Revive Us Again — A Way For The Brethren

January/ February, 1986
Volume 21, Number 1

The gap between what our denominational church professionals believe and promote – and what the average member of the Church of the Brethren believes – is very wide. There are surely a number of factors that account for the tremendous differences that exist between what our church leaders are saying, and what the general membership of the Church of the Brethren stands for.

As editor of the BRF WITNESS, I asked Bro. Vernard Eller to write an article giving his perceptions regarding the cleavage between leader and laity. Publishing this article is not to imply that Vernard identifies fully with BRF, nor does Brethren Revival Fellowship necessarily feel comfortable with all that Vernard has written in his many writings. But all will have to agree that Bro. Eller is an original thinker and a Biblicallycommitted writer who is indeed concerned about the spiritual welfare of the Church of the Brethren.

Eller believes that “the slide away from historic Brethrenism” is the result of modernism among the employed professional leaders of the church. And we agree. He believes further that the solution must come at the initiative of the general constituency of the Church, but that the Seminary could play a key role. He does not call for an “official” statement of faith (such as the “Brethren Card” of the 1920s), but for discussing faith issues (such as the resurrection and eternal life) rather than social justice issues (such as the situation in South Africa). Certainly such a change in emphasis at every level of church life would be a welcome innovation.

If it is true, as Vernard contends in the WITNESS article, that 99% of the Church of the Brethren is committed to the Biblical Gospel (and only 1 % are leading the church away from its historic roots), then why doesn’t the 99% elect a General Board that is overwhelmingly sound in the faith? And why not make some changes in staff personnel at our denominational headquarters? Also, Vernard’s optimism about the Seminary’s leading the way in bringing a needed corrective to the leader/laity gap, is likely more idealistic than many of us believe in reality can happen. On the other hand, God has worked miracles of change in
the past and certainly He can do it again.

All of us need to take seriously the task of trying to help close the gap that exists between employed professional leaders and the average brother-or-sister church-member who is actively involved in our local congregations. Some practical pointers may help us work better at attempting to achieve that goal: Know clearly what you believe; stand firmly for the Biblical faith; speak fearlessly the truth of God’s Word; keep abreast of what is happening in the larger church; represent at district and brotherhood events; and don’t feel you need to defer to those whose formal educational level is higher than yours.

–H. S. M.

Revive Us Again —
A Way For The Brethren

By Vernard Eller

Anyone who has seen my book, TOWERING BABBLE: GOD’S PEOPLE WITHOUT GOD’S WORD, knows that one of the burdens of my heart is that our historic Brethren commitment the New Testament, our rule of faith and practice – has been eroded by the modernist influences of a human-centered faith. At the time of that writing, I didn’t see much in the way of hope for our situation. Now I do; and it is this great good news I want to share here.

I am convinced that our Brethren problem is rather precisely parallel to what the National Council of Churches currently is struggling with. In that case, a study committee (headed by our own Bob Neff) found that there was an overbalance on the side of political justice activity and a corresponding slighting of what might be called “the Biblical Gospel” – such things as Bible study, basic beliefs, theological education, worship, and evangelism. Consequently, the emphases of the NCC board and staff were found to be generally out of step with, and insensitive to, the mind of the member-church-constituencies whose instrument the Council is.

When I wrote TOWERING BABBLE, I was aware of the slide away from historic Brethrenism, but could understand it as nothing other than a rather pervasive sickness of the church at large. Only later did I come to realize that this is not so. The disease is actually a highly localized one; itcenters around a relatively few people in the church. And so the great good news I want now to proclaim is my conviction that the vast majority of Brethren constituents are fully committed to those emphases which in the preceding paragraph I identified as “the Biblical Gospel.” A few years ago, in the process of establishing the Church of the Brethren “Goals for the Eighties,” many in the brotherhood were quite thoroughly sounded out, to find the will of the church at large. Predominantly, the Brethren who were questioned called for a return to the Biblical Gospel; and if we add to that group the host of persons in the Church of the Brethren who – though theologically confused at the moment – would likely welcome a Biblical correction, I’m convinced we are talking about 99% of the membership. Thus our problem is much more manageable than if we in fact were dealing with a widespread sickness or a deeply divided church.

What I am calling “modernist influences,” then, are found almost entirely among the employed professional leadership of the church. There is certainly nothing surprising about this. These are the Brethren who received their professional education and training in the very midst of these influences. But this group (in order of descending “church professionalism”) would include the general (Elgin) staff, the district staffs, the seminary faculty, the religion faculties of our colleges, the pastors of our more prestigious congregations, and all other pastors and church staff members. With the help of a Church of the Brethren Yearbook, my count of this total group comes to something less than 1% of our total membership.

On this point, Moderator Donald Durnbaugh was kind enough to point out to the Bethany community that Vernard Eller himself ranks very high among the professionals he is criticizing! Of course Don was absolutely correct; and what it means is that I clearly have no desire to suggest that each and every professional employee of the church is outside the faith. I simply have no way of determining how large a percentage of this 1 % represents unbiblical modernism – likely not very high. I certainly am not offering to identify who among these professionals is guilty and who is innocent – and I am not encouraging anyone else to perform such a witch-hunt either. All I am saying is that wherever modernist teaching does show itself within the Church of the Brethren, it is almost certain to have arisen out of this professional employee group. And the great good news involved is that this group is actually infinitesimally small.

