Jan 31 2012

United Without Confusion and Without Mixture: An approach to Brethren Ecclesiology

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In 2008 the Church of the Brethren hosted a gathering of Young Adults as part of the continuing conversations about ministerial leadership. The goal of the gathering was to discuss the emerging realities for the church as the denomination discerned the needs for a new system of calling ministers. Each of the sessions began with prepared presentations and a series of questions for those gathered to discuss around their tables. After the event, a Minute was prepared from the conversations. Brethren Life and Thought will publish a number of the presentations here over the course of several weeks.

The following presentation was prepared and offered by Joshua Brockway.

There comes a time in the life of every member of the Church of the Brethren which arises as a kind of rite of passage. Inevitably someone has asked, or will ask, each of us where we go to church. To which we name our local congregation; Something Church of the Brethren. It’s the puzzled look on the face of the questioner that lets you know you have reached this rite of passage. “So, what religion is that?” Now, I am not venturing into the discussion of our name but simply saying that trying to explain the Church of the Brethren is an endeavor that is akin to explaining Cold Fusion. So we really dumb down the answer and say something we think they will understand: “Oh, we’re like the Mennonites.” Or we get historically and theologically accurate and say (in one breath): “Well we are part of the Radical Pietist movement as it took shape in the late 17th early 18th century in Germany. We also took much of our thinking and practice from the Anabaptist groups that often resided in the places where we fled to when local princes and governors began persecuting.” By now the eyes of our inquisitive friend change from puzzled to crossed, and we resort to the simplified response: “Well, we are kind of like the Mennonites.”

For any who have read Carl Bowman’s recent survey of the Brethren this is not just an anecdotal example.1 The numbers are showing that we indeed barely know who we are. When those surveyed were asked about topics from our denominational tagline, that is Peacemaking, Simplicity and Community, it was clear that a growing element of our membership does not identify with traditional “markers.” I do not want to engage in a conversation about so-called core testimonies or markers of Brethren identity, but to simply ask how it is that we understand ourselves as a Church. Unfortunately, the study is also showing us that a more reliable identifier of our members is where we fall in terms of issues in the political landscape of the United States. I also do not want to venture into the pile of issues which divide us, but to wade rather into that which defines us as the Church. In that spirit of asking and wading, I will argue two things: First, that our way of thinking about our Radical Pietist and Anabaptist elements is too often defined by our political and economic culture. Second, and more constructive I want to offer a Christological re-interpretation of those same elements.

Part of the Culture question we wrestle with as a tradition within the left wing of the Reformation is to ask what defines us, both as individuals and as the Church. In the last year the economic crisis has revealed an answer, at least in terms of the American context. Our social order, the bedrock of our culture is the economic exchange between persons. Art, education, and science are all grounded by the exchange of goods or services for money. In the past, persons involved in these vocations shaped their context. Today such influence is limited or enhanced based on the practitioner’s ability to return on the investment of finances of others. A quick look around the news stands or the television news channels and we see that the primary mode of understanding is in terms of exchange, money, goods, services, credit and debit. This frame of economics is the new totalizing force in culture. We might, as good Brethren, argue this is not the case for the Church. Yet, consider the way we discuss evangelism and service: The common thread becomes the sharing of services, the selling of our faith, the buying into a particular community by a person, or even the removal of buying power when a member leaves. Let’s be brutally honest here, how much of our anxiety over the decline in membership is a fiscal fear, an anxiety over the market value of our tradition. We would like to say that our culture, our thought, and our practices are defined solely by the vision of the Kingdom of God in scripture. It is clear, however, that the wider culture of money has a tremendous impact on our way of understanding the Church.

This kind of exchange model is not new for the understanding of society. In birth pains of the Enlightenment Jean-Jacques Rousseau formulated a theory of government which has defined the American landscape ever since. His theoretical discussion of “Social Contract” described political agreements as a process of exchange. As a basis of this theory Rousseau begins with the Individual, who, in his state of nature, is free and autonomous, attentive to his own needs. This Individual only enters into a community for ego-centric needs. That is, the community offers something which the Individual cannot provide for himself, and so the Individual relinquishes some of his freedom in exchange for the good of the community. The initial example of such a pact comes quickly in Book 1 of Social Contact making heavy use of the image of a family. Here he says that children only remain attached to the father “so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as the need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved.”2

Though Rousseau is working within a conception of authority, politics, and governance his theory is, at its core, an economic one. Some have appropriated Rousseau’s theory for thinking about the Church. These ecclesiological theories present an individual’s participation in a community as a rational choice, a kind of cost benefit analysis. Thus, when a seeker enters the doors of the Church building, they immediately and subconsciously begin weighing the benefits and losses on an imaginary scale. On each side of the scale first impressions are weighted against the theological ideas, which are then weighted against factors as rudimentary as how far the building is from home. The individual then buys into the community based on this cost-benefit equation. Will this community give as much if not more than it asks of the seeker? Only the individual can decide. Rousseau’s Social Contract helps highlight two underlying assumptions within these kinds of ecclesiological theories; 1) primacy of the individual and 2) that this same individual must give up elements of his freedom to take part in the community.

