I don’t think we realize how much influence that Fundamentalism has had on Conservative Mennonites. If you look at the older confessions of faith, you will see that all of them start out with a statement about God. Ever since 1920, however, most of our confessions of faith have started with a statement about the Bible. Here’s how that strikes me…
The older Anabaptist approach was to emphasize our relationship with God. The fundamentalists changed this – they emphasized the Bible instead, using it like a formula for spiritual success. If you think about this for a little, I think you will see that this makes for some subtle differences.
The Anabaptists didn’t belittle the scriptures. But they viewed them as one way, along with others, that God used to speak to people. They read the Bible because of a consuming desire to understand the mind of Christ rather to find a formula for pleasing God. To them a relationship with Christ was everything, and they read the Bible to understand Christ better.
The fundamentalists changed that. They held their relationship with the Bible above their relationship with Christ. In many cases this led to people having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof.
Conservative Mennonites have adopted this approach but taken it to another level. They build a layer of church “standards” and rules on top of the Bible. That tends to remove them another step from Christ, because often the typical member is more worried about pleasing other members than he is about pleasing Christ.
We tend to take the fundamentalist approach by default (after all, it sounds so good). We start with Guidelines, as a way to shore up what the Bible says and make sure that we aren’t disobeying any of its principles. We assume that this is because we want to glorify Christ. But in reality, we don’t spend a lot of time in glorifying Christ. Instead we try to put together a formula that will do it for us.
I think we should reverse our priorities rather than taking the Fundamentalist approach. We need to come to Christ first and emphasize building a relationship with Him. To maintain this, and strengthen it, we will read the Bible to learn more about the mind of Christ. As we do this our relationship with Him will prompt us to follow His direction.
This approach will also lead us to brotherhood with other Christians. Together, we will try to weed out the things in our lives that would destroy our relationship with Christ. This will probably mean that we will draw up some interpretations and guidelines. But somehow, I still feel that if we get the first two in place the latter won’t be needed nearly as much.
I know that isn’t very popular thinking among conservatives. Depending on your background, it probably sounds rather dangerous to you. But give it some serious thought before you just brush it aside….
It was a beautiful summer day in 1692 in rural Switzerland. The little house in the trees overlooked some of the world’s most beautiful scenery—yellow fields of ripening grain, bordered by green forests reaching far up the slopes of the towering, snow capped Swiss Alps. In fact, to an onlooker, the whole picture was an eye-catching panorama of beauty and tranquility. But the meeting taking place inside the house reflected little of the serenity of its natural setting. Inside the house, grim looking men sat on hard chairs placed in a circle around the walls of a plain parlor. The meeting, apparently, had not been a pleasant one. They didn’t know it, but the aftermath of that day’s discussion would impact the lives of thousands of people over the next centuries. In fact, only eternity will reveal how many people in the past 300 years have been lost because of what came out of that meeting. It shouldn’t have turned out that way. You see, these men were ministers—leaders of Anabaptist congregations gathered in common concern for their people. The meeting had been intended to be about the apostasy and drift of the Swiss churches, but the focus had become authority. Since this scenario has been replayed dozens of times in the intervening years, we want to examine this meeting and its context a little closer.
All eyes were on the austere man who earnestly addressed the group. Everyone present knew that the small group of visitors he represented had a genuine concern. Things were not quite as they should have been in the Swiss churches, and they all knew it. Most of the men present would have liked to do something about it. However, they had a problem.
First of all, the bishop addressing them was a visitor, with no authority in the local setting. He had not been invited, but had come on his own accord to share his concerns. Secondly, the local bishop had refused to come to the meeting, which had been called by the visitors. Perhaps, he resented the intrusion into his territory. Perhaps, he didn’t fully agree with their concerns and this was the easiest way to avoid a conflict. Or, perhaps he was just too busy with his farm work to come to the meeting—at least this was what he told the messenger they sent to beg him to join them. This was one reason for the grim looks on everyone’s face. The visiting bishop insisted that the group needed to take disciplinary action against the local bishop for refusing to come to the meeting. Apparently he had anticipated that this would happen because he pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket, on which he had written an indictment of excommunication against his fellow bishop. This alone would have caused the grim faces, but the visitor didn’t stop there. He went around the circle of leaders and asked them one by one whether they supported his action. Undoubtedly many of the men faced with this ultimatum wished they had done as their bishop had, and stayed home to harvest their fields. But the visitor was inexorable in his purpose. He would break down the rebellion in these Swiss congregations and he would start at the very top. This was a no-holds-barred battle. If any leader refused to support the action, or even if he just asked for more time to consider it, the visitor excommunicated him on the spot. Naturally the room pulsated with tension and consternation, but one man was brave enough to raise the real issue. “I can’t make this decision,” he said. “I have to bring this to my congregation.” You’re a liar,” sneered the visitor. And he excommunicated him on the spot.
The visitor was not satisfied with this. He called for every member of every congregation in that part of Switzerland to meet with him and give assent to the action taken. Any who refused or did not agree with him were summarily dealt with.
All in the name of Christ, who had given the visitor both the authority and the duty to deal with sin in the Church.
