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
BRF Witness