Groundswells Among The Brethren

BRF Witness
November/December 2017
Volume 52, Number 6

by Eric Brubaker

The topic for this edition of the BRF Witness normally focuses on a theme of Thanksgiving or Christmas. However, because of some of the recent developments in the Church of the Brethren, it has been suggested that we dedicate this edition of the Witness to bringing people up to speed with what is happening across the denomination. The Church of the Brethren is continuing to work hard at trying to walk a tightrope of maintaining unity in the midst of diversity. Denominational leaders are attempting to recognize and establish common ground that can be generally agreed on, while at the same time allowing churches and districts across the denomination a lot of leeway in expressing their faith. But much like a rubber-band can be stretched beyond its limit, many are feeling the pain of the tension.


(Unfinished Business Item #4)

This tension was no more evident than at our most recent Annual Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The theme for the conference was, “Risk Hope” from Hebrews 10:23. And one of the most anticipated items at the conference was the report from the Leadership Team and Council of District Executives (Unfinished Business Item #4). This assignment had come to them as a result of the 2016 Annual Conference where a query from the West Marva District was considered. The query was about “Same Sex Weddings,” and it asked the question:

“How shall districts respond when credentialed ministers and/or congregations conduct or participate in same sex weddings?”

In the end, “the 2016 Annual Conference adopted a motion from the floor to refer the concerns of the query to the Leadership Team in consultation with the Council of District Executives to bring clarity and guidance concerning the authority of Annual Conference and districts regarding the accountability of ministers, congregations, and districts, bringing recommendations to the 2017 Annual Conference” (Church of the Brethren, 231st Annual Conference booklet, page 234, lines 29-33).

Several things were learned in the Leadership Team’s report: (references below are from the Church of the Brethren, 231st Annual Conference booklet, unless noted otherwise)

The Authority of Annual Conference: “Annual Conference is the highest legislative authority in determining the polity of the church and the final authority of the Church of the Brethren in all matters of procedure, program, polity, and discipline” (page 236, lines 5-7). “The highest authority is God, as revealed in Jesus Christ. All human authority is judged with reference to this ultimate standard” (page 236, lines 33-34). “This authority is to be implemented with respect for individual conscience, openness to new light, acceptance of criticism, and the willingness to allow decisions to persuade on the basis of the intrinsic merit” (page 236, lines 38-40).

The Authority of the District: The Manual of Organization and Polity makes it clear that the district has authority for the credentialing of ministers: “All licensed, commissioned and ordained ministers are accountable to both the district and the denomination. Annual Conference charges districts with the responsibility of credentialing ministers in the Church of the Brethren” (page 237, lines 29-34).

Mutual Accountability: “We are called to respect individual conscience through forbearance, even as we are also called to seek confirmation of God’s guidance through corporate discernment” (page 238, lines 21-23).

Accountability of Congregations: “Each district is encouraged to put in place framework for processing a congregational disagreement with an Annual Conference action” (page 238, lines 33-34). “The goal of the district response process should be to help the congregation move to an understanding of the Annual Conference action and willingness to support the action, or at least a willingness to refrain from taking any action that would be interpreted as being defiant or insubordinate” (page 238, lines 38-42). “Annual Conference therefore delegates authority to the district for holding congregations accountable, since congregations are expected ‘to support faithfully the program of the Church of the Brethren, recognizing Annual Conference enactments of the Church of the Brethren as having governing force in its life’ and to carry out their ‘ethical responsibility to support the denomination’” (page 240, lines 1-5).

Call to Live in Accordance with Polity: “Therefore, we will care for each other and earnestly seek to understand those whose experiences of life are different from our own, including those whose convictions place them in the minority of our church family” (page 240, lines 37-40).

Accountability of Ministers: “At this time, ministers and congregations are not authorized by Annual Conference to perform same sex weddings. A majority of the delegate body is clearly opposed to homosexual covenantal relationships. A significant minority disagrees with this decision…If a district executive minister receives a report based on direct knowledge that a minister has performed a same gender marriage, the information shall be reported to the district’s credentialing body as a matter of ministerial conduct” (page 241, lines 3-6, 17-20). “The credentialing body can then determine what next steps to take, if any” (Questions & Answers re: UB 4 – Authority and Accountability, question #8).

Accountability of Districts: “Districts are strongly encouraged to review their policies, processes and procedures to ensure that they are in harmony with Annual Conference actions and decisions” (page 241, lines 26-28).

The 2017 Annual Conference approved this report overwhelmingly. But the report exposed some major challenges that we face as a denomination:

  1. Ministers and congregations are not authorized by Annual Conference to perform same sex weddings. And yet, since the credentialing and accountability of ministers is conducted at the district level, the credentialing body can decide what steps they want to take, if any. However, districts are to work to ensure that their policies, processes and procedures are in harmony with Annual Conference actions and decisions.
  2. It seems that we relish the strength, clarity and corporate nature of Annual Conference statements, but we also highly value and respect the freedom of individual conscience and are called to do so with forbearance. These are two very difficult positions to maintain.


