Tag Archives: Church of the Brethren

“Culturally Brethren”: A Response to Carl Bowman

Recently, Carl Bowman at Brethren Cultural Landscape created a thread based on a statement I made with some overstated rhetorical flourish.  Though we could quibble over context and rhetoric, I think the question as he posed starts to get at some deep aspects of being Church today.  Rather than post a lengthy reply and overwhelm the discussion, I posted my argument here. Enjoy!
 

It’s not news that one of our tag-lines in the Church of the Brethren has been “Another Way of Living.” I can remember some time ago at Annual Conference there were some webbed wristbands going around trumpeting the acronym AWOL as a kind of retort to the What Would Jesus Do? craze of the mid-90’s.

There was much truth to that tagline, despite it’s other militaristic connotations. Indeed, the Church of the Brethren has been a tradition which has championed the living of faith as an alternative to both the Christendom traditions and the wider secular cultures.

In that regard, being Brethren is about being a part of another cultural system. Or in the phrase of Wittgenstein, a different language game. Ultimately, that is what comprises a culture- words, symbols, practices, art, music and even clothing. Much of the debate about dress, the ban, and military service in Brethren history is connected to the desire to be of another culture.

Yet, within the tradition of the Church of the Brethren there is another element to this alternative culture, this other way of living. When Alexander Mack and the others entered the water for baptism, they were not just setting out to be sectarian, or counter-cultural. They were dunking one another in an act of faith. They were bring to life their beliefs. They were giving flesh to their Christian beliefs.

Often I wonder if Mack or the early Brethren would be excited to see how Brethrenism has come to be a way of living without necessarily proclaiming a Christian confession of faith. I wonder if they could have imagined a people claiming the name Brethren as a kind of heritage, a kind of family name, without claiming the faith the 8 sought to embody.

Now the reality of any faith tradition is that it is a culture. It includes practices, symbols, and language just as do local and national cultures. As part of this reality persons within a particular culture may not hold, explicitly or implicitly, the beliefs of that particular context. In fact, with faster travel and increasing communication it is easier to embody a particular context while importing the ideas or practices of a rather different realm.

For many traditional faith communities this is often the case. Entire cities today are comprised of people on the move who come from a particular religious tradition, Jew, Muslim and Christian. Yet, their way of life looks more like the society in which they live. Many fundamentalist or sectarian wings of these traditions view this merging as a kind of apostasy while many others celebrate this bricholage of cultures. It is quite common to meet some one who claims a religious culture as a personal identifier while hedging that the beliefs of that tradition are not part of who they are. So we find persons who are American first and Christian second, or who are Jewish by birth but atheist by choice, or just marginally Catholic.

Brethren have not been immune to such combinations. For some children of Brethren families these cultural hybrids sound pretty familiar. It is not uncommon to find Brethren young people who champion their Brethren roots or preferences while at the same time outright rejecting the faith which the culture seeks to proclaim.

This is extremely problematic for a tradition which emphasizes personal decision as part of its faith tradition. Whatever it is called, no-force in religion, a rejection of pedobaptism, non-creedalism, or waiting for the age of accountability, the Brethren have expected a personal adoption of the faith and life from young and old alike.

Now there is always the question of which comes first- the chicken or the egg, the belief or the way of life. I am not one to say there is a hierarchy involved here at all. There simply need not be a single door, but the expectation that anyone can believe and slowly learn the way of life or adopt the way of life and grow in belief. It is just expected that the member of the culture come to adopt and grow in BOTH life and belief. One of our denominational agencies has used a slogan that sums this up well: Come as you are, Go not as you came.

Now some will be quick to say that this is too limiting, too authoritarian. Who gets to decide what the belief is? Who defines the way of life? How can everyone do it all? No one is “good enough” in this way of thinking.

Actually, this is indeed why I am Brethren. For 300 years the Brethren have, in various ways, assumed that this is a journey taken on both as individuals and as a community. There is no elite, no caste of “Better Brethren” who establish the rules of the language game. Rather it is the community of disciples as it is in that time and place which discerns the doctrine and practices for that time. Yet, even within that discerning there is an expectation, nearly a single requirement, that persons of the community grow as disciples of Christ.

The core around which these beliefs and practices evolve is, from my perspective, that which is said in the baptismal covenant. For we live this way and believe the way we do as an acceptance of Christ as the Messiah and a living out of the deep desire to follow Jesus in all that we do. To divorce the Christian element of this culture is to try and remove one side of a coin.

