It’s been a number of years since I wrote the book, God and Uncle Dale. I’ve been surprised at the favorable responses the book received, and where those responses all came from. I’ve also been a bit surprised and sometimes nonplussed at the lessons some people have tried to lift from the book. I thought maybe people would be interested in my thoughts on some of this.
You can normally order God and Uncle Dale online at Amazon.
A Surprise Audience
I haven’t kept a diary of the telephone calls and letters that I’ve received about God and Uncle Dale, so I’ll probably miss some things. But I noticed one surprising thing very soon after its release. The first people who called or wrote me about the book were older people. Many of them could remember being caught in circumstances similar to those recounted in the book.
I wrote the book especially for older teenagers and younger married couples. I didn’t anticipate this deep interest from people old enough to be my parents. In fact these people probably bought the majority of the first printing of the book, in some cases giving each of their children a copy. (The first printing sold out in less than three months.)
This doesn’t mean that younger people haven’t read the book. Many have, though I think it startled a lot of them because its setting is so foreign to their experience. In fact some of the younger men at Rod and Staff who reviewed the book were dubious about its veracity. It was pushed through by some older men who knew from personal experience the realities of what the families in the book faced.
Is This Merely a History Book?
The main characters in the book (especially Dale and Sheila) were actually fictional. The book was NOT about my uncle – that was a literary technique which somewhat embarrassed me by its success. Evidently some readers are not acquainted with some of the techniques used by authors to make a book seem more real. Also, Rod and Staff Publishers has a policy not to publish a book about living people, and they financed this book as well as publishing it. (One brother actually complained that the book should not have been published because he recognized a few of the background characters. However that could hardly be helped if the book was to remain true to the history of the times.) Had I used real people as the main characters in the book, I would have been forced to get into some weaknesses that would have been embarrassing to some people still living.
The book is true to life, however, and the main background events in it all happened. People who had been in similar situations caught the reality that was behind the scenes and I heard over and over, “That’s exactly what we went through.” In fact I heard various times, “We had it even worse than that.” Many younger people in our churches have a hard time comprehending that their parents or grandparents actually stuck it out in such a setting for as many years as they did.
I had to tone down the book substantially, especially in the area of immorality. Most younger readers, and some older ones, would be horrified if I shared some of the things that I know about the moral conduct of the youth and younger married couples in those settings during those years. Very little of this is even hinted at in the book, again due in part to publisher constraints, and partly due to my concern for the moral purity of the readers.
So it is certainly true that this is a book about history. This is a period of time that was very real and many who lived through it did not survive spiritually. In this book I wanted to show our youth where we came from, and why we have some of the concerns we do. But this book is about more than just history.
Is It a Warning Against Apostasy?
The fear of apostasy has been a major paranoia in conservative circles ever since the 1960’s. Not only will most conservative churches bend over backward to avoid worldly practices, they will also fervently avoid anything that could conceivably lead them astray down the road, no matter how far away that might be. The “Great Apostasy” almost became our nemesis, and we can’t forget that.
This book doesn’t pretend to comprehensively cover the reasons that the Mennonite churches drifted away from truth during the first part of the 20th century. It simply portrays what happened to one family within one congregation of that whole scenario. It’s true that it is a bit of a shock for conservative Mennonites to realize that a group of young folks could get together for a church function and end it by singing Elvis Presley’s greatest hits together and consider it normal. But that was part of the reality of the times.
It is also true that all of this could happen again to us. So some church leaders and parents have used this book to warn their youth that, “If you continue the course you are in, you will end up where the church in God and Uncle Dale was.”
But this book is more than just a history book intended to scare us into avoiding apostasy.
Is This Book About Nonconformity?
The doctrine of nonconformity in dress has been a mainstay of the conservative Mennonite church in North America in the past, though maybe not to the degree that many of our people have been led to believe. It is certainly true that the mainstream Mennonite church lost most of its nonconformity in the decades before and after the 1960’s. Even some of the conservative minded people who finally left the mainstream churches had drifted a long way, though this is not always recognized. For instance, one brother who was quite young when his family was in this setting was very startled when he learned that his older sisters didn’t wear cape dresses at that time and that his father allowed it.
But I did not write this book to promote the plain coat and the cape dress. These two items were important in the book because they symbolized Biblical principles of separation, simplicity, and modesty — all of which were being lost in the main Mennonite settings. However, Christian people were obeying these principles long before the plain coat and cape dress were ever invented. The Mennonite churches did not go astray because they put aside some of these traditional garments. Rather they went astray because they ignored the clear Bible principles behind them.
So, while I am a strong believer in these Biblical doctrines, I did not write this book to promote any particular local interpretations of these doctrines.
One More Caveat
I suppose some people will be quite frustrated with me by now. I am not trying to belittle any of the points we have just discussed. All of them are true to a degree. But I feel we need to go beyond these ideas.
For instance, I believe that it is a mistake for us to be constantly making our choices in light of the “Great Apostasy”. I also believe that it is a mistake to live in constant fear of where a choice might take us. Certainly, we need to be sensible, and make Biblical, Spirit led, choices. But finally, it is most important that we choose in light of God’s will and direction. Rather than asking, “Will this action lead me to apostatize ten years down the road?”, I should be asking myself, “Is this God’s plan for my life?”
So, while I agree that each of the issues above is important, they were not my main purpose in writing this book.
Then Why DID I Write This Book?
Both Dale and Shelia were interested in serving God. Both wanted to do what was right. But Shelia failed and Dale succeeded. Why? Dale’s parents gave him some help that Shelia lacked, but the real reason went beyond that, since Dale’s help made up for most of that lack in Shelia’s life.
Dale succeeded because he made a serious effort to find out what God’s will was for his life. He studied his Bible, he prayed, he asked for advice. In other words, he succeeded because his spiritual life became an intensely personal thing for him. He had no church to fall back on to make his choices for him. His parents were too discouraged to really give him all the guidance he needed. (I think he would have succeeded even if his parents had failed.) He had to find his own way.
Shelia became so real to me during my writing that I shed tears for her. (One young sister actually wrote me and practically insisted that surely, even at this late stage, someone could find Shelia and help her recover the faith she lost in her youth!) I probably liked Shelia even better than Dale, and it hurt me to have her take the course she did. But finally, she lacked the personal spiritual drive that Dale had. She depended on others, and worried about what others thought of her, rather than finding her own way with God. In the end, her path came out miles away from where Dale’s path ended.
It still hurts me to say it, but I don’t believe Shelia was ready to meet God.
I wonder sometimes how many conservative Mennonite people are caught in the same trap Shelia fell into. They might be considered good solid church members, never rocking the ship, and doing what is expected of them, but they have never moved beyond a politically correct spirituality to one based on a personal relationship with Christ.
Most of us have become accustomed to have others do our thinking for us. For instance, what kind of vehicle should we buy? Instead of seeking God’s direction, our first thought too often is, “What will the church say about it?” It is proper to respect our church and its decisions and guidelines. But if we never get beyond this in our spiritual relationship with God, we will probably not get to heaven. There are always times and places that we face issues that the church hasn’t spoken to. Or we may find ourselves, like Dale, in a setting where the church doesn’t even care.
If we have prepared like Dale did to find God’s direction, we will get it, along with His help. But if we’ve always depended on our parents or our church leaders or our friends to do our thinking and make our decisions, we will probably fail.
So, to put it into a nutshell, my purpose in writing this book was to encourage young people and young married couples to get so close to God that they could stand alone if necessary.
If you haven’t seen that in God and Uncle Dale, it’s probably my fault for not making it clear enough. But read it again with this in mind and I think you will see what I am talking about.
For every Dale in this world there are dozens of Shelia’s who won’t make it. Remember, both Dale and Shelia wanted to do what was right. But only Dale actually did it and found his way. My challenge to you is, be a Dale. Don’t be satisfied to be a Shelia.
—Lester Bauman Nov. 2009
For instance, never in the history of the Mennonite church has any conference ever held as rigidly to the plain coat and cape dress as the EPMC and the NWF congregations do. Many of us consider this a historical norm. That is another subject – suffice it to say that this “historical norm” is mostly fiction. Also, both the cape dress and the plain coat are North American and were not brought from Europe. Nonconformity in dress was not really an Anabaptist doctrine, since it was hardly needed in medieval times.
Ouch! That startled even me as I wrote it, but the more I think about it the more I believe it.
For some reason we often assume that a person who builds up a personal relationship with Christ, and does his own thinking and decision making, is automatically going to be a rebel. I find this hard to understand. After all the same Spirit who led the church in it’s development, is guiding you and I as well. Why would we come out somewhere else in our thinking? Of course there are always those who use this reasoning as a foundation for rebellion. But that is totally different from what I am promoting here. Dale became a strong church supporter because of his personal convictions and relationship with Christ. The same can be true for us.
This is a little story I wrote after the death of little friend of ours. We were the baby sitters mentioned – we looked after him the day he died…
Once upon a time a little angel lived in heaven. He spent his time happily doing the dutiesthat little angels did in heaven. But once in a while he looked longingly at the bigger, importantangels that God sent to earth to look after His children there.
“I wonder what it would be like to have an important job like that,” he pondered, as he wentabout his duties. “I suppose I’ll always be too little for that.” He sighed.Then one day it happened. One of the chief angels stopped him and said, “Jesus wants totalk to you in the throne room.” The little angel’s heart thumped a little as he hurried to answerthe summons. What could Jesus want with him, one of the most unimportant of the angel band?
He soon found out.
The throne room was a dazzling place. It was so glorious that only a supernatural beingcould safely enter. Even though he had been there before, the little angel always was awed at theglory of God and the mighty angels who ran His important errands from there.
But today he had little time to gaze. Jesus met him at the entrance. “I have an importantmission for you,” He said earnestly. “I need you to go to earth to look after a small boy who isgoing to be born today.”
The little angel gasped in surprise and anticipation. A thrill ran down his back. He was goingto be sent to earth! But it scared him a little too. “But Master,” he said, his voice quivering a little.“I’ve never done anything like this. How do I do it?”
