Born-Again Brethren in Christ: Week #1 — Some Personal Reflections

Can an Evangelical also be an Anabaptists -- and vice versa?

Can an Evangelical also be an Anabaptists — and vice versa?

Click here for some background on this post.

As I posted last week, I’m working on a publication-worthy article about the Brethren in Christ and American Evangelicalism. Due to traveling and other time-consuming projects, I haven’t made much headway in either my research or writing so far this week. So rather than just provide that “update,” for this first week’s post I decided to write a bit about the topic I’m exploring and why it appeals to me as both a historian and as a church member.

This project, “Born-Again Brethren in Christ,” reflects my intense interest in the relationship (or lack thereof) between Evangelical and Anabaptist groups in American history. As a historian, the topic raises seemingly endless questions: How have these groups related to one another over time? What contextual factors — theological, cultural, geographical, economic — have shaped the interactions between these groups? How has the meaning or definition of the terms “Anabaptist” and “Evangelical” changed over time? How have those shifting defintions shaped interactions between self-proclaimed Anabaptists and Evangelicals?

The topic also raises some theological and/or confessional questions: Can an Anabaptist be an Evangelical — and vice versa? Do Evangelical beliefs “corrupt” Anabaptist distinctives like peace, nonconformity, and the church as total community? Can Anabaptist distinctives be strengthened by Evangelical beliefs? The list goes on.

I’m not the first to ask these (and similar) questions. And I hope I’m not the last. In fact, I’ve learned that there are actually schools of thought on this question within the larger Anabaptist historiography (i.e., “history of history”). Perhaps I’ll say a bit more on these schools later. Needless to say, my questions are ones that other scholars and church historians are asking, too, which of course makes the prospect of writing this article all the more exciting.

These questions arise from my own personal investment in a faith community that has drunk substantially from both Anabaptist and Evangelical wellsprings — and that has felt the tensions of doing so. One Brethren in Christ scholar has suggested that the Brethren in Christ must be “Evangelicals with a difference” — just as we have been Anabaptists, PIetists, and Wesleyans “with a difference” throughout our history. The popular perception, at least among pastors and laypeople of my generation and some others, is that we have not done a good job of the former. But my research shows that Brethren in Christ have always felt the tension of being both Anabaptist (and sometimes Wesleyan) and Evangelical. More on this in future posts, I hope.

As my mentor and professor David H. Watt reminded me during the process of writing the thesis, all scholarship is autobiography — and that’s certainly true of this project for me. While in the end I want my article to reflect the best in American religious history scholarship, I can’t escape the fact that I’m drawn to this topic because it’s one I’ve wrestled with, confessionally, for many years.

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How American Evangelicalism Has Changed Since 1950

Roger E. Olson

Roger E. Olson

As many readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience know, the Brethren in Christ have officially been a part of the Evangelical mainstream in North America since 1949, when they became a member denomination of the National Association of Evangelicals. (Of course, one could argue that we were “evangelical” long before that, given that both our Pietist and Wesleyan streams contributed to what would emerge as an Evangelical mainstream in the years after World War II.) The Evangelical mainstream that we joined has changed and evolved over the years, but was shaped at the time of our joining by organizations like the NAE, Youth for Christ, and World Vision; by schools like Fuller Theological Seminary and Tyndale Bible College; by films like The Restless Ones; by literature like Christianity Today and Eternity magazines; by radio shows like the Old Fashioned Revival Hour; and by personalities like Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry.

It’s that era of Evangelical Christianity in which Baylor University theologian and professor Roger E. Olson begins the ruminations that form his recent blog post, “How American Evangelical Christianity Has Changed.” It’s an interesting post — and one that I linked to in the other day’s Brethren in Christ on the World Wide Web entry. In it, Olson — whose work on Evangelical theology and history I really appreciate — reflects on shifts, both major and minor, that have occurred within Evangelicalism since the era of consensus and cooperation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The post is shaped to a large degree by a kind of “back in my day…” nostalgia (which can be unhelpful in historical discussions). It also doesn’t go in-depth in analyzing the shifts that Olsen has identified. But it does offer some assertions worthy of consideration.

