Sixteen years old, confused, yet loving the Lord Jesus, I set out on a long pilgrimage. Far from over, far from southern Ontario, Canada, where it began, I look forward with Jesus to whatever comes.
With Sunny, my strong gentle standard-bred, I took my sister Velina up to North Woolwich (about 15 km) on a winter evening in 1977. A full moon sparkled on the snow. How I liked that horse! A pacer, trained in the race tracks, he carried us effortlessly along. What a joy to be young, to sail through the moonlit snow like Jesus, our captain, would carry us on to life! Coming from the Township of Wellesley we seldom made it up to North Woolwich, so when we passed an old Mennonite meetinghouse I took a mental note to make a sketch for myself the next day. During the winter time I often found time to write, sketch, or investigate old writings between chore times.
Only today, on a lovely moonlit night, Velina and I sensed a cloud over the beautiful snowy scene. My Dad, a Diener (Servant), had spent all day with the brothers at Wallenstein, Ontario, trying to get several factions in our communities reconciled. All day long, but no success. That night I wrote in my diary:
March 2, 1977, 11:45 p.m. Just came home from taking Velina to North Woolwich, with Sunny. Meeting today at Emmanuel Sherks. Argued all day but . . . I don't want to hear anything more of our mess. I wish we'd forget it all and move away as far as possible.
Well, thirty-three years later I live about as far away as possible. I live in a peaceful and joyful community, deeply thankful for what the Lord has done. But let me hurry to add a disclaimer. No geographical distance has helped me at all. Even though I have come to know innumerable Christian churches I have never found one that impressed me as the “only one” or the best one of them all. I never found the “right church,” but praise God, I found one in which I can live in love and peace.
A long time ago, in New Mexico (while we were moving to Costa Rica to help with a mission publishing venture) I wrote the following paper. This week I dug it out when I received a young man suffering in deep distress. His family belongs to one church (the Baptists). His grandfather belonged to another one (an “only church”) in which he was baptised. The young woman to which he planned to get married belongs to yet another “only church.” Now he lives in great distress. He wants to serve Christ. He is an exceptionally serious young man (not from an English-speaking country), but it seems like nothing will work for him.
What can I say?
The Nazis made a mistake. They said all Jews are bad and all Germans (Aryans) are good. But there were good and bad Jews and good and bad Germans.
World War II historians make another mistake. They present the Nazis as “wrong” and the Allied powers as right. But neither side in World War II was totally “right” or totally “wrong.” There was treachery and valour on both sides.
Like the Nazis and the historians who write about them we tend to make the same mistake. That is, to polarize.
To polarize is to put people at opposite poles, “poles apart” like we often say. But people cannot be poles apart.
We tend to believe things like:
Hitler was bad. Churchill was good.
Canadians are friendly. Americans are mean.
College students are sharp. Farmers are dense.
Protestants are honest. Catholics cheat.
“Conservatives” are right. “Liberals” are wrong.
Mennonites are scriptural. Non-mennonites are unscriptural.
The KJV Bible is sound. Other Bible translations are unsound.
What we do is try to draw lines with a point at each end where there is no point—like placing an east and a west pole on the equator. But we dare not put everyone here or there, lumping them into groups, then sticking labels upon them: “Okay” or “Not okay.”
Hitler was not all bad (he commissioned the building of the Volkswagen). Churchill was not all good (ask the British who threw him out of office after the war was over.) Not all conservatives are right. Neither are all farmers dense. For as scary as it sounds, we humans will always be relative. . . relatively good or relatively bad. . . neither altogether here nor altogether there. Every wheatfield has its tares. And every tarefield has its wheat. So we do well to let the wheat and the tares grow together until the end of time (Matt. 13:24.30).
We may picture the world as a globe. The north pole is Christ. The South Pole is the devil. All human beings begin life at the Equator. They may gravitate eventually toward Jesus or toward the devil. But human beings never become eternal absolutes. No matter which side of the “Equator” they are, they can do both right and wrong.
People’s souls are not saved until they are justified, until they have repented and their sins are completely washed away by Christ. But even the most justified, sanctified, holy living, repented, human being makes mistakes. Examine the lives of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Justin Martyr, or Menno Simons. On the other hand even the worst men do some things without evil intent. Pancho Villa, for example, fed four hundred orphans in his home. Josef Stalin improved the Soviet railroad system, and Muammar Qadhafi has commissioned housing projects for the poor.
Only Jesus Christ is absolutely eternally good. Only the devil is absolutely eternally bad.
I find myself as tempted to “polarize” people as everyone else. Twelve years ago I left the Orthodox Mennonite Church for the conservative Mennonites. At that time I thought I was leaving the “bad group” behind and joining the “good group.” But I was mistaken. I learned the hard way that within the fold of true Christendom—among Bible-obeying, nonconformed churches—there is no such thing as an absolutely good and right group, nor such a thing as an absolutely “bad” and “wrong” group.
