Nonconformity in Cross-Cultural Context

The 2013 colloquy hosted by Faith Builders was a time of presentation and discussion about the topic Separation and Non-conformity. Val Yoder, Nathan Yoder, and Wendell Heatwole prepared papers and gave presentations on the topic. Here are their papers.

In March of 2010, nineteen students from nine countries attended our Asian Bible School in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In our class entitled, The Christian Family, various controversial subjects were discussed; family planning, divorce and remarriage, and women’s appearance. Several Korean ladies attending the class suggested that the views presented on feminine appearance, the veiling, stay-at-home mothering, family planning, and other related topics could work in American culture, but not in Asia. I assured the class that the families who followed these principles in America were as much, if not more, counter-cultural than in Asia. When they expressed uncertainty, a Thai pastor spoke up and affirmed that Biblical practices will set Christians apart from their host culture in any part of the world. This is the truth that this paper will attempt to defend. 

I must make a disclaimer before getting to the subject. Most of my experience in the past six years has been working with conservative Anabaptist young people in Asia. The illustrations and stories are primarily taken from that context. This is where my continued development of this conviction has taken place.

In many cases the current generation of young Anabaptists question what has been traditionally called non-conformity. Many conform to a list of guidelines and see themselves as “good conservative Protestants.” The differences in life-style and practice are seen as cosmetic rather than connected to the core change of values that comes through regeneration. They don’t particularly see themselves as being cross-cultural in America. They are surrounded primarily by their own conservative sub-culture, unengaged with the fallen world around them. The list of guidelines their churches give to them puts “shoe leather” to their non-conformity, as it relates to their host culture, but the seclusiveness of the non-conformed prevents their engagement with the antagonistic culture. There is an accompanying loss of meaning to the concept of being a holy nation, a peculiar people who are separated unto God. Their associations in family groupings, school attendance, recreational activities, church participation and even employment all tend to be in platonic (detached/dispassionate) agreement with the doctrines and life-style to which they personally ascribe. This significantly hinders the development of personal, inner conviction about the guidelines to which they conform. 

We seem to know all the right answers, yet see no value in them. We don’t know their significance, because in many cases, our “answers” have never been tested. I concur with Walter Hendrick’s questions in The Light That Never Dies when he asks, “How do you help them embrace what is true when they don’t have a clue as to why that truth is important? It is not that they are necessarily opposed to the truth. But how deeply can they believe in something that has yet to matter one way or another in their life? They don’t know that they don’t know.” When a Biblical sub-culture fails to engage with the fallen culture around it, the convictions it holds are seldom tested. Without testing there is an accompanying weakening of conviction. The weakened conviction is then shorn up with inadequate and irrelevant explanations. These inadequate answers fail to convince young people who have been enthralled by dynamic, but compromised, Evangelical speakers and writers and have grown up with much exposure to a group of peers who also have lived with untested practices of non-conformity. If this persists for a generation or two, the strength of non-conformity issues is weakened or lost. I would like to suggest that as participants in the theology and practice of Anabaptism, we are just as cross-cultural in America as we are in any country of the world. When the Biblical expressions of non-conformity are lived in the context of an antagonistic community, rather than primarily with like-minded people, the beauty of being separated unto God will emerge in every culture. And, may I add, especially in America!

If we relegate our non-conformity to the retention of a few significant practices, rather than embracing the radical life-style of Jesus and His teaching in whatever setting we live, we will continue to lose the next generation. It may be hard to admit, but if we have chosen in the past to change churches because we wanted more “liberty” and less non-conformity than the church of our younger days, how convincing will we be when our children follow suit to leave our church for the same reason? A significant portion of the membership of most of our churches is made up of those who have come to us from what are considered more conservative backgrounds. Whether right or wrong they considered the non-conformity of their previous church to be irrelevant. This is the problem many parents are facing today as their children feel the same way about their parent’s beliefs and practices. The next generation will be disenchanted with our understanding of being “non-conformed” unless it is relevant to engaging, not only the antagonistic world, but the compromised Evangelical church as well. The practical expressions of being separated unto God will always be dynamic. A static “statement of practice” will eventually become irrelevant. Our forefathers wrestled with the impact of the automobile on family life. Today we wrestle with the impact of inter-net. We can hardly imagine what challenges family life will have tomorrow. As time goes on, the strength, of what in one generation may have been a valid application for the church, weakens. If it is not transmitted convincingly or the issues have changed so significantly that the former standard has a sense of redundancy, it will be lost. Unfortunately, the perceived loss of meaningful, contemporary conviction tempts many to defect to apostate Evangelical churches. They then ascribe what they had been taught as legalism.