Jesus smiled, and the room lit up. “Love him,” he replied. “Keep him safe. Small boys arealways ready to try daring things. You will need to be there with him and guide him around thedangers.”
Then He added, “Don’t pamper him. He will learn many lessons from the troubles he faces.But keep him safe. You will see many ways to do this. But most of all learn to love him.”So the little angel quickly flew to earth. He went straight to the hospital, and he was therewhen the small boy was born. He shared in the thrills of the new parents as they held their firstchild. He watched carefully as the nurse washed him, because he had heard stories in heaven ofnurses dropping new babies. And already as he watched the helpless small boy and listened tohim cry for his mother, the little angel felt a warmth creeping through his heart – the beginning oflove. He slipped closer to the small boy and carefully held his hand. The baby quietedimmediately and the nurse smiled at him as she finished wrapping him in a warm cozy blanket.“Sweet little thing,” she whispered.
The small boy was sweet. His parents were enthralled with him. So were his grandparents,and all the uncles and aunts. And so was the little angel, who watched over him very carefully,even when he slept. For you see had heard stories in heaven of little babies who died crib deaths,and he loved this small boy already. And he wanted so badly to do a good job of his first realassignment.
The small boy grew quickly. And the little angel watch over him even more carefully. Hehad heard of babies rolling off the table and being seriously hurt. So he stood close by when hismother laid him down then turned to get a clean diaper. He held the small boy’s hand and once heeven pushed him back from the edge of the table when he rolled over.
The mother sometimes almost sensed that the little angel was there. She wondered a bit ifsomeone was helping her to look after the small boy. Later when the small boy was old enough totrail after his father around the farm, she was even more sure.
There were times that the small boy was afraid. Then the little angel came especially close.There was one time that the mother and father needed to go to town and they couldn’t take thesmall boy with them. It was the first time that they had to leave him with someone he didn’tknow, and the small boy was very afraid. He cried and cried as his baby sitter rocked him andsang little songs to him. The little angel crowded very close to him and held his hand. Oh, howthe little angel wished that he could speak to the small boy, or show himself to him to comforthim. But he knew that this was not allowed. So he sang along with the baby sitter, and it seemedthat the small boy sensed he was there, and became quiet.
Then one day the little angel was needed. The small boy was playing with his cat, andwandered away from the house. The little angel followed carefully, and worried just a little. Hewould have liked to stop the small boy and lead him back to his mother, but he remembered whatJesus had said about not pampering him. The small boy needed to learn the lessons of life thatcould only be taught by pain and hardship. But oh how he wished he could spare him. SurelyJesus wouldn’t care just this once! But he remembered the love in Jesus’ eyes and he let the smallboy go.
Oh, but it happened so quickly! Was that irrigation ditch bank too steep? The little angelalmost panicked as he watched the small boy climb over the edge. Should he stop him? But henoticed that it looked shallow, and he carefully held the small boys hand as he tumbled into thewater. Was the water too deep anyway? He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that it wasn’t.He carefully held the small boy’s hand as he screamed for help, and watched anxiously across theyard to see if the small boy’s mother heard him. Good, there she came, running to help him.
That time the mother was almost sure that the little angel was there.
Then one morning when it seemed that the small boy was especially happy, because he wasgoing to visit at a friend’s house, an angel came to talk to the little angel. “Jesus wants to talk toyou. I’ll look after the small boy while you’re gone.”
The little angel look anxious. The other angel was big and strong. But would he look afterthe small boy carefully? The mother was going to take him to the babysitter again that day, andthe little angel always watched even more carefully at times like that.
The big angel smiled as if he had read the little angel’s mind. “I’ll look after him verycarefully,” he said gently. For you see, the big angel had an idea what Jesus wanted, and he pitiedthe little angel from the bottom of his heart.
So the little angel went home to heaven for the first time in 2-1/2 years. He went quickly,because in spite of the big angel’s assurance, he wanted to get back to the small boy. It was thefirst time they had been separated since the small boy was born. What could Jesus want? Had hefailed in something?
Jesus met him at the gates. He smiled, and said, “You have been doing a good job, littleangel.” But then his smile faded and He looked very serious. “Now I have something very hardfor you to do for me. I want you to bring the small boy home. We need him here.”The little angel’s heart plummeted. “But Jesus,” he protested. “His parents love him somuch, and they don’t have any other children.” Then he cringed a little, afraid he had said toomuch.
But Jesus face reflected His compassion. “I love him too, and I love his parents as well. Ineed the small boy here, and I will give his parents special strength to bear their sorrow.” Hepaused, and placed His hand on the little angels shoulder. “Trust me,” He whispered. “I love themfar more than you do, and I know what is best for them. You will see.”
The little angel’s face fell, but he bowed his head in submission. Then he thought ofsomething else. “But… but how will I do it?” He almost stammered in his anxiety. “I don’t wantto hurt him…” His voice trailed off. He had heard stories of horrible accidents, and terriblediseases.
Jesus understood. “Bring him as gently as you can,” He said. “But I want him here tonight.”It was a long flight back to earth.
All afternoon, the little angel watched over the small boy. And his heart pained him as only aheart full of love can pain. How could he ever do this? But he remembered the love in Jesus’voice, and he knew that Jesus knew what was best.
Evening came closer and the little angel became more anxious. How could he ever do whatJesus had asked of him? He knew that he would never be able to lift his hand against the smallboy.
At supper time he hovered anxiously over the happy little family. Later the young motherwould wonder why she had felt an anxious twitch in her heart as she served her husband and thesmall boy. Little she knew. The little angel grieved already as he watched the concerned look onher face. You see he had spent so much time with these three, that he felt he was part of thefamily.
He hid his face in his hands as supper came to an end. The father patted the small boy on hishead and was rewarded by a happy smile. The mother smiled at both of them. The little angelalmost wept. How could he do this?
The parents started to talk about the evening’s plans, and unobtrusively the little angel tookthe small boy’s hand. Never had he been more gentle than now as he led him from the table andout the door. Now. It would have to be now.
Outside the dogs saw the small boy and they came running. The small boy’s face lit up andhe follow them across the yard. Then the little angel saw that they were going in the direction ofthe farm pond, and his heart fell. Could he could go through with it? But he remembered Jesuswords, “I love them even more than you do.” He would have to trust.
Carefully the little angel parted the fence around the pond so that the small boy could getthrough without hurting himself. Then he turned his back…
It didn’t take long. And it didn’t hurt the small boy at all….
* * * * *
For the first time the small boy saw the little angel. Little as he was, the small boy hadsensed the angel’s presence at times too, and his face lit up as he saw the little angel. He held outhis arms, and the little angel took him up. The small boy wrapped his arms trustingly around thelittle angel’s neck, and the little angel carried him up and away from the pond waters.
Then they both heard a scream. The small boy’s mother came running to the pond and sawthe dogs swimming in a circle over the place where the small boy’s body still was. The small boystirred in the little angel’s arms. “Mommy?” he asked uncertainly.
The little angel shed a tear. “Mommy will come later,” he assure the small boy. “But she hasto live on earth with your Daddy a while yet.” The small boy started to sob, and the little angelthought quickly. “Why don’t you whisper goodbye to her?” he said gently. “She might hear you.”
And the mother did look up, a strange look on her face.
Then the father came. The small boy wanted to say goodbye to him too, because he lovedhim as dearly as he loved his mother. But they had to wait because the father was too busy. Hehad found the small boy’s body in the pond and was trying so hard, so desperately, to bring himback. The angel pitied him so much that he was tempted for a little to bring the small boy back tohis body again. But again he remembered the look of love on Jesus’ face, and knew that hecouldn’t do it.
But people were starting to come, and other angels were moving in to take over. It was timeto go. So the little angel slipped over close to where the father and mother stood weeping besidethe little body. The small boy leaned over close to his father’s ear. “Daddy, I love you. Pleasecome to be with me soon. Goodbye…”
The father didn’t quite hear, but he would remember later that something strange happened.He would never be quite sure, but he thought that just maybe the small boy had been with him fora moment.
The little angel knew it was time to go. He didn’t want the small boy disturbed by the sorrowhe knew would follow as family and friends came.
There was a crowd at the heavenly gate this time. It seemed that all the little children inheaven had gathered to welcome the small boy. The small boy had been very quiet during theirjourney, but his face brightened as he saw the little children spilling through the gates, singing,with Jesus in their midst. The small boy held out his arms, and Jesus took him from the littleangel and gave him a hug. The little angel saw the small boy smile and he knew that he had doneright in being obedient, even if it hurt him as nothing had ever hurt before.
Jesus smiled at the little angel. “You have done well,” He said. “You have proved your lovefor the small boy. He will be happy here as he never could have been on earth.”
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes;
and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying,
neither shall there be anymore pain: for the former things are passed away.
This is an excerpt from a booklet on New Testament brotherhood that I am working on….
Many groups of people today have a certain amount of fellowship. Members of community clubs and hockey teams usually have enough common interest to enjoy their time together. However Christians are the only people whose fellowship with each other is based on a relationship and fellowship with Jesus. The New Testament directly ties the two together. We cannot have the one without the other.
That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. (1 John 1:3-7)
If the members of the brotherhood have this relationship with God, then the group as a whole will also have fellowship with God, and direction from Him. This leaves a direct responsibility on each individual within the group to be sure that there is nothing in his or her life that would interfere with such a relationship on a group level. It is possible for hidden sin in the brotherhood to cast blight on the entire group. I have heard of testimonies to this effect from people who were part of such a situation. When finally, the individual in question yielded his life to God and confessed his sin, the group prospered in a new way.
The Bible speaks in different places of the strength there is in fellowship. When two or three Christians come together in a fellowship setting God is present. There is much power in such a gathering. Perhaps you, like me, have gone to church feeling depressed. But by the time the service was over, you marveled how your fellowship with God and your brothers and sisters had lifted your spirits. Let me repeat: There is power in brotherhood fellowship with God.
