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Fall 1997 · Vol. 26 No. 2 · pp. 49–53 

The Churchman as I Knew Him

David Ewert

My memories of J. B. Toews (I will call him J. B. from here on) run all the way back to my childhood. As recent immigrants from Russia, our family eventually settled in Coaldale, Alberta, in 1929. The Toews family had arrived a bit earlier in this agricultural community where growing sugar beets was one of the main occupations of immigrant farmers. Like other Mennonite families, they were trying to eke out a living from an irrigation farm. J. B., as the eldest son, was not afraid to get his hands dirty and threw himself wholeheartedly into farming.

J. B. was undoubtedly one of the most effective preachers in the Mennonite Brethren Church in his generation.

EARLY MEMORIES

A large Mennonite Brethren church emerged in Coaldale and B. B. Janz, J. B.’s uncle, was its leader for some twenty years. J. B.’s father was one of our many ministers. He had a rather patrician bearing but was known for his gentleness and for the caring tone of his sermons. I knew all of J. B.’s brothers and sisters.

By the time I entered my teens, J. B.’s thirst for higher education had taken him away. He frequently came home to visit his parents, however, and we always enjoyed his sermons when he would visit. He had already begun college studies while in the Ukraine and had a year of studies in Amsterdam while the family waited to get clearance to sail for Canada. He was therefore able to earn his B.A. from Tabor College in two more years.

When J. B. returned to Coaldale we thought he was very learned. We were mesmerized by his sermons which were sprinkled liberally with {50} stories from our nation’s big neighbor to the south. Although J. B., at least in his later years, frowned upon all clericalism, he displayed a good measure of it when I first got to know him. His walk, his speech, his black suit, his gestures—in short, his entire demeanor—used to send shivers down my youthful back. We poor country bumpkins sat in awe of this great man who was a “pastor” in the United States of America (we did not call our preachers “pastors” in those days).

A TIME TO CRITICIZE

As the years went by and I began to look at people (including ministers) with a somewhat more critical eye, I lost some of my earlier penchant for hero worship. I never had any doubts about J. B.’s integrity, however. I always looked on him as a man, called of God and anointed by his Spirit, who preached with great passion and served the church with genuine dedication. Yet, I began to feel uncomfortable when he made sweeping generalizations in his sermons, or when he expounded and applied the Scriptures in such absolutist terms as if there were no other way of reading the text. Also, I discovered that I was not the only bloke who had the audacity to question some of the things J. B. proclaimed so forcefully. After listening to a sermon by

J. B. on one occasion, old Doctor A. H. Unruh, one of our veteran ministers who happened to be in the audience, came by and made the rather critical comment (in German), “My, my, did he ever take his mouth full!”

Years later, when I was a college teacher in Winnipeg, J. B. came up from the States for a visit and spoke in chapel. He had just read Elton Trueblood’s The Incendiary Fellowship, which had recently come off the press and which evidently had impressed him greatly. In his sermon he asked the college audience whether they were aware of this exciting new book. We were not! “Well,” he declared, “if you haven’t read this book you know absolutely nothing about missions.” President J. A. Toews (J. B.’s cousin) almost lost his cool over that kind of “put down.”

However, in spite of our criticisms, both expressed and unexpressed, we always listened to J. B.’s sermons with anticipation. He was undoubtedly one of the most effective preachers in the Mennonite Brethren Church in his generation. What we found a bit amusing at times was the observation that whatever J. B. did, he did with all his might. Whatever happened to be his current assignment, whether he was pastor, college president, seminary teacher, mission executive, or Mennonite archivist that was the most important calling in this world. {51}

SEMINARY COLLEAGUES

There was always a softer side to J. B. as well and he could be very affectionate. Yet, as age has a way of mellowing people, J. B. also became gentler as the years crept up on him. And those of us who in earlier years had occasionally criticized J. B., by God’s grace also became kinder in our evaluations of other people and of God’s servants in the church. For me personally this led to a growing friendship with J. B. that I had not dreamed of in my younger years. What contributed to an increasing closeness between us was my appointment to the faculty of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary in Fresno.

For nine years we were colleagues in our efforts to train people for church ministries and, although I was his junior in age and experience, he never treated me as a novice. In fact, frequently he would call me up to ask about some biblical text or to express concern about some emphases in church or school, wondering whether I agreed with him. Often I was amazed to discover how similar were our convictions concerning matters of faith and practice. No doubt this was due in part to our common history and to the fact that we belonged to more or less the same generation. But I think it also came from a common faith and from rather similar views of what it meant to be the church and to be messengers of the Good News.

