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2009-07-07 issue:

True Evangelical faith

Take into account all that Menno wrote.

by Ted Lewis

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I still remember how impressed I was when I first read the “True evangelical faith” text by Menno Simons. Hanging on the dining room wall of a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) couple’s home, the framed Self-Help craft edition with the straw design moved me.

What I didn’t know then was that Menno’s original text did not have seven but 17 injunctions for embodied faith. Here is a full listing, with the familiar seven in bold:

True evangelical faith is of such a nature it cannot lie dormant, but spreads itself out in all kinds of righteousness and fruits of love;
it dies to flesh and blood (1);
it destroys all lusts and forbidden desires (2);
it seeks, serves and fears God in its inmost soul (3);
it clothes the naked (4);
it feeds the hungry (5);
it comforts the sorrowful (6);
it shelters the destitute (7);
it aids and consoles the sad (8);
it does good to those who do it harm (9);
it serves those that harm it (10);
it prays for those who persecute it (11);
it teaches, admonishes and judges us with the Word of the Lord (12);
it seeks those who are lost (13);
it binds up what is wounded (14);
it heals the sick (15);
it saves what is strong (sound) (16);
it becomes all things to all people (17).
The persecution, suffering and anguish that come to it for the sake of the Lord’s truth have become a glorious joy and comfort to it.”

I have two questions: Why has the edited-down version reached such prominence as a hallmark of identity for countless Mennonites? And how might a consideration of Menno’s lesser-known injunctions inform a balanced life of embodied faith?

Because the shortened version looks like a seamless unity, it appears Menno is saying, “Genuine faith is always expressed through radical service to the needy.” The key word here is service. The Mennonite Heritage Cruise Web site explains how the early 20th-century, postmigration era for North American Mennonites “galvanized a missional and service activism that is today the hallmark of Mennonite faith and identity.”

Every religious group has cultural forms that shape and sustain a distinctive identity. These forms—stories or statements, songs or symbolic practices—help a group identify what is most important to it, but they also identify a group outwardly to a broader world.

The MCC Web site references Matthew 25 as a basis for its motivation. “This command was also expressed by Menno Simons, who wrote, ‘True evangelical ...’ [with the edited parts].” Other Web sites have variations. The Salvation Army site splices in “it seeks what is lost.”

Another site features the seven lines on a maroon shirt. “Menno Simon gets straight to the heart of the implication of faith. One of the foundations of Anabaptism is the idea that the faith you have on the inside will show up through the way you live.”

I’m not saying it’s wrong to pare down Menno’s text. It still affects me. But it’s important to be aware of selection processes that shape Mennonite identity. In postmodern lingo, we need to understand our meta-texts, the ones we frame on our walls.

The Young Anabaptist Radicals blog site asked, “Are YARs Evangelical?” Respondents wrestled with whether they could become “YEARs” with integrity or if the E word has been “hijacked” by newer associations in the American setting. “I’d like to be evangelical in the clothe-the-naked, feed-the-hungry, love-your-enemy sort of way,” one wrote, “not so much the Bible-thumping, soul-saving sort of way.” Great discussion but again based on the edited version.

Another blog site provides some corrective. Seeds of the Kingdom team-member Randy Keener explains the unfortunate tension between peacemakers and evangelicals in his article “Embracing the Evangelical Faith.” He wisely points out that stereotypes of peace activists and evangelicals, defined by secular society, have defined persistent polarizations in the church.

The seamlessness of Menno’s full text is impressive. Opportunities for sanctification (1-3, 12), nonretaliation (9-11) and evangelism (13, 16) go hand-in-hand with opportunities for helping the needy (4-8, 14-15). In contemporary language, personal formation, relational integrity, gospel proclamation all complement radical service to the poor.

The year was 1539. Menno wrote “Why I Do Not Cease Teaching and Writing.” In 30 pages he defended himself against Dutch folk who were “estranged from Christ Jesus and from evangelical truth and from life eternal.” They included those who forsake the gospel for a worldly life, Catholics who launched offensives against Anabaptists and Anabaptists with extremist tendencies.

In statements flanking either side of the text above, Menno emphasized how true faith is true because it will “press on to righteousness, love and obedience.” “True faith … brings forth love, and love leads to obedience to the commandments of God.” Such faith “cannot lie sleeping,” as captured in the hymn version. It actively “spreads itself out.”

Thankfully, there is no tension here between personal and social gospels. When we “work out our own salvation” in the realm of personal formation, it is not a pious matter for making us better individuals. Overcoming our “lusts and forbidden desires” (2), for instance, is ultimately about us being freed up to serve others.

The bottom line is that all our addictive habits—our impulsive, default-level patterns that involve hiding and legitimizing—dull us from being responsive to the needs of others. Lust and greed are problematic because they deaden our empathetic connectedness to others. They make our minds dwell on what we can take instead of what we can give.

We also have default levels for reacting to conflict in our relationships. When someone does something negative toward us, we do not readily return good or serve them or even pray for them. Instead we defend ourselves and launch offensives against them. Menno reminds us that true embodied faith overcomes evil with good.

By practicing all Menno’s injunctions in a holistic manner, we rise above the debates about defining “evangelical” in social vs. personal terms. We recognize that every embodiment of faith has a relational dimension. True conversion is moving out of our ego-selves into a life of self-giving toward God and others.

Truncated gospels that either ignore radical peacemaking and service or ignore personal salvation and morality are prone to ignore this additional gospel aspect of ongoing formation. But when you pull them together, you can’t leave dormant your own maturing as an individual. This maturing is never individualistic, though; it happens within church communities that collectively reveal God’s character.

Two paragraphs later, Menno bids us “to aid and assist all mankind and injure none.” What a 10-word manifesto! Such a line could go on posters, shirts and coffee mugs to reveal the heart of gospel embodiment for Mennonites. But after a mere semicolon comes this: “to crucify the flesh and its lusts.” How could Menno jump so quickly from one to the other?

I’m not saying we have to frame phrases like “destroys all lusts” for our dining rooms. But we do need to reconsider a founding figure’s perspective on all aspects of the gospel that can lie dormant, not eclipsing any from our view. This will entail a fresh look at traditional disciplines that foster growth and at fresh readings of the Bible.

Personal formation and relational integrity cannot be shortchanged if we are to live lives of service to those in need and lives of nonretaliation to those who provoke us. Clarence Jordan was once asked what we can do to make the world a better place. “Before we can do anything, we have to be something. Our actions have to spring from our inner character.”

The edited injunctions of “True evangelical faith” are indeed “familiar words,” as one woman wrote in her MCC newsletter. They serve a useful purpose to identify the heart of North American Mennonite culture. But as we reflect on Menno’s fuller version, let’s awaken new areas that embody true faith. This can only make for a richer ecclesial life and a sustainable commitment to serve a broken world.

Ted Lewis is active with Church of the Servant King in Eugene, Ore.

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