Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: persecution

The quiet in the land

According to the Scriptures, Christians should lead quiet and peaceable lives. Is that the same as being “the quiet in the land?” That slogan has taken deep root among many who call themselves Mennonite.

The words come from Psalm 35:20: “For they speak not peace: but they devise deceitful matters against them that are quiet in the land.” This psalm is a prayer of David when he was being hunted by Saul and his army. Both Saul and David knew that it was God’s plan to make David king in the place of Saul. Yet David attempted to live peaceably until that day should arise, twice refusing to take Saul’s life when the opportunity was given him. Saul, on the other hand, was determined to slay David and retain the kingship for himself and his family.

I believe we can take from David’s example that it is not God’s plan for us to become politically active, nor to agitate to replace a government that we feel to be misguided and oppressive. But I do not believe it is God’s will to take this further to the point of being quiet about our faith in order to avoid persecution. This is what the German Pietists did by remaining in the Lutheran Church and partaking of its sacraments. This is what the Mennonites in Russia did when they banned the reading of the writings of Menno Simons.

I do not believe that being “the quiet in the land” to such an extent is compatible with true Christian faith. Peter admonished us to “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear,” (1 Peter 3:15). There is a real danger that we can become so quiet about our faith that no one would ever have cause to ask us about it. And if they did, we might not have a clue what to say.

In our search years ago for a church that still held to the old Anabaptist faith, we found many Mennonite churches that were like that. They called themselves Mennonite, but had no idea what that signified.

Even for those of us who retain the faith that was held by Menno Simons, it is time to strengthen those things that remain. Let’s not be shy about talking about that faith with each other, endeavouring to discern how the Spirit is leading in our personal lives and in our collective life. I believe there are people around us who will find the old faith attractive, offering something solid to hold on to in a world that appears to be crumbling. Let’s not be so quiet that they cannot hear.

The fear of some people who called themselves Mennonites

Beginning in the 16th century many Mennonites fled persecution in Friesland and Flanders and settled in the Vistula delta region of Poland. Here they gradually lost their evangelistic fervour and their faith dwindled to a mere outward conformity to some principles that they felt to be the essence of the faith. It seems they ceased to read the writings of Menno Simons and lost any concept of what it meant to be of the same faith that he upheld.

When Prussia annexed the Vistula delta region in the late 18th century, many of these people moved into southern Russia (today Ukraine). Here they could live in peace and began to feel that their peace depended upon keeping quiet about the real foundations of the Mennonite faith. When two men had Menno Simon’s writings printed for the benefit of those who called themselves Mennonites in the Russian colonies, the Mennonite church reacted strongly.

In August of 1835, all 29 elders and ministers of the Moltotschna colony signed a letter demanding that all copies of Menno’s book should be confiscated and destroyed. The pretext was that some people of other faiths, or some government officials, might read those writings and cause trouble for the so-called Mennonites.

Abram Friesen, one of those who had arranged for the printing, had a different impression of the true motive for banning the book:

“One would like to ask these men: How come do you want to put the lighted lamp under a bushel? Oh, that they might take the words of Christ in Matthew 5:13, 14, 15 to heart! They would have to call out woe upon woe for having done so foolishly. For what do these good men think of this? Menno feared neither tyranny nor persecution, neither pressure nor disfavour, hatred nor poverty, but in this book has freely professed before all men his ground and faith, and confessed the Lord Jesus Christ before men according to Matthew 10:31-39. But without imminent threat of danger these good elders and teachers are afraid without reason, for the hearts of the higher authorities are favourably inclined concerning freedom of conscience and worship and rule over the pious with great gentleness. Not only do they refrain from interfering in their faith and principles but often refer us back to them.

“On the contrary, the elders and teachers, who should be more in favour of the work consider it a great risk, and fear hatred from people of other religious persuasions. I only fear that a different matter in their own conscience aroused hatred in themselves because Menno Simon’s teaching severely reproves the Mennonites of the present and especially the ministry. Consequently they feel ashamed and reproved and therefore prefer not to have these books in their congregations.

The last two paragraphs are taken from By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them, by Peter Toews, emphasis added.

The faith of Menno Simons

Thus we do not contend with carnal, but with spiritual weapons, patience and with the word of the Lord, against all flesh, world and devil, trusting in Christ. Nor shall there ever be found other weapons with us. Therefore, be not afraid of us (behold, in Christ Jesus I lie not); for we do not desire your destruction, but your regeneration; not your condemnation, but your everlasting salvation; not your flesh and blood, but your spirit and soul; on account of which I have these seven years suffered and yet suffer slander and scorn; anxiety, suspension, persecution, and great peril of being imprisoned.

