Over the last four centuries, various church congregations have chosen to write down certain pledges of commitment in the manner of a legal covenant – and publish it. In today’s western society, however, ‘easy come, easy go’ is so often the keynote. Political parties, churches or local clubs all lament that they can’t get people to sign up. ‘Quickie’ divorces can end marriage vows in weeks. Life is impersonal and everything must be “now”.
But there is a curious phenomenon here. Men who baulk at demands and commitments, even in their own marriage and family, can also be inspired by movies like Shawshank Redemption or Braveheart, with their ‘band of brothers’ flavour and ‘loyalty to the death’ message. Maybe women do the same with Paradise Road?
The implication seems to be that intuitively we recognise the strength and desirability of loyalty, faithfulness and commitment, but life’s experience has taught us that we’re all too weak and it doesn’t work – so leave it enshrined in films, don’t try to live it.
But there is a reaction. Interest in covenants is growing. In churches in America, there is a mushrooming of interest in ‘fireproofing’ the marriage vows, born of the film Fireproof, which is popularising the term “covenant marriage” and offers specific rubrics for marriage re-dedications along this line.
A covenant is a statement of the basis for, and conditions of, a relationship, writes Julia Faire in “Covenant People“. Covenants have the purpose of both defining and strengthening commitment and setting forth a particular course and vision for those that participate in them to follow. They have a strong biblical basis and a history of heroic observance, notably the Covenanter martyrs of Scotland.
There is a battle to be fought and won, Faire concludes, a lost generation to be won for Christ, a solid church to be built within a fragmented and unstable society. There is a need for a drawing of the lines, consolidation and fresh vision if the church is not going to largely disappear amidst the fog of confusion and disarray that characterises our present [western] society.
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.