Nonconformity: Its Meaning and History

January/February, 2014
Volume 49, Number 1

Nonconformity is considered one of the twin pillars of Anabaptist belief along with the teaching on nonresistance. These two foundational truths gave an identity to the groups that formed out of the spiritual awakening during the 1500s, and the next few centuries following the Protestant Reformation in Europe.

The doctrine of nonconformity should help God’s people live their lives in such a way as to be in the world, and yet not follow the principles and practices of the world. Our Annual Conference Minute books are filled with decisions related to ways Brethren have struggled with these issues. While some may poke fun at the practical aspects of this teaching, it shows evidence of the desire of a people to recognize the need to be separated from the world’s evil influences.

For many years we owned and operated a farm along a three-mile stretch of road in northern Lancaster County, PA, known as Brubaker Valley. About a dozen farm families live along this road, and all of them have been part of churches with Anabaptist/Pietist roots. The various ways by which the groups apply the principles of nonconformity to the world—is an interesting mix.

Some refuse to use electricity from a utility company, but generate their own source of electric power. Some do not own cars but hire drivers to take them places. For some, their cars must be black but their tractors may be red or green or blue. Some of the tractors must be on steel rather than rubber wheels. All of them have telephones, but for some, phones are acceptable only if they are located at some place other than in the house. Some of them require married men to have beards while others forbid the wearing of beards. And the list goes on.

Brethren were once counted among “the plain people,” but most of that distinctiveness has been lost. Floyd Mallott in Studies in Brethren History says much of it happened because of the effects of the Industrial Revolution. “The Dunker Elder bought an automobile and stepped on the gas; out of the window went his broad brim, followed by his wife’s bonnet, followed by his whiskers” (page 264).
Disregard for nonconformity is one of the major reasons for beginning the Brethren Revival Fellowship. One of the sermon titles at the first BRF meeting in the summer of 1959 was, “The True Church, a Called out People.” The following article by Harold Martin gives helpful guidance about how this doctrine can be understood and applied today.

–James F. Myer

NONCONFORMITY: Meaning and History

By Harold S. Martin

(with a testimony by Bethany Bollinger)

The word “nonconformity” is coined from the words of Romans 12:1-2, where God says that we should present our bodies as “holy” and “acceptable to God”—and “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The concept of nonconformity is sometimes thought to apply primarily to dress and outward appearance—but nonconformity is a larger issue than mere outward appearance.

The nonconformed believer must break with the tainted ethics of the world, the carnal entertainment of the world, the plush materialism of the world, the low views of marriage held by the world, the perverted sexuality of the world, and the wicked tendency to treat human life lightly.


The word “conform” means “to pattern after.” Non-conformed means “don’t pattern after.” The term “world” speaks of the network of forces that tries to find happiness apart from God. Christians are not to pattern after that network of forces which characterize the world.

The “world” speaks of the moral pressures that we face almost daily to conform to the outlook and the standards of the godless society (the world) which surrounds us. The “world” exerts its influence on all Christians. It would like to dominate our personalities and mold our thoughts. As a result we are constantly in danger of getting wrapped up in its ideas, and of giving in to the temptations which it presents. Therefore Christians need to make a deliberate effort—not to let the world “squeeze them into its own mold.”

For most persons, nonconformity is not a palatable doctrine. We tend to want to do like most others around us are doing. We don’t like to be different, or to stand out in a crowd. And yet, if any teaching is made clear in the Scriptures—it is that believers are to be separate from the vanity and extravagance of this world system.


