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November 19

The Brethren in Christ and American Evangelicalism: Optimism or pessimism?

By Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Earlier this month I had the distinct privilege of joining with some fellow historians to discuss “Shifting Identities Among American Anabaptists” in a session of the 2012 Conference on Faith and History. (See part of my talk here.)

In addition to my presentation, which focused on American evangelicalism’s influence on the Brethren in Christ Church in the post-World War II era, panelists discussed institutional and theological changes within Anabaptist communities like the Mennonite Church USA and the Missionary Church.

In the papers themselves and then in the ensuing Q-and-A, most discussion centered on the historical intersections of Anabaptism and evangelicalism — and, more specifically, on whether or not Anabaptists should be optimistic or pessimistic about the perseverance of their tradition in the midst of evangelicalism.

Interestingly, I was tapped as the optimist on the panel — the one who saw the most hope for the continuing relevance of Anabaptism (in the Brethren in Christ context). One of my fellow panelists, representing the Missionary Church, also pointed to the Brethren in Christ as an exemplar of a historically Anabaptist community maintaining its Anabaptist distinctives in an “age of evangelicalism.”

In the Q-and-A, I joked that perhaps I had oversold my “optimism.” I recognize that the Brethren in Christ — especially right now — stand to lose their historic Anabaptist amidst evangelical over-saturation. In the past we’ve had folks like Ronald J. Sider who sought to blend the best of evangelicalism with the best of Anabaptism. Do we have such voices today?

Certainly our denominational historians and theologians have noted the precarious position of the church. Owen Alderfer called Anabaptism the “burden” of the Brethren in Christ tradition. Luke Keefer warned that we would need to “domesticate” evangelicalism or risk its eclipse of our Anabaptist and Wesleyan distinctives. More recently, some leaders have directly implicated evangelicalism as one major threat to our peace witness. These are relevant arguments, much-needed words of caution.

I walked away from my CFH panel wondering, “How optimistic should the Brethren in Christ be? Can we sustain our Anabaptist roots in the midst of so much evangelical influence?” I’ve continued to wrestle with these questions in the time since I got back from the conference.

Ultimately, I feel compelled to say, “Yes, we have reasons for optimism.” Here are three of those reasons, briefly:

  1. We are still talking about Anabaptist themes. Sometimes the tenor of the Anabaptist/Evangelical debate within Brethren in Christ circles makes it sound as if no Anabaptist influence still exists within the church. Alderfer’s “burden” thesis is a great example of this. Do the Brethren in Christ really think of their Anabaptist heritage only as a “burden”?

    With all due respect to the late Dr. Alderfer, I want to say, “no.” Sure, some Brethren in Christ likely think of some Anabaptist-related aspects of their heritage — like plain dress — as “burdens.” Certainly these aspects of our former denominational identity, born from our very Anabaptist desire to be separate from “the world,” were thought of as burdensome — one of several reasons why they were jettisoned in the mid-1950s.

    Of course, Anabaptism isn’t just about plain dress. Plenty of Brethren in Christ are proclaiming an Anabaptist spirituality. This is especially true among a younger generation of church leaders. Plus we have congregations that are reviving some of the best Anabaptist-inspired traditions from the Brethren in Christ past. My congregation, Circle of Hope in Philadelphia, holds a quarterly love feast — a historic practice among Brethren in Christ, inspired by their very Anabaptist (and very biblical) sense of community.

    Of course, the Brethren in Christ are also still talking about Anabaptism and its themes of service, community, and peace. Our core values emphasize these values. Our denominational magazine tackles the issues all the time. The fact that we’re still talking about Anabaptism — and modeling our practice on its themes — suggests that the tradition’s influence isn’t really waning.
  2. We still possess (at least on paper) a very Anabaptist polity. The Brethren in Christ maintain a polity structure that emphasizes that timeless Anabaptist (and biblical!) theme: the gathered community. At the center of our polity are local congregations — those regional communities of believers who meet weekly for worship and fellowship. Encircling the whole community is the General Conference — the representative body, composed of laypeople and leaders, that gathers together every two years to discern corporately what direction our community should take. Ultimate decision-making power still rests with this body.

    According to our polity, power flows from the center out. Questions, concerns and critical issues arise from the group; decisions on how to address such issues are made by the group, too. This is a very Anabaptist way to do church.

    In recent years, concerns have been raised about the centralization of power. Beginning in the 1950s, the polity of the church was revised and consolidated; authority was moved from a broad group of bishops serving clusters (districts) of three or less churches, to five bishops serving six Regional Conferences made up of many churches. In this schema, power was still somewhat decentralized; each bishop held equal sway, and an election pattern ensured that each bishop would only hold the greatest positions of authority — either Moderator or General Secretary of the General Conference — once every year.

    Over time, the church continued to grow and General Conference switched to a biennium schedule. Concerns were raised about the effectiveness of a denomination without a more centralized authority structure. Thus, in the early 1990s came the installation of full-time, paid General Church leaders — initially, a Moderator, a General Secretary, a Bishop of Bishops, and a Chief Financial Officer. Articles from the Evangelical Visitor during that era suggest that, although the new polity structure passed a General Conference vote, not every member of the church backed the new idea. Many were concerned that this new structure placed authority in the hands of a select few — a very un-Anabaptist way of doing things.

    I think there’s still hope to recover more of the Anabaptist essence of our present polity. Let’s keep talking, keep dialoguing — the key to functioning as a community of discernment. Let’s find ways to make this conversation happen on the “off years” — the time when General Conference doesn’t meet. In fact, let’s find ways to make this conversation happen as though there was no General Conference at all. Let’s relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ — a key insight of the Anabaptist movement. If we can maintain our Anabaptist polity, we can maintain our Anabaptist influence.
  3. The Brethren in Christ have clearly influenced the larger evangelical culture. Since the 1950s, Brethren in Christ people have born public testimony to the church’s historic “full Bible” witness — a witness that takes seriously the entirety of the biblical mandate, not just the easy parts.

    I’ve written about this historic “witnessing” before. Our past is full of models, like Bishop and Messiah College President C. N. Hostetter, Jr., and activist and theologian Ronald J. Sider, who boldly decried the lowering of gospel standards, especially among evangelicals. Christian peace and justice are not just ethical concerns for a few groups of believers; they are biblical mandates for the whole Church. Evangelicals have been among those Christians to ignore such mandates. As Hostetter opined in the 1950s, “The evangelical fellowship should be better informed.” Today’s Brethren in Christ would do well to continue this model of witness — and would, in so doing, demonstrate the ongoing relevance of the Anabaptist tradition to contemporary evangelicals.
  4. Devin Manzullo-Thomas is part of the Broad and Washington congregation of Circle of Hope. He blogs here, where this blog originally appeared.

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