For both of Justin and Aaron, this weekend was the first time they were at the Brethren in Christ General Conference. Both remarked on how enlightening is was—to learn about the BIC right from our leaders. Next week I’m talking a class about BIC history, and I couldn’t help but juxtapose what I learned from one of the assigned readings, Quest for Piety and Obedience, from what we observed at the conference. Here are six reflections.
First, it is good to be together. There is no doubt about this. The Body of Christ needs to gather together. We are a collective no matter what, but a meeting that is an expression of us is almost always encouraging. Smiles, laughs, and hugs abounded. It is fun to be back with the family and it’s necessary. With so many ways to connect other than in person (the GC was live streamed, for example), it is a joy to do it together. We have done it together throughout history and I’m glad we are continuing to do it. For that reason alone, I have to make it my business to be at General Conference. The meeting doesn’t define us, but it is great when we do meet. We need to keep emphasizing this body life, however, because there were only 378 delegates at the conference!
Dialogue is instrumental for the Body of Christ. Let’s be honest, our government officials don’t make it easy for us to talk. We are told we live in a democracy in the U.S., but the Emails and calls I place to my elected representatives are often returned with forms or merely marked down for voting purposes. The godless system that was live in sometimes leaks into the Body of Christ. We might be afraid to talk or disagree because we’ll be accused of being rebellious or disloyal or even not trusting of our leaders. And even though the conference had some classic Central PA shaming (at one point our leaders questioned our trust of their leadership when we were asking questions), Alan Robinson, the General Church Leader, encouraged us to dialogue and we did! I took him at his word and shared my thoughts regularly. I was very thankful for that opportunity.
We are an earnest and caring group. There are deep people in the Brethren in Christ. They share, they love, and they are convicted. As we shared ideas, listened to each other, both in and out of the “business” sessions, it was clear to me that we are surrounded by people who truly want to follow Jesus as best as they can. I am grateful to be among them.
Story matters, remember. The Brethren in Christ story is great! We have a Historical Society that is devoted to telling our story. I’m glad we have a heritage that is rich with a narrative. We have gone through many transitions and changes, and I’m glad our discernment process is noted. I noticed a lack of story-telling, however, in this General Conference. When we were reading the General Church Leader’s report, the dialogue began around the mysterious dismissal of one of our executive directors. We were confused. It wasn’t so long ago that two bishops in the BIC mysteriously resigned. Lots of questions were being asked, and our leaders seemed to be avoiding the obvious problem: they never told a story. When we asked why this director’s term was not renewed or whether or not she would be replaced, language around “confidentiality” and “personnel issues” were the best our leaders could muster up. They needed to tell a story, so that we wouldn’t just invent one on our own. Telling the Body what is happening is a crucial part of building trust and relationships and it is what we have done throughout history. Let’s keep doing it.
Words mean something. Of course they do! In fact, that is precisely their definition: “a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing.” Much of our time was spent parsing minutia as we debated changes to our Manual of Doctrine and Government. Too much time may have been spent here, but for me, it was valuable because words matter. Even the little ones. Combing through individual sentences may not seem important, but all of these little changes come from a philosophical or ideological vision. Our leaders didn’t often know what that vision was, but it existed whether or not they thought the changes were merely editorial or not. At the start of the conference, our General Church Leader, was known as National Director. Although the General Church Board picked that title, we didn’t discern it together. Although he may lead the same way regardless of his title, it is likely that ones title may impact them more than they know. We eventually settled on the vague title of General Church Leader, which perfectly describes our unfortunate indifference toward such a debate. The BIC has historically debated the very name of its denomination, to good end, too. At our last conference we were debating whether or not “Brethren in Christ” was sexist because it excluded women. These things are of note. Everything matters, including the words we choose.
If distinctives are muddied, they cease to exist. What makes us Brethren in Christ? As I read the essays found in Reflections on a Heritage, it’s clear to me that the identity of our little denomination is fading. We know that the Anabaptists, Pietists, and Wesleyans influenced us, but the creeping evangelical influence seems to have diluted us (but to be fair, it’s empowered us to be on more of a mission–thank God we aren’t wearing simple clothing!). It seems to me like we are being influenced by Reformed doctrine (which is typical of most Evangelical churches), as well as the prejudices and politics of Republicans (the political party in the U.S. that has mobilized to use the American Evangelicals for its goals). I’m not sure that, after observing the dialogue in our business sessions, you would know that we were a radical group known for its loyalty to the Kingdom of God. We debated whether or not to use worldly institutions, like credit checks, to judge character! Not even a mention of peace was exhibited during the business sessions—even when our very website calls us, openly, a “pacifist denomination.” We are losing a battle and are being influenced unconsciously by a variety of worldly forces.
Ultimately, like I said above, the chance to get together and dialogue is important, but we are more than our biennial meeting. I think we need to stay conscious, engaged, and discerning all of the time. We need to be the church.