The more the word of the Lord is extended, by the grace of God, to the reformation of some persons, who, however, are few, the more hatred and bitterness increases against me; so that up to this hour I could not find, in all the country, where, alas, the mere boasting of the divine word is a great deal more plenty than the fear of God, a cabin, or hut (blessed be the Lord) in which my wife and little children can safely sojourn for a year or two. O, cruel, unmerciful Christians ! O, that all magistrates and princes, as also all the wise and learned knew the seeking, intention and desire of my heart, as also of my beloved brethren who, by the grace. Spirit and word of God, are converted into a new spirit or new birth !

If they rightly understood our teaching how soon their hearts and minds would be changed into a different sense ! But as all of them, with but few exceptions, are nothing but earth and flesh and not gifted with the Spirit of Christ; therefore, alas, we hear nothing from them but upbraiding and slander, can expect nothing from them (I mean the evil-disposed) but the stake, water, tire, wheel and sword, as a reward of gratitude, that we have sought and yet seek our conversion, salvation and eternal life, and that of the whole world, with such diligence, solicitude, pains and labour from our inmost heart. For I strive after nothing, of which God is my witness, but that the God of heaven and of earth, through his blessed Son, Jesus Christ may have the glory and praise of his blessed word; that all men may be saved; and that they may awaken in this convenient time of grace, from their profound sleep of sinfulness; that they may lay by all adhering sin and the damnable works of darkness; that they may put on the armour of light, that they may thus become, with us by true penance, faith, baptism, Supper, ban or separation, love, obedience and true life, one holy, Christian church and body in Christ Jesus. Something which the whole world today yet opposes with all its strength with both shoulders and horns; not being willing that Christ Jesus, forever blessed, shall reign over them. Yea, they persecute, banish, burn, murder, and destroy all those who willingly teach and uphold the glory, praise, honour, will and commandments of the Lord.

Pietism

Oxford gives these definitions for pietism: 1 a a pious sentiment. b an exaggerated or affected piety. 2 (esp. as Pietism) a movement for the revival of piety in the Lutheran Church in the 17th c.

Perhaps the best dictionary definition of what a pietist is is this one that I translated from le Petit Robert, the most popular French dictionary: Member of a Lutheran sect that put more emphasis on the necessity of personal piety and religious feelings than on strict doctrinal orthodoxy.

The same dictionary gives this definition of Quietism, a similar phenomenon within the Roman Catholic Church: Mystical doctrine in which Christian perfection consists of a continuous state of quietness and union with God, where the soul becomes indifferent to works and even its own salvation.

To make my meaning clear, piety that deepens one’s relationship with God is a good thing. Pietism as a movement is not. There were earlier individuals that one might label as pietists, but as an identifiable movement it began in the Lutheran Church in the 17th century. These pietists were disappointed in the lack of spiritual life in the Lutheran Church and sought a meaningful relationship with God. They continued to attend the Lutheran services and take part in the sacraments, but also met privately to share their experiences and the vitality of their newfound faith. Heartwarming experiences were highly valued among them and taken as evidence of a living relationship with God.

So far so good. Up to this point a Pietist and an Anabaptist would seem much the same. The difference was that the Anabaptist believed that the Holy Spirit expected obedience. Obedience meant self-denial, bearing the cross, avoiding compromise, seeking baptism and communion with true believers and a fearless confession of Christ, even when it meant almost certain death. The Anabaptist would not hide the light of God’s truth under a bushel to avoid persecution.

Pietism, the capital P kind, has pervaded much of modern Christianity, even among those of us who claim to be spiritual descendants of the martyrs. I am not intending to criticize or blame anyone. No one opened the door wide and invited it in, it just seeped in under the door when we were looking elsewhere. Neither do I pretend to see all the ramifications of the danger of Pietism. But I do want to point out some of the things that I do see.

An imposter in the temple of God

“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.” (2 Thessalonians 2:3-4) The apostle Paul wrote this warning at the very beginning of the Christian era.

A few years later, in the Revelation given to the apostle John, he sees two beast arise (Revelation chapter 13). The first beast rose out of the sea, which symbolizes the turbulent and unorganized condition of the peoples of the world. This beast is empowered by the dragon, Satan, to rule over these peoples and establish government and order. This is the pagan Roman empire.

