Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: Anabaptism

THE NEW COMMANDMENT

 

Judas had now left the room, and Jesus was now free to address those who remained as His genuine disciples.  And He begins by addressing them as “little children” (John 13:33: NKJV).  This is significant because it tells us how He saw His relationship with His disciples and, by extension, us.  On the one hand we are “little children” – we are not His equals; there is a vast disparity between Him and us.  And so He is a kind of father-figure to us – strong and wise, and able to take care of us in our need.  And we, for our part, are finite and limited, and absolutely dependent on Him.

But “little children” is also a term of endearment.  We bear a special relationship with Him, and because of that He has a special, warm, personal love for us.  It is reminiscent of the description of a father’s love found in Psalm 103:13,14:

“As a father pities his children

So the Lord pities those who fear Him.

For He knows our frame,

He remembers that we are dust.”

And so, as Jesus looks around the table at His remaining disciples, His genuinely committed disciples, and He reflects on what is about to happen to Him and where that will leave them, He is filled with compassion and concern over their well-being.

And so He continues: “Little children, I shall be with you a little while longer.  You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come,’ so now I way to you” (v. 33).  In other words, He was leaving, and was leaving them behind in the world.  They will seek Him, they will want to be with Him, but He will not be there.  And then He repeats to them what He had previously told the Jews: “Where I am going, you cannot come” (cf. Jn. 7:34; 8:21).  The disciples probably did not understand what He meant by this – it was an oblique reference to the fact that He was about to be crucified, resurrected from the dead, and the then ascended into heaven.  It was all a part of the special mission to which He was assigned by God the Father.  The disciples themselves would eventually be martyred, but not right away.  And that meant that there would be a length of time during which they would be separated from their Master.

The question then is, how were they to function in His absence?  And the first thing that He tells them is, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).  God has always required human beings to love each other.   Leviticus 19:18 in the Old Testament reads, in part, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and Jesus had previously said that this was the second greatest commandment (Matt. 22:39,40)  How then is it a “new commandment”?  This answer lies in the phrase “As I have loved you.”  What was new was Christ’s personal example – His willingness to die on the cross to save lost sinners – something that was unique and unprecedented in human history.  And Jesus says that this is the way we should love one another: “as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

This, in turn, is to be the distinguishing mark of the church: “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (v. 35).  It was this kind of brotherly love that sets Christians apart from the fallen world around them.  It is the kind of love that is possible only through the inward renewal by the Holy Spirit, transforming us inwardly and making us more like Christ.  And this is what should strike unbelievers when they look at the church – a fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters who genuinely love and actively care for one another.

This can only happen, of course, if the church is a believers’ church with a regenerate church membership.  On this point the 16th Century Anabaptists were absolutely right, and it is one of the so-called “Baptist distinctives.”  And so far have modern Baptist churches, and evangelical Bible-believing churches generally, strayed from the biblical ideal, that oftentimes outsiders can see little difference between the church and the world.  It is a sad commentary on the current state of affairs that James Baldwin, the prominent African-American writer and civil rights activist, could tell an NAACP gathering in 1973:

“I am obviously opposed to the Christian church.  It has a pretty

shameful record.  Let’s leave it at that.  But to be opposed to the

Christian church and to loathe its history is not to say that I hate

you or anybody else.  In fact, that’s my argument with the Christian

church: precisely that there is no love in it.”

(European Stars and Stripes, Feb. 27, 1973)

That an outsider could say such a thing about the church is an absolute scandal.  What a reproach on the name of Christ!

Part of the problem stems from the fact that many churches have weak views on conversion and regeneration, taking people into their membership who show little evidence of repentance or a changed life.  The problem then is often compounded by lax standards of church discipline.  The end result is that the church’s testimony in the community is ruined.

What the world needs to see is a fellowship of believers in close communion with God and a loving relationship with each other.  Only then can we manifest the life of Christ to the world.

JUST WAR? – I

 

In 1971, at the ripe old age of 21, I found myself serving in the U.S. Army in Viet Nam.  I was well aware that the war was controversial back home.  I was fortunate in that I saw very little actual combat while I was there (I was a field radio repairman, and happened to be in “Nam” during a lull in the war), but I had plenty of time to think about what would happen if combat did come my way.  Would I actually be able to pull the trigger and kill a fellow human being?  The answer to that question, in turn, would depend on the morality of war itself.  What did God think about the Viet Nam war?