It is my conviction that we have floundered by emphasizing non-conformity to the world with almost no discussion about the beauty of holiness, or the impact of a transformed life. When being “non-conformed” is accented to the neglect of the energizing source for that separation, the “non-conformity” becomes dead legalism and has little more appeal than retaining an antiquated culture with the accompanying awkwardness of being living specimens of a past culture to tourists. We must move from a fixation to be different, to a passion of being transformed. Our difference with the world will then spring vividly out of our conformity with Christ. While there may be some value in disallowing an activity or appearance simply because the world does it, that argument alone will be relatively unconvincing. It also tends to throw us in the opposite ditch by allowing the world to determine our actions inversely. 

Gerald McDermott in his book, Seeing God, comments, “If I had to summarize in one statement what distinguishes true from false spirituality, it would be this: the unregenerate never see the beauty of holiness.” Holiness is not an austere, sterile, or bleached condition of the soul. Holiness was the atmosphere of Eden, the most untainted beauty this planet has ever known. Heaven is not only the holiest realm in existence; it is also the most beautiful. The holiest place in all God’s Kingdom is described in Revelation where the light of Jesus glistened off the shimmering surfaces of jasper, sardine, gold, and crystal with an emerald rainbow overhead. Though that beauty may have been aesthetic in nature, its dynamic source was the life of the One on the throne, the Lord Jesus Christ. We can hardly wrap our powers of imagination around the holiness and beauty of Heaven. Every attempt to draw the next generation of Anabaptists to non-conformity must be married to the conviction that holiness is beautiful.

Most theological venues of Western Christianity may applaud various expressions of holiness which separate the believer’s life-style from that of unbelievers, yet the problem is deeper. In their theologies the holiness of Christ is forensic and applied to the believer’s account in heaven but is unrelated to the actual condition of the believer’s heart. This denies an intrinsic transformation of the believer’s heart as directly connected to the change that happens in the record books of Heaven. When the dual transformation of regeneration is dichotomized the expressions of holiness become arbitrary and secondary. When inseparably linked, they are foundational and dynamic to Christian life and experience. Living a holy life, separated unto Christ and from the world’s self-centered expressions, becomes the joy-filled anticipation of the believer. He is a new man in Christ. Old things have passed away and all things have become new.

To grasp the importance of holiness, we must understand its uniqueness. Peter takes us to the compelling source when he says, But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; Because it is written, Be ye holy; for I am holy (I Peter 1:15, 16). Anything that is holy is set apart from the mundane. It is in a category all by itself. God is holy and distinctly outside all other forms of being. It is the title most often used in the Bible to describe God. The Bible itself is holy because it transcends all other writing as inerrant and infallible. Marriage is to be seen as holy matrimony because it places our spouse in a uniquely different relationship to us than that of any other human being. The believer becomes a part of a delightful, beautiful people group that contrast all other people groups like day contrasts night.

The moral effect of this holy ethnic group is that they manifest to the world that God is holy. Their lives, words, and passion suggest that holiness exists in a divine and absolute sense that penetrates human experience through those who know its Source. In a world wracked with heinous unholiness, the holiness of the believer catches the attention of a skeptical and sneering world with a beauty for which they have no explanation. It is truly peculiar!

