Archive for the ‘The Christian Life’ Category
By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
It is often said that “We are born spiritually dead” or “We are born dead in trespasses and sins.” In other words, as soon as a little, pure, sweet, innocent baby is born, he is spiritually languishing in corruption, sin, and death. Some would go so far as to say that any infant or child dying unbaptized (or unsaved) will go to hell for eternity. Others say that although the infant is spiritually dead, if the baby dies, he will go to heaven despite being unsaved (?) due to the grace of God. Are these claims true?
When Does Spiritual Death Occur?
The Apostle Paul teaches very clearly in Romans 7 regarding spiritual death and when it occurs.
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful (Romans 7:7-13).
Paul had been teaching earlier in the chapter that by the death of Christ, all those in the New Covenant are dead to the Law of Moses, and we may now “serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.” Immediately, then, Paul anticipates the question which may be asked: Is the Law inherently wrong or sinful, since the “motions of sins” were actually “by the law” and “did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death” (verse 5)?
To this question, Paul gives an emphatic no. The Law points out what sin is (for example, covetousness), but it is human nature that what is forbidden is doubly attractive, simply for the reason that it is forbidden. The Law, then, makes opportunities for sin, and Paul says that the commandment against covetousness actually helped to foster covetousness in his own life. The sin (such as covetousness) was “dead” in Paul’s life before he knew God’s standard.
Now we come to the sentence which is important to our question: “For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.” Notice that Paul was “alive without the law once.” Does this mean physical life? The context tells us that it does not, for “I died” later in the verse obviously refers to spiritual death. (Paul was physically alive when he was writing the letter to the Romans.) So from this we learn that children, such as the Apostle Paul as a little boy, are born and grow up spiritually alive. Is the spiritual life of children the same as that of mature adults who make a conscious decision to follow Christ? No. However, although children have not experienced the new birth, they do not need to until they have died spiritually. The Apostle Paul did not need to experience the new birth when he was “alive without the law once,” nor could he have.
So when did Paul die spiritually? Notice that he says “when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.” The spiritual death was the result, not of some guilt imputed to him from Adam, but of his own personal, conscious sin against the will of God. Paul was able to sin on this level once he came face-to-face with God’s righteous standard revealed in the Law of Moses. Was Paul a naughty little boy on occasion before then? Probably he was, just like all little boys (and girls) are. But he was not in conscious sin against the Law of God on the same level as when he was older. When did the commandment come to Paul? Did his parents teach him from the Law? They probably did, at least the Ten Commandments and probably more; Paul’s father was a member of the Pharisees, “the most straitest sect of our religion” (Acts 23:6; 26:5). We cannot say exactly when Paul had the experiences recounted in the following verses. Perhaps it was due to his father’s or rabbi’s teaching from the Law; perhaps it was due to his own reading from the Law; or perhaps it did not occur until he began to sit at the feet of Gamaliel and learn the Law. In any event, it did not occur until he had the knowledge and mental understanding of what God required and he was able to interact with the Law (so to speak) at a mature level. The exact timing of these events in Paul’s life is a side question; what we can see clearly in this passage is that it was only once sin had been stirred up in his life by the Law of Moses that he died spiritually. We can say the same for every infant – born and raised spiritually alive, but dead spiritually when, like Adam, they knowingly and willingly sin against God stirred up by the prohibitions of God’s will.
Savior of All Men
For therefore we both labour and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Saviour of all men, specially of those that believe (I Timothy 4:10).
In what way is God the “Saviour of all men,” and why is it said that he is “specially” the Savior of those that believe? This must mean that He is also, in a sense, the Savior of those who do not believe. Comparison with other Scriptures (such as Romans 7) leads us to the conclusion that God is unconditionally the savior of all men in infancy, but is the savior of those mature people who meet the Gospel conditions – such as faith (belief).
Many Go in Thereat
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it (Matthew 7:13-14).
Related to the idea that people are “born spiritually dead” is the statement sometimes made that people are “born on the broad road.” In Matthew 7, however, Jesus teaches us that the broad gate which leads to destruction is a gate which “many…go in.” People must enter into the broad way; they are not born there without any personal choice in the matter. When a man comes to the age of understanding, he must make a personal choice whether he will go into the broad way or the narrow way. Praise God, a man on the broad way can repent and enter the narrow way; but they are not born onto the broad way.
Of Such is the Kingdom of God
And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein. And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them (Mark 10:13-16).
Jesus welcomed the children to Himself and blessed them, and specifically said that “of such is the kingdom of God.” Had these children been baptized? We have no hint of it in this passage. Had they experienced some kind of crisis conversion? Not likely. They were simply, as Paul was, “alive without the law,” and Jesus gave them what they needed and could have at their age – a blessing from God.
The Mouths of Babes and Sucklings
And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased, And said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise? (Matthew 21:15-16).
Jesus taught that God has “perfected praise” out of the mouths of innocent little children. Their praises are highly pleasing to God. How can this be reconciled with the idea that they are lost sinners? “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the LORD: but the prayer of the upright is his delight” (Proverbs 15:8).
Dead in Trespasses and Sins
You might be thinking, “But doesn’t the Bible say, ‘born dead in trespasses and sins’?” It actually does not. This is a misquotation of Ephesians 2:1: “And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins” (compare with Colossians 2:13). Notice: They were dead, not “born dead.” The following two verses show that the people being referred to could not have been infants; they are said to have “walked according to the course of this world” and to have lived “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind.”
The Early Christians
The early Christians believed that infants and young children were innocent and pure, and that, if they died, they would be saved.
Hermas (c. 150) wrote:
…they are as infant children, in whose hearts no evil originates…for all infants are honorable before God, and are the first persons with Him.
Irenaeus (c. 180), a disciple of Polycarp (who was a disciple of the Apostle John), wrote:
And again, who are they that have been saved, and received the inheritance? Those, doubtless, who do believe God, and who have continued in His love; as did Caleb [the son] of Jephuneh and Joshua [the son] of Nun, and innocent children, who have had no sense of evil.
Tertullian (c. 198), regarding the idea of infant baptism, wrote:
And so, according to the circumstances and disposition, and even age, of each individual, the delay of baptism is preferable; principally, however, in the case of little children…The Lord does indeed say, “Forbid them not to come unto me.” Let them “come,” then, while they are growing up; let them “come” while they are learning, while they are learning whither to come; let them become Christians when they have become able to know Christ. Why does the innocent period of life hasten to the “remission of sins?”
He also wrote (c. 207):
But, behold, Christ takes infants, and teaches how all ought to be like them, if they ever wish to be greater. The Creator, on the contrary, let loose bears against children, in order to avenge His prophet Elisha, who had been mocked by them. This antithesis is impudent enough, since it throws together things so different as infants and children,—an age still innocent, and one already capable of discretion—able to mock, if not to blaspheme. As therefore God is a just God, He spared not impious children, exacting as He does honor for every time of life, and especially, of course, from youth. And as God is good, He so loves infants as to have blessed the midwives in Egypt, when they protected the infants of the Hebrews which were in peril from Pharaoh’s command. Christ therefore shares this kindness with the Creator.
Cyprian (c. 250) wrote that “Infancy is still yet innocent and unconscious of worldly evil.”
Origen (185-254) was one of the most famous Christian teachers of his time and wrote the first surviving set of Bible commentaries. While teaching that even infants are subject to sin’s defilement (he quoted the Septuagint rendering of Job 14:4-5 several times: “No one is pure from uncleanness, even if his life should be one day long”), he nevertheless taught the following in his Commentary on Romans (written c. 246):
But this law [referring to natural law, or the law of the conscience] is found in man neither at all times nor from the beginning, when a man is born, but rather he lives without this law for a certain time, while his age does not allow it, just as Paul himself acknowledges when he says, “I was once alive without the law.” Therefore, at that time, when we lived without the law, we did not know covetousness. He did not say: I was not having it; but: “I was not knowing it,” as if covetousness existed, but it was not known what it was. But when reason arrives and the natural law finds a place within us in the advancement of age, it begins to teach us what is good and to turn us away from evils. Thus, when it says, “You shall not covet,” we learn from it what we did not know before: Covetousness is evil.
“But sin, receiving an opportunity, worked in me through the commandment all kinds of covetousness.” That law of which he says, “For I would not have known covetous desire had the law not said: You shall not covet,” is also called the commandment. Thus he says that by an opportunity afforded by this commandment, in which we are forbidden to covet, sin was kindled all the more intensely within us and worked all kinds of covetousness within us. For because the flesh lusts against the Spirit, i.e., against the law that says, “You shall not covet,” it is likewise opposed to it and engages it in battle in a certain manner, so that not only would it satisfy the covetousness but also it would conquer an enemy.
This then is the opportunity that he says comes from the commandment. For these things that are forbidden are somehow longed for more passionately. On this account, though the commandment is holy and just and good—for what prohibits evil must of necessity be good—yet by prohibiting covetousness it instead provokes and kindles it; and through the good it worked death in me. The Apostle is showing by these things, however, that the origin of sin has arisen from covetousness. As long as the law is issuing prohibitions, whether it is Moses’ law, which says, “You shall not covet,” or even natural law, as I have explained above, whatever is forbidden is desired all the more tenaciously…
“For apart from the law sin is dead. But I was once alive without the law. But when the commandment came, sin revived. I, however, died; and the very commandment that was unto life was found to be unto death to me.” Up above has already been conducted a full investigation of practically all these matters. Therefore, in order that we not be constantly repeating the same things, we shall briefly call to remembrance what was previously said. We showed how sin is dead in us without law, i.e., before the mind within us grows vigorous when it reaches the age of reason, when we introduced the example of the little child who strikes or curses his father or mother. In such a case it would appear that at least according to the law, which forbids striking and cursing the father and mother, a sin was committed. Yet that sin is said to be dead since the law is not yet present within the child to teach him that what he is doing ought not be done. It is certain that Paul and all men have lived at one time without this law, namely, the age of childhood. After all, during that time everyone is equally not yet capable of this natural law. For Paul’s confession concerning this would not seem to be true. Indeed how will it be proved that Paul once lived without the law of Moses, seeing that he declares himself to be a Hebrew of Hebrews and circumcised on the eighth day according to the precepts of the law? On the contrary, in the way in which we have said, in childhood he also once lived without natural law. He did not say that sin did not exist in man at this time, but that sin was dead and afterward revived when natural law came and began to forbid covetousness. This law raised sin from the dead, so to speak. In fact this is the nature of sin, if what the law forbids to be done happens. Therefore, when sin revived, he says, “I died.” “I.” Who does he mean? Doubtless, the soul that had committed what the law was forbidding to be done; for “the soul that sins,” as the prophet says, “shall itself die.” The commandment, therefore, that had been given unto life, i.e., unto [the life] of the soul, that it might teach the soul the works that lead to life, was found to have surrendered it over to death when it does not flee the things forbidden but desires them all the more passionately.
The idea that “we are all born spiritually dead” cannot be found in Scripture; rather, there are several Scriptures which clearly teach against such an idea. The early Christians believed that infants and young children are pure, innocent, and saved, and sinful actions which they do are not counted as sin against them until “the commandment [comes]” and sin revives.
Knowing the truth on this subject can help safeguard us against such errors as infant baptism and child evangelism and can provide comfort in knowing that our departed little ones are safe with Christ.
 This is one of the problems with child evangelism – little innocent children, who should be taught to love Jesus at a simple, age-appropriate level, are instead pressed to “ask Jesus into their hearts” so that they can escape the damnation of hell. At the stage before the Law has stirred up the lust to sin in them, they are still “alive without the law” and must not be pressed into an adult experience with Christ. Trying to do so may result in so-called “conversions” in the short run, but in the end can cause confusion at best; at worst, it may cause sin, doubt, and apostasy.
 This probably happens for most people well before 20 years old. Paul explains that for heathens who have no knowledge of the true God or of the Scriptures, they still are accountable for the revelation of God through their own consciences (Romans 2:12-29), so the “law” comes to them in the form of “natural law,” the law in their consciences.
 I am indebted to George R. Brunk I and his son, George II, for this commentary. They explained this Scripture in this fashion.
 Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF), volume 2, p. 53.
 ANF, volume 1, p. 502.
 ANF, volume 3, p. 678.
 This was written against the Gnostics, who claimed that the Creator God (the “Demiurge”), the God of the Old Testament, was not the Father of Jesus. These two sentences give a Gnostic argument urged against the orthodox Christians, to which Tertullian replies as follows.
 ANF, volume 3, p. 386.
 David W. Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 1998, Hendrickson Publishers, p. 93.
 For this reason Origen supported infant baptism – the first Christian teacher known to have done so.
 Thomas P. Scheck, translator, Origen: Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Books 6-10, 2002, Catholic University of America Press, pp. 31-33.
Originally published in The Witness, February 2014.