Acts 4:31 is an illustration of the power found in such joint fellowship with God. Some of the apostles had just been taken in front of the Sanhedrin because of their testimony of Jesus. They were beaten as a result, and the whole brotherhood gathered together to talk to God about it. Verse 31 states, “And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word of God with boldness.” Several verses later the writer adds, “and great grace was upon them all.” Rather than feeling intimidated the brotherhood was strengthened and the work went forward.
We can experience the same. If we aren’t, we need to find out why. Is there sin in our midst? Is our fellowship with each other intact? Do we have a fellowship relationship with Christ? Are we putting enough personal effort into our relationships with each other and with God? Do we sense our need of God’s “shaking”?
According to the verses quoted above, our fellowship with each other and with God is reciprocal. In other words if our fellowship with each other is weak it might be because our fellowship with God is weak. And if our fellowship with God is weak it might be because our fellowship with each other is weak. This is somewhat of a paradox. But the two go hand in hand and we must pay attention to both in order to survive.
God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:9)
A while ago while I was digging through my files I found this old article by Peter Hoover. I think it has a good point, so I’m including it here for you to think about. (Peter and I grew up in the same community in Ontario.)
Four centuries after the Reformation, standing on the brink of the third millenium A.D., have we Mennonites finally found our place in the world?
Judging from the Mennonite community in which I live, my answer could be “Yes.” Some forty thousand neighbours of mine profess the Mennonite faith. Of the approximately seventy-five families who live in our village (Gnadenfeld-Km.6), everyone is 201% Mennonite. From my house I behold part of a spread of land one hundred miles long, owned by the Old Colony, Sommerfelder and Kleingemeinde Mennonite Churches. My property tax ends up in the treasury of the Mennonite “Vorsteher” (civil government of our colony.) We all speak a Mennonite language known locally as “Menonita.”
We drive on roads maintained by Mennonite authorities, advertise in a Mennonite newspaper, shop in a Mennonite supermarket, eat in Mennonite restaurants, and buy stoves, furniture, and cheese from Mennonite factories. My father-in-law chews his tortillas with false teeth made by a Mennonite dentist, and when our people turn sick they can arrange an appointment with Dr. Franz Penner, the Mennonite doctor of Gnadenfeld who graduated from the university of Guadalajara. When you talk to me by telephone you use a system installed and maintained by a Mennonite company, complete with perhaps the only German telephone directory in the western hemisphere.
Small wonder then that thousands of my fellow-Mennonites fill out legal documents this way: Nacionalidad Menonita. They consider themselves Mennonites by nacionality, having found themselves years ago in the Russian Mennonite colony system.
Besides the colonists, however, we have yet another brand of Mennonites in Chihuahua state. Lurching north out of Cuauhtemoc on a muddy street shaded by giant cottonwoods and miles of apple orchards, one comes upon the village of La Quinta Lupita. Between enormous cold-storage facilities (Wiebes, Sawatzkys, Letkemans, and Abram Olferts) sprawls the “Alvaro Obregon” consolidated Mennonite School. Mennonite girls_in blue jeans, and boys with thick mops of blond hair study there to prepare for college educations and professional careers. These are the Mennonites who talk of recovering the Anabaptist vision, who march for world peace, who feed the guerrilleros in Central America, who have seminary trained ministers in the Blumenauer Church up the road, and who get mixed up in the “new morality” and marijuana.
One of their type informed me of the fact that Mennonites have now, for the first time in history “found their place- in world affairs. For the first time since the Reformation, the Church is taking up her “God-given” responsibility of trying to make governments behave. This man boasted to me of Mennonite representation in Washington D.C. and Ottawa (besides in Mexico D.P.)
The third kind of Mennonites whom I know well have little in common with my Mexican co-religionists. The conservative wing of what was once the “Old Mennonite” Church, they would not be caught thinking of themselves as Mennonite nationals. Neither would they lobby for peace in Washington or Ottawa. But have they become any less culturally or institutionally “Mennonite” than the rest?
When I return to my home community in Waterloo County Ontario, a claustrophobic feeling creeps upon me. On every side loom the enormous brick houses of the Mariins, the Brubachers, the Reists, the Metzgers, the Sauders, the Webers… The smell of Baumans’ pigs mingles heavily with that of Shantzes’ steers. Horsta’ string of “Harvestores” blocks out the view of Bearingers’ chicken houses. Around every bend in the road my eyes alight upon some Mennonite School or church or “Groszdoddy Blatz.” Conestoga, 13’th Line, Countryside, Winterbourne, Milverton, Cedar Grove, Calvary, Erb Street, Riverdale, Goshen, Weaverland, Steinman… the list of huge, well-built Mennonite Churches could continue almost indefinitely. (Waterloo County has over twenty Mennonite “branches” represented.)
The sidewalks of Elmira, Linwood, St. Jacobs, and Milibank bustle with bonnets and shawls, and black hats, and covering strings. Mennonite ladies in net coverings steer their Monte Carlos around old men puffing away at cigars as they roll along in open buggies.
Mennonites in Waterloo County have become as permanently a part of its scenery as the Conestoga River, the KW stockyards, and the Baden hills. I know they have also become that in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Indiana, Iowa and other states. North Americans have given us a place in their society, whether we like it or not. How has this affected our view of the Church in history?
North America accepts us as a quaint off-shoot of the reformation — and we have done nothing to refute that notion.
Mennonite B.A.’s and Ph.D.’s have spent their lives researching our relationship to the Protestant movement. They have found for us a respectable position in the eyes of western Christianity. Mennonite historians will never get done tracing oodles of genealogies back to the 1500’s. We have a dillion Mennonite history books that somehow start with Menno Simons and ramble on into the twentieth century. The walls of our churches have re-echoed innumerable times thunderous challenges to re-capture the Anabaptist vision. Generations and generations of preachers have told us that the nearer we can do things like Menno Simons, the better off we’ll be.
What has given us Mennonites this curious sho•t-sightedness in the field of history? Did the world begin in 1525? Did God make a covenant with Menno Simons or Jakob Amman? Why do our young people in all seriousness say that “our” church began in the sixteenth century, or worse yet, whenGrandpap left “Conference”?
If our understanding of God’s plan for the Church has shrunk into a post-reformation frame, we’re in trouble. If we have “found our place” as Mennonites in today’s society, God calls us to lose what we have found and to find what we have lost.
Billions of people have sacrificed and are sacrificing themselves to organizations limited to a certain time period. Who can count those who gave their lives for empires and causes and kingdoms which for milleniums have ceased to exist?
If we make a human culture, a human religion, or a human nation out of our Mennonite heritage, we will perish with Balaam, Alexander the Great, Adolf Hitler and Tenochtitlan. But if we Mennonites find our place in God’s chosen family, we will live forever.
How can we have a warm brotherhood relationship in our local fellowships? I would like to suggest some things in this essay that we don’t often think about. Please read them carefully and pray about them before you reject them outright. All of them have both historical and scriptural precedents.
James 5:16 tells us to confess our faults to each other so that we can be healed. While this is in the context of physical healing, other passages (ie 1 John 1:9) place this same thought in the spiritual setting. According to Strongs, the idea of “faults” here means exactly that – not just sins we have committed but inadvertent shortcomings. In other words, this verse speaks of baring our hearts to each other and allowing our brothers to see what we really are inside, with all our quirks and idiosyncrasies.
I think this is one of the greatest shortcomings of brotherhood today. In our large congregations it is too easy to hide. I can think of two things we should be considering. First, I know of congregations who have periodic informal brethren’s gatherings where they get together to pray and to share on a regular basis. By regular, I mean weekly or biweekly. Just imagine the aid to Christian victory it would be if you knew that on Saturday you would meet with your brethren and would be both free and expected to share the struggles you faced on Tuesday morning at work.
It would take some time to get used to this kind of church life for many of us. I squirm a bit at the idea, and you probably do to. But I do not think that the word “church” will take on its real meaning in our lives until we catch this vision of openness.
There is another reason that we do not have this kind of close brotherhood – our groups are too big. I’m suggesting here that we should never allow our congregations to get bigger than a dozen or fifteen families before we divide them in half. I read a secular book one time that quoted a study proving that no leader can stay close to a group of more than 150 people. We should be keeping our group sizes well below this. And certainly all of us would find it much easier to open our hearts to a group of 10 or 12 brothers than to a group of 25 or 30.
I would really like to see our congregations even smaller than this – maybe only five or six families (see Mat 18:19, 20). This would provide a setting that would be much more comfortable for your ungodly neighbor to visit. It would force families to really get to know each other and to NEED each other. It would give room for growth, and it would make it possible for a congregation to gather in a simple setting (historically God’s children have gathered in caves, in forests, in barns, and warehouses, but seldom in special, expensive church buildings). I wonder if we realize how much damage we have done to the witness of our lowly Galilean leader, Jesus, by the large expensive buildings we put up to worship Him in?
Jesus warned the apostles very clearly about the dangers faced by men in authority (see Mat 20:25-27). Peter echoed these warnings later (see 1 Peter 5:1-3). We tend to make the word “church” synonymous with the word “leaders”. But by doing so, we destroy the autonomous operation of the brotherhood. For instance, in Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus gave us an illustration of how brotherhood should work. Here we see a problem in the brotherhood, but it wasn’t brought to the leaders to deal with, it was brought to the brotherhood. And the brotherhood disposed of it.
Large groups of people need powerful leaders who administrate with the sheer power of their position and personality. But that is not God’s way – it is the way of the Gentiles, as Jesus pointed out in Matt 20:25-27. If we adopt these ways, brotherhood is gradually lost, and leadership authority needs to take over in order to avoid chaos. But if we could return to the historical precepts of small groups of brethren whose leaders are servants of the group, I think we would be amazed at the transformation that would take place.
In the early church when a man was ordained to leadership, he took a vow of perpetual poverty. His time was God’s and belonged to the service of the church. He didn’t receive a salary; he just received help, similar to the help received by widows and orphans.[i] And of course, he had God’s blessing, which makes rich in many ways much better than material things.