If such a perspective is deemed accusatory, all I can say is that the finger points both ways. Those who assume they can believe without living it out are in the same position as those who say they live the life without holding the beliefs. The culture of the Brethren is explicitly form and content. So to say that there is “No room for cultural Brethren” is to say that Brethren in name only, absent belief or practice, is not really Brethren at all.

The common project then is the growing. No matter where one is in the acculturation process, we all are moving, changing, and developing. We are growing as did Jesus, in stature and wisdom.

James K.A. Smith has been helpful in giving this argument shape. As Carl says in his blog post questioning my statement that there is no room for cultural Brethren, everything is culture. Yet, all of these cultures differ in form as well as in content, in practice and in belief. In his book, “Desiring the Kingdom”, Smith discusses the wider cultural realities of our lives, even going so far as to say that these cultures are religious. Such a perspective flies in the face of Enlightenment assumptions that there is a sacred culture and a secular culture, clear and distinct in content and practice. All cultures, in Smith’s way of seeing them, seek to instill beliefs and define our practices. In essence they all try to define our ultimate concerns and desires.

This is most helpful when it comes to the way Smith uses a typology of practices, rituals, and liturgies. Imagine the three as concentric circles working their way out from liturgies to practices. This diagram helpfully shows that all liturgies are rituals and all rituals are practices. However, working from the outside in, not all practices are rituals and not all rituals are liturgies. Smith, contrary to common definitions, expands liturgies beyond smells, bells and church buildings. In fact, the opening of his book describes how a trip to the mall is a liturgy with movements, ritual, and symbols in a kind of choreography. This trip also includes beliefs about human life and sets out a vision of what a good life looks like. By opening liturgy in this way Smith reveals the foundational beliefs and formational practices within all cultures. So to reply to Carl’s “Everything is Culture”, I would add “Every Culture is Religious.”

So when we talk about a strain of Christianity as a culture, it seems to me that its liturgical elements revolve precisely around this practical and doctrinal core. That is to say the liturgy is an enacted invocation of God. It contains movements, language, and symbols and is thus a typical culture. As a religious culture, it includes the proclamation of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

Since every culture is religious, the question then is which culture are we adopting as our own. Can one truly be culturally Brethren in the typical sense, that is with taking the language, ideals, or some random practice, without assenting to the Christian element? Sure, but the deeper question is what is the true or dominant culture? What practices and beliefs are we truly living into while trying to remain comfortable in a community that isn’t asking much of us?

I appreciate how Pete Rollins recently described this while preaching at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids: Christianity is a materialistic religion- it defines what what we do with the things of our lives everyday.

So to rely on our gene pool, last name, vision of peace or a familiar community of people to give us some identifiable category without growing in belief or practice is to invoke the name in vain. In essence it is to tell a lie. It is to not name our true home or our true culture. That is why I say that, in a religious culture which assumes a personal conviction and assent to a way of life and belief, being a Cultural Brethren is a non-sequitur.

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Variations on a Theme: Re-thinking Traditional Congregations

I am not really sure what it means to talk about Traditional Congregations.  In a more cynical moment, I find myself wondering what other forms of Church there are.  In my more distanced, and even academic mode I look back through 2000 years of history and see only local communities of faith inter-twined in what the creeds call One Holy catholic, or universal Church.  In my more reflective moments, I recall questions presented to greater thinkers than I- such as Alan Hirsch, a contemporary Missional Church leader.  In a recent interview by a couple of house church leaders an interesting phenomenon was given voice.  The interviewers recounted their community rhythm by saying that all their efforts to de-centralize, work with bi-vocational ministry teams, and not maintain a building are regularly confronted by a simple question: “When do we get to be a real Church?”

So what am I trying to say with all these rambling observations.  Well, I think this video will help.

Even when we venture out to do something new and innovative we create a new variation on a theme.  We take the building blocks, like the 4 pop chords, and rearrange them to suit us, our styles, our social networks, and even our cultures.  Yet, we must still figure out the logistics of being together- creating systems of organization, money sharing, and leadership.  Soon gatherings for management emerge and take up the time for ministry.  Not long after that, ideas and visions come into conflict- how to worship, what to do with new people, and still not much further down the road we find ourselves embattled about carpet colors or the paint to use in the meeting space.

The default reaction in the Church today has been to divide and multiply.  We find central theological or ethical or even practical claims that distinguishes us from them. Then, rather than hold those in creative and dynamic tension, we take our ball and play in another play ground.  Not Re-thinking Church- but Re-Creating it, Rearranging the four chords to make a new greatest hit.

