Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Practical Christianity

For the past two months my head has been occupied with number crunching to the point that there was little opportunity for wordsmithing. Income tax season officially ends tomorrow and I think I have finished anything pertaining to that for this year. Now I can try to capture and organize the thoughts that have been hiding in the corners of my mind.

Christian news media report that 26 million Americans stopped reading the Bible regularly during COVID19 and that thousands of pastors are nearing burnout. What has gone wrong? Is God letting us down?

I wonder if much of the problem might be an impractical view of how Christianity should work. Some 800 years ago Petr Chelćickỳ lamented that the collusion of emperor and pope had created a situation where there was no discernable difference between the people within the church and those without. How common is such a situation in our day?

Some years ago, a friend who was a pastor in one of Canada’s most liberal denominations told me he thought there were seven or eight real Christians in his congregation. He didn’t name them, but I thought a few of the older people in his church still had spiritual life. How does one pastor a church like that without burning out?

Whie visitng Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts thirty years ago, the man playing the role of Samuel Fuller told me. “The church hierarchy in England says that we are not a legitimate church, because we have no ministers. A church is made up of Christian people; they don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?” The Congregational churches of my New England forefathers soon declined to much the same state.

What would practical Christianity look like? Firstly, and most importantly, a church could not be a mixed multitude of saved and unsaved. The unsaved should feel welcome to attend. They should feel drawn to come and find out what this is all about, but to include them in the membership undermines the very foundation of the church.

Secondly, and as a corollary of the first point, the functioning of the church would not be totally dependent upon the ordained ministry. If all members are born-again Christians, then all share responsibility for the life of the church.

Thirdly, pastors are necessary. But what kind of pastors? A tentmaker like Paul is better than someone who views a costly lifestyle as evidence of his success. The biblical qualifications for the ministry are heavy on faithfulness in doctrine, in lifestyle, in family life and in hospitality. Such a pastor will no doubt face opposition and difficulties at times, but will also feel the love, respect and support of those he serves.

Does that sound like an impractical dream? I believe it is highly practical and to to attempt to do church in any other way is doomed to dissension, decline and eventual failure.

A matter of the heart, not the head

640px-Plimoth_Plantation_view

By Swampyank at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18002690

As I walked the dusty streets of Plimoth, Massachusetts, Samuel Fuller fell into step beside me. “The church hierarchy in England says that we are not a legitimate church, because we have no ministers. A church is made up of Christian people; they don’t even have a church. Who made them ministers and bishops?”

On my father’s side I am descended from English Puritans who arrived in Massachusetts in 1638, just 18 years after the Mayflower. We have attended two family reunions in Massachusetts and each time we have gone to Plymouth to visit the historical reconstructions. Plimoth Plantation is a reconstruction of the village established by those who came on the Mayflower, as it would have been seven years after they arrived. The people who populate the village speak in the accents of the areas in England where the character they are playing originated from. They are very thoroughly trained and absolutely unaware of anything that has happened since 1627.

Samuel Fuller was the colony’s doctor and deacon, the only spiritual leader the church at Plimoth had in its early days. I wondered if the convictions he expressed with seeming sincerity came off along with the costume at the end of the day, or if they went deeper At a family supper that evening I had an opportunity to ask a cousin  who also played a character at Plimoth Plantation. She hesitated just a bit, then said “I think he has it in his head, but not in his heart.”

The two statements I have quoted hit the nail on the head. A Christian church must be made up of Christian people. That means people who have the truth in their heart, not only in their head.

That explains why my wife and I went from church to church during the first few years of our marriage. We met many fine people, we would be happy to call them friends today. But something didn’t seem right; it was never clear to us how many of them might actually have a relationship with the Shepherd. They all claimed to be following the Shepherd, but it often seemed like they wee receiving direction for their lives from other sources and there did not seem to be a closeness, a genuine trust and fellowship among the members.

We have been members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for 41 years. We are not better people than the people in all those other churches we used to visit. We don’t all see things exactly the same way, we don’t always do things just right. But I believe that we all know the Shepherd and that allows us to trust one another. When problems and misunderstandings arise, and they do, we trust the Shepherd to help us sort things out, and He does.

That is what we were missing in all those other churches, that is what kept us searching, even though we might not have been able to put into words just what we were looking for. I believe the Shepherd was leading us, telling us that He had something better planned for us.

Jesus, speaking of Himself as the Good Shepherd, said: “And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers.” John 10:4-5.

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