Most churches today—even conservative ones—have adopted the Clergy / Laity pattern. We need to get back to the Biblical precept of leaders being servants, respected and loved by their brethren, leading by their pattern of good works. In a brotherhood patterned after the principles expounded here, leaders and laity are on one level, equally accountable to each other as the whole group is accountable to God. I think many of today’s leaders would sleep better in a setting like this.
Philippians 2 teaches us to have the mind of Christ. Have you ever read the Gospels through to find out what the mind of Christ really is? Try it, and pay close attention to both His teachings and his actions. As you do so, ask yourself: How could I emulate this example? I think that you would be startled – if you did this honestly – to see how far that all of us have drifted from Christ’s standard.
A person could probably write a whole book about this, but let me point out just a few things for now. First of all, note how materialistic we all are in comparison to Jesus. Are we really leaving the example to society that Jesus wants us to leave? North American Christians spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and maintain large homes, while thousands of people around the world are dying without food every year (many of them die without Christ as well). Jesus would not have done that.
Second, Jesus warned us in Matthew 15:9 to avoid teaching for doctrine the commands of men. He had very little good to say about the philosophy of the Pharisees. Yet, our little books get bigger and bigger as time goes on. It seems that we have reached the point where we are more worried about what our church thinks of us than we are about what Jesus thinks of us. I wonder, if we could return to the Scriptural precedent of pure brotherhood, if we couldn’t get along without much of the structure and institutionalism that we deem to be so necessary for scriptural church life.[ii]
Third, I have no experience in having all things common, and I am not impressed with what I have seen of the average Hutterite colony. Yet, in a setting like I am describing, I think that brotherhood sharing would be very important. Jesus and his disciples evidently lived out of one purse while they travelled. The brethren forming the congregation would be responsible to work out the details of this, but I think it is an important area that should be discussed further.
Banished to the island of Patmos, with only criminals for company, the apostle John didn’t have life very easy. But John still had Jesus, and he spent the Lord’s day “in the Spirit” (Revelation 1:10) worshipping Him. And God blessed him with the glorious vision we now call the Revelation.
I wonder sometimes if we really know what it means to worship Jesus. I have, on occasion, sat in church and studied the faces of those in the congregation, wondering what was going on in their minds. Many were expressionless, as if in state of disconnect. A few even looked totally bored. I probably would have been hard put to find a half dozen people who appeared to be genuinely interested.
On the other hand, I have several friends (both in the ministry) who have admitted to me that at times of personal worship their hearts burst with praise to Jesus. One admitted that at times he actually shouted. Now I’m not advocating that we should have a lot of shouting in our services, but I do think that our relationship with Jesus should be so meaningful that we can hardly keep it bottled up.
It is interesting to observe people’s interests. I have watched people sit quietly during a Sunday afternoon discussion, and then suddenly come to life when the subject changed. Later, when the subject changed again, they dropped out of the discussion again.We can tell a lot about people by noting the things they are interested in. Especially there is something wrong with a Christian who can sit passively listening to a conversation about what God has done for us.
The same thing is true in a “worship” service. When I was a boy you heard an occasional amen from the audience during sermons, during prayer, or even after a stirring song, but that seldom happens in the average congregation. Do we no longer take our time with God seriously? It seems to me that if we are going to revive brotherhood in our churches, this is where we must start. Our preachers can preach their hearts out, but if we sit there passively waiting for the time to pass, we will get nowhere.
True worship doesn’t start in church, it starts in our hearts. Is Jesus the true love and passion of your heart? Of my heart? Our Anabaptist forefathers learned to read so that they could read the Bible. They did this to learn more about Jesus because their first joy was serving him. If Jesus is number one in our lives, church life will fall into place and be what it should be.
I have a vision of small groups of believers scattered throughout North America. Each brother in each of these groups would be accountable to the other brothers in his little group, and each group would be accountable to the other groups closest by. However, I do not envision powerful leaders with authority over bishop districts. Rather, I would envision each little fellowship having its own leaders after the Biblical pattern of an elder (deacon) and an overseer.[iii] These local leaders, if necessary could help with ordinations and teaching elsewhere, but would be mostly responsible to serve their own little group.
Can you imagine the potential witness in such as setup?
I am also thinking of the needs that we might face in the future. We could easily be on the verge of a vast economic meltdown. We might soon find ourselves walking to church. Often such circumstances also include religious persecution, and the signs are all around us, if we take note. I suspect that whether or not we chose to adopt this kind of an approach, God will bring it upon us in the future. But those who have voluntarily adopted this would probably be much more ready to face it.
[i]I’m not suggesting that a leader may never own a business or have a job, because the Bible does teach us to provide for ourselves and our family. But that business or job must always take second place to God’s work.
[ii]I am NOT advocating a casual church life where everyone does what is right in his own eyes! However we have developed a theology of unity and uniformity that our Anabaptist and earlier forefathers knew nothing about.
[iii]The KJV calls this a bishop, after the Anglican / Catholic pattern the translators were familiar with, but the term overseer is more low key and better fits the Scriptural description.
I am including this essay here by permission of Michael Fisher
It was April 5, 1943 in Berlin, Germany. Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer answered a knock at the door and was surprised when two men asked to speak to his son Dietrich alone in his room. As a result of the conversation, during which he was neither notified of his arrest nor shown a search warrant, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was forced to accompany the men, who were SS agents, to a military prison.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was himself in the service of the Abwehr, the intelligence-gathering agency of the German army. However, his position as a government agent and as a member of a well-respected German family was not sufficient to ward off his arrest when large amounts of money contributed to the relief of Jewish refugees were traced to him.
After Bonhoeffer was in prison for about eighteen months, during which he enjoyed preferential treatment and constant communication with the outside, an attempt to assassinate Hitler occasioned a thorough shakeup within the Abwehr. High-ranking officials were implicated in the plot, and any person remotely connected to the scheme was summarily dealt with. Bonhoeffer was found to be complicit in the plan and fell victim to Hitler’s wrath. He was hanged in Flossenburg on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the Allied Army took the city.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known throughout the Christian world today as a hero and Christian martyr. “Totally committed to Jesus Christ and to the church, he gave himself both in life and in death for his fellow men, proving that grace and discipleship are indeed costly,” says Dallas M. Roark in Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In Great Leaders of the Christian Church, Richard Pierard declares, “[Bonhoeffer] decided that the only way to secure peace would be to eliminate Hitler. For him, treason had become true patriotism …”
“Any Christian would do well to read the works of one who gave his life in direct connection with his Christian convictions. There have been many martyrs in this century, but few who so vividly recorded the circumstances that led to their martyrdom with both theological astuteness and a vision for future posterity.” So says Todd Kappelman in an article for Probe Ministries titled “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Man and His Mission.”
Even secular sources acknowledge his death as a direct result of his Christian faith. The website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum states: “Bonhoeffer has become widely known as one of the few Christian martyrs in a history otherwise stained by Christian complicity with Nazism.”
Bonhoeffer’s life is dramatized and eulogized in all forms of media, ensuring along with his extensive literary contributions that he will remain a personality definitive of his time, and influential in ours.
Dare we challenge the view of Bonhoeffer as a Christian martyr? Does our distance from the evils he faced disqualify us from drawing conclusions and holding opinions contrary to those of the world around us?
Are we guilty—as Anabaptists—of cheering from the stands, as Christians with a differing view of the use of violence engage evil in ways we believe are contrary to the teachings of Jesus? Or are we bold enough to point out the contradiction and take the risk of being labeled “pacifist” or “leftist”?
Even Bonhoeffer did not consider himself a Christian martyr. He viewed himself as being imprisoned as a political conspirator. When he became involved in the plot to kill Hitler, he took steps to remove himself from the Confessing Church, the denomination he had helped to found, in protest of mainstream churches that supported Hitler’s government.
When in prison, he refused to be put on his church’s prayer list, saying that only those who were put in prison for their actions or proclamations on behalf of the church should be on the prayer list. He obviously did not see himself as being punished for acting as a Christian.
Bonhoeffer’s death at the hands of the Nazis was a tragedy in many ways; however, it seems most tragic of all that he gave his life for a cause so contrary to the teaching and example of Christ. Not only that, his death seems a tragedy because of the inexplicable contradiction that is evident between the principles he strongly held and clearly articulated in earlier times, and the actions that brought on his end. A brief look at a few of Bonhoeffer’s key theological ideas will serve to illustrate this antithesis.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into a prominent family with a strong academic heritage. He chose the field of theology at an early age and entered the ministry at twenty-four with an impressive resume both in theological training and scholarly work of his own. By the 1930s, he had gained the attention of the international theological community and was developing key ideas such as his concept of discipleship, which ran counter to the popular notion that he termed “cheap grace.”
The rise of Hitler and the Nazi party interrupted his career. As German nationalism captured the imagination of the German people, most German Christians were caught in the tide. Bonhoeffer viewed this trend with alarm and became part of a movement that not only criticized the Nazi government, but also the Christian institutions that largely supported Hitler’s government. He helped to form a dissenting church, known as the Confessing Church.
By 1937, when his work Nachfolge (later titled The Cost of Discipleship in English) was published, his theology had developed in several ways that seem beyond amazing considering the spirit of the times. Let us peruse his views on the subjects of discipleship and revenge.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of discipleship was a strong critique of modern Christian teaching on salvation. The phrase “cheap grace” that is common today appears to have come from his work. According to Bonhoeffer, this “cheap grace” is defined thus: “an intellectual assent to [the forgiveness and love of God] is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins.” Elsewhere, he says that “cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner [that is, the actual making the sinner to act righteously].” He goes on, with some sarcasm:
Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. “All for sin could not atone.” The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners “even in the best life” as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin. That was the heresy of the enthusiasts, the Anabaptists and their kind. Let the Christian beware of rebelling against the free and boundless grace of God and desecrating it. Let him not attempt to erect a new religion of the letter by endeavoring to live a life of obedience to the commandments of Jesus Christ …. Instead of following Christ, let the Christian enjoy the consolations of his grace!