The western Church, especially in North America, has shaped itself around the idea that we gather, not in the cloud of witnesses, but in grouping of people “Like Me.”  So our congregations look monolithic and monochromatic, literally.  And the only way we understand ourselves, individually and collectively, is by saying who we are not- So we simultaneously gather with like minded people AND need that other congregation or group to remind us of who we are not.  I am of A congregation and not B- even though they may be Brethren.  And then when we gather as the larger church we form identity groupings even beyond our congregations- Voices for an Open Spirit, while a gathering of like minded Brethren NEEDS the Brethren Revival Fellowship as a kind of opposite pole if only for the purpose of Negative Definition- And the same is said in reverse.  Conservatives only make sense when shown in relief to their Progressive Other.  In the end, we pit congregation against congregation, brother against sister, Group against Group.  Then the Divide and Multiply cycle continues on.

What if the problem of the Church today is not so much it’s Institutional nature, but this continual re-inventing of the wheel time and time again?  What if the problem is our continual avoidance and separation from the Other- the one close enough to be called brother or sister but who is different enough to be in totally different Churches?  What if our problem is the type of self-definition by negation- saying who we are by saying who we are not?

How do we get around that?  What new 4 chords do we need to find?

I think the vision of congregations as diverse communities where varieties of ideas, practices, and people are held together might actually offer us a third way.  What if we picked a community and stayed with it, even during the inane fights over carpet?  Then as we gather together the differences are not so much signs of failed unity, but a means to find out who we really are.  In that way of being together, the Other is not a sign of what I am not, but actually helps me see who I truly am beneath the facades and self-conscious portraits I present to the world.  What if these people that get under my skin each week are actually gifting me with that unvarnished picture that reveals my TRUE SELF- faults and gifts.  The other then, becomes a mirror rather than a thing to be rejected.  We all know how this works, especially when someone reminds us that the person we most despise is often the person MOST LIKE US.

Thomas Merton, a 20th century monk talked of this often.  It was easy for him to idolize a community, imagining that the monastery was somehow more spiritual than the congregation- every one there chooses to be there, right?  Yet, in that daily interaction there are few things worse than the sound of a table partner who chews too loudly, or the other brother who just can’t seem to find the key, let alone any key when singing.  The most mundane, the most regular daily interaction can often be the most grating.

I think in this way of being together, we break the cycle of taking our ball to a new play ground.  By committing to a community of believers in this way, we find root in an actual congregation of believers rather than seeking after an idealized Church that never truly comes into being because we are forever searching.  Then we finally make sense of our own scriptures, especially the New Testament letters which reveal Real People, in Real Places, Really Living Together in Christ.  We can finally read Paul, not as an Institutional Bureaucrat trying to make the congregations of Corinth, Rome, Ephesus and Philippi just like him, but as one nurturing communities as the Diverse Body of Christ- called together in Christ not made together by their similarities.

What if Re-Thinking Church was not about creating something new, but reclaiming something very old?

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Diagnosis: Modernity

“The answer to poverty is community”- Jurgen Moltman

It is no longer easy to avoid the ravages of poverty.  A drive through any city today reveals the extent to which wealth and the lack of viable income can coexist within a single city block.  Even a quick glance at the news in any medium reveals that homelessness is closer to all of us than we care to imagine.

The response is generally the same for any political group, regardless of culture war colors.  Each party and interest group assumes that the answer lies in some sort of political solution, some act of government.  Justice, they shout, comes through legislative decision.  For these groups, it is the elected community which will solve the issues of wealth disparity and poverty is the American political and economic community, whether federal or local, free-market or government funded entitlements.

This assumption is rooted within the modern project.  Modernity, through the likes of John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, has sought to erase contentious religious systems from the public square to be replaced by a reasoned political system.  The modern vision, then, is for all communities to be related and subsumed under a public politic, relegating religion to private belief.  The over arching system of government is then, the one legitimate community.  In short, the answer to any social struggle is the political/economic system. So whether Tea Party or Green, Democrat or Republican, even Libertarian or Socialist the Modernist assumes some degree of governmental response to the questions of the day. (Note)

The Church today, even those most rooted in a Post-Christendom model of Church and State, continues to follow this Modern assumption.  It’s the one facet of Christendom that we cannot seem to shake off.  But really, it’s not much of a surprise.  In the Tercentennial study of the Church of the Brethren membership it became clear that we are more identifiable by our political party affiliation than by shaped by Brethren values.  We are more Red and Blue than we are “Continuing the Work of Jesus.”  Well, more accurately, and more respectfully, our senses of what it means to follow Jesus look more like our party affiliations than anything else.