(Introduction of the WildWood Gathering)

The delegate body at conference got to witness first hand the balancing act of Annual Conference authority and district/individual autonomy. It is our practice near the beginning of each conference to recognize new fellowships. This year, a new fellowship (WildWood Gathering), from the Pacific Northwest District, was introduced. The representatives for the fellowship were introduced as “Pastor Elizabeth Ullery Swenson and her spouse Lucy Swenson.” What came to be known about this new fellowship is that it is an open and affirming fellowship that celebrates diversity and inclusion; “queer, straight, gay, bi, trans, gender-queer, black and brown lives, toddlers and grandparents, doubting and believing” ( This description was apparently edited out of the introduction at Annual Conference, but accurately describes this new fellowship. It was striking that in the very year that the delegate body voted resoundingly to affirm that, “ministers and congregations are not authorized by Annual Conference to perform same sex weddings,” a fellowship was introduced whose pastor is “queer,” ( whose “spouse” is Lucy, and who is “a church activist, working for full recognition and inclusion of people who are LGBTQ+.” Elizabeth Ullery Swenson is a Master of Divinity student at Bethany Theological Seminary (

On the one hand Annual Conference makes decisions that the denomination is supposed to abide by, but on the other hand, districts are given latitude to interpret and enforce Annual Conference decisions as they see fit. This allows some liberty at the local level, but it makes both accountability and consistency nearly impossible. Unfinished business item #4 exposed the fact that while Annual Conference decisions are to have “governing force” in the life of the church, each district can also interpret and enforce them as they see fit, and this was on full display at this conference.


Although I am sure that some individuals and congregations celebrated the introduction of the WildWood Gathering, many did not. And there has come to be a groundswell of reaction against it. Many people were quite offended that this was allowed to happen at Annual Conference, and that the Pacific Northwest District had endorsed and embraced this new Fellowship.


On August 19, 2017, a gathering of concerned Brethren met at the Moorefield Church of the Brethren in Moorefield, WV (West Marva District). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss “issues of concern” in the church. There were (58) people in attendance representing (14) districts, including Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN). Also, additional representatives from Puerto Rico and Michigan districts participated by submitting written responses to the discussion questions. Also in attendance were the Church of the Brethren Moderator and Moderator-elect, along with the District Executives of both the Shenandoah and West Marva districts. These representatives served as “listeners.”

It was clearly stated at the onset that the purpose of the meeting was to share concerns and discuss some possible solutions. The meeting was NOT convened to discuss in any way a division of the denomination or an exit strategy. In fact, it was quite the opposite. The meeting was called to “do our best to be a part of the solution to our denominational differences in thinking.” Those in attendance considered the current state of the denomination, offered visions for what they want the denomination to be, and suggested ways to move toward a shared vision. Participants were divided into ten groups, seated at round tables. The group considered three questions:

  1. Where are we as a denomination?
  2. The Church of the Brethren has lost its focus on the authority of the Bible. This is not a new thing. Nearly forty years ago the 1979 Annual Conference statement on Biblical Inspiration and Authority recognized that,

“Brethren generally affirm the inspiration of the Bible and the primacy of its authority for faith and practice. Brethren differ on the nature of the inspiration, the equality of authority within the Bible, and the exclusiveness of the Bible’s authority in relation to the authority of the church, other inspired writing, and contemporary leading of the Spirit.”

In the end, the 1979 paper concluded that since we could not agree on the authority of the Bible, we were simply left to agree to disagree and that we should recognize and celebrate our diversity. Someone has observed that this decision has basically institutionalized our division.

Another dominant theme at the August 19 meeting was a growing awareness that a church split was possible.

And thirdly, it was recognized that the issue of homosexuality is dominating our discussion, both at a denominational and congregational level. People are weary of the struggle over this issue and are discouraged that the church has not been consistent in its interpretation or enforcement. One person observed that, “We are filled with splinters from straddling the fence.”    

  1. Where do we want to be as a denomination?

The group was agreed that the denomination should be united in our understanding of the authority of Scripture. We should be committed to preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God and united in our understanding of Bible doctrines.

Secondly, the group agreed that we need to be more focused on presenting Christ as the answer to the problem of sin. We need to be united in Christ.

Thirdly, it was suggested that conservative Brethren need to step forward and speak out. Conservative churches also need to send delegates to Annual Conference.

  1. How do we get there?

It was suggested that conservatives need to participate more in the work of the church. This includes sending delegates to Annual Conference, making nominations for both district and denominational leadership.

Secondly, many felt that the anticipated “compelling vision” might be helpful in moving the denomination forward. However, the conservatives need opportunities to contribute to and help formulate this vision. The vision needs to be compelling if people are going to react favorably to it.

A third observation was that some people and congregations may not even be willing to invest any more energy into moving the denomination forward. For some, the topic of separation has become the compelling vision.

