Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

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Mennonites: ethnic group, culture or faith?

In the first few centuries of the Christian era the faith spread far and wide through Asia, Europe and Africa. Then came the time when the Emperor Constantine professed to espouse the Christian faith. For a time persecution ceased.

But the church that made peace with the Imperial power became corrupted by peace and power. Many Christians refused to be part of such a church and maintained the original purity of the faith. So persecution began once more, this time by a church that had become earthly and pagan, yet still called itself Christian. From the records of the persecutions by the Imperial church it is evident that the network of pure churches still stretched across much of the known world.

By the late Middle Ages there was still a network of churches that stretched from Bulgaria to England. They were known as Cathars, Bogomils, Waldenses, Albigenses, Lollards and many other names, but there was communication between them all. The Inquisition, a major, systematic escalation of the persecution almost succeeded in destroying those churches.

In the 1500’s the remnant of the persecuted reorganized and are known to history as Mennonites, after the name of Menno Simons, one of their more prominent leaders. Churches were organized in Flanders, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Palatinate. The members of these churches spoke Dutch or German. Some of the members in Flanders also spoke French.

Mennonites today are often thought of as a unique Dutch/German ethnic group. Many among them have lost the faith but held on to their Dutch/German culture, leading to confusion as to what it means to be a Mennonite.

I am a Mennonite by faith, but not by culture. I think that should be considered the norm. Our faith goes back to the Apostolic era, it did not begin with Menno Simons (he strongly denied being the founder of a church).

I am a member of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. A large part of the membership of this church in North America is made up of people of Dutch/German ancestry. This causes confusion, within the church and without.

Yet when it comes to sharing the gospel in other lands, there is no confusion. It is the gospel we are endeavouring to share, not language or lifestyle. There are members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in 40 countries around the world. Some are indigenous, not under the tutelage of a mission organization, others are moving in that direction as quickly as local members are ready to take leadership positions, some are new missions.

Much of the international growth has come as a result of tract distribution. Gospel Tract and Bible Society, an agency of the church, distributes millions of tracts, in over 100 languages. In the last few years this has been accelerated by their website. You can find the website here. People can read tracts online, print them for reading at home, order copies for distribution, and ask questions. Some of those with questions may ask “Where is this church? Why isn’t it in my country?” Enough questions like that, ones that show a serious spiritual longing, and a visit is made and a mission may begin.

We are told that the website reaches a new demographic. Previously, many of those who ordered tracts were church leaders or evangelists, now it is more individuals who are searching to understand what Christianity is all about, what Jesus means for their personal life, their home.

Another change in recent years is a great increase of inquiries from French-speaking countries. There are members of the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite in six French-speaking countries in Africa and a new mission in a seventh. Visits have been made with interested people in France and there are plans to place a family there for at least a few months.

I also have a French blog, on which I post articles about the Anabaptist faith in history and today. The readership isn’t all that big as yet, but so far this year there have been people from 51 countries who have taken a look at that blog. The top five countries were, in order, the USA, Morocco, Canada, Bénin and France. Do those first two countries surprise you? There are French-speaking people all over the world.

Treacle and wizards

If you have read Alice in Wonderland and other books of that era written in England, you have encountered the word treacle. It is not much used this side of the water.

Treacle has a history. It was originally a Greek word meaning an antidote for a poisonous animal bite. It migrated into Latin, then French and then English, carrying the original meaning all the way. Then in English the meaning gradually widened to mean medicine of any kind, then to a sweetener added to medicine to disguise the taste, and finally just the sweet stuff itself: syrup or molasses. From there, it developed the analogous meaning of cloying sentimentality.

Cloying is interesting in itself. Oxford defines it as excessively sweet or sentimental, Cloy originates from the same Lain root that produced clé (key) and clou (nail) in French. The only connection between cloy, clé and clou that comes to my mind is the idea of fastening something. Thus, in my mind, something cloying is syrupy sweet and hard to get rid of.

To illustrate where my line of thought is going, here is a quote from Louisa May Alcott:
“People want to be amused, not preached at, you know. Morals don’t sell nowadays.”

I believe the part that people don’t want to be preached at has always been true. The answer is not to forget about writing anything with a moral message. Good writers, inspired writers, have found ways to demonstrate moral truths without preaching.

There are Christian books, stories and poems for children from the Victorian era that some Christian people think are wonderful. It must be an acquired taste, the result of being exposed to that kind of literature all through one’s childhood. I wasn’t; I can’t stand those books and I suspect most non-Christians would find them as sickeningly sweet and meaningless as I do,

The writers are preaching, they have a message, a spiritual lesson, that they are trying to convey. To avoid anyone finding the message distasteful they slather it with treacle. The better way would have been to leave out the treacle and make the characters and the circumstances more believable. The characters are more like cardboard cutouts than living people. I wonder if those who have been fed a steady diet of such treacle really have much idea how a real person responds to the gospel.

