Non-Conformity — A Scriptural Teaching

The basis for the nonconformity teaching is Romans 12:2, “Be not conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” In observing this doctrine, Brethren have sought to follow the way of Christ in contrast to the way of the world.

Wade Tannehill observes that a nonconformist, according to Romans, chapters 12-14:

–does not live to please self, but to please God (Romans 12:1);
–does not exalt self by minimizing the helpful contributions of others (Romans 12:3-4);
–lives interdependently in the church so that “each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:5);
–honors others above self—even shows love to enemies (Romans 12:10-16);
–respects authority as God-ordained. The nonconformist is a good citizen and an honest taxpaper (Romans 13:1-7);
–is not self-indulgent, participating in drunkenness, sexual immorality, and the like. Nonconformed persons resist going along with the crowd (Romans 13:12-13);
–does not live to oneself, but recognizes accountability to God (Romans 14:7, 12).

In former years, the primary stress of the Brethren was outward nonconformity. From the beginning of the Brethren movement in 1708, Brethren have tended to cut against the grain of popular culture and ideas, so much so that they covenanted together to form a New Testament church in contrast to the state churches of the early 1700s. Through the years, nonconformity was applied to more and more subjects, so that by the early 1800s, nonconformity came to mean avoidance of almost everything associated with the prevailing culture.

Donald Durnbaugh writes,
“[There] was a certain reliance on legalism which threatened to equate sound faith with avoidance of the ‘world’….Among things to be spurned were bells, carpets, life insurance, lightning rods, likenesses, liquor, musical instruments, salaried ministers, secret societies, shows and fairs, tobacco, and wallpaper” (Church of the Brethren Yesterday and Today, page 13).

However, Durnbaugh fairly evaluates these prohibitions in that he says “they represent attempts to live simply and decently as good stewards of material treasures.” This concept is perhaps a key principle that related to nonconformity.

Nonconformity was most keenly observed in the dress of the Brethren of the nineteenth century. In the struggle of the early 1880s, the form of dress was a secondary issue, but it was important. The Progressives [Ashland Brethren] sought to move out of many of those things which they felt hindered the advance of the Gospel, and the Old German Baptist Brethren sought to preserve the old forms as relevant means of witnessing to a fallen world. The Conservatives (Church of the Brethren) wanted to maintain a middle ground on most issues, but nonconformity, especially in dress matters, prevailed until the 1920s.

Since that time, nonconformity in dress has been an individual and local matter. There are some in the Church of the Brethren who still believe that nonconformity in dress and other matters is as important today as it was a hundred years ago. In other congregations, and in the Brotherhood as a whole, such standards have fallen into disuse, even though they are on the minutes of Annual Conference and have not been rescinded. Since the 1930s and the 1940s, the emphasis in the Church of the Brethren has not been specifically on nonconformity itself, but rather on a more general theme called “the simple life.”

Edward K. Ziegler wrote in a booklet for visitors and new members:

“The Brethren consider themselves to be stewards of the good earth and all its resources. Therefore, they avoid waste and hoarding for self. They discipline themselves in the use of all good things, not in ascetic denial of God’s bounty, but in reverent trusteeship, and so that they may be able to share bread with others. In earlier years, the Brethren stressed simplicity and nonconformity to the world by the wearing of a plain and distinctive garb, which at times was rigorously required. Now they believe that this ,Christian grace should be cultivated and demonstrated in total discipleship, compassionate sharing, and by a modest, simple, uncluttered lifestyle” [Tell Us about the Church of the Brethren, page 3].

While commited Brethren would say “Amen!” to this statement, it falls short of full New Testament teaching. The “simple life” is in line with the New Testament teachings and it has led to many positive accomplishments in terms of service. However, Brethren as a whole have lost much of the simplicity of life in terms, of attitudes and ideas and attire.

At the same time that many younger Brethren (of the 1960s generation, and following) have caught anew a vision of simple living and environmental concern, most of the rest of the Brethren maintain an acculturated and affluent
lifestyle. Moreover, even among the younger set, it can be said that its new vision of the Brethren ethic, is simply an extension of radical 1960s ideology and culture.

Nonconformity, properly lived and taught, includes both positive aspects (that is, a simple lifestyle as propounded by recent Brethren thinkers), and negative forms (or the traditional notions of separation and avoidance). The New Testament teaches that Christians are in the world but not of the world (John 17:14-16). Repeatedly there are warnings to Christians to avoid the things of the world and its system (1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4; 2 Timothy 3:1-5).

While we are to live after Jesus’ example, and reflect the generous attitudes of the early church, the New Testament also commands us to beware of those inward and outward things that hinder our relationship with God.

This two-pronged analysis—examining both positive and negative aspects of nonconformity, may be used in relation to other items of modern culture that are gaining acceptance among evangelical Christians (and Brethren).

These include fashionable attire, the use of technology, the social media, and the like. A balanced view is necessry to avoid complete acculturation on the one hand, and to avoid strict legalism on the other hand. The overall effect is the same, and it takes in the two aspects of Christian living emphasized in the New Testament: simple living as a positive expression of following Jesus, and nonconformity as a means of negating the world’s influence. 

—Craig Alan Myers

May/June 2012
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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.