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Another Way of Believing

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The Church of the Brethren finds it more difficult to articulate its beliefs than do those denominations that treasure creeds, catechisms, and perhaps a single theologian. Yet Brethren have experienced a variety of ways to "do theology," says Dale W. Brown, for whom doing theology and living out the faith are very similar. This important contribution to - and from - the Church of the Brethren is useful for both academic and lay readers.

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Another Way of Believing

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 2Benjamin Franklin Meets Michael WohlfahrtA founding father of our nation, Benjamin Franklin could be labeled a secular humanist if living today. He absorbed the skepticism of his English philosopher friend, David Hume. An apocryphal story by Wesleyan scholars relates that the free-thinking Franklin was so moved by George Whitefield’s preaching that he placed a coin in the offering. Franklin seemed to enjoy his relationships with the sects. As a competitor to the Sauer press, he accepted printing jobs from the Ephrata community. In his Autobiography, Franklin recalls a conversation with Michael Wohlfahrt, a leader in the cloisters (11516). Wohlfahrt complained about the “abominable,” unfair charges of zealots of other persuasions. Franklin explained that such had always been the case with new sects and advised him “to publish articles of their belief and the rules of their discipline.” Wohlfahrt responded that such had been proposed and rejected for this reason:

 

Faith of Believers

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 14Anti-Intellectual and Anti-Theological BiasesSimple faith nurtured by nonprofessional leaders has been congenial to antiintellectual stances that judge worldly learning to be subversive to Christian faith. Anti-intellectualism has permeated our heritage of simplicity and practical religion. My mother’s eighth grade education was refined with gifted intelligence. Nevertheless, she was wary of higher education. In each step of my academic quest, she expressed deep concern that my faith might be destroyed. She breathed a sigh of relief when I made it through college. Her fears were somewhat soothed when I became a pastor following seminary.But it was too much when I announced I was entering graduate school. In talking with another mother over the backyard fence, my mother lamented that some, like her neighbor, could not keep their children in school, while her problem was getting them out. These concerns were not in vain.Throughout my studies, my faith was empowered in knowing she was praying for me.

 

Christ Existing as Community

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 32Between college and seminary, hands were laid on me to serve as summer pastor among farmer and rancher families in western Nebraska. The hospitable community of Brethren gathered in Enders, a town of a few dozen souls with its picturesque, little white meetinghouse. The Wine clan and their neighbors were fortunate to have been served over forty years by brother and elder D. G. Wine. Large in stature and graced by a gentle, warm heart, this free minister without formal education became my mentor, shaping my views of ministry and beliefs of the church. He was in his eighties; I was barely twenty. Yet we discussed a great variety of issues, ending in the wee morning hours only when my eyelids began to droop. When he shared from his library of a thousand books, this neophyte sensed Wine knew more history than many college professors.I lived in a different home each week, and the stories by Brother Wine were augmented by stories about Brother Wine. My favorite one is about the church. A Baptist preacher appeared in Enders. He had been told that Enders needed a Bible-believing church and was led by God and other Baptists to accept this challenge. When he moved in with his family, the Brethren turned out to help with strong backs and favorite carry-in dishes. When the preacher posted a sign of welcome and announcements on the window of what had been an abandoned building, the Brethren showed up for the first meeting. They believed there were too few mortals in the vicinity of Enders for two congregations. They continued to appear for fellowship and worship at the preacher’s Sunday and revival meetings. It seemed that every time he turned around, there were Dunkers to help him.

 

Original Blessedness or Original Sin?

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 50As human beings, are we naturally good or bad? Opinions about human nature have not been extensively debated, divisive, or resolved among our people. In spite of assumptions of theologians that what we believe about this doctrine affects how we shape other convictions, Brethren have generally remained confused or silent about this one. The committee responsible for The Brethren Hymnal (1951) changed the first line of hymn number 433 to read: “Amazing Grace! how sweet the sound, That saveth men like me.” At that time many ardently opposed calling themselves or others a “wretch,” defined as a wicked or despicable person. Due to the growing concern for inclusive language, the next hymnal committee needed to change our identity again. So in number 143 of Hymnal: A Worship Book, published by the believers churches in 1992, we sing “Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”A feminist member of our class had recently given birth to her first child.

