Dangerous Trends in the Church of the Brethren

July/August, 1988
Volume 23, Number 4

The article featured in the current issue of the BRF WITNESS comments on some of the trends that have been evident in the Church of the Brethren for a number of decades. The message was delivered at BRF’s general meeting held at the Conemaugh Church of the Brethren (W. Pa. District) on September 19, 1970. It is presented here in condensed form for the benefit of our readers. While the message has some negative connotations, Bro. Landes reminds all who read that it was delivered solely for the purpose of helping us to constructively build up the church.


Dangerous Trends in the

Church of the Brethren

By Olen B. Landes

The word “trend” means a general course, a drift, or a tendency. The Church of the Brethren can well be compared to a rowboat in the middle of a stream, the occupants of which are at ease, lukewarm, self-complacent, gradually and unconsciously drifting down the stream toward the waterfalls below, carried along by the drift and tendency of the times. The inspired writer in the book of Hebrews exalts and magnifies the resurrected, glorified, preeminent Christ (in chapter 1), and then in chapter 2, there is an admonition: “We must therefore pay all the more attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away” (Moffatt translation). The Church of the Brethren is in a period of transition. Most of us know where we have been; some of us know where we are now; but where we are going (or ought to go) we seemingly are not sure. In the message today we aim to look at a number of dangerous trends in our Brotherhood.


It is being commonly taught today that much of the Old Testament is legendary and that the New Testament Epistles are not authoritative. Many of our brothers and sisters imply that the Bible is not the Word of God, but that it contains the Word of God. Already at the Third Church of the Brethren Theological Conference held on the Bethany Seminary Campus in the late 1960s, it was obvious that to many of the participants, the writers of the Bible were no more inspired than we are today. Our founding fathers, by way of contrast, turned to the Bible for guidance and adopted the New Testament as their rule of faith. They endeavored to practice all the ordinances as taught by Jesus and His followers as recorded in the Now Testament.

Dr. Floyd Mallott, in an article appearing in a German Baptist publication, writes, “I wish to record my judgment, that the only path of return for the Church of the Brethren from the verge of absorption into humanism, is to return to the ideal of a New Testament Church, with the apostolic writings as authoritative law, norm, and guide.” We learn in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God.” And in 2 Peter 1:21 we are told that scripture came as “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” Over 2,500 times the Old Testament claims to be the Word of God, and the New Testament makes the same claim some 500 times. Our tendency is to follow man’s philosophy in place of the Bible. That is dangerous; it is one of the dangerous trends in the Church of the Brethren.


In a recent survey of one of the large theological seminaries here in the U.S.A., 93% of the students studying for the ministry said, “I have no devotional life.” Such persons will become powerless preachers. They may be able to develop a strong pleasing personality and become elegant orators, but they will never be able to communicate God’s message to fellow-human-beings because communication is supernatural (the work of the Holy Spirit), and the Spirit comes to us in power through fervent heartfelt prayer.

It is said that Mary Queen of Scots dreaded the prayers of John Knox more than an army of ten thousand men. James 5:16 (in one translation) says, “Powerful is the heartfelt supplication of a righteous man.” I fear that today we are losing much of the warm earnestness and the fervor of our forefathers. When I was just a boy, I would kneel at the side of my father in the old Garber church (the first Church of the Brethren built in Virginia), while one of the good brethren would pray so fervently, and I would hear my father groan and sigh. I used to wonder what it meant. I understand it now. My father was praying in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit helps our infirmities, for we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but “the Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). Another translation reads, “with unspeakable yearnings,” and still another says, “with sighs too deep for words.”

C.H. Spurgeon was showing a visitor through the church building where he preached one Sunday morning just before the worship service began. He started in the balcony and took him through the basement. Last of all, he led his friend to a large room located immediately under the pulpit. He opened the door quietly, and said to his friend, “This is the church’s power plant.” The visitor saw a large group of men and women on their knees engaged in fervent prayer for the service soon to follow. Our churches will never become effective witnesses for God unless our people become men and women of prayer.


