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.
I devoted my last post to Johnn Christoph Blumhardt. Part of his legacy is his unshakable conviction of ‘realised eschatology’: the glorious belief that the promises of scripture for the end times are meant for the Church now.
From Bible College onwards, he had had dealings with missionaries, doctors and exorcists, who had first hand experience of the power of the risen Christ to free those enslaved by evil. So when the young woman in Möttlingen was delivered from evil after eighteen months of prayer and spiritual warfare, Blumhardt was convinced of two things: Jesus is victor and His kingdom has come on earth. His experiences of healings at the sanatorium of Bad Boll caused him to interpret this in-breaking of God’s kingdom in an individual way. Jesus was doing for precious people what He did as He walked the earth: making the blind see, opening the prison door and releasing the bound (see Luke 4:16-21).
As Johann Blumhardt lay dying in 1880, he spoke a blessing over his son Christoph (1842-1919): that he might conquer in the strength of Jesus, the victorious Christ.
Christoph, like his father, had trained as a pastor. He was, by all accounts, controversial. The novelist Hermann Hesse recalls him saying that “a Mohammedan with a real and honest heart is closer to God than many Christians.”
Blumhardt grew increasingly disillusioned with the established church, so he returned to Bad Boll and assisted his father with the work there, until Johann’s death passed the mantle to him. He held healing crusades, which carried the same power his father had known.
But Christoph was on a different, more radical road. “A Christian must be born twice“, he wrote: “once from the human to the spiritual, and once from the spiritual to the human“. In other words, a spirituality or church commitment which had no interest in addressing the sufferings of people and the ills of society was a comfortable lie.
Christoph had a more developed notion of God’s kingdom. In later years he claimed that his father’s compassionate heart had swayed him in favour of the individual, whereas Christ the King has His kingdom rule – a rulership that includes all things, the universe, the earth, nations and structures. This kingdom was wider than the Church and not best expressed in a religious system which was a preserve of the middle-class, concerned only with power and influence.
Johann had begun with the ‘cosmic’ through the exorcism at Möttlingen (see previous post). His son saw the ‘cosmic’ aspect of the kingdom of God – that it was a Body hastening the return of Jesus Christ by shining as a light in darkness, a ‘city on a hill’ (Matthew 5:14). Johann had acted as if the Kingdom was part of the Church; for the son, the Church is part of the Kingdom.
“We Christians think of a heavenly kingdom; I came to see that God intended an earthly kingdom, or rather, a heavenly kingdom on earth. God’s name was to be hallowed on earth, His kingship seen on earth, His will done on earth. The earth should announce eternity: God on earth.”
In a number of writings, Christoph Blumhardt presented his understanding of the kingdom of God and how it is forever breaking in to life on earth – for that was always God’s intention.
“The angels have God in heaven, I have not – I want to pray down here. I must have God here. The earth is the stage set for the kingdom of God, because the kingship of God is in direct relationship with this earth: the Saviour, down here. God’s intention is the here and now: Jesus challenging poverty, sin and misery on earth.”
A post on the John Mark Ministries blog considers the significance of Blumhardt’s writings on the kingdom of God. ‘His ideas had seminal influence on Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more recently on Jacques Ellul and Jürgen Moltmann – theological giants among whom he would most certainly feel a stranger. Despite this legacy, Blumhardt is relatively unknown. To begin with, Blumhardt’s life was a provocation. He also expressed his ideas in impressive and unconventional phrases. His message excited both shock and indignation, for it went against the currents of both the church and the world. He represented something quite different from what we generally understand by Christianity.
‘Blumhardt did not care about matters of religion and church, of worship services and dogma, not even of inner peace and personal redemption. For him, faith was a matter of the coming of God’s kingdom, of God’s victory over darkness and death here and now. The kingdom of God was the creative reign of Christ’s peace and justice on earth. His vision of God’s righteousness on earth was an unconditional and all-embracing one: God’s love reconciles the world, liberates suffering, heals economic and social need – in short, it renews the earth.’
Blumhardt believed that the prophets and Jesus wanted a new world: the rulership of God over all reality. He could not identify with most Christians’ longing for heaven and enduring this earthly life as a necessary precursor. In his view, heaven must come down to earth.
“Many people long and yearn for heaven; they stretch out toward heaven. I would like to tell them: Let your minds reach to the heights that we can already perceive on earth. Down here is where Jesus appeared, not above in the invisible world. Here on earth he wants to appear again and again. Here on earth we may find him.”