A “principle” is a fundamental law upon which other teachings are based.

a) Believers are to have supreme love for God—which prohibits undue love for the world system. First John 2:15-16 says, “Love not the world or the things in the world. ..for the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life are not of the Father, but of the world.” The “world” speaks not of the beautiful world which God created, nor of the world of lost human beings, but of the materialistic system which seeks fulfillment apart from God. People under the grip of the world work for this life only, prepare for this life primarily, and live as if this life were all there is. Those who have true love for the Father are not gripped by the world-system.

b) Believers are marked by divine ownership —which means that we are to glorify the God who owns us. First Corinthians 6:19-20 says, “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit you are not your own you were bought with a price, therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” God made us; He owns us, and we should aim to please Him in all of life. We are to reprove the actions of the world that are characterized by a love for money, a desire for power, and the tolerance of all systems of belief. First Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” Satan is the ruler of this world, and since our bodies are the temples of God, it is inconsistent for us to follow the ways of those who live under the leadership of Satan, who is the god of this world.

c) Christians have experienced inward transformation—which requires separation from the world (Romans 12:2). Those who meet the conditions of salvation and offer a “yes” to the will of God, are going to become new and different persons. Their minds will be transformed by the power of God. Their lives will not be conformed to the standards of the world. Separation from the world springs from the experience of conversion. It’s not that we have a negative feeling toward the culture, or that we want to be odd for the sake of being different, or that we want to maintain the patterns of a previous era—but that we are so thrilled with the fact that God has dealt with us in mercy, that it will be our aim to live in obedience to Him. Our goal now is to please God in every area of life. Many of the activities and philosophies of the world are displeasing to God, and so we are to separate from the ways of the world.


a) There is a godly line of men and women recorded in the Old Testament. The book of Genesis tells how God separated Abraham from the pagan environment in which he grew up and said to him, “Get out of your country, and from your family, and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).

The emphasis throughout Genesis (from Adam on down to Joseph) is upon the godly line of men and women surrounded by a host of wicked sinners. There was to be an obvious separation.

b) God’s moral laws in the Old Testament espoused nonconformity. The Ten Commandments prohibited murder, stealing, bearing false witness, etc. They mandated keeping the Sabbath, honoring parents, and maintaining purity in moral life (Exodus 20:1-7). These laws set Israel apart from the pagan culture that surrounded them. Pagan people often worshiped their gods of fertility with sexual orgies. Pagans snuffed out the lives of those who were enemies.

c) Israel was to separate from her neighbors even in the types of food they ate. Certain foods were unclean and were to be rejected. Leviticus 11 spells out prohibitions against eating camels, rabbits, and pigs. God spells it out in Leviticus 20:22-26, “You shall therefore keep all My statutes…and you shall not walk in the statutes of the nation which I am casting out before you…for I have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine.” Israel was even to be separate in dress. They made “tassels” of blue on borders of their clothing (Numbers 15:38).


a) The Old Covenant given by Moses has been superseded by the New Covenant of Christ. The New Testament is a more complete, and the final revelation of God of the human family. And so every doctrine and practice of the Christian faith must have New Testament support. The sub-Christian standards of the Old Testament are elevated to new heights of understanding in the New Testament. Those standards relate to such matters as participation in war, swearing oaths, wearing jewelry, and divorce and remarriage.

b) Several New Testament passages support the teaching of nonconformity:

Romans 12:2 “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

John 17:14 [Jesus says] “they are not of the world just as I am not of the world.”

Second Corinthians 6:17 “Therefore come out from among them, and be separated, says the Lord.”

Titus 2:12 “Teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age.”

First John 2:15-17 “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

James 4:4 “Friendship with the world is enmity with God.. .whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

c) Jesus says [in the Sermon on the Mount] that the Christian life involves walking on the narrow road. The narrow road implies that there are boundaries. A broad road has no meaningful boundaries—but on the narrow road, there are restrictions beyond which one dare not go.


a) The Early Centuries

The Church of the First Century A.D. had weak spots and human failures—but it was primarily a fellowship of redeemed Christians— who were separated unto God, and conscious of their spiritual alienation from this present world.

Clement of Rome died in 99 A.D. He wrote: “Our Lord says, ‘No servant can serve two masters.’ This world talks of adultery, corruption, the love of money, and deception–but the Christian says farewell to these things.

