Peter Toews was the Elder, or bishop, of the portion of the Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites who emigrated from Ukraine to Manitoba in the 1870’s. (Kleine Gemeinde means little church, a means of distinguishing themselves from the large Mennonite church among whom they lived.) Another portion of the Kleine Gemeinde, led by Elder Abram Friesen, settled around Janzen, Nebraska. Yet a third group, led by Elder Jacob Wiebe, whose wife was Peter Toews’ sister, settled around Hillsboro, Kansas.
Evidently there were some differences in how these groups viewed Christian faith. Peter Toews experienced the new birth while still living in Ukraine and before his ordination. By all accounts he endeavoured to teach and lead his congregation according to his spiritual convictions. But the Kleine Gemeinde had never seen the new birth as being a necessary qualification for baptism and membership in the church. They believed that the important thing was to live a devout and holy life according to the rules that they believed were taught in the Bible.
By 1880 Peter Toews was ready to admit that many, perhaps the majority, of the members of his congregation were not Christians. Some of the other ministers and members felt as he did and they began to search for a solution. That search led Peter Toews to take a trip to Kansas in the summer of 1881 to visit John Holdeman and the congregations of his church in central Kansas. While there, he also visited his brother-in-law Jacob Wiebe. It appears the two were united in believing the lack of a requirement of the new birth for church membership was a fatal flaw in the Kleine Gemeinde, but did not agree on a solution.
Upon returning home, Peter Toews resigned as elder of the Kleine Gemeinde and wrote a letter outlining his reasons. He wrote “We are not baptized into one body, but are torn and divided, some walking in self-chosen humility, and worshipping of angels (of whom we should not be beguiled, lest we lose our reward).” “I fear to build with members of torn and divided groups which are not baptized into one body, the Church of Christ–to build a kingdom to which only a few of us belong. We all profess that we are baptized into the body of Christ, even though many are merely walking in voluntary humility.”
The upshot was that John Holdeman and Mark Seiler came to Manitoba the following winter, upon the invitation of Peter Toews and some of the other Kleine Gemeinde ministers. Over the course of several months of preaching in various communities of Southeastern Manitoba, about one third of the members of the Kleine Gemeinde were baptized and became members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite, becoming the first members of that church in Western Canada. Many had not been born again prior to the evangelistic services of that winter. The remaining members of the Kleine Gemeinde asked elder Abram Friesen to help them ordain a new elder to replace Peter Toews, who was one of those baptized by John Holdeman.
It seems that Peter Toews felt that “self-chosen humility” was a major weakness of the Kleine Gemeinde. What is wrong with trying to be humble? There are numerous warnings against pride and a haughty spirit in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Doesn’t the Bible tell us to humble ourselves? James says: Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up, (James 4:10). Peter writes: Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time, (1 Peter 5:6).
Let’s consider those verses. James is not telling us to become humble in our own eyes, but in the eyes of God. That isn’t necessarily the same thing. Peter does not say that we should take ourselves in hand to make ourselves humble, but allow God to take us in hand, which is quite different.
A few verses earlier in the fourth chapter of James, he writes “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” (Verses 6 and 7). I believe this is the key to genuine humility. It is not something that we can do ourselves, but is the fruit of submission to God.
Why can’t we make ourselves humble? Maybe you are not like me, but I’m afraid that if I would believe that the Bible is telling me to make myself humble, I would very soon believe that I was doing a much better job of it that you were. That is the snare of voluntary or self-chosen humility. I believe Peter Toews hit the nail on the head.
There is an oft misunderstood verse in the Old Testament. Isaiah 64:6 says: “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” I’m not sure why the translators chose the word rags, it really should be filthy garments. What the prophet is saying is that when we try to establish our own righteousness, even our own humility, we are sewing a garment that in our own eyes is spotlessly, dazzlingly white. But when God looks at it he sees that it is saturated with our sweat, the evidence of our own work. It is filthy and it stinks to high heaven.