Bonhoeffer countered this idea with a concept he called “costly grace,” suggesting that the church no longer stands in the path of true discipleship. “We confess that, although our Church is orthodox as far as her doctrine of grace is concerned, we are no longer sure that we are members of a Church which follows its Lord.” In light of this cutting accusation, he concludes that “We must therefore attempt to recover a true understanding of the mutual relation between grace and discipleship.”
Speaking of Jesus’ call to Levi in Mark 2:14, Bonhoeffer writes,
According to our text, there is no road to faith or discipleship, no other road—only obedience to the call of Jesus.
When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. It transcends the difference between the law and the gospel. Christ calls, the disciple follows; that is grace and commandment in one. ‘I will walk at liberty, for I seek thy commandments’ (Ps. 119:45).
Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship.
He goes on to propose that, in relation to faith and obedience, “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.”
It is quite unbiblical to hold the first proposition without the second. We think we understand when we hear that obedience is possible only where there is faith. Does not obedience follow faith as good fruit grows on a good tree? First, faith, then obedience. If by that we mean that it is faith which justifies, and not the act of obedience, all well and good, for that is the essential and unexceptionable presupposition of all that follows. If however, we make a chronological distinction between faith and obedience, and make obedience subsequent to faith, we are divorcing the one from the other—and then we get the practical question, when must obedience begin? Obedience remains separated from faith. From the point of view of justification it is necessary thus to separate them, but we must never lose sight of their essential unity. For faith is only real when there is obedience, never without it, and faith only becomes faith in the act of obedience.
Bonhoeffer’s view of discipleship cuts across the grain of modern Christianity which so often separates obedience to Jesus from salvation in Him in such a way as to eliminate the call to actually follow Jesus in life. Coming from a Lutheran, this idea seems particularly refreshing to those of us who have been familiar with its terminology, at least, in our own Anabaptist tradition. He refused to separate faith and obedience even in the sense that one followed the other because of the need to recognize the “mutual relation between grace and discipleship.” Following Jesus in obedience is intrinsic to salvation; any other view cheapens the grace of God.
Summarizing Bonhoeffer’s view of discipleship, Dallas M. Roark writes:
There is only one way of understanding Jesus: He meant it as He said it. All subterfuges based on “reason and conscience, responsibility and piety” stand in the way of complete obedience. The usual type of rationalization of the commands of Christ are dealt with mercilessly. This refers to the reasoning whereby we reinterpret Jesus to mean that we need not leave all, but simply possess the wealth of the world as though we did not possess it. The command to follow is reduced to developing a spirit of inward detachment.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s view of discipleship which calls for obedience as intrinsic to salvation directly impacted his interpretation of Jesus in another key area. Like his concept of discipleship, his views about revenge relate relate well to our Anabaptist heritage and also certainly ran counter to the spirit of the time, both in prewar Germany and throughout the world.
His treatment of the subject involves both what is sometimes called “personal” nonresistance and the Christian view of the role of civil government. He begins by addressing the concept of rights. Followers of Jesus, he says, renounce all personal rights. This is contrary to the Old Testament, in which personal rights are protected by a system in which all evil is repaid in kind. Not so in the teachings of Jesus. Bonhoeffer then says:
The right way to requite evil, according to Jesus, is not to resist it.
This saying of Christ removes the Church from the sphere of politics and law. The Church is not to be a national community like the old Israel, but a community of believers without political or national ties. The old Israel had been both—the chosen people of God and a national community, and it was therefore his will that they should meet force with force. But with the Church it is different: it has abandoned political and national status, and therefore it must patiently endure aggression. Otherwise evil will be heaped upon evil. Only thus can fellowship be established and maintained.
At this point it becomes evident that when a Christian meets with injustice, he no longer clings to his rights and defends them at all costs. He is absolutely free from possessions and bound to Christ alone. Again, his witness to this exclusive adherence to Jesus creates the only workable basis for fellowship, and leaves the aggressor with him to deal with.
He criticizes the Protestant Reformers’ relegation of this principle to “private life.”
The Reformers offered a decisively new interpretation of this passage, and contributed a new idea of paramount importance. They distinguished between personal sufferings and those incurred by Christians in the performance of duty as bearers of an office ordained by God, maintaining that the precept of nonviolence applies to the first, but not to the second. In the second case we are not only freed from obligation to eschew violence, but if we want to act in a genuine spirit of love we must do the very opposite, and meet force with force in order to check the assault of evil. It was along these lines that the Reformers justified war and other legal sanctions against evil. But this distinction between person and office is wholly alien to the teaching of Jesus. He says nothing about that. He addresses his disciples as men who have left all to follow him, and the precept of nonviolence applies equally to private life and official duty. He is the Lord of all life, and demands undivided allegiance. Furthermore, when it comes to practice, this distinction raises indissoluble difficulties. Am I ever acting only as a private person or only in an official capacity?
As Bonhoeffer concludes his chapter “Revenge,” he states, “The cross is the only justification for the precept of nonviolence, for it alone can kindle a faith in the victory over evil which will enable men to obey that precept.” Christ’s death on the cross was both the supreme example of vanquishing evil through suffering, and the only empowerment we have to follow in the steps of Christ.
But one of the thorny aspects of this concept of “nonresistance” as it is lived out in real life has to do with the relationship of Christians to the state. Bonhoeffer tackles the issue squarely and unequivocally. He declares that there can be no wars of faith, and that Christian love cannot be compatible with patriotism.
He is very specific concerning the nature of Christian interaction with civil government, and it is at this point where the deepest questions arise concerning the relationship between what Bonhoeffer says and what he later does. From Romans 13 he draws the idea that for a Christian to utilize force in order to conquer evil, he must stoop to the world’s standards.
To resist the power is to resist the ordinance of God, who has so ordered life that the world exercises dominion by force, and Christ and Christians conquer by service. Failure to realize this distinction will bring a heavy judgment on the Christian (verse 2): it will mean a lapse into the standards of the world.
A view of Flossenburg Concentration Camp, where Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung for his involvement in a scheme to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Why did he take part in something he earlier condemned?
Bonhoeffer eloquently describes the Christian church as a community that is in the world, yet not of it. Christians are “strangers and aliens in a foreign land, enjoying the hospitality of that land, obeying its laws and honouring its government.” Hospitality is not always a word that best describes the sentiments of the government toward Christianity, but Christians are also joyful in times of persecution. “They are patient and cheerful in suffering, and they glory in tribulation. They live their own life under alien rulers and alien laws. Above all, they pray for all in authority, for that is their greatest service.”
Christians after all are only in this world temporarily, on their way to heaven. In what might be considered one of the more stunning and beautiful statements in the book, Bonhoeffer rapturously portrays the nature of the church in the world: “Amid poverty and suffering, hunger and thirst, they are meek, merciful, and peacemakers, persecuted and scorned by the world, although it is for their sake alone that the world is allowed to continue, and it is they who protect the world from the wrath and judgment of God.”
How and why on earth could a man so convinced of the power and efficacy of Christian love in the world, and so disparaging of the good that could come of the use of the sword, come to the point of being a conspirator in an assassination? Unfortunately this question remains largely unanswered, and those who attempt to discover the reasoning behind this contradiction admit it is a difficult task.
One of the only clues we have as to Bonhoeffer’s reasoning is the well-known statement he is said to have made to his sister-in-law: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” The untimely death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Nazi death camps sealed away forever what more we might have learned about the meaning of this tragedy.
Bonhoeffer decided he could not live with the consequences of putting to practice the idealistic interpretations of the teachings of Jesus as elucidated inThe Cost of Discipleship. He cut ties to the Confessing Church he had helped to form, which would not, according to Dallas M. Roark, have approved of his actions. His ties to the Abwehr assassination conspiracy are unimpeachable.
As Anabaptists, who believe that following Jesus means loving our enemies, we see the decision Bonhoeffer made as being a tragic manifestation of weakness rather than strength. Despite the heroism and courage he displayed, he experienced what might be called, using his own words, heavy judgment as a result of lapsing into the standards of the world. “All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Mt. 26:52)
What might be learned by this tragedy?
A story such as this can leave one shaken in terms of confidence that one can remain faithful to Jesus and his will in sorely trying times. Certainly our attitude toward those who suffer dilemmas of this sort must be merciful; who is to say how we would respond were we to walk through similar difficulties? However we do know that we are not ordered to carry burdens that cannot be borne. With the temptation there will be a way of escape, we are promised.
How can escape be possible when one seems to be faced with a choice between two evils? Bonhoeffer felt there was none, and he chose what he viewed as the lesser of the two evils. Corrie ten Boom, a well-known contemporary of Bonhoeffer, was caught between revealing the presence of Jewish fugitives in her home and lying to the authorities; she chose to tell the untruth. Quakers prior to the Civil War in the United States struggled with being truthful to the authorities in relation to assisting runaway slaves. There are stories of their refusal to speak when questioned, and of their justifying apparent lies by saying that no man could really be a slave.
We live in the real world with real ethical and moral dilemmas. We also serve a real and indwelling Christ with real answers to the complexities and the evils we face. And we can be certain from Scripture that evil is not to be overcome with evil. We can also be sure both from the promises of Scripture and the example of Christian martyrs throughout history that it is possible to face death and not capitulate to evil or become evil ourselves.
From prison, about nine months before his execution, Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend about his desire to have faith. He said, “I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.”
The dangers of radical discipleship are real. However, as Bonhoeffer’s story shows, compromise of the radical teachings of Jesus has its own dangers. The path he took led him from the one sort of danger to the other.
In conclusion, let us enjoy a short but insightful moment from Bonhoeffer’s earlier days. Dallas M. Roark tells the story:
[Bonhoeffer] became student pastor at the Technical College in Berlin, and at the same time was requested to take over a confirmation class of fifty rowdy boys who lived in one of the roughest areas of Berlin. As the elderly pastor and young Dietrich ascended the stairs of the multi-storied building where the boys were, the children dropped rubbish on the two men below. At the top of the stairs, the pastor tried to gain attention by shouting an introduction of Bonhoeffer. Some of the children only heard the word “Bon” and began to chant it, until the bewildered, frustrated old pastor left.