I was poorly prepared to face such a huge moral dilemma.  I had been raised in a Christian home and had spent two years in Bible college.  Yet neither pastors nor professors had spent much time discussing the morality of war.  The sad fact of the matter is that most evangelical Protestant theologians in modern times have not done very well at explaining the elements of what constitutes a just war.

As we have already noted, the word in the Sixth Commandment translated “murder” (NKJV) signifies the taking of human life by a private individual.  But the Bible specifically mandates capital punishment for the crime of murder, as well as for a variety of other offenses.  Moreover the nation of Israel was directly ordered by God to go to war against the Canaanites, among others.

But then when we come to the New Testament we read such passages as these: “But I tell you not to resist an evil person.  But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. . . I say to you, lover your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you . . .” (Matt. 5:39; NKJV).  It was passages like these that led many Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation to espouse the doctrine of Non-Resistance.  Many of them held that a Christian could not serve in the military without violating the commandments of Christ.

One of the chief difficulties with this position is that the Bible represents the civil government as an institution ordained by God himself.  “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Rom. 13:1).  The passage even goes on to say that “he is God’s minister to you for good.  But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (v. 4).

Some Anabaptists tried to escape this difficulty by arguing that “The sword in ordained by God outside the perfection of Christ.”  As Christians we must follow the example of Christ, and He did not go to war (Schleitheim Confession, Article VI).  In one sense, the Anabaptists were certainly right.  Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a “Christian country” or a “Christian government,” if by that we mean a government that is based on Christian moral and ethical principles.  The various countries of the world are largely made up of lost sinners, and the governments they form are often founded on less than idealistic principles.  They exist to advance the interests of society, which are not always God’s interests.  And yet they are still “appointed by God” for the purpose of maintaining order in society.  Nevertheless a civil government is quite distinct from the Kingdom of Christ.  “You know that the Gentiles lord it over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be you servant . . .” (Matt. 20:25,26).

And yet the function of civil government itself is perfectly legitimate, as long as it is honest and administers justice fairly.  The mere fact that it punishes evildoers does not make it, ipso facto, evil.  In that sense it is merely imitating what God himself will do at the Last Judgment.

Part of the problem with the Anabaptist position is that it would involve God in a double standard.  It would have God condoning something in the Old Testament but condemning it in the New; ordaining something for civil magistrates but forbidding it for Christians.  But either it is morally right or it is morally wrong.  It cannot be both moral and immoral at the same time.

The answer, I think, is that a magistrate acting in his official capacity is not acting out of personal malice or a desire for personal revenge.  His desire is to see order maintained and justice established, and with it the peace and security of the entire community.  At the bottom of it he operates (we hope!) from a humanitarian impulse, and not from personal malice.  Under those circumstances a Christian should be able to serve in a civil government, and even its military.

 

Next week, Lord, willing, we will take a closer look at what makes a war just or unjust.

PAUL THE CALVINIST; PAUL THE ANABAPTIST

 

One of the great scandals of the modern church, at least in America, is the sectarian rivalries that divide it.  The church is divided into warring camps, each taking great pains to disavow the theology of the others.  Lutheranism, Anglicanism, the Reformed Faith, Anabaptism, Dispensationalism and Pentecostalism are all seen as distinct species of religion, with barely anything in common.  Even the variety of Restoriationist movements (Plymouth Brethren, Church of Christ) display an extreme sectarian mentality.

And so it is that advocates of “the Reformed Faith” and the “Anabaptist Heritage” often eye each other with the deepest suspicion.  The one is thoroughly Calvinistic in theology; the other just as thoroughly Arminian.  Could both groups possibly be reading the same Bible?

They might both be surprised at what the Bible actually says.  For example, when we look at the writings of Paul in particular and try to describe him in modern terms, we find that he was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist” at the same time.

john_calvin_by_holbein

John Calvin

Consider Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  In the first half of the epistle Paul characteristically discusses doctrine; in the second, practice.  The one flows from the other.  There is no such thing as theology without practical implications; and there is no such thing as a Christian lifestyle that is not rooted in a Christian worldview.  The two go hand-in-hand.  And in Paul’s case the theology is thoroughly “Calvinistic,” if we can impose such an anachronistic term on a first century apostle.  He begins in Chapter One, verses 3-14 with a breathtaking overview of the plan of redemption, ascribing everything to God’s grace.  He mentions election and predestination, and repeatedly stressed that salvation was “according to the good pleasure of His will” (vv. 5,9; NKJV), and “to the praise of the glory of His grace” (vv. 6,12,14).  He then prays that the Ephesian believers will come to understand the greatness of God’s power toward them (1:19,20).

