The Dilemma of Finding Unity Among the Brethren

September/October 2005
Volume 40, Number 5

The Church of the Brethren has been blessed with relatively few divisions in its nearly three hundred year history. That is due, in part, to the efforts made to maintain unity in the faith, and the diligence with which forbearance has been exercised.

However, this is not to say that the Church of the Brethren is united. It is far from it. Under the facade of the “Church of the Brethren” name, one can find almost any theological and moral perspective. A visit to congregations, even within a few miles of each other, quickly shows a wide gap in belief and practice, to the degree that an outsider can hardly believe “Brethren” congregations are a part of the same denomination.

Denominationally, the Church of the Brethren displays seemingly disparate personalities. BRF believes this disunity fundamentally stems from a lack of belief in the trustworthiness and authority of the Scriptures, in the unique Saviorhood of Jesus Christ, and in the New Testament as our rule of faith and practice.

The recent Annual Conference in Peoria also bore this out. A guest from the Brethren Church spoke movingly of the need for evangelism so that people outside of Christ will not go to hell. An ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren then rose to challenge the guest, and effectively declared that Jesus Christ is not the ‘only way to Heaven. There were groans in dismay, and also—disturbingly—applause for the minister’s point. While the challenge and applause were graceless, it portrays the chaos on basic views in the Church.

BRF states one of its goals is that of saving the Church of the Brethren and not fragmenting it by splintering into many small independent groups. We favor unity based on the truth of God’s Word. We encourage evangelical members of the denomination to stay in the Church of the Brethren and persistently witness. We seek to buoy Bible-believing pastors and Sunday school teachers to continue to preach and teach the Bible. Brother Tom Zuercher’s message affirms this approach. Read on.

—Craig Alan Myers

The Dilemma of Finding Unity
Among the Brethren

By Tom Zuercher

Psalm 133 (NIV) says, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes. It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion. For there the Lord bestows his blessing.”

A pastor, visiting the fifth grade boy’s Sunday school class, asked Johnny, “Who knocked down the walls of Jericho?” Panicked, Johnny replied, “I didn’t do it.” The pastor spoke to the teacher, “I asked Johnny, ‘Who knocked down the walls of Jericho,’ and Johnny said he didn’t do it!” The teacher said, “Johnny is a good boy, he wouldn’t lie. If he said he didn’t do it, then he didn’t do it!” At the next church board meeting, the pastor raised the issue. He said, “Johnny said he didn’t do it, and the teacher said that he wouldn’t lie. Now what are we going to do about this?” One of the old deacons answered, “Now, preacher, let’s not make such a fuss. It really doesn’t matter. Let’s find out how much the damages are, pay the bill, and forget about it.”

We lack unity in the Church of the Brethren. The question is, does it matter? Do we want to make a fuss about it? For a variety of reasons the answer is: YES, it does matter! We do need to make a fuss about it!

Defining unity is a process of drawing lines, usually focusing on external behavior. Attempts to define unity by internal beliefs are fraught with risk and difficult to measure. When those beliefs are translated into actions, we can observe unity. It becomes a process of identifying and insisting on conformity. But therein lies part of our dilemma as Brethren.

Let’s review our history. The spiritual passion that brought Alexander Mack and seven others to the Eder River in 1708 was born amidst the turmoil of reform. Intense study of the Word of God had brought them to a point of no return—they could no longer sit still, and give tacit approval to the teachings of the established church—teachings that they had come to understand as being heresies. They could no longer allow themselves to be “unified” with the established church, and so they took tangible steps—illegal and risky—to separate themselves by adult baptism.

The early Brethren refused to establish a written creed, but they had a clear understanding of Biblical doctrine. Unity was defined as sameness of faith and practice, with well established patterns of teaching and interpreting the Bible. Essentials of the faith were not questioned; the written Word was accepted as truth. Nonconformity was understood within the relationship to the world: Followers of Jesus Christ were to “be in the world, but not to be of the world.” The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were maturing times for the Brethren. Faith and practice were both enforced with firm authority. Brethren were a unique people, different from the world around them, but fairly identical from one part of the country to another. The latter discordant part of the nineteenth century, was a time that gave a hint of the profound changes that lie ahead. The early twentieth century saw significant social change in America, fueled by technological advances and new philosophical concepts. In that environment, the carefully “maintained unity of the church came under attack.

There were pastors, teachers, and church leaders who espoused new thoughts. Old understandings of truth were challenged, and external forms of behavior were abandoned. Ultimately, these challenges to unity within the church emerged in the issue of the transfer of membership between congregations. Annual Meeting adopted “unity provisions” in 1926 to try to bridge the budding gap between conservatives and liberals, but the provisions soon became useless. In 1931 the Annual Meeting said that congregations had the freedom to accept or reject any member who moved within their boundaries, irrespective of certification from a former congregation.

