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A Dunker Guide to Brethren Beliefs

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Who are the Brethren? What do we believe? How do we live?
Focusing on twenty basic beliefs and core values, this collection of essays invites congregations and individuals to think deeply about a Brethren understanding of the Christian faith and way of life.

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Prologue

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOPrologueWhen Mary Ellen and I first came to Lancaster Church of the Brethren, I was fond of saying, “I’m the newest Brethren in the room!” We had been longtime members of The United Methodist Church before coming to Lancaster, but it became obvious to us very quickly that the Church of the Brethren was a good fit for us, and we joined soon after I became director of music in July 2004.Almost seven years later, I am no longer always the newest Brethren in the room, but I still often feel like a newbie compared to friends who grew up with Brethren traditions. Nevertheless, I was asked to contribute an essay to our congregational booklet on Brethren beliefs and traditions. I found the process of researching and just thinking about it very rewarding. My tiny part helped me realize the deep worth of our denomination and our fellowship.I have an odd story to illustrate what I mean. Once, when flying to visit relatives in Mississippi, we had a layover in Cincinnati. After we had boarded the plane a boisterous group of hunters boarded, laughing loudly about their missing companion. Believe it or not, his name was Bubba—perfectly completing the redneck stereotype! Bubba had gotten separated from the group and was in danger of missing the flight. But as his friends were joking about

 

God the Creator

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOGod the CreatorWe are made in God’s imageGenesis 1:1, 26; Colossians 1:15Judith GibbleIGod created . . .” is the starting place for HebrewScripture; it is also where we begin our exploration of basic Brethren beliefs. Before anything or anyone else, God is and God creates. Whatever follows this opening statement in scripture and in life reflects this essential belief—it all begins with God. God is the only subject of the verb, to create.Grammatically, Genesis 1:1 is not even a complete sentence, yet it sets in motion our understanding that life is not random but has purpose. Because of the One who creates life, we can affirm with the biblical writer that our human existence has meaning beyond ourselves.The remainder of the opening chapter of Genesis expands our understanding of God’s creation, and in verse 26 establishes the focus on a core value. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.’” We believe that God created everything—far-flung galaxies, the earth, and all life. And when we were made in God’s image, a unique relationship with the Creator was initiated. Without a clear picture of our Creator, we nevertheless reflect the Creator’s likeness. The possibilities implicit in our resemblance to God are as endless as is our God. We are creators. We are made for relationship. We speak. We reason. We act. We judge. We love. God breathed life into us, and so we are spiritual beings. The biblical record often depicts God in human form, but it is we who resemble an imageless divinity.1

 

God the Son

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOGod the SonGod sent Jesus to the worldJohn 1:14; 3:16J. Calvin WengerJC hrist, the Son of the Living God. This truth provides the standard for all that we are and all that we do.Jesus is our example, teacher, friend, redeemer, and Lord. He is the source of our life and the central reference point for our faith and lifestyle. He is the plumb line of our spirituality.Scriptures highlighting the person and work of Jesus are very illuminating. John records in 1:14: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (RSV). John 3:16, probably the most universally known verse in the Bible, proclaims: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (RSV).These two verses indicate that Jesus Christ was an extraordinary identity, fullyGod and fully man. In this uniqueness, he is our only source of atonement, redemption, and personal relationship with a holy God as we place our trust in him and put every area of our being under his lordship. Later, in 14:6, John brings further evidence to this reality we have in Christ with the words of Jesus himself: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (RSV).

 

God the Holy Spirit

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOGod the Holy SpiritCounselor, comforter, guideJohn 14:16-17, 25-26Jennifer Hess BiemillerJesus asserts , according to theG ospel of J ohn, that “God is spirit”(John 4:24). Through the biblical narrative Brethren believe that God comes to us as the Holy Spirit, who extends the wisdom and light of Christ beyond the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and who abides forever with those who follow Christ.So what does it mean that God is spirit? The English word “spirit” is translated from the Greek word pneuma, which also means “breath.” To say that God is spirit means that God as the Holy Spirit is “that which gives life and quality to our entire being.”3 “We are ‘Spirit endowed’ creatures.”4 “Spirit, God’s life, involves our whole being: flesh, soul, mind, and psyche.”5 God the Holy Spirit breathes in us, brings us to faith, guides us in interpreting scripture, and transforms us. As a Christian community, we are Christ’s living body in the world.Brethren writing about the Holy Spirit use language of light, movement, and relationship. Early Brethren considered the Holy Spirit to shed “new light” on the “old light” of scripture.6 They were “open to new illumination” and sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit as they read the Bible and made choices in living the faithful life.7 The Radical Pietists, who greatly influenced the formation of the Brethren, “emphasized a passionate desire to experience intimacy with God, a concern for a disciplined life of prayer, willingness to engage in ‘soul-searching’ and self-examination, and insistence on living life in accordance with the inspiration of the Spirit.”8