In Chapter Two he goes on to describe human depravity (2:1-3) and salvation by grace through faith (2:8-10).  He then goes on in Chapter Three to ascribe all to God’s eternal plan, which Paul describes as a mystery which has now been revealed.  He finally concludes the doctrinal section of the book with a benediction (3:20,21) in which he exalts the power of God and gives all glory to Him.  Thus the first half of the epistle is a veritable wellspring of Reformed theology.

mennosimons

Menno Simons

But in the second half of the epistle one would have thought that Paul had changed denominations.  He describes the church as a community of believers united to each other by a spiritual bond (4:1-16).  This, in turn, requires a life lived in non-conformity to the world (4:17-24), and the practice of brotherly love (4:2,3; 4:29-5:2).  It is, in fact, a thoroughly Anabaptist view of the church and the Christian life.

Significantly Paul begins the practical section of the epistle with the word “therefore.” The word signifies that what follows is the logical conclusion to what went before.  This means that the Anabaptist ethics that Paul described in the second half of the book follows logically from the Calvinistic theology of the first half.  Paul sums up his argument in 4:1: “I, therefore . ..beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you have been called.”  The “calling” is the plan of redemption described in Chapters 1-3.  It is effectual calling, a calling which has the actual effect of drawing the sinner to Christ.  The gist of Paul’s argument is that the “calling” should result in the kind of changed life that he describes in Chapters 4-6.

And the one does logically flow from the other.  If the lost are totally depraved and in bondage to sin, and if the saved have been inwardly renewed by irresistible grace, the saved will live differently from the lost.  Salvation is a change which makes a real difference, and it is a change which results from something that God has done inside of us.  It is the result of God’s grace and power.

Paul was consistent with himself; his modern interpreters are not.  Today we tend to think of Calvinism and Anabaptism as two separate and distinct belief systems, mutually opposed to each other.  But this is largely because of the conflicts that arose during the Reformation.  But in the context of the First Century church they were not.  They are merely two different sides of the same New Testament Christianity.

The problem with Luther and Calvin is that, while they recovered the doctrine of justification by faith, they did so in the context of state churches.  What they could not see was that if we are justified by faith, then we must have faith in order to be saved.  Only believers are true Christians.  But if this is true then only a church which is made up of believers can function like a true Christian church.  The state cannot make someone a Christian; only the Holy Spirit can.  By trying to reform state churches Luther and Calvin missed the clear implications of their own theology.  On the doctrine of justification they were biblical and evangelical.  On their doctrine of the church they were medieval.

The problem with the Anabaptists is that they had a natural tendency to react against the magisterial Reformers who were persecuting them, and thus we have the divisions that are typical today.  But no such division existed in the First Century.  It was all one and the same Christianity.  Paul was both a “Calvinist” and an “Anabaptist”!

AN INCOMPLETE REFORMATION

Martin Luther

Martin Luther

 

Eph. 4:1-16 provides us with the biblical theory behind the church. The church is a mystical body, bound together by the shared presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works through spiritual gifts that are distributed throughout the body. The purpose of these gifts is “the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry” (v. 12; NKJV). The church is to grow thereby into a state of spiritual maturity, which, in turn, results in “the unity of the faith . . . and the knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13). Through it all the entire church draws its strength from its union with Christ, who is the Head. The result is that every part does its share, and “causes the growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (v. 16).

And yet we don’t often see the church today functioning that way. Why? The story is a long one, and it goes back close to the very beginning. As early as the Second Century we begin to see the emergence of what is sometimes called “Early Catholicism.” This was marked by two innovations: a monarchical episcopate and infant baptism.

In the New Testament the office of bishop and elder were considered the same – the two terms were used interchangeably (e.g., Tit. 1:5 & 7) – and the church was led by a board of elders or “presbytery” (I Tim. 4:14) chosen from within the congregation. But by the Second Century we begin to see the bishop emerging as the single, preeminent leader of the congregation, with the elders below him. Thus Ignatius of Antioch could write to the Church of Ephesus in 108 A.D., and urge them to “be joined together in one subjection, subject to the bishop and to the presbytery . . . “ (Eph. II.2).