At first Dietrich stood in silence against the wall while the boys chanted. Then he began to speak softly to those near him. Out of curiosity the others began to be quiet. When the noise had subsided, he told them a story about Harlem and promised more next time if they behaved. Not only did he win their attention for class instruction, but he moved into their neighborhood for two months to live among them. This most “hopeless” class was carried to its completion, and many of the boys remained long-time friends.
This is the kind of love that we are promised will overcome evil. First we must make sure we are not the ones who pour rubbish on other people’s heads, and then we must reach out to the rubbish-dumpers. There is plenty of rubbish-dumping going on in this world, to be sure, and there is no doubt that as followers of Jesus we will have a little rubbish dumped on us before it is all said and done.
This wonderful anecdote illustrates both the dangers and the abundant rewards of radical discipleship. Following the word of Christ is dangerous; but its rewards are real and the suffering it might cause is not to be seen a tragedy.
In contrast, the suffering that comes from deviating from the path of Christ is truly a tragedy. Although there is much about this dedicated student of the gospel that we can admire, it is in this way that we must see the end of Dietrich Bon-hoeffer.
(Endnotes)  Dallas M. Roark, Makers of the Modern Theological Mind: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Waco: Word Inc., 1972) Dust jacket.  Richard V. Pierard, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: the Struggle against Hitler.” Article in Great Leaders of the Christian Church, John D. Woodbridge, Ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988) 353.  Todd Kappelman, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: the Man and His Mission” http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bonhoeffer.html. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Online exhibition by website of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/bonhoeffer/.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1963), 45.  Ibid. 46,47.  Ibid. 60.  Ibid. 62,63.  Ibid. 69.  Dallas M. Roark, Makers of the Modern Theological Mind: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Waco: Word Inc., 1972), 79.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1963), 156, 157.  Ibid. 160.  Ibid. 161.  Ibid. 293.  Ibid. 303.  Ibid. 303,304.
Mike and Michelle Fisher make their abode near Bedford, Pennsylvania, where Mike puts beans on the table by working in a grocery store. They and their five children meet regularly with the Burning Bush Mennonite congregation. Mike is involved in local prison ministry and also works part time for Christian Light Publications. He and his family enjoy gardening together in the summer and are looking forward to winter evenings reading by the fire.
Here’s another article someone sent me. It was published in Spanish and translated into English…
On May 29, 1913, Igor Stravinsky, a Russian musician, presented “The Rite of Spring” in the Théatre des Champs-Elysées of Paris, France. The reaction was such that the orchestra couldn’t finish the piece in peace. There were catcalls, people booed, some fought in the isles… and they threw tomatoes at the musicians. These people, accustomed to music by musicians like Bach and Handel, were appalled with the terrible dissonance and irregular rhythms of the piece. Today, that music is a normal piece in the classical concerts. And what is even more interesting is that it is tame when compared to some of the “worship music” in many “Christian” congregations today.
In 1963, the Rolling Stones rock group appeared on a television show in England. The reaction was immediate. Hundreds of letters were sent to the TV station. The average letter said something like this: “It is disgraceful that long-haired louts such as these should be allowed to appear on television. Their appearance was absolutely disgusting.” (Tony Sanchez, Up and Down With the Rolling Stones, p.17). And this wasn’t even a Christian audience! But, what about now? Even “Christian” singers have long hair. And it doesn’t seem to bother anyone. People don’t write letters nor do they throw tomatoes, and even the “Christian” leaders are quiet, like “dumb dogs” (See Isaiah 56.10).
Lowel Hart was right when he said: “Satan, who has been trying to get a toe-hold in the front door of the evangelical church, has found a wide open back door through which he has been blindly but enthusiastically welcomed by the medium of music” (Satan’s Music Exposed, page 12).
Any Christian who today tries to evangelize youth (as well as adults) finds out soon that people are not interested in knowing about repentance nor about following Christ. It is interesting to note how soon a group on the street can disperse, each remembering they have something urgent to do, if you start talking to them about repentance and the holy life that Christ requires.
To get people like that to go to some “Christian” event, many congregations are changing the format and content so that people will want to go. Such churches insist that they are building bridges.
Sounds great, doesn’t it?
But the worst thing about those bridges is to note which way the traffic goes. Almost a hundred percent of those who cross the bridge travel towards the world, going further and further from God. Is there something wrong with that concept of building bridges by compromising truth?
The Bible says: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God” (Romans 12.2). Those who immerse themselves in the world to help the world end up going the same direction the world is going. Jesus asks the searching question: “Can the blind lead the blind? shall they not both fall into the ditch?” (Luke 6.39).
But that is exactly what so many “Christians” are trying to do today with music! They try to save the world using the music of the world. How do they think they will help anyone in the world if they build a musical bridge that corrupts them as well as others? It is impossible!
“With a little dancing…”
“…that is how you praise the Lord.”
Wait a minute! How do you praise God? This popular Spanish song says one thing while Jesus said something totally different. Listen to what Jesus says: “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” (John 4.23–24). Who will you believe? The popular chorus or Jesus?
If we analyze the popular form of worship, we will see that it is much more like the external worship of the Old Testament, than like the spiritual worship that Jesus said God wanted. Jesus never taught us to worship with dancing like King David did. Rather, Jesus said that the true worshipers would worship “in spirit and in truth”. They would worship in spirit, because now the human spirit has direct access with God, through Jesus. They would worship in truth, because now it is not a worship based on external types and shadows. Rather, it is based on Jesus Christ Himself.
The music that God approves stimulates worship in spirit. Such music communicates with our spirit, which influences our emotions and moves us to direct our body in God’s paths.
On the other hand, the music that the devil approves of first of all touches the body, making it move. After that it touches the emotions. But it does not lead to a worship of God in spirit. That is why many go to “worship” but go back home and continue living like they used to. And their drive is to live another special moment; be in another “worship experience”; feel that emotion; get high again on the drug of “praise”. They can barely wait for that next service when they again will be able to get another dose.
God tells us clearly that “he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting” (Galatians 6.8). We cannot worship according to the flesh and expect to reap spiritual results. Rather, we will reap corruption. On the other hand, if we worship in spirit, we will reap spiritual results because the Holy Spirit directs our whole being —spirit, soul and body— in the paths of life.
We could compare this to riding a horse. Where do you put the bridle when you ride a horse? On the horse’s head, right? Why? Because if you manage to control his head, the rest of the body will follow. But what would happen if we would put the bridle on the horse’s tail? We could move the tail up and down, this way and that, and the horse would continue going exactly where he would want to go!
Those who worship according to the flesh, using music that communicates primarily with the body, cannot receive the proper spiritual direction that they need to arrive at Godly worship. In its place, they continue bouncing from one wave of emotion to the next. They live as slaves to the desires of the body, that will take them to destruction.
By special invitation, my family and I visited a special church service a few years ago in another congregation. The huge building was packed out. We managed to get a seat close to the door. The “worship” started. All the way from the pastor out front to the street bums at the door, all moved to the rhythm of the music. All “worshiped the Lord”. They all did the same thing. When the singing ended, a friend of mine came back to greet me.
“We’re having quite a happy church service, right?” he asked me.
“Maybe” I answered, feeling a tad uncomfortable.
We talked a bit more, then he went forward again to where some young ladies were, and he started to flirt with them!
Thinking about this, I wonder about two things:
· Is it possible to worship God in such a way that the unconverted street bums could participate and yet feel okay without feeling guilty before God? (Those, after moving to the rhythm of the music, clapping like everyone else, would turn around and light their cigarettes.)
· Is it possible to truly worship God and the next instant be flirting with some young ladies?
Brethren and sisters, it is high time we open our eyes and see the issues like they really are. He who worships God ends up living a different life. He cannot peacefully live in sin. If your worship doesn’t separate you from sin and the world, it is quite obvious that you are not worshiping God.
It is interesting to note what someone asked in a progressive evangelical church that uses contemporary praise music: “I just started attending church a few months back and really felt drawn to the presence of God, especially through the times of praise and worship. Yet, each time when I try to meet God in the same way during my personal quiet time and ‘feel’ the tangible presence that I always sense during church services, I always fail. Is this because there’s something that I’m not doing right? Am I not worshipping in the correct way?” (Harvest Times magazine, July–December 2002)
What this person describes is not a new phenomenon. It is very common. Have you ever noticed that as a general rule nobody “receives the Spirit” in a church service until they have been emotionally aroused by strong music? Or maybe you have noticed that it is usually a certain kind of music that accompanies the “receiving of the Spirit”. There are no healings, no tongues, nor miracles… unless they are accompanied by strong worldly music.
God calls us to worship. He calls us to worship in spirit and in truth. To move the horse’s tail with more energy, volume or rhythm, is not the kind of worship that God accepts.
The words are Christian
In his famous song “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?”, Larry Norman recommends using the worldly music, because after all, “why should the Devil have all the good music”? But the Devil never has had good music. He has never had music with which to worship God.
It should be alarming to see that the same rhythms and music that are used to exalt sensuality and drugs are the ones used in churches to (supposedly) “glorify God”. The other day I happened to see a “Christian” group singing. The tight clothes, the dancing and the movements were extremely sensual. The gestures and movements of the musicians screamed only one thing: SENSUALITY… AND MORE SENSUALITY. But the words were very Christian!
Please, brethren and sisters, let’s not be confused. The result of such music has never been a holy life, nor a closer walk with God. Rather, today we see more and more congregations contaminated with this kind of music. And they permit more and more sin among them. Those sins have become so commonplace that they supposedly are no longer important. There is no reaction anymore. Nobody bothers to throw tomatoes. They just shake the poor horse’s tail with more energy, more technology, and more volume!
And the Devil laughs.