When we consider the murmurs of a split within the denomination these two assumptions come right to the forefront of the debate. When the larger community is seen as no longer offering the needed services or for that matter contradicts the values of the individual, the only valid option seems to be to break the bonds of the relationship.3 Lest you think I am making too much of this economic example, think back to my longwinded description of the Brethren above. When we say that the Brethren are some kind of mix between Radical Pietism and Anabaptism how do we understand these two traditions interacting? Most often the two are portrayed in constant tension, as if the spirituality of the individual is some how trampled by doctrine and practice of the community, or that the decisions of the larger community have no impact on individual practice. In a more concrete example look at what the Radical Pietist marker of “No Force in Religion” has come to mean in terms of Annual Conference Statements: If the delegates agree with me, then the statement has weight, if not, then there is no need to follow what it says. I wish I could say this is new, but the reality is that this is how many of our Brethren scholars have interpreted the relationship between the Anabaptist and Radical Pietist elements of our tradition. Unfortunately, it is more reflective of American conceptions of democracy and social contract than it represents the Christian witness.4

So how else can we talk about these two elements our tradition which does not place them in opposition to one another? As a student of the Early Church one easily comes to mind. In the sixth century the Church wrestled with the relationship of the divine in the human being of Jesus of Nazareth. Without presenting an exhaustive survey of creedal developments or various Christological formulations, it is important to note what the definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451) tried to avoid. On one hand it rejected monophysitism – that is, when only one of the natures, divine or human, is present or where they are so united as to created a third kind of being. On the other hand the council set out of bounds any rejection of either the humanity or the divinity of Jesus Christ. Basically the council stated that Christ is “acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being.” In a really simplified version, you can’t talk about Christ the man without also talking about Christ the Divine.

In many ways we need to be able to say the same thing about the Church of the Brethren, that the Radical Pietist and Anabaptist, the individual and the community are one and the same. This is to say that the Rousseau-like tension, where the individual must relinquish much to be a part of the faith community, or that the faith community must see itself as a distributor of religious goods, has to be exorcised from the way be think about “Being and Doing Church.” How is it that we can talk about individual Christians without the frame of a community, and how is it that we talk of the Church as if it is not comprised of faithful people? To adopt a Chalcedonian ecclesiology is to finally recognize that there is no individual Christian without a Church, and there is no Church without individuals.

Anthropologists, ritual theorists, liturgical theologians and even philosophers all in many ways understand this Chalcedonian way of being a community. In their own ways these thinkers describe the way community practices such as worship and even a congregational potluck shape the way people think about the world. What they have not grasped is that these communities are comprised of individuals whose very experiences of life give content to these ritual structures. What we as Brethren hold in “tension” is really a way of working out the age old dichotomy of the individual and the collective. In a way we have been trying to do what these theorists only pondered. Yet, we get stuck in a way of thinking that is based on the economic and political models of the North American context and constantly fight about the authority of the denomination and the freedom of the individual. Our own grounding in Jesus Christ offers us a way to see the dynamic interplay of communal formation and individual participation that reaches beyond what politics and money can offer. To understand our way of being and doing Church in incarnational terms – that is, two natures united without mixture and without confusion – we arrive at a uniquely Christian way of thinking about the world and ourselves. So when we are asked about who the Brethren are, maybe we finally say with some conviction that we are an incarnational people. That seems to me to be the best starting point for any discussion.

1 Carl Desportes Bowman, Portrait of a People: The Church of the Brethren at 300 (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 2008).

2 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, Bk 1.2.

3 See Greg Davidson Laszakovits, “I Am Not Saying…I’m Just Saying…” in Messenger November 2008, vol 157.10. Though Davidson Laszakovits does not follow the typical formula for discussing the prospects for division he does confirm the social contract approach to ecclesiology. The thesis of his editorial asks if the factions within the Church of the Brethren could minister more effectively and energetically if there were to be an amicable split. In essence, the individual desires for ministry are hindered by remaining in the denominational community.

4 Meier, Marcus. “Anabaptist and Pietist Influences on the Early Brethren.” In Lines, Places, and Heritage: Essays Commemorating the 300th Anniversary of the Church of the Brethren, eds. Steven Longenecker and Jeff Bach (Bridgewater, VA: Penobscot Press, 2008), 157–68. Meier recently argued in this essay that the historical evidence shows that the two traditions were not as distinct as we have often portrayed them. Instead, the Radical Pietists and Anabaptists mutually influenced one another.

  1. Carl Desportes Bowman, Portrait of a People: The Church of the Brethren at 300 (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press, 2008). []
  2. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, Bk 1.2. []
  3. See Greg Davidson Laszakovits, “I Am Not Saying…I’m Just Saying…” in Messenger November 2008, vol 157.10. Though Davidson Laszakovits does not follow the typical formula for discussing the prospects for division he does confirm the social contract approach to ecclesiology. The thesis of his editorial asks if the factions within the Church of the Brethren could minister more effectively and energetically if there were to be an amicable split. In essence, the individual desires for ministry are hindered by remaining in the denominational community. []
  4. Meier, Marcus. “Anabaptist and Pietist Influences on the Early Brethren.” In Lines, Places, and Heritage: Essays Commemorating the 300th Anniversary of the Church of the Brethren, eds. Steven Longenecker and Jeff Bach (Bridgewater, VA: Penobscot Press, 2008), 157–68. Meier recently argued in this essay that the historical evidence shows that the two traditions were not as distinct as we have often portrayed them. Instead, the Radical Pietists and Anabaptists mutually influenced one another. []
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