Tag: Church

Stop Serving!


This video from Homeboy Industries came across my Facebook timeline the other day. If you don’t know about this amazing ministry in Los Angeles started by Father Greg Boyle, you can check out their website.

In his thought of the day, he dropped this fantastic quote. “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service to those one the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”

At some point we need to drop all this talk about service. For Brethren, I am probably nearing the line of outright heresy, but hear me out.

For the early Brethren, the idea that we care for one another was not based in the language of service, but in mutual aid. Sure, this made sense in the days of our more sectarian past. We did care for our sisters and brothers of faith. It wasn’t until the 20th century that this core idea shifted into the language of service. In my more generous moments, I can see how this shift in terminology helped the Brethren claim a role within the world. Talking about service in essence broke us out of the me and us view of care for others.

However, we must come to terms with how the language of service continues to separate us from others. Basically, those who “serve others” are often working from a significant position of privilege. Whether it is economic or social privilege, those who can take time off for service projects locally or around the country do so because they can. While we rightly acknowledge that those who have privilege should use it to care for others in need, the very idea that we serve them has an overtone of condescension. We literally come out of our privileged social location so that we can minister to “those in the margins.”

An interesting thing happens, however, as people go on service trips. Inevitably, they return with a bit of cognitive dissonance. I hear it most often expressed like this: “I went there to offer something to them, but they gave me so much.” In the midst of the relationship building with those whom we “serve” the lines between those in need and those from privilege blur, and uncomfortably so. Here we are, the ones who are to care for others and we find ourselves ministered to.

This is why we must finally let go of the service interpretation of feet washing. Put another way, washing feet is NOT about serving others. In John’s account, Jesus does name the roll he takes as a servant, but that is only half the story. When Peter chastises him for doing what is not appropriate for teacher, the conversation turns to washing, and alludes to baptism. “If I don’t wash your feet,” Jesus says, “then you have no part with me.” Brash as always, Peter responded that if that is the case, then he should be completely washed. “You have bathed,” Jesus said, “and are thus clean except for the feet.”

This exchange with Peter is a clear reference to baptism, sin, and grace. And when Jesus says that we are to do this for one another, he highlights the priestly role we offer one another. There is no privileged place since all must wash and be washed. All must confess to one another and all must receive grace from others.

This is why I think people are so put off by washing feet. Some say that it is the idea of feet alone that turns people off. However, when we talk about “serving others with the basin and towel,” it is much easier to kneel down and wash another person’s dirty feet. It is when we must receive the grace of having our feet washed that we get weirded out. In the language of service, it is always better to give than to receive.

This is why we don’t know what to do with the gifts we receive when we are on a service trip. It is why we feel so guilty about coming away with so much more than we actually give.

If we can finally recover the mutuality of feet washing I think we can finally move towards what Father Boyle called “kinship with those on the margins.” We can go out from our houses of privilege and finally enter the cycle of grace upon grace where we finally see Jesus in one another.

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What Happens in Baptism


This post begins a two-part series. Part I will deal with the question “What happens in baptism,” an important question for many Anabaptist-Pietists. Part II will deal with the question of “what to do with quality theology from troubling theologians.” At first glance, I imagine that these two questions seem pretty far removed. You might be wondering how they connect as parts of a two-part series. Read on and I hope it will become clearer.

Baptism is: an act of discipleship; our dying and rising with Christ; our joining the fellowship of believers, which is the new humanity. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears write of this theology of baptism succinctly by saying:

We believe that water baptism is for those Christians who have already received Spirit baptism, making them part of the church. In water baptism, Christians are immersed in water, which identifies them with the death and burial of Jesus in their place for their sins. Coming up out of the water identifies them with the resurrection of Jesus for their salvation and new life empowered by the Holy Spirit. … [It] is a symbol of something far bigger. It is a visible declaration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit expresses the believer’s death to sin, burial of the old life, and resurrection to a new kingdom life in Christ Jesus.1

Baptism is an act of discipleship.

Scripture teaches that Jesus and the apostles charged all Christians to be baptized. Baptism identifies one as a disciple. Jesus commissions the first apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).” Peter, too, speaking to the crowds after Pentecost calls the crowd to believe, repent, and be baptized (Acts 2:38). Acts records how baptism accompanied conversion. After Peter had finished preaching to the crowd, Acts explains that “those who accepted his message were baptized (Acts 2:41).” Acts 8 shares of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch who eagerly exclaimed, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” After being baptized, he “went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:36-38)2

Baptism is our dying and rising with Christ.

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.

One of the central claims of the gospel is that God is reconciling people to himself (2 Cor. 5:18-19). We go from spiritual deadness and separation to being counted as alive in Christ. We are united with Jesus and submit to becoming part of his death. In Christ, though, we experience death that conquers death for in Christ “death is nor more” for it has been “swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54).

Baptism is our joining the fellowship of all believers, which is the new humanity.

In addition to being united with Christ, baptism unites us with the global church of committed disciples – the fellowship of all believers. In baptism, we proclaim that we are part of the true church of those converted, born-again, being regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and priests with unmediated access to God.

The church is the new humanity in which there is “a new inter-ethnic social reality.”3 The church is a people made up of all kinds of people. In Christ, God creates a new humanity that wrestles deeply with the problem of togetherness. In fact, this new humanity envisions a new way of living together “[as] a ‘multi-ethnic community,’ [that] does not quash ethnicity but relativizes it to the central claim that Jesus is Lord.”4 The same is said for other carnal attributes. This new path that showcases egalitarian living is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. The church is corporately made up of heirs of the Kingdom. “As ‘joint heirs with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17) we receive the title to the coming kingdom, and even in this life we receive the ‘earnest’ or first installment of this inheritance.”5 In the church, and even more so in the coming Kingdom, God fulfills the promise to “take … from all the nations [and] gather … from all the countries” and give them his Spirit (Ezekiel 36:22-32).

Even the individuality of joining the church has the potential to lead to this togetherness as part of the New Humanity. Baptism, an act commonly associated with inauguration into the Church family, is rooted in many ways to the forgiveness of sin. It is a new birth – a new start that is available to the proverbial you. “The you here must refer not just to each person but to the other person – the stranger, the outcast, even the enemy or oppressor that one is inclined to view in terms of their past actions.”6 Because God can forgive you, he can forgive anyone. As all can be forgiven, the forgiven are one with Christ. As part of the new humanity, we are called to see passed our individual sinfulness and the sinfulness of others to our oneness in Christ. The new humanity aims to serve both the guilty and the hurting through reconciliation to God and to humanity. This new humanity works in the world, to bring about holistic change, under the guidance of Jesus Christ who is leader, shepherd, and judge. Under Christ’s supremacy, the church brings people into newness, continuing to proclaim that “The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

So, what do we do when theologians don’t live up to their theology? What do we do when it seems as if the old things have not, indeed, gone away? Are they hypocrites? Do we dismiss their quality work because of their personal missteps? Does grace abound? Check back in next week as I ask the question: “What do we do with quality theology from troubling theologians?”