Dear friends, “be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6.14–18).
Jesus says “But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him” (John 4.23).
I ran across this recently and thought it was good…
Christmas is approaching. Have you noticed? Evergreens and striped mint candy are suddenly in high demand. Men in red suits roam the streets, and bargain hunters crowd the stores. Yard displays and flickering Christmas lights brighten the night. The clerks at the checkout counter wear hats they would feel silly in at any other time of year.
Not everyone who puts up a tree, hangs out lights, buys gifts, and wears a floppy red hat is doing it just for the fun. There are many people, who, through all the glitz and glamour of Christmas, sense dimly that Christ’s birth really did have great significance for mankind. Something about the Christmas story stirs their heartstrings. So the loudspeakers at the supermarket play “Joy to the World,” and people enjoy it. At a time of year when tempers are short and credit card bills are long, it’s nice to hear about joy.
Perhaps people see Christmas as a respite from the rat race of selfishness they have run all year. With all the gift-buying, it should be a season when people think of giving to others, not just getting. It is more blessed to give than to receive, even for worldly people. But all too soon, the normal, me-first way of life takes over again.
If only lasting happiness could be found, gift-wrapped, under an evergreen tree!
Some people will remember their Bibles on Christmas Day. They will turn to Luke 2 and read how one night over 2000 years ago angels appeared in the sky, bringing glad tidings to the earth. A baby was born in a stable. His name was Emmanuel, God with us. They will rejoice over the old story full of such good news. And they will close the book of Luke, wish each other “Merry Christmas!” and go on with life.
But, who will take up the challenge to get folks to read the rest of the book? Who will show them that what they celebrate with so much enthusiasm is just the introduction to the story? As the story unfolds, the baby in the manger doesn’t stay there. He becomes a Man with a mission. Despite many twists and turns of the plot, He fulfills that mission perfectly. What was it? To bring true happiness to earth, just like the angels said.
No, lasting happiness cannot be found at the foot of an evergreen tree, wrapped in shiny paper and a red bow. But it can be found at the foot of a much uglier tree whose sides are dyed with red. If anyone kneels at the foot of this tree and cries for help to the Man who died on it, he will receive the best gift ever given by God to man, the gift of eternal life. He will receive the power to call every day of the year a holy day, whether it is a holiday or not. And he will be invited to attend a heavenly celebration that will never end!
So if you are wise enough to avoid the holiday frenzy in the coming days, make sure that you do not despise the people who are caught in it. Perhaps their hearts are more open to the Gospel than at other times of the year. By your deeds, by your words, by the expression on your face, will you remind them that peace on earth, goodwill to men is more than just a phrase? Will you help them look through the spirit of Christmas and see the face of Christ? Although the baby of Bethlehem has disappeared, Christ still gives life. He said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God… (Revelation 3:12)
In 410 AD the pagans sacked Rome. This created a tremendous stir, since Rome had a large Christian population. Christians wondered why God let it happen and pagans accused them of being the cause of it happening.
Augustine, the church’s leading theologian, wrote a book called The City of God, to try to clarify what had happened. In a nutshell, he explained that God allowed this to happen because Rome wasn’t God’s city, it was man’s city. Just because many Christians lived in Rome didn’t mean that it was sanctified or had a special place in God’s heart. The true City of God was a heavenly kingdom, not an earthly one, though many members of the City of God lived within the physical boundaries of the earthly city of Rome.
It seems to me that this question still confuses Christians today. Are we part of the eternal City of God? Or are we bogged down defending its counterfeit, the earthly city of MAN, which will perish along with the rest of the world around us?
An Important Definition…
The New Testament uses the Greek word ekklesia when it speaks of the City of God – the Church of all ages (note the capital C). However, it is easy for us to become confused, because the New Testament uses the same word when it speaks of a local assembly of believers, or of the unassembled believers, as it does when speaking of the eternal, spiritual, City of God. Note the following examples.
Jesus told Peter in Matthew 16:18 that “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Here He is obviously speaking of the universal gathering of the saints of all ages, the eternal City of God. God does not narrow down the City of God to any particular congregation or group of congregations. Rather, He opens His arms wide and embraces all genuine believers from all ages. General statements about the church, especially those dealing with the philosophy of the church or the beauty of the church fall into this category. (Cf. Eph. 3:21; 5:23 – 27; Col. 1:18; etc.) Many of the references to the church in the book of Ephesians should be understood from this perspective (an important fact to help us understand the book).
In Acts 8:3 the Bible states that Saul “made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.” Here we see the second use of the word, meaning the unassembled assembly – the saints living in a given area, which might be as small as a city or as large as the entire world. It does not speak on any particular local congregation or fellowship of congregations. Factual or historical statements such as those telling us that people became part of the church in general (cf. Acts 2:47; 5:11, 8:1; 1 Cor. 10:32; 12:28; etc.) belong to this definition. Many of the references to the church in the book of Acts should be understood this way.
Finally, in Mat 18:17, when Jesus said “tell it unto the church” he was referring to a local body of believers. Most of the references to the church in the book of 1 Corinthians fall into this category. When the NT gives direct instructions as to organization or order, or directly addresses a church, it normally refers to the local body of believers. (Cf. Rom. 16:5, 27; 1 Cor. 6:4; 11:18; 14:4, 19; 14:35).
The New Testament leaves it to us to sort out which of these three meanings the word has when it is used. This is especially important when we are looking at the first definition versus the other two.
Why does it matter?
It is important for us to differentiate between the City of God and its earthly counterparts. If we don’t, we are in danger of emphasizing and glorifying the work of men above the City of God. When we do this, we are on the verge of becoming a part of the city of man.
Occasionally Christians wax eloquent over their description of their local church – maybe even using adjectives such as glorious and marvelous. There is a sense in which this is right, since God views every local gathering of His people as part of the City of God, as defined in our first definition above. But on the other hand, viewing ourselves in this light tends to make us overlook that we are merely men, and that our local congregation or fellowship5 is normally tainted by the faults and idiosyncrasies of the people who are part of it, or who established it.
The epistles to the Corinthians vividly portray what can happen to a local congregation or fellow-ship that loses sight of the City of God. We need to constantly realize that we are merely men and that our congregations are made up of men – fallible men at that. We need to be careful to compare our-selves with the New Testament definition of the City of God, rather than emphasizing the definitions of men. Those who confuse these definitions and place too much emphasis on the glory of the local church rather than the glory of the City of God may find themselves drifting like a ship with no anchor. They may find that they are actually glorifying a city of men rather than the City of God.
Those who glorify the cities of men tend to become exclusive. They often put artificial barriers in place between themselves and those who differ in their interpretations. On the other hand, the City of God is much more inclusive than we often realize. We will probably be astounded at who we all meet in heaven. (I fear at times that we will also be astounded at who is missing there.) The City of God is God’s prerogative, and He decides who is part of it and who isn’t. Only those who are part of the City of God will get to heaven. (Study 1 John for more insight on fellowship, and who we can fellowship with.)
Placing our first allegiance to Christ and the City of God, rather than one of the cities of men makes a difference in how we look at a number of things.
The City of God and Christ
The City of God exists to bring glory to Jesus. It exists because of Him. Therefore, when we start to honor men we steal glory from Christ. The devil loves to get our eyes off Jesus and onto men. These men may be powerful leaders, using their personal abilities and authority to direct their little segment of the City of God. Or they may be influential groups of men. It makes little difference – once men are the focal point, Jesus is no longer glorified, and we are in danger of becoming a city of men rather than being part of the City of God.
Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, one of the most famous of the cities of men. Tears streaming down His face, He looked out over the city from the Mount of Olives and pronounced its doom. Later, He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, …how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you de-solate” (Mat 23:37-38). If we aren’t careful, our earthly organizations will become like Jerusalem – a city of men, rather than part of the City of God.
What about brotherhood?
The ideas I am giving here are not antagonistic to the concept of a local brotherhood. The Bible clearly teaches the importance of being part of a local brotherhood of believers. It also teaches that the local church needs order. The brotherhood and leadership working together are responsible to establish and maintain this order. If we want to be part of the City of God, we will not ignore this.
However, we dare not lose sight of the larger picture. Our local brotherhood is first and foremost part of the City of God, and we cannot allow our personal whims and likes and dislikes to overrule this.
When we get together to decide on issues, our first concern must be, “What Bible principle applies to this situation? What would Jesus say about what we are proposing to do, or disposing of?” If our local congregation loses sight of this, we will find ourselves fighting for the city of men rather than the City of God.
In fact we could say it this strongly. Unless our local brotherhood is a dedicated part of the City of God, it has no right to exist. And it will not exist for long, because Jesus is walking amongst us, and He will remove our candlesticks if we don’t take heed to His words. (Read Revelation 1 – 3 and see where your brotherhood fits.)
What About Authority?
I have just said that the Bible supports the importance of being part of a local brotherhood. The Bible also states that local brotherhoods must have leaders. It also tells us to respect and obey those leaders (see Hebrews 13:17). But men in positions of leadership face tremendous temptations. When they start to lead by the strength of personal ability and authority, they lose their place in God’s plan. God sets up leaders, but they are leaders under Him. Personal authority does not exist in the City of God. Only God’s authority means anything there.
God delegates men to lead out in His work. But these men can only be useful if they realize that they are part of the City of God, not leaders in a city of men. Jesus knew how quickly this concept could be lost. He warned His disciples in Matthew 20:25 – 28 that the City of God was not to be run by the me-thods used in the cities of men. Leaders were to be servants (literally slaves) of the City of God, not princes in a city of men. If they lost sight of that, they would fall under the condemnation of God.
Peter remembered this concern at the end of his life. He reworded it somewhat, telling his fellow leaders to “Feed the flock of God which is among you, … [not] as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3). The NIV states this even more clearly: “Be shepherds of God’s flock… not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
In the End…
The City of God is an eternal city. It will never be destroyed. Someday it will be part of the new heaven and the new earth. But the cities of men will vanish, never to be seen or heard of again. So it is very important for us to be sure that we are part of the City of God.