 

Holy Scriptures

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOHoly ScripturesHoly ScripturesWe value both Testaments2 Timothy 3:16-17L. Gene BucherFfor life in the midst of competing truth-claims is a challenging undertaking. The Holy Scriptures are a good place to begin this venture. Second Timothy 3:16-17 suggests that these sacred writings, “inspired by God,” are “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.”The inspired scripture this text refers to is the Old Testament, which was the only Bible early Christians had. The New Testament books were not accepted as inspired sacred writings (or “canon”) until the middle of the third century after the coming of Jesus. Those early Christians experienced God alive in these ancient texts, communicating in the midst of their everyday lives. They heard God speaking—whether they were lamenting significant loss, haunted by guilt because of unconfessed sin, struggling in the midst of undeserved suffering, or rejoicing over an extraordinarily abundant harvest.

 

Resurrection

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOResurrectionDeath is the last enemyMark 16:1-6; 1 Corinthians 15:26David HoslerT“resurrection” is primarily associated with Christ’s return from death to life following his suffering and crucifixion. However, a secondary meaning of resurgence or revival is often used in contemporary, common speech. But it is the belief that Christ conquered death and walked again in bodily form among his friends and followers that is central toChristians generally and Brethren in particular. The thought of the body’s death awaiting every living being is sobering apart from the victory over death that is found in following Jesus’ promise of life everlasting.In Mark 16:6 we find an unambiguous declaration, made to the early morning visitors to Christ’s tomb on that first Easter: “He has risen!” (Today’sNew International Version). Then Paul picks up the significance of this basic belief in 1 Corinthians 15 with what would be fitting of an eloquent closing argument in a modern courtroom legal proceeding. Paul reminds all believers of their foundational commitment to the gospel. He writes: “Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain” (1 Cor. 15:1-2, TNIV). Then comes the grand defense of belief in Christ’s resurrection in verse 12 through 19, ending with the argument: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all others” (TNIV). Finally, the point of Paul’s defense of belief in the he word

 

Eternal Life

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOEternal LifeA new heaven and a new earthJohn 3:16; John 14:1-7; Revelation 21:1-4W. Clemens RosenbergerEwith the age-old question: “If mortals die, will they live again?” (Job 14:14). We do this because our human self-consciousness, unlike that of the rest of the animal kingdom, makes us anxious and afraid in the face of death and dying. At the tender age of six, I realized the power of death for the first time on the night my grandmother died. Grandma’s sudden passing, the shock and grief of my mother, and the eeriness of the wake in a dimly lit home parlor packed with whispering church members and friends, awakened within me that question; “If I die, willI live again?”We live in a world of death and dying. Our nation is fighting multiple wars. Across the global horizon we witness natural disasters, violent revolutions, mass migrations, suicidal bombings, crowded refugee camps, and hundreds of thousands of people dying from hunger and AIDS. With advancing years, with illness and the death of friends and loved ones, and with an everincreasing fascination with obituaries, memorial services, cemeteries, and

 

Free Church; Noncreedal

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOFree Church;NoncreedalWe may see truth in new waysJohn 14:12-17; Acts 2:42-47Galen GrahamA“free church” is to follow Jesus and to keep his commandments daily, rather than to draft creeds and dogmas that may freeze truth in time. Disciples who have confidence in Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17) are not preoccupied with fixed creeds and rigid codes of conduct. Led by the Holy Spirit they discover new truths for their lives in this changing world, and they see old truths in new ways.To appreciate this “free church” concept we need to go back to AD 312.In that year Constantine defeated his rivals in a civil war to become emperor of the Roman Empire. Tradition has it that at the pivotal battle that ended the war, Constantine saw a Christian cross in the sky, and with it this inscription:“by this sign, conquer.” The next year he issued an edict of tolerance forChristians that ended their persecution. This happened less than 300 years after the death of the young Jewish rabbi named Jesus, whose teachings would shake the very foundations of the world. His followers established a truly free church totally outside the Roman state. They lived together, worshiped together, prayed together, worked together, and ate together (Acts 2:42-47). They were persecuted for this, sometimes harshly, and operated perforce as an

 

Truthfulness

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOTruthfulnessNonswearing of oathsMatthew 5:33-37; James 5:12Linda HustedOB rethren have maintained that one should not place a hand on the Bible in court and swear to tell the truth. ThisBrethren core value of nonswearing of oaths is part of Jesus’ Sermon on theMount found in the Gospel of Matthew, and is echoed by the epistle of James.Matthew 5:33-37 is about oaths and vows. In these verses Jesus addresses living a life of truthfulness and integrity. He touches on the very core of a person’s character, the heart of what it means to live as a child of God.“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, you shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord. But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by earth, for it is the footstool of his feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; and anything beyond these is of evil” (Matt. 5:33-37, adapted).