10981652_10155323031025517_2162868663183938058_nby Shayne T. Petty

Shayne Thomas Petty is an emerging missiologist currently serving as Associate Pastor for Outreach & Discipleship at Potsdam Church of the Brethren in the Southern Ohio District. He is pursuing an M.Div. in Intercultural Ministry, Evangelism & Missional Leadership at Bethany Theological Seminary. Shayne holds a B.A. in Theatre Studies & Religion from Wright State University. He is extremely passionate about the ministry of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and his involvement with them as a student leader, alumni volunteer, and ministry partner. A Charismatic Evangelical with ties to the Neo-Anabaptist and Hebrew Roots movements, Shayne sojourned with the United Methodist Church, Messianic Jews, Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Brethren in Christ, and the Association fo Vineyard Churches before becoming a licensed minister in the Church of the Brethren. He currently resides in West Milton, OH with his wife, Erin, and their two cats.

  1. Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine: What Every Christian Should Believe (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010). []
  2. See also: Acts 8-10, 16, 18-19., 22; Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:11-15; Titus 3:5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-14; 1 Peter 3:21. []
  3. John Howard Yoder, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 30. []
  4. Russell Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy: Eight Views of Baptism (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 28 []
  5. Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy, 127 []
  6. Haitch, From Exorcism to Ecstasy, 35. []
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Join the Conversation


By Bekah Houff

Informative. Enlightening. Thought-provoking. Insightful. Energizing. Stimulating. Engaging. Refreshing. Challenging. Inspiring. Interesting. Hopeful. Enriching conversation.

I could go on. These are just the top reflections from the participants at Bethany Theological Seminary’s inaugural Young Adult Forum entitled “Anabaptism, the Next Generation.”

The goal was to bring young adult ministry practitioners together for a conversation about Anabaptism and its influence on and appeal to young people today. Instead we fostered an intergenerational conversation from college students to seasoned pastors. Some attendees were currently practicing ministry with young adults and some were simply interested in the conversation or were young adults themselves stepping into leadership and ministry.

The Ted-Talk inspired format encouraged speakers to share a “big idea” instead of an all-encompassing lecture.  The format left space for short conversations between talks and allowed for more than just one or two keynote speakers as we are accustomed to at academic conferences. Talk-back sessions brought more than one speaker together so that their talks could interact with one another – music with spirituality, discernment with relationship, leadership with hermeneutics, and so on.

We heard talks that set the background with Anabaptist spirituality and biblical hermeneutics; we heard and experienced how we practice our Anabaptism through music; learned about practicing discernment together, being leaders, and making peace; we also addressed current concerns and practices of ministry with young people considering the multi-ethnic church and ministry with college students. Participants continued conversations in talk-back sessions, during lunch discussions where participants chose topics by sitting at tables with others interested in that conversation, and even during breaks as people met in the hallways of the seminary.

We also embarked upon a new adventure, taking what we were learning inside the walls of Bethany out into the community. We provided a list of locations for participants to go and observe how the context is appealing to the community, particularly young people. They engaged in questions such as, why do people come here? What is the role of this place in the community? How does this place and the work that it does interact with the conversations we’ve been having at Bethany this weekend?

Participants went to restaurants, a church, an ice cream place, and even bars and local hot spots to engage in these questions and observe the context and community in Richmond, Indiana. The goal was not to proselytize or make ourselves known but to take the first step from academic conversation to the streets and neighborhoods of our own cities.

I am grateful for the places where Bethany can grow into this forum and humbled by the things that others got out of the experience. The one thing that struck me the most after poring over the evaluations from this event is how much relationships were a part of this forum.  Participants reflected on learning about the importance of intergenerational relationships, different ways to disciple others, the importance of discernment with the body of Christ, becoming partners instead of leaders, making connections, embracing multiculturalism, and connecting young adults to the church in new ways.  We were invited into relationship with each other during the forum and encouraged to nurture relationships back home.

How are you engaging with each other in your faith community? What do you observe of different generations, ethnicities, and cultures? What is the importance of relationship for you and for your church? How do we marry our Anabaptist heritage to the neo-Anabaptism appealing to many young Christians today? These questions and many others still linger in my mind weeks after the forum. I look forward to observing and engaging them as I continue to participate in my faith community and in denominational gatherings.

If you would like to view the talks from this forum or for more information about this and other Young Adult Forums you can visit www.bethanyseminary.edu/YAForum2015. You will find the list of speakers from this spring, videos of their talks, and the schedule for the event. If you have questions you can be in touch with Bekah Houff or Russell Haitch of Bethany’s Institute for Ministry with Youth and Young Adults at yya@bethanyseminary.edu.

Inspiring and educational talks. Thoughtful and engaging conversation. Friends, old and new. Beautiful singing. Connecting with the local community. Meaningful worship. These are just a few of the things we did together at the 2015 Young Adult Forum. We hope you will come and join us for the next Young Adult Forum April 15-16, 2016 at Bethany Theological Seminary.

Let’s continue the conversation!

Bekah HHouff_wouff is Coordinator of Outreach Programs for Bethany Theological Seminary. She received her MDiv from Bethany with an emphasis in Youth and Young Adult Ministries. Bekah has been active in summer camping ministry, district youth ministry, and served in the Youth and Young Adult Office of the Church of the Brethren. Needless to say, she loves ministry with young people!

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Its All About Attitude



By Robert Raker

There is a common misconception about simplicity and its relationship to Christ and Christianity.  In fact, this

misconception has caused many within the church to abandon this centuries old Brethren practice completely.  But why?

The problem is that, as with mo

st Biblical issues, we have gotten away from what the Bible really teaches.  When asked what simplicity in the Bible means, most would probably answer something like giving up worldly things, or living without nice things, or living on the bare essentials.

But this is not what the Bible teaches about simple living.  Indeed, simple living is not about the absence of things, but about the absence of the need for things.  Here I want to consider two scriptures and hopefully clarify the idea.  The first text we’ll examine is Matthew 6:25-34.

This passage should be familiar to those even loosely acquainted with the Bible.  Anytime someone faces worry or doubt this passage is used to bring comfort or lend support.  It is a part of  “The Sermon on the Mount,” one of Jesus’ most famous teachings, .

While the entire passage could be

read in regards to simple living I want us to focus in on three main points.  First, in verse 32  Jesus says, “the pagans run after all these things.” The key word here is “run”.  It is my belief that what the Bible teaches regarding simplicity is more about attitude toward our possessions than the actual possessions.  And here Jesus plainly states that those who run after, or pursue, these things are the pagans, not merely those who own them.

This idea is supported in the next verse when Jesus says we are to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness,”  Again, we see the idea that to have these things is not necessarily. Rather, to pursue them before God’s kingd

om and righteousness is bad.  Jesus is reminding us what should come first in our lives.  In other words, its all about the attitude. This idea is completed in the second half of verse 33.  “All these things will be given to you as well.”  God wants us to have things, that is the things we need and desire, but He will only give them to us when we pursue Him first.

