Tag Archives: Church of the Brethren

Why more books?

It was rather surreal to see the book in print. In case you missed the tweets and Facebook posts, we rolled out the first book of a new constructive theology series from a Brethren perspective. Kate Eisenbise-Crell pulled together a fantastic volume on atonement (how we are made one again with God). The book is called Cooperative Salvation, and is a helpful study of various theories of atonement. Kate summarizes the history of salvation thinking, including a look at Anabaptist thought, and names significant critiques from a range of feminist thinkers. Her final chapter is an interesting discussion of the human problem, the role of Jesus, and the call of the church in effecting social salvation by putting Anabaptist/Pietist writers along side feminist and Process perspectives. To see how this comes together, you just have to get the book here. While some may not agree with Kate, or might question some of the sources she uses, the goal has been to put a voice into the conversation. Through her excellent summaries of the various theories, Kate walks us through the questions and gives us a point of conversation. (Please take a moment to support Kate’s work here.)

Kate’s book is the first fruit of several years work. Noting a lack in Brethren voices in contemporary theological debates, a small group formed an editorial board to open space for Brethren theologians to contribute to these wider theological discussions. The group, comprised of Kate, Denise Kettering-Lane, Andy Hamilton, and myself presented a series proposal to Wipf and Stock publishers and received the green light. Though the list of books is open ended and still a work in progress, Kate jumped right in. Over the course of a year and a half she prepared the manuscript, the series editors all had a first read with comments and suggestions, and the book went to print. As we say in the series introduction:

This series seeks to add Brethren voices to the contemporary discussions of faithfulness in Post-Christendom. Scholarship among the Brethren in the last century was decidedly historical in method. Constructive theological contributions have been few, and this series seeks to fill that gap. This series then hopes to reach two audiences. First, it aims to provide a Brethren perspective on Anabaptism to the conversations among Neo-Anabaptists. Second, it seeks to contribute a constructive theological resource for the Brethren themselves.

So, then, why publish more books, especially for a tradition that has had a healthy skepticism of theological discourse? Therein lies the intent. As more and more pastors and theologians turn to the Anabaptist traditions to understand another way in the new day of Post-Christendom, we need to put our voices out there. What do Brethren have to say? How do we understand our own stream of Christianity? What does our tradition have to offer in response to the questions of our time? While I still believe our first mode of action is to live our faith in the Gospel as individuals and communities, publishing offers a voice beyond the confines of our tradition.

I remember when I started my studies at another seminary. As we read John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas I remember vividly how interesting it was to hear people talking about my stream of Christianity. All of these Methodists and Baptists echoed what I had learned in the course of worshiping and studying in living communities of Anabaptists. They were talking my language, and all without actually walking with us! And all of this was because some guys published a few books. At the same time, I found myself correcting, or at least tempering, some of what was being repeated. If only, I thought, we had a few books from Brethren to point to in the conversation. Where was our voice of an Anabaptism/Pietism in the conversation?

So here it is! While it is just one book, I am excited by the opportunities. As more and more people look to the Anabaptists as models of new faithfulness, I am convinced the Brethren have a unique contribution to share. Some may worry that these books might set down some kind of official doctrine, or speak too much of one kind of “Brethren.” Yet, that is far from our intention. We have worked to have a range of perspectives, even within our small editorial group. And we are committed to finding many voices, following what Stuart Murray Williams has called “a multi-voiced” model. Rather than turn to just one or two people, like Yoder or Hauerwas, we aim to seek out thoughtful and articulate voices that can engage both our tradition and our culture. What an exciting time! I am so thankful for the work of the editors, and especially for Kate’s hard work and tenacity to jump right in. I am also thankful to Wipf and Stock for picking up such a venture. All I can say is this— May there be more to come!

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Change without a Change

It was a question I was wondering myself, but one that I had set aside as “theologically inappropriate.” Gathered around the dinner table the other day following my ordination in the Church of the Brethren, a friend asked quite plain;y: “What’s changed?”

As I said, theologically for the Brethren nothing changes at the moment of ordination- at least not anything that hadn’t already changed at baptism (and strictly speaking, nothing changes there either). We are a priesthood of all believers tradition. So technically, one enters ministry when he or she exits the waters of baptism. So, really, on the theological side, nothing changed.

And yet, a lot did change. As a church bureaucrat I can list all the things I now must do in order to maintain my ordination. And, for that matter, i now don’t need to fill out yearly paper work as I did as a licensed minister.

At the same time, the work I was already doing continues. The to-do list on my desk is the same as it was on Friday when I finally went home. There are no new events on my calendar. And the dissertation was not some how completed when I came in to the office.

