Dr. Terry Hiebert: Conversion Stories of Martin Luther and Menno Simons

The Protestant (Radical) Reformation Through 2017

by Dr. Terry Hiebert

October 31, 1517, was Reformation Day, an event that produced the second great division in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of the West. By some counts, the Protestant movement has since produced 45,000 more divisions we call denominations.

Centuries earlier, the apostle Paul urged the early Christians in Ephesus to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6).

We might conclude from Paul’s statement that divisions should cease, denominations should dissolve, and the Christian Church should reunite as one big family. Notice, the word happy was omitted intentionally. For example, Lutherans and Mennonites have dialogued since 2002 about our differences and have expressed forgiveness and pledged cooperation with one another.

Each admit that the other belongs to the extended Christian family even if we do not attend all the same family gatherings. The differences have to do with beliefs, practices, ethics, organization, and traditions now 500 years in the making. Differences between even two Christian groups are complex.

Simplify the Issues

Now let’s simplify the issues. Lutherans and Mennonites can trace some of our main differences to the conversion stories of our founders, Martin Luther and Menno Simons. Like the influence of parents on their children, the experiences of Luther and Menno have imprinted their descendants for generations. The Reformers wrote of their conversions years after the fact. Luther described his conversion in 1545, recounting his experience of God’s grace in July 1519. Menno in 1554 wrote an account of experienced of God’s conviction and his conversion in 1536.

The conversion stories of Luther and Menno reveal the distinctives between the two Reformers as well as the two traditions that developed over the past 500 years. Consider the features of their stories of coming to faith in Christ. While there are similarities, the differences are also striking. I will highlight some of the more important distinctions.

 

Martin Luther Menno Simons
University lecturer above reproach Parish priest playing cards and drinking
Miserable sinner repented regularly People pleasing sinner but unrepentant
Doctrinal problem with God’s righteousness Moral problem is with his sinful heart
Raging conscience hating the God of wrath Troubled soul disturbed by his own hypocrisy
Crisis that miserable sinners are born in sin, condemned by the Law, and hear a Gospel of wrath Crisis of belief in the traditional views of the Lord’s Supper, infant baptism, and the violence of Christians
Scripture study in Romans 1 about the righteousness of God Scripture study about the Lord’s Supper and believers baptism
Discovers that God justifies by faith and feels like he is born again. Prays for grace and a clean heart and receives Christ’s forgiveness
Focuses on God’s objective work for us Focuses on God’s Spirit at work in us
Finds support for justification by faith in the tradition of Augustine Finds support for his new beliefs about the sacraments in Scripture but not in tradition
Experiences transformed love for God. Experiences a call to service and suffering in obedience to Christ

 

What can we learn from the two conversion stories? Let’s reflect on the stories of transformation, before, during and after conversion. Again we discover as many differences as similarities. Perhaps we should not be so surprised at their differences considering the conversion stories we hear in church every year at baptism.

Different Places, Mindsets

Before their conversions, Luther and Menno came from very different places, backgrounds, and mindsets. Luther was a university lecturer who encountered a biblical, theological, and philosophical problem that tormented his spiritual life as well. It seems that for Luther, the biggest problem was with a God of wrath and not so much with Luther the sinner.

Menno was a parish priest serving without ever having read the Scriptures. Menno started reading the Scriptures, but admitted that he wasted this knowledge through youthful lusts, sensual living, and looking for the favour of people. Luther started out to please a wrathful God while Menno started out to please worldly people.

At their conversions, Luther and Menno experienced a deep crisis of faith. Luther admitted he was a sinner, but was angry at a God who was not satisfied with his attempts at repentance. Luther was converted by an insight from studying the Bible that God justifies the sinner by the gift of faith. Luther had a theological conversion and repented in his beliefs about God.

Menno grew in awareness that his preaching of Scripture clashed with his sinful lifestyle. Menno was converted by the conviction that God would judge him for misleading his parishioners through hypocrisy. Menno had a moral conversion or a repentance of heart toward God and people.

Different Emotions and Callings

After their conversions, Luther and Menno followed experienced different emotions and callings. Luther felt “altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” He returned to his study and was comforted to discover that his mentor Augustine had written similar ideas about justification by faith years earlier.