Our second passage comes from I Timothy 6:3-10.  In verse 6 Paul tells Timothy that, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.”  This is another way of saying, “Seek first His kingdom.”

Simple living is about being happy with what we’ve been given rather pursuing more and more and more.  But again, we must be reminded that the possessions themselves are not harmful, but rather our attitude toward them.   This is an idea Paul expounds on in verse 10,  another well know passage.  Who among us hasn’t heard this at some point, “The love of money is the root of all evil.”  However, if we scan this verse quickly, without stopping to examine it, we can lose the true meaning.

I have heard people say that this verse teaches that money and the things it purchases are evil and should

therefore be avoided at all cost.  This is not what Paul is saying.  Paul says that, “the love of money is the root of all evil.”  Its our attitude toward it that matters not the money itself.

Try this experiment.  Take a dollar bill out of your wallet and place it on the kitchen table, or desk in front of you.  Now watch closely.  Has it moved?  Has it done anything other than possibly been moved by a fan or breeze?  Of course it hasn’t!  It’s only money. The point is this: money, or possessions have no power in and of themselves.  They cannot think, read, talk, or walk.  The only power they have is the power we give them.  That’s why Paul says the love of money is the root all evil and not money itself.  Its all about the attitude.

Still later in this verse Paul takes it one step farther when he tells Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

These are just two of the many scriptures which demonstrate that possessions are not evil, but our attitude toward them.  Is it wrong to have nice th

ings?  If they cause us to pursue more nice things then the answer is yes.  But if we are satisfied, or content, with the things which God has blessed us with, and continue to place His kingdom and righteousness above our things then the answer is no.  When it comes to simple living, its really all about attitude.

Rob picRobert Raker is an ordained minister in the Southern Ohio District of the Church of the Brethren.  He is currently between assignments as an interim pastor.  He enjoys spending time with his wife and children, writing, and teaching a weekly home based Bible study

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A New Order for Clergy?


David Fitch(Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary) shared these reflections on his blog “Reclaiming the Mission.” Given the recent conversations in the Church of the Brethren regardingour polity for ministerial leadership, his remarks seemed appropriate to share with our readers. With David’s permission, I have reposted his remarks here. To follow the significant discussion that has already taken place you can click here to head over to the original post. Much thanks to David for sharing his thoughts with Brethren Life and Thought. To read up on the recommendations before the Church of the Brethren, a number of resources are available here.

So I am sure I’m not the firstto come up with this notion (look here for instance), but it seems to me denominations in the West need to create a new category for commissioning leadership. We need an new order of pastors for mission.

For hundreds of years, and still within my lifetime, churches in the West have been confined to the traditional structures of clergy. This order of professional clergy was defined by a time when there was huge demand for the full time pastor to order the entire ministry of a congregation.  Seminaries were structured to educate persons for this role. They learned Biblical exegesis, preaching, administration, pastoral care, leadership, etc. all in one package. The process to ministry included getting a MDiv at a seminary, passing ordination exams and interviews, and then candidating for a post at one of thousands of local churches.

This made sense in U.S.A. , Canada and even Europe in the last 50-75 years.  But the world has changed and we need less and less full time professional clergy. The churches that flourish with full time paid professional staff are large mega churches who need specialists – worship pastor, C.E.O. senior pastor world class communicator, children’s ministry pastor, justice ministry manager, director of outreach, executive pastor, etc.etc. The other kind of churches looking for a full time clergy are the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. More and more of these churches are floundering smaller congregations looking for a ‘savior.’ It is true that there are more mega churches but they grow on the backs of the shrinking of the old-fashioned single pastor congregation of Western Christendom. As we consolidate existing ‘successful Christians’ into larger and larger churches, the old-fashioned single pastor-small staff churches shrivel unable to even pay one pastor let alone a church secretary.  The net-net result is we need fewer and fewer full time clergy to ‘service’ the remaining Christians left in our society.

I suggest there is a need for a new order of clergy (if I may call it that): a missional leader who can understand the relationship between work and ministry so that it is seamless. He or she dedicates 10-15 hours a week to organizing the Kingdom community in their local context.  He or she knows her gifting and can lead out of that gifting. He or she has a job that he/she can support her/himself and her family with. He/she can develop a job skill that can adapt to changing circumstances. Often, he or she adjust their work hours so that she can work a tad less than the average 40 hour week. He or she can then give time to the leadership of their community without disrupting a daily/weekly rhythm of being present with family and neighborhood as well. The small church community can offer a small stipend to make up the difference. He or she does all this with 3 to 4 other leaders who do the same. Each is recognized for one of the five-fold giftings out of which they minister and lead in relation to the other leaders. They are apostle, prophet, pastor-organizer, teacher-organizer, evangelist working together, 15 hours plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours, plus 15 hours plus 15 hours. They are doing more out of multiple giftings than one single pastor ever could. They are bearing each other’s burdens. They are a “band of brothers and sisters.” This becomes a sustainable missionary kind of ministry that changes the whole dynamics of ministry because they are present in jobs, families and neighborhoods and makes possible long term ministry in context. It is, in essence, a new version of the old monastic orders of mission adapted to the capitalistic societies in the West while providing the means to resist (and provide witness) to its more oppressive sinful patterns.

Denominations need to define a new order of clergy because anyone seeking to operate in ministry this way will easily get defeated. Some of the more obvious ways they will get defeated are:

  • They will get caught up in bi-vocational ministry where they will be expected to get a full time job, and do the work of a full time minister (because no one changed the expectations). This is chaos and recipe for personal disaster. It simply will never work. We need a new order of clergy then to redefine bi-vocational ministry and fund a new imagination for what this kind of order of mission might look like.
  • They will get ordained into ministry and become bi-vocational and missional but the denominations will still expect them to fulfill all the old requirements of the traditional form of full time pastorate.  They will have to go to local ministerial associations, represent the church at local events, make sure the furnace is working at the church, take care of funerals and attend civic events, fill out data sheets for the denomination. But reality is, they have other jobs! They need to be given credentials that recognize the new rhythms of life they have committed themselves to. (This stuff nearly killed me when I was a bi-vocational pastor).
  • They will get a job, take up local contextual ministry and they will not understand the relationship between their work and ministerial leadership calling. They will not know how to look at their jobs once they get successful. They will not be able to be comfortable with 15 hours a week working for the organization of the church (because no one provided these expectations). They will not know what it means when their churches start to grow and some leaders ask them to quit their jobs because they will have allowed the identity of their jobs and its monetary success to overwhelm them. An imagination for the way work and ministry and family (when there is one) go together needs to be cultivated and this can best be done through defining a new order of clergy and then bringing those practicing together to discuss and offer visions for what this looks like.