We speak here of the inspiration of the Bible, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth of Christ, the deity of Christ, the sin-pardoning value of His atonement, His resurrection from the tomb, His ascension, His personal and visible return, and the resurrection of the just and the unjust. These are the great securities of the Christian faith. They are the foundation doctrines which undergird our faith. Timothy was told to “keep the securities of the faith in tact” (1 Timothy 6:20). Another translation says, “Guard the truths entrusted to you.”

“The faith” is a solemn sacred trust placed into the hands of the people of God. The Apostle Peter in his second letter says, “But there were false prophets also among the people even as there shall be false teachers among you who privately shall bring in damnable (or destructive) heresies.” A “heresy” is an unorthodox teaching tending to promote division and strife. I sat with men, intellectual giants, during the Theological Conference, who refute many of these securities of our faith. This is a dangerous trend. The Apostle Paul in meeting with the Ephesian elders for the last time, said, “For I know that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock; yea of your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them.” We must therefore pay all the more attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away (Hebrews 2:1).


We read in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, “if any man takes part in an athletic contest, he gets no prize unless he obeys the rules.” This is quoted from the Weymouth translation. We are spiritual athletes contending on the arena of this present world for the crown of immortality. And I don’t believe we will ever reach the glory-world unless we observe the simple rules that our Lord has set forth in His last will and testament. God has always required detailed obedience from His people both under the old and the new covenant. Whenever His people took things into their own hands and disobeyed, they got into trouble and had to suffer for it. As we run the race for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus, we are expected to observe the rules, just as those great athletes of Greece (who were contestants in the games) were expected to observe the rules of the race. Jesus said, “It is not everyone who keeps saying to me, Lord, Lord, who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the man who actually does my heavenly Father’s will” (Matthew 7:21/ Phillips). We Brethren are becoming too careless about observing the rules set forth in the New Testament.

Take for example, the Lovefeast service, a most unique and impressive service. I feel sometimes that we are streamlining it to the place that it is no longer accomplishing the purpose for which our Lord designed it. Some years ago, I was enroute to Southern California for a two-week preaching mission. I was on the train somewhere between Cincinnati and Chicago, and entered the dining car for breakfast. When I entered the dining car I saw a rather distinguished-looking gentleman sitting at a table arranged for two people. I walked over to the vacant chair, learned that it was not reserved, and the gentleman invited me to sit down and join him. I introduced myself and he introduced himself as a movie producer. In fact, he was one of the producers of the film “Bon Hur.” I told him what my mission was, and he wanted to know something about the history and the practices of the Church of the Brethren. I related a little of the history, and then rehearsed the evangelical doctrines and the rites and ordinances of the Church. I told him what the Brethren emphasized and what the Church opposed on Scriptural grounds. He was well-versed in the Scriptures, and then he looked at me and said, “How do you observe the Communion service?” And then I thought, “Now I’m in for a whipping; he is getting ready to ridicule me.” I explained to him just how we observed the Communion service. I went into detail explaining the order of the service. And then he said “Well, that’s the way the primitive church observed it; and I feel that it must be very fitting, impressive, and meaningful when it is observed in this way.”

Brethren, we have no apologies to make for our faith and practice. We are streamlining some of these most sacred and unique services far too much today. Not only are we laying aside some of our symbols, but we are drifting away from the principles which they symbolize. This is a serious matter.


Going to law, membership in secret oath-bound societies, and the taking of the civil oath–are hardly frowned upon by the Brethren today.

The principle of nonresistance has suffered at the hands of the Brethren. There is a tendency to drift from biblical nonresistance to religious pacifism. There is a difference between the two positions. Religious pacifists have confidence in a revolutionary upward progress of mankind. The pacifist ideal of a political order requires participation in political activities. The pacifist considers it necessary to work for a just world order. He urges disarmament; he lobbies among legislators; he aims to establish a new social order; he ignores the necessity of regeneration and relies largely on education and legislation to achieve his social and political ends. On the other hand, the believer in biblical nonresistance sees no possibility of reforming human nature apart from the grace of God. The nonresistant Christian believes that his allegiance with the higher kingdom drastically limits his participation in earthly government. He sees no chance for a just world order unless and until people are born the second time. He makes a contribution to his government through godly and peaceable living rather than through direct political action. He works for spiritual regeneration through the new birth and seeks only the establishment of a Christian society within the church. He does not sanction violent or civil disobedience, but depends upon repentance and faith, and the power of prayer. He sees no way to realize a worldwide friendly society without the work and intervening grace of divine power.

