By Frank Ramirez
There was a lot to hear on the topics of biblical authority, accountability, the compelling vision, church division, and nationalism during the Moderator’s Town Hall hosted by Annual Conference moderator Paul Mundey. The online event in two parts was titled “Today’s Headlines, Yesterday’s Wisdom. Historical Insights for the Contemporary Church.”
More than 260 people registered for the April 15 question and answer session, and more than 200 attended the five-hour presentation session on April 17 with Brethren historians Carl Bowman, Bill Kostlevy, Stephen Longenecker, Carol Sheppard, and Dale Stoffer. (A recording of the webinar and a study guide will be available soon at www.brethren.org/webcasts/archive.)
Some of it was challenging, some was a bit depressing, and a lot was eye-opening, but perhaps the most astounding, uplifting statement came from Kostlevy, who has retired as director of the Brethren Historical Library and Archives.
Kostlevy focused on several compelling vision statements from the past, from iconic Brethren figures Christopher Sauer Jr., Peter Nead, and Dan West. However, referring to Brethren congregations in Africa, Latin America, and Europe–founded by missionaries from the several Brethren groups–he noted, “Today there are more heirs of Schwarzenau alive in the world today than any time in Brethren history. There is explosive growth in other parts of the world.”
Bowman addressed the topic of nationalism, recalling his own formation heavily influenced by his pastor, who was also his father. Leaning on George Orwell’s “Notes on Nationalism,” he observed that while patriotism can be defined as devotion to a particular way of life and place, by its nature nationalism is defensive militarily and culturally, boasting about one’s own country while remaining blind to the strength and beauty of others.
Their loyalty and sense of obedience to Christ separated the founding Brethren from the outside world, he said. Adult baptism represented not only a rebellion against existing authority, it established a border between the way of Christ and the way of the world, a new nation both inwardly and outwardly.
Bowman quoted the Brethren Civil War-era martyr John Kline, who, hearing the peal of the cannons celebrating George Washington’s birthday, wrote, “My highest conception of patriotism is found in the man who loves the Lord his God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself.”
By contrast, Bowman discovered through surveys in recent decades that a strong nationalist identity is a relatively recent occurrence among Brethren. However, our traditions of service and equality of all human beings mitigate against the excesses of nationalism.
Focusing on church division, Longenecker drew on the concepts of economist Adam Smith and James Madison to suggest that the marketplace of ideas makes division among churches not only inevitable, but even desirable. Stating simply, “The best will survive,” he echoed Madison’s believe that “religion thrives under the First Amendment,” quoting the fourth President: “If new sects arise with absurd opinions or over-heated imaginations, the proper remedy lies in time, forbearance, and example.”
Divisions among Brethren have been many over the centuries, such as Conrad Beissel’s Ephrata Cloister, the varying differences in practice between the Far Western Brethren and the Eastern Brethren, and the three-way division among Brethren in the 1880s. The history of division continued as the Dunkard Brethren broke from the Church of the Brethren, the Grace Brethren experienced more than one split after splitting away from the Brethren Church, and more recently, the Old Orders have experienced splits over issues of technology
With regard to the recent separation of churches referring to themselves as the Covenant Brethren, Longenecker admitted he would prefer fewer divisions, and that division sometimes brings out the worst in people. However, he said, “I think the lesson is that division is normal.”
Sheppard traced the history of accountability among the Brethren and identified factors that have led to its breakdown. “Accountability has been an integral part of the Brethren movement since the very beginning,” she stated. “With baptism we enter into covenant relation with one another as one body in Christ and with the aid of the Holy Spirit mutually agree to walk together in human love, promote spiritual humility and peace, and engage to live true and exemplary lives before the world,” she said.
However, maintaining common practices like the deacon visit became more difficult as the church expanded across the nation. Another factor that changed in the 20th century was the concept of “no force in religion,” which meant that obedience to Christ increasingly became an individual matter. In addition, the shift away from church membership being determined by geography meant that Brethren did not choose the community to which they promised accountability.
Sheppard concluded, “What remains of accountability in the 21st century is a one-sided affair. Brethren recognize those decisions they support, reject the others ‘where the church got it wrong.’”
Stoffer gave the concluding presentation on biblical authority. He charted the course of how his denomination, the Brethren Church, has sought to keep scripture central, suggesting that for Brethren there is a third way between liberal and conservative authorities. “We have been given an unchanging creed in the Bible, but understood anew by each generation of believers. What God has revealed through the person of Jesus Christ can be understood only by obedience to Jesus Christ.”
The early Brethren, Stoffer said, “emphasized the simplicity and clarity of scripture…. Truth is given to us in Jesus Christ and is expressed in the community of faith that holds us accountable to that…. But as we read scriptures it is essential it the key to understand our proper place in the community of God.”
— Frank Ramirez pastors Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Ind.
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