I am just sacramental enough though to say that everything has changed. In the public recognition, both on my part and on the part of my faith community, I am not just Josh but am now a set-apart minister. In that public statement of vows, of reaffirming my baptismal covenant, and hearing the confirming assent of my congregation a lot does change. Even as I knelt among friends, family, colleagues, and sisters and brothers in faith, as they laid their hands on my head and shoulders, and as I held my youngest son in the midst of them, there was a change.

Certainly it was a change long in coming. It was not as though a switch was thrown the moment I stood up. Rather, in the 14 years of my discernment, ministry, and training I have lived into a different sense of myself. I am sure there are some who knew me at various points in my life who would be a little perplexed by the way my life has shaped up. Yet, over these years I have consciously put myself in places so that I could grow into a minister, and a particular kind of minister at that.

Ironically, there is a sense in which the change marked by the our ordination vows and prayers was not completed. I may not have annual reviews but I do sense that my vocation will have a different look and feel in a few years. As so many have said, this is a journey. Ordination may have been a high point along way, but it is nonetheless “on the way.”

So what changed? Everything and nothing, all at the same time. Thinking about that answer, I was drawn back into our NuDunker conversation about church planting. Ryan, a plater in Pennsylvania, said something to the effect “I love church planting and I hate.” In other words, no matter what changes, how the work goes, I cannot see my self doing anything else.

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NuChurches- Exponential Vitality

This post is part of the next NuDunkers conversation. This time we will discuss church planting. Several NuDunkers are in the early stages of planting churches so we thought exploring the practical and theological questions about the practice would be a great conversation. We will be joined in the video hangout this Friday at 10AM Eastern by Jonathan Shively, Executive Director for Congregational Life Ministries of the Church of the Brethren (and my boss!). To join the discussion, click over to the Google Event page, check out the blogs posted there, and comment to your heart’s content!

I am not a church planter. So I write more as an observer of and companion to those whose calling is to create communities of disciples.

I remember when the idea of church planting first came to my attention. My first reaction was similar to many I hear today in denominational circles. “Why plant new churches when we have so many dwindling communities already?” Now, many years later the answer to that question is a whole lot clearer. Church planting is not a zero sum game. Like one network of church planters says in their name, the growth is exponential.

Now as a parent, I understand just how this works. I am an only child. So when my wife and I talked of kids I could barely fathom being the father of one, let alone four kids. (In case you know me, yes you heard me right- four. We are expecting another member of the Brockway Brood in May!)  In our economic mindset we tend to think of love as a limited resource. So it really takes a stretch of the imagination to realize that as each kid is born the love of a parent grows to make enough room for them all. There is always enough love for one, or four, kids.

Growing the church is much like love’s growth. The energy, vitality of our congregations grows as more join us. That is, as long as we see ourselves as expanding the work of God in the world and not as creating more family groups of like minded people.

When we think of our congregations as safe places, where batteries are recharded to make it through a horrendous work week, comprised of friends and not fellow disciples we barely attend to the fact that what God has done for us should not be held tightly, but shared. In other words, we tend to lack the conviction that our faith is so convincing that we cannot do other than share it. Yes, I am talking about the E-word. We lack the conviction that our beliefs should be shared and that others should join us in following Jesus Christ.

When we have that conviction an energy fills and attracts. First, the mission of supporting and taking part in growing ministries enlivens existing communities. It reminds us that what we first experienced in God’s love continues, and makes room for us and many others. Second, the energy and conviction of a people embraced by God’s love draws others in. In more negative terms, why would people want to be a part of a community of people who solemnly conduct the business of maintenance. In short, people are drawn to life.

At some point, we must turn from zero sum thinking- that the energy and resources invested in planting churches is taken away from our existing congregations. Rather, we would do well to think systemically- that our ability to remain vital as communities of faith is a lot like love. It grows to sustain and enliven all our communities.

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A Pacifist and A Good War Story

In full disclosure, I wrote this a few weeks ago now. It just happens that it feel to the top of the pile as the next in line to go from my notebook to the light of day on my blog. It just so happens that today is Veterans Day. So far I have found my sisters and brothers rather quiet in the interwebs about this day. It is hard to say anything meaningful about peace making on Veterans Day that does not sound trite, simplistic, or even demeaning of soldiers and veterans.

I don’t come from a long line of pacifists. In fact, three of my grandfathers have served- stateside, Korea, and Bastogne in WWII. I love these men. As one of them ages, and memory loss becomes more pronounced, talking to him of his battle experience at the Battle of Bulge is the one thing that is still vivid for him. I will sit for hours asking him questions, allowing him to touch some memory that isn’t vanishing. And I love him all the more when we are done.

So today, a day originally set aside to commemorate an armistice , I write as a pacifist who values war stories.

Not long ago a portion of my sermon on peacemaking was shared in a newsletter for the Church of the Brethren called eBrethren. I was pretty clear that non-violence is central to my theology– based in both Christology and Ecclesiology (my understanding of Jesus as the Christ and the nature of the Church).

