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Brethren History – Condensed – Part I

by on March 16, 2015

Brethren History – Condensed – part I
Frank L. Reed

Brethren history is rich with Godly heritage and Godly people. In spite of that, the denomination decided to move in a liberal direction and has maintained that direction. Early 1900’s denominational leaders sought their training in liberal institutions. This has caused a division among the Brethren – liberal on one side and conservative on the other.

That is actually an important division but it is not the only division. There is another division that is more divisive. The conservative Brethren are divided. Some of them have accepted the liberal denominational changes that have placed the districts in control of the congregations. Others of them have not accepted this control but have placed the Bible and historic Brethren practices as their ultimate authority. “Lines separating Brethren today do not separate them from the outside world; they separate them from each other.” (Bowman. p.404).

This division is so very sad. It is sad because now is a time when the conservative Brethren could and should rally around the Bible and our history and provide a community for our children. It is also sad because it reflects a major disagreement on how one views the Scripture and our heritage and the Church. Powerful people are missing an opportunity to unite on a Biblical basis and set a course for the future in these trying times.

Even those congregations that retained the position of elder have surrendered the right of ordination to the District commissions. They “owe their ordinations to the district.” They claim to have retained the concept of elder but do not function in a Biblical, elder based understanding. They do not turn to adjoining elders for direction. They turn to the District Executive and district boards and commissions. In some cases, Biblical advice of adjoining elders is out rightly rejected.

How did these changes come about among the Brethren? The changes are well documented in the recorded histories. The following is an attempt to condense many pages of Brethren history into a readable, understandable essay. May God’s Holy Spirit use these words to bring truth to the Brethren today – Amen.

I. Elders or District Commissions?

“For almost 200 years of the history of the church of the Brethren, the work now assigned to the District Ministerial Board was done by the adjoining elders of a local congregation or by special committees sent by the Annual Conference.” (History of the Church of the Brethren, Eastern Pennsylvania. p.143).

The Brethren moved from a simple Church organization that involved elders in leadership to the more modern formation of many boards and commissions. How did this happen? In one paragraph Carl F. Bowman outlines the stages of the move from elders to district control among the Brethren.

Stages of planned district control
1. …the 1921 creation of the General Ministerial Board with satellite ministerial boards at the district level.
2. The purpose of these boards was to … encourage ministerial elections…
3. They would be careful to not encroach upon district elders’ supervision of ministerial affairs.
4. This cautious strategy was soon abandoned.
5. A more authoritative strategy replaced the cautious strategy.
6. Ministerial boards were given direct jurisdiction of a variety of ministerial matters.
7. Ministerial boards jurisdiction included ordaining elders. (Bowman pp.301-302).

So, the formation of the boards was designed to eventually assume authority over the ministry that had been the realm of the elders.

Intentional and deceptive liberal direction
When these boards were formed, some of the older elders were included on the boards. This provided an easy transition into eventually eliminating the elders from the process. Make no mistake about it, the reconstruction of Brethren culture was the handiwork of twentieth century liberal modernism. (Bowman p.405).

Liberal writings titled, “Fundamental”
Citing D.W. Kurtz as an example, Durnbaugh notes that young Brethren leaders “gravitated to centers of liberal Protestant thought…None went to Princeton…” Princeton was a conservative seminary. Kurtz became an influential leader. One of Kurtz’s writings he “daringly called An Outline of the Fundamental Doctrines of Faith.”(Durnbaugh.p.404-406).

Conservative voice ignored
Paul Mohler, a fundamentalist Brethren man attacked Kurtz’s writing as dangerous, claiming that Kurtz avoided conservative concepts and allowed liberal concepts. Kurtz used some conservative language but with liberal connotation and definition. Kurtz had a long and influential career. Conservative or fundamentalist leaning voices were simply ignored while the Brethren system continued on its liberal path. That pattern has repeated in Brethren history. (Durnbaugh. P.406).

