Brethren: A Precious Name

March/April, 2002
Volume 37, Number 2

Two years ago, a committee that was appointed by Annual Conference to review the structure of the General Board, decided to send out a questionnaire to church leaders across the denomination. Among the many questions on the survey, was one asking for their level of interest in changing the name of the Church of the Brethren. In all the responses, there were only a very few who marked that issue as being an item of major concern. We on the committee concluded that the matter of denominational name change, for all practical purposes, was a “nonissue.”

A few people have been trying to stir up interest in this item, but with limited success. During past Annual Conferences those persons have tried to collect possible new names to be used instead of “Church of the Brethren.” One of their problems is that to date no suggestion for a new name has really caught on with wide acceptance. We should expect that some will try to keep this matter alive as we move toward the 300th Anniversary of our denomination in the year 2008. Don’t be surprised if an even more concerted effort to do something about the name change, will unfold over the next few years.

There would be a fairly major legal expense attached to changing the name of every congregation and agency of the church. Would this be a good use of the Lord’s money? The name change issue could very well cause some people (and entire congregations) to leave the denomination. Do we want to see this happen? It may cause others to be so disappointed over the issue that their level of support will be diminished. Do we want giving to the church to decline?

Are there very many people out there who really think that we are a church of only male members? I don’t think so. If we meet such persons, we can always use the occasion to explain some of our history and who we are. Even now, some congregations use a more general name for the local church, and keep the “Church of the Brethren” name more obscure or in fine print. This can help to keep misunderstanding to a minimum. A bigger issue than changing the name, may be that we are not living up to the name we have. Let’s put more emphasis on being the church-with more commitment to Christ, more love toward our neighbors, and more zeal for reaching the world with the saving message of Jesus Christ.

On the lighter side, I heard about a man by the name of “John Ugly” who came to a judge requesting a name change. “And what new name would you prefer?” asked the sympathetic judge. The judge became ‘bewildered and shocked when the man said he would like his new name to be “Paul” Ugly!

I believe the accompanying article by Craig Alan Myers sufficient reason to leave the call for a name gives sufficient the “nonissue” department.

–James F. Myer

Brethren: A Precious Name

By Craig Alan Myers

To a boy growing up in rural western Pennsylvania, the name of the Church of the Brethren was a common one. In that area, one was often affiliated with either the Methodists or the Brethren. A few folks were Baptists, some were Winebrennarians (now Churches of God General Conference); occasionally there was a Presbyterian or two; and the latecomers were the Church of God (Pentecostal). The writer remembers that as a child, when someone mentioned the Church of God, he simplistically asked, “Aren’t they all churches of God?”

While we may smile at a child’s logic-and perhaps yearn for a church truly one in doctrine and practice-it was true that he had no understanding of the New Testament or of the different churches in that community. Later on, he often wondered about the Brethren name. A tract, which came into his hands, spoke of the fact that some churches had a “Biblical” or “New Testament” name. One publication even made light of the Church of the Brethren name, indicating that it clearly was not a Biblical one! A truly Biblical church would have a truly Biblical name, was the argument.

As time passed, however, he became a Christian, embraced the faith of many of his ancestors, and joined the Church of the Brethren. While not all that comfortable with an “unbiblical” name, certainly the doctrines and practices were soundly based in the New Testament. No thought ever arose that the Brethren name would be really in question. In fact, it was favored by many over the older “Dunkers” or “Dunkards,” which sometimes would be made to sound like “Drunkards.” Brethren was infinitely preferable over being associated with the local tavern.

More recently, the Brethren name has come under attack from two different positions. On one hand, the feminist movement has called the name into question because of its supposedly “sexist” basis. “Why not include the sisters?” is the argument frequently if simplistically posed. The feminists are determined to destroy, root and branch, any hint of “sexist” or “patriarchal” language. If they can change the language, then they can change-or have changed-the theology. Any reference to “man” must be made inclusive, or else those of the female sex will feel slighted. Thus, “chairman” has become “chairperson;” “spokesman” has become “spokesperson;” and so on. The use of the pronouns “he,” “him,” and “his” has been replaced with several awkward attempts, most notably the incredible “s/he.”

Another challenge is not from those who are happy to abandon the historic Brethren name and faith, but who desire to broaden the evangelistic appeal of the church. This challenge is little concerned over the politically correct fashion of the moment. It is rather related to evangelism and helping unsaved and unchurched people understand that the Church of the Brethren is not a church for men only. This seems especially attractive in areas where population dramatically has grown in recent decades. People move into an area, having no familiarity with the Brethren, and wonder what it’s all about. Hence, some believe that the Brethren name is a hindrance to people coming to Christ and entering the Kingdom.