At 18 I was forced to make my decision whether or not to sign up for selective service,  just as every guy is at that age. Actually it wasn’t much of a choice. If I wanted any chance to go to college I needed to register. And since there is no way to sign up as a Conscientious Objector, I found a little corner of my card to write it as plainly as possible.

Nevertheless, just a few months after my birthday I got the famed call from an Air Force recruiter. It was a fun conversation, mostly because I was waiting for him to “pop the question.” Actually, it never came. We were on the phone for 30 minutes talking about school and decisions. He did ask where I was planning on attending and I told him Manchester College- since I had just sent my deposit. Of course, he had no idea what he was about to step into. “Never heard of it,” he said, “what’s with choosing them.” So I told him about the Manchester’s affiliation with the Church of the Brethren. “Oh, who are they?” This was just getting better and better! “A small denomination known as one of the Historic Peace Churches.” A new silence came over the phone. “So what are you going to study.” There it was, the moment of truth: “Peace Studies.” More silence, this time colored with a bit more discomfort. “So…. I guess that means you are CO then.” “Yes it does.” And with that, and a short good-luck, the call was over. I don’t think I got another recruiter call the rest of that spring.

The odd thing is, I watch a lot of war movies. I’ve read Tim O’Brien’s excellent book “The Things they Carried” about his experiences in Vietnam and was entranced by every page. Just the other night I watched Mel Gibson’s violent, graphic, and yet poignant movie “We were Soldiers” for at least the third time. I even read the book it was based on in order to get the story as the soldiers told it. I wouldn’t say I love war stories. In fact, when the movie ends or the stories concludes, my gut turns and I sit in silence for a long while, eventually finding a simple question coming to mind- Why do we do this? When the book is closed or the screen goes black, I am even more committed to my convictions about peace.

But it is an odd combination. Not many of my peacemaker friends would say the same thing. In fact, the horrors of war are a major reason they find non-violence so appealing. I don’t think you would ever catch most of them flipping through the “Military Dramas” on Netflix.

Yet, for me, there is something about understanding that drive to combat, the unknowable sense that what binds soldiers in battle is not their ideals but the very need to survive and care for the guy beside them. As O’Brien says, there is an unspeakable beauty and attraction to the lights, sounds, and valor of the fight. I don’t find any of that to be a glorification of violence. In fact, for me, it is a reminder that war is hell- literally, a deep separation from God.

I would say my commitment to non-violence, my continued affirmation of CO on my selective service card, is not an ideological one. All the same, my understanding is clear- All war is sin. Others may say that is the exact definition of ideological pacifism.

But really, I get it. I get the drive to defend, to fight, the hope that we can change something in violent conflict. I know all too well my own ability to hate and do harm. Even as I watch my kids grow I know the greatest temptation to violence would come if anything were to happen to my kids. I know, deep down, that there is a thin red line between my commitment to non-violence and my ability to harm another if something were to happen to any of them.

I get the paradoxical beauty of fireballs and tracers, and the extraordinary heroism of soldiers doing what they can to save one another. Unlike some of my peacemaker friends, I don’t look at a soldier as a bad person, or some kind of evil in human form. I see a someone in even greater need of God’s grace, love, and healing. In fact, I see a person who needs the healing act of confession- not as a trite “thank you for your service,” or an attempt to re-live someone else’s war story, but as an act of hearing the hurt and offering the vocal affirmation of God’s already present grace.

I am a Contentious Objector. And, yes, I watch war movies. I am a realist when it comes to the violence we are capable of inflicting and I am committed to non-violence regardless of the cost. I am a pacifist that values the grim stories of war.

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A Better Anthropology

Last week I was knee deep in reading Peter C. Blum’s recent book “For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought.” Since I had also just finished an extended essay on the relevancy of the Brethren tradition for today, I was reading it with an eye toward understanding the intersection of Pietism and Anabaptism. In reading Blum’s excellent essay on feet washing, I was able to narrow the field of my question: How does the Pietist emphasis on the individual offer both a hurdle to overcome and a helpful corrective to Anabaptist collectivism?

I’ve written already on the intersection of the two traditions here. My question though, was primed by my good friend Scott Holland, a frequent reader and commenter of the NuDunker blogs. Scott, once a student with Yoder, offers a solid critique of Yoderian Anabaptism saying that “it offers an anthropology of the disciple but not of the person.” So I threw the question out to Scott and some fellow NuDunkers in order to explore just how Pietism might help us get to a better anthropology within the wider conversations of Neo-Anabaptism.

First, a bit of history. The 16th century Anabaptists and the 18th century Pietists, though connected in an impulse to recover a radical discipleship based in their reading of the New Testament, were separated by the grand shift toward the individual begun in the Enlightenment. That is to say that a kind of Cartesian turn toward the interiority of the human person was a significant difference between the Brethren and the Mennonites. Put another way, the Pietists worked within the framework of the Cogito- I think therefore I am. There are of course a ton of problems with this kind of Cartesian turn to the individual- most notably the separation of the interior and exterior self. Yet, for as much as academics have refuted Descartes’ system (especially through the work of Phenomenology), this sense of interior confidence is part and parcel to the Western sense of the self.

