I once heard someone declare, “I’m Christian first, American second, and Brethren third.”
That severing of “Christian” and “Brethren” would have been shocking to those who founded the Brethren movement more than 300 years ago. They suffered significantly for pursuing their peculiarly Brethren understanding of Christianity.
At that time, religion was decided by the ruler of the region; disagreeing with the local religion was a state offense. In the area of Germany where the Brethren movement took root, the official religion was the Reformed Church. Pietists and Anabaptists choosing to gather in small groups were hauled into court and punished. Martin Lucas, for example, was expelled in 1709, as was his wife. Their house was sold, and their children were handed over to guardians.
What were the crimes of these sober Christians? In an interrogation in Heidelberg, Martin Lucas and John Diehl explained that the Pietists “love foremost God and their neighbor as themselves, even their enemies, and are obliged to feed them, and give them to eat and to drink.”
Andrew Boni, another conscientious objector to the state, wrote this to the mayor of Basel in 1706: “If disobeying the orders of men means opposing God’s ordinances, then the apostles also disobeyed.” (Two years later he was one of the eight baptized in Schwarzenau in an act of civil disobedience that marked the beginning of the Church of the Brethren.) But here is a fascinating story from Mannheim. When one government official seized the Pietists and sentenced them to hard labor “without trial or hearing,” the punishment failed because of the great sympathy that the Reformed subjects showed to the Pietists. “They have defended the Pietists’ teachings, and said that nothing could be found deserving punishment in such pious Christians.” In fact, the Reformed folks gathered at the prison and spent the day listening to their preaching. Thus, a government that was trying to maintain power by promoting enmity was thwarted by Christian goodwill. You can read all about it in chapter 1 of Donald F. Durnbaugh’s European Origins of the Brethren.
The early Brethren would never have called themselves political. They simply remained steadfast to their understanding of God’s Word. Likewise, the Reformed subjects who protected the so-called heretics were probably not trying to be political either, but “unashamedly proclaimed and made this their own cause.” By sheer numbers they kept the civil leaders from carrying out an unjust decree.
The intertwining of government and religion produces an unholy alliance, whatever the century, and those who pledge their loyalty to God must be vigilant about competing claims. If we have forgotten how to discern the difference, we can revisit our Brethren history and Acts 5:29.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.