Born-Again Brethren in Christ: Week #2 & 3 — An Apology and a Methodological Reflection

Screen shot 2014-07-01 at 12.51.11 AMClick here for some background on this post.

Well, I’ve already failed (dare I use that word?) in my promise to write weekly updates in my attempt to turn my master’s thesis into a publication-worthy article. Some readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience may have noticed that I didn’t publish an update on my progress last week. That’s likely because — frankly — I haven’t done a single bit of work on “Born-Again Brethren in Christ” in the last ten days! Between the Brethren in Christ General Conference (which I blogged about here and here), some pre-vacation work wrap-up, and various personal/family projects, I have been preoccupied by other things. As a result, my project has suffered.

But the work has never been far from my mind. This was particularly true as I spent time with my denominational brothers and sisters in Lancaster, Pa., a week or so ago. On more than one occasion, the “problem” of Evangelicalism within the Brethren in Christ Church cropped up in our dialogue, both interpersonally and on the floor of Conference. In a moment of surprising honesty while addressing the General Conference body, one pastor (not mentioning names!) accused some within the denomination of being “Southern Baptists in drag” when it comes to their theology. The implication, of course, was that Evangelicalism had “infiltrated” (and was continuing to infiltrate) our denominational community and affected the way some pastors teach and preach our stated theology.

When I hear statements like these, I tend to react in two ways. First, I react confessionally — as someone committed to the Brethren in Christ community’s core values and involved in the life and ministry of the church. As I detailed in my last post in this series, my own personal spiritual sojourn has occurred at the intersection of Anabaptism and Evangelicalism, within the context of the Brethren in Christ community, and so I can’t escape the fact that I have confessional convictions that shape the way I respond to the issue at hand.

Second, I react as a scholar. I feel the need to take a step back from the fracas and put the issue into historical perspective. I want to contextualize my brothers’ and sisters’ concerns by appealing to what others said five, ten, twenty, or fifty years earlier about the exact same issue. I want to tell stories about people like C. N. Hostetter, Jr., a former Messiah College president and peace advocate; Arthur Climenhaga, a Brethren in Christ bishop who left his post to lead an Evangelical para-church agency; and Ruth Dourte, a pastor’s wife whose interactions with Evangelicals convinced her that she didn’t need to wear a head covering — but that she did need to stay committed to counter-cultural practices like peacemaking. I want to remind my brothers and sisters that there are multiple ways to read the same sets of evidence — and that the “infiltration” argument is only one of many arguments being made, historically and contemporarily, about the relationship between the Brethren in Christ community and Evangelicalism.

My role as a participant-observer naturally makes my research a bit more difficult: it raises questions about bias, perspective, and intent. It threatens to skew my conclusions if not held in proper check. It also makes me an unpopular voice in both pro- and anti-Evangelical camps within the church, since I’m unwilling to jump on one bandwagon or the other. But this dual role also enables me to meet a felt need with a community of meaning. In other words, it allows me to connect the somewhat abstract, indifferent work of historical research with the practical, concrete questions being asked by a specific group of people. Ultimately, it allows me to produce scholarship that matters.

And in the end, it’s that opportunity that keeps me working on “Born-Again Brethren in Christ” — a process I’ll continue sharing with you in the coming weeks.


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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