By John M. Brenneman
From the January 1871 issue of Herald of Truth
Another year has passed away,
Which brings us nearer to the tomb;
Should we not all then watch and pray
And seek for an eternal home?
Another year is now begun
Which possibly may be our last;
Our race perhaps we may have run
Before the present year is past.
This year may close the pilgrimage
Of our short life on earth below;
Let us then heed the privilege
Of being well prepared to go.
This year our destiny may seal,
For future joys, or misery;
Soon Jesus will himself reveal,
In glory and great majesty.
To judge the world in righteousness,
When sinners will be cast away,
To outer darkness and distress,
But saints shall with their Jesus stay.
Wake up ye mortals, and be wise,
As days, and months, and years pass by;
O haste and make a noble choice—
In Jesus trust, to Jesus fly.
What awful scenes may we behold,
Before the present year rolls round—
O let us then not live so cold;
Soon may the Lord us all confound.
O let us think how short is time,
In which we may great wealth secure—
O Lord, do thou our hearts incline,
To seek for treasures ever sure.
Soon, soon the harvest day may close,
The summer soon be ended too;
Yet we may gather, yet may choose,
And yet avoid eternal woe.
Come, fellow pilgrim, haste away
To Jesus Christ who bids you come,
For here we cannot always stay;
Then let us seek in heaven a home.
Peter Riedemann was a prominent early Hutterite leader. He spent years in prison, during which time he wrote many letters and two confessions of faith. He was also a prolific hymnwriter. This hymn is #470 in the Lieder der Hutterischen Brueder; translation by Peter Hoover. Used by permission.—AVS.
The Lord God is my strength and shield, the fortress of my trust. He never leaves me without the comfort of his Holy Ghost. Though tribulations try me to the limit and anguish fills my soul he gives me love and patience, willingly, to overcome.
I will trust and believe in the Lord. He will not break his promises. He purifies my heart, gives me a glad conscience, and the power to overcome my fleshly desires. With compelling temptations and naked lust the wicked one lures my soul. But the Lord gives me victory! He lets me overcome the devil and all things that hinder me. Though they burn me with fire and torture me to death I will testify for my Saviour with irresistible joy!
Look, the bridegroom is at hand! He stands by the cross and waits on his church, the bride. Great comfort he will give her in the land to which they will go. Pleasures unending that no one can describe await them there. So let us go willingly through the narrow door! Let us squeeze our way into it, leaving the sights and sounds of the tempting world behind us to gain Christ!
Even though we must suffer shame, persecution and death for Christ, it is worth it to live forever with him.
By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
Following fashion is a very common mistake – or shall we be bold enough to call it a sin? – which often goes unrebuked, with no warning against its dangers being heard. Every year, when the fashion designers arbitrarily decide that the old fashion is over and the new is in, thousands – if not millions – dump their old clothes and buy new ones. Better to be dead than out of style, it has been said, and apparently some live by this philosophy. No matter how bizarre or outlandish the fashions are, the devoted slaves of the fashion goddess will obey her every dictate. Brown, green, blue. Tight pants, baggy pants, falling-down-behind pants. Cut-away shoes, boost-you-in-the-air shoes, untied-shoes, long-pointy-square-toed shoes. New clothes, new clothes, and more new clothes – until the fashion dictators declare that old clothes are in style – and the people buy more new clothes, artificially made to look old. And every year less fabric overall is worn, more money is spent, and the worshippers of fashion waste time and money to fulfill their lusts – all while children starve the world over, the Chinese and others beg for Bibles, the cry of the poor ascends to the Lord of Sabaoth, and the fashion designers fill their pockets with ill-gotten gains.
What saith the Scripture? The Apostle Paul wrote, “the fashion of this world passeth away” (I Corinthians 7:31b). Obviously, he is referring to the physical form of this earth, but the statement is true of the type of fashion which we have been considering. Such fashions are very temporary. After a few years or even months, the fashions change, and all one’s labor to conform to the fashions is brought to nothing – no value – in a very brief time. The pleasures associated with pleasing the goddess of fashion are likewise transitory. Following fashion cannot satisfy a human soul; only following the Lord Jesus and obeying His Word can provide deep, lasting satisfaction. As soon as fashions change, the followers of the cruel goddess find themselves dissatisfied and discontented once again, and have to labor to make themselves acceptable to their demanding mistress and their peers.
Jesus said, “Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed” (John 6:27). Fashions perish. The work of those who follow fashion will quickly perish and come to nothing. The money they have spent, the effort they have invested is all worthless once the fashions change. Jesus told us not to spend our labor on meat which perishes, but rather to labor for that which is eternal. When our focus is on eternity, we can ignore those things – such as fashion – which are transitory, time-bound, and ready to perish. We can focus on working for those things which are eternal – the kingdom of God, the salvation of souls, ministering to those in need, etc.
God asked through the prophet Isaiah, “Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness” (Isaiah 55:2). Again, fashion cannot bring lasting satisfaction because it passes away. So many people spend their money and labor for something so vain which will pass away so quickly. Why would they continue to do something so foolish, when God offers lasting and true satisfaction?
The Apostle Paul wrote, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any” (I Corinthians 6:12). Sometimes, people will admit that they are slaves to fashion. While some people can be addicted to tobacco, alcohol, or drugs, others are addicted to following fashion. The Apostle Paul refused to do anything which would bring him under bondage – even if they were not necessarily sin – so as to not be hindered from fully following the Lord. Why remain in bondage when the Lord offers freedom?
Our world and its fashion designers are eagerly pursuing the broad way to hell, and need to hear that the Lord Jesus offers freedom, pardon, and deliverance. Meanwhile, even in some “plain” (Anabaptist) churches, there seems to be a definite flow of fashion. First someone makes or buys a dress (or shirt, or shoes, etc.) which is different, then all the rest want the same, then they all (who are interested in following the fashion, anyway) have it, then the first one has something else…and the cycle repeats itself. “Wherefore do ye spend…your labour for that which satisfieth not?”
If you are held in the clutches of the goddess of fashion, I encourage – I exhort – I plead – I beg with you to fly to the Lord Jesus and seek His pardon and His deliverance from your cruel mistress. “Him that cometh to me,” Jesus promised, “I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37b).
Originally published in The Witness (October 2013).
By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
The Selective Service System (SSS) is the government agency in charge of the draft in the United States. Currently, men ages 18-25 are required by law to register with the SSS for the draft. This is not the same thing as signing up for military service, but is only signing up for the draft. Men are required to register within 30 days of their 18th birthday. There is no way to sign up as a conscientious objector (CO), as the government does not care who is or is not a CO if there is no draft. The CO process begins only after 1) a draft has been begun and 2) you have been drafted. It is a felony to fail to register, and you may be imprisoned for five years, fined up to $250,000, or both.
SSS sign-up forms should be available at your local post office. You can sign up online, but doing it over the mail is recommended for COs, in order to retain additional proof of your CO convictions.
The SSS form has blocks for birthdate, gender, social security number, name, address, date, and signature. In between these blocks, find a white space and write in all capital letters: I AM A CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR TO WAR IN ANY FORM. Make a photocopy of this form and mail the photocopy to yourself. When you receive it, do not open it – store it away in a file with the rest of your CO information. Send the original to the SSS.
A few weeks after sending in your registration, you will receive a confirmation from the SSS that they received your completed form, and they will give you your Selective Service Number. Keep this information. You will need it if a draft is ever begun.
Next, you must take care to document your beliefs NOW while there is no draft in progress. The draft system works quickly enough that if you wait until one has started, it may be too late to build a CO file! Here are the steps to take:
Contact Christian Aid Ministries and ask for a copy of their Draft Information Manual, which they will be happy to send you for free. It has much detailed information about the current draft laws. Settle in your own heart before God what you believe about war, peace, and nonresistance, as well as knowing in yourself what you may conscientiously do in harmony with the Scriptures. For instance, is noncombatant service acceptable, or a compromise? Be prepared to die for your beliefs, if necessary. Write a brief statement explaining why you stand opposed to “war in any form.” This is not a doctrinal treatise, but a brief statement of your beliefs and what you can or cannot do because of them. (Mine ran about five handwritten pages.) Make a photocopy of this and mail it to yourself, then store the photocopy, unopened, in your CO file. This is to provide dated proof of your convictions. (The importance of not opening such documents is because they will be undisturbed with the postmark on the outside – proof positive of the age of the enclosed document.) For additional dated proof, send such a statement to The Witness. We will be glad to help you out by publishing it. We will send you a copy of the issue in which your letter appears for you to put in your file, unopened. Find several people you know who can write a “Letter of Support” for you. This letter is not a letter of support for your position, but a statement that the person writing knows you and supports your claim that your CO status is due to a sincerely held belief (rather than expediency). Church leaders, friends, acquaintances, employers, co-workers – try to find a wide sampling of people who know you well enough to support your claim to sincerity. Finding one or two people who are not nonresistant, but believe you are sincere in your nonresistance, is a good thing. Be sure to give your letter-writers a photocopy of page 45 from the Draft Information Manual, which explains what the letter should include. Ask your letter-writers to mail you two copies of their letter – one to put in your file, unopened, and one to open and read. It is important to pre-screen the letters before using them in a CO case because a poorly written letter could hurt your case rather than helping it. Walk close to the Lord and stay surrendered to His will and continued work in your life – whether or not a draft should ever come to test your convictions.
Young women, do not think that this will never apply to you. The Selective Service law currently states that “male persons” must register and may be drafted, but the constitutionality of excluding women from the draft has been tested in the courts. In 1981, Supreme Court decision Rostker vs. Goldberg decided that requiring only men to register was not a violation of the Constitution’s due process clause. However, in 1994, the Department of Defense (DoD) revisited the issue and noted that in prior wars, the draft was primarily used to supply the Army with ground combat troops. At the time, there was a policy of excluding women from such positions, thus, excluding them from the draft was still reasonable, in the DoD’s view.
However, very recent legislation has opened front-line combat positions to women. Thus, since the DoD’s reason for excluding women from the draft is gone, it will probably not be long before women ages 18-25 will be required to sign up for the draft, just like men. It is probably advisable for young women in that age range to prepare now for this possibility, going through all of the steps noted above EXCEPT for preparing and sending in an SSS registration form.
Originally published in The Witness (August 2013).
Written by an anonymous godly woman
Based on the following scriptures: Proverbs 31, Deuteronomy 6:5-7 & 11:19, Titus 2, I Timothy 2, I Peter 3:1-7, I Corinthians 11 & 14:29-40
The Bible speaks to everyone who follows in the Way, But some parts are specific in the things they have to say. The fathers are encouraged, and those alone in life, And there are admonitions for the mother and the wife.
I always linger over these; they speak to my estate. They offer me direction in the small things and the great. To be a godly woman is the goal I want to reach, And so I need to study what the Scriptures have to teach.
A woman who is called to be a mother and a wife, Who takes the cross and purposes to live a godly life, Is ever growing in the faith she’s chosen to profess, And there are certain qualities she covets to possess.
The godly woman stays at home; her duties keep her there. She rises while it yet is night and gives herself to prayer. Her days are full of service and her heart is full of love; Her mind is full of gratitude and praise for God above.
Though not employed outside the home, she has no mind to shirk. She eats not bread of idleness, but fruit of honest work. Her brother and her sister, her parents and her neighbor, Her husband and her children share the blessing of her labor.
The love her husband feels for her is easy to reflect, And she not only loves him, but she gives him her respect. In her his heart may safely trust; she does him only good; When he confides his inner thoughts, he finds them understood.
She’s mindful, too, of Eden, where the woman was deceived. She knows it’s not her place to teach (as others have believed) Nor to usurp authority, but listens with subjection, In meekness and humility, accepting his direction.
When all the church assembles in a solemn, formal way, The godly woman listens what the brethren have to say; And if she hears a statement made that makes her sit up straighter, The question forming in her mind is asked her husband later.
There is a congregation where her voice is often heard, And her children are attentive as she teaches them the Word, When she sits within her house, and when she walks along the way; When she lays them down at night, and when she rises with the day.
The godly woman is discreet, not seeking others’ praise; She’s modest in appearance, and she’s modest in her ways. She isn’t prone to gossip, but her neighbors know she cares, And any help her hands can give is certain to be theirs.
The godly woman doesn’t follow fashion’s idle whim, Nor deck herself in gold or gems to draw the eyes of men. And yet, compared to those who do, she is exceeding fair; Her meek and quiet spirit is an ornament more rare.
The godly woman isn’t gay; she’s left that all behind. She’s pleasant and she’s cheerful, but she has a sober mind. Her covered head, her simple dress, her modest mein are one; Her singular adornment is the good that she has done.
When years of faithful laboring have bent her body low, She’ll teach the younger women in the way that they should go. Her works are their example in the service of the Lord; And verily, I say to you, she’ll have a rich reward.