Nine months after Menno’s conversion, he felt God’s Fatherly Spirit empower him to renounce his worldly reputation. Menno yielded to “the heavy cross of Christ” and accepted the call to lead a small group of the Anabaptist faithful.

The two conversion stories are quite different. Luther’s conversion transformed his life from tormented anguish of soul in anger towards God to a place of love for God and the proclamation of God’s grace. Menno’s conversion transformed his life from sensuality, ease, and popularity with people to a place fearing for his life and the proclamation of obedience to God.

Both Luther and Menno in their conversion stories indicate that they were ministers of God before their conversion. Luther posted his 95 Theses two years before his conversion. Menno served as parish priest 12 years before his conversion. Both confessed troubled souls. Both identified a moment of enlightenment when a new understanding of God’s Word transformed their minds. Both yielded themselves to the grace of God after their conversions. Both continued to serve God resulting in a renewal of worship, beliefs, and morals for generations of followers.

Beyond Lament, a Blessing

While I hear many Christians lament the disunity in the Church today, the Reformation has become more of a blessing even considering the great difficulties experienced in the early years after 1517. Why? Because the message of unity is not the only word in the Scriptures. Paul continued his appeal to the early churches by celebrating the importance of diversity in the body of Christ as well.

In Ephesians, Paul wrote, “but to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it” (4:7). We hear echoes in praise of diversity as Paul calls the Corinthian church to unity in the Spirit’s manifestations of grace. To a divided church the apostle still maintained, “now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The phrase common good is better translated as “to be an advantage to someone.”

One legacy of the Reformation is found in the conversion stories of the Reformers and their followers. Like faith stories today, no two Reformers were identical. The conversion stories of Luther and Menno are quite different. The Reformation advantage is that over 75 million Christians identify more fully with the body of Christ because Luther and Menno taught us to see God’s grace in different ways.

Still, 500 years later we are Christian first, and only then Lutherans or Mennonites, because there is one Lord Jesus Christ, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. In the case of Luther and Menno, how about three out of four?

terry-hiebert-2016
Dr. Terry Hiebert

Dr. Terry Hiebert serves at Steinbach Bible College as Academic Dean and enjoys when students get excited about theology. He is married to Luann, a college English instructor. They have three adult children and four energetic grandchildren. Terry and Luann enjoy their dog, a tiny house project, and long distance travel. They attend Gospel Fellowship Church (EMMC) in Steinbach, Man.

Resources:

Martin Luther’s Conversion Account see link

Menno Simons Conversion Account see link

Treesbank Invites You to Our 50th Anniversary Celebration!

by Janet Hamilton

TREESBANK, Man.—Treesbank Community Church invites you to our 50th Anniversary Celebration on July 22-23, 2017. There is fully serviced camping available in Wawanesa. Please book early by calling 204-741-0421 or srrd@mymts.net. There is also lots of space in the churchyard for unserviced camping. Our schedule will start with a bonfire in the churchyard on Saturday at 7 p.m. Our Sunday service will start at 10:30 a.m. with a lunch to follow. There will be an open microphone set up during lunch. TCC will provide snacks for Saturday and lunch on Sunday. Please RSVP to cjanhamilton@yahoo.ca by July 1.

Layton Friesen: A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off

“Hi, Greg. How are you?”

“Doing well. Busy though.”

“What’s up, Donna? How’s it going?”

“Great! Busy, busy.”

“How’s the business going, Jen?”

“Not bad, but since February I’ve been running like a chicken with its head cut off. Crazy busy.”

Why do we keep reminding everyone about how busy we are? We inform whoever will listen that we are busy. Why? Of course this is mostly done in a tone of complaint, as though this busyness was inflicted on us by some bad fate.

But let’s be honest, telling someone you’re busy is like complaining about how terribly much income tax you pay. I challenge you to tell a few people you respect that you are not busy and how much you enjoy all the free time you have. For many of us, that would feel like a confession of sin—we are clearly failing to be important, trustworthy people.

We tell ourselves that we are busier than people used to be. I doubt it.

My grandfather had stuff to do when he rolled out at dawn and he did it until he lay down at night. All day long he did things: eat, work, go to town for the mail, go to brotherhood meeting, back to sleep again. Next day, repeat. He was hardworking, though he did not remind everyone that he had continuously been involved in human activity since he woke up that morning. Today we would call him busy-busy.

