.  I think there must have been a lingering evangelical witness in parts of the United Church during their youth and they had caught something that carried on to the end of their lives.  There was also one younger couple who were born again during the time that our neighbour was ministering in the local United Church.

The years have gone by, the newly-converted young couple moved to a more evangelical church, the older true-hearted folks have passed on without passing their faith to their children.  The minister too died suddenly some years ago.  His wife was also our friend, but I don’t believe she ever shared his faith.

The United Church of Canada appears to be slowly dying.  One would be hard-pressed to find much trace of spiritual life among the adherents.  Neither is there much social advantage to be found anymore in attending the United Church.  Rural churches have been closing and consolidating for several generations.  Urban churches are declining in membership and beginning to ask for help to maintain their magnificent buildings.

Sadly, I am seeing the same kind of rot developing in churches that were once considered evangelical.  People are transferring from church to church in search of one that will be more spiritual than the last one.  Whole congregations are transferring from one denomination to another for the same reason.  What is the answer?

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