Oh, make of me that woman, Lord! And guide me in that way. Behold, Thou art the potter, and I the softened clay. Encourage me where I am right; rebuke me where I’m wrong. I read these Scriptures often and I ponder on them long.
Originally published in The Heartbeat of the Remnant (May/June 2013), 400 W. Main Street Ste. 1, Ephrata, PA 17522.
By Mike Atnip
One of the signs of modern, fallen Christianity is the practice of women teaching men and ordaining women to leadership roles. Historically, very few churches practiced this until the last century and a half. The Bible is quite plain in these points, so I usually do not spend a lot of time reading materials that try their best to make the Scriptures say the opposite of their plain meaning. So when someone recently showed me an issue of a magazine that was dedicated to proving that it was scriptural for women to be ordained as ministers (in the official sense of the word) and to teach men, I didn’t pay a lot of attention. I grew up around churches that took that stance and know the arguments.
But one section caught my eye. It was the claim that the early Anabaptists had ordained women preachers. Although the article is careful to not actually call them “ordained ministers,” the inference is clearly there.
During the last several years I have spent a good bit of time reading Anabaptist thought and history … and knew that even some of the foremost “liberal” Mennonite historians (who seem to have gone looking for some proof of it to support their own current practice) had concluded after long research that there were simply no ordained women ministers in early Anabaptism.
Were there zealous women, women who boldly stood their ground when asked in court trials (sometimes accompanied by torture) about their faith? Absolutely! About 1/3 of all Anabaptist martyrs were women. But the bottom line was simple: no recorded case has been found of an early Anabaptist woman being ordained to the ministry in the official sense of the word. The word “minister” means serve (verb), or servant (noun). In that sense, every Anabaptist was considered a “minister.”
So what do we do with the following, taken from page 1120 of the Herald Press edition of the Martyrs Mirror?
The Gospel Trumpet had the following to say about the above section:
Here is an image from Martyrs Mirror (Page 1122, Herald Press, 1950 edition), in which two women are clearly listed with men in the ministry. Ruth Kunstel was “a minister in the word of the Lord” at Muchem, in the Berne jurisdiction, while Ruth Hagen was listed as “an elder” from the Zurich area.
These women followed their New Testament forebears Phebe, the four daughters of Philip, Junia, etc., in ministering the Word of God along with men. This cannot be gainsaid, as it is in plain black-and-white recorded for posterity. Let all who claim the Anabaptist heritage know their history.
At first glance, it does seem to indicate that there were indeed women ordained as a minister and an elder in early Anabaptism. But right away I suspected something: Ruth was probably also a man’s name in that time period. A quick check to the German version would clear up the question, since the German language has a different article (meaning a different form of “the” and “a”) depending on whether the noun is a male noun or a female noun.
The German text of the two Ruths
For those who do not read German (probably the majority of our readers), you will notice the article “einem.” Now take a look at whether that is a male or female article:
Now let’s take another closer look at the English again. Does the English say “Ruth Hagen, an elder,” or does it say “Ruth Hagen, an eldress”?
Obviously, the situation here is that Ruth was a man. Ruth is certainly not a common male name; in fact it is the first time I have run across it myself. Another possibility in this case is a misspelling, since during that time period spelling consistency was basically an every-man-for-himself sort of thing.
To be sure, at first glance it can easily look like the early Anabaptists may have had “women in the ministry.” A closer look proves that the “proof” was bad proof.
For the other “proof” of “women in the ministry,” a little clip of page 481 of Martyrs Mirror was presented:
Let me ask you: Just how much proof does the above clipping give to prove that the early Anabaptists had women ordained as teachers to men?
To be honest, it provides exactly 0% proof. Elizabeth was accused of being a teacher. But she was also (falsely) accused of being Menno Simons’ wife. Or perhaps the authorities were mocking her. But there is no admission on Elizabeth’s part of being a “teacher.” Or, if she did teach, whom did she teach? Children? Other women? Men?
No proof of being a “teacher” is found. Much less whom she taught if she was indeed an ordained “teacher.”
This thing called integrity
All this moved my mind to think of integrity. Integrity has to do with “wholeness.” When speaking of a person’s or a group’s integrity, it carries the idea of being totally honest. For myself, when dealing with Anabaptist history it means admitting—for as much that I admire the Anabaptist movement—that there were some things I cannot agree with. Some of them held wrong ideas about divorce/remarriage. Some of them had really—I mean really—funny ideas about eschatology.
Back to history
Proof of the early church ordaining women as preachers?
The question here is not so much the interpretation that Chrysostom gave of the passage of Scripture, but the question is about the integrity of using one quote of his to support the idea of women preaching in the church. There are several points that could be argued on his interpretation of Romans 16:7. 1. Whether listing both of them together is meant as a husband/wife team, and only Andronicus was officially the apostle. 2. Whether being called an apostle was an indication that Junia taught men. Many women have been sent as apostles (we call them missionaries in our day … “one sent out”) and yet never taught men. If we read the rest of the writings of John Chrysostom, it is quite clear that he felt women should not teach men, nor speak in the church. There are a number of things we could quote from him, but this one suffices:
To such a degree should women be silent, that they are not allowed to speak not only about worldly matters, but not even about spiritual things, in the church. This is order, this is modesty, this will adorn her more than any garments. Thus clothed, she will be able to offer her prayers in the manner most becoming. … [Paul] says, let them not teach, but occupy the station of learners. For thus they will show submission by their silence. (Early Church Fathers, Vol. XXII)
Back to integrity
But let’s look at the integrity of pulling one ambiguous quote out of early church history to prove a point, when there are plenty of other quotes that clearly refute the idea that is trying to be proven. For example:
Their [the married Apostles’] spouses went with them [on their mission trips], not as wives, but as sisters, in order to minister to housewives. It was through them that the Lord’s teaching penetrated also the women’s quarters without any scandal being aroused. Clement of Alexandria (ANF 2.391-Translated from the Latin)
If the daughters of Philip prophesied, at least they did not speak in the assemblies; for we do not find this fact in evidence in the Acts of the Apostles. Much less in the Old Testament. It is said that Deborah was a prophetess … There is no evidence that Deborah delivered speeches to the people, as did Jeremiah and Isaiah. Huldah, who was a prophetess, did not speak to the people, but only to a man, who consulted her at home. The gospel itself mentions a prophetess Anna … but she did not speak publicly. Even if it is granted to a woman to show the sign of prophecy, she is nevertheless not permitted to speak in an assembly. When Miriam the prophetess spoke, she was leading a choir of women … For [as Paul declares] “I do not permit a woman to teach,” and even less “to tell a man what to do.” Origen
And these verses (Romans 16:1-2) teach with apostolic authority that females were appointed to aid the church. Phoebe of Cenchrea was placed in this service, and Paul with great praise and recommendation follows by enumerating her beautiful deeds, saying, “She helped everyone so much, by being close at hand when needed, that she even helped me in my needs and apostolic labors, with a total dedication of her mind.” I would compare her work to that of Lot, who while he always took in strangers, one time even merited practicing hospitality on angels. In the same way Abraham also, who was always practicing hospitality, once merited having the Lord with his angels to be entertained in his tent. So this devout Phoebe, continually assisting and obeying everyone, was once merited with assisting and obeying the Apostle as well. This verse teaches us two things at the same time: There are, as was said, female aides in the church, and such should be considered as part of the service of the church. Those who have assisted many, and by good service have attained to apostolic praise, should be counted as part of that ministry. He also exhorts that those who seek to do good works in the churches, whether in spiritual or fleshly aid, should receive in return the reward and honor from the brethren.
This verse (Romans 16:6) teaches that women should labor for the churches of God. For they labor when they teach the young ladies to be modest, to love their husbands, to raise children, to be pure and chaste, to guide their homes, to be hospitable, to wash the saints’ feet, and everything else that is written concerning the service of women. ~Origen
This verse (Romans 16:6) teaches that women should labor for the churches of God. For they labor when they teach the young ladies to be modest, to love their husbands, to raise children, to be pure and chaste, to guide their homes, to be hospitable, to wash the saints’ feet, and everything else that is written concerning the service of women, all of which should be done with chaste conduct. Origen, Commentary on the Book of Romans (translated from the Latin)
For how credible would it seem, that he [the Apostle Paul] who has not permitted a woman even to learn with overboldness, should give a female the power of teaching and of baptizing! “Let them be silent,” he says, “and at home consult their own husbands.” Tertullian (ANF 3.677)
It is not permitted to a woman to speak in the church; but neither (is it permitted her) to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer, nor to claim to herself a lot in any manly function, nor to stay (in any) sacerdotal office. Tertullian (ANF 4.33)
That a woman ought to be silent in the church: In the first Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: “Let women be silent in the church. But if any wish to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home.” Also to Timothy: “Let a woman learn with silence, in all subjection. But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to be set over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve; and Adam was not seduced, but the woman was seduced.” Cyprian (ANF 5:546)
We do not permit our women to teach in the Church, but only to pray and hear those that teach; for our Master and Lord, Jesus Himself, when He sent us the twelve to make disciples of the people and of the nations, did nowhere send out women to preach, although He did not lack [women candidates to do this]. For there were with us the mother of our Lord and His sisters; also Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Martha and Mary the sisters of Lazarus; Salome, and certain others. For, had it been necessary for women to teach, He Himself [would have] first commanded these also to instruct the people with us. For “if the head of the wife be the man,” it is not reasonable that the rest of the body should govern the head. Apostolic Constitutions (ANF 7.427, 428)
But if in the foregoing constitutions we have not permitted [women] to teach, how will any one allow them, contrary to nature, to perform the office of a priest? For this is one of the ignorant practices of the Gentile atheism, to ordain women priests to the female deities, not one of the constitutions of Christ. Apostolic Constitutions (ANF 7.429)
Ok, you probably get the point. The mass of early church quotes are clearly against the idea of women teaching men and against ordaining women to leadership roles in the church (unless, like the early Moravian Brethren, the Eldresses only taught or counseled other women or children).
These quotes from the early church neither prove nor disprove if the Bible itself teaches for or against women teaching men or speaking in public assemblies. They do, however, give us a clear indication of how the Ante-Nicene church interpreted Paul’s teachings. The bottom line is, as far as I know, there is no straightforward evidence in early church writings that women (excepting heretical groups like the Montanists) ever taught in a public assembly. I say that with integrity. I say it after having read thousands of pages of church history.
I could be wrong, of course; I don’t know everything there is to know about church history. But my integrity will not let me say otherwise. Do I say that because I happen to believe that Paul’s writings clearly forbid women to be ordained as elders? And that women are not to teach men, or speak in the public assembly?
No, I am being honest with history. I cannot say the same about the Quakers. As much as I like what the Quakers stood for in some areas, my integrity will not permit me to make the Quakers appear as if they forbade women speaking publically in the assemblies. It simply was not so. But the early church and the Anabaptists forbade women to speak in the public assemblies and to teach men. Integrity demands that I say that.
And if we lack integrity in history …
So what do you do with a person or a group who does not seem to have integrity with history? Personally, I find it hard to swallow the same person’s (or group’s) handling of the Holy Scriptures. If they pull an ambiguous quote from Martyrs Mirror and make it appear that the early Anabaptists had ordained women eldresses, or if they use one ambiguous early church quote, but ignore a dozen plain ones … how will they handle the Bible?
Perhaps some of you readers are wondering why I do not take up here an exposition of the Scriptures that touch women preachers. Well, my main point in this short article is not about women preachers, but about integrity. But let us look at one biblical point, again mainly considering integrity.
In the same issue of The Gospel Trumpet, there is a small box concerning Phoebe, the διάκονον [transliterated, “deaconess”] of the church at Cenchrea mentioned in Romans 16:1. The article states:
Many have thought the word servant (diakonos) here means deacon or deaconess, but when the same word is used elsewhere by Paul, it denotes ministers of the gospel:
“Jesus Christ was a minister” (diakonos). Rom. 15:8.
“Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers” (diakonos). 1 Cor. 3:5.
“Epaphras our dear fellowservant…a faithful minister” (diakonos). Col. 1:7.
“Thou [Timothy] shalt be a good minister (diakonos) of Jesus Christ.” 1 Tim. 4:6.
“Tychicus, a beloved brother and faithful minister” (diakonos). Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7.
“Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers (diakonos) by whom ye believed.” 1 Cor. 3:5; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, 25.
From the Scriptures selected by The Gospel Trumpet, it could easily be deduced that the Greek word διάκονον always refers to what we think of when we think of an ordained preacher. However … the word “minister” simply means “to aid” (verb) or “one who aids” (noun). Are the quoted texts saying that all those mentioned were ordained preachers? Or is it simply calling them aides, or more specifically “one who executes the commands of another” (Thayer’s Lexicon)? But let’s get down to the integrity of the matter … why was not Romans 13:4 added in the list selected by The Gospel Trumpet?