For the Pietists, a sense of religious certainty was to be found in the inner life. Though they might have balked at Descartes over emphasis on rationality, it was still the case that the individual was a clear source for religious understanding. Hence, many of the Pietists gathered in conventicles or study groups to explore the scriptures together. Hence, Luther’s emphasis on “scripture alone” found its logical conclusion among those small groups. They read together in order to better understand the scriptures and apply them to a life of holiness. Many of these groups were known for a rich spirituality, an affective reading of the scriptures that was deeply prayerful and mystical in tone. In a way, we might say that for the Pietists, Descartes maxim was better rendered “I pray, therefore I am.”

There were of course many Pietists who remained within their religious traditions. Some said that there were two churches- the visible church manifest in the institution and marked by both the lapsed and those in pursuit of holiness, and the invisible church comprised only of the holy. The Brethren, however, rejected that conception all together in the decision to baptize believers in water. In that decision they created a new, and only visible, community of discipleship. What is more, they followed the lead of the 16th century Anabaptists. Certainly, when we read the early writings of the Brethren, they would not have called themselves Anabaptists. As German historian and pastor Marcus Meier notes, the categories of Anabaptist and Pietist are modern labels applied to the past. Yet, there were streams of continuity between the 16th and 18th century reformers. What seems more operative, then, is a different sense of the person.

My emerging sense is that the Brethren- with a Pietist sense of heart and mind coupled with an Anabaptist desire for community and ethics- sought to temper the trajectory of radical individualism with a community of discernment and accountability. There are stories of persons whose mystical experiences were explored by the community and tested against the scriptures. One could not just say that “God told me so” without also asking fellow believers if this inner word coincided with the outer word of scripture. At the same time, the Pietist emphasis on conscience offered an equally critical tempering of an Anabaptist turn towards collectivism. In other words, the church was not an authoritarian herd but a community of persons seeking faithfulness and holiness together. There were certainly cases where such discernment resulted in a clear “No” on the part of the community, and yet as some stories show, the entertainment of the question was a two way street to test the community’s understanding as well.

This still leads me back to my original quest for a better anthropology. Though I assume that the early Pietists were the product of the Enlightenment turn towards the inner life of the individual, I am still wrestling with the anthropology that was at work in the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism. In many ways contemporary Brethren have camped out in either tradition, thus highlighting one as normative- either we are Anabaptists or we are Pietists, communitarians or individuals. My instinct is to say that both are true, but that still leaves open for debate how the heart felt mysticism of the Pietists finds grounding in the community of believers. That is to say that Pietism and Anabaptism practiced together avoids the pitfalls of collective authoritarianism on one hand and radical individualism on the other. Following Meier and others, the only difference I can discern in the historical narrative is the effect of the Enlightenment conception of the self. So the question haunts me- what is the better anthropology at work among the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism?

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A Spiritual Corrective to Anabaptism

This post is a part of the next NuDunker  conversation. This round we will be looking at Pneumatology, or theologies of the Holy Spirit. The NuDunker Hangout will be Friday February 8th at 11 AM Eastern. You can join the Hangout here https://plus.google.com/events/clb732ip7fr679sg1c682akciq4

If you miss the live discussion, no worries. We will share the link to the recorded conversation. 

Catch the pre-hangout posts from some fellow NuDunkers DanaBrian, and Andy.

In the recent flurry of strategic planning around the Church of the Brethren a phrase has risen to the surface; We speak from our Anabaptist and Radical Pietist roots. Each time this phrase occurs, it is usually in reference to the unique contribution of Brethren theology to the wider Church.

That is well and good, but unless you have a degree in church history or theology it matters very little. Those of our faithful members might have encountered the idea in their early membership classes, but to the wider public shaped by terms such as Mainline, Evangelical, or non-denominational, it says very little.

So we resort to a kind of short hand. “We are one of the historic Peace Churches.” To those who have made a life of witnessing to non-violence this might strike up some memories, but still it is a term for insiders. So we shorten it even more- “We are kinda like the Mennonites.” And with that answer we short circuit any attempt to speak of our unique qualities.

For we are anything but “like the Mennonites.” That is not to dismiss our brothers and sisters of the faith, but to say that the heritage of the Brethren, and the ways we have understood being the church differs. In short, we are back to the two pillars of our past- Anabaptism and Pietism. So what on earth does that mean?

The short, non-academic, answer is that Brethren have done church in between corporate and individual discernment. Two pieces then emerge as central to Brethren thinking- the community on one hand and the individual’s access to the Holy Spirit on the other.

