Terry Smith: Menno Simons, Remembered and Forgotten

By Terry M. Smith

The Protestant (Radical) Reformation Through 2017

In this year when the Protestant (Radical) Reformation is remembered, Menno Simons is a 16th century leader to whom we are indebted and yet often forget. Some EMCers know Menno’s story; others know little. Pastors play a role in this.

Many of us were raised within the EMC. We’re shaped by this Dutch former priest, indebted to the Radical Reformation, influenced by the Small Church’s leaving the Big Church in 1812, and have family who were born on “this side” or “that side” of a river.

For others, few reasons why we attend an EMC church clearly relate to Menno Simons: it meets nearby, is evangelical, friendships, family, Kids’ Club, VBS, camp work, Sunday School, coming to faith in Christ, limited options, church conflict elsewhere.

Some people attend because a local EMC church has Mennonite in its name; others,  because it doesn’t. Some attend because of a church’s non-resistant position; others despite it or because it might mean little locally. Yet each church is linked to Menno Simons.

Credit WGM and Others

Credit leader Ben D. Reimer and the Western Gospel Mission’s workers for opening the EMC door 70 years ago to non-Dutch/German people. The WGM in 1946-1961 planted churches in non-Mennonite communities in three provinces, downplayed the term Mennonite because it was a barrier to outreach, and adapted somewhat to local cultures.

As people have noted, it is ironic that aggressive church planting happened by pacifist German-speaking people just after World War Two. Credit also goes to non-Dutch/German people who decades ago became members (or a pastor, such as Edwin Wright) when it might have been easier to go elsewhere. As a result, changes have happened and are happening.

Honed Earlier

For some of us, our “Anabaptist convictions” were partly honed in Baptist, Pentecostal, and other Evangelical circles before joining the EMC. I was attracted to the Mennonite church because the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, a fine denomination, would likely not have ordained me because of my stance on the Holy Spirit. I sought an evangelical option (despite my United Church roots) and was influenced by MCC on peace and social issues. Joining the EMC in particular was more luck than good management—credit Jim and Virginia Dyck (then in Wabowden), the EMC contingent among SBC’s faculty, and Russ Loewen who snagged me to teach a S.S. class in Steinbach EMC.

Thought and Menno Simons

Whether we’ve joined the EMC from the inside or outside, we’re to consider Menno Simons’ teachings. It dishonours him and seems un-Anabaptist to do otherwise. Not that we must agree with him on all matters. Menno Simons insisted that people test what he said by the Word and Spirit and, if there’s a difference, stay with the Word and Christ (Complete Writings, 311). Menno never said to study Scripture because all roads lead to him. His focus was different: it was on Christ.

Exploring Menno Simons and the history he symbolizes is enriching, confusing, and disturbing—as can be any part of Church history. We might become aware of the many Anabaptist divisions, how some Anabaptists disassociate from Evangelicals, and how some people merge faith and culture under the term Mennonite. For some people the migrations to Prussia, Russia, Canada, and elsewhere fall within family history that is both significant and enriching; to others, the connection that matters starts and remains in Canada.

Comfort in Menno

When disturbed, though, we can find some comfort in Menno Simons: he disliked divisions among Anabaptists, wouldn’t want the church to be named after him, and thought the term Anabaptist didn’t fit him (334, 630). What might he think, then, when people claim to be born Mennonite, talk of Mennonite food and language, or describe themselves as Mennonite while not following Christ? How is Menno Simons honoured if not allowed to critique the church named after him?

What’s attractive for some of us is that Menno was evangelical in his understanding of Christ and his work. “For Christ’s sake we are in grace; for His sake we are heard; and for His sake our faults and failings . . . are remitted,” he wrote in 1550. “For it is He who stands between His Father and His imperfect children, with His perfect righteousness, and with His innocent blood and death, and intercedes for all those who believe on Him and who strive by faith in the divine Word to turn from evil . . .” (506).

Assurance of Salvation

Further, Menno Simons taught that a weak follower of Christ could have an assurance of salvation. In 1557 he pointed a sick woman to Christ: “I pray and desire that you will betake yourself wholly both as to what is inward and what is outward unto Christ Jesus and His merits, believing and confessing that His precious blood alone is your cleansing; His righteousness your piety; His death your life; and His resurrection your justification; for He is the forgiveness of all your sins; His bloody wounds are your reconciliation; and His victorious strength is the staff and consolation of your weakness….” What wonderful words!

He told her, “ . . . rest assured that you are a child of God, and that you will inherit the kingdom of grace in eternal joy with all the saints” (1051-1052). I once showed this passage to Rev. Dave K. Schellenberg, the WGM’s former field man, EMC church planter at Portage la Prairie, and the first editor of this magazine. It puzzled him. If earlier Kleine Gemeinde leaders read Menno’s writings and he taught on the assurance of salvation, why did they seem so uncertain of assurance?

No Boast of Perfection

Comfort in Menno Simons can also be found in his being an imperfect saint. “Think not, beloved reader, that we boast of being perfect and without sins,” he wrote in 1552. “Not at all. As for me I confess that often my prayer is mixed with sin and my righteousness with unrighteousness” (506). J. C. Wenger, a modern Anabaptist scholar, highlighted such references (footnotes on 233, 311, 447).

Menno was properly concerned about Protestants who sang of freedom in Christ “while beer and wine verily run from their drunken mouths and noses.” He objected in 1541 that “anyone who can but recite” that salvation is by grace through faith alone, “no matter now carnally he lives, is a good evangelical man and a precious brother.” Simons was concerned about a living faith, about faith and practice. Memorization and slogans weren’t enough then. They still aren’t.

Such correction wasn’t always well received: “If someone steps up in true and sincere love to admonish or reprove them…and points them to Christ Jesus rightly,” Menno said, “…then he must hear…that he is one who believes in salvation by good works, is a heaven stormer, a sectarian agitator, a rabble rouser, a make-believe Christian, a disdainer of the sacraments, or an Anabaptist” (334). How might Menno Simons be received today as a preacher within our EMC churches and on Mennonite colonies?

An Unnatural Death

J. C. Wenger says Menno wrote far too much defending what now is mostly discarded: that Jesus was born in Mary, but not of her (836-837). I agree. Nor do we need to hold to his strict view of church discipline: a spouse is to separate from a mate under discipline (478-479). He fluctuated on this depending, we can suspect, on who was pressuring him at the moment (1048-1049, 1058-1061).

His six  “true signs” of the “Church of Christ” are useful for assessing a church’s maturity and doctrinal integrity (734-743), though I hold that denominations can be in Christ while partly in error. As well, given our strong concern in the EMC for evangelism and church planting, it’s important for us (including missionaries and evangelists) to learn from Menno’s concern for peace and social justice (100, 117-119, 194-198, 367-368, 602-604).

Menno said more. Agree or disagree with him on a particular matter, we best not dismiss him. He held his views in a difficult time at a high personal cost. If he physically died a natural death denied many others in his time, his memory dies unnaturally in our time if we forget him—whether our local EM church name says Mennonite or not.

Terry M. Smith

Terry M. Smith (Rev.) joined the EMC in 1979, served as a pastor from 1985-1996, and became executive secretary to the BCM in 1997. He was raised in the United Church and baptized in a Baptist church. During journalism studies he was called to ministry and began pastoral training at Central Pentecostal College. He is a graduate of SAIT, SBC, MBBC, and PTS.

Major source: The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Herald Press, rev. 1984) edited by J. C. Wenger. A biography of Menno Simons is on 1 to 29; an autobiography is on 668-674. Leonard Verduin, a Christian Reformed minister who died in 1999, graciously served as translator.

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