J.C. Wenger (in Separated Unto God says), “It is a well-known fact that the Christians of the Second Century church refused to attend the gladiatorial combats, that they would not go to the theater, that they refused to sue at the law, and that they would not participate in military service” (page 52).

Tertullian (160 A.D.-220 A.D.) was a prolific writer, and among other things, he wrote tracts on why women should wear a head covering, why Christians should choose not to attend the theaters, and why Christians should refuse military or government service.

The early Christians were a fellowship of redeemed people, separated unto God, and were conscious of their spiritual alienation from this present world.

b) The Dark Ages

During the long centuries of the Dark Ages, the bishops of Rome achieved superior status. The Roman Catholic Church became a large unwieldy worldly organization which lost every mark of simplicity and separation from the ways of the world. The only exceptions were members of a few ascetic orders.

And so during the Dark Ages (from 590- 1517), there were small groups which held on to the true faith as practiced by the early church and taught in the New Testament. However, the doctrine of nonconformity for the most part had been lost among professing Christians. Several of the small faithful groups were known as the Albigenses, the Waldensians, and the Hussites.

c) The Reformation Period

Martin Luther rejected the authority of the Pope and the sale of indulgences. But when it came to nonconformity to the world, the baptism of adults, and the separation of church and state—he still followed the practices of Rome. Because the Reformation leaders did not totally reject the Roman Catholic policies, several movements arose to “reform” the Reformation Movement! Those groups were known as the Anabaptists and the Pietists.

The doctrine of nonconformity was lost during the Dark Ages, and was overlooked by the Reformation leaders—but was reinstated by the Anabaptists and Pietists. The Schleitheim Confession is an Anabaptist Statement of Faith: One paragraph says, “A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world. This means simply that we shall…not run with (the worldlings) in the multitude of their abominations.”

d) In Recent Church History

There has been a tremendous drift, and a terrible neglect, and considerable compromise in the area of nonconformity. Except for smaller dissident groups, the practice of nonconformity has fallen by the wayside. What has happened? Why the demise of nonconformity? Consider four responses:

1. Many younger ministers and church leaders took training at sophisticated institutions of higher learning—and they have adopted a more liberal theology. (They are convinced that the business of the church is to reform society through political and social means, and nonconformity is a barrier to that task.)

2. Some practice setting up specific requirements without stressing our spiritual standing in Christ. Christians must see that the practices of nonconformity are the result of our desire to please the God who saved us; otherwise we practice outward forms without a corresponding change of heart.

3. There is a rebelliousness that characterizes the later part of the age of grace. Jesus foresaw the end of the age when He said that “lawlessness shall abound” and “the love of many shall wax cold” (Matthew 24:12).

4. Some fail to diligently pass along the teaching to the next generation. Parents want their children to be popular in school and in the community.

Christianity is not merely a matter of deciding with the mind to believe the gospel message that Christ died for our sins. Taking Jesus as Savior includes faithfulness to Christ, and involves new patterns of daily living—patterns that are set apart from the ways of the world.

The essay which follows was written by a dedicated Church of the Brethren young person. The article was written by Bethany Bollinger, who last year was a ninth grade student at Cedar Crest High School near Lebanon, PA.

Bethany is a member of the Heidelberg Church of the Brethren near Myerstown, PA, and is an excellent student. She lives on a farm, likes school, enjoys academic challenges, greatly excels at playing the piano, and has volunteered at a summer youth camp. Bethany has strong conviction about obedience to Bible mandates, takes seriously Anabaptist distinctives, and is therefore willing to stand out from others without rejecting or ridiculing those who live more by the values of this world. The report printed in this issue of the BRF Witness was written in response to an assignment given in her English literature class.


By Bethany Bollinger

Growing up in a Christian home with Christian parents, we attend church every Sunday. My family and I go to a conservative Church of the Brethren congregation where we believe in the principle of nonconformity to the world, including the practice of the sisters’ head covering, simple and modest dress, and respect for all human beings. So why, when nearly all of my close friends get to stay within the comfort of their own homes and are home- schooled, do I have to step our into the world and go to public school? I used to hate public school. I hated the stares, the exclusion, and the endless questions. I longed for each Sunday, where I could be friends who shared my same beliefs.

