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?
For more Anabaptist / Mennonite resources
go to: www.anabaptistfaith.com