 

Jesus the Christ

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 61Chapter 5Jesus the ChristJesus of history and Christ of faithLet the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. . . . Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.—Philippians 2:5-11This early Christ hymn is filled with christological statements. Christology is a word that refers to thoughts, interpretations, or convictions about Jesus.Brethren have been interpreted to be a people who keep their eyes on Jesus and center their minds on the mind of Christ (Mallott, ch. 31). Since the

 

Living in the Spirit

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 76baptism, one early convert wrote: “I was deeply moved by voices of the sweetly singing congregation. The emotion of the worship kindled an inner passion. My tears burst forth so that I felt myself to be wholly united with them.” These so-called primitive Christians taught their children, farmers, and wine growers songs they could sing from their hearts while playing and working. Arnold revealed a prejudice likely imparted to the first Brethren. He regretted that in subsequent generations singers or cantors were appointed to replace congregational voices. By the seventh century, bells, cymbals, and pipe organs made so much noise that common folks became more and more silent (First Love . . .1696, Book 2, Chapter 2, Sections 4-12). Arnold was not alone in his assessments. Church historians have often described the firstChristians as an enthusiastic sect within first-century Judaism.In studies of Brethren hymnody, Hedwig Durnbaugh reveals that the first Brethren, likewise, loved to sing. Their own members added many hymns to those of their German pietist associates. In the hymns they authored, Spirit language was not used profusely. Nevertheless, such language was implied in expressions such as “penetrating light.” Hedda’s research discerns that for the most part the mysticism of the Brethren expressed “a desire to seek spiritual union with Jesus rather than God”

 

Brethren and the Bible

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 95Chapter 7Brethren and the BibleInspiration and authorityBut as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.—2 Timothy 3:14-17Holy Scripture is a letter from God, which through the working of the eternal Spirit has been written to the human race. May we receive it so that the whole New Testament be written by the finger of God on the heart of the reader until his or her entire life becomes a living letter from God in which all can read the commands of Christ (paraphrase of 2 Corinthians 3:3).—anonymous Brethren author, Kierkegaard and Radical Discipleship, tr. Vernard Eller, 419-20

 

Sacraments or Ordinances

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 110noted the sacramental or spiritual nature of face-to-face relationships.However, sacred observances that others call sacraments, were called ordinances by our forebears. It may be helpful to examine these words in understanding our theology or lack of theology of sacred observances.SacramentalismSacramentalists hold high views of what they name sacraments. The sacred acts are regarded as outward signs of inward grace, the presence of God, the means of grace. The word sacrament means mystery, which believers experience to be strange, awesome, ineffable, and unfathomable. Extremely highchurch dogma regards observance of sacraments to be necessary for salvation. Luther’s influence led most Protestants to reduce the number of sacraments to two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper (eucharist). The RomanCatholic and Orthodox Churches maintain an additional five: confirmation, matrimony, penance (confession), ordination (holy orders), and extreme unction (anointing). The mass embodies holy ritual for the eucharist.

 

Baptism, Love Feast, Anointing

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 120three ordinances foster consciousness of the care of God. Both Jewish andBrethren communities savor memories of times when the presence of God’sSpirit encourages and inspires us to keep the commandments of our God.BaptismAs with Anabaptists of the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation, baptism has remained an important symbol since our beginnings at the crossroads ofPietism and Anabaptism in eighteenth-century Germany. This practice prompted others to bequeath nicknames such as “Dunkers,” “Dompelaars,” and “Neu-Taufer” (new Baptists) to the “peculiar” people. Yet fond memories remain of members walking through the woods to gather at waterside. First, a plainly dressed elder wades into the river or creek to determine the proper depth. Then one by one the applicants kneel in the water. Having publicly confessed their faith and vowing to be faithful to Jesus, his teachings, and the church, they are dipped three times forward in the name of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Remaining in a kneeling position, the newly baptized receive the laying on of hands. A prayer is offered that bids the forgiving and enabling presence of the Holy Spirit.

