I recently concluded a blog series on Brethren dialectical theology based on the witness of Brethren theologian J. Allen Miller (find my blog on Miller here). In light of that series, it might be helpful to briefly draft a Brethren ethos (history, theology and characteristics) as I understand it. This is not a final draft (nor is it a Brethren creed – a true oxymoron). Instead, it serves as a theological framework for my thoughts.
The Brethren began in Schwarzenau, Germany in 1708 with the first baptisms of a small group, including Alexander Mack. The chosen mode of trine immersion symbolized a desire to be faithful to the way of Jesus found in the Gospels and the commentary of the early Church. Brethren theology is a blending of Anabaptism and Radical Pietism. Anabaptism stresses the importance of Christian community and peoplehood lived out in the witness of the church. Radical Pietism stresses the need for a personal experience of Christ. Together, a lived, dialectical theology is formed around mind and body, Word and Spirit, communal and individual, catholicity and reformation.
In contrast to the state churches of the day that killed those they found to be enemies (or heretics), early Brethren desired to radically follow Jesus by separating church and state since faith and coercion are mutually exclusive, to love one’s enemies since Christ modeled peace to all, and that the corporate witness of the church serves as an alternative to the fallenness of the world.
The Brethren story has been marked by splits (like countless other Protestant groups). Our first split came in the 1880s as our branch, known as the “Progressives,” broke away from the Old Order. Another split came in 1939 as the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches separated from the Ashland Brethren.
Today, the alternative witness is also captured in the Brethren threefold communion service, done twice a year. This service consists of footwashing, a love feast, and the taking of the Eucharist. This practice, more than any other, reveals the eschatological nature of the Brethren community—a pilgrim people, living as family, existing for service to the world, desiring to be faithful to the example of Jesus.
Throughout our history, the Brethren witness has been one of relationships, humility, and hospitality lived out through the following values:
The New Testament serves as our only creed with emphasis placed on the Gospels and words of Jesus. While the historic creeds of the Church are relevant to Brethren, our source of authority is each generation, gathered around the text of Scripture, discerning the instruction of the Holy Spirit.
The Anabaptist-Pietist tension of the Brethren is lived out in our Word-Spirit centrality in worship. Word and Spirit in tension call us to greater obedience to the Living Word, Jesus Christ.
Brethren believe that God has always desired a people for himself. Today, the church, locally and globally, is that people through whom God continues to tell his story of redemption and reconciliation.
Leadership and vision are understood communally. Communal interpretation through consensus ensures that both majority and minority opinions are heard and respected.
The operating plan of Brethren is discipleship understood as a lived theology of head and heart. Discipleship is holistic as the redemption of Christ is for mind, body, and spirit.
Brethren faith is committed to simplicity and not extravagance in our quest to simply follow Jesus and take him at his word.
A life of obedience to Christ is a commitment to peace. Brethren seek creative alternatives to violence and coercion.
Central to Brethren faith is a love of God and a commitment to our neighbor’s good manifested in a life of service.