There is not much of a market for morality, but there is a market for a well told story about believable people who face real life problems. Let the writer weave in moral and spiritual truth; that is not at all fatal in the marketplace. Think of the popularity of books like C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and the books from George MacDonald and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Some Christians don’t want their children to read such books because they are fantasy. I think of them this way – children know the world is a mysterious and dangerous place, that bad things happen for no apparent reason. It’s no good raising children on books that pretend everything is always going to work out for the best, because real life doesn’t work that way.

The value in the books by Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkien is that they acknowledge that evil is very present in the world, but show that there is also a supernatural good present in the world that can triumph for those that trust in it. These books do not explicitly mention God, yet His presence is implicit. Other books about good and evil are popular in our day, but they show the good side triumphing by using the same tactics as the evil side. Lewis, MacDonald and Tolkien never do that, evil behaves in an evil way, good triumphs by trusting in the power of good.

That is a real life lesson that children need to hear and learn. It is not taught by treacle, nor by wizards that rely on the powers of darkness.

Spiritual radar

On Dec. 7, 1941 Lt. Kermit Tyler was the supervisor for a series of radar stations. In the early morning a radar operator who was a private called about a large blip on his scope. Lt. Tyler told him not to worry about it. Not long after, he went outside and witnessed the beginning of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

An investigation concluded that Lt. Tyler couldn’t have been expected to do any better. Radar was a new technology, there were no procedures in place to tell what to do even if the radar blip had been correctly interpreted. This was only Lt. Tyler’s second shift as supervisor, he had been given no training or instructions as to what his duties were.

Two months ago, when COVID-19 was still thought to be something only happening in Asia, doctors around Seattle noticed a rise in flu-like illnesses causing fevers, sore throats and respiratory distress, yet tests for the influenza virus came back negative. That area now has the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases in the USA.

Did doctors and the Centers for Disease Control misread the blips on the radar? Would it have made any difference if they had recognized them for what they were? Probably not, these were still early days for that virus and no one understood how it worked or what to do about it. We are still learning.

There is a lesson there for Christians if we feel secure in our understanding of how to live a life pleasing to God and of the dangers that might trip us up. The serpent always has something new to put in our way, something we have never before encountered and have no idea how to handle. Most often it will seem innocent and harmless at first, until we realize that we have been bitten and the poison is already eating at our Christian life.

Christians have something far better than radar to warn us of such dangers. We have the Holy Spirit. “And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:21). That voice will always show us the way that is safe. Are we paying attention?

What is needed to have a healthy congregation?

Blaise Pascal wrote; “The heart of man is so deceitful that as soon as he begins to think about getting converted, he believes he is.” A congregation largely made up of people like that will never prosper spiritually. So the starting point for a healthy congregation is that it must be made up of people who really are converted.

Is that all it takes? Let’s be honest, we are at best flawed and selfish creatures, each with out own blueprint of what a congregation should be. It as inevitable that even among spiritual people there will be frictions and differences of vision. We need to accept that and not expect that a church will be made up of people who are flawless. Not here on earth.

Another essential element in a real life congregation of real people is that there must be one or more members who do not soon get excited about differences, but who quietly work to help people lay aside their differences and work together for the honour of God.

Not a dynamic leader who has all the answers and expects others to fall in line and follow him. That eventually leads to shipwreck. I mean someone who can listen, discern where the shoe pinches and help members make the small adjustments that will ease the pain so that all can turn their attention to God and away from themselves.

Every congregation needs to have its peacemakers, because it is certain that things will arise to disturb the peace. Another name for such a person is a rassembleur. He is that special kind of leader who helps people all arrive at the same conviction without feeling that it has been imposed on them by someone else.

If there is no rassembleur in a congregation, that lack will be obvious. Little misunderstandings will not be resolved and will grow into major problems. If there is one or more in a congregation, things work smoothly and others are hardly aware of what the rassembleurs are doing.

(I have chosen to use a French word here, for lack of a good English equivalent. Rassembleur means a person who is able to inspire others to work together toward a common goal. The best English translation would be uniter, but it does not describe all that is meant by rassembleur. Besides, uniter is not a word we are accustomed to hearing in English, whereas rassembleur is a very common word in French.)

And be ye thankful

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Reading the news can can give one the impression that everything around us is changing, crumbling, ready to collapse. But when I pause to reflect, there are a lot of things in my day to day life that have not changed, and I take courage. Here are a few things that come to my mind:

  • The Lord is my shepherd
  • My wife, who has stuck with me for almost 50 years
  • I am 78 and still in good health
  • Our daughter, her husband and our four grandchildren
  • Our spiritual family, brothers and sisters who are serving God, but who don’t do everything just right and who are OK with the fact that we don’t either
  • The few cousins left whom I have known all my life
  • Every opportunity to meet new people
  • Young people who choose to follow the Lord
  • Our two cats who keep home life interesting
  • It’s almost spring and the daylight hours are increasing by four minutes each day

Feeling like a victim?

