The Brethren in Christ’s greatest strength is also their greatest shortcoming

An excerpt of a paper I wrote about BIC history, based on The Quest for Piety and Obedience by Carlton Wittlinger.

The Brethren in Christ, in their ability to adapt to new discovered perspectives without diluting who their distinction, is their greatest strength. They hold a dialogical, humble posture, while also exhibiting an eagerness to follow Jesus in an earnest way.

But their willingness to adapt is also a shortcoming. The most significant influence on the BIC in the 19th and early-20th centuries is that of Holiness. The brotherhood, as listed above, debated the tenets of the movement arduously, primarily so that it could not lose itself among its positive influences. The same held true for how it treated, and ultimately rejected, the charismatic movement (although, one could argue that many of the Latino, Spanish-speaking churches in the Southeast Conference now embody that charismatic stream). In the first fifty years of the 20th century, however, the Brethren in Christ, simply did not adapt fast enough to the rapidly changing United States. In fact, its removal from society may have slowed its progress. The United States, during that time period, underwent massive changes, moving along through the Gilded Age, throughout the world in imperialism, World Wars I and II. The Brethren in Christ, resisted technological and cultural changes that would undermine the reliance on God that was practically exemplified in their day-to-day life. The culture changed quickly, however, and in the middle of the 20th century it would seem like the Brethren in Christ faced extinction. Their conservatism, for lack of a better term, toward plain dress, jewelry, how men might style their facial hair, life insurance, Social Security, the use of musical instruments, and other issues is admirable, but ultimately was damaging. The Brethren in Christ needed to be conscious that the culture was eventually going to demand alterations to these historic positions and they needed enough foresight to change with care.

The Brethren in Christ needed to adapt as the culture changed, and it seems that by the middle of the 20th Century, they needed to adapt too quickly. They could not conceivably adapt as slowly and as intentionally as they did, for example, with the doctrine of sanctification. Part of the reason is that the general public, and the people attending Brethren in Christ churches, were more likely significantly more ambivalent toward esoteric doctrine, then they were to an issue like how to dress, for example.

While the United States was undergoing major changes throughout the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, the Brethren in Christ joined the National Association of Evangelicals. Some historians now consider this the “fourth” theological stream that influenced the denomination. But rather than adapt Evangelicalism to the brotherhood, the Brethren in Christ adapted themselves to Evangelicalism. By the 1950 NAE convention, the brotherhood was disillusioned. In an era of loud voices, the Brethren in Christ, was unfortunately quiet. This troubled the brotherhood and convicted them to change. By the 1953 General Conference convened, the church was already radically changing. Convicted by the Spirit to change, the Brethren in Christ, diluted themselves. The hard work of adapting to new perspectives, and experiences, was undone so quickly that unfortunately what the Brethren in Christ is left with today is a mere frontage of a great past.

In a panic, the Brethren in Christ exchanged their longstanding marriage of faith and obedience, to a mere “profession of faith.” Though the Brethren in Christ would not disagree with the former, when the latter is removed, it eliminates the careful distinctiveness that the brotherhood built over centuries. The Brethren in Christ, who have meticulously married pietism and obedience, submitted almost entirely to the emotional, heartfelt experience in contrast to coupling it with disciplined obedience.

The Brethren in Christ’s greatest importance is their emphasis on new birth. They have repeatedly applied new ideas to this concept as they adapted throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The turmoil and difficulty in the first half of the 19th century understandably caused anxiety in the Brethren in Christ. How they responded, though, with a complete undoing of their identity in a quest for a new one, is greatly costly. The Brethren in Christ tried to adapt to Evangelicalism to grow into something new. In fact, they succeeded. Unfortunately, with their adaptation, because it was so thoroughly untested, they lost much of what they had built previously. Rather than being a distinct denomination with a communal hermeneutic, the Brethren in Christ just became another generic Evangelical one.

Wittlinger’s book does not tell the story of the Brethren in Christ to the present because it ends in the mid-1970s. If one were to write the story of the last forty years, it startling how much further the Brethren in Christ have gone down this path. At this point, the denomination is made up of a “mosaic,” as the General Church Leader calls it in the latest issue of In Part, and as we affirmed together as General Conference. With the removal of the General Secretary, Moderator, numerous boards, possibly a restructuring of World Missions, the entire Canadian Conference (General Conference decision in 2010), with more and more roads leading to the Leadership Council, less and less theological accountability among pastors in a sprawling church that spans from sea to shining sea, the future of the brotherhood is seriously threatened. What do all of the changes in the last seventy-five years portend for a movement that has, up until this point, delicately changed? Every movement and denomination has its strengths and shortcomings, but for the Brethren in Christ, their shortcomings are so significant they may in fact threaten their entire identity.

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