For all these reasons we need to fund a new imagination for a new emerging clergy class that are in essence self sustaining contextual N. American missionaries. But the denominations for the most part have not navigated this. My guess is, if the denominations formed a new order of clergy, helped developed imagination and supporting structures for it, there would be untold numbers flocking to this group. There are literally thousands of second career people, and thousands of younger seminary graduates  dissatisfied with current options (dying small church senior pastor or mega church staff person) who would gravitate towards this kind of commissioning.  But we have no larger imagination for it. A new order of clergy could help and support these kind of missionaries and stir up such an imagination. Such an order of clergy could seed a whole new mission for a renewal of the Kingdom in N America.

What do you think? Denominational leaders, do you have such an order of clergy in your structures? Of course, it goes without saying that we need to fund the education of this new order of clergy differently, not taking people out of their context, but providing training along the way over longer (more affordable) periods of time.  There are many seminaries preparing to do this. We know we have to do it. I can’t wait til Northern unveils its new program for doing just that.


David Fitch is the Betty R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and part of the pastoral leadership of Life on the Vine, a congregation in suburban Chicago. He has published several books, including End of Evangelicalism (Wipf & Stock, 2011) and Prodigal Christianity with GeoffHolsclaw (Jossey-Bass, 2013).


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Anabaptists are hip!


Anabaptist symbol

by Joshua Brockway

In my work for the Church of the Brethren I increasingly find myself involved in discussions about our relevance today. Sometimes this is cast in the frame of doing workshops on Brethren Heritage, and in others it is outlined precisely in terms of relevance.

Running in circles outside of the Church of the Brethren, it is clear that we do have something to offer the wider church as it lives into the crumbling of imperial Christianity- more often called Post-Christendom. This interest often comes in the form of seeking out Anabaptist traditions- groups whose very genesis came about in a simple act of adult baptism, an act of civil and ecclesial disobedience. Now centuries later, after derision and flat out persecution, these Anabaptist traditions are hip!

It is interesting, and worth discussion, that this surge in interest falls out in varying ways. Some use the name “Anabaptist” to talk of the whole diverse tradition past and present, while others choose a more nuanced form and  speak of themselves as Neo-Anabaptists. In many cases writers, including the likes of Harold Bender and Stuart Murray, have attempted to offer a kind of type for Anabaptism in order to get a handle on just what we mean by this name.

Coming from an historic tradition within Anabaptism I have found myself trying to draw lines that help make this small, yet complex, tradition intelligible. This is often complicated because the historic communities often fall into sectarian modes- playing name games with each other, working on insider topics, and occasionally dismissing those who are not “true Anabaptists.”

After many blog, face to face, and Facebook conversations I have finally (and tentatively) come to a helpful taxonomy for this rich matrix of Anabaptism- both of the neo and traditional varieties. What I offer here is by no means complete or comprehensive, but simply a frame within which we can understand just what we mean by Anabaptism. I argue below that the dividing line between Anabaptism and Neo-Anabaptism is to be found in the practice of baptism- that is, whether the community of referent baptizes believers or infants.

Any wisdom to this outline is due to the great conversation partners while any faults are, unintentionally, my own.


Historically speaking, the Anabaptists first emerged in the early years of the Reformation. A group of Swiss, initially connected to Zwingli, they were  disenchanted with the steps of the reform to date. This group gathered together for the studying of scripture and constructed a short document outlining the central tenants to their way of life as Christians. The Schleitheim Confession, though the core values of this new group, should be set immediately within this group’s decision to baptize one another based on a conscious confession of faith. This act, and not so much the faith they professed, literally broke the law and imposed on them the name of Anabaptists- Re-Baptizers.

Though the Schleitheim Confession makes clear that Christians are not to take up arms for the state, soon after the tragedy of Munster challenged the assumption, both then and now, that Anabaptism is necessarily non-violent in posture. It was not until Menno Simons came along in the wake of armed Anabaptists that a peace testimony became part of the tradition. There, however, Simon’s emphasis on the earlier Schleitheim statements regarding violence was a posture of biblical pragmatism. Since their practice of a believer’s baptism already challenged both civic and ecclesial authorities, a “quiet in the land” posture of non-violent, non-resistance (based in part on Romans 13) was simply prudent for the survival of the group.

As with many groups, different forms of Anabaptism soon followed- even up through the 18th century. Some groups took on a more sectarian or withdrawn posture, such as the Hutterites and Amish. Still others emerged on their own, such as the Brethren (Schwarzenau Brethren) who merged their Pietist sensibilities with adult baptism.

In the 20th century, Harold Bender set out to outline just what this thing called Anabaptism looks like. His work on an “Anabaptist Vision” was clear for its day in that it offered some markers for this tradition. Most recently some have rightly dropped Bender’s vision for a more historically nuanced picture, preferring instead to talk of the many visions and forms within the wider umbrella of Anabaptism. Even the once dominant narrative of the Brethren as holding together the distinct tradition of Anabaptism and Pietism has been critiqued in favor of naming the many influences that merged into the Dunker tradition. There were just too many forms of Anabaptism to talk of it in any singular fashion. Often, then, efforts to distill the distinctive is a kind of argumentative task to speak internally to the tradition itself- saying what we should be about- and then to a wider audience- making the tradition applicable.

Modern Anabaptists

Most recently, this desire to articulate a clear vision for those inclined to Anabaptist thought has come by way of England. There, through a strong relationship with the Mennonite Mission Network, a group of British church leaders began collaborating in a loose network. Stuart Murray (Stuart Murray Williams) penned a summary of the network’s discussions that outlined their understanding of Anabaptism. That summary was published in the US under the title Naked Anabaptist. In that book, Murray is clear that Anabaptism, as they understand it, is a theological perspective in the light of Post-Christendom. In the decades following the ecumenical movement, the UK network is often at pains to say that affinity with these markers of Anabaptism need not institutionally convert others to the historic denominations. Rather, it is possible to be an Anglican Anabaptist, Presbyterian Anabaptist, or even a non-denominational Anabaptist.

In the United States, a similar movement of interest in Anabaptism has come by way of the prolific theologian Stanley Hauerwas. Hauewas’ articulation of Anabaptism is often not the product of historical research into the Anabaptists of the 15th century but is rather a working out of the theology of Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. Hauerwas often speaks of the rich formative culture of the church in a way that merges Yoder’s work with that of noted ethical philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre. Yoder, as a former student of Karl Barth, and Hauerwas as a part of the later Post-liberal discussions stand in stark contrast to the dominant narrative of Enlightenment Liberalism. In a way, like the UK Anabaptists, readers of Hauerwas often bring their understanding of Post-Liberalism ecclesiology to their own denominations.

What, then, is the difference between an Anabaptist and Neo-Anabaptist?

An impulse within Anabaptist circles is to talk of two groups- Traditional Anabaptists and Neo-Anabaptists. For me, this distinction feeds the sectarian bias of the historic denominations. I, myself, have been guilty of this at times when I have asked in polite conversation just what Hauerwas has to say about Anabaptism from his position as an Anglican. What possibly could he have to say about a way of life he writes about in abstraction without taking part in the existing, explicitly Anabaptist denominations?