God’s intention was that Israel would be such a holy nation in their demeanor, actions and knowledge that other nations would be captivated as they traveled through the Jewish cities and villages. He tells them in Leviticus 20:24, 26, Ye shall inherit their land, and I will give it unto you to possess it, a land that floweth with milk and honey: I am the LORD your God, which have separated you from other people. . . . And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the LORD am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine. The beauty of their culture would cause the sojourner to ask questions. Deuteronomy 4:5-8 records God’s plan to use holiness in evangelism. He says, Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, even as the LORD my God commanded me, that ye should do so in the land whither ye go to possess it. Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for? And what nation is there so great, that hath statutes and judgments so righteous as all this law, which I set before you this day? God designed Israel to be, a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation (Exodus 19:6). When Israel chose to be like the nations around them, they lost their mission. 

Many years later, God raised up Ezekiel to speak into Israel’s loss of the beauty of holiness. Ezekiel’s cry echos down to our day as well, Her priests have violated my law, and have profaned mine holy things: they have put no difference between the holy and profane, neither have they shewed difference between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from my sabbaths, and I am profaned among them (Ezekiel 22:26). The most distressing enigma of Israel’s condition was that God was seen as common! God was profaned! The God of Israel was no longer different! He was not seen as distinctively holy! Those who observed Israel would be unable to see the beauty of the Lord. His holiness had no trickle-down effect. His people were not unusual. Israel’s God was perceived to be like all other gods. The same is true today. Much of what is called Christianity is an obscene representation of a holy God. If those who claim to have Jesus living within them live no differently than those who make no such claim, then the character of God has been grossly distorted. His reputation has been violated! 

Jesus has called His followers to be the, chosen generation, the royal priesthood, the holy nation, the peculiar people; that we should shew forth the beauties (excellencies) of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light (I Peter 2:9). Paul raises the question in II Corinthians 6:16 – 18, What agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty. Much of the contemporary missionary movement has dismissed the high impact of holiness and degraded it to legalism. Therefore, like Israel among the heathen nations, Christianity today has minimal effect in many people groups.

Unfortunately, significant leaders like Ghandi and Mohammed marveled at the ethic of Christ to the extent of seriously considering Christianity, but turned away when they observed those who claimed to be His followers. Frederick Nitzche, the apostate son of a Lutheran pastor said, “If these Christians want me to believe in their God, they will have to sing me better songs, they will have to look more like people that have been saved, they’ll have to wear on their countenance the joy of the beatitudes. I can only believe in a God who dances.” While we do not want to get our doctrine from Nitzche, it is true that the more holy a person is, the more joyful they are as well. Solemnity and somberness have their appropriate place, but they should never veil the vibrant joy of holiness.

Bob Sjogren, in Unveiled at Last, addresses this problem astutely when he writes, “Complicating the issue even more is how Muslims view Christianity. Muslims believe that we worship three Gods: God the father, God the son, and God the mother, and that that threesome came to be when God came down to earth, saw Mary, lusted after her, and had sex with her. (No wonder they believe Christianity is simply ‘out to lunch’.) This concept of an immoral religion is confirmed in Muslim’s minds when they turn on television and watch ‘Christian’ programs. They assume that ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ are Christian TV programs and that they exemplify Christianity. What is the overall effect? In considering the claims of Christ, most Muslims start at a negative fifteen rather than zero.”

Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther lamented, “If we look aright at what people now do who reckon themselves as Evangelicals and know how to talk much about Christ, there is nothing behind it. Most of them deceive themselves. The number of those who began with us and had pleasure in our teaching was ten times greater, now not a tenth part of them remains steadfast. They learn indeed to speak words, as a parrot repeats what people say, but their hearts do not experience them, they remain just as they are, they neither taste nor feel how true and faithful God is. They boast much of the Gospel and at first they seek it earnestly, yet afterwards nothing remains; for they do what they like, follow their lusts, become worse than they were before and are much more undisciplined and presumptuous than other people, . . . peasants, citizens and nobles, all are more covetous and undisciplined than they were under the papacy. . .Now we are almost utterly heathen with the name of Christian.” This sorrowful lament still rings true nearly five centuries later. When faith is the only measure of righteousness, holiness becomes optional. 