Here’s an abridged list of the changes / shifts Olson outlines, all preceded by the phrase “When I was growing up…”:

1. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on the return of Jesus Christ.”

2. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on heaven and hell.”

3. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on missions and evangelism.”

4. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America focused much attention on ‘separating from the world.'”

5. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America frowned on ‘conspicuous consumption.'”

6. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America frowned on all forms of government welfare including subsidized home loans.”

7. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America loved ‘America’ but was suspicious of politics.”

8. “. . . evangelical Christianity in America prepared its people, especially young people, for persecution and expected it.”

9. “. . . evangelical Christians knew their Bibles forward and backward.”

10. “. . . evangelical Christians talked a lot about ‘the blood of Jesus.'”

Olsen unpacks each of these assertions in a short paragraph or two, so be sure to read the whole post.

A few thoughts on these transitions, relative to the Brethren in Christ, after the jump. Continue reading

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Facebook-LogoIn yesterday’s post, I teased a new initiative that the Brethren in Christ Historical Society is undertaking during the Brethren in Christ Church’s 2014 General Conference: a social media campaign! (I’ve also already blogged about the Society’s “takeover” of social media, including Facebook and Twitter.)

We’re basing our social media campaign around a central question: Does History Matter? We, of course, believe it does!

Throughout General Conference, we’ll be sharing fun facts, images, quotes, and clips from previous General Conferences — all the way back to the first Conference in 1871! We’ll be using the hashtag mentioned in this post’s title: #BICHistoryMatters

Be sure to like the Society on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. You can also track the hashtag on both sites to see everything we’ve posted.

Together, let’s consider the important role of history in our lives as Brethren in Christ today!

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Are You Ready for General Conference 2014?

GC2014On Friday, July 11, 2014, the Brethren in Christ Church in the U.S. will gather for its biennial General Conference. This year, conference delegates will gather at Lancaster Mennonite School in Lancaster, Pa. This gathering promises to be a historic conference — and in a way it already is, even before the first vote has been cast, because it’s the first time General Conference has been held in Lancaster — the birthplace and supposed “heartland” of the Brethren in Christ community — since 1946!

If you’re a delegate, stop by and say “hi” — I’ll be wandering around Conference all weekend, blogging and assisting with the Brethren in Christ Historical Society‘s social media campaign (more on that later!).

If you won’t be in Lancaster, be sure to follow the General Conference blog and / or the General Church’s Twitter feed for Conference updates. And stay tuned to The Search for Piety and Obedience, as I’ll be sharing unique content all weekend long!

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Evangelicals on the “Uneasy Tension Between God and Country”

qideasLast week’s twin posts on celebrating “Independence Day” as an Anabaptist (here, here) garnered lots of responses — likes, comments, shares — on both the blog and on social media. As I’ve already pointed out, readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience seemed to resonate with the ambivalence I (and fellow blogger Kurt Willems) feel on July 4th.

Most of the articles we shared reflected on nationalistic celebrations from a distinctively Anabaptist perspective. Yet Anabaptists aren’t the only ones who recognize the potential problems of blending nationalism and Christian faith.

Last Fourth of July, QIdeas posted a thought-provoking article by Michael Wear titled “Our Long, Uneasy Tension Between God and Country.” (They re-tweeted it this year, which is how it caught my attention.) QIdeas — founded by Gabe Lyons, of unChristian and The Next Christians — is an Evangelical organization founded to help Christians better engage culture for the purposes of redemption and reconciliation. They produce a lot of thoughtful stuff, from articles like the one I’m sharing here to videos and other media. But they do all of it from a distinctively Evangelical perspective.

That’s why I was a bit shocked — but pleasantly so — to discover the QIdeas piece on the dangers of Christian nationalism.

