A Letter from M.R.Zigler — and the Reply

January/ February, 1987
Volume 22, Number 1

M. R. Zigler was an outstanding Church of the Brethren leader who was known for his many efforts in the ecumenical world and for his tireless crusades for the cause of peace. Brother Zigler died on October 25, 1985 just a few weeks before his 94th birthday.

Known to many as “M. R.” Bro. Zigler served on the Church of the Brethren national staff from 1919 to 1958. From 1948 to 1958 he served as director of the Church’s work in Europe, and as its representative to the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. During that decade he helped develop such groups as Church World Service (CWS), Remittances to Europe (CARE), the Heifer Project (HPI), and the Christian Rural Overseas Program (CROP). M. R. Zigler was driven by the vision that Christians should lead the way to a peaceful world.

During World War 11, M. R. Zigler chaired the Advisory Committee for Conscientious Objectors and was executive secretary of the Brethren Service Committee. Zigler helped to formulate the Civilian Public Service program (CPS) which provided a format by which the historic peace churches could administer work camps and provide alternative jobs for religious objectors to war. It was he who formed the National Service Board for Religious Objectors (now known as the NISBCO).

Brother Zigler helped launch the Brethren Volunteer Service program (BVS), the On Earth Peace Assembly (OEPA), and the Brethren Encyclopedia published in the 1980s as a cooperative effort of the five major Brethren bodies. Four Brethren colleges had granted him honorary degrees. During his lifetime he visited all but twenty-five of the more than one thousand Church of the Brethren congregations across the nation.

Brother Zigler was a man of stature, wisdom, and integrity. He was a personal friend. One day, ten years ago this month, I received a letter from M. R. which expressed his concern about diminishing membership in the Church of the Brethren, and his conviction that all the vast efforts for peace (for which he so tirelessly labored) were not really the Church’s total mission. For the benefit of the larger Church, we publish the letter in this issue of the BRF WITNESSalong with my reply to Brother Zigler. M. R.’s two children, Robert S. Zigler and Mrs. Geraldine Z. Glick, have both given permission to print the letter. Geraldine says, “Sometimes my father would ask people to keep things confidential and then change his mind at a later date, so I am sure he would give you permission if he were alive today.” Thanks to Robert and Geraldine for their generous agreement to allow the letter to be published.

–Harold S. Martin

A Letter From M.R. Zigler

New Windsor, Md. 21776
January 31, 1977

Dear Brother Harold Martin:

There is one thing that I hope to live to enjoy. Time is getting short for me. I seem to remember how the Church of the Brethren for a period of time grew in numbers. We felt a deep concern for the lost sheep.

Now we have a new day. Do you see any hope for a growing Church in the future? It gives me pain to read about the decline. I wonder where we lost the way. Oh how can we know the way to increasing more in numbers and in spirituality? I appreciate every effort at Elgin and at the Conference. Also, the people at the Valparaiso (Holy Spirit) meeting, and all that you do in the Brethren Revival Fellowship.

I am working on the “ON EARTH PEACE” program, and I feel comforted when I can get someone to give up the sword, but that is not baptism. It is a value, but not the real evangelism. To find the “lost” and bring them into the fellowship of the church, forming the Body of Christ is so important. I believe there are people who can do this part of the Christian order, and some cannot. Billy Graham can get the crowds, but even his work does not crowd the churches. Maybe his way is the way. But for Brethren, I wish our churches would be crowded with people seeking to know the truth. I feel bewildered. I place the problem in the fact that I will be 86 years old next November. I feel the Christians are facing problems that we don’t know how to meet. I do not stand for numbers, but I know that we are supposed to find the lost sheep.

I am not asking you to answer this problem, I have had hope that your insights might bring a new day among Brethren. You are doing well, but how can we who love the Church, have the joy of seeing many people coming into the community of faith?

Please keep this letter confidential. Guess I am just a tired old man and somewhat depressed. But as long as I live, I shall be true to Brethren principles and the Community of faith.

Here is twenty dollars for the Brethren Revival Fellowship. I wish it could be more. Inflation is disastrous. I have enjoyed being a Brethren and am thankful for those who led me through the years. I don’t think the age ever comes when a person does not need another Brother’s help to keep on going.

With Christian love,
M. R. Zigler

The Reply

To M. R. Zigler’s Letter

York, Pa. 17404
February 2, 1977

M. R. Zigler
Box 188
New Windsor, Md. 21776

Dear Brother M. R. Zigler:

Your letter was received and read today with great appreciation. I rejoiced and wept and prayed.

I rejoiced because of the good work you have done in behalf of peace and reconciliation down through the years, and because of your commitment to stand by the Brethren understanding of the Gospel throughout life.

I wept because I felt a tug on my own heartstrings as I shared with you a concern over the lack of numerical and spiritual growth within the Church of the Brethren.

I prayed that God will bring you comfort in your sunset years. I was reminded of the words found in Isaiah 46:3-4 where God says to Israel: “I guarded your coming into the world at the time of your birth; I protected you during the days of your youth; I’ve been with you during the trials of manhood; and now in old age-I am the same God-I will carry and deliver you.”