Carl Bowman writes, “For a group that had prized unity as much as the Brethren, the implications of the 1931 decision were staggering; one’s acceptance as a brother or sister in one congregation no longer guaranteed it anywhere else. In other words, to be Brethren was no longer to be brethren to all Brethren….This new strategy of ‘leaving it to the local church’ signaled the official surrender of the unity ideal that had guided Brethren polity and practice for over two hundred years” (Brethren Society, pp. 271-272).

Our journey toward “diversity as a celebrated state” had begun. A congregational authority had been established, and patterns of unified behavior were abandoned. Yet we still held on to foundational authority in the Scriptures until 1979. Annual Conference eliminated our official unity of belief in the authority of the Bible by stating simply, “We are not of one mind regarding the authority of Scripture.” In the years since that misguided decision, we have learned that “dialog” is not possible without a mutual understanding of the authority of the Word of God. The idea of unity that was initially understood as a sameness of faith and practice, affirmed by the body, has shifted to an understanding of the community of all Christians, regardless of doctrine or affiliation. The Brethren concept of “no force in religion”—originally referring to our relationship to the world and its government—has been twisted into a tool that is used to resist the fundamental truths of God’s Word.

I did not grow up in the Church of the Brethren. I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene. I accepted Christ as my Savior at an old-fashioned tent meeting at the Van Wert County, Ohio fairgrounds at age eight. When I joined the church, I was taught the “Articles of Faith,”—a neat, concise understanding of Biblical truths. When God called me to the Brethren in 1976, I was told, “We have no creed.” When I asked about that, I was told, “That means we don’t believe anything!”

I have learned that such is not the case. As Brethren, we claim the entire New Testament as our creed, with the understanding that the New Testament has the Old Testament as its foundation, and that both are the authoritative Word of God. That was refreshing! As a young pastor, I could imagine members studying the Bible faithfully every day and every night, diligently seeking God’s truth, diligently reviewing my sermon points from the previous Sunday, and thoroughly reading the texts for the sermon next Sunday.

Our embrace of the entire New Testament as our creed is one of our greatest strengths; yet it also holds the danger of being our greatest weakness if two potentials become reality:

1. That we no longer accept the Bible, the New Testament, as the inspired word of God, and as the final authority for faith and practice; and

2. That our people no longer read and study the Word for themselves.

As we are aware, to say that the entire New Testament is our creed, gives much room for diverse understanding. At times I have listened to speeches at Annual Conference; I have read articles and letters to the editor in the Messenger, I have listened to elected leaders; and I have wondered to myself, “Am I in the same church?”

Is there reason for concern? Of course there is! We wonder why the church seems so weak; why there is so little spiritual strength; why there is no power; why we do not see signs and wonders that might persuade the evil generation in which we live. Our disarray results in spiritual weakness.

Consider this image: The new recruit that has just gotten off the bus for boot camp. The angry sergeant approaches with a loud voice, “From this day forward, you belong to me. I will tell you when to stand and when to sit, when to get up and when to sleep, when to stop and when to run. You will not do anything unless I tell you, and when I tell you, you will do everything I say.” There is a specific process in place that turns the raw recruit into a fighting soldier, and when that process is complete, there is total obedience. The soldier will follow orders. In the midst of conflict, the soldier will obey orders without question. There is total unity, so that there can be great strength in the face of the enemy.

Do we face an enemy today? Of course we do! Satan has done his best to make the church irrelevant, to render it weak and helpless, to get us occupied with nonessentials while we challenge the essential truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is described as “a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, NIV). Does the lion seek the strong? No, the lion seeks the weak. While the warning is given to us as individual Christians, it can apply to us as a Church. We cannot survive with spiritual weakness. Without the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, we become nothing more than a social club, seeking to do “good works.” with no regard for the condition of a man’s soul or its destination.

Consider 1 Corinthians 1:10 (NIV): “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Paul’s appeal for unity in the church of Corinth comes early in his first letter to that young congregation. He implores them to have a united testimony, and there is good reason for Paul’s sense of urgency. The church at Corinth had significant spiritual problems, including:

  • false views about the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-11);
  • false views about the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15:35-57);
  • tolerance of sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5);
  • inappropriate actions against other believers (1 Corinthians 6:1-11);
  • disorder in worship (1 Corinthians 11, 14);
  • disorder in the practice of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34).

The church was in disorder. Paul’s pleading for unity comes with a specific instruction: They are to agree with one another. Now, if two people are in conflict with one another over differing beliefs, in order for them to agree with one another, one or both of them must alter their beliefs. At first, Paul does not elaborate on which group will need to change. He establishes the importance of a unified position. Later on, Paul will be very clear as to what is acceptable belief and what isn’t, but here, he stresses the need for unity. Paul tries to help them understand how crucial it is to “have one mind about Christ” in order that there be no divisions among them. The word “divisions” is schismata in Greek, and it literally refers to “cracks” or “tears.” It speaks to the lack of strength, which is weakness. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the lack of unity will by its very nature render the church weak, and significantly erode the effectiveness of ministry.

