There is a story frequently told concerning the Dutch Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons. Some recent research suggests that the episode is of later origin and concerns a different Anabaptist minister, Hans Buscher, but the anecdote and the truth it contains are important whoever the protagonist was. The story goes that Menno escaped arrest one day through a “white lie”.
He was fleeing for his life, riding next to the coachman at the front of a coach (see image below). They were overtaken by the sheriff’s officers, who stopped them and asked: “Is Menno Simons in the coach?” Menno bent down and called to the passengers inside: “They’re asking if Menno Simons is in the coach.” The reply was negative, so he said to his pursuers: “They say no.” And the officers left.
Even so, the moral question remains: should he, as a Christian leader, have told a ‘white lie’? You might say it wasn’t a lie at all, as he was in front of, not in the coach. But he willfully deceived the officers. By so doing, he was free to continue supporting the underground believers. Had he owned up, he would have faced martyrdom and the Anabaptist movement would have lost its key leader in the North.
As we know from politics today, there are ways of saying things that do not necessarily constitute a lie, but would lead the hearer to believe something other than what you are saying. Much comes down to motive. To Jesus (in the matter of healing on the Sabbath), saving life outranked killing [Mark 3:4]. King David told a half-truths in 1 Samuel 21:2 and 27:10, and the Bible narrative does not suggest that he committed a sin. It was strategic answering, for God’s higher purpose.
Seeing that we began with Menno Simons, let us hear from two noted Mennonite scholars, Alan and Eleanor Kreider. They gave a lecture in 2001 entitled Economical with the Truth: Swearing and Lying, An Anabaptist Perspective. This used to be available online but unfortunately no longer seems to be so. They detect in modern society a crisis of truthfulness in which people swear oaths, but then are “economical with the truth.” They point to how the 16th century Anabaptists made much of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not swear at all… Let your yes be yes, and your no be no” (Matthew 5:33-37).
They cite patristic writers. According to Clement of Alexandria around AD 200, Christians were “addicted to the truth.” Apollonius, who was martyred in Rome in the late second century, at his trial gave witness that the Christians “have been ordered by Jesus never to swear and in all things to tell the truth . . . for from deceit comes distrust.” They also quote Menno Simons himself:
If you fear the Lord and . . . are asked to swear . . . continue in the Lord’s Word which has forbidden you so plainly to swear, and let your yea and nay be your oath as was commanded, whether life or death be your lot, in order that you by your courage and firm truthfulness may admonish and reprove others. [As a consequence], we by the fear of God dare not speak anything but the truth; [we] esteem every word which comes from our mouth as virtually an oath.
We sense convictions in the man that would not have let him lie barefacedly on that carriage.
However, the Kreiders are quick to admit: the Anabaptists, of course, struggled to live up to their vision. Their vision was not simply one of not swearing; it was of being people of transparency who belonged to communities of truthfulness. Like most Christians throughout time and space, the Anabaptists didn’t always do what they wanted to do. Occasionally, as we have noticed, they swore oaths, especially when they were recanting to be able to return from banishment to return to their families. And they often asked – what does truthfulness require? What does it mean, when in danger, to tell the truth?
Here we see that there are other considerations that might have justified a certain “economy with the truth”. An article in Christianity Today, ‘The Seven Levels of Lying’, picks this up with the more recent example of Corrie ten Boom lying to the Gestapo to protect the Jews that her family was hiding. ‘What ten Boom’s case shows is not that lying is honoring to God, but rather that human circumstances can degenerate into something so depraved that lies get mixed in with acts of faith.’
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Some of God’s radicals operated in days when the Church was strong and advancing. Others lived in times of hardship, confusion and decline. Their (equally heroic) task was to lead the way to restoration; to ‘rebuild the walls’, like Nehemiah in his day. One such ‘rebuilder’ was Menno Simons (1496-1561).
Born in rural Friesland, son of a dairy farmer, he showed piety and intelligence and at the age of 28 he became a Roman Catholic priest. But he was nagged by inner doubts about some aspects of Catholic practice, so he read widely, including the (officially banned) Martin Luther. The burning of an Anabaptist believer as a heretic, not far from Menno’s home, threw him into mental turmoil. The Anabaptists were everywhere condemned, but their teachings resonated in his own heart. As he studied scripture, he became convinced that he was called to walk with these persecuted brethren.
At this very point, however, the Radical Reformers’ movement was in turmoil. One group, at Münster in Germany, had fallen into religious mania. Nearer to home, a group of Anabaptists had occupied the cathedral in Bolsward and proclaimed revolution. Both groups had been ruthlessly wiped out by the authorities. Even so, Menno sensed that the Anabaptists were at core ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ (the Bible, Mark 6:34). In this darkest hour, he felt an inner call from God.
I renounced my worldly reputation and my easy life, he wrote, and I willingly submitted myself to distress and poverty under the heavy cross of Christ. I surrendered my soul and body to the Lord … and commenced in due time … to teach and to baptize, to till the vineyard of the Lord,… to build up His holy city and temple and to repair the tumble-down walls.
For the next twenty years he and his family were fugitives. Always in danger, with a price on his head, Menno toured Holland and northern Germany, never staying in one place longer than a few months. He preached, baptised and reconciled brethren. He wrote letters and books setting out a balanced Anabaptist theology. One of his key themes was the ‘new creation’: people, the Church and society can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the love of Christ. In this lies hope for mankind’s future, in any age.
Menno was never captured. Even so, his hardships left him crippled in later years. Only one of his children reached adulthood. And he bore the constant burden of care for the Church. If Almighty God had not preserved me, he wrote, I would have gone mad. For there is nothing on earth that my heart loves more than the Church, yet I must live to see her in this sad affliction.
So he pressed on. Through his labours, Anabaptism was not only saved from extinction but given new vigour. Mennonites gained a foothold in northern Europe, then in America, and they still exist in significant numbers today. Menno’s was an apostolic ministry, not in the out-front manner of a Paul but the more hidden manner of an Epaphras or a Titus. It was also truly radical in that Menno searched for the roots of New Testament Christianity, returned to those roots, and did all he could to protect, strengthen and publicise these roots. Menno offers today’s evangelical Christians an inspiring model of leadership that balances zeal and discipline, passion and theological depth, courage and wisdom.