Volume 33, Number 2
The theme for the 1998 Church of the Brethren Annual Conference centers around the word “faithfulness.” Faithfulness implies a loyal devotion to one’s duty and an undeviating allegiance to a cause. As a disciple of Christ, we have entered into a covenant with God and confessed our commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. Faithfulness means that we will seek to live our life in accord with His Word, and that we will no longer be tossed about by human deceptions and superficial illusions.
In the book of Hebrews there are seven warnings (inserted at key intervals) to encourage obedience, maturity, and perseverance. The first warning is found in Hebrews 2:1-4. Verse 1 says, “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away” (NKJV). The words “drift away” picture a river in which a boat is aimlessly drifting by. The dock, or point of anchor, is like the truth of the Scripture. The boat, slowly drifting with the flow, is like professed believers who refuse to attach themselves to the doctrinal and spiritual truths of God’s Word. We must not ignore, dismiss, or forget the eternal message of God’s revelation. Unless we devote ourselves to observing the truths of the Bible, we can faithlessly drift along, carried by alien currents into dangerous waters.
Drifting is a dangerous thing–both physically and spiritually. Physically, when a boat drifts, we may not be aware that any movement is taking place. It is the same spiritually. The greatest danger to us spiritually is not that we will deliberately do some evil thing in open defiance and rebellion against God. The real danger we face as a church is that of gradually drifting away from adherence to God’s truth. It is easy to slowly drift, little by little, and bit by bit.
It is the nature of all created things to wear out and wind down. It is the nature of a fire to go out; of sheep, to wander; of love, to wax cold; of people, to forget; and of the church, to drift away from its moorings. Change is a part of life, but we must guard against carelessly drifting away from God’s truth which is eternal and enduring.
Dean Garrett, in the article featured on the following pages, gives some guidelines that are intended to keep us from drifting away from the rich heritage which we possess.
Being Careful Not To Drift Away
By Dean Garrett
The New Testament speaks to us with clear words about holding fast to those things that are good. The admonition in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 is, “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” And in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 we are told to “stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” The young man, Timothy, was told to “continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them” (2 Timothy 3:14). In Hebrews 2:1, we read, “Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.” And in Revelation 3:2, the church at Sardis was instructed to “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God.” The NIV translates the passage with these words: “Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.”
Four books that have been published relatively recently, in my opinion, have an excellent potential for renewal among Brethren people, if we will only allow it to happen. The books are: Brethren in Transition, edited by Emmert Bittinger; Brethren Society, by Carl Bowman; Moving Toward the Mainstream, by Don Fitzkee; and New Testament Beliefs and Practices, by Harold Martin. Reading these books is like holding a mirror up before the church so that we can see ourselves as we really are. They either point out where we are, or at other places, point out where we ought to be.
Two of the recently published books helped to motivate my own study of how we should hold on to what we have and strengthen what remains, lest we drift completely away from the faith. Don Kraybill, in the Foreword of the book, Moving Toward the Mainstream, says:
Some will cheer this move toward the mainstream, while others will despair. Some will read the story as a liberation from cultural tradition. Others will read the same changes as signs of spiritual decay in a wayward drift toward worldliness. Regardless of how we interpret the signs, non Fitzkee (in this book) prods us to ask what it means to be faithful to a religious heritage, while we struggle to respond to the changing currents of modem life. These are important questions for Brethren and non-Brethren alike.
In the last few paragraphs of Fitzkee’s book, after having described many changes which occurred in Eastern Pennsylvania churches during recent decades, on pages 310-311 we read these words:
Many questions remain, is such diversity to be celebrated or lamented? Have Brethren merely updated an ancient vision, retaining essential kernels of truth while offering the chaff to the winds of change? Or has the vision itself become blurred, even lost? Is the Brethren transformation a tale of liberation from narrow parochialism, or (the story) of surrender to the world? Have Brethren heeded the guidance of the Holy Spirit, or been led astray by the spirit of the age?
Indeed, many 20th century changes were promoted as promptings of the Holy Spirit, as necessary steps for Brethren to be faithful to their divine calling…But has abandoning such positions really enhanced the Brethren witness? The future of the Church of the Brethren may well depend on its willingness to honestly evaluate the past and forge a unique identity that is both consistent with its New Testament heritage and relevant for a new century.
Some of the great timeless principles which Brethren have taught and practiced through the years are spelled out in a concise form on the Brethren’s Card, which some congregations print in their annual local church directories. The book on New Testament Beliefs and Practices–A Brethren Understanding is a commentary on the Brethren’s Card.
1. HOLDING FAST THE WORD OF GOD
The first tool for our swim against the current of the mainstream is a sound grounding in the Word. If we steadfastly seek to be in tune with the truth, we will more readily be able to stand against that which is false. We need to know why we believe what we say we believe. It is not enough to just take someone else’s word for it; we need to own our convictions for ourselves if we want to pass them along to others. We are to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
The Bible is reliable. Psalm 119:9 says, “How can a young man cleanse his way?” The answer comes back in the next sentence: “By taking heed according to Your word.” Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” In 1 Timothy 6:20-21, Timothy was told to “guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have wandered from the faith” (NIV).