For the 16th century Anabaptists, the radical move was to assume all christians had access to and could understand the scriptures. The simple idea was that, when gathered together, the community of believers discerned together what the text meant. It was a kind of radical democratization of theology based on the shared reading of scripture.

The 18th century Pietists, however, applied the democratization principle not to scripture but the Holy Spirit. In other words, the community was not the arbiter of the presence of God’s Spirit. Rather, each person by nature of his or her confession of faith and baptism, was gifted with the Holy Spirit. This has traditionally been articulated in the phrase “respect for conscience”. Here, the community is to recognize the wisdom of collective discernment but refrain from forcing it on others whose conscious attention to the Holy Spirit says otherwise.

Through time, this emphasis on access to the Spirit has propelled Brethren into places our more sectarian Anabaptist sisters and brothers were want to explore. The most notable piece has been the Brethren involvement in the ecumenical movement. While we have not jumped in with both feet, we have been in the room from the beginning. More strict Anabaptists, even among the Brethren, have balked at the sense of compromise involved in the ecumenical process. More Piestist Brethren, however, have been quick to reply that the Spirit is often alive in places beyond our own understanding. The effect has been a kind of Mainline-ization of the Brethren. By the 1960’s the Brethren soon began to look more and more like their Methodist cousins.

My sense is that Pietism is the appropriate corrective to our more sectarian impulses. Attention to the workings of the Spirit is a constant practice among the Brethren. We don’t just assume that when the community of believers gather the direct output is the complete and established understanding of God’s will. Rather, we gather frequently, asking one another questions raised in the context of living out our faith. It is a constant means of testing what we have come to understand out on our own. Often this means that what the community has said in one place or one time is represented to the church for further discernment.

That is the root of our rejection of the creedalism (not creeds, but the settling of one question for all time). Attention to God’s workings, in scripture, among the church, and out in the world forces us to regularly ask; “Is this how we understand God to act?” This frequent discernment propels us back into the world- living out our faith, experiencing God’s ever present actions, and seeking out what God is doing beyond our sectarian confines.

Most often the correctives inherent in holding Anabaptism and Pietism together in one tradition has more recently been about choosing sides. There are those who grab onto a strong sense of community bounds articulated in Anabaptism while others reach far into the ways of Spiritualism implicit in Pietism. Yet, I think the two are best held together. Our theology of the Holy Spirit reminds us that, while the community is the context for discernment of the Spirit’s work, it is not the arbiter of God. Rather, the Spirit works around, through, and in spite of our churchiness. To be sure though, Anabaptism reigns in our Spiritualism with the reminder that we are to test what we have come to understand in daily living with the understanding of the community. It is not just I who know God, but we. And a rich Anabaptist and Pietist synthesis says that what we each experience is made complete in the project of shared discernment of the actions of the Holy Spirit.

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Meet the NuDunkers

In the past week a series of blog posts have introduced a collective called the NuDunkers. This group has taken shape through the conversations between Dana Cassell, Andy Hamilton, Brian Gumm, and myself. Each of us is posting a take on the project. 

In the early 18th century a group of German Radical Pietists gathered together to study scripture together. Though it is often assumed that Pietism was rooted in Enlightenment individualism, these folks gathered together to explore the inner workings of the Holy Spirit and the outer words of the scriptures together. Eight of them decided that their discipleship to Jesus Christ called for them to baptize one another. Soon, they became known as the Neu Tauffers, or New Baptists. Those of the imperial churches, however, categorized them with disdain as Anabaptists, or Re-Baptizers.

In our day, many theologians and church leaders are returning to these Anabaptists thanks in part to the work of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. These Neo-Anabaptists seek to articulate a kind of Christianity not beholden to the magisterial thought and practice of Christendom traditions. Yet, Yoder’s vision of Mennonite theology and Hauerwas’ idealized community only speak of one segment of the Radical Reformation traditions. The denominations that emerged from the Dunkers of the 18th century, The Church of the Brethren and The Brethren Church among them, present a form of Anabaptism that differs noticeably from that presented by readers of Yoder and Hauerwas.

It is this synthesis of Radical Pietism and Anabaptism that we as NuDunkers are seeking to articulate. The NuDunkers are a collective of practitioners who are seeking to understand our context and faith together. Our method of theological reflection is first dialogical across the miles using digital media as a vehicle for conversation. As partitioner theologians we speak from our experiences in ministry by working systematically through traditional categories and specific questions. In our desire to understand our faith lived out in these days, we are necessarily interpreters of scripture, experience, and heritage, all the while remaining missional in posture.

Four things are important to fill out here:

Theology is a Conversation– Whether we are continuing the dialog through the ages or are working out our faith today, we engage in a conversation. Just as the original Brethren gathered around the scriptures to discern their faith, the NuDunkers seek to make the conversational nature of theology explicit. By gathering a few “organic intellectuals” to reflect publicly about a question or topic, and then extending the conversation through blogs, we hope to encourage the conversation. With digital media we have an opportunity to model a vision of the church as a “multi-voiced” tradition.