Here’s a taste:

. . . evangelicals, in particular, have long been comfortable with a bold, unapologetic patriotism. A recent survey shows that even today, in what many consider a “post-Christian” America, white evangelicals are the most patriotic religious group in the country. This intense patriotism has contributed to America’s “civil religion” in a substantial way, and with that our national discourse. . . .

President Ronald Reagan became beloved by evangelicals for melding an American optimism and religious language. America, he said, was a “shining city on a hill.” The memorable phrase was taken from John Winthrop, who took the phrase from Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5:14b). Winthrop used the phrase during a sermon aboard the ship, Arbella, which carried puritans commissioned by King Charles I to establish Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630. Winthrop told his shipmates: “Consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and byword through the world.” For Winthrop, the idea of a city upon a hill was not about God’s exceptional favor, but the accountability they would be under as professing Christians to personal obedience and faithfulness.

Still, this story—and so many others we collect about the founders’ faith, the history of our Constitution, and references to God on our monuments and by our nation’s leaders through the years—have led some to suggest Winthrop’s vision of what ought to be actually came to be. Until very recently, some Christians acted as though the idea that America is not a “Christian nation” is heresy. As Christians, we are at war with ourselves to love and follow Jesus fully, yet we have sometimes communicated that our nation—a nation full of people with diverse faiths and no faith at all—consistently represents God’s will on earth. This is a dangerous patriotism. It lacks common sense, and it is bad theology.

Check out the full article here.

QIdeas certainly isn’t articulating Anabaptist theology in this article. Reflecting its Reformed/Calvinist Evangelical orientation, the piece concludes with a call toward “Christian pacifism” that reflects the Reformed “worldview” theology of seeking to redeem culture, politics, etc., as distinct realms of God’s creation. There’s no mention of the dualistic “two kingdom” theology embraced by many Anabaptists — including some of the neo-Anabaptists who function in Evangelical circles today. Yet the article rightly calls Evangelicals to disengage from the culture wars posture that would seek to all too easily blend nationalism with Christian faith — and instead replace that posture with one that seeks “an ever-expanding domain of justice in our nation.”


As I tweeted over the weekend, this is an important article for Brethren in Christ (and other Anabaptist) groups to read and consider, especially given our ties to Evangelicals in recent years.

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Brethren in Christ on the World Wide Web

Here are a few Brethren in Christ-related links that caught my attention over the past weeks:

- Like the Brethren in Christ Historical Society on Facebook, and follow the Brethren in Christ Historical Society on Twitter (@BIChistory)

Screen shot 2014-07-01 at 12.51.11 AM – Get ready for the 2014 General Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church in the U.S. by reading the agenda and program, and by following the church on Twitter @BICChurchUS

- The Zambian Brethren in Christ Church is offering a parenting and conflict resolution seminar intended “to promote peace and dialogue among families”

John-Wesley-in-America- How American Evangelicalism has changed since 1950

- A new book on John Wesley and “primitive Christianity” in America

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Look Who I Found (Literally) Hanging Out at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

English artist George Romney's 1788-89 portrait of John Wesley, on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

English artist George Romney’s 1788-89 portrait of John Wesley, on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

John Wesley!

While wandering through the labyrinthine Philadelphia Museum of Art (what a great place!) over the Fourth of July holiday weekend, I stumbled on this piece of their permanent collection. The portrait of Wesley was painted by the English artist George Romney ca. 1788-89. It is currently on display in the museum’s John Howard McFadden Collection.

As readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience know, Wesley was an 18th-century Anglican minister and theologian, most known for being the “father of Methodism” (although he never intended to start a faith community separate from the Church of England!). Along with his brother, Charles, Wesley contributed significantly to the Evangelical revivals that swept through England in the mid-18th century. For the Brethren in Christ and other American Holiness groups, Wesley is remembered for his doctrine of “perfect love,” which decisively shaped the (very American) concept of second-work sanctification that became popular in many Evangelical circles in the 19th century.

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