My own realization of what was transpiring within the church came when the leaders whom we had trusted to be men of integrity tried to place several of us under church discipline. We discovered that they had been dealing falsely in trying to cover up the deeds of an individual who was harassing some single ladies. Because of ties they had with the offender, his conduct posed an embarrassment to them. The response to those of us who confronted them over the issue was to try to force us with church discipline to sign a document stating that they had done no wrong. We refused to comply and the religious world which I knew crumbled as rubble to the ground.
While the experience was devastating, God used it to awaken me from my spiritual complacency. He rightfully desired my heart to be focused upon Himself, not on a religious institution. Over the next years of my life He graciously revealed Himself to be a Father to me through my daily walk as I sought His continual counsel. Gradually I realized by personal experience what the Scripture meant by saying God “adopted us as sons”. This was a vastly different experience from living a life that was based on “submitting to the rules of a ‘Scriptural’ brotherhood”. The loving intimacy which God desires to have with His children is still hard for me to fathom today. Salvation and the new birth bring us back into the family of God – the true church is made up of His redeemed sons and daughters.
Immediately after my disillusionment I began doing what I had never done before – take an objective look at the teachings of the Conservative Mennonite church. By studying the writings of the Anabaptists as presented in the “Martyr’s Mirror” I soon discovered the vast discrepancy between CM beliefs from that of our spiritual forefathers. The CM church taught that Matt. 16:18, “whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven”, gave the church the responsibility to make rules that were as binding as Scripture upon its members. I remember reading an article in the “Christian Contender” which suggested that the disciplinary action of the church in excommunication was recognized in Heaven. Subsequently, the individual was cut off from God! Both Anabaptists and Protestants vehemently opposed such applications of these passages. Those who had discovered a living, personal faith in Christ rejected such abuses practiced by the Roman Catholic church. I suspect that this was an interpretation exclusive to the CM breakaway.
Such theology has resulted in dire consequences. I, and many others, can testify to spiritual abuse at the hands of leaders who, behind closed doors, attempted to force individuals into submission whom they saw as a threat to their control over the church. Any questioning of leaders’ opinions received a harsh rebuff and likely discipline if members failed to meekly agree.
Another theological problem I encountered after I removed my CM spectacles was the teaching of Rom. 14. The apostle stresses the importance of respecting differences of opinion in matters not clearly spelled out in Scripture. I was unable to reconcile the CM teaching of uniformity in practice with these Biblical passages. When the New Testament speaks of unity, it is usually referred to as the unity of the Spirit, a result of being made of one mind by the indwelling Presence of God. Uniformity is a doctrine coined by Conservative Mennonites – it is not found in Scripture. The unity of the Spirit is not a legislated decree framed and enforced by a group of leaders.
I began to question a teaching which the church very strongly stressed. This was the “doctrine” of nonconformity to the world. Rom. 12:1 makes it clear that we are not to be conformed to the world. Yet to call this a doctrine is to me a misinterpretation of the verse. The doctrine which is being taught in Rom. 12:1 is the foundational teaching of regeneration, “rather be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds”. Non-conformity to the world is the automatic result of being made a new creation in Christ. When it is made an independent doctrine it simply becomes a counter-culture. This does nothing to enhance our standing with God and can only give us an illusion of being part of His kingdom.
At the same time as I experienced this oppressive rule within the church I was reading and hearing of the persecution of believers in authoritarian states. The similarity was uncanny. This is the mark of a cult – not the Church of Jesus Christ!
As I previously mentioned, new groups started as people groaned under the stress placed upon them. This brought some relief with a social and spiritual atmosphere that was more conducive to spiritual growth. Yet since the root problem was not completely recognized, the resulting groups primarily differed in their degree of “conservativeness”. Consequently, the same issues continued with different manifestations.
In the past decade a new scenario has emerged covering the entire spectrum of Conservative groups. A generation of young people have become disillusioned with the churches of their upbringing. They are asking hard questions but they are not receiving acceptable answers from their elders. Large numbers are leaving the Mennonite church in bitterness of spirit. Some are victims of serious moral crimes that have been committed against them by revered people within the institution. Seldom does the church recognize the graveness of the wrongs and properly investigate or address the issues. Instead, the victims are ostracized, disbelieved and even persecuted for the disclosing of their experiences.
Among these disillusioned people are many sincere believers who are looking for a godly environment in which to live and raise their families. In their quest for truth and spiritual reality there is some migration of individuals and families between various Anabaptist churches.
