A Vision of Unity for the Church of the Brethren in the 1980s

1982 Church of the Brethren Statement

What is the Brethren vision of unity that will guide ecumenical relations for the 1980s? The phrase Brethren vision of unity may seem odd, even contradictory for a declaration of ecumenical relationships. But actually it is contradictory only from the mistaken notion that the vision of unity which guides the ecumenical movement requires that we negate, or gloss over, our particular history as Brethren. Such negating, or glossing over, is far from what is required. The ecumenical call is that we give a faithful accounting before other Christian groupings, and before the larger human community, around points of strength and from the depth of our life as a believing-serving people.

The Brethren vision of unity is grounded by the disciplining of the scriptures, expressed symbolically in our ordinances, and experienced practically in our historical polity.

I. The Ground of Unity

To formulate a vision of unity is to be disciplined by the scriptures. As an outgrowth of our biblical heritage, we believe that unity is a mark of the obedient church. This unity differs from the common mind among persons who have similar interests and who happen to like one another; it differs from the cohesive spirit that may develop among colleagues; it even differs from natural family bonds. For the unity which we affirm has its source in God’s promise: “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12). The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, the “Word who became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a), the one through whom “all the promises of God find their Yes” (2 Cor. 1:20a).

Unity is God’s gift. It is not based on our merit or strivings. It is God who walks among us, who seals our membership in Christ’s resurrection body, and whose spirit in our hearts is given as a guarantee (2 Cor. 1:21). As God’s gift freely granted, unity is not a duty to be obeyed, not an obligation to be achieved by our meritorious work, not an effort to fulfill our needs for companionship, but a way of life to be joyously accepted and shared.

Throughout all our social structures and interpersonal relationships, we are called to make visible the unity already given in Christ. God’s plan of unity and peace is for all of humanity and the whole created universe (Col. 1:15-20). We witness to this unity whenever we “do justice, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8b). The scope of our concern is as broad as the totality of God’s creation, and in this breadth of concern we give living testimony that “whoever is in Christ is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). When we are released from our disobedient hostility to the way of Christ, then we can love the world for whom Christ died. Then we can manifest the unity that is also proclamation, the oneness that proclaims the belief and knowledge for which Jesus prayed in our behalf: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; . . . so that the world may know that thou has sent me and hast loved them even as thou has loved me” (John 17:20-21,23b).

Since creation originates in God’s act, it begins not with discord but with harmony, not with division but with unity. Sin denies the purpose of God by creating discord and divisions that mar the human story. But unity, God’s original intention underlying all creation, remains. The scriptures foresee the time when the “Lord will become ruler on all the earth; on that day the Lord will be one and the Lord’s name one” (Zech. 14:9). Our beginnings in God’s ultimate purpose link us to our new beginnings in Christ, whose “name is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord . . .” (Phil. 2:9b-11a).

II. The Expression of Unity

The unity that centers in Christ does not require compromising one’s belief; nor does it require uniformity. Where belief finds particular expression in a believer or denomination, unity does not demand forsaking a position of faith for the sake of ecumenicity. Rather, we are admonished “to speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15a), to witness earnestly to the faith and hope we have received from our respective histories.

But discipleship is neither individualistic nor restricted to the nurturing context of a particular denomination. We are held accountable before our brothers and sisters in Christ from the various church traditions. It is expected that we evidence specific ways in which the commandments and example of Jesus are indeed being obeyed through the specific faith heritage which instructs us. It is expected also that we affirm one another’s gifts of faith and life, and seek to learn from each other’s traditions as each such tradition has mediated Christ as Lord and Savior.

Practices from the tradition which Brethren bring to the ongoing ecumenical quest are dramatized and focused in our celebration of the Love Feast and Communion. In washing the feet of our neighbor and allowing our own feet to be washed, we both give and receive. This reminds us again of what we are so prone to forget—that life is gained not through lording it over others, but through serving and being served. This strong symbol encourages an ecumenical style marked by mutual servanthood and accountability, by assertive witnessing and attentive listening, by gratitude for the shaping impact of one’s own heritage and willingness to receive guidance from the traditions of others.