Some today seem to relish in our lack of unity. They do not bemoan it; they celebrate it! Diverisity may be a social fact that cannot be avoided, but it certainly cannot apply to the essentials of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! In our ill-fated attempt to be “all things to all people,” we have become nothing to everyone. In our rush to tolerate all manners of beliefs—no matter how alien or unbiblical—we are caught by the question that resonates within our empty buildings: “At what point does the church cease to be a church?” Or, in other words, how much of truth can we abandon before we are no longer part of the kingdom? I have no desire to see how far away from God I can live. I much prefer to see how close I can come to His glory and His righteousness.

Reflect on Philippians 1:27 (NIV). “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.” The church at Philippi, an important Roman colony, was established in A.D. 50 during Paul’s second missionary journey. This letter was likely written during Paul’s imprisonment in Rome, between 59 and 61. In contrast to the church at Corinth, the church at Philippi was in order. There was no sharp rebuke; there were only cautionary warnings.

Paul tells them to pattern their lives after Jesus Christ, based on the message that Paul himself had brought to them nine years earlier. They are to “stand firm in one Spirit”—for the faith of the Gospel. Standing firm produces a unity that results in a clear message empowered by the Holy Spirit. A clear message is strong in the face of those who oppose it. A confusing message wilts in the face of opposition. A clear, unified message carries persuasive strength. A confused message fails to stand. It has no foundation; it is as a house that is built upon the sand, washed away by the waves of resistance that crash against it. Paul speaks plainly. If we are to have an effective, persuasive witness, then we must have a clear message that is unified in its beliefs and understandings. The message must be simple, clear, and spoken with one voice, in unity of mind and spirit.

What then have we learned? Three things:

1. The unity of faith and practice that was a significant characteristic of the Church of the Brethren has been abandoned. Today, we have little common ground upon which to build trust and aid mutual ministry.

2. A lack of unity creates spiritual weakness that fuels stagnation and infighting. The church becomes obsessed with meaningless activity. We find ourselves “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic, oblivious to the looming disaster.”

3. A lack of unity removes the persuasive power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we are no longer able to “walk the walk,” then our talk becomes empty words. The attempt to find unity among the Brethren is not a dilemma; it is a diagnosis of critical proportions. We cannot pursue the present course and have any hope that God will be honored by our collective action. Without revival and spiritual renewal, the destiny of the Church of the Brethren will be a footnote in the annals of, religious history. What was once a movement that was focused on being Christ like, unified in thought, word, and deed—has become splintered and polarized, with significant differences of fundamental teachings—differences that are diametrically opposed to one another. As it says in Mark 3:25 (NIV), “If a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand.”

Is there no hope? Can nothing be done to alter this destructive course? There is one place where unity can be found today, that can provide what is necessary to bring renewal. That place is at the foot of the cross, at a place called forgiveness. We may be bold in our pronouncements and declarations, manipulate parliamentary law and exploit unspoken assumptions of conduct. But down deep, beneath the facade, we all have the same need that can only be filled with one thing—the presence and the power of Jesus Christ.

Our task is not to “cleanse the church.” Consider the parable that Jesus gave in Matthew 13:24-30 (NIV). “Jesus told them another parable: The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from? An enemy did this, he replied. The servants asked him, Do you want us to go and pull them up? No, he answered, because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the what with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned, then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”

I am not issuing a rallying cry for separation. I deplore the differences of biblical understanding that exist within the Church of the Brethren, but splitting the church further will not solve the problems. As long as there is a thread of truth to hang onto, and we have any hope of renewal, we must continue our efforts. Jesus identifies the weeds in our midst—planted by the enemy—yet Jesus does not direct that they be removed. It would do more harm than good. Instead, he instructs that they be left to grow. At harvest, they will be separated out.

A spiritual harvest is coming. There will come a day when every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Then, the true nature of everyone’s heart will be revealed. Those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of Life will be ushered into Heaven, and those who reject salvation will be thrown into Hell. Our task is not to rip up the weeds, but to help them accept Christ who can transform them into wheat.

It is my responsibility, and yours, to help people understand which way to go. It may not be as obvious to them as it is to us, but at some point, in God’s time, there will be an opportunity. We must not miss it.

I was not born into the Church of the Brethren; I was called. I have been a Pastor, a District Executive, and a General Board member. I have seen things that encourage me, and things that cause me to hang my head in shame. What then shall I do? I will continue to lift up the Word of God; I will continue to push for repentance and renewal. I will preach as long as God gives me opportunity. I will speak out as long as the Holy Spirit leads me. May God give us strength as we continue to serve Him and proclaim His message in the church and in the world.

Tom Zuercher is pastor of the Ashland Dickey Church of the Brethren, Ashland, Ohio (Northern Ohio District), and was formerly District Executive of the Northern Ohio District This message was preached at the BRF General Meeting at the Valley Pike Church of the Brethren in the Shenandoah District on September 13, 2003