The second beast rose out of the earth, that is out of the organized stability created by the first beast. This beast has some Lamb-like characteristics, evidently a counterfeit of the Christian church, yet is in league with the first beast. This is the Antichrist described by John in 1 John 2:22, 4:3 an 2 John v. 7. Antichrist means in the place of Christ, that is Antichrist denied to Jesus Chris the power and authority that was rightfully His and claimed it for himself.

1 John 2:18 says that there were already many anitchrists in the time of John. This he declares to be evidence that it is the last time, that is, there will not be another era of time to follow.

Our Anabaptist forefathers saw a number of forms of counterfeit Christianity, or antichrists, but the main one was the Roman Catholic church. It took until the time of Pope Urban II (1088-99) for the papacy to be able to claim authority over the Kings of Europe and enlist their power to attempt to eliminate the Anabaptist church. Shortly after this time, in 1120AD, some Christians in the south of France drew up a description of Antichrist and his errors. Here are a few excerpts:

“And therefore let every one take note thereof, that Antichrist could not come in any wise, but all these forementioned things must needs meet together to make up a complete hypocrisy and falsehood, that is to say the worldly wise men, the religious orders, the Pharisees, ministers, doctors, the secular power with the worldly people joining together. And thus all of them together make up the man of sin and error completely. For, although that Antichrist was conceived already in the apostles’ time, yet being but in his infancy, he lacked his inward and outward member.”

“The first work of Antichrist is that he perverts the worship properly due to God by giving it to Antichrist himself and his works.”

“The second work of Antichrist is that he robs and bereaves Christ of His merits. . . and imputes and attributes the same to his own authority, to a form of words, to his own works; unto saints and their invocation and unto the fire of Purgatory.”

“The third work of Antichrist is that he attributes the regeneration of the Holy Spirit unto the dead outward work, baptizing infants in that faith, and teaching that thereby baptism and regeneration must be had.”

“The fourth work of Antichrist is that he has constituted and put all of religion and holiness of the people in going to mass.”

“The fifth work of Antichrist is that he doth all his works so that he may be seen. . .and that he may make all things for sale.”

“The sixth work of Antichrist is that he allows manifest sins without any ecclesiastical censure and doth not excommunicate the impenitent.”

“The seventh work of Antichrist is that he doth not govern nor maintain his unity by the Holy Spirit, but by the secular power.”

“The eighth work of Antichrist is that he hates and persecutes and searches after, despoils and destroys the members of Christ.”

Evangelism in a time of persecution

Two brief excerpts from the writings of Menno Simons (1496-1561)

This is my only joy and the desire of my heart, that I may extend the borders of the kingdom of God, make known the truth, reprove sin, teach righteousness, feed the hungry souls with the Word of the Lord, lead the stray sheep into the right path, and win many souls for the Lord Through His Spirit, power and grace.

To this end we preach as much as opportunity and possibility affords, both in daytime and night, in houses and in fields, in forests and wildernesses, in this land and abroad, in prison and in bonds, in water, fire and the scaffold, on the gallows, and upon the wheel, before lords and princes, orally and by writing at the risk of possessions and life, as we have done thes many years without ceasing.

The church-state hybrid

“We must begin by pointing out that with the launching of the New Testament vision a new idea was being broached; the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely, that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine. The New Testament conceives of human society as a composite thing, that is, composed of factions. . . It thinks that even though men differ basically and radically at the shrine they need not clash in the market place.”
-Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, pp. 11-12, copyright 1964 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

As Leonard Verduin saw it, when church and state unite so that being a citizen and being a Christian are the same thing, a hybrid has been created. This hybrid may call itself Christian, yet its nature is contrary to authentic Christianity. Authentic Christianity is characterized by faith and love, neither of which can be produced or enforced by the power of the state. The religion of the hybrid is not based upon beliefs or doctrines, but by participation in the religious ceremonies and sacraments mandated by the state. There can be no mission in such a setting, no sense that some might be saved and others unsaved, as all are saved by virtue of citizenship and church membership. To refuse to participate in government-mandated sacraments is an act of treason.

“During the past half-century the world has witnessed the rise of totalitarian governments and monolithic societies, that is, societies in which all are expected to share in the same ultimate loyalty. These are socieities in which there is no room for diversity of conviction. I view this development with alarm. My conviction is that for a person to be his proper self he must live in the presence of genuine options, must be able to exercise choice, must, in a word, be free to enjoy a measure of sovereignty. In order to be fully human, a person must be part of a composite society.