Theology is Contextual– The greatest danger to theology or doctrine is the temptation to elevate it beyond the experiences of life. While truth is not relative, our understanding is. Just as the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem to recount the acts of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles, it is important for the partners in the conversation speak from their experiences of ministry. As we gather across the miles we seek to follow the pattern of testing our experiences against the outer words of scripture and the gathered community.

Theology is Seeking Understanding- The conversation then, is hermeneutical in method. By bringing together our contextual experiences we seek to understand what God is doing in the world. Following the maxim of Anselm, our faith is seeking understanding.

Theology is Missional– The Anabaptist witness through the ages has been to question the Christendom model of being the church. Though some elements of the Anabaptist traditions have adopted an Enlightenment vision of Christendom, the NuDunkers seek to be explicit about the Missional nature of the church in whatever context it resides. The church’s acts- both of peacemaking and evangelism- emerge out of the Missio Dei. Rather than assuming cultural hegemony is the means of change, the NuDunkers take seriously formation of persons in the Upside Down Kingdom of the church.

These are the NuDunkers. Join us in the conversation.

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A Place for Women, or Women in Their Place?

Two events took place in the last several weeks. First, an important blog post by Scott McKnight, with the provocative title “Don’t Ordain Women? Stop Baptizing Them!” circulated the blogosphere. By sharing this post recently a great conversation with a good theologian friend emerged regarding the role of the Holy Spirit and anointing. 

A week later I received a letter asking about a recent article of mine in our denominational magazine. The crux of the question revolved around a short sentence about men and women being raised up into leadership within the church. As you may guess, the writer wanted to make sure I was following the proper New Testament setting for women in the church. 

Having just had a helpful discussion on the topic I sat down to pen a response. As I finished I thought it would be a helpful summary to share with a wider audience. 

That said, let me be clear. I did not write this, nor do I wish, to “excommunicate” those parts of the Christian church which have defined ministry or priesthood as a vocation for men only. To be sure, I disagree with them. But I also have not “excommunicated” myself by sitting under women preachers in my life of faith. What is more, I believe that ordaining women is equally valid on Biblical grounds. 

What follows is my own brief outline to the question:

As I re-read your letter, it appears as though the deeper concern is about women in prophetic or leadership roles. While there is a stream in our tradition that has limited the roles of women on biblical grounds, there is also an equally demanding tradition in the scriptures themselves that points to women as significant leaders in the early church. First and foremost it is clear in Acts 2:17 as Peter invokes the book of Joel, that women will also prophesy along side men.

What is more, even Paul himself frequently recognizes women in closing greetings of his letters- most notably Phoebe, who is a deacon sent to the Roman church (Romans 16:1-2). She does not appear to have been a “table server” as the name of deacon implies from the early chapters of Acts, but was clearly one with the authority to make requests of the church. Even then in Romans 16, men do not show up in this greeting until the later verses, and only after several more women leaders have been named.

Something happens, then, between the pages of Acts and Romans and the First Letter to Timothy (I Timothy 2:9-12). To claim that there is one ethic, or norm, regarding women in ministry is incorrect. Rather, the scriptures witness to a great many women who have had significant roles in the sharing of the gospel.

Our spiritual ancestors in 18th century Pietism took this to heart. Access to the Holy Spirit was not limited by gender. In fact, Pietist women were some of the greatest preachers and writers of the time. As the story of our own Sarah Righter Major points out, even an elder, who was sent to reprimand her for preaching in the company of men, returned saying that he could not do such a thing since her gift of preaching exceeded his own.

Even more to the point sister Anna Mouw once wrote that “The question is really not women with men in the ministry, or men only in the ministry; the question is, ‘Is the message from the Lord?’  and ‘Is the Lord represented?'” (Anna Mow, Brethren Life and Thought Spring 1967)

Brother, I do hope that this is part of a larger conversation Yet, I stand by my statement you quoted in the letter- the leaders and prophets of our tradition, men and women, are being raised up among us right now. And I do not think that such a conviction betrays the New Testament.

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I don’t believe in Peace

Such a statement is bound to raise eyebrows. But it must be said- I don’t believe in Peace.

That might sound funny coming from someone whose religious tradition is known as one of the “Historic Peace Churches.” It sounds even more peculiar given that I entered college as a Peace Studies major. The more and more I travel among the denomination, and the more I hear people speak of Peace, the more uncomfortable I become with the idea. More specifically, I have grown weary and skeptical with the way Peace has become an ideology.

All it takes is sharp ear. Listen to the way people invoke the word Peace. Often there is not much detail given, but the word is spoken in such a way as to draw nods of affirmation from those in the room. There is rarely any effort to define the word, nor any articulation of what such a Peace would look like. Even more striking, there are rarely any practices outlined that bring about and support Peace.