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon; build ye houses, and dwell [in them]; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; take ye wives, and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; that ye may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the LORD for it: for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace. Jeremiah 29:4-7

Aren’t we in much the same position as the Jews who were captive in a foreign land that did not know their God? This vile world that we live in is not a friend of grace, to lead us on to God. Do we think it should be? Do we feel like victims?

Victims we may be, but we are not helpless. God is our help and He instructs us to stop feeling sorry for ourselves and get on with living a victorious Christian life, right here where we are.  He even tells us to pray for our governments in these heathen lands. And all the countries of the world are heathen lands.

Complaining does not bring peace, it just discourages us. Why should citizens of the heavenly kingdom ever be discouraged? Jesus promises abundant life, it is within our grasp. “Wherefore lift up the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees; and make straight paths for your feet.” (Hebrews 12:12-13)

Coming to the light

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Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

Satan has been able to use the ethnic uniformity of our congregations to place a veil over the eyes of seeking souls, convincing them that what they see is the idiosyncrasies of a little German ethnic group. There may yet be some confusion on that point among many church members,.

But the ethnic makeup of our congregations is changing. It is happening quietly, not as a result of organized missions, but in our existing congregations. Every time a family of a different background is added to the church it makes the path a little clearer for others to follow. This robs Satan of a very effective tool that he has used to turn seeking souls away from the church If we can lift up our eyes and see what the Lord is doing, and let our light shine, I feel there is a possibility for a much greater ingathering here in North America.

Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon thee. For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the LORD shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thine eyes round about, and see: all they gather themselves together, they come to thee: thy sons shall come from far, and thy daughters shall be nursed at thy side. Then thou shalt see, and flow together, and thine heart shall fear, and be enlarged; because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee, the forces of the Gentiles shall come unto thee (Isaiah 60:1-5).

Christ is in all

The following question came in my email this morning and I decided to post it and give my thoughts.  Feel free to join the conversation.

I enjoy many of your inspiring blogs and this morning read “A matter of the heart, not the head.” You wrote: “ …and there did not seem to be a closeness, a genuine trust and fellowship among the members.”

I understand the line and have noticed or experienced this too; but my question is: what specifically brings us to “closeness, genuine trust and fellowship” ? Not to downplay faith in Christ, I am thinking that a common practiced tradition and custom also play a part of the closeness you refer to. Can such closeness and fellowship exist without a common tradition ? What do you think ? H. W.

I believe that “a common practiced tradition and custom” can lead to a form of closeness.  Just not the kind we were looking for. Some of the churches we visited did have the form of unity produced by a common ethnic and religious heritage, but as I wrote “it was never clear to us how many of them might actually have a relationship with the Shepherd.”

The apostle Paul described the church this way in Colossians 3:11: “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond [nor] free: but Christ [is] all, and in all.” Let me unpack that statement. Jews were those people who believed themselves to be God’s people by virtue of their family heritage. Greeks were everybody else in the parts of Asia and Europe mentioned in the New Testament. The circumcised were the adherents to the Jewish traditions, the uncircumcised were those for whom those traditions had no meaning. Barbarians were people who spoke an unfamiliar language. Scythians were people whose culture and customs seemed bizarre to the Jews and Greeks. Bond and free refers to social status. Paul is saying that none of those things mattered; the one thing that matters is whether one has a relationship with Jesus Christ.  “Christ in you, the hope of glory” Colossians 1:27.

That must still be the grounds of Christian fellowship. My wife and I have belonged to the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite for 41 years. A majority of the members are of one ethnic heritage. We are not. It doesn’t matter. Mennonite in our day has been relegated in many people’s minds to an ethnic culture. I am not part of that culture, much of it is incomprehensible to me, but I am a Mennonite by faith.

By culture and tradition I still feel like a boy out of a W. O. Mitchell story. I listened to Jake and the Kid on radio when I was young, a few years later I read Who Has Seen the Wind. I felt like I was the kid in  those stories, I identified fully with this boy  experiencing the wind in the grass, watching people around him cope with life, feeling part of the prairie.

God has called me, I have embraced the faith once delivered to the saints, I enjoy fellowship with brothers and sisters of this faith, whatever their background. But I am not a Mennonite by birth, language, culture or tradition. In those things I am a kid from the prairie, this is my land, these are my people.