After J. B. concluded his teaching ministry at the seminary and gave himself to denominational research, he would regularly leave the archives and come over to the seminary for the ten o’clock coffee break. These breaks occasionally became longer sessions as J. B. shared with us his findings. When he found in me an interested listener of his tales, he regularly lapsed into German (his mother tongue). Not all coffee-drinkers always appreciated our conversations in “another tongue.”

At eighty-five years of age, J. B. was deeply involved in several writing projects, including his own autobiography. Reading this volume when it finally appeared was a bit of an anticlimax for me because I had already lived through all the chapters of the book, and the oral tradition seemed more interesting to me than the written. J. B. was a great storyteller.

After his wife Nettie died, J. B. looked after himself for many years and even developed considerable culinary skills. I recall several occasions when Lena and I were invited to come to his apartment for dinner. He served excellent meals with all the trimmings. Also he took us out to restaurants on several occasions. The conversations at such friendly get-togethers rarely touched on subjects such as politics or the economy and certainly not golf. It always turned around the church: its mission, its schools, its theology, its life, and the lives of people in the church. {52}

THE CHURCH, THE SCRIPTURES, AND HOLINESS

In his later years, J. B. devoted himself more and more to the history of the MB Church. He deplored its weaknesses and could come down hard on MBs. He was concerned that if we lost the knowledge of our past, we could not move with confidence into the future. But he also gloried in MB accomplishments. He was deeply convinced that the Mennonite Brethren had a significant contribution to make to the Church of Jesus Christ as a whole.

In practice, J. B. only occasionally ministered in churches and schools of other denominations and his heart was always in the Mennonite Brethren Church. In fact, his love for the MBs tended at times to narrow his vision. He found it hard to conceive a close working relationship with other denominations, including other Mennonite bodies.

In his theology J. B. was known for his conservative views, although for some Fundamentalists not nearly conservative enough. As a young man he had gone through a dark night of the soul in his struggle with rationalism, but he emerged from that tunnel with a deep confidence in the Word of God and a wholehearted commitment to the Scriptures. When he left Coaldale as a young man to study at Tabor College, and later to pastor churches in the United States, he could not avoid the issues raised by the Liberal-Fundamentalist controversy that raged in the 1920s and 1930s. J. B. would abhor being called a Fundamentalist, but “liberal” tendencies in theology were often the objects of his scathing criticism.

Not only was J. B. conservative in theology, he was also conservative in ethics. Coming from a Mennonite colony in Russia, where MBs had a reputation for strictness in ethical practices, and then settling in Coaldale where the MB Church in its earlier years contributed generously to this reputation, J. B. had to come to terms with legalism in the realm of ethics. Perhaps in part out of reaction to the legalism of his home congregation, he overcame what is sometimes called “code ethics,” i.e., lists of do’s and don’ts which so often tended to be a substitute for the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).

That, however, did not mean that J. B. became lax in ethical matters in his own life, or that he took lightly the violation of biblical teachings in the lives of others. In his sermons, worldliness in the lives of church members came in for very sharp reproof. Not even pastors escaped his withering glance when he sensed superficiality (Leichtfertigkeit as he would call it), and a lack of holiness in daily life. “Seriousness” characterized both his life and ministry. Although he could enjoy a humorous tale, {53} he hated frivolity.

PREACHING

All these things—love for the church, a high view of the Scriptures, a deep desire for holiness—were the spiritual underpinnings for his dynamic preaching and teaching ministry. Add to that a great talent for oral communication (perhaps even a penchant for acting) and you have the ingredients for a powerful proclamation of the Word of God. For me personally, whatever else he may have contributed to the life and growth of the MB Church, J. B. stands out as a great preacher of the gospel. Although he appeared to preach extemporaneously, he did not preach without preparation. When J. B. was pastor of the Reedley MB Church, he regularly took off Mondays, drove to his secret retreat away from town, and gave himself to prayer and to the preparation of the next week’s sermon.

His sermons were carefully outlined and had a logical progression to them so that one could easily follow along. And when the sermon was over you knew what he had preached on. Much of his preaching was topical, but the kind of topical preaching in which the various aspects of the theme are rooted in biblical texts.

He spoke with a rather heavily accented English, a language he had not learned in his youth when he spoke German and Russian. This linguistic background also affected his sentence structure which, upon occasion, became rather convoluted. However with his passion, his gestures, and his striking illustrations, most listeners overlooked such limitations. If we had a dozen preachers like J. B. in our churches today, I dare say we would be the envy of other denominations.

J. B., as this issue of Direction goes to press, we greet you with sincere affection. Our lives are richer today because of you. How we wish you would join us for coffee once again and tell us more about your journey of faith!

David Ewert is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies, Concord College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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