The written Word is dependable, as the Bible itself declares in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. In 2 Timothy 4:2-4, Timothy was told to “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.”
Henry Holsinger was a leader in the Progressive Brethren movement in the late 1800s. In his book, History of the Tunkers and the Brethren Church, page 232, he says:
What they believe and teach may be comprehended in the statement that they accept the New Testament as their creed and discipline. That is, the New Testament as it is, and not as they would have it, or as they understand it, but as it reads. They believe that the Book is inspired of God, has been preserved by His almighty power, and (has been) translated into the various languages through His direct instrumentality; that the Book means what it says, and says what it means, nothing more and nothing less, and is not to be added to nor taken from, and will suffer no deviations. That is Tunkerism, briefly but accurately, stated.
Near the beginning of the 20th century, Brethren author, L. W. Teeter, said of the Brethren :
Holding as they do, the whole of the New Testament as the perfect will of God to men, they most fully, sincerely, and devotedly believe every statement contained in it, whether historical, doctrinal, or practical. Accordingly they are just as earnest and careful in obeying every ordinance, commandment, and obligation as they are in believing them to be from God.
Contrast the view of the Scriptures just described, with a more recent approach. The editor, in the January, 1995 issue of Messenger, says that he hopes that we “do not act like the Bible is a clear-as-crystal set of rules to live by. Rather, we will acknowledge (that) it requires ongoing study and interpretation, done in prayerful discussion together (page 32).
Since Bethany Seminary is not far from our home, I have had the opportunity to sit in on some classes. The approach taken to Bible book studies in our classes is that we must understand the Bible in light of the culture in which it was written. I find that this approach almost always by-passes the obvious or literal understanding of Scripture. No longer do many Brethren hold that the Bible “means what it says, and says what it means, nothing more and nothing less”–and no longer do they “believe every statement contained in (the New Testament), whether historical, doctrinal, or practical.”
For the Church of the Brethren to prosper and please God today, we need to hold fast to a sound understanding of the Bible as the trustworthy Word of God.
2. CHOOSING STABLE AND ABLE LEADERS
For the church to prosper, we must be careful who we call to positions of leadership in our local congregations. As Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2, “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” We should choose leaders who will take us in the direction toward which we believe God wants us to go. Titus 1:9 says of the minister, that he must “hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” And in 1 Timothy 3:9 we read that deacons are to “hold the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience.”
My father-in-law has testified to the fact that as long as men like Otho Winger and Edward Kintner had an influence on the Manchester, Indiana congregation, the line was held against acculturating liberalism. But when they left the scene, things started to change quickly.
When visiting in the Pleasant Hill congregation (Southern Pennsylvania District), I have sometimes asked members there the question, “What has made your church what it is today? What has given your church its personality?” A number of people there pointed to the leadership of such elders as G. Howard Danner and Samuel M. Lehigh.
The natural influence of a leader’s example can work in other directions as well. When a prominent minister in the Church of the Brethren was elected governor of Pennsylvania, it was his duty to call up the state militia during World War I. Here was a Brethren minister in the awkward position of commander-in-chief of the state militia. Some have seen this as a turning point in the church’s outlook on nonresistance. Since that time, the majority of Church of the Brethren young men have taken up military service during times of war.
Leaders must be careful about the kinds of examples they set, and the church should carefully and prayerfully consider who they call as leaders, whether it be at the district, national, or local levels. Our churches need leaders who are faithful to the Word of God and are not focused on merely trying to please people.
3. MAINTAINING CHURCH DISCIPLINE
A third factor that is necessary for standing fast in the faith is church discipline. Church discipline is an essential aid for nurturing the body of believers into a life of discipleship and obedience. Some have claimed that the answer to bad church discipline is no discipline at all. While in the past there have been abuses of healthy discipline, eliminating the practice altogether is not a biblical solution to the problem. Corporate discipline is not a shameful custom left over from the 1800s, as some claim, but is something that comes from the Anabaptist desire to imitate the example of the early Christians. Many years ago, John Lawrence Mosheim, in Mosheim’s Church History, page 43, spoke about effective church discipline:
One of the circumstances which contributed chiefly to preserve at least an external appearance of sanctity in the Christian church was the right of excluding…(those who) had been guilty of deplorable transgressions, and to whom repeated exhortations to repentance and amendment had been administered in vain. This right was vested in the church from the earliest period of its existence, by the apostles themselves, and was exercised by each Christian assembly upon its respective members…(Church discipline) was not, however, irrevocable; for such as gave undoubted signs of their sincere repentance, and declared their solemn resolutions of future reformation, were re-admitted into the church (no matter how) enormous their crimes had been.
There are also those who say that limitless tolerance is a virtue. While tolerance does have a place, the truth is that when we deal with those who teach doctrines contrary to the foundation beliefs of the church as found in Scripture, the New Testament is very specific. Romans 16:17 says, “Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them.” A further instruction is given in Titus 3:10, “Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition .”