 

Peace and Justice

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOPeace and JusticeLove your neighborMicah 6:8; Matthew 5:9, 43-48Suzanne SchaudelTC hurch of the B rethren is called a historic peace church. Why?What does that mean? Is the Church of the Brethren a historic peace church or a living peace church? And what does it mean to love our neighbors, even our enemies?From its founding in Germany in 1708, the Church of the Brethren has been committed to nonparticipation in war. A statement from Annual Conference in 1785 said that Brethren should not “submit to the higher powers so as to make ourselves their instruments to shed blood.” The 1918 Annual Conference adopted a statement that “war or any participation in war is wrong and incompatible with the spirit, example, and teachings of Jesus Christ.” As the war clouds were forming in the mid-1930s, the denomination adopted the statement that “all war is sin,” and conveyed that message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.Since World War II, Brethren at Annual Conferences have made dozens of statements on the topic of peace. The Church of the Brethren and War, first adopted in 1948 and then revised in 1970, encourages members “not to participate in war, learn the art of war, or support war.”18 Yet despite all these statements about not participating in war, the denomination today respects the right of individuals to determine for themselves if they will go to war or participate in the military. That is a change from the mid-1800s, when young men were required to accept the nonresistance position of the denomination if they wanted to become Brethren. he

 

Service to Others

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOService to OthersSeeing Christ in othersDeuteronomy 15:7-8; Matthew 25:31-46John D. BreidenstineTBible clearly shows us that God cares for “the least of these” and wants us, as his followers, to serve them. “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand . . . to meet the need, whatever it may be” (Deut. 15:7b-8). “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness” (Isaiah 58:10).In a New Testament passage very familiar to Brethren, Jesus teaches that those who give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and who welcome the stranger and visit the imprisoned, serve the Son of Man himself and will receive eternal life (Matt. 25:31-46). Thus Brethren see Christ in those whom they serve, especially in “the least” of them.The Brethren are a compassionate people, but from where comes their penchant for good works and service? Founded in 1708, the Church of the

 

Discipleship and Evangelism

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A DUNKERG U I D E TODiscipleship andEvangelismCalling and making disciplesMatthew 28:16-20; John 20:21-22Richard ShreckhiseDBrethren theology, faith, and practice. Following the life and teachings of Jesus faithfully in our day-today living matters more than any emphasis upon doctrinal beliefs. Counting the cost of discipleship was an important theme for Alexander Mack, the founder of the Church of the Brethren, who believed faith manifested itself in serving Jesus Christ as Lord. Being a disciple involves both believing in and following Jesus.Calling and making disciples is a core value in Brethren life as well, though we have had a spotty record of embracing evangelism in more recent times. We have tended to separate discipleship from evangelism, failing to see discipleship as a form of evangelism. To follow Jesus is to heed his life and to let our light shine so that others may see Christ in us and give glory to God(Matt. 5:14-16). If we do not lovingly evangelize, will there be others to disciple besides our own family members?

 

Family Values

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOFamily ValuesMarriage as a sacred commitmentGenesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:31-33Fern R. BucherAnewspaper article on a2010 report from the Pew Research Centerwas headlined: “Four in 10 say marriage becoming obsolete.” In 1978that percentage was 28. This statistic should catch the attention of theChurch of the Brethren, which has always affirmed the sacred commitment to marriage and the relevancy of the Christian home.In Genesis 2, after God created animals in an attempt to solve man’s loneliness, God saw that these creatures would not be enough. Then God created woman, to which man exclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (v. 23). “One flesh” in verse 24 recognizes that man and woman make up a unit of humankind, highlighting mutuality and equality in every way. In Ephesians 5 the relationship between husband and wife is modeled upon Christ’s self-sacrificing love.From the beginning of the Church of the Brethren in 1708 these scriptures related to the marriage bond were followed with radical obedience. In

 

Forgiveness

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOForgivenessWe all fail and miss the markMatthew 18:15-22; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21Gladys Geiselman ArnoldTB rethren took very seriously the words of Matthew18:15-20, which suggest an orderly process for dealing with unsettled matters among members. Furthermore, they understood the words of1 Corinthians 11:27-28 to mean that all unseemly dissension be resolved before entering into the celebration of love feast and communion. The timely deacon visit was looked upon as the occasion through which such differences could be settled. Later on, congregations relied on the verses from 1Corinthians 11 to prompt self-examination in preparation for love feast and communion, and deacon visitation for such matters was discontinued.In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus provides us an example of asking God for forgiveness and of acknowledging our need to forgive others. Recognizing that forgiveness is one component that sets Christianity apart from other world religions, we look to the steps we must follow to become forgiving persons.