The question at the heart of the above scenario was not sin in the church. It had nothing to do with apostasy and drift in the church. Rather the question was one of authority. The visiting bishop was the final authority in his group of congregations. He had the right to handle such situations according to his personal inclination, since he was God’s representative on earth. It is possible that he didn’t know that the Swiss congregations did not give this kind of authority to their leaders. The minister who spoke up and said he needed to take the issue to his congregation was right, even though the visitor called him a liar (this is documented history). The Swiss congregations placed the final authority for such decisions in the hands of the congregation, not in the hands of a bishop or group of ministers. According to the writings of the time, the minister who faced this dilemma actually sympathized with the concerns brought by the visitor, and would have gladly worked with him to bring about a solution. It is possible that his congregation would have agreed with him in this situation. This, of course, is an extreme illustration. But the question has been debated ever since by Anabaptists. Who is the final authority in church life? Is it the bishop? Is it a group of bishops? Is it a local bishop, along with the ministers? Or is it the entire local body of believers, the local body of Christ? Most conservative groups would be quick to tell you that God is the authority in their congregations. Then they would add that the Bible is final authority because it is God’s revelation. Probably they would also add that the Holy Spirit is part of this because He interprets the Bible to us. Probably most would also say that they take questions to their congregations to discuss. But finally the question still exists: When it all comes down to deciding what God wants in a given situation, and there is no direct Biblical precedent, who decides? Where is the authority vested?[i]
It is true that we are more interested in being Biblical than we are in results, since bad results are not always the result of bad choices. Yet, in the long run, results do tell us something. And we have some very good prototypes to look at in church history when we think about the subject of authority in the church.
The Dutch Anabaptists were very similar to the illustration above. For instance, it is said that most Dutch Mennonites of the 16th and 17th centuries were excommunicated three or four times in their lifetime, generally through no fault of their own. Leaders had the habit of excommunicating entire neighboring congregations when disagreements arose. Menno Simons tended to be less harsh in his leadership than some, but his fellow bishops, Leonard Boewens and Dirk Philips, were very stringent in their use (and abuse) of excommunication. They ended up locking horns themselves, and Leonard silenced Dirk. When Leonard died, Menno Simons reinstated Dirk. Due for the most part to such leadership tendencies, the Dutch church splintered into various groups. Most of these divisions were caused by disagreements about unimportant interpretations of various biblical principles. The deep hurts caused by them led to years of bitterness in the church experience of many innocent people. Eventually, in spite of all the strong leaders who stood strong to the end on their personal beliefs, almost all of the Dutch churches fell into apostasy. In fact they fell away much quicker than their neighbors, the Swiss Brethren. Most of the remnant groups that laid the foundations for the American Mennonite churches came from the Swiss Brethren congregations which we mentioned earlier. These congregations faced bitter persecution for years, and eventually died out as well. But they laid the groundwork for many remnant congregations. They did this in spite of their lack of strong administrative authority and discipline, such as the Dutch practiced. They did this in spite of their lack of church districts and conference structure, which were also very important to the Dutch. They did this in spite of their belief that the entire congregation was part of the administrative authority in the church, which the Dutch did not practice. We are often told that strong leadership authority and strong church structure, as practiced by the Dutch churches, is the only hope for the survival of our churches. According to this, the Swiss should have apostatized much sooner than the Dutch. Yet when you look at history, you see the opposite.[ii]
What Place Does Authority Have?
The intent of this article is to speak against the wrong use of authority, not to denigrate all authority. The Bible is clear that God’s people need leaders, and that they must lead in order to perform their duty. But it is very easy for leaders to become powerful and lose their way. That is my concern.
God’s people are the church. And even the leaders of God’s people ignore the church at their own peril. It is true that a godly leader should obey God in all things. But if He finds himself standing alone on issue after issue, then something has gone sadly amiss. Any group kept from drifting by sheer authority has already lost its way. In fact, I would suggest that probably it would be better for a leader to temporarily allow some things in his congregation that he is not happy with, and retain the congregation’s cooperation than to become a dictator. This will give him time to share his concerns, to teach them, and to help the congregation regain conviction. As a dictator he may temporarily win the battle, but he will do so at loss of his spiritual respect. In general, a well taught congregation that respects its leaders will honor the convictions of its leaders. If it doesn’t the leader should probably check his own heart. The problem may well start there. If he lays open his own heart to his brethren, and asks for their help in dealing first with his own problems, and then with the group’s problems, things will begin to happen.
[i]This is not the complete story, as one reviewer told me. The point of this article is not to evaluate the Amish division. Rather, I have simply used this as an illustration of the wrong use of authority. The Amish, including Jacob Amman (the bishop above) later admitted this in writing, in a letter of apology.
[ii]As someone noted when reading this manuscript, this could be an oversimplification. The German / Russian Mennonite groups had Dutch background. But they basically kept their form rather than their spirituality. The Hutterites survived longer, but it was their emphasis on brotherhood and evangelism, rather than an authority emphasis, that was at the root of their survival. The Swiss Mennonites and a few Amish groups were basically the only groups who survived into the 20th century as spiritual groups.