It is of more than passing significance that prior to 1910, nearly all references regarding the Church’s position on war, were to the position of nonresistance, while from that period on, reference was increasingly made to the peace position of the church. It was also about this time that the term “pacifist” came into being among the Brethren. A social-gospel consciousness had developed in the Church. It is clear that this change of emphasis among the Brethren on the question of nonresistance came as a result of an optimistic view regarding society which the Brethren came to hold. They began to say that society could be redeemed by earthly methods, wars could be made to cease, and people could be lifted from sin by political and educational means. Nonresistance was looked upon as a negative position. Pacifism, with its emphasis upon the establishment of a newer and more just social order, became a positive doctrine. But the result of this was that more than 80% of the Brethren who were drafted during World War 11 went directly into the military service.

Changes have also occurred in relation to our position on the principle of nonconformity. Nonconformity to the world is a subject that has become out of date within the Church of the Brethren. The Brethren today are being affected by the new morality, the situation ethics, and so forth. We are now allowing supervised dancing in the social halls of some of our churches. One of our pastors described those who are more conservative in the Church of the Brethren as being like “an old ’29 Packard going down the road.” But in Ephesians 4, we read, “This I say … that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God.” The word “walk” here has a very extensive meaning. It includes all of our inward and outward motions, all our words, thoughts, and actions-and it is used many times in the book of Ephesians.

We are told to walk in newness of life, to walk circumspectly, to walk in love and purity, and to walk as children of light. The Goodspeed translation (Ephesians 5:15) says, “Be very careful then about the way you live.” And in Romans 12:2, we are instructed as follows: “You must not adopt the customs of this world.” The word “adopt” means “to take by choice into your relationship.” The Apostle is appealing to the Christians at Rome not to take into their relationship many of the moral and social and religious customs of the world. The Phillips translation reads, “Don’t lot the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your mind from within.” The world about us is trying to squeeze us into its own mold, and it we are not very careful, it will squeeze the very life out of us. We could go on and on with this principle.


I have mixed feelings here, and am somewhat undecided. We should move cautiously at this point. A writer in Christianity Today says, “There seems to be a false hope for revitalization of the church in the union of denominations. There is ample reason to doubt that this in itself will bring the awakening. It is not necessarily true that the more we get together the greater we will become.” In my judgment, the final result of the ecumenical movement will be the merger of the various religious groups into one large ecclesiastical body which will lead to the loss of our distinctive New Testament practices.

Jesus prayed (recorded in John 17) that His followers “all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us.” I believe that Jesus was praying for the spiritual unity of the body of Christ -those who are faithful within the various groups of which Christ himself is the head. I am not sure that He had reference here to organic unity. The Apostle Paul also prays for the spiritual unity of the churches in Asia. According to the fourth chapter of Ephesians, “I then the prisoner for the Lord’s sake entreat you to live and act as becomes those who have received the call that you have received, with all lowliness of mind and unselfishness, and with patience, bearing with one another lovingly, earnestly striving to maintain in the uniting bond of peace, the unity given by the Spirit” (Weymouth). Spiritual unity in Christ already exists, and each of us is duty bound to charitably seek to maintain that unity.