As I interact with people who come to Anabaptist through a variety of ways and have formed their communities intentionally around the various forms of early Anabaptism, I find this distinction between Historical and Neo-Anabaptists unhelpful. Given the diversity within the history regarding forms of Anabaptism, it is simply too sectarian to say that anyone not a part of the main historical groups should be considered Neo-Anabaptist.

Instead, I want offer this brief taxonomy:

Anabaptists are groups of believers who share any of the markers of Anabaptist thought, and practice them within the context of a Believers’ Church structure (i.e. that baptism is a rite for those who have consciously confessed their faith and are baptized on the condition of this confession).

Neo-Anabaptists, then, are those groups or individuals who have found many of the ideas and practices of the Anabaptist tradition to speak relevantly to our context today, but bring this theology and practice into their existing denomination.

This distinction, based around the Believer’s Baptism, upholds the historic first rite of the tradition as the marker between the two. Hence, we can find persons, like Hauerwas or those of the UK Anabaptist Network, who continue to live and work within more magisterial traditions and not hold them outside the fold. For it is clearly a new phenomenon within wider Anabaptism to find such Anglican or Presbyterian Anabaptists. The ecumenical movement has opened the door to less sectarian forms and made it possible to even think that traditional Anabaptist thought could be at home within the very traditions that once persecuted these “Re-baptizers.”

For those of us in historic denominations within Anabaptism, wriers such as Hauerwas and Murray, to name just two, often help us to see parts of our heritage that we often overlook. This is especially the case for the Post-Liberalism of Hauerwas. It is important for those of us who resonate with Hauerwas, yet remain part of denominations like the Church of the Brethren and Mennonites- whose denominational life has come to adopt a decidedly liberal trajectory- to name just what we are claiming by calling ourselves “Neo-Anabaptists.” We are not working from the kind of ecumenical synthesis made possible in the 20th century, but are rather adopting a decidedly Post-liberal re-reading of our heritage. We should more appropriately identify ourselves as Post-liberal Anabaptists rather than muddy the waters with the name Neo-Anabaptists.

So what?

Some may think that such a distinction is mere hairsplitting. And I should confess that I hope this is not just an effort in theological abstraction. For example, many have observed that Greg Boyd’s congregation recently joined the Mennonite Church USA. I do not take this move to be a homecoming, or the movement of a Neo-Anabaptist group to becoming Anabaptist properly speaking. Instead, I think this was a move to draw together two Anabaptist groups, links that were once ideological and practical, and are now structural. Before that coming together, I would not have called Boyd a Neo-Anabaptist. Yet for the likes of Hauerwas, I think the distinction is necessary, if only to name the divergence around baptism. For it was the baptizing of believers and not infants that marked these groups in their day and context.

There are indeed a number of markers for Anabaptism that need further attention, such as a Post-Christendom ecclesiology, the centrality (or not) of a Peace witness in all its forms, and the importance of mutuality and simplicity. Still more work needs to be done in terms of Christology- especially given that many of the Anabaptist traditions have a Christ-centered ethic but do not have a explicit theology of the Incarnation and atonement. Nonetheless, we can see that the taxonomy begins to get at the current contexts of Anabaptist thought- a plurality of contexts not much different from the first centuries of the Reformation.

brockwayJoshua Brockway is director for spiritual life and discipleship for the Church of the Brethren. He serves as editor for this blog and book review editor of Brethren Life and Thought. His is currently writing a dissertation on the 5th century monk John Cassian. 

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Small Groups in Congregational Life


Tim Harvey, pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in Roanoke, VA recently shared some observations on small groups in church life in preparation for their congregational business meeting. In this post Tim discusses the components of vibrant small groups in the life of the congregation. The post was originally shared on Tim’s blog on the Central congregation’s website

Our congregation has recently experienced renewal through the ministry of the Hunger Group. Originally conceived as a short-term study group in the summer of 2011, these Central members have found renewed energy, focus, and challenge through their commitment to understand and alleviate hunger in the Roanoke Valley.  We have each benefitted from their leadership.

Small groups are not new to the history of the church. In fact, the Church of the Brethren began as a small group, as eight persons gathered for Bible Study, prayer and baptism in 1708.  Many Christians throughout the years have found a deepened sense of faith and commitment through the shared life of a small group.

In order to be effective, a small group needs to find togetherness in the following areas:  someone to bring the group together; a commitment to stay together; a focus which guides theirstudy together; opportunities to do mission together; chances to get together; and times to pray together.

The first two categories are the minimum commitment for a small group to exist in any meaningful way; without these, the group is significantly flawed and will struggle to accomplish effective ministry.

Leadership is what brings the group together.  Leadership takes a number of forms:  a convener; a study leader; a fellowship coordinator; a mission coordinator, just to name a few.  In fact, an effective small group will divide up these tasks among the group members, thus sharing in the overall group planning.

A commitment to stay together is also critical.  This commitment will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose.  A prayer group or life-stage group may stay together indefinitely; a study group (like we offer in the summer) or a focus group (like our membership class) will meet for a short period of time, or until a particular task is complete.  Whatever the case may be with each group, commitment must be clearly stated and agreed upon:  how often the group meets, how long the group plans to exist, and what members do to prepare for group meetings are key questions.

The next four categories will vary from group to group, depending on the purpose of the group.  They need not exist in equal proportion, but will be present in some form:

A small group should study together.  This will likely be what brought the group together in the first place; whether the group is a Sunday School class or a mission group, a time of study will open our minds to greater understanding of God’s activity in our lives and in the world around us.

A small group should do mission together.  Whatever the purpose of the group, there should be some project that takes the group outside of itself into the community.  When we put mission first in our lives, the Spirit opens up some interesting doors.

A small group should get together for fellowship.  Whatever the main purpose of the group (mission, study, prayer, etc.), the overall group experience will be enhanced by spending time together doing other things.  Deep relationships centered around fellowship can powerfully impact the group’s commitment.

Finally, a small group should pray together, encouraging one another in their shared spiritual growth.  Through prayer and discussion, group members can help one another grow in deeper faith and commitment.

As our congregation moves forward and seeks continued renewal and growth, small groups should be at the forefront of our thinking.  Approaching our Spring Council Meeting, I see several implications of small group thinking for our congregation.

First, the days of measuring church commitment by a willingness to serve on a committee are over.  Instead, small groups with a strong emphasis on mission and spiritual growth must be the priority of our congregation.

Second, consider the small group(s) (Sunday School classes) you are in.  How are the above six characteristics on display in that group?  Is there a clear investment in shared leadership?  Have each of the members in the group expressed their own commitment to the group?  In what proportion are the qualities of study, mission, fellowship, and prayer present?   If these qualities are there, then thanks be to God!  If they are not, is it time for some soul-searching among group members?  Could it be that the group has simply outlived its original purpose?  Is it time for the group to be either renewed or disbanded so members can reform into a new group?

