We’ve reached the final stretch of January Term here at Messiah College — which means I’m almost done teaching my course on Brethren in Christ history and theology. I feel bad that I haven’t provided further updates on the course, but it’s been a very busy last couple of days. Simply put, we’ve covered a vast, nearly-100-year expanse of denominational history in an extremely cramped four days.
Last Monday was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so students had the day off. A massive snowstorm that swept through the northeast U.S. forced Messiah College to close its campus on Tuesday, so we missed yet another day of class. We hit the ground running on Wednesday, though. We quickly — too quickly — covered the years between 1910 and 1950, a time in Brethren in Christ history sometimes known as an “age of legalism.” I helped my students understand that in these years the Brethren in Christ were beginning to adjust to the significant transitions that had effected their community in the last part of the 19th century. They were conflicted internally, as some tried to promote further change while others reacted against the major changes that had already come. At the same time, these Brethren in Christ faced challenges from the outside, from changing social patterns (urbanization, new professions) to new technologies (radio, automobiles, movies), from new fashions to global conflicts like the first and second World Wars. These challenges and pressures ultimately led the Brethren in Christ to respond by legislating their time-honored traditions. They developed a “church uniform” (1937) and enforced a ban on military service, punishable by disfellowshiping, in 1942.
These conservative reactions ultimately failed to accomplish the church’s goals; in fact, they caused greater diversification of practice and further divisions and conflicts within the Brethren in Christ ranks. By the late 1940s, the Brethren in Christ were basically at an impasse. What provided them with a new road forward?
To answer that question, I introduced students to the fourth era of Brethren in Christ history, and to the fourth theological tradition to shape the church: Evangelicalism. Together my students and I explored the influence of this group on the Brethren in Christ — especially the connections between the denomination’s 1949 affiliation with the National Association of Evangelicals and the tremendous changes to church practice introduced by the Church Review and Study Committee of the 1950s and 1960s.
By the end of that decade, I told my students, the Brethren in Christ had been basically transformed — and with a far less clear denominational identity.
We managed to cover all of the above on Wednesday and Thursday. By Friday, we had moved on to the most recent period of Brethren in Christ history — from about 1960 to today. In this section of the class, we considered developments like the Church Growth movement within the Brethren in Christ Church, the denomination’s full embrace of women in (pastoral) ministry and leadership, and their ongoing struggle to define and practice nonresistance.
In exploring these topics, we were treated to guest lectures from a variety of current and past Brethren in Christ leaders. For instance, Warren Hoffman — the former moderator of the church, and himself an experienced church planter — came to give us a lecture on the church’s last 50 years of efforts toward growth and expansion. Pauline Peifer — the first woman bishop in the Brethren in Christ Church — joined us for a spirited conversation on the biblical basis for women in ministry, and then shared with us her experiences in coming into leadership roles. I was thrilled with both lectures, but I was especially pleased with Pauline’s visit. Pauline’s passion for women in ministry came across clearly in her presentation, and she connected quite well with my students. In fact, I had a few (female) students who were initially very skeptical of the issue of women in ministry, and after Pauline’s presentation one approached me and asked for some additional reading on the subject!
The term ends on Wednesday, and from now to then we’ll be focusing on the current “identity” of the Brethren in Christ Church, and specifically the lingering legacy of Anabaptism and Pietism in that identity.
On Tuesday, we’ll take a break from that topic to hear from Dr. Dwight Thomas on the evolution of Brethren in Christ music. And to cap off that talk, Dr. Thomas will be leading a hymn sing for my class in Hostetter Chapel at Messiah — an event that’s open to the public! If you have some free time between 3-4pm on Tuesday, please join us for some spirited singing. I’ll be sure to provide some updates on the hymn sing during or after the event.