Perhaps we would all be happier if we just accepted the fact that life will be full and that there is nothing wrong with that. It’s okay. Humans are creatures who do stuff all day. It’s a sign that we were born onto a path and that we must go somewhere in this sojourn.

We are not created to stand in one place. We have not been wronged if life is full, nor have we been elevated as especially important people. Life takes all our time, and part of accepting our creaturelyness is learning to quit marvelling at how all day long we have things to do.

I worry, though, about that word “busy.” It sounds different than “hard-working.” To call our full slate of activities “being busy” suggests we see little meaning in our work. A man digging holes and shoveling them shut all day would tell you he is crazy busy.

Is that how we think of our jobs, schoolwork, eating, serving in church, or bathing the baby? Maybe the real problem is that we have lost the experience of working before God, and so everything becomes mere busy-work, somehow secular.

Perhaps rather than angling for some idyllic spa-like existence of rest and leisure, what I need to do is pray while I work: Pray about my work, pray in my work, and pray through my work. If my work is something I do alongside God the Divine Worker, maybe I could stop being a busy person and start being a regular ol’ hard-working guy. Life with God will take my last breath and my last bit of strength. Being workers is a good sign that we are created by a Worker.

Layton Friesen
Layton Friesen

May you have the strength to work hard and accept your lot as a human. May you give up the need to remind others of your busyness. May you “work heartily, as unto the Lord” (Col. 3:23 ASV). Those who work heartily must also sleep as unto the Lord.

 

Praising the Lord for Cornerstone Fellowship Church!

by Tim Dyck and Terry M. Smith

A bit of sad news was shared during conference council: the Cornerstone Fellowship Church was closing in June 2017. While we accept this reality, we prefer to focus on and thank the Lord for the congregation’s many years of ministry.

The congregation began services in 1958, formally organized in 1962, and closed in June 2017. It originally began as the Swift Current EMC, an extension of the Wymark EMC located at nearby Chortitz that was started through a revival among Sommerfelder Mennonites in 1958.

When some people affected by the revival moved to Swift Current, they began to hold Thursday night services at the rented Southside Hall in 1959. In August 1959 the former Mennonite Brethren church in Swift Current was purchased and a Sunday School, in German, was started. The first Sunday morning service was on 29 November 1959.

There was a desire to establish a church in Swift Current for the many people who were relocating into the city from the rural churches in the area. From the outset, the church provided biblically based teaching to many people from Low German background. The congregation provided a witness and a place for people to grow in their Christian faith.

K.P. Unger was the first worker, being sent in 1960, with the outreach being jointly that of the Wymark EMC and the EMC Board of Missions. The church became formally organized and autonomous in January 1962 within the Evangelical Mennonite Conference.

Through much of its history the language of worship was English; the transition from German occurred in the 1960s. For at least two decades the congregation provided a manse for their pastor.

After forming, the church enjoyed an extended period of spiritual and numerical growth, moving from their original building into a larger facility to provide for the expanding ministries. Many EMC missionaries and pastors originated from the Swift Current and Wymark churches, and some were still serving as of 2017.

Eventually, the congregation relocated to the former Swift Current Bible Institute campus, which was the location of the 2002 EMC Convention. Unfortunately, the campus required extensive repairs and maintenance and became a drain on the church. It was sold in 2012.

Several attempts to revitalize the church were unsuccessful. In 2003 the congregation decided to rename the church to the Cornerstone Fellowship Church. In the last several years, they have had two pastors on staff in an effort to reignite the church in the community. They have provided a vibrant children’s program in the past several years.

In March 2017 the congregation made the decision to shut down operations as of  June 30, 2017. The EMC General Board was made aware of this decision and accepted the decision of the church with sadness. While it was disappointing to see a church close its doors, there was gratitude for the many years of vibrant ministry of the Cornerstone Fellowship Church in the community of Swift Current. The ministry of the Cornerstone Fellowship Church of over 57 years had a positive impact for the Kingdom of God and for that God is praised.