Here is where our congregation finds itself. Over recent years its numbers have multiplied by the coming of these searching people. This puts us at a crossroad in our history. Either we recognize the root problem in our denomination and address it or else we will just be a stepping stone for those leaving the Mennonite church. My purpose in writing this article is to bring clarity where there is confusion and to take us as a congregation to where God can be glorified and His sheep cared for.
The easy and tragically misguided route for us to take is to come to the conclusion that we only need to be a more moderate version of Conservative Anabaptist. Nothing could be further from the truth! The true church is the Kingdom of God, not a religious institution! Many times in history God has come down and touched His people with revival. Usually the spiritual awakenings span across denominations. This is the earmark that such times are from God: men and women become aware of their lost, sinful condition or else the lukewarmness of their hearts and fall before Him in sincere repentance. Lives are transformed. Spirituality is renewed in churches and evangelism flourishes.
How do these Divine visitations take place? Almost invariably, God first moves in the hearts of a few to see the disparaging condition of the church and respond in fervent, intercessory prayer. In His own time and way, God responds by pouring His blessing upon His people. Never is revival the result of men “figuring out how to do church” just right!
This is where we begin. The church is God’s work and we need to get on board with Him! Our attempts to create the “perfect Scriptural church” by our own devices has fallen flat on its face. It is urgent to recognize the reality of where we are. Instead of holding endless meetings about how “to do church,” let us fall before God in repentance remaining there until His Power and Presence are an undeniable reality. Only then can we properly interpret the Bible, know the Mind of God in regards to the times in which we live and experience true unity. The Holy Spirit’s Presence was an unmistakable reality in the early church. Nothing in the Bible remotely suggests this was to change. Our model of church is based on familiar Mennonite tradition – not on the Book of Acts! This sacred record is the pattern of a “Scriptural” church!
A question asked by today’s younger generation is, “Why do we not see the gifts of the Spirit today?” While we have not made this our official position, I have observed that we are cessationist in our beliefs. In other words, we consider the supernatural manifestations of the Spirit as limited to a specific time in history in the transition from the Old to the New Covenant. For several reasons I cannot accept this interpretation of Scripture. From Genesis to Revelation we read about a God Who not only communicated directly with His people but repeatedly manifested His Power and Being by performing miraculous deeds through His servants. In this way He provided a witness of Himself both to believers and unbelievers. Thus the godly were reminded of God’s love and care while the ungodly were made aware of His Supremacy and Power. Nothing in Scripture faintly suggests that God would no longer reveal Himself in this way today. In my mind, cessationism is but a lame excuse for our lack of connection with God.
The fact that we make such a big issue of 1 Cor:11 regarding uncut hair and the head covering for women and then proceed to rationalize the teaching of the spiritual gifts in the proceeding chapter by saying that they are not for today is confusing to young people. The former can be done by mere human effort; the latter are imparted exclusively by God. This is a grim reflection on our standing with God – if we were wise we would be asking the same questions as our youth!
The only defense against error is to possess the truth. Because of our spiritual deficiencies we have made our youth very vulnerable to counterfeits of the truth. Spiritual counterfeits are around us without number. The only way to recognize them is to have the God-given gift of the discerning of spirits. Human logic and Bible knowledge alone cannot recognize Satan’s clever disguises.
I would not speak so boldly on the subject had not I, as well as others, experienced some of the promised gifts, including the one just mentioned. The gifts were not given at our request – they were imparted unexpectedly as we pursued God. They were not given to draw attention to ourselves – rather for the guidance, safety and protection of ourselves and others.
According to Scripture the gifts are for the building up of the church. How can God’s Kingdom be built if we only depend upon our natural gifts? If the continuation of the church is reliant on our own intellect and abilities is it not merely an institution of man? This has been the bane of the Conservative Mennonite church – God has been left out and we are trying to do the work of the Kingdom using our own faculties.
As a congregation where do we go from here? The first and only place to begin is to recognize our error. This we need to humbly acknowledge before God in repentance. From there we need to learn to be a people of prayer who expectantly wait upon God for direction before we make decisions based upon our own understanding. It is important to examine Scripture to discover the true essence of the Gospel and establish our faith in light of New Testament teaching, separating truth from tradition. Our error has been to replace God with a system of our own making and it is imperative to humble ourselves as little children and learn from Him. The New Testament is the pattern for the Church in every age. Only when we realize the intimacy with God known by the early church can we bring the glory to Him for which we are created.
David Jantzi Written, July 24, 2020