Today, our higher education system seems to have drifted into a kind of atheistic intellectualism. If higher education were so vital to the welfare of the Church, I believe that Jesus would have selected twelve young scholars from the schools of the rabbis to become the foundation pillars of the Christian Church. But instead, Jesus chose twelve men from ordinary walks of life. The Apostle Paul had a highly trained technical mind and deep spiritual insights. He says in 1 Corinthians 1: 20-21, “For consider, what have the philosopher, the writer, and the critic of this world to show for all their wisdom? Has not God made the wisdom of this world look foolish? For it was after the world in its wisdom had failed to know God, that he in his wisdom chose to save all who would believe, by the ‘simplemindedness’ of the gospel message” (Phillips). And in Colossians 2:8 we read, “Be careful that nobody spoils your faith through intellectualism or high-sounding nonsense. Such stuff is at best founded on men’s ideas of the nature of the world, and disregards Christi!” One college department head told me sometime ago that he goes to the church service “to have the spiritual part of me nurtured and fed, and this intellectual philosophical preaching just doesn’t do it.”

Dr. John Bonnell related this account to his students at Princeton: D. L. Moody was once invited to preach at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, and there was a division among the elders as to whether he should be invited or not, but they invited him, and he came. During Moody’s opening remarks, he used the word “ain’t.” His tie was crooked and his collar was turned wrong. The audience became amused. They began to look at each other and smile and wink and laugh. Moody had lost his audience, but he kept right on preaching his simple Gospel sermon on Daniel, and kept calling him “Dan’l.” But by the time Moody was about half through his sermon, something happened to that congregation of people. It seemed as though another Voice began to speak. By the time D. L. Moody was finished preaching, the congregation was sitting on the edge of their seats listening to the other Voice. They could no longer hear Moody! That is real communication; it is supernatural, the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not by intellectual might or power, not by political might or power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts. We must be careful not to overrate the achievements of the human mind, and under-rate the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit.


All of us need to be cautious here. Some years ago I held a two-week meeting in one of the Eastern Pennsylvania congregations. We had a wonderful time together there. The church building was well-filled every night, and we visited in more than 200 homes during that meeting. Two years ago, while in a meeting at a neighboring congregation, we attended a funeral, a memorial service for one of the deacons of the church where I had held the earlier meeting. And they had built a magnificent building, with a steeple that cost up into the thousands of dollars. That steeple is not going to help feed the hungry or heal the broken in the world, nor is it going to attract one soul to Jesus Christ. I feel that this is a trend which is dangerous.

Our bodies become the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit according to the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:1920). God no longer dwells in temples made with hands; that passed away with the law. The building is only the meeting house where the church comes together for worship. And each of us is “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord. In whom ye also are built together for an habitation of God through the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:20-22).

The basic reason for these trends in the Church of the Brethren, is our failure to firmly accept, and to live by, the New Testament as our guide and rule of faith. Thus the words of Hebrews 2:3 are appropriate again for all of us: “We must, therefore, pay all the more attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the divine word spoken by angels held good; if transgression and disobedience met with due punishment in every case, how shall we escape the penalty of neglecting a salvation which was originally proclaimed by the Lord himself and guaranteed to us by those that heard Him?”

Olen B. Landes lives in the Harrisonburg, VA area, and for more than forty years has served as an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren. He has pastored several churches in the Shenandoah District, and presently serves on the District Board and is moderator of a number of congregations in the District.
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Captivity… Dreams… Rulers… Fire… Lions… Prayers… Kingdoms. From a dedicated youth to a faithful sage, Daniel’s life stands as an example to follow.  Yet beyond his personal life, God gifted Daniel with a message of future events.  Though difficult to grasp, these events would shape the world for the coming Messiah and the Second Coming of Christ as King.


Luke presents a warmly personal and historically accurate account of Jesus as “the Son of Man.” This course will survey the Third Gospel, with emphasis on the unique events, miracles, and parables of Jesus found in it.


This class will provide a broad overview of general church history. We will then focus on the Anabaptist and Pietist movements, especially as they relate to the formation and development of the Brethren groups. This is a two-part class. Plan to take both parts.


This course is intended to lay down a measure in a world where truth is slippery and often subject to interpretation. Where “Christian Values” become a political slogan, and “good people” are our allies despite their faulty core beliefs. Where Facebook “friends” post memes about the power of God, despite a lifestyle that is anything but Godly. In the process we often fight among ourselves, doing Satan’s work for him. The purpose of this course is to lay the measure of Jesus Christ against the cults, religions, and worship in our contemporary world.