Many of the arguments against the name can, to be sure, be used against the very name “Christian”–especially in an increasingly pagan society. Even the word “church” has much baggage accumulated over the past two thousand years. Do we abandon those words, and simply become a “fellowship and worship association?” Some may even have trouble with the word “fellowship” and accuse the writer of sexist language!

However, it is not at all evident that the Brethren name is sexist, patriarchal, or a hindrance to evangelism. To the contrary, the Brethren name, is indeed to be embraced, advanced, and promoted by our Brethren people. A good principle is “if it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” This holds true for the name of the Church of the Brethren.


Some question the Brethren name as being unbiblical. However, the use-in the original Hebrew and Greek-of the word “brethren,” while not used to name the church in a formal way, was common in Biblical times. All told, it is used some 398 times in the New King James translation. The first instance we find in the Bible of this usage is in conversation between Abraham and his nephew Lot. Abraham, in trying to maintain a good family relationship, tells Lot, “We are brethren” (Genesis 13:8). That is, they were of the same family, the same kindred. This usage is found throughout the Old Testament.

In the New Testament, the term “brethren” is used in the Gospels to describe the relationships among the Jews. Jesus Himself called His disciples “brethren” (Matthew 23:8). The Apostle Paul constantly applied the term with those in the church, and used it at least 99 times in his epistles. No amount of gender revision can change the fact that the term “brethren,” employed to refer to believers in general, is a New Testament usage. In fact, honest translations which insert “and sisters,” note that the original language used only the term for “brothers” or “brethren.” In other words, the newer translations seek to introduce that which was not in the original. This is done, not for Biblical accuracy, but to appeal to current theological and linguistic fads. It is Scripturally accurate to refer to the believers in the church, commonly, as brethren. After all, what is our rule of faith and practice-the New Testament, or the stylebook of the Modern Language Association? It is evident that many yearning to change the name are not doing so out of faithfulness to the Bible, but out of a greater concern to conform to the world.

Rather than name themselves after some human founder-as the Lutherans were named for Martin Luther, and the Mennonites for Menno Simons-the followers of this new way were content to follow Biblical practice (Carl F. Bowman, Brethren Societyp. 29).


From the very beginning of the Mack fellowship, its members called one another brethren. Outsiders knew them as New Baptists, Tunkers, etc., but. the members of the new group were consistent in referring to themselves by the term “Brethren.” Christopher Sauer, the Germantown printer, is believed to have been one of the first to use the German Die Gemeinde der Bruder (the Church of the Brethren).

While “official” names have changed occasionally, each of those official names has conveyed the “Brethren” sense. The first official name of the denomination (1836) was “The Fraternity of German Baptists.” “Fraternity” means “brotherhood.” There still is a, Fraternity Church of the Brethren in North Carolina, which traces its lineage back to the early days of the Church of the Brethren.

In 1871, to clarity in official records in industrial America, Annual Meeting adopted the name “German Baptist Brethren Church.” This name) emphasized the ethnic roots (German) the central rite (baptism), and the quality of fellowship (Brethren). It would serve well for the next 37 years. Most outsiders simply called the distinctively dressed people “Dunkers” as evidence of the attachment to trine immersion baptism.

With the three-way division of the early 1880s, each seceding group kept a form of the Brethren name. I he ultraconservatives took the name “Old German Baptist Brethren” emphasizing their continuity with the past. The Progressives, under the leadership of Henry Holsinger, adopted the simple name “The Brethren Church.” Many a German Baptist Brethren congregation had been informally known as the Brethren church. Even in official minutes, the denomination was known as “the church of the Brethren for decades before the change of name in 1908.”

That bicentennial year of the Brethren saw the elimination of “German” emphasis. Most Brethren no longer spoke German, and many who engaged in revival meetings and evangelistic pursuits thought it worked against the acceptance of the denomination in the larger culture. After several years of discussion and debate, the name “Dunker Brethren Church” was nearly adopted . However, Annual Conference adopted the current name. It set aside both the ethnic heritage and the defining rite of the denomination as worthy of inclusion in the name. But it did uphold and emphasize the continued use of the ancient “brethren.” Incidentally, many Churches of the Brethren continued to be referred to as “Brethren churches” despite the fact that formally that name belonged to another denomination.