Action Items – The following action items were agreed upon by the attendees:

  1. The group agreed to pick five persons from the gathering that day, and request to have them meet with the Mission and Ministry Board and Denominational Leadership at their October meeting. The goal was to convey the concerns of the group to the church leadership.
  2. It was also suggested that similar gatherings of concerned persons be called in each district in the coming months. This would keep the conversation moving forward.
  3. Also, it was concluded that the entire denomination needs to pray and seek repentance and forgiveness from the Lord.
  4. Finally, “A Statement on Homosexuality for the Church of the Brethren” was produced, and a copy of it sent out to many churches and individuals. They were asked to review it and sign their names if they agreed with the statement. A copy of the statement and list of names would then be presented to denominational leaders at the October meeting. (See pages 12-13 for a copy of this statement.)


On September 21, 2017, the Leadership team of the denomination responded officially to the backlash they had been receiving regarding the recognition of the WildWood Gathering at Annual Conference. They acknowledged that the Pacific Northwest District did license a person to the ministry, “who lives in an openly committed homosexual relationship.” They also recognized that districts have the authority to credential ministers and to establish new congregations. But they also recognized that, “the intention of our polity is that districts will work within the covenant of our life together and abide by the decisions of Annual Conference.”

They also referenced the 2002 Annual Conference action which established the policy that the Church of the Brethren will “consider it inappropriate to license or ordain to Christian ministry any persons who are known to be engaging in homosexual practices, and will not recognize the licensing and ordination of such persons in the Church of the Brethren.” They said that it is the intent of denominational leadership to act in accordance with all the policies established by Annual Conference.

However, they also recognized that our polity does not specify how the larger church should respond to this particular situation. They stated that they are seeking to meet with the district where this happened and come to a mutual understanding as to why they made this decision. They are also making adjustments to make sure that any recognition of new fellowships at future Annual Conferences, more closely aligns with our Annual Conference statements.


Many people were glad to see that the Leadership Team took the time to respond to the concerns about the WildWood Gathering. But some were disappointed with what it revealed. Again, it revealed this tension between authority and autonomy. On the one hand districts have the authority to credential ministers. But on the other hand, they are to work to abide by the decisions of Annual Conference. It also revealed that while the 2002 Annual Conference statement was clear, there seems to be apparent lack of clarity (in our polity) about what to do when a district or congregation chooses not to abide by it. Many are frustrated by this fact. And so, individuals and congregations are again petitioning the Leadership Team to find a solution to this apparent ambiguity.


On a brighter note, some districts are taking seriously the call to review their policies, processes and procedures to ensure that they are in harmony with Annual Conference actions and decisions, while some are taking even more drastic measures.

Atlantic Northeast District – On September 27, 2017, the District Ministry Commission of the Atlantic Northeast District issued a letter regarding the officiating of same sex weddings by credentialed clergy. Any such action would be treated as a matter of “ministerial conduct,” and would be reported to the district’s credentialing body. The District Ministry Commission is working to develop a process for the handling of these issues.

Michigan District – On August 18-19, 2017, the Michigan District Conference approved a motion from seven congregations in their district that are seeking to leave the district and form a new district of the Church of the Brethren in the state. The request for a new district was based on theological differences within the Michigan District, which some believe is one of the most theologically diverse in the denomination. In order to be approved, it must gain recognition from Standing Committee in consultation with the Annual Conference officers.  

Southern PA District – On Saturday, September 16, 2017, the Southern PA District approved a “Policy on Issues Pertaining to Same Sex Ceremonies.” The policy prohibits ministers from performing or officiating at any same sex marriages, weddings, or commitment ceremonies and prohibits the use of district buildings, camps, properties or churches for such events.

West Marva District – On Saturday, September 16, 2017, the West Marva District approved a “Resolution on Same-Sex Marriage.” The resolution affirms that ordained or licensed ministers are not permitted to perform or officiate at any same sex marriage and that district buildings, camps, properties or churches used for such events is prohibited.


The events of recent months have exposed some of the major theological differences in the Church of the Brethren, along with mounting frustration and a desire for resolution and agreement. The recognition of the open and affirming fellowship at Annual Conference along with its homosexual pastor brought the issues to the fore. Although our Annual Conference statements prohibit these practices, there is seemingly little structure in place for accountability of districts. Some districts are taking steps to have their policies, processes and procedures more closely align with Annual Conference decisions. This provides some hope for the future that there can be a greater sense of consistency across the denomination. But some congregations and districts are nearly at a point of no return. The prophet Amos said, “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed? (Amos 3:3)” And Jesus said, a “house divided against itself will not stand” (Matthew 12:25). It is the hope of the Brethren Revival Fellowship that the Church of the Brethren can again be unified in its belief in the authority of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Scriptures. It is our prayer that we can be agreed and consistent in our applications of the Bible so that together we can walk forward as a shining witness to the world.

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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.