A few other Scriptures relevant to the topic are Christ’s method for reconciliation outlined in Matthew 18:15-17, and also the incident of immorality at Corinth described in 1 Corinthians 5. The same erring, but repentant, brother was later restored to the fellowship (2 Corinthians 2:5-8).
The home, school, community, and society at large–all need a system of just discipline in order to function smoothly. By the same token, the church needs its pattern for order as well. We receive discipline (that is, training and instruction) through being grounded in the Word, and sometimes as a last resort, through whatever steps the corporate body may need to take. As discipline in our churches has declined, so has the level of faithfulness and commitment of its members deteriorated.
4. REINFORCING SOCIAL CONTACTS
A fourth tool for guarding against drifting from the faith, is that of refreshing social contacts. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”
While we accept Christ as Savior and come into the church one by one as individuals, we do not walk our Christian walk as individuals. We need the fellowship and encouragement of one another. Proverbs 24:6 says that in a “multitude of counselors there is safety.”
For our own social reinforcement, it is helpful to attend revival meetings, visit friends in neighboring states, go to church conferences, and listen to preaching from various branches of those bodies that have grown out of the Anabaptist and Pietist heritage. It is valuable to subscribe to some Christian periodicals.
All of us can benefit from social reinforcements of our beliefs and convictions. The published sociological studies seem to imply that one of the factors that helped to break down the practice of the sister’s Scriptural headcovering was that the church assigned a task to the sisters, that a number of the Brethren were not willing to help them bear. Carl Bowman relates stories of how persons were faced with little social reinforcement when attending Bethany Bible school or when moving to an area where the local church was more liberal. Some young people in the 1920s and 1930s saw this as an opportunity to throw off that which they had supposedly been “embarrassed” with.
It seems that we often have trouble being different from everyone else, and that if we are different, there is a tendency to change so that we will not seem to be out of place. It reminds us of Old Testament Israel who wanted a king so that they would be like everyone else.
Dr. James Dobson, in Preparing For Adolescence, pages 32-34, tells a story about how some psychologists gathered a group of ten teenagers in a room and told them that their “perception” was going to be tested. The test consisted of a series of cards that were held up in front of them. Each card had three lines on it. The young people were instructed to raise their hands when a psychologist up front pointed to the longest of the three lines. (What one youth did not know was that the other nine had been instructed to raise their hands for the second longest line.) The fellow later explained: “Somehow I must have missed the point, and I had better do what everybody else is doing or they will laugh at me.” Over and over he went with the group, even though he knew they were wrong. More than 75% of the young people placed in this situation behaved in the same way. They sat there time after time, saying that a short line was longer than a long line. But here is an interesting fact: If just one other person recognized the correct line, then the chances were greatly improved that the person being studied, would raise his hand for the longest (or correct) line.
Let us all resolve to “Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone, dare to have a purpose firm, and dare to make it known.” It is a source of great strength to know that others stand with us in our beliefs and practices.
5. CULTIVATING SPIRITUAL DISCERNMENT
A fifth tool for holding the line and not drifting away is the cultivation of spiritual discernment. In everyday life we are bombarded with a variety of influences, and so discernment is a valuable commodity.
Out on the Ohio frontier many years ago, when pioneers built their log cabins, oftentimes the only book in the home was a Bible. Today there is a proliferation of books, magazines, newspapers, and other literature. The pioneers were self-employed more often than we are today, and thus in our day, the work-place can often become a source of many influences. At one time there were no telephones, so people communicated mostly with those in their own neighborhood. The people on the frontier basically made their own goods and supplies. Today there is a rapid spread of department stores and shopping malls. The early settlers had no automobiles or airplanes, and so transportation was more difficult. Our opportunities for travel expose us to still more influences. One cannot drive down the highway without being exposed to the influence of billboard ads. At one time there were no radios, televisions, online computers, or tape players. The church in the past did not have a seminary-trained minister imported from outside the local congregation. This is not to say that all the change has been bad. It simply reminds us that in a world of many and varied influences, we need to exercise discernment when our values are challenged.
In 1 Corinthians 12:10, we read that discernment is listed as one of the gifts of the Spirit. To “discern” means to perceive or recognize as different, to make a distinction, to distinguish between, and to prefer that which is correct. The Bereans were discerners (Acts 17:11). The Bible says that they searched the Scriptures to make sure that what was being preached was true.
In Acts 20:28-30, the Apostle Paul told the Ephesian elders to “take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd (feed) the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after themselves.” Also, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15, 20), Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves, therefore by their fruits you will know them.” Discernment is certainly an activity that our Lord expects us to engage in.
It is true that time marches on, and change takes place, but Bible principles are timeless, and should not be open for elimination. The tools which will help us not to drift away from the truth are: a) holding fast the Word of God, b) choosing stable and able leaders, c) maintaining church discipline, d) reinforcing social contacts, e) and cultivating spiritual discernment. It is our hope that all of us will be challenged to maintain values and principles that are rooted in Scripture.