Tim HarveyTim Harvey is pastor of Central Church of the Brethren in downtown Roanoke, VA. He and the congregation work hard at issues of renewal and revitalization, both in the congregation and in the downtown community. Issues of spiritual and literal hunger are recurring themes in their mission and ministry. And yes, he rides a unicycle!

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Uncommon Engagement: Shalom-minded voting and civic involvement


Photo by Keith Ivey via Flickr

By Katie and Parker Shaw Thompson 

As brand-new Iowa transplants with our first landline, we both have to admit to being a bit giddy at our new-found status as coveted “swing state voters,” who happily give our time and opinions to nearly every pollster who seeks us out. So, we should admit to a bit of bias toward civic engagement. However, we believe that bias to be soundly rooted in our understanding of the teachings of the New Testament and the witness of faith traditions like the Church of the Brethren. It is this understanding that compels us to push back on our fellow Iowan’s argument for a “virtuous abstinence” from the political process, in favor of an even-handed, if thorough, engagement more akin to Yoder’s call to bring a Biblical realism to the ballot box.

It is true that our nation is currently overrun with ugly political partisanship and disgusting abuses of power and wealth. Furthermore, neither of the two major party candidates can be said to be adherents to our understanding of a Brethren peace witness. However, in a world that is estranged from the perfection and wholeness of God, Christians must make choices everyday between the lesser of evils in an effort to bring peace to God’s creation and to live lives that are pleasing to God.

Furthermore, both Brethren and Mennonites, as members of churches with Anabaptist heritage, take the responsibility of community seriously. In our understanding, this responsibility extends beyond the walls of the church and into our neighborhoods. Just as it is the personal responsibility of a good church member to read and interpret the Bible for themselves within community and then to struggle with that community to come to the best understanding of how to follow Christ, so it is the personal responsibility of a Christian living within a democracy to digest the positions of candidates and to struggle with their neighbors on a local and national level to find the best way to govern our living in order to seek the justice and welfare of all citizens.

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Making the Center Strong: A Liturgical Reflection Part 2


By Christopher J. Montgomery

Read part one of this series…

Liturgical Place

Early Brethren meetinghouses arranged their liturgical furniture in a rectangular or circular fashion. The benches faced inward to emphasize the community of believers gathered for worship. The presiders, often a panel of elders and ministers, occupied a bench as part of the group. There was no hierarchy of status, only a distinction of role. God’s presence was manifest in the faces of assembly.

Our first step was to re-arrange our liturgical furniture in this manner. Guided by our heritage and the prevalence of Table imagery in the biblical narrative, the pews were detached and removed. Of the 28 pews on the floor level of our chapel, we retained 11. The remaining pews were stored in the back portion of the chapel underneath the balcony. Our worship space transformed from a long rectangle to a square. The pews were positioned in a circle facing two tables joined as a “T.” These tables held dual representation: the section holding the Bible and cross (from which the presider would lead), representing the remembrance of God’s revelation in story and symbol; and the section holding the meal elements, including bread, cup, towel and basin (representative of Love Feast), and three candles representing the presence of the Triune God in the assembly’s midst. Each table was covered with purple paraments, the liturgical color for Lent. The tables were to serve as a visual representation of the larger Table of God, realized as part of the Love Feast celebration and now as part of weekly worship. We positioned the presider’s chair, formerly on the elevated chancel, as part of the circle to represent the shared presence of God and ecclesial authority in the midst of the assembly. The musicians were also included in an opening in the circle to accompany the congregation’s song.

The shifted pew arrangement in the chapel resulted in the elimination of our projection and screen. The reduction in technological dependence created anxiety in some, particularly because of an increased amount of paper being used each week in the printing of the bulletin. All prayers and song texts that were normally projected were now included in a 6 page folded bulletin. In our initial conversations, I encouraged the congregation to make use of the bulletin for their personal devotional practice during the week. I drew their attention to the ancient breviary, an abbreviated form of the worship used by priests and deacons for personal worship.

Engaging the Scriptures Together

The new pew arrangement involved a rethinking of proclamation and the delivery of the sermon. Since the entire worship space faced inward as a circle, there was no place to stand where the presider faced the entire congregation (except seated in the presider’s chair as part of the circle). In the week leading up to the first worship service in-the-round, I began practicing with various ways of delivering the sermon and addressing the congregation. Standing at the table portion containing the open Bible was one option, though it meant that my back was to part of the group. I decided to approach the act of proclamation as I was approaching the entire liturgical event itself: ecclesiologically. If the authority of the presider comes from the assembly where the presence of God is manifest, the work of telling the stories of Scripture and engaging the community in its interpretation must also be rooted in the actual gathered assembly. This meant adopting a conversational approach to the sermon.

The work in preparing for this method of delivery began in the research. Rather than preparing a written transcript as I was accustomed to do for the past several years, I spent that time immersed in the topic itself. I engaged in reading, reflection, and conversation with a small group of persons for the purpose of preparing for communal engagement. I then approached the delivery of the sermon conversationally. Our worship series during Lent focused on the parables of Jesus from Luke’s gospel, traveling with Jesus through Samaria to Jerusalem. This content provided the necessary framework from which to present the Scriptures. I memorized each parable to present as a story-teller, circling the table and addressing the congregation while moving. The interpretive work of the parable each week proceeded with full community engagement. Questions were asked, discussions enabled. The deep work in research allowed me to serve as the guide for the discussion, threading component parts together (either in circling the table or from a seated position in the presider’s chair). The conversation would lead into moments of silence for reflection, leading then into our day’s prayer for change. The interpreting of the Scripture became a communal act.

The Ritual Meal

As part of the emphasis on the biblical Table image and socio-spatial awareness, we participated in the ritual meal weekly during this project. Though the Brethren have historically limited their participation in Eucharistic activity to the Love Feast (or a handful of additional times annually), our specific context includes those from more liturgical traditions. Our group, though divided evenly on whether to engage in weekly Table communion, agreed to treat it as an exercise in submission and forbearance.

I decided to broaden our understanding of the meal service at the Table. Using our Anabaptist emphasis on the life and example of Jesus, I explored ways to move from an exclusive focus on the Last Supper in Eucharistic practice to involve the entire meal tradition of Jesus seen throughout the Gospels (which included the Last Supper narrative). This approach to content, coupled with the traditional Eucharistic prayer form of the historic church (the Great Thanksgiving), served to fuse our ecumenical leanings with our mandate to speak liturgically with a distinctly Brethren voice.

For the first three weeks of the ritual meal service, the congregation stood around the Table. This presented a physical difficulty for many as we attempted to pass the trays of bread and cups to each other while also holding our worship orders. In the final weeks, we adapted by gathering around the table for the sursum corda (opening greeting for communion) following the passing of the peace, and then returning to our seats. To maintain an Anabaptist ecclesiological perspective, we shared the bread and cup in pairs. One person from each pair would come to the table to retrieve a small wooden tray which held two cups and an unbroken fragment of bread for sharing. When each person returned to their seats with the elements, I led the congregation in the recitation of our sharing line (“Bread/Cup of heaven, hope of the earth”). This proved to be a more effective method of engaging in the meal service.