However, after much thought, prayer, and application of the Four-Way Test, I began to perceive public school in a different light. Surely God had a purpose in placing me where He did. That purpose, that truth, is what I set out to find. In utilizing the questions of the Four-Way Test—”Is it truth?” “Is it fair to all concerned?” “Will it build good will and better friendships?” [and] “Will it be beneficial to all concerned?”—I am now able to see why going to a public school is such a crucial part of my life and how it has led me to be who I am today.

Is it truth? I believe that God’s purpose for sending me to a public school is so that I can be a shining light to the world. By setting a good example through my actions, words and ideas, I can lead others to Christ. Several times in my school experience, people have asked me questions about my beliefs. One girl wanted to know why I always wear skirts, and I was able to explain to her the importance of modesty and femininity. Another student asked me why I don’t wear jewelry or makeup and I could share my convictions about nonconformity to the world, and about accepting God’s creation as satisfactory. Every day, in these small instances, I get the opportunity to share the truth with my classmates. When I show those around me that my convictions are sincere, they seem convinced that those principles represent God’s truth. I hope that by having an answer for others’ questions, people around me can learn the truth of God’s Word and understand why I have the beliefs that I do.

Is it fair to all concerned? Although some say that it is not just (or reasonable) to try to change others’ beliefs, I believe the opposite. How can people find the truth if they are set in their ways and refuse to listen to different opinions? True, one should not blatantly shove his feelings onto another, but we as humans should exercise the right to choose for ourselves. My way of evangelizing is simply to be there as a friend, an example, and a witness. I trust that by showing others that simple faith can be genuine. I can lead them to God.

Will it build good will and better friendships? Recently, I have begun to love school and look forward to it every day. Not only do I enjoy the academic competition, but I consider myself blessed to be able to be a witness for the Lord. Simply by being a friend to everyone, and showing others that I sincerely care about them, I can share with those around me the love that God has given me. I have several friends at school, but they are a different kind of friend; they aren’t the kinds of friends that you text, have sleepovers with, and tell all your secrets to–but they are the kinds of friends that you listen to, encourage, support, laugh with, and smile at in the hallway. It has become a challenge in my day as I walk from class to class, to see how many smiles I can get from peers that I pass in the hallway, or how many peoples’ days I can brighten with a compliment or kind word. I have made it a point in life to share the love of Jesus with everyone I meet, not just with people who are familiar to me.

Will it be beneficial to all concerned? Most Christian parents are concerned that if their children go to public school, they might follow the world and become less devoted to the Christian faith. On the contrary, I feel that public school has brought me closer to the Lord and made me a stronger Christian. I go to school every day and see the hurt in others’ lives, and sense that they are not being fulfilled by their lustful desires. Admittedly, sometimes I have wished that I could be like the world, and not care about doing what is right, but God brings me back to Him by showing the reasons behind their actions. One student might have a bad home life, or another might be suffering from lack of attention. If I did not have this reminder in my life, I would most likely be a halfhearted Christian, not knowing or caring much about the true darkness of this world-system.

By answering the questions of the Four- Way Test, I have been assured that God does have a plan for me and that my parents made a wise decision when they chose to send me to public school. These four questions brought out the good of my situation and gave me new insight and a new perspective. So now, instead of wincing when I am teased. I can rejoice that I am worthy to suffer for the Lord. Instead of being embarrassed that I am different, I can gladly say that I am a child of God. Instead of being overload with the oppression, I can perceive every day as a mission to go out and seek to win souls for the Lord. Instead of hating the stares, the exclusion, and the endless questions, I can love and share the truth with my persecutors. I now know that I go to public school for a reason, a purpose, and a truth. After utilizing the steps of the Four-Way Test, I can remember that God is always by my side, and is helping me to be a shining light in the midst of this world of darkness.

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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.