As you implied in your letter, probably none of us has all the answers that are related to the Church’s present lack of growth. There are several factors, I believe, that have contributed to the dilemma within the Church of the Brethren today. My personal conviction is that one basic cause for the decline over the years, has been a setting aside of complete confidence in the truthfulness of the Bible. More about that at the conclusion of this letter.

I believe too that the statements which follow are legitimate matters that have contributed to the Church of the Brethren’s decline in numbers and in spirituality:

1) The Church’s failure to uphold the Bible doctrine of nonconformity to the world. And by this, I refer not merely to dress, but to the larger scope of nonconformity (including the unwillingness of many of our young Brethren to serve in alternative service during the war years). The Church too often tried to win the world’s approval and has gone down the road of accommodation to the spirit of the age.

2) The Church’s failure to exercise discipline and to maintain high standards of commitment for its members. NCC staffer, Dean Kelley, in his book Why Conservative Churches Are Growingsays: “What costs nothing accomplishes nothing; if it costs nothing to belong to a community, it can’t be worth much.” Kelley convincingly shows that the more strict a church is about who may join, and the more demanding a church is of those who belong (doing it charitably of course), the more rapidly it will grow. The Church of the Brethren has been too lenient with its membership standards.

3) The Church has offered fellowship, entertainment, and knowledge about personality adjustment, etc.–but has not persistently offered its one chief commodity–salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. Other specialized non-religious organizations can offer commodities such as respectability, civil rights, planned parenthood, etc. The Church has often become a mere social club, and not a soul-saving center.

There are other factors that have contributed to the lack of numerical and spiritual growth within the Church of the Brethren-such as the advent of television, the effects of affluence, the general loss of respect for authority in our society-but the root cause, in my opinion, is related to the fact that once the doctrine of a final trustworthy Bible is abandoned, eventually more serious deviations follow, and the Church heads toward a further shipwreck of its faith.

For example: The Bible presents no picture whatever of human beings moving from a dark animalistic past, to a present moral and intellectual sophistication. The beginnings of the human family are clearly stated in Genesis 1:26-27. The first man and the first woman are pictured in the Word of God as being intelligent and articulate and capable individuals who lived beautiful lives in the midst of a perfect environment. The Bible describes how human degeneration came about (Genesis 3:1-13; Romans 5:12). Furthermore, the Bible predicts that degeneration will continue until human beings produce a world so corrupt that life itself will be nearly impossible (Matthew 24:21-22).

But from our Church publications, and Sunday School materials, and from the shared verbal testimonies of leading churchmen among us-I have sadly discovered that most Brethren leaders no longer accept these simple Bible facts. And if the early Bible accounts of man’s beginnings are not reliable, then the rest of the Bible lacks credence as well. The result has been an underlying change from the traditional Brethren principle that the New Testament alone should be our rule of faith and practice, to the assumption that the human mind is sufficiently capable of directing the affairs of life.

Directions within our Brotherhood have been set often by those who have accepted the idea that the human mind is the ultimate authority, and thus many Brethren activities down through the years have centered not so much around telling people about the Saviour, nor portraying the biblical concept that human beings are sinful and need conversion, but the pagan idea that people are basically good but need improvement. Thus, true evangelism (winning the lost) was neglected, and social action programs were given priority.

The Church program has been without emphasis on a redeeming message, and over the years, those who have been members of the Church of the Brethren have experienced an erosion of their faith and character. Our members have sometimes been taught a wrong view of man, of the Scriptures, of the Person and work of Christ, and of the certainty of future judgment. A return to the theology of the Bible is long overdue, and as I see it, such a return is our only hope.

Brother Zigler, my heart is much impressed with your words: “I am working at the ON EARTH PEACE program, and I feel comforted when I can get someone to give up the sword, but that is not baptism. It is a value, but not the real evangelism. To find the ‘lost’ and bring them into the fellowship of the Church, forming the Body of Christ, is so important.” With these profound words of yours, I heartily agree.

Social action (including efforts toward world peace), should be part of our work, but it is not true evangelism. The two (social action and evangelism) belong to each other, yet are independent of each other. Neither is a means to the other, for each is an end in itself. Both social action and true evangelism are expressions of unfeigned love for the human family. However, there is a certain urgency that attaches itself to evangelism-and over the years, the Church should not have neglected social action, but it should have given greater priority to evangelism.

Nothing is so destructive to human dignity as alienation from God, and the Church of Jesus Christ is the only institution that has an answer for the human family’s spiritual dilemma. My hope and prayer is that the Church of the Brethren will on a large scale adopt a biblical theology of man and of salvation, and that along with these, she will strongly emphasize the Anabaptist/ Pietist distinctives. This, I believe, will lead to church growth–and to the extent that men and women experience a spiritual conversion-to that degree it will lead to better communities.

Thanks again for writing, Brother Zigler. May Jesus Christ indeed guide and guard you well, until He calls or comes.

A brother in Christ,
Harold S. Martin

P.S. The check you enclosed has been forwarded to the treasurer and you will receive an acknowledgment from him. Thanks much for your support.