The elder system did not need to be replaced – “it still worked”
Why did the ‘conservative’ Brethren accept this progression of district control? That is a difficult question to answer. Especially since, as Bowman asserts, there was nothing wrong with the elder-centered system that had worked for almost two hundred years. The conservative Brethren accepted the liberal ideas because, “Their loyalty to Annual Meeting would compel them to revise their traditional elder-centered system, even though it still worked.” (Bowman. p.302).

The Conservatives Acquiesce
So, Annual Meeting and keeping the family together trumped the long heritage of the Brethren as a separated people.

The power of politics
In good modern Brethren fashion, the current conservative leaders defend their loyalty to the Brethren system. They do this by claiming that the districts are their God given authority. The historians, on the other hand, make it very plain that the current situation of district directives was the plan of modern liberal thinking. It was not the following of historic Brethren beliefs and/or practices.

Now, in 2015, conservatives are confronted with the decision on whether to return to the historic Biblical practice or to stay with the wrong decisions that were made to acquiesce to the practices of a system moving in a direction that was not Biblical.

II. Brethren balance – What does it mean to be Brethren
The Brethren were a Spiritually balanced group. They knew that God was kind, but that He was also just – He was the perfect blend of mercy and truth. The Brethren attempted to reflect that in their lives and decisions.

Liberals lose the balance
Liberals emphasized one side of that balance. They emphasized:
1. noncredalism,
2. no force in religion,
3. freedom of conscience, and
4. openness to new light.
The liberals championed these as the essence of the Brethren heritage. They made it look like this was what it meant to be Brethren. The truth is that these are in fact magnifications and distortions of one side of that heritage.

Historic Brethren Balance
The Brethren approach was balanced historically by countervailing emphases upon:
1. sacrifice,
2. obedience,
3. accountability,
4. separation from the world,
5. internal consensus, and
6. a straightforward Biblicism that searched Scripture with the
7. goal of discerning the mind of Christ and
8. reproducing the practices of the primitive church.

With the liberal distortion, the Brethren balance was now gone. The emphasis was decidedly liberal. (Bowman.p.405). The net result of this imbalance is that Brethren de-emphasized obedience, separation, and accountability and focused on not offending each other. Thus, they began to accept most kinds of behaviors and beliefs, not wanting to “sow discord among brethren.” Choosing between offending God and His Word or offending their brothers, they chose to offend God. Many Annual Conference decisions were made in violation of the Scripture.

Conservative response
The conservatives unfortunately accepted the new liberal definition of what it meant to be Brethren and the historic balance was lost. Conservatives tried to keep peace and unity by accommodating the liberal perspective. Conservatives were willing to compromise their agenda so they could keep the Brethren family together. The focus became loyalty to the Brethren system instead of integrity and truth. The result of this approach resulted in massive losses in Brethren membership since the mid-1960s. Conservative Brethren today emphasize loyalty and unity to a system that has lost the Biblical balance of mercy and truth.

Fixing what was not broken
What would the conservatives do? Conservative Brethren lagged a bit but gradually, congregation by congregation, went along with the liberal reconstruction. Their loyalty to Annual Meeting would compel them to revise their traditional elder-centered system, even though it still worked. The conservatives went along with the denominational direction because they preferred compromising their agenda to leaving the family. This set a pattern for future generations – a pattern that is still present. (Bowman.p.302).

The original two-pronged approach
What was the Church of the Brethren attempting to do? As James Quinter had said, they “sought to be both conservative and progressive – preserves of the primitive faith who remained open to new light.” But, their middle-of-the-road goal of holding primitivism and progress in balance proved, in the long run, to be futile. (Bowman.p.323).

In the early fifties, the “label ‘elder in charge’ was officially purged from the Brethren’s organizational vocabulary. The person presiding at council would be known simply as the ‘moderator’ – one who facilitates but is no longer in charge. Finally, in 1967, Brethren voted to discontinue the office of elder altogether, and District Elders’ Bodies were instructed to disband. And so they did. “…the elder’s body was reduced to the role of spectator, watching incredulously from the sidelines.” (Bowman 303).

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