Church of the Brethren polity has called for congregations and larger denominational structures to be mutually accountable. From the earliest beginnings, congregations were linked for instruction, discipline, ordinances, and council. As early as 1723, the Germantown Brethren consulted European Brethren before baptizing members. By 1742 Big Meetings were held annually to deal with matters of procedure, program, polity, and guidance. In 1856 district organizational structures evolved. These practices entailed searching the scriptures together, seeking the “mind of Christ” for the corporate body and for individuals. These polity understandings and provisions encourage broader interchurch relations for the sake of mutual enlightenment and challenge so that the whole people of God experiences “bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Eph. 4:16b).

We appropriately speak of the church as a body or as a family of believers (1 Cor. 12). Although members of a family may distance themselves from one another through disagreement or difference, they cannot negate their common origin and lineage. We, therefore, recognize the existence of our separated church families as temporary way stations. Remembering our calling to give an “accounting of the faith and hope within us,” we know that we belong to one another, and we rejoice in anticipation of the time of reunion when we remember that we are one family in the midst of our diversity. This formulation suggests a style which envisions the ecumenical movement as a family of families, or a communion of communions, in which ecumenical gatherings and shared ventures are signs of the church’s true nature as a fellowship with deepened covenants and mutual commitments. Such a style recognizes that if the church is to manifest God’s intention, each church family must honor and enhance all of the other church families.

III. The Call of Unity

Brethren through Annual Conference actions have repeatedly affirmed active participation in the conciliar movement. We have done so out of our deepest understandings of the nature and mission of the church. To the ongoing ecumenical quest, we bring such forceful ideals and commitments as servanthood, peacemaking, simple life, discipleship, radical witness, personal and communal integrity, and confidence that the scriptures are the “infallible rule of faith and practice.” Those ideals and those scriptures call us to witness in life and word to the faith that is in us. They call us to confess and repent of our perpetual drift toward clannishness, toward anxious preoccupation with “our own kind,” toward subtle forms of exclusiveness. They also call us to renewed commitment to the quest of “maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of the peace” (Eph. 4:3) in anticipation of the time when all members of God’s family may gather in unity and love at the Lord’s table.

Therefore, the Church of the Brethren will

  1. continue to work for a full and complete mutual recognition of members and ministers of all families within the larger Christian family, and encourage church families to acknowledge fully one another’s baptism and observance of the Eucharist;
  2. promote involvement, particularly among the laity, in local, national, and international ecumenical worship and service ventures through recognition and sponsorship of such participation;
  3. develop an educational program in ecumenicity for all age groups, with special attention to programs and materials for youth;
  4. study ways that interfaith dialog may lead to a visible expression of God’s plan of unity for all of humanity; and,
  5. initiate and participate in conversations with others whose aim is the establishment of a communion of communions or a family of families.

Action of the General Board at its October 10-13, 1981 meeting: Voted that the General Board adopt the Declaration of Church of the Brethren Ecumenical Relationships for the 1980’s, and that the Board recommend to the Committee on Interchurch Relations that this Declaration be presented to the Annual Conference for consideration.

Curtis W. Dubble, Chairman; Robert W. Neff, Secretary

Action of the Committee on Interchurch Relations at its October 30, meeting: Voted

  1. that the CIR present to the 1982 Annual Conference Standing Committee the Declaration of Church of the Brethren Ecumenical Relationships for the 1980s, as hereinabove amended, with the recommendation that it be adopted by the 1982 Annual Conference;
  2. that following the adoption of the Declaration by Annual Conference, all official and unofficial ecumenical representatives from the Church of the Brethren be requested to use the Declaration as the guideline for their ecumenical activities;
  3. that following the adoption of the Declaration by Annual Conference, the General Board staff be requested to use the Declaration as a working document in their activities;
  4. that the agendas and minutes of the Committee on Interchurch Relations be made available to the General Board members and staff.

Nelda I. Rhoades, Chair; Robert W. Neff, Executive

Action of the 1982 Annual Conference: At the request of the Conference officers, Nelda I. Rhoades, chair of the Committee on Interchurch Relations, and Robert W. Neff, executive for the CIR, presented the paper, “A Vision of Unity for the Church of the Brethren in the 1980s.” Warren F. Groff, consultant to the CIR, gave an interpretation of the paper. Warren M. Eshbach, Standing Committee delegate from Southern Pennsylvania, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee. The delegate body of the 1982 Annual Conference approved the recommendation that the paper, “A Vision of Unity for the Church of the Brethren in the 1980s,” be adopted.