Infant baptism apparently came later, but it was attested as early as the time of Tertullian (ca. 200 A.D.). The problem here is that infant baptism shifts the focus away from the faith of the person being baptized to the church’s sacraments as a conduit of grace.

The situation was further complicated when Constantine, who was sympathetic to Christianity, became sole emperor in 323 A.D. Thereafter the Roman government supported the church, but this was a mixed blessing, for it also meant that the government would meddle in the church’s affairs. The emperors were often more interested in political harmony than in doctrinal purity, and the effect on the church was not always salutary.

And thus, gradually, down through the Middle Ages the pure gospel of salvation by grace through faith was buried under layers of tradition, scholastic philosophy and canon law. And this was the situation that faced Martin Luther in 1517 when he published his famous Ninety-five Theses. A gifted biblical scholar, he could see how far the Catholic Church has strayed from the practice of the New Testament Church. His writings caused a sensation and he soon found himself at the center of controversy. The great question of the hour was what to do about all of the abuses that had corrupted and deformed the church.

Luther was by no means alone in this situation. In Switzerland Ulrich Zwingli found himself in pretty much the same position. Both men, however, had the support of their respective local civil magistrates. But, as in the days of Constantine, this was a mixed blessing. Biblical scholars like Luther and Zwingli could see what was taught and practiced in the New Testament church; the civil magistrates, on the other hand, were concerned to maintain public order. Luther, quite plausibly, advocated a cautious approach to reform. Arguing from the New Testament principle of Christian liberty he advocated changing only what was necessary, and leaving the rest alone. Zwingli’s attitude, however, is harder to justify. From the pulpit he had advocated a thorough-going, Bible-based reform. In actual practice, however, he deferred to the City Council of Zurich. It is hard to clear him of the charge of political opportunism.

What both Luther and Zwingli were attempting to do, in effect, was to take existing territorial state churches and “reform” them by introducing certain changes to make them look more biblical. It was hard for them to do otherwise. Were it not for the support of the magistrates they could have literally paid with their lives for the doctrines they were teaching. The whole social order of Western Europe was based on the idea of “Corpus Christianum,” the idea that all of Western society constituted “Christendom.” But an all-inclusive state church can never be anything more than a pale shadow of what a genuine Christian church ought to be. The church is supposed to be a “communion of the saints,” a spiritual fellowship of committed believers who demonstrate the life of Christ in their love toward one another. A state church leads to mere formalism.

Some of Zwingli’s more radical followers saw the nature of the problem, and formed the nucleus of what became the Anabaptist movement, which, among other things, rejected the idea of infant baptism. For Luther and Zwingli, however, this was too much. It threatened to undermine the whole structure of Western society, and they were both patriots at heart!

What we are left with, then, in the cases of the Lutheran and Reformed (and Anglican) churches is an incomplete Reformation. The Reformers recovered the gospel of salvation by grace, but failed to achieve a biblical church life. The Anabaptists attempted a more thorough-going reform, and since that time there have been other attempts to create a more biblical and more spiritual form of church life – everything from the 17th Century Baptists and Quakers to a variety of 19th Century “Restorationist” movements. But these various “Free Church” movements have been marred by divisiveness and sometimes unsound doctrine, and even the ones that started fairly well over time tended to lapse into the same kind of institutionalism and dead formalism that has plagued their state church brethren. Nearly all American churches today have grown accustomed to relying on human means to achieve spiritual ends, and the life of the Spirit is notably absent. Hardly anything existing today can be said to resemble the spiritual life of the First Century church.

We are deeply indebted to Luther and Zwingli, Calvin and Knox, for rediscovering the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, and for making God’s Word, the Bible, available to the common man. If it had not been for them, humanly speaking, we would still be in spiritual darkness. But in our admiration for their achievements we must not overlook the fact that their efforts at reforming the church ultimately fell short of what God requires. And it must be our ever-present task to construct a church that genuinely reflects God’s will – a believers’ church, a spiritual fellowship, a church that shows by deed as well as by word what salvation means in actual practice. We need to look past the highly institutionalized form of church life that we know today to see the true and living God seated upon His throne in heaven. What we need is what some of our forefathers knew as revival – not glib preacher or TV huckster, but a real outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will humble us before the glory and majesty of God, fill our hearts with love, and anoint our verbal testimony with power. May God grant us the grace to live up to His expectations!