The Church of the Brethren continued to grow, congregations were established, missionaries were sent, books and magazines were published, all with a view of extending the Brethren doctrines, practices, and name to many different parts of the globe and states of the Union. Our service ministry became known around the world. All of these carried the name “Brethren”‘ with good result. For the Church of the Brethren to part with the Brethren name, would be to effectively sever us from our own heritage as a denomination. Is that what we really want to do?

David Plaster, a Grace Brethren scholar, writes, “The ‘Brethren’ part marks out our heritage and our link to the rest of the ‘family.’ We as a movement are the product of a unique combination of Pietist and Anabaptist roots. Other influences in American Christianity have entered in to create the diversity of the various groups. But I always stress that we would lose a very valuable balance when we throw away our past. The greater tragedy in discussing the name is that many Brethren people have no idea whatsoever of the rich heritage we have received” (email to the writer, 18 January 2002).


The Church of the Brethren is not the only denominational group to have the Brethren name. Other groups descended from Schwarzenau, including the Old German Baptist Brethren, the Dunkard Brethren, the Brethren Church, the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, and the Conservative Grace Brethren Churches, share “Brethren.” None of these groups have seriously contemplated any name change because of the word “Brethren.” In 1951, the Dunkard Brethren considered a change to the “Dunkard” portion of their name. Some individual congregations of the Brethren Church and the Grace Brethren have adopted a name of their own, but are encouraged to use the Brethren name somewhere in their signs or letterhead. (Grace Brethren churches are entirely congregational, and associating in fellowship with the denomination is voluntary.)

These other Brethren groups have no problem with the name. They are experiencing no controversy over this issue. Could it be that these groups, holding to a higher view of the Scripture than many in the Church of the Brethren, see plainly that Brethren is a New Testament name and are glad to reflect that biblical and historical heritage? To most members of the other Brethren denominations, the question of the Brethren name is a nonissue, precisely because they believe that it is Biblical. The Church of the Brethren says, “The New Testament is our rule of faith and practice.” Are we content to accept a New Testament name such as Brethren?

There also exist church bodies that are not related to the Church of the Brethren, but still use the name “Brethren.” Denominations such as the Brethren in Christ (an Anabaptist-Pietist-Holiness group), and the Church of the United Brethren in Christ (who have a German Wesleyan background), proudly bear the name.

It the Church of the Brethren changes its name, there will still be groups that carry the name forward. Why should the largest body with the Brethren name suddenly find itself orphaned out of its own shared identity with other Brethren groups?


Much of the talk surrounding the Brethren name suggests that it really is not inclusive of the women of our denomination, or that merely using this biblical, historical name serves to exclude them. Certainly the women who have been a part of the Brotherhood in the past would chuckle at the thought. The first “Brethren” included three women, and women have remained an active part of Brethren history throughout. Missionaries and ministers’ wives alike nave carried that name to far countries and local communities without flinching.

Certainly the word “brethren,” like many words, carries more than one meaning, sense, or connotation. As used in everyday language, it can and does refer to those of the male sex. [Note: The word “sex” properly is used with reference to men and women. “Gender” properly relates to whether a noun is male or female.] However, it can also refer to a group of mixed sex. Hence, it is entirely appropriate for a denomination that prizes its relational qualities to have the name “Brethren.” People with common sense can tell the difference by the context in which the word is used. Further, if the Scriptures use the word in a dual sense, why can we not do so?

Even those who argue most fervently for a name change admit the dual use of the word “Brethren.” “Throughout Brethren history, the use of the word Brethren, has functioned as both gendered and generic. Members commonly used the term brethren for two purposes. It served as a generic term for the faith community, and it referred to the male members of the church” (Zondra Wagoner, What’s In A Name?article on the Women’s Caucus web site).

Instead of accepting the generic use, some wish to overemphasize the specific use. “inclusiveness” is a manufactured issue. A tiny minority of “gender police” within the denomination is seeking to redefine who the Church of the Brethren is as a body, and to force their views of inclusivity on the rest of the denomination. If there is not a 50-50 parity of women and men, in denominational offices, pastoral positions, district bodies, and local bodies, then–the thinking is–women are not being honored fairly. Anything that even hints to the contrary-such as the church name–is to be relegated to the “dustbin of history.” Such an attitude hints of a new radical fundamentalism of feminist thought.

The reality is that the majority of the women in the Church of the Brethren Could not care less about such things. They are interested in living their lives in faithfulness to Christ. They are committed to having Christian homes. They are interested in having their friends and loved ones go to Heaven when they die. The church name does not offend them in the least. It is the banner under which their husbands, parents, grandparents, and other storied ancestors labored.