“Moreover, it is my conviction that the composite society is to a large extent the product (albeit a b y-product) of the world-view of authentic Christianity.”
-Leonard Verduin, The Antomy of a Hybrid, page 7, copyright 1976 Wm B. Eerdmand Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan

This has been the vision of the Christians known as Anabaptists, Waldensians, Mennonites, etc. throughout history. Their refusal to compromise their faith by submitting to the hybrid has led to intense persecution on many occasions. Will we, who claim to be descendants of the Anabaptists, have the same steadfast faith when persecution comes again?

Meekness

Meekness rhymes with weakness; modern English dictionaries defines it with words that sound like weakness. That is not what the Bible means by meekness.

Meekness is a strength of character that is neither an inherited personality trait nor the work of the human will, but solely a gift of the Holy Spirit. It is an inner strength, founded on trust in God, which enables the child of God to face adversity, opposition and even persecution with assurance and joy rather than resistance or dispute.

The meek do not inherit the earth by strength of will, nor by timid and passive waiting. They proclaim their trust in God, their willingness to suffer injustice for His sake, their refusal to deny God for the sake of temporal safety. They make no counter accusations, but trust that in the end of all things God will judge them and others according to His perfect righteousness.

The Quiet in the Land

MennoSimons

Throughout Christian history, there has always been a united, visible body of believers who professed much the same faith regarding conversion and a personal relationship with God but who refused to conform to the state enforced form of worship of their day. The Martyrs’ Mirror catalogues the faith, and the persecution of these people because of their faith, from the time of the apostles up to the time the book was published in 1660.

Other people decided to live their faith in a way that would not bring persecution. They conformed to the outward practices of the state church, Reformed, Lutheran or Roman Catholic, but professed an inward piety and heartfelt devotion to God

The label of pietism first appeared in the seventeenth century. Some members of the Lutheran Church professed to have received forgiveness of sins through a conversion experience that warmed their hearts and led them to a deeper communion with God. They remained in outward fellowship with the Lutheran Church, attending worship services regularly, receiving communion, and baptizing their babies, but sought fellowship in private gatherings with like-minded people to testify of what God had done for them.

Sometimes the pietists called themselves “the quiet in the land”, from Psalm 35:20. That term, and pietism itself, appealed to large groups of Mennonites who had grown weary of persecution, and may even have forgotten why they had been persecuted. When Mennonites from Prussia settled on colonies in Ukraine 200 years ago they agreed not to proselytize the Russian people. Around them were other German colonies, Roman Catholic and Lutheran. The Mennonites absorbed pietist teachings from Lutheran pietists and called themselves “The Quiet in the Land.”

That term is not part of our Mennonite heritage. Indeed, I feel it marks the abandonment of that heritage. Menno Simons wrote a lengthy article in 1539 entitled Why I do not Cease Teaching and Writing. In other articles he wrote:

This is my only joy and the desire of my heart, that I may extend the borders of the kingdom of God, make known the truth, reprove sin, teach righteousness, feed the hungry souls with the Word of the Lord, lead the stray sheep to the right path, and so win many souls for the Lord, through His Spirit, power and grace,” and

We preach, therefore, as much as is in our power, both day and night, in houses and in the open air, in forests and in wildernesses, hither and thither, in this and in foreign lands, in prisons and in dungeons, in water and in fire, on the scaffold and on the wheel, before lords and princes, orally and by writings at the risk of possessions and blood, life and death; as we have done these many years.”

The reluctance of the pietists to unite with the persecuted church may have saved them much physical suffering. The result of this individualistic approach is the tendency to interpret the Bible in the light of one’s own experience, rather than subjecting one’s experiences to the light of Scripture. They are convinced that they have attained to a level of spiritually and communion with God that is not shared by the common run of professing Christians. Such a person may conform to the outward practices of a church for the sake of avoiding censure or persecution, but does not feel bound to give account of his faith and life to other Christians.

Scales of Justice Call for Balance

Majed El Shafie was born in Cairo, Egypt. After converting to Christianity he was arrested in 1998, tortured and sentenced to death. He managed to escape to Israel, where he was once again arrested. In 2002 he obtained political asylum in Canada and became a Canadian citizen in 2006. He lives in Toronto and is the founder of One Free World International (OFWI) an international human rights organisation which advocates for oppressed religious minorities.
Earlier today he posted an excellent article on the reaction to the murder of George Floyd. The article supports the need for change, but warns against forces that seek to destroy rather than to improve.
The article is entitled Scales of Justice Call for Balance. You can find it here.

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