For he is the minister of God to thee for good …
Who is this “minister”? None other than the civil authority that is over the believer. Yes, the civil authorities are “deacons” of God! In John 2:5, “His mother saith unto the διακόνοις, Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it.” Were those wedding helpers “ordained ministers”?
Obviously my point is that the Greek word διάκονον can refer specifically to an ordained servant of the church (1 Ti. 3:8), or it can simply be the men responsible for filling the waterpots at a marriage, or your town mayor, or the girl who wipes the tables after a meal.
In what sense was Phebe a διάκονον: an aide of the church, or a “minister of the gospel”? From the isolated text of Romans 16:1, nothing can be concluded. We have to take into account the whole NT use of the word, as well as the teachings concerning women and public ministry.
My conclusion—based on the whole of the NT teaching—is that she was simply a woman of the church at Cenchrea who aided the church by carrying Paul’s letter and perhaps taking care of some other unspecified “business” while there. It appears that she had been busy succouring many people in the past, so maybe she was simply on a mission to Rome to bless some needy person or family there. Maybe some expectant mother needed an extra hand for a few months. Maybe a sick sister needed some help. Maybe she taught the younger sisters how to love their husbands. There are myriads of opportunities to aid the church without being an “ordained minister of the gospel.”
But the bottom line is that we really don’t know, from the text of that one verse, in what sense Paul intended the word. But to quote only the verses that tend to use diakonon in a sense of a “minister of the gospel,” and act as if that is the only way to interpret the word diakonon … is that integrity?
I quote the article again:
… but when the same word is used elsewhere by Paul, it denotes ministers of the gospel.
Does integrity ignore obvious evidence to the contrary? That said, simple, honest ignorance can also be involved. Innocent ignorance does not mean a lack of integrity. The difference is when truth is revealed, innocent ignorance will acknowledge its former error. A lack of integrity will just make excuses or ignore the truth.
Agendas and integrity
One of integrity’s mightiest foes is having an agenda. For example, concerning church history, it is common (and I have found myself doing it as well) to go looking in history to find support for a position, instead of to go looking for what position the historical evidence provides. And the same, of course, applies to looking in the Bible to find evidence to support an agenda. We see it all the time in today’s apostate churches with the “gay” agenda. It “blows me away” that people read the Bible and come away saying that sodomite “marriages” are not sin. My integrity simply will not let me say such a thing (and I am not claiming my integrity is perfect). If I felt sodomy was righteous, then I would have to abandon the Bible. Gay “marriage” is the epitome of self-righteousness. I simply do not have any desire to twist Scripture and history that hard. I have very little respect for the integrity of anyone who claims the Bible supports homosexual “marriages.” Scripture is too plain on that subject.
Yet, I realize that sometimes when I read—be it the Bible or history—I sense that an agenda lurks in the shadows, trying to get me to ignore evidence that may contradict my current understanding of an issue. May God help us all to flee from all agendas except the “agenda” to be honest seekers of truth. If the truth of the matter is that the early church and the Anabaptists did ordain women to be preachers to men, then may we have enough integrity to say so. If not, then may we just have enough integrity to not twist and hide evidence so as to support an agenda.
Pray for me!
 I am referring to The Gospel Trumpet, published by the Church of God, Restoration. I grew up in churches very similar to this group and have had close contact in the past with it. I wrote a historical overview of the movement, which can be found at www.primitivechristianity.org or by writing to the address in the front of this magazine.
 Also to be noted is that the German word for minister itself has both a male and a female form. For a lady, it would have to be “einer aeltesterin” and for an eldress, “einer dienerin” (the -in suffix making it feminine).
 While the phrase “women in the ministry” is perfectly valid in the sense of women who served and blessed others, the underlying thought is of ordained women as elders, pastors, or teachers of men.
 Origen, Fragmenta ex commentariis in epistulam i ad Corinthios (in catenis), Greek text published in Claude Jenkins, “Documents: Origen on I Corinthians. IV,” Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1909), p. 41. English translation from Roger Gryson, The Ministry of Women in the Early Church (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1976), p. 28.
 Technically the phrase “minister of the gospel” does not specifically refer to preaching. An “aide of the gospel” is simply someone who helps in the cause of the kingdom of God, be it in preaching/teaching, or in helping in physical needs. For that reason I use quotes, since the phrase has come to mean a “preacher of the gospel.”
Originally published in The Heartbeat of the Remnant (May/June 2013), 400 W. Main Street Ste. 1, Ephrata, PA 17522.
By Andrew V. Ste. Marie“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath” (James 5:12)
“I am content.”
A twenty-four year old young man stood before the city council of colonial New York City and said these words. What was he content with? He was content to be put back in jail. For what cause? For refusing to disobey the words of Jesus.
Early in 1745, young David Zeisberger had set off with Christian Frederick Post to learn the language of the Mohawk Indians. The two young Moravian missionaries were arrested and charged with refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to the King of England. The colony of New York had a new law which stated that “Every Vagrant Preacher, Moravian, Disguised Papist [Roman Catholic], or any other person presuming to reside among and teach the Indians” who had no license and had not taken the oath “shall be treated as a person taking upon him to seduce the Indians from his Majesty’s interest.” The council read the new law to David, and asked him if he would take the oath. He replied, “I hope the honorable Council will not force me to do it.” They said, “We will not constrain you; you may let it alone if it is against your conscience; but you will have to go to prison again.”
“I am content,” David told them. So back into jail he went, with his companion, for a total of fifty-one days. “We count it an honor to suffer for the Saviour’s sake,” David wrote.
These two Moravians sat in a New York prison for standing against the swearing of oaths. For others, refusal to swear has led to death. How does God view the swearing of oaths? Is swearing really that bad – or might it be, as some suggest, an act of worship which is highly pleasing to God?
What does Jesus say?
What is an Oath?
Before discussing whether oaths are right, we must first understand what oaths are. Those who defend the swearing of oaths define an oath as “calling God to witness to the truth of a statement.” (We will see why they define it this way later.) However, Jesus had a different definition of oaths.
“Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon” (Matthew 23:16-22).
In this passage, Jesus is rebuking the Pharisees for making rules concerning which oaths could be broken without guilt and which ones had to be kept inviolable. Notice what the Pharisees were swearing by: the temple, the gold of the temple, the altar, and the gift on the altar. Obviously, these were oaths, and Jesus treated them as such. However, none of them were “calling God to witness”! We see then that this cannot be the true definition of an oath. There are two parts to an oath: 1) the oath itself (“I swear”) and 2) the confirmation: what is being sworn by. People swear by many things, for instance, “I swear to God” or “I swear by my mother’s grave.” Some even swear without a confirmation, just saying “I swear that…” There are the judicial oaths in courts, service oaths for public office or military service, and the Hippocratic oath for medical professionals. These are all oaths. The writer of the book of Hebrews affirms that oaths are sworn by something greater than the swearer and are used for confirmation of something asserted: “For men verily swear by the greater: and an oath for confirmation is to them an end of all strife” (Hebrews 6:16). We see in this verse that the purpose of oaths is for confirmation of a statement based on the authority or weight of something greater than the swearer.
First Oath in the Bible
The first recorded oath in the Bible was given by a Godly man, Abraham. In Genesis 21:22-24, 27, & 31, we read:
“And it came to pass at that time, that Abimelech and Phichol the chief captain of his host spake unto Abraham, saying, God is with thee in all that thou doest: Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s son: but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned. And Abraham said, I will swear…And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and both of them made a covenant…Wherefore he called that place Beersheba; because there they sware both of them.”
The Law of Moses
Amid the flames, clouds, smoke, and trumpetings on Mount Sinai, God gave a covenant to Moses to give to the people of Israel. This law would be the standard of righteousness until the Messiah came to replace it. The Mosaic Law has plenty to say about oaths, and it is essential to understand exactly what the Law allowed and did not allow when we are discussing the subject of oaths.
Under the Law of Moses, oaths were permitted, and the children of Israel made extensive use of them in Old Testament times. In fact, under certain circumstances, the Law actually commanded the use of oaths. In Exodus 22:10-12, we read:
“If a man deliver unto his neighbour an ass, or an ox, or a sheep, or any beast, to keep; and it die, or be hurt, or driven away, no man seeing it: Then shall an oath of the LORD be between them both, that he hath not put his hand unto his neighbour’s goods; and the owner of it shall accept thereof, and he shall not make it good. And if it be stolen from him, he shall make restitution unto the owner thereof.”
In this passage, we learn that if the animal was lost to the owner in some way, the man who was keeping it was to swear an oath that he was not guilty of stealing or destroying his neighbor’s animal. This oath released him from being required to replace the animal for his neighbor. The neighbor was required to accept the oath as confirmation that his neighbor was innocent.
In the book of Deuteronomy, God includes swearing by His Name as part of the service which He desired from the Israelites and mentions it in the context of a rejection of idolatry.
“Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God, and serve him, and shalt swear by his name. Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; (For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee, and destroy thee from off the face of the earth” (Deuteronomy 6:13-15).
“Thou shalt fear the LORD thy God; him shalt thou serve, and to him shalt thou cleave, and swear by his name. He is thy praise, and he is thy God, that hath done for thee these great and terrible things, which thine eyes have seen” (Deuteronomy 10:20-21).
Oaths were also required in the service of the priests. Numbers 5 records what was to be done with a woman who was suspected by her husband of unfaithfulness. She was to be brought to the priest, who was to perform a ceremony to allow the Lord to reveal whether she was guilty or innocent. Part of this ceremony involved an oath:
“And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen” (Numbers 5:19-22).
Not only were oaths permitted and commanded in the Mosaic Law, God Himself made use of oaths on more than one occasion. For instance, in Jeremiah 22:5, God declares: “But if ye will not hear these words, I swear by myself, saith the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.” In Exodus 17, after a battle between the Israelites and the Amalekites, Moses built an altar and called it Jehovah—nissi, “Because the LORD hath sworn that the LORD will have war with Amalek from generation to generation” (Exodus 17:16). (See also Deuteronomy 7:8; Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 6:13, 16; Isaiah 45:23).
So we see that not only were oaths permitted under the Law of Moses, they were actually required in some circumstances, and God Himself swore. Nevertheless, there were restrictions which were applied even under the Mosaic Law which are important to understand.
Restrictions on Swearing
The Law of Moses strictly forbade false oaths – swearing to something which was not true, or swearing that a person would do something and then not doing it.
If a man swore to do something and was unable to perform it, the Law considered it sin and required that he bring a trespass offering to the priest.
“Or if a soul swear, pronouncing with his lips to do evil, or to do good, whatsoever it be that a man shall pronounce with an oath, and it be hid from him; when he knoweth of it, then he shall be guilty in one of these. And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that he hath sinned in that thing: And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the LORD for his sin which he hath sinned, a female from the flock, a lamb or a kid of the goats, for a sin offering; and the priest shall make an atonement for him concerning his sin” (Leviticus 5:4-6).
Numbers 30:1-2 also commands that oaths were to be kept:
“And Moses spake unto the heads of the tribes concerning the children of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded. If a man vow a vow unto the LORD, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.”
Swearing falsely was also forbidden. Leviticus 6:2a, 3-5 says:
“If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the LORD…Or have found that which was lost, and lieth concerning it, and sweareth falsely; in any of all these that a man doeth, sinning therein: Then it shall be, because he hath sinned, and is guilty, that he shall restore that which he took violently away, or the thing which he hath deceitfully gotten, or that which was delivered him to keep, or the lost thing which he found, Or all that about which he hath sworn falsely; he shall even restore it in the principal, and shall add the fifth part more thereto, and give it unto him to whom it appertaineth, in the day of his trespass offering.”
God further declared in Leviticus 19:12:
“And ye shall not swear by my name falsely, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the LORD.”
The prophets, who called the people to return to the Lord and repent of their transgressions, also spoke against false oaths. Zechariah includes false oaths in a list of things which God declares that He hates.
“These are the things that ye shall do; Speak ye every man the truth to his neighbour; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates: And let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith the LORD” (Zechariah 8:16-17).
In the book of Malachi, those who swear falsely are put in the same list with sorcerers and adulterers:
“And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the LORD of hosts” (Malachi 3:5).
Another restriction was given by Joshua near the end of his life. He warned against swearing by the names of false gods.
“Be ye therefore very courageous to keep and to do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, that ye turn not aside therefrom to the right hand or to the left; That ye come not among these nations, these that remain among you; neither make mention of the name of their gods, nor cause to swear by them, neither serve them, nor bow yourselves unto them: But cleave unto the LORD your God, as ye have done unto this day” (Joshua 23:6-8).
