In the middle of the twentieth century the General Conference Mennonite church experienced a major upheaval by the influence of modernism. Foundational Christian doctrines which had been accepted by believers throughout the centuries were brought into question. Along with this came a widespread rejection of teachings such as non-resistance, participation in politics, distinctive attire and uncut hair along with the veiling for women. These observances had been practiced more by Anabaptist Christians. This trend which involved the more evangelical element of the church resulted in a reactive movement which labeled themselves as Conservative Mennonites. I became part of the group as a teenager along with the rest of my family a few years after its beginning. Looking back in retrospect gives me the opportunity to trace the sect’s history and its evolution of thought up to the present day.
Initially it was a feast for our family to receive Bible teaching after the spiritual famine in which we grew up. To learn the inter-relationship of the Biblical books, chronological time frames, Christian doctrine, histories, etc. was invaluable for a young Christian like me. An excellent foundation was laid to gain a comprehensive understanding of the Bible to build upon for future personal study.
However, in my immaturity and naivete, I failed to see some serious things taking place within this new sub-denomination of which I was a part. Later, looking back from the perspective of a more mature believer, I realize that early in the movement there was a departure from the gospel of the Bible. The movement began a reaction against certain trends that were threatening the Mennonite church and unfortunately it continued as a reaction. The focus was primarily on the enemy on the outside – liberal theology, discarding of former practices of the Mennonite church, etc. Soon the idea was embraced that if a strict code of practice was enforced the church could be kept from falling into apostasy. The list of forbidden things became more and more detailed to supposedly keep the “world” out of the church…but the enemy was working from within. Had there been a prophet to warn about what was happening, he quickly would have found himself under censure for insubordination to the church’s authority. Leaders were granted power to silence any dissenting voice; pastors were becoming harsh rulers rather than shepherds.
The Scriptures tell us that the Gospel is the power of God to everyone who believes. The book of Romans goes on to explain that the righteousness acceptable to God is only that which He has imparted to those who believe in the work accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection. Furthermore it tells us that the law was given to make one conscious of sin and that none can obtain righteousness by attempting to keep its decrees. It is made clear that the power to live a holy life is a result of a work of God, making us new creatures in Christ. His Spirit within us frees us from the bondage of sin which once enslaved us enabling us to live a holy life bringing glory to Him.
When we replace the “power of God unto salvation” with something man-made, we are left with just that – something man-made. The power of God is no longer present. Thus was the course of the movement. A religious system was created, formed within the minds of controlling leaders. People began to resist the jurisdiction over their lives that leadership was exercising. Soon it divided into multiple splits as they attempted to escape the oppressive atmosphere in which they found themselves.
Something else very disturbing was taking place, even at the onset of the movement. Immorality, often at leadership levels, was taking place altogether too frequently. When it was discovered there was a serious lack of transparency in dealing with it. Only recently is some of the truth coming out about the widespread sexual abuse that took place within the church and how those in upper echelons of power helped to keep it hidden. If victims became verbal or if someone took up their case either of them could become the object of church discipline. It is not uncommon for the groups who make the most stringent rules, attempting to “legislate” holiness, to be hiding the vilest practices within their ranks.
What does this confirm? The Gospel is the power of God to all who believe. Salvation is a work of the Spirit that changes the desires of the heart. Holiness is the result of the indwelling Presence of God empowering us to please Him. When man perverts the Gospel and presents “another gospel” there is no other possible course but failure. This was the message of the Apostle to the churches and it applies to us today!
To be continued…