Qualifications of a minister of the gospel

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Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Many words are used in the New Testament to describe spiritual leaders in the church. Bishop, or overseer (episkipos); elder (presbuteros); pastor; minister (diakonos); evangelist; prophet; teacher; apostle (one sent out). All of these, except perhaps the last, are used interchangeably and appear to be but different functions or gifts of the same office.

An overseer watches for the spiritual well-being of the members of the church. Pastor, or shepherd, is identical in meaning. Elder means much the same, but also implies experienced, but not necessarily aged. A prophet is someone who speaks for God, a preacher. An evangelist is one who brings good news. A teacher gives instruction in the ways of God and the duties of His people. None of these titles should be interpreted to establish a person as a lord over the church.

Apostle is used sparingly in the New Testament, first of all to describe the twelve who were the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. It is also used of Jesus Himself, and of Paul, Barnabas, Timothy and Silas, but does not seem appropriate for any modern day servant of Jesus Christ.

No academic or seminary training is needed to become a minister of the gospel. Indeed, such training is more apt to be a hindrance, introducing psychological and doctrinal concepts that are not in accord with the Bible.

Neither should a minister expect to earn his living by preaching the gospel. A congregation has a duty to support a minister where needed, when he incurs expenses related to the work of the ministry. The congregation also has a duty to the minister’s family when he is absent in the work of the ministry. But he should have an income that does leave him dependent on cultivating the approval of others for his livelihood.

Hundreds of years ago Menno Simons wrote: O my faithful reader, ponder this. As long as the world distributes splendid houses and such large incomes to their preachers, the false prophets and deceivers will be there by droves; and: Therefore this is my brief conclusion and Christian admonition to all preachers and teachers. Brethren, humble yourselves and become unblamable disciples, that you may hereafter become called ministers. Try your spirit, love, and life before you commence to shepherd and to teach. Do not so on your own account, but wait until you are called of the Lord’s church; I say, of the Lord’s church, of the Spirit of God, and are constrained by urging love. If this takes place, brethren, then pastor diligently, preach and teach valiantly, cast from you all filthy lucre and booty; rent a farm, milk cows, learn a trade if possible, do manual labour as did Paul, and all that which you then fall short of will doubtlessly be given and provided you by pious brethren, by the grace of God, not in superfluity, but as necessity requires.

Here then are the qualifications for a minister given by the Apostle Paul in chapter 3 of 1 Timothy.
1. Blameless (above reproach, not derelict in any Christian duty)
2 The husband of one wife (He should be married, but to only one wife at a time. It is certainly permitted for a minister to marry again if his first wife dies, but he must not have any marital entanglement that will be a reproach to his message.)
3. Vigilant (watchful)
4. Sober (prudent)
5. Of good behaviour (orderly and decent)
6. Given to hospitality(literally, a lover of strangers, that is, ready to welcome visitors into his home)
7. Apt to teach (not only wise, but able to make wisdom appealing to others)
8. Not given to wine (does not drink wine to excess, is not domineering or abusive)
9. No striker (not quarrelsome, not a persecutor of those who disagree with him)
10. Not greedy of filthy lucre (not using dishonourable means to increase his income)
11. Patient (gentle)
12. Not a brawler (not contentious)
13. Not covetous (does not seek to be a minister in the hope of material gain)
14. One that ruleth well his own house (has an orderly and respectful family, but not by severity or tyranny)
15. Not a novice (not newly converted but has been a Christian long enough for others to discern the qualities listed here)
16. Have a good report of them which are without (has given no cause for offense or scandal to those outside the church).

One who meets all these qualifications and is called to the ministry by God and the church, is worthy of the respect and support of his fellow believers as he endeavours to serve God in the ministry.

The hoary head and wisdom

Today I am 78 years old – it’s surprising how normal that feels. I knew old people when I was a little boy, they seemed like regular people, but I couldn’t imagine myself ever getting that old. Now here I am.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It is the fear of the Lord that helps us understand that we are not the most important person in the room. One who lives selfishly all his life does not magically become wise in old age.

The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness (Proverbs 16:31). What is righteousness? Sometimes I am tempted to think that an ability to see what others are doing wrong means I am more righteous than they are. That is a deadly mistake.

Seeing the problem does more harm than good – unless I can also see what the other person is doing that is right. The Bible instructs us to build up one another, not tear down.

In my youth I determined I was not going to be like my father. No way was I going to make the kind of mistakes that he made. Looking back over my life, it is obvious that I made pretty much all the mistakes my father made, and more. What else could I do? That was the pattern I had, I didn’t know a better way to act when things didn’t work out like I wanted them to. It has taken a lifetime to find a better way, one small step at a time.

Along the way, I have gained a more charitable attitude towards my father, and towards other people who are not doing well at handling the trials of life. Perhaps the most important piece of wisdom that I have gained is the realization that I still have a lot to learn.

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