While Protestant translations of the Bible contain 66 books, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches recognize additional canonical books as well.  Where did these books, collectively known as the Apocrypha, come from and why aren’t they part of our Bible?  How reliable are they, and what value is there in studying them?


The goal of this class is to acquire a firm grasp of the teachings and themes of these two general epistles. Peter covers topics from salvation and suffering to spiritual deception and the return of Christ. These letters are packed with warnings and encouragements for Christian living.


A detailed study of Jesus Christ and His relationship to the “I Am” metaphors in John’s gospel. Why did Jesus describe himself in these terms? How do they relate to each other? We will look at spiritual and practical applications to further our Christian growth.


Have you ever been visited by someone who said they wanted to study the Bible with you so that you might discover the truth together?  Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to have much in common with evangelical Christians, and they seem to be well versed in the scriptures.  But what do they really believe and how can we effectively witness to those who have been ensnared by this false religion?


While we may consider Hosea as one of the minor prophets, his message vividly illustrates the major doctrine in all Scriptures.  The theme of God’s unconditional love is magnified and extended beyond those deserving it.  God expresses tender words towards His erring people inviting them to turn from sin to reconciliation with Him.


This course will look at basic principles and polity of leading the local church. We will examine the balance between upholding a spiritually focused organism of ministry and cultivating proper order for effective organization. Practical applications will be emphasized. This is a two-part class. Plan to take both parts.


The Brethren Bible Institute believes in the discipline of the whole person (spirit, soul, and body). We will aim to train students not only about how to study the Bible in a systematic way (2 Timothy 2:15), but also how to live soberly and righteously and godly in this present world (Titus 2:12). God calls Christians to the highest of character when He commands us to be holy (1 Peter 1:15), and holiness requires discipline.

Indulgence in the use of tobacco, alcoholic beverages, drugs, profanity, and gambling are forbidden at BBI. Objectionable literature will be prohibited. Students are asked not to use the college pool during the Institute. Each student must be thoughtful, and respect the rights of others at all times, especially during study and rest periods.

A friendly social group intermingling of students between class periods, and at general school activities is encouraged. Each student should enjoy the friendship of the entire group. At all times, highest standards of social conduct between men and women must be maintained. This means that all forms of unbecoming behavior and unseemly familiarities will be forbidden.

Personal appearance and grooming tell much about one's character. Students are expected to be dressed in good taste. In an attempt to maintain Scriptural expressions of simplicity, modesty, and nonconformity, the following regulations shall be observed while attending BBI.

MEN should be neatly attired and groomed at all times. Fashion extremes and the wearing of jewelry should be avoided on campus. The hair should not fall over the shirt-collar when standing, nor should it cover the ears.

WOMEN should wear skirts cut full enough and of sufficient length to at least come to the knees when standing and sitting. Form-fitting, transparent, low-neckline, or sleeveless clothing will not be acceptable. Slacks and culottes are permitted only for recreation and then only when worn under a skirt of sufficient length. Wearing jewelry should be avoided on campus. Long hair for women is encouraged and all Church of the Brethren girls (and others with like convictions) shall be veiled on campus.

The Institute reserves the right to dismiss any student whose attitude and behavior is not in harmony with the ideals of the School, or whose presence undermines the general welfare of the School, even if there is no specific breach of conduct.

The Brethren Bible Institute is intended to provide sound Bible teaching and wholesome Christian fellowship for all who desire it. The Bible School Committee worked hard and long at the task of arriving at standards, which will be pleasing to the Lord. It is not always easy to know just where the line should be drawn and we do not claim perfection. No doubt certain standards seem too strict for some and too loose for others. If you are one who does not share all these convictions, we hope you will agree to adjust to them for the School period, for the sake of those who do. We are confident that the blessings received will far outweigh any sacrifice you may have to make. If you have a special problem or question, please write to us about it. To be accepted as a student at BBI, you will need to sign a statement indicating that you will cooperate with the standards of the School.