Oaths were not a light thing among the ancient Israelites. They took oaths very seriously. An example of this is found in I Samuel 14. King Saul, in the middle of a battle with the Philistines, swore an oath: “Cursed be the man that eateth any food until evening, that I may be avenged on mine enemies” (I Samuel 14:24). All the people, who “feared the oath” (verse 26), refrained from eating anything, even when passing by a piece of honeycomb dropped from the hive – except Jonathan, who had not heard of his father’s oath. He nearly lost his life for eating when his father had rashly cursed anyone who ate that day.
Oaths were taken so seriously that any oath or vow which a woman made was subject to the approval of her husband or father, who could nullify her oath or vow if he so chose (Numbers 30:3-16).
So we see that with some important exceptions, oaths were permitted and even required under the Old Covenant. But the day came when the reign of the Law of Moses ended.
A New Kingdom
“Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” cried John the Baptist (Matthew 3:2). People from all over Judaea flocked to hear this man, dressed in camel’s hair, preach about the coming of the new Kingdom. Then one day, John greeted the King Himself with these words: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29b). “The law and the prophets were until John,” Jesus later said; “since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it” (Luke 16:16). The reign of Moses’ Law had ended, and the King was here to establish the laws by which His Kingdom would operate. Among the laws which He set up was a radically different standard on the swearing of oaths.
Jesus’ Words on Oaths
Jesus addressed the subject of oaths in the most influential sermon of all time, the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:33-37, we read:
“Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths: But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”
Jesus made clear the radical new standard which He was requiring of those in His Kingdom – no oaths at all, for any purpose, in any way. “Swear not at all,” He said. There is nothing unclear about this instruction.
James’ Words on Swearing
Jesus was not the only one to instruct the citizens of the Kingdom of God to abstain from swearing. The Apostle James wrote:
“But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation” (James 5:12).
In this verse, we again find the answer to the question “does God want His children to swear oaths?” James tells us “swear not,” and then instructs us to avoid swearing by heaven, earth, or “by any other oath.” “Any other” would include swearing by God Himself.
This verse also gives us the answer to the question “is the subject of swearing really all that important?” The Book of James discusses many topics – responding to the trials of life, partiality, the relationship of faith and works, controlling our tongues, strife, separation from the world, wealth, etc. These are undoubtedly important issues. Nevertheless, when he arrives at the topic of swearing, he begins with “But above all things, my brethren” – in other words, this one topic is more important than anything else discussed in the entire book!
What Were They Forbidding?
In spite of the clear instructions given by Jesus and James, there are some today – and there have been some for centuries – who insist that the swearing of oaths is permissible, or perhaps even highly pleasing to God. They insist that what Jesus and James were actually forbidding was only false and frivolous oaths – not any oath. There are some serious problems with this view. First, if they meant to forbid only false and frivolous oaths, why did they not say that they were forbidding false and frivolous oaths? Secondly, why did they use such absolute language – “Swear not at all,” “swear not…by any other oath”? Thirdly, Jesus was clearly following the pattern of the other sections in the Sermon on the Mount where He raised the standards of the Law of Moses (“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time…But I say unto you”). The Law of Moses forbade false oaths, as we have seen; if Jesus only forbade false oaths, He would not have raised the standard at all.
Did Paul Swear?
Those who defend the swearing of oaths point to the epistles of Paul, claiming that he swore several times in his writings. The verses quoted here are used to support this claim:
“For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers” (Romans 1:9). “I say the truth in Christ, I lie not, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 9:1). “But as God is true, our word toward you was not yea and nay” (II Corinthians 1:18). “Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth” (II Corinthians 1:23). “The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is blessed for evermore, knoweth that I lie not” (II Corinthians 11:31). “Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not” (Galatians 1:20). “For God is my record, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:8). “For neither at any time used we flattering words, as ye know, nor a cloke of covetousness; God is witness” (I Thessalonians 2:5). “Whereunto I am ordained a preacher, and an apostle, (I speak the truth in Christ, and lie not;) a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity” (I Timothy 2:7).
What is it in these verses which lead some to believe that the Apostle Paul swore oaths? Do you remember that those who defend the swearing of oaths define an oath as “calling on God for confirmation”? In all of these verses, Paul calls on God to confirm what he is saying. Those who defend oaths, then, take these as oaths and as confirmation that it is perfectly acceptable to God to swear oaths. But God is not the author of confusion.
As we pointed out before, their definition of the word oath is faulty, and thus their conclusion regarding these verses is also faulty. Although Paul did call on God to confirm his words, he did not use oaths (saying “I swear”).
Whenever a teaching of Jesus seems to be contradicted by Paul, we must find a way to harmonize the two which leaves Jesus’ words supreme – not the other way around. Jesus is the King, and the servant is not greater than his master (John 13:16, 15:20) – even if that servant is the great Apostle Paul. (Of course, Paul’s writings never do contradict Jesus’ words.)
The Early Church on the Swearing of Oaths
We have seen that whereas the Old Covenant allowed and even required some oaths, they are strictly forbidden under the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. The early Christians of the first two generations after the apostles held to this view.
Justin Martyr, about the year 160 A.D., wrote, “And with regard to our not swearing at all, and always speaking the truth, He commanded as follows: ‘Swear not at all.’” Irenaeus (student of Polycarp, who was a student of John the Apostle) wrote: “He commanded them not only not to swear falsely, but not even to swear at all.” Tertullian wrote, “Of perjury I am silent, since even swearing is not lawful.”
The Early Anabaptists
The early Anabaptists (Dutch Mennonites, Swiss Brethren, and Hutterites) took firm stands against the swearing of oaths. Their writings on the subject are well worth reading, because they faced several of the same objections which we do today when we insist on obedience to Christ’s teachings on this subject.
The Schleitheim Confession (written 1527), the earliest Anabaptist confession of faith, was written by the Swiss Brethren and took a strong stand against oaths:
“We are agreed as follows concerning the oath: The oath is a confirmation among those who are quarreling or making promises. In the Law it is commanded to be performed in God’s Name, but only in truth, not falsely. Christ, who teaches the perfection of the Law, prohibits all swearing to His [followers], whether true or false,—neither by heaven, nor by the earth, nor by Jerusalem, nor by our head,—and that for the reason which He shortly thereafter gives, For you are not able to make one hair white or black. So you see it is for this reason that all swearing is forbidden: we cannot fulfill that which we promise when we swear, for we cannot change [even] the very least thing on us.
“Now there are some who do not give credence to the simple command of God, but object with this question: Well now, did not God swear to Abraham by Himself (since He was God) when He promised him that He would be with him and that He would be his God if he would keep His commandments,—why then should I not also swear when I promise to someone? Answer: Hear what the Scripture says: God, since He wished more abundantly to show unto the heirs the immutability of His counsel, inserted an oath, that by two immutable things (in which it is impossible for God to lie) we might have a strong consolation. Observe the meaning of this Scripture: What God forbids you to do, He has power to do, for everything is possible for Him. God swore an oath to Abraham, says the Scripture, so that He might show that His counsel is immutable. That is, no one can withstand nor thwart His will; therefore He can keep His oath. But we can do nothing, as is said above by Christ, to keep or perform [our oaths]: therefore we shall not swear at all.
“Then others further say as follows: It is not forbidden of God to swear in the New Testament, when it is actually commanded in the Old, but it is forbidden only to swear by heaven, earth, Jerusalem and our head. Answer: Hear the Scripture, He who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by Him who sitteth thereon. Observe: it is forbidden to swear by heaven, which is only the throne of God: how much more is it forbidden [to swear] by God Himself! Ye fools and blind, which is greater, the throne or Him that sitteth thereon?”
Menno Simons, in a book which he wrote against Reformed theologian Martin Micron, wrote:
“That these things are so your unscriptural glosses [comments, explanations] concerning the oath make plain. Christ says, Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths; but I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool. Matt. 5:33-35. And you, Micron, say that nothing but light-minded, false oaths are hereby prohibited, as if Moses allowed Israel to swear light-mindedly and falsely, and that Christ under the New Testament merely forbade these, notwithstanding that all intelligent readers know that it was not merely allowed Israel to swear truly but it was also commanded them to do so. Lev. 19:12; Deut. 10:20.
“If the Israelites then, as you hold, had the liberty in this matter that we have, and if it be such a glorious thing and an honor to God rightly to swear by the name of God, as you make bold to lie against your God, then tell me (Dear me) why Wisdom did not say, You have heard that it hath been said to them of old, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, and I say the same thing. Instead Christ says, Moses commanded not to forswear thyself, but I say unto you, Thou shalt not swear at all.”
In another book, Menno wrote:
“Nearly everything which is transacted before the magistracy must be affirmed by an oath, although the Lord has so plainly forbidden the swearing of oaths to all Christians. Matt. 5:34…We confess and heartily believe that no emperor or king may rule as superior, nor command contrary to His Word, since He is the Head of all princes, and is the King of all kings, and unto Him every knee shall bow which is in heaven, in earth, or under the earth. He has plainly forbidden us to swear, and pointed us to yea and nay alone. Therefore it is that through fear of God we do not swear, nor dare to swear, though we must hear and suffer much on that account from the world…it should be observed that Christ Jesus does not in the New Testament point His disciples to the Law in regard to the matter of swearing—the dispensation of imperfectness which allowed swearing, but He points us now from the Law to yea and nay, as to the dispensation of perfectness, saying, Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time (that is, to the fathers under the law by Moses), Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths (that is, thou shalt swear truly and fulfill thine oath): but I (Christ) say unto you my disciples, Swear not at all (that is, neither truly nor falsely), neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth, for it is his footstool, neither by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your communication be yea, yea; nay, nay; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil. Here you have Christ’s own doctrine and ordinance concerning swearing.”
Peter Reidemann, an important early Hutterite leader, wrote:
“Therefore Christ, in order to drive away the shadows that the light of truth—which light he is himself—may shine upon us, cometh and saith, ‘Ye have heard that it hath been said to them of old: Thou shalt swear no false oath but shalt perform thine oath unto God. But I say unto you that ye swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne: nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: nor by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black. But let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil’—that is the devil.
“Now, if one should say, as they all interpret it, false and superficial swearing is forbidden, but when one sweareth out of love, necessity and the profit of one’s neighbour, it is well done and not wrong—this happeneth when human reason goeth before the knowledge of God, and where human cleverness desireth to rule over the Spirit of God, and not allow itself to be controlled by the same. For just so did Eve look at the forbidden fruit, and chose the same at the counsel of the serpent, which she followed more than the counsel of God, therefore was she deceived by its cunning and led into death. So it is still: whosoever will please men cannot be Christ’s servant. For truly here one cannot let reason rule or twist the scriptures in accordance with human presumption or opinion, for that is futile, but one must give God the honour and leave his command unaltered…Therefore saith James, ‘Above all things, dear brothers, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into hypocrisy.’ Here James will have no oath at all, whether small or great, to avoid hypocrisy. Therefore, let men twist it as they will and dress it up and adorn it as they may, no good will be found in human swearing, for Christ himself saith, ‘Let your speech be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ The evil one, however, is the devil, that teareth good from the heart of men and planteth evil.
“Therefore the devout will walk in the truth, allow it to rule and guide them and hold to the same; whatsoever it stirreth, speaketh and doeth within them, believe and observe the same; and this for the sake of the truth which is God himself, which dwelleth in them. Therefore they neither need nor desire any oath.”
The Dortrecht Confession (also known as the 18 Articles of Faith), written by the Dutch Mennonites in 1632, states in Article 15:
“Regarding the swearing of oaths, we believe and confess, that the Lord Jesus has dissuaded his followers from and forbidden them the same; that is, that he commanded them to ‘swear not at all,’ but that their ‘Yea’ should be ‘yea’ and their ‘Nay nay.’ From which we understand that all oaths, high and low, are forbidden; and that instead of them we are to confirm all our promises and covenants, declarations and testimonies of all matters, merely with ‘Yea that is yea,’ and ‘Nay that is nay;’ and that we are to perform and fulfill at all times, and in all things, to every one, every promise and obligation to which we thus affirm, as faithfully as if we had confirmed it with the most solemn oath. And if we thus do, we have confidence that no one—not even the government itself—will have just cause to require more of us. Matt. 5:34-37; James 5:12; II Cor. 1:17.”
Application for Today
To take a stand against swearing oaths is, at first glance, not nearly as costly a decision today as it was for the early Anabaptists. They decided to stand with Christ on this issue at risk of life and limb. Today, if we want to take a stand against oath-swearing, we simply ask to affirm instead of swear if necessary, and no one seems to care. Nevertheless, Jesus’ teachings about oaths ought to affect our lives profoundly.
Jesus wants our yes to be yes and our no to be no. James says the same thing. Our speech ought to be so reliable that we do not need oaths to confirm what we say. We should be known as honest people because Jesus has transformed our lives. We do not need oaths anymore because everyone knows that whatever we say will be true and reliable.