Ant Hill Kids, People’s Temple, and Conservative Mennonites
I never met Jim Jones, but I remember his story very clearly. My wife and I were barely back from our honeymoon in 1978 when he forced hundreds of faithful People’s Temple followers to commit suicide by drinking Kool-Aid laced with cyanide. Soldiers from the US armed forces cleaned up the mess and found his body with the rest. He had promised his followers that they would regroup in the next world, where unfriendly governments would not hinder them.
More recently, Roch Theriault, the former doomsday leader of the “Ant Hill Kids” cult in Ontario was murdered in his prison cell – a fitting end to a life that left many innocent people scarred for life.
Perhaps one can hardly call adult followers of Jim Jones and Roch Theriault innocent, but the children they took with them in their deception certainly were. We would hardly want to describe on paper the immoral life style that these two men forced on their followers. Both of them are now in the hands of God, who will judge them with a righteous judgment.
Why do people join cults?
Cults appeal to people who are looking for security. Since cults do the thinking for their members, it means that they do not have to make choices for themselves. Most cults believe that obedience and submission are the doors to eternal life. They do not want members thinking for themselves: obedience is a virtue, but analysis is not. This process appeals to insecure people who are trying to please God. It relieves them of responsibility.
Some people believe the cult’s teaching, and join because they agree with them. Others join because they can be part of something important, or because the cult will meet their financial needs in return for their submission. Some join because of the charisma of a revered leader in the cult. And finally, some join because they have been deceived.
Why do people stay in cults?
Some people actually believe what the cult is teaching. They are dedicated members, passing out the cult propaganda to “unbelievers” and trying to convert them. These are the people who tend to become leaders and teachers within the group. They would not consider leaving for the same reason that Theriault’s wives kept visiting him in prison – they believed in their messiah and would not forsake him.
Many people stay within the cult because that is the easiest thing for them to do. This is one reason that cults keep their people isolated. The cult is the only thing they are familiar with. Other environments are uncomfortable; it is easier to simply stick with what they know. After all, even if they don’t care for their environment, the unfamiliar one might be even worse. So why take a chance?
Even cult members who no longer agree with the teachings of their cult will often stick around because they are afraid that maybe they will be lost if they leave. They have been taught for years that their salvation depends on being part of the cult, and while they don’t really think that this is true, they can’t make themselves take the chance.
There are many ways to keep people from defecting besides using force. And most cults are experts at using emotional pressures such as guilt and humiliation to keep people under control. Even people who finally break free often suffer emotionally for years afterwards.
What are the characteristics of a cult?
Scholars have identified four basic characteristics of a cult, all of which have to do with personal control.
1. Behavior control, i.e monitoring of where members go and what they do.
2.Information control, such as discouraging members from reading criticism of the group, or other information which would place the authority of the group at risk.
3.Thought control, placing sharp limits on doctrinal questioning. This, along with the second one, controls members by controlling their minds and keeping them from doubting or resisting the teaching of the group.
4. Emotional control—using humiliation or guilt to keep members from rebelling against the cult leaders or the control of the group.
Along with these, you will find that most cults control the finances of their people, and almost all have an extreme and dictatorial leadership. (Often the cult is centered around the charisma of a particularly appealing leader.) And finally, cults tend to be secretive, restricting outside knowledge of what goes on within the group. As part of this process, they make it very difficult for members to leave the group.
Most cults would defend these controls as being for the good of their people. Almost all believe that the eternal salvation of their people depends on their support of the group and its controls.
What can we learn from this?
I am not trying to insinuate that Conservative Mennonites are a cult, or that we fall into the same slot as the People’s Temple or the Ant Hill Kids. However, structured, leadership oriented groups can slide into a cult-like rut if they aren’t careful.
For instance, our churches are bishop controlled. We believe in regulating behavior and appearance. We discourage our members, or even forbid them, to access certain types of news media. We warn against reading books that we feel would turn people against our way of life. Many of our leaders feel threatened if people ask questions about why we do what we do. And many conservative churches feel they have the right to forbid someone to move to another church setting, if they don’t agree with it in some (often minor) way. People who don’t submit without complaint in these areas are excommunicated or treated as if they were.
In many of these points we are simply trying to protect our people from worldly influences. But it is a fine line between asking our people to refrain from doing what would harm them and forbidding them to do it because the action would offend the authority of a leader.
Our churches do practice the four basic controls listed above, to some degree. We don’t apologize for giving guidelines to our people. Some books are wrong to read; some places are wrong to visit; and submission is necessary for everyone at times. But the other point, emotional control, can become a trap for us if we aren’t careful. Talented preachers can easily play on the emotions of their audience. This approach seldom builds solid convictions. In fact it can destroy people with over-sensitive consciences, and in the long run often hardens those who have under-sensitive consciences.
No, our churches aren’t cults. But let’s be sure that we do what we do because it is Biblical, not because we are slipping into a structure based system built on the authority of men.
The devil loves nothing better than to take a temple of God and turn it into a People’s Temple.
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.