Being that few, this small fraction of a 1 %-group would pose no problem for the church at all were it not for the matter of its “placement. I suggest that all of these professionals, at whatever level, have been employed by the church for what is essentially one purpose – a purpose that involves both an internal and an external aspect. Internally, they have been employed to aid and to guide our people in the working out of their own Biblical/ Brethren confessions of faith, and in clarifying their own images of what God is calling Brethren congregations to be. Externally, then, they are employed to represent the Church of the Brethren to the outside world and project to it this same image of Biblical Brethrenism. Clearly, it is from these professionals (pastors, church staff persons, college faculty, etc.) that other Christians and the secular world get their impressions as to who the Brethren are.

Therefore, whenever, instead of serving the understanding of the body’s general membership, the employee uses his position to promote or impose or project a self-chosen image born of his private preference – then we face a crisis both of professional accountability and of Christian trust within the body. Even in keeping with the standards of secular professionalism, the situation would call for the employer to take strong corrective action. From the standpoint of Christian community, Scripture is clear that “false teaching” and the preaching of “another gospel” are to be met with church discipline. However, the next aspect of my great good news is that I don’t see either of these procedures as being necessary in our present situation. The difficulty, of course, is that, no matter how well-justified or well-handled such measures may be, they nearly always create wrath, hurt, and contention in the very process of correcting things.

So I am ready to propose another way for the Brethren to let God revive us again, and at the same time fill each heart with His love. In the first place, the great 99% Brethren lay-constituency was remiss in simply handing over to its professional employees the full responsibility for its faithconfessing and imagebuilding. I am confident that this was never God’s idea for our going about it. Certainly it would have been proper to have professionals submit to the constituency ideas, suggestions, and helps. Yet it should always have been the constituency’s responsibility to exercise judgment in saying which of those were helpful and which were unacceptable. It is our own fault for having become so passive and undiscriminating in this regard. And it is high time for us to take up that responsibility once more! Doing it in a nice way, of course (as employers ought always treat employees), together we need to relearn the matter of mutual accountability.

And let me tell you how I think this mutual accountability can be achieved without any recrimination or bloodshed (even mental bloodshed) at all. The 99%-plus Brethren who want to be revived to the Biblical Gospel can just be so busy (and loud even) in their mutual confessing of this faith – / making my confession transposing into the Brethren body’s making its confession that the voices of the infinitesimal few who want to preach another gospel are simply drowned out! Indeed, my hunch is that, in the face of such confessional unity, most of those pushing “modernist influences” may very well choose to join what they obviously can’t fight.

Bethany Seminary could play a key role here; and I propose three things it might do to help along this confessional ground-swell:

(1) Given its resources both in Biblical theology and in Brethren history and tradition, as a community of scholars, Bethany could serve the church by being continually at work in hammering out a Biblical/ Brethren confession of faith to be submitted to the constituency. And I have in mind that this submission happen through the preaching and teaching of Bethany graduates rather than the bringing of formal statements to Annual Conference.

(2) In the classroom, in chapel addresses, in the colloquia, in their writing, and elsewhere, the faculty members – by deliberately seeking occasion to make their own public confessions of faith – could serve as role-models preparing the congregations. (NOTE: At Bethany, “Colloquium , ‘ identifies the graduation requirement of weekly sessions for small-group personal sharing with participation by both students and faculty.)

(3) The colloquia themselves, instead of being restricted to matters of personal religious experience and development, might be opened out to become laboratories of faith-confession. The students could be of help and support to one another in developing the freedom of mutual witnessing to “those things which are most surely believed among us” (Luke 1:1)–which, by the way, is the only sort of oneness that qualifies a group as a “Christian community.” And pastors who had been so prepared could not help but make their congregations into colloquialaboratories of the same sort.

In short, I am firmly convinced that for the Church of the Brethren to be “revived again,” it will need to become first and foremost a “confessing church” – and a confessing church, not in the usual sense of Annual Conference’s having subscribed to and decreed properly orthodox statements, but in the Biblical sense of all of us 11 exhorting one another and holding fast the profession of our faith without wavering” (Hebrews 10:23-25).

And my final word of great good news may be the best of all. The above suggestion is not simply my dream of what might possibly someday happen in the Church of the Brethren. No, there are signs that it is already beginning to happen – that our 99% lay-constituency is beginning to rouse itself and take up its responsibilities both as employer of its professional personnel and in itself being the church; that we are tiring of the sirensongs of modernism and are eager again for the golden-oldies of the Biblical Gospel; that we once more are open to having our souls be rekindled with fire from above.

Hallelujah, thine the glory.
Hallelujah! Amen.

Vernard Eller was an ordained minister and elder in the Church of the Brethren. He was Professor of Religion at the University of La Verne, California. His published books include War and Peace from Genesis to RevelationThy Kingdom Come: A Blumhardt Reader; and the forthcoming Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers. His book, Towering Babble: God’s People Without God’s Word, gives more detail on issues related to the article in this WITNESS. Eller died in 2007. Any of these books can be ordered from Brethren Press, 1451 Dundee Avenue, Elgin, IL 60120.