We also must be careful in our everyday speech to avoid oaths. Interjecting “I swear” into a conversation is an oath, a violation of the command of Jesus Christ. Such expressions as “by George,” “by Jove,” or even “by golly” are abbreviated oaths – the confirmation without the swearing. If we use these expressions, perceptive people will not take us seriously when we say we do not believe in swearing oaths. Furthermore, they are, in and of themselves, violations of Jesus’ commandments and therefore sin.
Lying and exaggeration must be completely eradicated from our speech. Otherwise, we open ourselves up to the criticism that we refuse to swear because we know we are not telling the truth. May such things never be heard. Rather, may all know that we refuse to swear oaths because we have accepted the Kingdom of God, with its high standard of honesty, and are following the commands and teachings of Christ and the Apostles which forbid oaths – and everything we say is scrupulously honest and, as God grants power, within the standards of righteousness which He has set for His Kingdom.
May we earnestly pray to God that He would tame our tongues. “But the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). God can tame it for us, and a tamed tongue must be one of the most remarkable proofs of a regenerated life. “For in many things we offend all. If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2).
 Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 1, p. 168
 Ibid., volume 1, p. 408
 Ibid., volume 3, p. 67. A few early Christians allowed swearing under some circumstances, but discouraged it.
 There were over ten different groups of early Anabaptists – some of them quite strange. Some of these groups allowed the swearing of oaths. For the purposes of this article, when we talk about the early Anabaptists, we are referring to the Dutch Mennonites, the Swiss Brethren, and the Hutterites.
 J. C. Wenger, translator, “The Schleitheim Confession of Faith,” Mennonite Quarterly Review October 1945, pp. 251-252
 Menno Simons, “Epistle to Martin Micron,” 1554, in J. C. Wenger, editor, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Herald Press, pp. 922-923
 Menno Simons, “Confession of the Distressed Christians,” 1552, in J. C. Wenger, editor, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Herald Press, pp. 518-519
 Peter Reidemann, Confession of Faith, Plough Publishing, pp. 197-198, 204-205
 Dortrecht Confession of Faith, in A Devoted Christian’s Prayer Book, 1967, Pathway Publishers, pp. 107-108
By Andrew V. Ste. Marie
“Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee; And leaving Nazareth, he came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is upon the sea coast, in the borders of Zabulon and Nephthalim: That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, The land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles; The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up. From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:12-17 Authorized Version
After His baptism and temptation in the wilderness, Jesus began His public ministry with this short and simple sermon: “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Despite the fact that this is the message which Jesus preached, some today believe that repentance is not a part of the Gospel and is unnecessary for us today. However, throughout the New Testament, repentance is given as a condition of salvation and a part of God’s message to men.
After Jesus sent them out to preach, the twelve disciples “went out, and preached that men should repent” (Mark 6:12). Jesus taught that “except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). After His resurrection, Jesus told His disciples that repentance was part of the message which He wanted to be preached throughout all nations: “And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). On the day of Pentecost, when asked by the crowd what they should do, “Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). On a later occasion, Peter said: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
Paul also preached repentance. Acts 17:30 says, “And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent”. Speaking to the elders at Ephesus, Paul said that while he was with them he had spent his time “Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). When standing trial before King Agrippa, Paul described his message this way: “But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance” (Acts 26:20).
Some say that we are only required to repent from the single sin of unbelief. While it is true that we must repent of unbelief, that is not the only sin we must repent from. We must repent of our deeds (Revelation 16:11), of our sins (Revelation 9:21), of the sinful works of our hands and idolatry (Revelation 9:20), from dead works (Hebrews 6:1), of uncleanness (II Corinthians 12:21), and of wickedness (Acts 8:22).
Some may think that repentance is a dreary responsibility – laying aside sins and habits so dearly enjoyed. This is not how repentance works! The “goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance” (Romans 2:4b) – it is an act of love and goodness on God’s part to bring a person to a place of repentance. God has meant people to live in holiness and a relationship with Him, not in sin! Repentance may seem burdensome or even impossible, but after you have repented, you will not regret it. I have never met someone who has said, “I wish I had never repented. That was a foolish decision.” Turning from sin and to God is always a good decision because that is how God meant life to be.
“Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities” (Acts 3:26).
Originally published in The Witness, March 2013.
By Mike AtnipPlowing in hope
The sun is shining brightly, lifting the last of the morning haze on this beautiful spring day. At the south end of the field the little creek gurgles and giggles over the stones, frothing its way to Pequea Creek less than a mile to the southeast. The squirrels jump from budding tree to budding tree, and a crow circles lazily overhead, cawing loudly. At the sound of the caw, a turkey gobbles on the wooded hill. Nearby, a small waft of smoke languidly curls from the chimney of the little house that the newly married couple of two years calls home.
It is a beautiful day to be plowing!
Back and forth the young farmer goes. The horse plods faithfully along, turning the rich soil over. When his forefathers had settled in these parts less than fifty years earlier, they did not realize at the time that they were settling on what was some of the best farm ground—literally—in the whole world.
Known in Switzerland as the “Swiss Brethren,” their movement had started in 1525 when a small group of men had rebaptized each other in Zurich. Persecution in the following two centuries had forced many of them down into what is now western Germany and eastern France. Beginning in 1710, some of them found their way to Pennsylvania, into what is now Lancaster County. Here they began to be known as Mennonists, and later Mennonites, from their use of the Dutch Mennonite confession of faith known as the Dortrecht Confession. They had presented this Confession to the Pennsylvania civil leaders as a way to show their nonresistant interpretation of Scripture, requesting exemption from military conscription. Their use of this Confession helped them to become known as Mennonists, even though they were formerly known as Swiss Brethren.
At first the immigrant flow was a trickle, then a stream. By the end of the 1700s, some 3000 of these Swiss Brethren had arrived in Philadelphia. Martin Boehm, the man handling the plow, was a second-generation Swiss Brethren immigrant in Lancaster County. His grandfather had been a Swiss Pietist, but had joined the Swiss Brethren in Germany. His father had come to America, probably in hopes of religious liberty.
As he plowed, Martin may have turned up stone arrowheads. Less than ten miles away, at a small reserve on the banks of the Susquehanna River, lived a friendly group of Conestoga Indians. In his childhood, it is probable that Martin had played with the Indian boys, or at least had seen them around.
But that day, Martin had no interest in arrowheads, nor even the beautiful, quiet scenery that was bursting to life all around him. There were no airplanes roaring overhead, no tractor-trailer trucks barreling down the turnpike, not even a chainsaw to provide any noise pollution. If he heard anything of his neighbors it was probably only a neigh of a horse or the sound of an axe ringing through the morning stillness.Distressed
No, Martin was not at peace. As he rested his horse at the end of each fresh furrow, he knelt down and prayed. Getting back up, he would make a fresh furrow, only to stop and pray at the other end.
Back and forth. Back and forth. But despite the serenity that surrounded him, all that seemed to ring through his mind was one word: “Verloren, verloren!” (Lost, lost!)
Finally, he could stand it no longer! He did not wait until the end of the furrow; he stopped the horse in the middle of the field and fell to his knees. He tells the story in his own words, beginning with his ordination to the ministry some months before:
When nominated, I had no desire that the lot might fall on me, and I earnestly besought my brethren to nominate someone in my place, better than myself. This, however, was not done, and the moment came when each nominee was to step forth and take a book. I stepped out, saying inwardly, “Lord, not me. I am too poor.” The books were opened, and the lot or token was mine! Believing, as I did, that this lot falls by divine appointment, I did not feel myself at liberty to refuse obedience to its decision, but felt constrained by my conscience to take upon myself the office of the ministry, and discharge it as best I could.
According to our usage it was not expected from me to preach immediately thereafter, because our elder preacher was still able to preach; but it was my duty to assist him in preaching and exhortation as God would give me ability. I had been reading the Scriptures much, but now read them still more, and with care, in order to impress their reading on my memory, so that I might have something wherewith to preach or exhort.
Sunday came and the elder brother preached. In attempting to follow him by a word of exhortation, I failed, although for some two years past, I had been giving testimony at the close of the sermons, and frequently concluded the meetings.
I continued reading. The next Sabbath I was requested to take part, and rose up, but could say little or nothing. I had charged my mind and memory with some Scripture passages, but when I wanted them, could not bring them to my recollection. I prayed to the Lord to assist me in retaining his word, and strengthen me in my great weakness, that, to some extent at least, I might answer his call.
Some months passed in this way, but it came not. This condition began deeply to distress me—to be a preacher, and yet have nothing to preach, nor to say, but stammer out a few words, and then be obliged to take my seat in shame and remorse! I had faith in prayer, and prayed more fervently.
While thus engaged in praying earnestly for aid to preach, the thought rose in my mind, or as though one spoke to me, saying, “You pray for grace to teach others the way of salvation, and you have not prayed for your own salvation.”
This thought or word did not leave me. “My salvation” followed me wherever I went. I felt constrained to pray for myself; and, while praying for myself, my mind became alarmed. I felt and saw myself a poor sinner. I was lost! My agony became great. I was plowing in the field, and kneeled down at each end of the furrow, to pray. The word “Lost, lost” went every round with me. Midway in the field I could go no further, but sank behind the plow, crying, “Lord save, I am lost!”
The thought or voice said, “I am come to seek and to save that which is lost.”
In a moment, a stream of joy was poured over me. I praised the Lord and left the field, and told my companion what joy I felt.
Martin continues his story, explaining the change that occurred in his outlook toward preaching:
As before this I wished the Sabbath far off, now I wished it was tomorrow. Sunday came: the elder brother preached. I rose to tell my experience, since my call to the ministry. When speaking of my lost estate, and agony of mind, some in the congregation began to weep. This gave me encouragement to speak of our fall and lost condition, and of repentance. The Sabbath following it was the same, and much more. Before I was done, I found myself in the midst of the congregation, where some were weeping aloud!
This caused considerable commotion in our church, as well as among the people generally. It was all new; none of us had heard or seen it before. A new creation appeared to rise up before me, and around me. Now Scripture, before mysterious, and like a dead letter to me, was plain of interpretation; was all spirit, all life.
Like a dream, old things had passed away, and it seemed as if I had awakened to new life, new thoughts, new faith, new love. I rejoiced and praised God with my whole heart. This joy, this faith, this love, I wished to communicate to those around me. But when speaking about it, in public or in private, it made different impressions on different persons. Some gave a mournful look, some sighed and wept and would say, “Oh! Martin, are we indeed lost?”
Yes, mankind is lost! Christ will never find us, till we know that we are lost. My wife was the next lost sinner that felt the same joy, the same love.
Although the story, as it is told above, says that such an experience was a new sort of thing for that congregation, no one really had a big problem with it. In fact, in just five years Martin was chosen as bishop, again by lot. But to get in the lot, he had to have been nominated, a sign that his Mennonist people had confidence in him.
Martin’s zeal for preaching soon caused him to step beyond the normal meeting schedule, and he began to preach midweek in various places. The custom of his day was a church gathering every two weeks. When this custom began is not certain, but it is assumed by some to have begun even before the Swiss Brethren immigrated to America.
Frontier life was generally hard on spiritual life. Families were scattered through the woods with practically no good roads. Travel in such conditions was often hard, especially on large families with lots of little children, the aged, and expectant mothers. Many people have assumed that this hard lifestyle only contributed more to the practice of a church meeting once every two weeks. In fact, in some frontier communities church meetings were held only once every month.
But it was not so in the beginning of the Swiss Brethren movement! The earliest Swiss Brethren Congregational Order reads like this:
Since the almighty, eternal, and merciful God has made his wonderful light break forth in the world in this most dangerous time, we recognize the mystery of his will. His will is for his Word to be made known to us so we may find our way into community with him. For this reason, and in obedience to Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching, we are to observe a new commandment—the commandment to love one another so we may live in brotherly unity and peace. To keep that peace, all of us brothers and sisters have agreed as follows:
1. To meet at least three or four times a week, to exercise ourselves in the teaching of Christ and his apostles, to admonish and encourage one another from the heart to remain faithful to Jesus as we have promised …
Six more points are listed in that congregational order, which, by the way, was found on Michael Sattler right along with the Schleitheim Confession, written by the same hand. But did you notice that they agreed to meet “three or four times a week”? Somewhere along the line that vision was lost. But not only the quantity of the meetings was lost, something happened to the quality.Very sleepy …
In about 1750, a German Pietist living near the Swiss Brethren immigrants in Lancaster County wrote of his experience with them and with the newer German Baptist group. The German Baptists were expressive in their public worship, but of the Mennonists he wrote:
These people [are] modest … and upright in their conduct. They wear plain clothing; proud colors may not be worn by them. Most of the men wear beards. When they are grown up they are baptized and a little water is poured over their heads. Their meetings are very sleepy affairs.
Of course we recognize that what one person may call a “very sleepy” meeting, the next person will not. However, the above writer was not alone in his assessment of the meetings of that era.
So along comes a man with a fresh enthusiasm, a fresh testimony of conversion … and the sleepy are shaken. And shake them Martin did.