The beauty of holiness does not primarily come from contrasting the world, but from imitating Christ. The imitation of Christ is what places all believers into a cross-cultural setting. Imitating Christ is what separates the believer from every other cultural group. There is no geographic place on the globe where Christians are not in a cross-cultural community. They are strangers and pilgrims with an entirely different value system from all others due to their rebirth into the Kingdom of God. The passion of their heart was captured by Albert Orsborn when he penned:

Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me
All His wonderful passion and purity
Oh, Thou Spirit divine, All my nature refine,
Till the beauty of Jesus be seen in me.

It does not take a rocket scientist to observe the splendor of holiness. It is brilliantly obvious. Holiness is so obvious and convicting that Peter tells us that even in silence, a wife’s chaste (beautiful) conversation (life-style) can win the heart of her husband. (I Peter 3:1,2) Bitterness, pride, immorality, and apathy are among the vices that dull our human ability to perceive this beauty. It is obscured by the fleshly heart.

Allow me to contrast the beauty of holiness as compared to the affliction of unholiness. The couple who follow God’s design for marriage grow in oneness and faithfulness which sweetens and strengthens their relationship as each year passes. The unholy traumatize their spouse, children, parents and friends as they engage in adulterous affairs, divorce and remarriage. Multiple marriages leave in their wake a stream of broken, hurting people where ugly confrontations are common.

Where holiness reigns, the children learn respect, domestic skills, dependability, truthfulness, and other desirable virtues in an atmosphere of love and discipline. The blessing that adult children give parents by honoring their teaching brings joy which swells the heart with grace. The beauty is copious! These children reach to their siblings with compassion to invest in their spiritual well-being by communicating how they value them. There is beauty all around, when there’s love at home. But where holiness has been lost, children become peer dependent and engage in activities that grieve their parents. They become independent and estranged from their families. The inner agony of fathers and mothers is heart-rending as they grieve when reflecting with close friends on the life-style their off-spring have chosen. It is not pretty!

In the beauty of holiness young people come to their wedding day as virgins with a much higher level of marital and sexual delight and anticipation. Their radiance and innocence brings a trust into their oneness that has long been lost by the young people who have compromised their purity. According to the authors of Girls Uncovered, over eighty percent of American girls, ages twenty and twenty-one, have lost their virginity. This dismal situation accounts for the bitterness, guilt and loss of delight that defiles their marriage beds and contributes to the infidelity of half of American marriages. This dilemma is far from beautiful. As a side note, it is painful to see young people abandon their conservative Anabaptist heritage of faithfulness in marriage to join Evangelical groups whose ratio of marital faithfulness is worse than those who claim no religion. Confidence that their own children will be faithful in the next generation has no statistical basis.

The redeemed have an engaging friendliness that brightens the doorway of their churches and homes to those who are seeking. Gracious hospitality highlighted the beauty of Christ living within believers when a recent guest testified, “This is the friendliest church we have ever attended.” A visitor came to sit beside the couple who had invited him to church one Sunday. As he sat down, he commented, “It is a good thing you invited me for lunch before I came today. I’ve had three dinner invitations since arriving this morning.” In a culture that is characterized by keys and locks, there is beauty in the knowledge that you are welcome to these godly homes at any time. There are no strangers there.

When a father, business leader, or pastor takes the smallest portion, sits in the most uncomfortable seat, or waits till last in order to serve those who are under his care, we see the beauty of holiness. That leader understands that every blessing he is given becomes a means to bless others. It is truly marvelous! This is in stark contrast to the haughty “dog eat dog” mentality found in the commercialism of the world, where “getting to the top” involves climbing on the backs of competitors, employees, staff, and consumers. The “me first” mentality is truly unattractive.

In an increasingly socialistic society where the entitlement mentality has resorted to a welfare check to compensate for slothfulness, the beauty of a work ethic that honors the sweat of the brow is refreshing. Employees who serve from the heart to make their CEO, foreman, or manager successful are a special tribute to the beauty of holiness. They will go the extra mile without being asked. The godly contractors who take loss charitably and refuse to haul their offenders to court are a rare but beautiful breed. These men go beyond the call of duty to satisfy their customers at personal loss in order to exemplify the spirit of Christ. 