It became clear to the congregation’s key leadership over the course of our exploration together that our tradition’s emerging practice of forbearance and submission took greater shape in liturgical exercises. Those who may have been opposed to weekly Table service or engaging in worship in-the-round willingly submitted their preferences to those who found it particularly meaningful. We discovered that while some experienced the presence of God most fully in the music or silence, others experienced God’s presence in the bread and cup. While some found circular seating distracting, others discovered new joy in seeing the faces of each other as an act of worship. For many, the horizontality and verticality of the worship act met in the choice to seek the betterment of each other through self-limiting. Though none of us walked away from the experience with a complete worship service we would want each week, we discovered that we were engaging in the actions of liturgy that we needed as a community. Our joy in loving God was realized in our willingness to love each other.

Christopher J. Montgomery pastors the Drexel Hill Church of the Brethren near Philadelphia. He is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at The Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies in Orange Park, Florida. He blogs at Practicing Missional Worship.


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A Look at Ordination the Church of the Brethren


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 Dana Cassell.

In its entry on “Degrees of Ministry,” The Brethren Encyclopedia declares, “traditionally, Brethren have not been concerned with precise titles or names for their elected church officials.” This is true, and sometimes maddening. This paper was originally prepared for the Ministry Advisory Council, and grew out of research that I had been doing for last year’s celebration of the 50thanniversary of women’s ordination in the Church of the Brethren. That initial research was frustrating because of the lack of unified titles in our ever-changing credentialing system. Some of the early women in leadership listed themselves as ordained, some as permanently licensed, some simply as “ministers.” This work led me to investigate the history of ordination in the CoB in an attempt to answer this one question: What does it mean to be ordained in the Church of the Brethren?

There’s no readily apparent answer to this question, but I have some findings to share with you. You’ve probably heard or known at least some of this before, but my hope is that this compiled history is helpful in telling a somewhat coherent story of our history of choosing leadership, and in our current and future discernment about how we continue to do so.

For two hundred years, Brethren ministers operated in a plural, non-salaried system. Each congregation had several ministers, or elders, and none of these men (and they were all men, except for a very few instances where a woman fulfilled the duties of her incapacitated husband) were paid. In 1855, Annual Meeting described three ministerial offices, filled by congregational elections conducted by adjoining elders. The degrees were to be identified by functions and duties associated with them:

  • 1st: The “speaker” was to preach or conduct worship service with permission of 2nd or 3rd degree minister.
  • 2nd: Elected from membership or an advanced 1st degree minister, a minister of the 2nd degree was authorized to preach, appoint or schedule worship meetings, administer baptism, perform marriages, and officiate at love feast in absence of an elder.
  • 3rd: Those elected into eldership/full ministry were senior members of the 2nd degree ministers. They were the only leaders ordained through the laying on of hands, and were authorized to preside at council meetings, to install deacons or ministers, to anoint the ill, and to conduct love feasts.

This description from Annual Meeting seems to be descriptive and not prescriptive: this is, roughly, what was already happening in congregations. It describes an organic system of homegrown leadership: there was a built-in mentoring program, each leader required full congregational approval, and the “credentials” or “titles” were associated with functions and practices – not personal qualities or “leadership ability,” though these things certainly factored in. Leadership was chosen in response to congregational need and not personal initiative: ministers were “advanced” to the next degree of ministry based on seniority when a congregation needed another elder. Volunteering for a position of ministerial leadership was a surefire way NOT to be chosen. Peter Nead, a passionate member of the conservative camp, insisted in his theological writings that there are 3 types of preachers:

 usually the self-called preacher was out to start a new sect, and was therefore accountable to no one. The man called preacher was a hireling, and therefore was most interested in pleasing his employers so that he would have a good living. Only the called of the Lord was motivated to please God and seek Gods approval…the only way to know who the Lord called was to consult the church…The ministers of the true church are not hirelings: it is the love of God; and not the filthy lucre, that constrains them to preach the gospel.1

Nead’s fears that ill-chosen leadership would lead to sectarianism and customer-service mentality were not unfounded. Conrad Beissel’s Ephrata cloister experiment was a classic example of ministerial leadership gone awry. Beisel claimed for himself a divine status and authority, and those in his group submitted to him. For those in the cloister, Beissel’s word carried more weight that either scripture OR the gathered discernment of the body – sources which had held utmost authority in traditional Brethren ecclesiology. Similarly, Brethren had long been at odds with “hireling” preachers, citing the failures of the institutional clergy as one of the initial reasons for leaving the state churches in Germany. Nead’s warnings came from collective Brethren experience, and they arose in the beginnings of what was to be an unending debate about how to define “the ministry.”

In the mid-19th century, Annual Meeting began to deal with divisive and confusing issues surrounding the ministry – what ordination meant, how it should be granted, if ministers ought to be paid, whether or not education was necessary or problematic for those in church leadership. These questions were part of a larger struggle between conservatives and progressives that would lead to serious fractures and the eventual institutionalization of the Schwarzenau movement into the Church of the Brethren and other denominational bodies.
The first major question to come before Annual Meeting was whether or not a minister ought to be compensated for his work. Like so many queries, this was a practical question that veiled a larger struggle: ought the ministry be a professional vocation? Compensation was a hot topic, generating impassioned speeches, sermons, and periodical articles.

The Conservatives were firmly against an educated, paid, professional ministry, but progressives insisted that the professional minister was the only way to keep up with a swiftly changing world. This particular issue factored largely into the splits of 1881-1882. The Conservatives focused on biblical precedent, citing Jesus’ commission to the disciples, sending them out without silver or gold in their purses. Similarly, they appealed to the Acts account of believers sharing their possessions (Acts 4:34) to warn against personal income. The salaried ministry was “deplored as a corrupt, parasitic system which was dangerous to vital Christianity, also against an educated ministry, which was viewed as despising the humble, unassuming lifestyle of primitive Christianity.”2 An 1845 Henry Kurtz sermon, quoted in John Kline’s diary, paints the position vividly:

I have to say that God never meant for the Gospel to be used as a means for getting water to the preacher’s mill, or grain into his garner. When the Gospel is converted into merchandise, the preacher becomes a merchant, and like all other merchants it becomes his interest to handle his goods in a way that will please his customers, and put them in such shape and procure for them such kinds, whether good, bad, or indifferent, as will suit their fancies and please their tastes. The love of money is a root of all evil, no less in the ministry than anywhere else.3

The Progressives, whose opinions would ultimately shape the Church of the Brethren, argued that a paid ministry would free ministers from the distractions of full-time employment, enabling them to devote their full attention to the ministry of the church. In a changing and urbanizing society, they argued, the church must change to keep up with the needs of the world:

The church’s historic belief in imitating Jesus’ love and living according to the Sermon on the Mount necessitated a change in attitude toward industrial and urban society in the latter half of the 19th century. The work of ministry was progressively seen as an adaptation to and an extension of Christ’s message to a society in need.4

Debate raged at Annual Meeting, as the church gradually accepted an educated, salaried, professional ministry. But change did not happen all at once.