I have my preferences as to which congregation I wish to belong. Right now I am choosing the Beachy Amish above the Conservative Mennonites. But with God’s help I want to turn my transit back to the level, to where all of us stand on the “Equator” where we belong. The conservative Mennonite movement is no longer the platform on which I see the unity of the Church of Jesus. Now I see Jesus alone as that platform “for other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
If I polarize my fellow members within the Church of Jesus I have a hard time seeing myself as I should . . . for when I polarize I automatically put myself on the right side, and those who disagree with me on the wrong side. That makes me see only the best in myself and only the worst in others. It becomes impossible for me to learn from my opponents and to look at the whole Church from Jesus’ perspective. It makes me preach the gospel of the brotherhood (my brotherhood) instead of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And it makes me too eager to cut off relationships with fellow Christians who don’t do things my way.
The polarization of Christendom is at least one major cause for the innumerable divisions between Bible-obeying, nonconformed churches. It is the carnality which Paul condemned in I Corinthians 3. It is that which forces people to get religious with their preferences. For example, most people now say it is either right or else wrong to baptize by immersion or pouring. But facts prove that the early Christians both poured and immersed.
The most insignificant detail has the potential of becoming a church splitter once the polarizers sieze upon it. If the polarizers say it is conservative to tie your covering strings under your chin, then all women who don’t become liberal. If the polarizers say it is right to have communion twice a year than all those who have it oftener become wrong.
I am making plans now to join a Beachy Amish church in Costa Rica. They have a set way of doing things. They baptize by pouring. They wear beards and solid coloured clothes. They do not have television sets in their homes, nor members that smoke. I appreciate those guidelines (and others they have) and I plan to support them. I do not see how a church can function without such guidelines. But I am not ready to say that the guidelines of this Beachy Amish Church are more Christian than those of any other nonconformed, Bible-obeying churches. They are not absolute, ultimate, nor eternal.
I am not ready to say like I did twelve years ago that I am leaving a bad church (the Orthodox Mennonites) for a good church (the conservative Mennonites). I am simply joining the church of my preference. If other redeemed Christians choose to belong to other godly churches I have nothing against them.
I am sorry to have witnessed so much division among people who say they love Jesus. I have been directly involved in rifts between laity and leaders, rifts between “birthright Mennonites” and “new Mennonites”, rifts within the ministry, and rifts between congregations. The only outcome I have seen from these sharp divisions, these cases of clearly identified rightness and wrongness, has been spiritual destruction, hatred, wrath, envyings, strife, seditions, and heresies—the works of the flesh.
Within the Church of Jesus I am not taking sides anymore. I am not talking about the “right group” and the “wrong group” anymore. By the grace of God I want to accept every believer for what he or she is worth. . . regardless to which “group” he belongs or doesn’t belong. All men are relative. “None is good, save one, that is, God” (Luke l8:19).
A long time ago we had a church split in Canada. One half of the people developed a conviction that it was right to wear a beard and the other half developed a conviction that it was wrong. Everyone got vocal about it and judgements flew right and left, as “heresies” popped up on every side. Everyone joined either the “beard people” or the “anti-beard” people. Everyone that is, except for a few families in the middle whom we called the “Zuschmierleute” (smear-over people). These were the ones who tried to make peace, to hold things together and to build up rather than tear apart.
I was a thirteen-year-old then, too young to take sides on my own. Now I am grown-up and I have decided to cast my lot with the Zuschmierleute forever (Matthew 5:9). I have turned against radical side-choosing, polarization, “groupism” or whatever you want to call it. I want to break down walls rather than build them up. I can no longer support unconditionally any group . . . no matter how “right” they are, and how “wrong” they make everyone else to be. I am no longer primarily Canadian, Mennonite, Beachy Amish, or anything else, for I have been purchased by the blood of Jesus Christ. I belong to Him. He deserves my unconditional loyalty and if I can bring others together in him (such as the Beachy Amish and Conservative Mennonites) I should be most pleased. I know we could all learn and benefit one from another.
Does this sound too ecumenical to you? Do you think I am perhaps influenced by the bishop of the church in Costa Rica who according to some has “made his umbrella to big”? I should explain. I am not for creating unity outside of the New Testament. I am not for promoting brotherhood relations with ladies who cut their hair, people who wear jewelry, live in luxurious homes, or who divorce and remarry. I am not for weakening eternal absolutes. Like God, the Bible will always be right. Like the devil, sin will always be wrong. There is nothing relative about Jesus’ commands. So let God be God and the devil be the devil, but let all men between them be men.
I no longer have a desire to stick up for Paul or for Apollos. I no longer want to see my own group conquer others and spread from continent to continent until it becomes a “glorious” organization of men. The true church, the Church of Jesus, is already glorious. It is already a world-wide kingdom of the redeemed who believe and obey.
We may wonder: What led the Nazis into making their mistake?
Why does anyone unjustly and heartlessly polarize others?
I can only judge on the basis of my experience. As long as I did not know Jesus like he is, I sought my security in a strong “group.” I thought I had to make myself and my own group look good, and I needed to make everyone else look bad to give myself the “assurance” that I was better than they.
That was a false assurance. It was the way of the world. In the end I was not saved by supporting any “good” side nor by fighting any “bad” side. I was not saved by my zealous loyalty to a “group” or by finding the right church. I was not saved. . . until I found Christ!
That was no mistake.
* * * * *
Thirty-three years later my perspective on life has changed a bit (simple because I can see more from hindsight). But my goal remains constant and serene. Everything turns in circles. What goes up comes down, and what goes down comes up -- but Jesus. He alones moves swiftly along, no mistakes, like my pacing standard bred on a wintry moonlit night.
What a joy! Would you jump in and come along?