Having a tradition of singing, we have been provided rich opportunities to develop four-part a capella harmony. It has been my privilege over the years to be part of churches where singing was richly enjoyed and enthusiastically engaged in. While a capella singing may be no more holy than other forms of harmonious Christian music, it has been my observation that in a significant number of cases, it was the spirited singing that drew people back to our conservative churches time after time. There was no loud accompaniment by a talented few, but rather the richness of blended, passionate voices that caused one visiting worshiper to say, “The next time I hear music like that I know I will have angels standing beside me.”

Evangelicalism has succumbed to the moral chaos of Western culture’s iniquity and immodesty to such a degree that men have to constantly guard their eyes while attending the churches of America. Several times we have attended the commencement exercises of the most conservative school for missionary children in Chiang Mai. The immodesty of the missionary children is only surpassed by the ladies of the red light district. My spirit grieves that Buddhist people perceive this as Christian. But what a contrast when we are in the company of godly women where the elegant, tasteful and modest clothing points the observer’s eyes toward the radiance and purity of her Christ-reflecting countenance. Is it possible that the proliferation of “Amish” novels that fill significant sections of America’s Christian bookstores points to a nostalgic reflection on days when beauty involved modesty? Complete strangers have come up to the women in our ministry and made comments about how beautiful they were. The on-lookers didn’t know that the non-conformed were just wearing their “every day” dress. It is not uncommon for Asian women to make statements about how beautiful our women are and even request to be photographed with them. 

When disaster hits a family in the circles of those who aspire to live holy lives, the beauty of the “barn-raising” mentality actively engages as people give sacrificially to get the family “back on their feet” again. This is in contrast to the lonely vigils of the majority of Western population who bicker with their insurance companies to get whatever they can and feel abandoned by their supposed friends.

The beauty of holiness confounds the ugliness of revenge in some of the most dynamic ways in relation to its enemies. The artist’s rendition of Dirk Willem’s rescue of his pursuer still captures humanity’s attention centuries after the incident because of the beauty of forgiveness. There is rich beauty in the account of an early American Anabaptist whose neighbor despised Christians. The ungodly neighbor accused the Anabaptist, saying his dog had killed his chickens. Though he demanded an inflated price for his loss, the Anabaptist gave him extra beyond what he required. It was some time later that the accusing neighbor discovered that his Anabaptist neighbor never owned a dog. Such a gentle response illustrates the beauty of God’s holiness.

It goes without saying that the beauty of the preceding scenarios is not without its lapses in our Anabaptist circles. On the other hand, wherever there is holiness, these beautiful expressions abound. In some cases they have abounded so prolifically that they have seemed normal and are mistakenly seen as merely a characteristic of a sub-culture. Yet the loss of the beauty of holiness brings a mystical sense of sadness about the “good ole days” even to those who are unconverted. 

It is essential that we become aware that the beauty of holiness is dramatically captivating! All true holiness issues from the heart of the believer where Jesus has taken up residence. It is His beauty that we display. We are little more than the glass case that is enclosing the life of Jesus within. Paul tells us twice that, “we are the temple of the Holy Spirit”. The most profound glimpse that most people in the world will ever get of the life of Jesus Christ is what they will see in His followers. The beauty of His life will continue to captivate the attention of apostate religious people as well the adherents of false religions. They are to see in us a beauty that is found nowhere else. This beauty oozes out of the actions, the words and the radiance of the believer. The world may scorn it in public, but that beauty haunts them in their quiet hours of reflection.

Let me finish with practical examples of the beauty of holiness that we have been privileged to observe while working in an Asian cross-cultural setting. The non-conformity that comes from each of these illustrations directly links to the beauty of Jesus as seen in His people. 