Tim-Dyck
Tim Dyck
terry-smith
Terry M. Smith

Resources: Canadian Mennonite (Aug. 22, 1958): 1; Unpublished history, 2 pp. Mennonite Historical Society of Canada collection, Mennonite Archives of Ontario; Tim Dyck interview with Rev. Lester Olfert, 2017; D. K. Schellenberg, “Swift Current Church Profile,” The Messenger (Sept. 23, 1983): 5-7.

Pastors

K.P. Unger, 1960-1961
Ben and Henrietta Friesen, 1962-1965
Dave and Lydia Dueck, 1965-1972
Milton and Gladys Fast, 1972-1977
Cornie Kehler, lay minister, 1977-1978 (interim pastor)
John and Tina Toews, 1978-1989
Lester Olfert, 1975-78, 1989-1992 (associate, senior)
John Taylor, 1992-1997
Mel and Mary Koop, 1999-2003
Randall and Faith Krahn, 2004-2009
Bryon and Janice Bezanson, 1999-2017 (youth, associate, senior)
Michael Vanderswaag, 2015-2017 (associate)

Deacons

Cornie Janzen, 1963-
Jake Funk, 1975-

Note: This article is partly based on an earlier article by Marlene Epp (GAMEO, 1989).

Living the message of peace in a conflict zone

by Julie Bell

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine—When armed men arrived at a Light of the Gospel church in the Donetsk region of Ukraine they searched the basement for weapons. There were no weapons; instead one of the men found a file with the names of people the church is assisting.

“He saw that we help veterans, disabled people, and large families,” says Pavel, the bishop of Light of the Gospel group of Baptist churches. “I think that touched the hearts of these fighters,” he says. Pavel’s last name is withheld for security reasons.

Light of the Gospel has about 20 churches, some of them in areas where MCC is currently providing humanitarian and other assistance.

In the summer of 2014 a conflict that began in Kyiv spread eastward to the Donetsk area. Pavel calls it a “scary time,” as criminals and people with weapons roamed the streets. Many residents fled. But Pavel, and many other church leaders, stayed.

“I felt God’s quiet voice saying you have to stay for the Christians and the citizens,” he says. “You had the feeling that your life could end at any time, but there’s also a feeling that God protects and is near.”

About half of the Light of the Gospel churches are now in territory under Ukrainian government control. The other half are in a self-declared independent republic. That’s where Pavel lives; he says the armed groups controlling the area often send people in need to his churches.

“They say, go to the Baptist churches if you are hungry,” Pavel says. “Those people know that we are peacebuilders, people of non-violence.”

Pavel’s commitment to peacebuilding, and MCC, began many years ago. As a young man he refused to carry a weapon during his mandatory service with the Soviet Army. For many years MCC supported a charitable organization that Pavel helped establish.

More recently, he has taken part in peacebuilding sessions organized by MCC. The last one, in the fall of 2016, brought together MCC partners to talk about peacebuilding during Ukraine’s ongoing conflict. Andrew Geddert, MCC’s representative in Ukraine, calls Pavel’s participation “extremely valuable.”

“He brings first-hand experience of living and ministering in non-government controlled territory and he represents a group of churches with commitments to a peace position,” Geddert says. “This has been essential to maintain unity between churches on both sides of the front line.”

Fedir, whose last name is withheld for security reasons, lives on the other side of that line; he is pastor at a Light of the Gospel church about 80 kilometres from Pavel’s area. This government controlled territory is home to thousands of people fleeing from the conflict. Fedir’s church provides food, clothing and other necessities to those people.

“We believe in non-violence; this is our understanding of our faith and we hold to that,” Fedir says. “We are testimony that believers don’t hide in the bushes.”

Fedir and Pavel say the value of that testimony will outlast the current conflict. They say by living their faith during difficult times, they are demonstrating that non-violence and peacebuilding are the path to reconciliation and unity.

“The fighters haven’t destroyed us because they see we are a peaceful people,” says Pavel. “This is a critically important message. We pray that God will have mercy and give grace to Ukraine so we can resolve this conflict.”

MCC

 

Steinbach EMC: Additions to the Church Family

by Martha Kroeker

STEINBACH, Man.—We rejoiced on Nov. 20, 2016, as we listened to the testimonies of those who had decided earlier in their lives to follow Jesus and now chose to publicly confirm this decision by taking the next step in their spiritual journey and being baptized. With joy we welcomed them as part of our church family, together with several others who transferred from other churches.