When Peace is mentioned, it is invoked in ways that prevent any questions about such details. The rhetorical force of the word prevents any critical assessment of what Peace is and how we get there. It carries such weight that those in the discussion can only agree. Even more so, the word is presented so that any questions, even the most affirming, can only be seen as dissent.

David Fitch, author of the insightful book The End of Evangelicalism?, similarly critiques the way certain concepts have come to serve similar ideological roles within the Evangelical tradition. Using the work of social philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Fitch demonstrates how elements of a tradition- in his case ideas such as “The Inerrant Bible” and “The Christian Nation”- function as master signifiers. A master signifier is a term that represents a whole collection of other ideas, practices and perspectives  in such a way as to enable people to “believe without believing.” The master signifier stands in place of all these other things, nearly eclipsing any of the particulars. A master signifier without these pieces, however, is an empty term. It only has power is so far as it rhetorically closes off the possibility of questions, the searching out of the specifics.

American political discourse gives us a prime example of the master signifier at work. All politicians invoke the Constitution in their  speeches. Just the idea of “The Constitution” is enough to rally an audience. Yet, the speaker doesn’t need to reference how he or she reads the founding document, nor does there need to be any specifics mentioned. Those who support the politician are faithful to the Constitution, while those who are against him or her are undermining its authority.

We in the Peace Churches have begun to use Peace as a master signifier. Rhetorically, we speak of Peace without describing the details or inviting people on the journey. I mean, really, who is not for Peace! We fail at working for the Peace of Christ when we do not invite others onto the journey or make clear that Christ’s peace is foolishness to the world. It asks much of how we live and more often than not leads to social ostracization.

All it takes is a conversation with any soldier. I can’t count how many times I have heard the phrase “no one wants peace moe than those who bleed.” It is clear that Peace is valued by everyone, it is a matter of how we get there that is the biggest difference. What is more, we in the Historic Peace Churches partner with those who speak of Peace without giving the background of the kind of peace we seek. Those most conservative in our traditions point this out- You can be for Peace and never come into contact with the Prince of Peace, or even understand Christ as a central component of the peace we envision.

Some have begun work on the topic of a Just Peace. While the attempt to define the ideology in terms of the things that make for peace in place of violence is laudable, “A Just Peace” is too easily elevated as a master signifier. Who isn’t for Justice and for Peace?

More appropriate to our way of living Christ’s peace is the language of nonresistance and non-participation. Far from the “still in the land” caricature of early Mennonites and Brethren, this mode of living makes personal action the foundation for making peace. There is no expectation that the government will finally come around to the logic of peacemaking. Nor is there an implicit assumption that peace is cheap. Rather it follows closely to the logic of “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s” and the infamous thorn in the pacifists’ side- Romans 13.

Through these two passages we encounter the realities of living the Heavenly Peace on earth. When accounting for our citizenship requirements as Christians, our first priority is to the laws and practices of God’s reign. When those commitments conflict with the laws of the state, ours is to live into God’s law. Being subject to the governments of this world, however, means that the punishment of the state for disobeying is accepted at full price. Being subject to the state is not the same as obeying the state. Rather, it says that our guiding principles will define all that we do- and if the Empire disagrees, we are ready to take on the result.

This is not the Peace of modern times, neither is it the practice of the current Peace traditions. We have been so infected by the modern democratic rhetoric that we assume Peace is the logical language of all people. Not so in Jesus’ time, and not true today. The ways of Jesus Christ exact a huge toll- up to and including our very lives. So when true peace is sought, the world cannot help but push it down. So we talk of Peace in cheap, empty ways so as to not offend the rulers that be and not to require a thing from those who seek Peace.

When and where nonresistance and non-participation costs a lot, and a true accounting for what it is that we seek is given, that is where true peace can be found. That is the kind of peace I believe in, not some empty, master signifier.

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Where have all the prophets gone?

Text Luke 6:6-12

On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes  and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered  hand, ‘Come  and stand here.’ He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?’ After looking around at all of them, he said to him, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus. 

I’ve often wondered what it was like to be in the crowd in one of these Jesus/Leaders show down. In my mind, it’s kind of like watching the British Parliament- not like watching CSPAN and the boring American politicians.

I can almost hear the “Ooo” of challenges, and the murmurs of displeasure after each sentence. I know, for us good Brethren steeped in non-violence and lovers of decorum and order that we are, it’s troublesome to witness Jesus in a raucous crowd, confronting the powers of the day. Jesus, Meek and Mild, is more up our alley.

To be sure, this is not a civil debate setting. There is no time keeper and no parliamentarian. Jesus and these leaders had been down this road before. In fact, the opening verses of chapter 6 recount another conflict about the Sabbath and the disciples gleaning grain on the Sabbath. Now in the synagogue, Jesus is ready for the “trap”. Not only does he see the eyes of the leaders watchfully glaring at him, he knows they are ready to pounce on any action that would clearly break Sabbath law.