The soul of La has been hardened and embittered by the many men who have used her for their perverted delight. She knows no safe men. Her concept of a godly man is non-existent. Every male she has known well was another source of pain and exploitation. Yet, she began riding her Harley Davidson out to our church service which is conducted in a language she can hardly understand. When asked what it is that draws her to IGo Christian Fellowship, her answer was simple. “I want to watch the fathers relate to their children.” It is an expression of holiness she has never before witnessed.

An Evangelical missionary wife was caring for a fifteen-year-old mother of a two-year-old daughter. When she needed to return to the States to care for her terminally ill son, she began praying for a conservative Mennonite family to foster the two-some until she returned. She felt her prayer was ridiculous because she had never met such a family in Asia. Yet she longed for that kind of home for her foster-daughters while she was gone. Providentially she met one of the IGo students at a nearby restaurant and arrangements were eventually made for the temporary care of her daughters. She said, “The Mennonites have the purity, character, and innocence that would be so healing to my sexually-abused foster daughter. You all have something that is very precious.”

Several young male students sat around the monk chat table at a local Buddhist temple with two monks. The one monk seemed fairly well-informed about Christian doctrine but emanated a rather haughty attitude. All of that changed to one of respect and interest when he inadvertently discovered that his “guests” were all virgins. That was a “beauty” that he could hardly fathom coming from Westerners. Buddhist monks have attended our Anabaptist church services from time to time due to their intrigue with a separated, holy people.

A Nepalese pastor came to pick up the IGo students at the Kathmandu airport. He reported later how astounded he was when he saw them exiting the airplane. He was delighted as he became aware that these young people were the ones who were coming to minister with him. His church had previously hosted numerous American mission teams. Those young people came off the plane with their spiked hair, cut-offs, loud music, immodesty and immorality. He felt compelled to entertain them due to their sponsorship of his programs but he secretly grieved at their presence. This group was so different! Their enthusiasm, availability, and industriousness caused him to comment that the students were like angels serving him and the church. The impression was so deep that he bought a ticket to fly from Nepal to Chiang Mai so that he could live in the dorms and see if the beauty of this group was real. He later organized what he called an “Anabaptist Conference” for the pastors of Nepal to be taught the doctrines as understood and applied by Anabaptists.

Pastor Isaac from Myanmar has traveled to our Asian Bible School the past three years. He confessed to despising Americans because of how unprincipled and immoral they were when they came to visit his ministry. As he observed the ABS staff and families, he commented that the classes are inspiring and enjoyable but his primary reason for coming is to observe Christian couples and families. He recently wrote, “I want to invite you to come to Myanmar to teach Christian Family class that you taught us at ABS. That subject is very essential for the Kachin state because many Christian parents leave their children and are doing business all the time. They don’t know God’s plan for the family. They neglect their children. So, many youth became drug users, prostitutes, drunkards, and most become street boys and girls. Many churches in Kachin state are not teaching about Christian family life and parental (responsibility). I believe that if you come and teach us that subject, we will really be blessed.”

The Tamar Center sits in the middle of Pattaya, Thailand, the whoredom capital of the world and home to 20,000 prostitutes. The Tamar staff hesitantly allowed two IGo ladies to join their team for training in 2010. They were not sure what it would be like to have two women so modestly dressed in their ministry. It may be hard to comprehend the ostentatious contrast these two young ladies made on streets filled with prostitutes, pimps and transvestites. The result was amazing! As their three-month term of service came to an end the IGo ladies were told they could bring as many ladies of their type, as often as they could. After a second group ministered there, the Tamar staff ladies accompanied them to the bus as they were returning. One of the Thai staff told my daughter, “You are our favorite team because of your radiance and different way of dressing. It attracts a real interest in the bar girls and you have more chance to talk with the women.” The innocent purity of those young ladies were a real-life representation of what most of those prostitutes have a deep inner longing to be. This is the beauty of holiness.

This past September we sent our third team of interns to the border town of Mae Sot. These young ladies have been serving the displaced Burmese citizens that have fled from their homes due to the genocidal attempts of the government to exterminate them. The girls have worked under Allen Brown, the mission leader of Compasio, a ministry that takes Christ’s love to the refugee camps in the area. As Mr. Brown observed the character and devotion of these ladies, he asked for an opportunity to meet with us. His impression of these students was so impacting that he wanted to know how to produce such workers.