 

Salvation

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOSalvationWe are justified by faithRomans 5:1-2; Ephesians 2:8-10Jay D. WeaverTChristians referred to themselves as people of “theWay” (Acts 9:2; 19:23). When Emperor Constantine legitimizedChristianity in AD 313 with the Edict of Milan, primitive Christianity faded into the background. The dividing line between the church and the empire became blurred. Beliefs were codified into various creeds—including theNicene Creed, which was first adopted in AD 325. It summarized very succinctly—“for us and our salvation”—the person and work of Jesus Christ. The meaning of salvation, however, has been debated ever since.There are differing interpretations of salvation among Christian denominations. Each of these traditions—from Lutheran to Baptist to RomanCatholic to Eastern Orthodox—emphasizes the salvation of the individual, particularly as it relates to an afterlife. They differ, however, in how they define the roles God and humans play in the drama of salvation.The concept of salvation is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, where the emphasis is usually on the salvation of the particular nation of Israel as God’s chosen people. However, in Isaiah 2:2, the prophet explores the future redemption of all nations of the earth. He writes, “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”

 

Body of Christ

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOThe Body of ChristCommunity of believersRomans 12:9-10;1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 6:23Gale ShirkI“many Christians have been infected with the most virulent virus of modern American life, what sociologist Robert Bellah calls‘radical individualism.’”25 Daily we are bombarded with messages focusing on what I can achieve, what I want. In contrast to this current preoccupation with self-gratification, Brethren seek to become a part of that which is bigger than us individually. The scriptures listed above point out that we are collectively the body of Christ. Paul wrote, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27). He also wrote that we are to love others: “live in true devotion to one another [and] be first to honor others by putting them first” (Romans 12:10, The Voice New Testament). These relationships within the body of Christ do not diminish our individuality; they enhance our lives.For almost a century, Brethren congregations in Colonial America worshiped in homes, fostering an understanding of the church as the gathered community, not as a building or a sacred place.26 In the 1820s, Brethren began to construct church edifices, but called them “meetinghouses.” Thus the settings in which Brethren gathered and the manner of their worship fostered their sense of community.

 

The Body Though One, Has Many Parts

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOThe Body,Though One,Has Many PartsNo force in belief or practice1 Corinthians 12:4-6, 12-13Emery DeWittConsider this statement ,which appears on much of the printed material of a congregation in Pennsylvania: “Lancaster Church of theBrethren is a working, worshiping, learning Christian community, open and accepting without discrimination or force in matters of belief and practice.”What does that mean? Does it mean, as one questioner asked, that we don’t really believe in anything? Of course not! This statement reflects the wellknown Brethren tradition of no force in religion, a phrase coined by historianMartin G. Brumbaugh who called it the fundamental principle in Brethren belief and practice.”29This principle was born out of a painful part of Brethren history. In the earliest days of the movement in Germany, every citizen was required to be baptized as an infant into the official church of the state in which they lived.When a group of eight Christians led by Alexander Mack participated in adult baptism in Schwarzenau, they were engaging in an act of civil disobedience that was met with persecution and imprisonment. As the movement grew and the persecution increased, the followers emigrated from Germany to America in search of religious freedom.

 

Simplicity

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A DUNKERG U I D E TOSimplicityWe cannot serve two mastersMatthew 6:24-34; Luke 12:22-34Curtis W. DubbleThe simple life ,always part of our Brethren heritage, was outwardly visible for generations. In fact, my understanding of this basic belief was clouded in my early years. Upon becoming a follower of Jesus, I adopted a lifestyle where I parted my hair differently, avoided adorning my fingers with rings and my outerwear with lapel images, refrained from wearing decorative apparel such as brightly colored ties, and stored a bare minimum number of items in the clothes closet and bureau drawers.Two primary scriptures from which the teaching on simple living emerges are Matthew 6:24-34 and Luke 12:22-34. A seminary classmate, VernardEller, reflected on and researched this important Brethren belief. In 1973 he wrote the book The Simple Life: The Christian Stance toward Possessions.32His book provided helpful clarification of this core value for Brethren and for believers in other faith communions.

 

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