In 1856, AM insisted that payment for ministerial services was against the gospel, and not allowed. In 1861, however, AM agreed that financial support for ministers was appropriate in “times of necessity or hardship.” In 1866, “supporting the ministry” became allowable, but a stated salary remained unacceptable. Again in 1882, AM affirmed that there is to be “no specified sum per day, week, month or year, paid to ministers on missions or any other work; but the Mission Board or Committee having control of funds may donate to ministers such sums as in their judgment their circumstances require.”

As is often the case, practice changed before polity, and in 1891, Tobias T. Myers of Philadelphia became the first full-time salaried Brethren pastor. It took another 20 years, however until Annual Meeting finally officially allowed congregations to pay their ministers set salaries. Despite its long history of plural, non-salaried ministry, the church had gone from adamantly opposed to a professional ministry in 1856 to grudgingly accepting it as inevitable in 1911. In another 25 years (1939), the General Brotherhood Board would actually be actively encouraging congregations of 200 or more to hire a full-time, seminary-trained, salaried minister. A 1951 statement explains their motivation: “We believe that a consecrated, trained pastoral ministry, properly supported both financially and with the cooperative efforts of the membership, will be the most efficient ministry in making the church an adequate influence in the community through an adequate organization of its resources for worship, fellowship, and service.”

In addition to compensation, the shift to a professional ministry also meant changes in processes of calling out leadership and in educational expectations. In 1915, Annual Meeting agreed to allow individuals to volunteer for ministry. The same decision advised the establishment of educational standards for ministry, and permitted employment of pastors – though ministers were still encouraged to give their services to the church for free. In 1921, the General Ministerial Board was created to “promote the growing trend for each congregation to have its own professionally trained and salaried pastor,” and in 1922, the designation of “licensed” pastor was created – allowing beginning ministers (including women) to preach, but perform no other functions. Responsibility for ordination officially shifted from the congregation to the district in 1921, and in 1923 the first official Pastor’s Manual was published – an official guide that confirmed the breakdown of the personal mentoring inherent in the old degree system of ministry. Perception had changed so drastically that Edgar Petry could write in his 1942 Bethany thesis that

The full-time pastorate represents the maximum adaptation to modern life. It is the result of the movement to meet the needs of people in a scientific and industrial world…It provides for a more systematic and efficient carrying out of the functions of the minister and of the church. It elevates the place and work of the minister in the church and community and releases him from the task of making a living.

These changes led to a lack of uniformity across the denomination – some congregations still used the degree system of ministry (even though AM had combined the 1st and 2nddegrees into the category of “ministers” in 1917), and others were employing licensed or ordained pastors. In 1957, to clarify the functions of the various leadership positions, Annual Conference listed the duties of elders and the duties of pastors. A decade later, in 1967, AC finally discontinued the office of elder, combining elders and ministers into the category of “ordained ministers.” Despite this merger, no new list of duties or functions was created for these “ordained ministers.” In one century, ministerial leadership had undergone a complete transformation in the Church of the Brethren – but nowhere did the denomination define or document what, exactly, these changes implied.

The confusion persists. In nearly every decade, Brethren voices have called for clarification. In 1950, Floyd Mallot contended that “the future of the church depends upon the surmounting of the problems that arise out of the change from the free to the professional ministry.In 1978, Floyd Bantz wrote in a Brethren Life and Thought article;

We know deep down inside ourselves, apparently, that there is a set-apart ministry, but we aren’t sure why there is, nor what it is to do. We certainly do not want that set-apart ministry to have any intermediary power. We want to control its institutional authority and we are not sure just what are its unique training and skills…We are not sure we know what ordination means but we do raise questions about continuing ordination for those who do not do what ordination means.5

In 1987, a Believer’s Church conference took on the subject of ministry. The Findings Committee listed pressing questions about ministry for the Anabaptist communities:

  • We need a more precise working definition of “universal ministry,” “ordination,” and “gifts.”
  • We are uncertain about the process for employing spiritual gifts. What is the balance between the individual’s leading and the faith community’s calling?
  • What structures and forms at the local and denominational level are best suited to carry out the vision of ministry of all believers?
  • There was uneasiness expressed with formal graduate level training programs for vocational profession of “minister.” What forms of training are most suitable for the universal ministry of all believers?6

A 1997 Survey of Brethren women in ministry by Rebecca Slough and Debbie Eisenbise showed that ordained women in the Church of the Brethren tend to see their ordination less as a spiritual or communal commitment and more as an institutional pass or credential needed to fulfill their calling. These findings, the authors say, “leave open the question of what ordination actually means for Church of the Brethren women pastors.”7

The implications of this confusion and lack of clarity on what, exactly, ordination means are not pretty. Because we lack a working definition of our leadership credentials, the title and office of “minister” has been used as an instrument of injustice. Granted, the old 3-degrees system was certainly not free of nepotism, sexism, and prejudice. But since moving from that mode of ministerial leadership to this institutionalized system of ordination, the Church of the Brethren has found itself with an undefined credential. We are very reluctant to define or delineate who CAN or SHOULD be ordained, but have not hesitated to create a list of those who CANNOT or OUGHT NOT be: remarried people (1933), women (until 1958), homosexual people (2002).8

I don’t mean to paint this ambivalence about institutional leadership as all bad. I think there are, in fact, some benefits to operating without clear polity and doctrine. And yet, we continually call ourselves to define ordination, to call gifted leadership, and to figure out what it is that we expect in the ministerial leaders of our church. And so, my question is, is it possible to define ordination in the Church of the Brethren, given the crooked path we’ve taken to get to where we are today?

  1. Peter Nead, “Theological Writings on Various Subjects; or, ‘A vindication of…” (Dayton, OH: B.F. Eller), 1850. []
  2. “Ministry,” Brethren Encyclopedia, Donald Durnbaugh, ed. (Brethren Encyclopedia, Inc) 2003. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Floyd E, Mallot, Studies in Brethren History (Elgin, IL: Brethren Publishing House) 1983. []
  5. Floyd Bantz, “Liturgical Connection: Reflections upon the Meaning of Ordination,” in Brethren Life and Thought, 23 no 2, Spring 1978. 72. []
  6. David B. Eller, Servants of the Word: Ministry in the Believers’ Church (Elgin, IL: Brethren Press) 1990. []
  7. Rebecca Slough and Debbie Eisenbise, “The Significance of Theological Education in the Career Development of Women in Ministry: A Case Study in the Church of the Brethren” in Brethren Life and Thought, vol. 42 no 1-2, Winter-Spring 1997. []
  8. Each of these decisions came in the form of an Annual Conference decision. []
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