He began, along with others, to hold meetings, sometimes by candle light, in the evenings. “Great meetings” were called, probably given that name because they usually lasted for three days—“great” or “big” on length.
Crowds came; Mennonists, German Baptists, Reformed, and, well, about everybody in the community. The other Swiss Brethren ministers had no problem with the meetings. Some of them even helped.The great barn meeting
Five years after Martin’s ordination as a bishop, a “Great Meeting” was called for May 10, 1767, with the location being the barn of Mennonist Isaac Long, just north of the town of Lancaster. It is reported that over 1000 people showed up. While some listened to Martin preach inside the 13-year-old barn, those who could not fit inside listened to some other Mennonist preachers in the orchard.
While this meeting was typical of the “Great Meetings” in many ways, it ended up being a life-changing meeting for Martin. William Otterbein, a Reformed Church minister, listened to Martin tell of his experience. He had experienced something very similar to what Martin had—at about the exact same time Martin had, ten years earlier.
When Martin finished speaking, William rushed to the long-bearded Mennonist preacher and gave him a hug, exclaiming, “Wir sind brüder!” (We are brothers!) These words would be the foundation of their later church name—The United Brethren in Christ.
Those looking on were moved to “praise God aloud, but most of the congregation gave place to their feelings—weeping for joy.” It was an emotional experience.
The Isaac Long house and barn still stands, 245 years after an estimated 1000 people gathered there to hear gospel preaching. While Martin Boehm preached inside the barn, other Mennonist ministers preached to the overflow crowd in the orchard. (Photo taken Dec. 28, 2012) Brotherhood based on experience
There are lots of other details about the story that we do not have space to detail here. About 20 years after that meeting in the barn, Martin Boehm and William Otterbein were elected as the first bishops of a new church movement, The United Brethren in Christ. What we want to look at is the basis of their initial fellowship.
That basis was a common experience. From all appearances, neither one knew the other before meeting in the barn that evening. After listening to Boehm’s experience, Otterbein felt him to be a brother in Christ. He did not know how much Boehm obeyed Jesus’ teaching; he only knew of Boehm’s experience.Brotherhood based on obedience
In contrast, Martin Boehm’s Swiss Brethren (Mennonists) were basing their brotherhood on a common obedience to the teachings of Jesus. To join the congregation, one had to commit to obeying what Jesus had taught on the Sermon on the Mount, and of course, His other teachings as well.
This difference in the basis of brotherhood proved to be problematic for Martin Boehm. He had a decision to make …Too close to disobedience
Martin continued being a bishop among the Swiss Brethren immigrants for about a decade after his meeting Otterbein in that barn. However, some of the Mennonists began to grow leery of his direction. While Martin held firm to following the teachings of Jesus in his own life, he began to associate with others who did not practice Jesus’ teaching about war and swearing oaths.
After several meetings with him, Martin’s fellow Mennonist elders felt they had to excommunicate him. Disobedience to Christ’s teachings was too fundamental of an error for their brotherhood to permit.
The timing was the Revolutionary War. As said, Martin himself never participated in the war, and refused to swear the allegiance oaths that the newly formed states required after the war. Francis Asbury, the famed bishop of the new Methodist movement, likewise refused to participate in both the war and the oath swearing. He and Martin had become good friends. Asbury would end up preaching Martin’s funeral sermon.
Before his death in 1812, Martin Boehm had become a member of the local Methodist Class. He preached, baptized (which included baptizing babies, but it is not clear if Martin himself did this), and held communion with them.
By the time the American Civil War rolled around 50 years later, the Methodists were aiming their sights and pulling the triggers of their guns on other Methodists, on both sides of the front.
The Mennonists were correct in their foresight: evil communications do corrupt good manners!Too close to formality
On the other hand, Martin Boehm felt he had no choice but to leave the Mennonist churches. They demanded of him that he stop fellowshipping with churches that disobeyed Jesus’ teachings, and that he repent of having said such things like “the [Mennonist] bishops lead their people to hell by preaching the ordinances.” Or, saying “the Bible could be burned without harming the church.”
To be sure, the Mennonists should have sat up and paid attention to what Martin was saying, even though his way of wording it probably only irritated them. When people were struggling with their conscience about their sins, they were sometimes counseled by Mennonist elders to “get baptized and take communion.” So they did. Meanwhile, their old carnal heart had never been turned from loving this world to loving Jesus. So instead of repentance and faith in Christ, the seekers were told to “join church and keep the ordinances.”
Robots can keep ordinances. And so can carnal, unregenerate people.
So, the churches contained people who did what the Bible said concerning baptism and communion, but who had not a lick of fervency toward Christ. When church meeting was going on, it was a “very sleepy affair.” But as soon as meeting was over, and the talk outside the chapel doors turned to the price of cattle in the Philadelphia markets, conversations and hearts began to warm!
When it came to spreading the gospel, the neighboring Conestoga Indians never had a sermon preached to them by Mennonists, let alone the ones in the next county over. The Mennonists, it seemed, even had a hard time to send preachers to their own church members who lived very far from home.
Martin felt he could not choose such lifelessness and carnality.What does God think of cold obedience?
The Bible is clear about formality: it is a stench to the nostrils of God. The words “so then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” were not directed towards outright rebels, but to people who at least outwardly obeyed some of God’s commands.
“Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting” reveals God’s attitude toward people who are indeed doing the correct ceremonies, but without a heartfelt obedience.
Remember, robots can keep ordinances. This fellow could probably be programmed to wash feet or take communion!
When it comes to experience, God expects and desires that humanity experience Him. Paul wrote that his desire toward God was “that I might know Him, and the power of his resurrection.” Paul wanted to experience Christ.
Does God want cold obedience? Heartless worship? Sleepy assemblies? Why did He tell us, “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment”?
If God did not want an experiential relationship with man, why on earth did He allow the Song of Solomon to be included in the Holy Scriptures?
Scriptural references could be multiplied, but there is no need. It is quite clear that God wants man to experience Him in a personal way.What does God think of disobedient experiences?
One verse suffices to answer the question: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”
Disobedience, no matter how great the experiences, is not an option in the kingdom of God. Jesus then continues, making it clearer yet:
Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
If there were ever a people who could claim great experiences, the people referred to in these verses would have it. Yet, they will hear those fateful words on the final judgment day: “Depart from me.”
Why? The reason is clear: “work iniquity.”
Disobedience is absolutely incompatible with the kingdom of God.
At this point in our story we will introduce another contemporary of Martin Boehm: Christian Newcomer. Christian was a fellow descendant of the Swiss Brethren immigrants. He, too, had an experience similar to Martin’s. Among other things, his terror of death was made real when a peach stone became lodged in his throat while plowing one day. Feeling himself to be dying, he suddenly got the idea (from God, he felt later) that he should throw himself against a tree about 30 yards away. Using the last of his fading energy, he ran to it and “bounced his shoulders” against it—and out came the stone! He immediately determined to “seek the salvation” of his soul.
He describes the events that followed with these words:
Sometime thereafter, a very heavy tempest arose one evening in the western horizon; presently the whole canopy of Heaven was a black darkness. Tremendous thunder following, clap after clap, and the forked lightning illuminated the objects around me, making darkness visible. This, said I to myself, is perhaps the day of Judgment, of which I have lately dreamed. O! what anguish, fear, and terror took possession of my heart. I walked from room to room, tried to read and to pray, all to no purpose. Fear of hell had seized on me, the cords of death had wound about me. I felt as if wholly forsaken, nor did I know which way to turn. All my prayers committed to memory would not avail.
“O! Eternity! Eternity,” I exclaimed, “which way shall I fly?”
The passage of the door of the house stood open wide. I saw the rain pouring down, the lightning blaze, and heard the thunders roar. I ran, or rather reeled out of the house into the yard a few paces, to the garden fence, and sunk on my knees, determined to give myself wholly and without reserve to Jesus the Savior and Redeemer of mankind, submitting to His will and His will alone.
Having in this manner humbled myself before my Lord and Master, unable to utter a word, a vivid flash of lightning darted across my eyes—at the same instant a clap of thunder. O! what a clap! As it ceased, the whole anguish of soul was removed. I did not know what had happened unto me. My heart felt glad, my soul was happy, my mouth filled with praises and thanksgiving to God for what He had done for me, a poor unworthy creature. I thought if ever a being in this world had cause to praise the Lord, I was that creature. For several nights, tears of gratitude and joy moistened my pillow, and I had many happy hours.
Christian continues his story, explaining that while he felt happy for a while, “gradually I lost this pleasing sensation” and “fear returned.” When he asked the Mennonist elder what to do, the reply was to be baptized and join the church and take communion. He wrote:
I took his friendly advice and did as he had counseled me to do; but all this did not restore to me the joyful sensation or inward comfort which I had lost. True, I was not accused, nor did any person even insinuate anything derogatory to my religion, but I knew and felt a deficiency of something within.Feeling saved
As we read Christian’s story, we see him seeking a definite feeling of salvation, an experience. And, he got just that … only to feel it slip away again.
Life went on for the seeking teenager. His father’s death left him in charge of his mother and the family farm. Soon after turning 21, he “entered with” Miss Elizabeth Baer “into a state of matrimony.” That same year, during the winter, he contracted measles, which made his throat swell dangerously shut. He wrote:
O! what unhappiness did I again experience, what a dreadful conviction did I again find myself in; the conviction of sin was more powerful and severe than ever—the burden thereof too heavy almost to be borne. … Heaven appeared to be as brass, wretchedness and distress had fallen heavily upon me … but I still continued to sue and cry for mercy.
When I had been for two days and three nights in this misery, I was reading to the best of my recollection about midnight, in Revelation 12:10-12. At the end of the latter clause of the 11th verse I made a pause, reflecting, “and they loved not their lives unto death.” Then reading again, “therefore rejoice ye heavens and ye that dwell in them.”
The same instant a something (call it conviction or give it what appellation you please) whispered to me, “This is to say all those who are in such a situation as yourself shall rejoice.” [parenthesis original]
In a moment the peace of God and pardon of my sins was manifested in my soul, and the spirit of God bore witness with my spirit, that God for Jesus’ sake had taken away the burden of my sins and shed abroad his love in my poor unworthy heart. O! thou glorious Being; how did my soul feel at the time? Only those who have felt and experienced the same grace will be able to understand or comprehend what I am about to say. Yes, gentle reader! If at that time I could have called a 1000 lives my own, I would have pledged them all, every one of them, to testify to the certainty of my acceptance with God: my joy or rather ecstasy was so great, that I was in some measure as one beside himself … I ran into the yard to give utterance to my feelings … [emphases mine.]
This experience was not his last. He again lost his good feelings for a while, blaming it later upon the fact that he was ashamed to testify publicly about what had happened. Christian then moved to Maryland, where he had another restoration of his former feelings, so much so that he had to leave his house so he could exclaim aloud—in the middle of the night—his joy.
Then he returned to Pennsylvania for a visit. Here he finally found the courage to tell of his experiences when the service was opened at the end for testimony. Recounting his experiences, he touched the Mennonist congregation. He wrote:
… every person present was sensibly touched—all shed tears as well as myself. And I have no doubt many were convinced that a form of religion, whose habitation is only in the head, and is not felt in the heart, is insufficient unto salvation.Experiences that lead to … where?
Did you catch Christian’s concern? “Only in the head …” He, like most people, want to experience God. Just knowing about Him in the head and obeying His ordinances like a robot is simply nauseating to God … and to man, if man would but admit it.
Where did Christian Newcomer’s and Martin Boehm’s experiences lead them? The Mennonists of their time did not have a problem with people experiencing God. What they did have a problem with was when these same men began to base their fellowship on a common experience, rather than a common obedience.
Martin and Christian were some of the leading men in the United Brethren in Christ Church. That denomination made, in its early years, the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ other practical teachings a test of membership. But … they also freely mingled with other churches, like the Methodists, who did NOT make obedience to Jesus’ teachings mandatory.
It was too much for the Mennonists. They felt obligated to break fellowship with people who would not make obedience (as a test of fellowship) mandatory. The mindset of the Swiss Brethren was more that a born-again experience was necessary to change a person’s heart and actions, whereas the mindset of American revivalism was more that a “new birth” gave a person a feeling of assurance.
There is quite a difference in those outlooks. Ponder them well.The fallout
The United Brethren in Christ and the Methodist Episcopal Church worked toward a union for several years. Documents still exist with Martin Boehm’s and Christian Newcomer’s signatures that show both men as actively engaged in the union effort. Things were coming together … old bishop Asbury was encouraging the effort to unite from the Methodist side. He, too, was nonresistant and opposed to oath swearing, just as were both Boehm and Newcomer in their personal views. However, the proposed union made no mention of making obedience to the Sermon on the Mount a requirement for fellowship in the merger.