 

New Testament Symbols

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 140a peasant people simply desiring to be a New Testament church, the question became what commandments do we keep, and what do they mean?We have noted that a nineteenth-century Brethren’s Card modestly boasted to be little children who “. . . teach all of the doctrines of Christ, peace, love, unity, faith and works.” Obviously, the fourth one comes fromJames: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:17). Biblical commentators note that James is somewhat at odds with other epistle writers who maintain we are saved by grace through faith, not by our deeds. MostBrethren would agree with our forebears and those who cite James in advocating desirable moral imperatives of Christian identity for communities of faith. Although Luther had problems with James, calling the book “an epistle of straw,” he did not reject the book in his exegetical works. He agreed that James did say some good things. Pietist leaders, who led what has been called a second reformation, loved to quote Luther’s affirmation that true faith becomes very busy and active in love. Brethren have believed this.

 

Unity and Dissension

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 156important. For many decades ministers added two questions to baptismal vows. One question asked whether an aspirant before baptism would pledge never to drill or join military units. The other asked whether the candidate would promise to solve differences according to Matthew 18:15-20. One of the central responsibilities of deacons was to facilitate maintaining the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. When asked how Brethren differ fromMennonites, it has been alleged that Brethren treasure unity over truth.Mennonites more likely may savor truth over unity, whereas Brethren often compromise to maintain unity. In risking disunity Mennonites have held fast to what they regard to be true and right in risking disunity. Such an analysis may account for greater numbers of schisms among Mennonites.Among the Brethren I have perceived passions that impel us to stay together.Thus, it may be helpful to examine how our fathers and mothers in the faith have dealt with differences. In a book focusing on theology, it may be difficult to justify issues that seem to deal with ethics more than theology. In our tradition, however, it is difficult to separate theology from the fruit of discipleship. Many in our tradition, for example, have been attracted to the widespread admiration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer because it is difficult to separate his life from his theology.

 

Tossed To and Fro by Winds of Doctrine

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 172We have noted how forebears of previous generations professed to be little children. Such humility did not keep members of the body from being open to the Spirit’s gifts of wisdom and knowledge. Jesus teaches that a childlike heart is needed, but this does not mean that we should cultivate immaturity. Paul and other epistle writers recognized that members were not of one mind about circumcision or customs of eating. When Christians were taught to be of one mind and maintain unity in the bond of peace, the apostolic authors were not demanding uniformity of all lifestyles and beliefs.However, they strongly emphasized that every part of the body should speak the truth in love and be equipped to promote the body’s growth in building itself up in love.Brethren generally have accepted this advice to the Ephesians by giving priority to relational commandments over doctrinal propositions without denying the importance of both. From their beginnings Brethren have shared pietist concerns in rejecting bitter polemics of their time. They agreed that the Bible was often the vessel for proof texts to defend creeds rather than a resource for faith and life. They affirmed with the Pietists that there should be reformations of doctrine that result in reformation of lives.

 

Heritage of Peace

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 192the resolution resolved “to follow Jesus in seeking together an activeChristian peace witness in our congregations and districts.”In major worship services at these wartime Conferences, preachers often failed to apply our biblical heritage either to those who supported the war or to the nonconformists who defied the war in a culture that glorified it with patriotic fervor. To be fair to those who plan our large family reunions, however, our Conferences frequently include insight sessions, Bible study electives, and meals that feature speakers and discussions on peace concerns. Yet the paradox of the status of our peace witness continues to surface in our Conference experiences. Without exception throughout our history, official declarations of our pacifist heritage have been affirmed almost unanimously. At the same time, our best sociologists have gathered data indicating that a sizable majority of our members are either indifferent to or oppose our peace position. The best and most comprehensive research has been done by Carl Bowman in Brethren Society, The Cultural

 

Whither Brethren?

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another way body.qxd6/8/051:17 PMPage 218position’ as part of the total witness of a new church, but not as yet central and primary?”Some eighty percent of the delegates voted for the committee’s recommendation against joining. We still could have maintained our observer status. As a member of the committee and one of our representatives to COCU,I recall my passionate speech to the body. I believed this rejection would only be compelling if our denomination would revive our peace witness and make it central in our life and thought. We probably could have worked out other differences in belief and practice more readily than gaining acceptance of our peace heritage. I remembered the opinion of a German theologian,Otto Piper. He reminded us that our peace witness is the only justification we have to continue to exist as a denomination.J. Denny Weaver is raising this same challenge to Mennonites. He points out that Mennonites have a list of good beliefs in which peace is but one. He advocates, however, that Mennonites be a peace church in which New

 

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