Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: Separated Unto God

As I mentioned yesterday, I read a lot while on vacation. One book I finished up was pretty meh but the second was mostly irritating and disquieting, not because it was wrong but because it struck a little too close to home. Below is my review.

The main failing of much of Christendom today, however, is not the development of a neolegalism, but of unvarnished worldliness. 

- J.C. Wenger, Separated Unto God, p 144

Nestled in a lengthy book, the above quote from John C. Wenger in 1951, makes a point that was true in the middle of the 20th century and is even more true today. In spite of frequent dire warnings of the "legalism" boogeyman, the greater danger in the church is and has always been a compromised posture toward the world, an attitude that sees progressive surrender to stay one step ahead of the world's displeasure as the safest path. For the vast majority of the church the time to make a stand has passed but in some places there still is a healthy appreciation for the need for the church to be a separate and distinct people who do not look, think or act like the world.

J.C. Wenger's comprehensive look at separation, Separated Unto God, is perhaps the gold standard on the topic from an Anabaptist perspective. Granted that many contemporary "Anabaptists" would be shocked and horrified at what he describes, I nevertheless find far more of value in what Wenger wrote six decades ago than I do in most of what passes for Anabaptist literature today. While some of what he wrote seems archaic and even quaint in our "enlightened" culture, even in the church, I found virtually every page to be convicting. I also found it unsettling because too often I recognized where I was likewise engaged in cultural compromise, often without giving it much thought.

For virtually every subject from how we dress to involvement in war, Wenger goes to the Bible and makes a compelling case for simple non-conformity. It is a refreshing change in an era of compromise at breakneck speed from most corners of the church apart from those that are still trying to tilt at the windmills of the culture wars. It is important to note that Wenger approaches this entire topic as a positive separation toward God rather than away from the world. The difference might seem quibbling but it is an important difference to understand.

Wenger also touches on one of the (or perhaps the) major weaknesses of the separated, conservative Anabaptist tribe, namely their tendency to bunker up, rely on tradition and eschew the evangelistic zeal of their Anabaptist forefather. Speaking of the Pennsylvania Mennonites, Wenger quotes the following:

Their Christianity was not that of "radical" Christians; it had settled down to a comfortable, conventional, denominational type. There was no thought of evangelistic work, no need of any kind of mission work, or occasion to alter any of the set patterns of worship. The faith and practice of the immigrants was good and satisfying, why change?

From Mennonite Life, quoted in Separated Unto God, p. 80

That rings true even today and it is a major issue but compared to having conversations on accepting "gay marriage" it pales in comparison and is an issue that can be fixed.

If there are weak points they come when Wenger turns to certain church traditions like close (although not closed) communion and church membership. In spite of these flaws I found very little to disagree with. The writing style is a bit archaic and dated but that is quite common among books written in the middle of the 20th century. It is not an easy read but it certainly is a worthwhile one, not just for Christians who embrace Biblical separation but for any Christian who looks around at the race to compromise and wonders if that is what God really has in mind for His church.

Amid the confusion of the church culture we live in and a redefinition of "Anabaptism" that looks suspiciously like run of the mill "progressive evangelicalism", Wenger's writings from so many years ago is a refreshing change and even more necessary today than it was in the 1950's. May God's people recover a healthy separation, not so much from the world but unto God along with a vigorous zeal for evangelism. The world desperately needs it.

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