But as we have come to know Jesus in the gospel accounts, he’s savvy. He knows the need and knows the trap. Like many of the other occasions he puts the conflicting values before the crowd. “Which is better, to do harm or good on the sabbath?” And the crowd goes crazy!

There he stands, calling out the very injustice implicit in the legalism. There he is, as Jesus often is, speaking truth to power.  It should be said, though, that the Sabbath laws were meant to be restorative. They were constructed to shape the people into the image of God- as ones taking rest. It is too easy to paint this as a conflict between love and legalism- but really, the conflict is over two Goods- following the practices of God’s people and incarnating God to those very same people. The problem that Jesus raises to awareness is the very fact that the good practice of the sabbath is being used for another purpose- power, control, prestige, influence.

He stands there, in the midst of lay and clergy alike, naming the problem like any prophet of old. In fact, he is standing there in the long line of tradition, reminding everyone that there is indeed a hierarchy of obligation in the religious life. When practices such as sabbath come into conflict with loving your neighbor, Love wins. That is the prophet Jesus calling the people back into a right order of the values of the tradition.

We have come a significant way from the prophetic posture of Jesus. Good modernists that we are, we have come to love the prophetic style of Jesus “speaking truth to power.” Yet, is this really what it means to be  prophetic? Though the conflict might make us squirm a bit in our seats, truth is we are part of the crowd- usually cheering (internally maybe) at the great zing of the religious leaders.

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Not long ago, Sprint ran a fantastic commercial. They were advertising their phone plans with a stereotypical CEO- white, balding gray head, navy suit and power tie, sitting at his desk in the corner office. He is talking to his young, nervous assistant about his new Sprint contract and how much he is saving. Then comes the classic line- “I’m sticking it to the man.” The assistant looks a bit puzzled and replies- Sir, you are the man. Yes I am, replies the boss. So you’re sticking it to yourself.

It’s really a hard pill to swallow, but honestly we are not prophetic. We really are those with cultural power, capital, and prestige. What is more, we sit, as Heuertz says, smack dab in the middle of comfort and our finger pointing “Prophetic.” It’s kind of like the commercial- We’re really sticking it to ourselves. Prophets aren’t really church bureaucrats and really aren’t invited into the halls power. Writing statements and bible studies, and putting on programs are not Prophetic actions

Being a prophet is radically,…well, Incarnational. As Heuertz says, It’s picking a fight by doing something. Just like Jesus, the prophetic moment is NOT the speaking of truth to power, it is the healing of the hand. In that little action, Jesus both challenged the problem AND made the change….not to make the statement, but to really bear fruit. The prophetic action is both Critical and Hope-filled.

From inside these walls it’s nearly impossible to be truly and fully prophetic. As this place was being built, the modern assumption was that institutions were the way to steward a trust and legacy of any tradition. By the end of that era however, we all began to equate these same institutions with the center of the tradition.  That is to say The Church of the Brethren is most itself at it’s most institutional- either at 1451 or at Annual Conference. This soon translated to our care of the prophetic witness of the tradition. When Elgin speaks, the CoB is prophetic. The incarnational principle, the idea that the prophetic includes an on the ground baring of fruit, was lost. This incarnational principle challenges that modern assumption.

This is hard for all of us. We are here because it is work we believe in. We are here because we want to be prophetic and yet we circle around maintenance work thinking we are keeping our prophetic tradition alive

The image of the healed hand reminds us that transformation does not happen at the centers of the circle, at the hub of influence or power, but on the ground, in the streets, in our congregations. When we expect our work in here at 1451 to change the practices of Brethren congregations around the country without actually being with them, we are sorely mistaken. When we enter centers of cultural power and assume our statements make a difference we have swallowed the pill of the Institutional church. Real change, real prophetic healing and transformation is embodied, it is incarnate.

Our work here is only prophetic insofar as it supports, encourages, and enables prophetic action by our members and our congregations.  I can write a thousand pages of prayers, studies, or resources….yet those are prophetic only in so far as they help a member of our tradition BE prophetic where they are.

That is the lesson of Christmas and Epiphany. When God comes to show the way, the truth, and the life, God comes in the flesh. God does no longer makes pronouncements from the clouds, far off from the needs and pain of our world, but gets down to work here. Of course it challenges our cultural assumptions, it confronts the powers that be, and stands in the long line of prophets….but the Incarnation, GOD REALLY WITH US, makes the changes and brings hope. That is the beauty of our faith. That is the beauty of Epiphany. God transforming all that is, into all that can be. Our work, our toil here in this place is to impact and companion over 900 Brethren communities as they EMBODY, as they Incarnate Jesus the healing prophet where they live.

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