Jesus gave John a vision of things to come. This vision is difficult to understand in many ways, but the picture of the City of God is clear, all the way through the book of Revelation. It clearly states that the City of God will consist of a large multitude of God’s children – so large that it is beyond the ability of man to number. This means that the City of God will be victorious.
So often we feel so little and downtrodden. But that is not true – we are not seeing the whole picture if we feel like this. If you are part of the City of God, your victory is certain. You will someday gather with your fellow saints around the throne of God and glorify Him. But you will only be part of this City if you, and the brotherhood you are part of, are glorifying Him today.
Don’t trade your place in the City for citizenship in an earthly city of men which will be forgotten in the first seconds of eternity!
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God” (Revelation 21:1 – 3).
Most of those who study Anabaptist history are struck with the zeal of early Anabaptism. People who were converted to Anabaptism changed almost overnight. They learned to read, they laid aside filthy habits, they stopped swearing, and they became zealous evangelists. Ordained or not, they preached the gospel wherever they went. They shared their goods with anyone who needed them worse than they did.
Another thing that strikes most students of Anabaptist history is how far we have drifted from what they stood for. Some of you reading this treatise may resist that, and perhaps in the ways that we often think of, we haven’t drifted that far. In some ways we have probably even improved. But I’m not talking about our practice of nonconformity and our strong church structures. No, I’m talking about the inner heart of Anabaptism – the radical discipleship that turned the world upside down, and led thousands of people to become martyrs for Christ.
We don’t have martyrs today. One reason perhaps is that we live in a more benevolent setting. But a bigger reason is that we have lost the radical discipleship that marked early Anabaptism. Theologically, we are superior to them, probably. But as a result we have become dogmatic about our interpretations of prophecy and Biblical principles. We cannot handle anyone who thinks outside the box we have set up for ourselves. When it comes to spontaneous spirituality, we are paupers.
This has even flavored our Bible reading. The early Anabaptists, on the other hand, read the Bible to find Christ. They were too busy following Christ—evangelizing the world and dying for Him—to spend much time with the nuances of theology. Today, we preach sermons and write articles and books about discipleship. We talk about it in Sunday school. The Anabaptists simply went out and put it to practice. And thousands were saved.
We wonder why God doesn’t prosper our witness in our communities. Why would He? We have lost what it takes.
Where Did It Go? And When? And Why?
When we talk about apostasy, we mostly think about clothing. Furthermore, we only go back about fifty years. Our forefathers left the drifting Mennonite conference system in 1960, and our memory of that is so fresh we tend to think everything hinges on this.
However, I’m sure the Mennonite church lost the inner heart of Anabaptism long before the 1950’s. The men who started the conservative Mennonite movements had a good goal in mind, and a genuine concern for truth. But they were too shortsighted. They thought that if they could regain the standard of practice from half a century earlier, they would be returning to a standard of truth. But the inspiration of Anabaptism had vanished long before that.
Once in a while we hear about the changes made in the Mennonite church at Garden City, Missouri, in 1921. Or we read in awe of John S. Coffman and A. D. Wenger and their revival successes in the 1890’s. These efforts did a lot of good, but they didn’t come close to returning the Mennonite church to the true genius of Anabaptism. Nor did the Hoch and Oberholtzer divisions in the mid 1800’s.
The fact is, the Mennonite church was basically a fallen church when it arrived in North America. I am not saying that none of the Mennonite pioneers were Christians. But the inspiration that had made Anabaptism such a powerful force was lost before the Mennonite Church left Europe. Years before, in fact.
The Anabaptists were obsessed with following Jesus. They lived to be like Him. Even when they read their Bibles, they read them to learn more about Jesus. They interpreted everything they read in light of Jesus’ teachings and His personal example. Because of this they rejected any interpretation of the Scriptures that seemed to run counter to these.1 After all, Jesus was the living Word of God. The written Word had to agree with Him, or it made no sense.
This led another one of the driving forces behind Anabaptism — evangelism. Jesus’ final challenge to His disciples was to teach the whole world to follow Him. Whether that meant helping the neighbor next door, or visiting a seeking soul a month’s journey distant, the Anabaptists, took up the challenge Jesus had left them. (They were, as I said earlier, radical disciples.) It is true that in the process, they did some things that we would call improper. But the Spirit of God walked with those men, even with those that we are almost embarrassed to call Anabaptists. Some of them were individualists. Some were chiliastic in their teaching. Some had other weaknesses. But God used them and people found Christ by the hundreds and thousands. And these converts went out in turn and emulated those who had led them to truth.
It is true that many of these converted peasants could not have won a theological argument. But they didn’t worry about that. They just followed Christ, read their Bibles, and taught everyone who would listen what God led them to. And more were saved under their teaching.
But the devil worked desperately to stop up the fountain of living waters. And he finally succeeded.
What Did He Do?
First of all the devil used persecution—horrible persecution.2 Read the account of Michael Sattler, for instance. When they took him to be executed, they cut out his tongue. They forged him fast to a cart with red hot shackles. Five times on his way to be executed they tore flesh from his body with red hot pliers. They tied him to a stake, and burned him to death.3 And he was only one of thousands who paid the ultimate price for their faith.
For a while these scenes brought more into the fold. But gradually the pressures started to choke out the inner heart of Anabaptism. The evangelism grew less important as the Anabaptists fled into the mountains with their families, hoping to find a place of safety where they could raise their families in peace. Gradually the devil started to smile again. He was winning. By the time the Mennonites arrived in North America they pretty well lost their fathers’ zeal. The inspiration of early Anabaptism pretty well received its death blow when the Mennonites received their free farms and discovered that the Quaker Pennsylvania government considered them model citizens, rather than the off-scouring of the land.
Oh, they kept their form and that made them feel good. They were still conservatives. They conserved a Biblical life style and theology and that made them fell good. But the genius was gone. That was at the root of many of the problems in the church later on.
The second trick the devil used was more complex. He crowded out Christ by interesting the Church in theology.
Now the devil hates it with a passion when people read their Bibles because they want to know more about God (that’s what the word theology is actually supposed to mean). When people read the Bible honestly, from a heart full of adoration for Christ, wonderful things happen. The early Anabaptists read in their Bibles that they should go and preach the gospel to the entire world, so they did that. They read that they were not to resist evil, so they refused to carry swords. They read that where two or three gathered together, God would be with them, so they did that whenever and wherever they could. And they prospered as long as they read their Bibles like this.
Now the devil knew that he would never be able to stop them from reading their Bibles, so he diverted their attention. He persuaded them to argue about the meanings of what they read. For instance, when they read about baptism, he diverted their attention away from what it represented and got them arguing about the mode of baptism. (The first time a congregation divided because of this, I’m sure he danced with glee!)
There were many other teachings in the Bible that could be diffused this way, and the devil became a master theologian overnight (apparently). He soon found dozens of ways to divide brethren from brethren, and he is still doing this.
The Dutch Anabaptists were more legalistic than the Swiss Brethren, and the devil used this weakness to splinter their congregations into many segments, each holding firmly to their particular interpretation of some “important” teaching that no one else understood properly.
This weakness followed the Mennonite church to North America. Even here in the new “promised land” Mennonites went to Mennonite churches and Amish went to Amish churches. And by now there are old order and new order, conservative and liberal, eastern and western, southwestern and northwestern fellowships of each.
The third trick was more subtle, but just as real. The devil tricked the descendants of the Anabaptists to worship the church rather than Christ. Now it is true that the Bible teaches the importance of the church, and that we ignore those scriptures at our peril. But somewhere along the line, the Mennonites started to place more emphasis on the church than on Christ. Members worried more about pleasing the church than about pleasing Christ. When they reached this point, it was easy for the devil to quench most of the spontaneous zeal that threatened to break out periodically.4
What Can We Do About It?
So much for what happened. I think you can follow what I’m saying. But what can we do about it? How can we get back to our foundation? Not just to our Anabaptist roots, good as they were, but to the foundation found in the Bible.
First, we must lay aside our theology and find Jesus again. If we read our Bibles to find Jesus, rather than to justify man-made systems of thought, we will find ourselves becoming more like Him. We will return to the radical discipleship portrayed by the book of Acts. We must somehow get back to the place that conversion really converts people. And that conversion has to mean so much to us and our children that we are willing to be the off scouring of the earth, to be made a gazing stock, and to DIE for Christ. How can you live for Christ if you are not willing to DIE for Him?
Nothing less than radical discipleship can fill the bill.
And secondly, we must stop playing Bible theology games. God didn’t consider the mode of baptism important enough to make it clear in the Bible which mode is right. So let’s stop dividing churches and creating fellowship lines over it. The Bible hasn’t made it clear what pattern of dress or covering style is best for Christians, so why do we fight over it?
The Bible has made many things very clear, but our arguments have muddied the waters so much that we often don’t notice those. The Bible hasn’t given us a pattern of dress, like I said. But it has given us teaching on dress. We are not to dress in costly clothing, or immodest clothing. The Bible hasn’t designated a covering style for our sisters, but it has said that they should be covered. The Bible hasn’t designated a mode of baptism, but it has made it clear to us that baptism is to be the answer of a good conscience toward God.
We need to get back to the place where we pay attention to such requirements. We are weak in all of these areas, along with dozens more.
Let’s pray for a genuine revival in our times. But let’s remember the implications of that statement. Revival always brings new power to God’s people. However, it also brings persecution and misunderstanding. If you are not ready to be thought a fool for Christ, even by those who claim to be His people, don’t pray for revival. If you are not ready to be a pauper for Christ, don’t pray for revival. If you are not ready to DIE for Him, don’t pray for revival. Because along with the power that revival brings, there is always blood, sweat, and tears.
If you are like me, these things scare you. But maybe we should take first things first. First pray for revival, and expect God to answer your prayers. Trust Him for power and grace to face the repercussions.
“Lord send a revival, and let it begin in me,” the song writer said. Are you ready to pray that with him?