2017_05_14_4104_edit.jpg
Members as of May 14, 2017: (back) Juan Peters (t), Markus Buhler, Dave Kroeker (t), Isaac Dyck, Abram Wall, (front) Agnes Kroeker (t), Helena Dyck, Conner Klassen, Anna Klassen, Hannah Drolet, Anna Radekop. Credit: SEMC

There was a special sense of joy and anticipation in the sanctuary on May 14, 2017, as we gathered, joined by many guests, for a celebration of baptism and welcoming new members as part of our covenant community. Seven young people shared their faith stories of God’s involvement in their lives and indicated their desire to be baptized as a public declaration of their commitment to follow Jesus. Another four people transferred their membership from other churches.

2017_05_28_4131_edit.jpg
A parent/child dedication was held on May 28: Rob and Sharon Steeves (Conor, Declan and Niamh), Margaret and Darcy Friesen (Dawson Thor), Jeremy and Adrienne Buhler (Thomas Elliott). Credit: SEMC

Terry Smith: Melchoir Hoffman and the Prison Tower

by Terry M. Smith

To sit in a group where Melchoir Hoffman (1495-1543) teaches from the Book of Revelation would be fascinating.

If anyone believed in the soon return of Jesus, it was Hoffman! To act as he did required great confidence in Christ and in his skill to interpret both Scripture and the times.

Hoffman was “one of the most dramatic early Anabaptists, responsible for the spread of the movement from South Germany to the North” (H. Hillerbrand). His work and his preaching took him even farther, though, to Sweden and Denmark where he enjoyed brief favour.

A dealer in furs with an elementary school education, he was an avid reader and became a keen writer. By 1523 he was a follower of Martin Luther.

Early on he held to salvation by grace through faith, holy living, the use of allegory, and milliennialism. During this time he preached and, when authorities questioned his doctrine, some leaders (including Martin Luther) vouched for him.

By 1525, however, Hoffman considered himself a prophet, one of the two witnesses spoken of in Rev. 11. He was critical of Lutheran pastors; to him, they minimized the need for holy living.

His trade took him to Sweden where he married and had a son. There he preached in the Lutheran church. When the king asked him to resign, he returned to Germany and later went to Denmark. In Denmark he clashed with Luther (who wrote, wanting him to stop preaching till better informed) and Lutheran clergy. The Danish king expelled Hoffman.

It was in Sweden that Hoffman wrote three of his many writings, one book of which interprets Daniel 12, explains the gospel, defends preaching by lay people, explores communion and confession, and deals with church authority.

Hoffman was baptized on confession of faith in 1530; his next 13 years continued a pattern of service, conflict, and a focus on the Lord’s return.

On May 4, 1534, Hoffman asked officials in Strasbourg to imprison him in the tower—so soon did he expect the Lord’s return and his freedom. They agreed, treating him gently at first. On April 15, 1535, Hoffman said the Lord would return in his third year of imprisonment.

By May 8, 1539, Hoffman’s face and legs were “greatly swollen.” He asked authorities to “let him out for a month until he feels better, then he would gladly go back.” The authorities “let him out of the hole” while carefully guarded. Former Anabaptists and Reformed leaders visited him, seeking to change his beliefs. Did he recant? This is unclear. At any rate, he was not released.

His prison conditions became harsher and his health weakened. Conditions were eased somewhat, but in 1543 he died before the Lord’s return, a victim of the authorities and his folly.

terry-smith
Terry M. Smith

What’s a fair assessment of Hoffman? C. Neff and W. O. Packull say this: “Aside from his unbridled fantasy, his arbitrary interpretation of Scripture, and his fanatical view of the end-times, his writings also contain a wealth of sound Christian ideas and sober thoughts.” But what happened to Hoffman’s wife and son?

Sources: H. J. Hillerbrand, ed., The Reformation (Baker, repr. 1987); C. Neff and W. O. Packull, “Hoffman, Melchoir” (GAMEO, 1956, 1990); J. C. Wenger, ed., The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Herald Press, 1956, 1984).