They could agree with Lydia Barnhart, who said at Annual Conference in 1904, “There is no dearer name on earth than the name that Jesus himself gave the church, ‘Brethren.’ It seems to me it is more suitable than any other name, and it seems that when we drop that name it will seem so strange to us, it will seem so much farther away, it will seem so much dearer to us, the precious name that Jesus gave, ‘Brethren.”‘

The very word “Brethren” expresses our hope that we will continue to grow together as a body in Christ. It evokes the warmth, the camaraderie, and the deep fellowship of our relationship with each other. To be sure, our relationships within the church are not all that they can be. The name, though, shows our desire to work together within the family. It does express a true inclusiveness of all who truly belong to Christ.


In most communities where the Brethren are, the Brethren name is respected, appreciated, and loved. A reservoir of goodwill has been built up around our name. The Brethren are known for being generous, hardworking people ready to assist their neighbors. The Brethren are known for reaching out with the cup of cold water to those in need. The Brethren are known for preaching the Gospel and digging wells. The Brethren “brand” is a precious asset.

The value of nearly three centuries of the Brethren name should not be cast aside for the mere convenience of pleasing a few people. It should not be diminished for the questionable assumption that a new name will make us more acceptable to seekers. It should not be abandoned to help us “fit in” with the larger world. As Carl Bowman points out in his book, Brethren Society (p. 398), there is no denomination that has changed the key part of its name. It would be unprecedented for the Church of the Brethren to do so.

The Brethren name may appear to be an antique in the religious world today. Many seek after that which is novel or trendy. There is a great danger that a trendy name may be adopted, and then abandoned with great speed when the novelty wears off. Vance Havner said that the greatest advance in his ministry was when he got out of the novelty shop (of trendy theology and higher criticism) and got back into the antique shop (of the ancient trustworthy truths of the Bible) (taped sermon, Home Before Dark).

Several corporate experiences may also be instructive. In the early 1970s, Esso, known around the world for its oil products, decided it needed a change, and became Exxon. Many millions of dollars went into a really unnecessary transition. Coca-Cola Company thought a new brand of its famous product would appeal to more people, and, in the mid 1980s, released “New Coke.” Coke’s loyal customers balked at the novelty. “Coca-Cola Classic” soon appeared and “New Coke” became out-of-date almost overnight. In a similar way, many who are familiar with the “Brethren” will question or become alienated because of an attempt to adopt a new identity to please a vocal minority.


The Church of the Brethren is not the only denomination to have a name that at first may need some explaining. What does Presbyterian mean? How are Methodists so methodical? And how is it that the Roman Catholic Church is both local and universal in its name? What about the “Two Seed in the Spirit Predestinarian Baptists?” Brethren are not the only ones with some explaining to do! If the Church of the Brethren were evangelistic enough to have churches in every major city and in every state, it may be seriously doubted that our name would even be an issue.

The Brethren name does raise questions from time to time. Rather than being ashamed of our name, we ought to embrace the opportunity to explain a bit about our doctrines and practices, and to further evangelize the lost! The Church of the Brethren has had its greatest numerical growth while carrying the Brethren name. It is since we have been embroiled in debates over the trustworthiness of the Bible, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the missionary task of the church, moral issues, and name issues, that the Church of the Brethren has diminished. When we have lost our confidence as a denomination to uphold our basic beliefs and practices, no amount of cosmetic name changes will do much to encourage growth or evangelism.

Recent news reports have referred to a cult group known as “the Brethren.” At least one writer has used the existence of this cult group to argue for a name change. Surely, we can trust people around us to know the difference between a legitimate church and a fringe group. Again, this presents an opportunity for us to present who we are, our common doctrines with other Christians, and our distinctive teachings that have solid basis in the New Testament. We should have no fear of others misinterpreting us, if we are aggressive in promoting the Gospel message as we believe it.


Other names may be interesting. They may appeal to a certain portion of unbelievers. They may seem more inclusive. But no other name carries with it the sense and the appeal of the name “Church of the Brethren.” It is a name that we who are spiritual descendants of Alexander Mack and the Schwarzenau eight have carried nearly three hundred years. It is appealing because it shows our attachment to the Bible. It has a valuable history. It speaks to the alienation of our time. It expresses our desire for a spiritual family. It describes our ideal of the relationships within the body. It truly includes all. It carries a fine reputation. It sets us apart within the larger world of Christendom. May it ever be a treasured part of our life together in the Church of the Brethren.