Pastor Kiat became IGo’s Thai advocate for legal and immigration work immediately after our initial visit to the country. He currently is the leader of the largest association of Christian churches in northern Thailand. He has watched the Anabaptist students closely for the past six years, culminating in his attendance, with his daughter, at Faith Builders this past winter. The Christ-honoring life-styles he has observed now compel him to re-direct his church planting efforts to raising up a Thai church of like-mind with the Anabaptists. Pastor Kiat reflected to one staff member, “I now know the Anabaptists I have gotten to know here in Thailand are for real. They don’t just act this way because they are on the mission field. They are different because of conviction and choice.”

On this past December 16th, ET, an underground Church leader from China, told our students, “It is good to take Bibles into China but more important is to teach and live it. Mennonite brothers and sisters have something to give. Chinese need examples that the Word of God is applicable, a new way to live, a holy life. We need teaching by life example.” He then reminded us that one-third of the world lives in China and India so, if we are to follow the great commission, those two countries should be a major focus.

Some have mistakenly concluded that the disciplines of a holy life-style are legalistic and detrimental to the cause of missions. While it is my conviction we should not attempt to impose our applications upon every culture we seek to evangelize, we should teach and demonstrate a suitable application which in turn invites and compels the host culture to determine and utilize their own Biblical application. 

The beautiful character, message and practices that flow out of a holy life lived in vital communion with the Lord Jesus Christ are the attention-getters for a broken, sin-cursed world to be drawn to the holiness of the Lord Jesus Christ! Through His holiness they become aware of their sinfulness. That awareness points them to the Savior who longs to make their lives reflect His beauty as well. When we are caught up with the holy beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ and His teaching, we will no longer look at the world to make our guidelines directly or inversely. 

I’ll close with a novel story adapted from the accounts of the Old Testament Rechabites and two significant leaders of the Reformation time, Matin Luther and Menno Simmons.

In days long ago God raised up Martin to confront the false teaching and practices of His people. As Martin was furiously riding in his chariot down the road one day, he happened upon another young man named Menno. When Martin inquired of Menno as to whether he was of the same mind about the people’s sin, Menno quickly agreed that he was. Stepping into the chariot, the two young men sped off to hold conferences and seminars to confront the heresy of the people. Due to his initiative and diligence, Martin was promised by the Lord that the next four church leaders would be his descendants. Unfortunately, Martin’s personal compromises were imitated and strengthened by his progeny. 

As Menno observed the effect of pomp and power upon his friend, he determined in his heart to take a different path. Menno returned home to implant the beauty of holiness in his sons. He gave them five extra-biblical guidelines as preservatives against the immoral, materialistic mind set he observed in the sons of Martin. His commands were clear:

  • Do not cut off your beards
  • Sing a cappella in your churches
  • Wear cape dresses and plain suits
  • Sit segregated in your assemblies
  • Attend church regularly

Menno promised his off-spring that if they would remain true to these commands, their holy life-style would have a lasting impact in the land. Four hundred and fifty years later a lone gunner came to Menno’s descendants and killed five of his daughters. When the enraged community turned to hear the response of the sons of Menno, they responded with one voice, “We forgive!”

While there are glaring inconsistencies among some of these descendants, that act of holiness went out to the confront the fallen cultures of the world with its exquisite beauty. 

We recognize that the five issues I have ascribed to Menno were not practices that he necessarily advocated to his followers, but they are issues which our forefathers have embraced as appropriate expressions of holy living. We dare not cannonize extra-biblical practices, but neither should we carelessly abandon what reflected legitimate attempts in the past to live holy lives in a fallen culture. While we wrestle with discerning how to express holiness in light of contemporary issues, let us never forget that non-conformity glows the brightest where the world is darkest.

According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue, (II Peter 1:3) the beauty of holiness.

This article is the third in a collection of three articles on Separation and Nonconformity that was shared as a presentation at the 2013 Colloquy hosted by Faith Builders.