Revisiting Nonconformity

The Spring 2014 issue of IN PART

The Spring 2014 issue of IN PART

The new issue of IN PART magazine — which I hope to blog about soon! — focuses on the notion of “nonconformity,” a historic doctrine and point of emphasis for the Brethren in Christ Church (and in the larger Anabaptist-Mennonite context). The issue explores the topic from a variety of angles: historical, theological, practical, etc.

I was glad to contribute an article to the issue: “Different and Distinct: Nonconformity’s Invitation to a New Reality.” The article chronicles the Brethren in Christ’s historical and contemporary approaches to nonconformity, beginning with its roots in our Anabaptist/Pietist theological genesis, and then moving chronologically to show how it evolved over time and eventually disappeared (at least in word, and largely in deed, I suspect) within our community.

Here’s an excerpt from the piece’s introduction:

I don’t remember hearing the word “nonconformity” used in the Brethren in Christ (BIC) church I attended growing up, but I was vaguely aware of the concept. In youth group, sermons urged us to avoid certain “worldly” cultural forms: R-rated movies, alcohol, cigarettes, premarital sex. This message—which seemed identical to the one preached to youth and adults in most evangelical churches—was quite prescriptive in some areas but vague on most others. It occurred to me that, except for abstaining from a handful of activities, most believers (myself included!) looked, talked, and acted like the rest of “the world” around us. Though we professed to be “transformed” Christians, our lives didn’t seem to testify to any new reality; instead, they pointed to a stricter version of the present one.

By college, I knew that the Bible was calling me to something different. And I realized I needed a church community that could hold me accountable to the high standards of Christ’s example.

I had almost given up hope of finding such a family of faith, when I happened to take a course on Brethren in Christ history at Messiah College (Mechanicsburg, Pa.), a school founded by the BIC. For the first time, I heard a more holistic version of our heritage, including our historic teachings on nonconformity. Suddenly, I understood nonconformity as a radical, all-encompassing call to transformed and renewed hearts, minds, and even bodies. I found myself drawn to this message and re-attracted to the Church family in which I’d been raised.

Still, I struggled to reconcile my childhood experiences with my present reality. The late BIC theologian Luke Keefer, Jr., put it well when he observed that, for present-day BIC, “nonconformity is a word victimized by a conspiracy of silence!”1 The message of nonconformity had been central to our identity as a Christian community for more than two centuries, but as my experience illustrates, it has now become so muffled that it’s hard to detect. How had this happened? The story, I learned, reveals much about the long journey of the BIC Church—and offers some insights into how we might begin to recover a robust doctrine of nonconformity today.

I hope that snippet entice you to read the rest of the piece! (If it does, you can find the article here.)

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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