When Asbury died, the negotiations between the two denominations came to a screeching halt; one of the Methodist bishops after Asbury decided that the only option for a union was for all the United Brethren to officially become Methodists. The United Brethren could not accept that, for whatever reason, even though up until that time they were sharing pulpits and communion freely (as well as ordinations—Methodist William Ryland helped ordain Newcomer). So the two movements parted ways until 1968 rolled around, when they officially joined together to form what is now The United Methodist Church.
Martin Boehm suffered the tragic loss of a big part of his family to an outbreak of disease. But his son Henry “made up for the loss” by living to be 100 years old, a fervent Methodist all the way. He had been chosen as a traveling assistant with Bishop Asbury for several years, then served in the ministry of the Methodist church until his death in 1875. But even though the Methodists lost virtually all their nonresistance in the Civil War, Henry stayed right with them. Somehow experience had forgotten to obey Jesus’ command to love our enemies.
What a sad place for a Swiss Brethren descendant to end up at: allowing his “brothers” to shoot each other.The third option
Thankfully, there is another way. We do not have to choose between cold obedience and exciting disobedience. In Newcomer’s and Boehm’s day, there was a very viable third option. Why they did not choose it, no one knows.
The people of the third option probably attended Martin Boehm’s first “Great Meetings.” They may have even helped him preach at some of them. They sympathized with Martin’s desire for a fellowship that would not tolerate cold formality and preach ordinances as a balm to people who did not love the Lord with all their heart.
But they also sympathized with the Mennonists who would not tolerate preachers that took communion with people who swore oaths and participated in war.
They called the people of this third option “the River Brethren.”Marrying experience and obedience
Experience with God was never meant to be divorced from obedience. But it happened in 18th-century Lancaster County. It actually was happening before then and ever since then.
The problem with (some of) the experiences of people that Martin Boehm fellowshipped with was that they were false experiences, false conversions. True new-birth experiences always—let me repeat always—lead people to a deeper obedience to Christ.
The problem with (some of) the Mennonist obedience was that it was a dead obedience, a mere formality. And it stank in God’s nostrils, probably about as bad as plain old disobedience. True obedience always draws the human heart closer to God, into a relationship with Him.
Never, I repeat, never, never, never divorce obedience from experience in Christianity! When they are divorced, you end up with people who claim obedience, but have hardly a word to say when it comes to sharing Christ with others. Or, you end up with bubbly, excited “believers” who will next pick up a gun and shoot the other bubbly, excited “believers” on the other side of the war front, who may well be a member of the same denomination.Two examples
I think of two examples that I have seen in my day that illustrate the error of divorcing obedience from experience.
Example 1: A young couple grew up in an Old Order Amish church. To be sure, many people in those churches represent a cold obedience: doing many right things, but not knowing, or even caring, why. This young couple then claimed to have a “born-again” experience and wanted out of the Old Order Amish. They wanted to be somewhere where people experienced God.
So out they came. But within weeks, literally, they had ditched their Plain clothes. She came to church wearing a bright yellow dress, bright enough to make a canary jealous as one might say. He came in his T-shirt and blue jeans.
My heart sank. “Born again and conforming so rapidly to the ways of the world?” I asked myself. A year or so later I saw a picture of these two. I didn’t know them. “You remember that couple that left the Amish a while back?” someone prodded my memory. “Oh, yeah …” The girl had no covering, and the young man was dressed in the fashion of the day.
Experiences that lead to disobedience are false experiences. Period.
Example 2: A lady joined a church that expected obedience to the clear teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. She came from an Evangelical background where such obedience is optional, or even called “legalism.” So here she came: long hair and covered head, modest dress, baptism upon confession of faith, communion, feetwashing, etc. She was obeying the teachings of Jesus in those areas.
But what else came with her? An attitude. “We all knew she was mouthy from the day she came,” her minister said of her later.
Unfortunately, her obedience was a farce. An unconverted heart lay underneath those formal obediences. What does a covered head mean on a “mouthy” lady? A submissive, meek and quiet spirit?
Her heart condition eventually revealed itself later on, and she reverted to her former ways. The last I saw her she had her long hair cut off and was wearing pants and jewelry … and her mouth still functioned. But for a time she had lived in obedience to many of the teachings of Jesus, without a true regeneration of her spirit. However, not everyone who has a formal, cold obedience reverts to open carnality. Some people can live their whole life in a moral, dry formality. Remember: robots can keep ordinances.Back to the River Brethren
The so-called “River Brethren” were given that name due to the close proximity of the original members to the Susquehanna River. A good part of the early membership came from Swiss Brethren immigrants. But instead of ditching the Mennonist requirement for obedience, they simply recognized that obedience without experience was sick at heart. And, they recognized, true experiences with God would lead to obedience. One of them wrote:
Those who are born into the kingdom of grace, and have been washed and cleansed by the blood of Christ, are born of God; and they will do the will of God. … The whole man will become changed within and without and become a new creature in Christ Jesus. … The people of God are a peculiar and separate people. They will come out from the world.
Notice the emphasis of the experience: a new character. Another River Brethren lady who had an experience tells what happened to her:
I felt as though I was in another world … old things had passed away and all things became new.
So far, it is all feeling … but let us continue reading her account …
I was now willing to be led by the Spirit. I was dressy before, now I wanted to be plain. When I began to change my dress, my friends turned against me.
I looked around me and wondered whether there was no other way to get to heaven than this narrow path; but there was no other way for me.
The River Brethren did not promote experiences that were mere cheap-shod, hooly-hooping, emotional shindigs. Many of them spent long periods of time making restitution in areas where they had wronged fellow humans. One of them explained it this way:
It is impossible to exercise that faith that will draw the blessings of God upon us if we are at enmity with our fellowmen or hold what we dishonestly took from them, or live in any way in violation of God’s moral law. People have prayed and seemingly cried mightily unto the Lord for days, trying to substitute prayer for confession and faith for honesty. Confession and restoration were first in order, without which no further progress could be made. “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” No amount of praying, no amount of tears, can take the place of these “works meet for repentance.”
In recognition that a person can have a cold, legal obedience, another River Brethren person wrote:
… the Lord wants a clean and perfect heart. I fear that I have only the form which the Church upholds, or in other words, my heart does not accord with my outward appearance. I often wish that when I speak for the cause of Christ, I might speak such words that originate in the heart; for when the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts, oh! what joy and happiness we can realize, …A microcosm of Christ’s kingdom
The details are sparse, but it seems that these “River Brethren” knew of and attended some of Martin Boehm’s early “Great Meetings.” They generally approved of the revival that was happening in those early days. But when comparing what their experiences were, and what the later Methodist experiences were, one gets a hint of different expectations.
Another big difference between Martin Boehm’s Methodism and the River Brethren was about what constituted the church. Author Carlton Wittlinger, writing about two centuries later, sums it up with these beautiful words:
The early [River] Brethren perceived the church to be the visible people of God, the community of born-again, obedient, disciplined, interdependent Christians in face-to-face fellowship. It was not a man-made institution created to produce either personal piety or the salvation of “souls,” nor was it the total invisible community of those who had been born again. Salvation, they believed, was not only personal, but corporate; the church as a visible community was to demonstrate the redemption of relationships; it should seek to be nothing less than an earthly microcosm of Christ’s Kingdom. (Wittlinger, 44)
In short, the church was not (as is too often thought) a place where people gather to encourage one another in their feelings of assurance and then go home for the week. The church was to be an earthly microcosm—a miniature model—of Christ’s kingdom working on earth! It was to be a place that revealed the “redemption of relationships”; a place where people actually live out brotherly love in a visible, tangible community of holy people. Well said, Carlton!Now it’s our turn
Have we divorced experience from obedience? It is certainly tempting to do so … to participate in the great debates that happen between those who have experiences, but disobey, and those who keep the ordinances, but are ice-hearted and formal. Those debates can be endless and are often fruitless.
Don’t get caught in that useless debate! True Christian experiences will lead one into a greater obedience, and true obedience will bring a closer, personal walk with the God of heaven.
If our obedience is not drawing us into loving Jesus like the “dove … the undefiled one … the only one of her mother” was admiring—and being admired of—her Lover in the Song of Songs, we had better ditch that obedience and find an obedience that is fiery, heartfelt, and meaningful!
And if our experience is causing us to move away from the simple teachings of the New Testament (nonresistance, separation from the world, holiness, plain dress, etc.), we had better ditch that experience and seek one that moves us to a stronger obedience.
Whatever you do, do not divorce—or try to balance—obedience and experience. They do not balance each other: they walk hand in hand! The more you get of one, the more you automatically get of the other! ~Graphing it out …
Sometimes it helps to see things graphically. The following graphic was made to help us “see” the main points of the previous article. The positions of the mentioned churches are a snapshot as they were in the late 1700s and early 1800s (positions have changed since then). Later history shows that each group had its saints, and each had its share of rotten apples. This graph (and the previous article) is not given to “save” or “unsave” any person or denomination, but to help us grasp what was the basis of their fellowship.
United Brethren: Official teaching stated that members must practice nonresistance and other kingdom characteristics. But … they openly fellowshipped with others who did not follow these teachings, thus essentially making obedience unofficially optional.
Mennonists: While the church wanted members to experience God in a personal way, some of the membership appears to have had only a formal obedience to the ordinances. Thus personal experience became unofficially optional.
River Brethren: Strove for obedience to the kingdom mandates by personally experiencing Christ. No fellowship allowed with anyone who went to war.
Methodists: While Francis Asbury and most of the leadership of the early American Methodism refused to take arms or swear oaths (and personally desired that all Methodists follow their example), members were not disciplined by the church if they did take arms or swear, nor did official church doctrine demand nonresistance and nonswearing of oaths. Thus obedience to the Sermon on the Mount was officially optional.
As another exercise in pondering where we are and where we are headed, let’s look at a graph of four generations of the Boehm family (note that time and position of the changes are generalized, not exact):
All this has been written and graphed out to get each one of us to THINK about where we are, and where we are headed. Where are you and your family/congregation? Where will you and your family/congregation be 25 years from now?Bibliography of major sources
“Boehm and Otterbein | Church of the United Brethren.” Accessed December 14, 2012. http://ub.org/about/boehm-otterbein/.
Durnbaugh, Donald. Brethren in Colonial America: A Source Book on the Transplantation and Development of the Church of the Brethren in the Eighteenth Century. Edited by Donald Durnbaugh. 1st ed. Brethren Pr, 1967.
Lawrence, John. The History of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. W.J. Shuey, 1868.
Newcomer, Christian. The Life and Journal of the Rev’d Christian Newcomer, Late Bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Printed by F. G. W. Kapp, 1834.
Ruth, John L. The Earth Is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference. Herald Press, 2001.
Spayth, Henry G., and William Hanby. History of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ. Conference Office of the United Brethren in Christ, 1851.
Wakely, J.B. The Patriarch of 100 Years; Being Reminiscences, Historical and Biographical, of Rev. Henry Boehm. New York: Nelson & Philips, 1875.
Wittlinger, Carlton O. Quest for Piety and Obedience – The Story of the Brethren in Christ. Evangel Publishing House, 1978.
 In this article I will use both names, to get ourselves used to the idea that the “Mennonites” of Lancaster County were for the most part descendents of the Swiss Brethren. It was during this era that their identity was being changed to “Mennonite.”
 Some sources indicate that they were descendants of the famous German mystic Jacob Boehme. If so, Martin would have been something like a great-grandson of Jacob. However, definite proof of this relationship seems to be lacking.
The foundation of your fellowship is …
Think about it, if you haven’t. Just what is the basis upon which you and/or your congregation form a fellowship, a brotherhood of believers?
In the story we are looking at, we see a “battle” between fellowship based upon experience and fellowship based upon obedience. There are many other possibilities: fellowship based upon theology, fellowship based around a person/personality, fellowship based upon a common goal (ex. foreign missions), fellowship based upon a common reaction (ex. anti-Catholicism).
Perhaps you are thinking, “My fellowship is based upon a person, the man Christ Jesus!” While that sounds good and looks good on paper, the bottom line is that people use that phrase all the time to mean one aspect of Christ or Christianity. It would do us all well to ponder just what our expectations are when we think of fellowship. Do we demand obedience? Do we expect a common theology? Are we united around a common zeal we may have? Are we gathered around a good preacher?
If a testimony of conversion is required to be a part of your congregation, what is expected in that testimony? If assurance of salvation is testified to, what is the basis of that assurance? An assurance based upon feeling received from an experience? (As in American revivalism.) Or an assurance based upon Christ living within, producing victory over sin? (As in early Anabaptism, and Psalm 41:11.)
The purpose of this article is to stir us to consider the foundation of our brotherhoods. Foundations make or break congregations!
Originally published in The Heartbeat of the Remnant (January/February 2013), 400 W. Main Street Ste. 1, Ephrata, PA 17522.