Potluck | July 27, 2018

Winsome living

I was in the High Library at Elizabethtown College the other week doing research for a 150th anniversary history of the Chiques Church of the Brethren. I was perusing the papers of prominent Chiques minister Samuel Ruhl Zug, who served as elder-in-charge at Chiques from 1885 to 1910, when I came across his 1889 daybook. There, on January 1, Zug had recorded a list that I immediately recognized as baptismal instructions.

I recognized it because I had in my files a remarkably similar list penned by Elder Benjamin G. Stauffer, who led the congregation from 1942 to 1955. Sometime in the late 1950s he passed his list on to a newly called minister named J. Becker Ginder, who would go on to become moderator of our free ministry congregation and a positive influence in my life.

Separated by 70 years of history, the instructions for new members had scarcely changed. Members were forbidden from going to war, taking oaths, using the law without the church’s permission, joining secret societies, and dressing fashionably. They were encouraged to attend worship and other meetings of the church, especially council meeting.

There were a few changes: Zug specifically mentioned the evils of picnics, shows, fairs, life insurance, and sleigh bells. By Stauffer’s era, ethical concerns had shifted to drinking and smoking. But both lists centered largely on behaviors—what Christians should and shouldn’t do.

Of course, the baptismal vows themselves did require converts to confess belief in Jesus as “the Son of God who brought from heaven a saving gospel,” so behaviors weren’t all that mattered (although the second and third questions about “renouncing Satan” and “being faithful unto death” also dealt more with actions than belief). I’m sure both Zug and Stauffer held orthodox views on any number of theological topics, and that they cared deeply about right thinking. But, judging from their baptismal instructions, they believed it was even more important for new converts to understand right living.

We could accuse these old bearded Brethren of legalism and focusing on externalities rather than matters of the heart. But their penchant to define the faith by how we live still rings true for me today, even though my list of ethical concerns would differ somewhat. The “fruit test”—the extent to which our lives tangibly demonstrate qualities such as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control–still seems to me one of the best measures of a genuine faith.

I am much more attracted to a well-lived life than to a well-argued viewpoint (although the two certainly aren’t mutually exclusive). At times I have encountered people in the larger church who, according to their views, could be my adversaries. But when I get to know them and see the quality of their living—which I deem to be more Christlike than mine in many ways—it gives me pause. I also have encountered people whose views align more closely with mine, but who repel me by how they advocate those views. (I know I frequently am guilty of this myself.)

I have had enough of these experiences that It makes me wonder whether, instead of trying to out-argue each other, we might better resolve some of the differences among us by living winsome lives and seeking to outdo each other in good deeds. I think S. R. Zug and B. G. Stauffer might agree with me.

Don Fitzkee is former chair of the Church of the Brethren Mission and Ministry Board and a member of Chiques Church of the Brethren in Manheim, Pa. He is director of development at COBYS Family Services in Lancaster.