Within the history of radical Christianity, from Acts through the desert ascetics all the way through to the Radical Reformers, the emphasis has fallen on the Christian community as the treatment for social ills.  Poverty, disproportionate gaps in wealth, health care, even natural disasters all received the same response- The Church, not the State, came to the aid of believers and non-believers alike.  For example, the great story of the Middle Ages is that more priests and monks died of the Black Death than any other vocation because they were the ones out tending to the sick and dying.  Kings and Lords did not enter their streets to save the citizenry.

The effects of this Modernist infection are two fold. First, we assume that the proper expression of doctrine occurs within the secular political process. We simply translate our systems of belief and values into the agnostic realm of government. Second, and probably less obvious, is the translation of secular modes of politics and decision making into the life of the Church. Here we assume that votes and position platforms, uniformity of belief within camps, and even debates and sound bites are the norm for discernment and decision making. The irony is that as we look back on Church History and condemn the presence of armies at ecumenical councils such as Nicea and Constantinople, while at the same time we adopt the swordless system of Modern politics as our own.

It was recently asked why the Church of the Brethren today is so divided.  The answer is simple- We are more defined by political affiliations and the idea that political processes will restore the Church.  We expect the political systems of governments to resolve the needs and struggles of everyday life and unite the Church.  We think that discernment is a 51% game, and that those in leadership or power have agendas to fulfill.  We think our Church is the holy image of American representative democracy.  The problem is that progressive and traditionalist alike have sold out to the wider political narrative and practices of Modernity, only to forget that we as the gathered Body of Christ are set apart, and must find ways of being together that are more reflective of God’s narrative of reconciliation.

Our diagnosis is simple we have an acute case of Modernity. The cure, not so simple: We cannot wait for the State to save us. Nor can we expect the practices of public politic to redeem the Church.

Note The nature of each of the these groups is really one of degree: To what extent need the government be involved for the well-being of the most number of people? Even here the assumption is that the government’s own self-limiting is a response to the problem. I also am aware that I assume the economic system is a form of the political, whether a laisssez faire or interventionist capitalism.

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Saying the Creeds

I call the Church of the Brethren home.  The tradition is really part of the second generation of Anabaptists (1708).  That is to say that ours is a mode of Christianity birthed both in the dawning of the Enlightenment and following the violence of political/religious struggles for power.

So what does this mean?

Primarily, it means the Brethren have a healthy skepticism of the creeds.  In the wake of the Reformation battles, the one litmus test for many regions in Europe was the recitation of the creeds.  This became increasingly important as traditions divided over which creed was acceptable and which confession of faith had legal status within a territory.  The Enlightenment responded through projects of legal and philosophical separation of faith and practice, or the privatization of belief.  Religious communities followed suit by rejecting confessions and creeds out right based on their violent and limiting use at the hands of princes and bishops.

For the early Brethren, this translated into an act of civil disobedience- they would not cite the creeds in their gatherings or in the presence of authority.  Over time we have come to understand this practice in very Anabaptist terms:  “We have no creed but the New Testament, as read in community under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”  Some have taken this as a way to expand the historic creeds in order to include the full life of Jesus.  Others have taken this as an opening of the definition of what it means to be Christian.

In my own spiritual life, I have journeyed this open pasture and find myself resting in the frames of the creeds.  As Richard Rohr noted in his book Everything Belongs, some times the question must be explored from every angle, only to arrive back at the original answer….albeit with a whole new understanding.

So how is that this Radical Pietist, Anabaptist, and staunch critic of the Constantinian form of the Church can stand in worship and find the creeds spiritually sustaining?

First, the Nicene formula makes tw0 things clear.  God is God. And Christ is God.  In the ancient language, begotten not made, light from light, true God from true God.  So why is that important?  Early in the debates the ancient theologians wanted to maintain the distinction between creator and created.  To place the Word (Logos) on the created side of that line would be place the saving Christ on the side of those needing saved.  In essence giving sand to parched.  This made even more clear that the very salvation offered by God was a result of God’s coming to us, making even more poignant the beauty of the Christ hymn in Philippians:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (2:5-8)

Or as Athansius of Alexandria said: God became human so that we could become divine.

Second, I deeply value the Chalcedonian definition (451).  For most, this means nothing.  Yet, most of our ideas about Jesus as the Christ emerge from this statement of faith and not the Nicene creed.  Each time a pastor or Sunday school teacher says Jesus Christ is both human and divine they intone the Chalcedonian definition.  More specifically they unknowingly reference its central claim that Jesus is;

one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.

Behind all the fancy language and technical terms of substance and nature is a fundamental conviction, stated clearly by Gregory of Nanzianzus but here paraphrased: That which God did not take on of the human person is not redeemed.  Here we have the Incarnation of Christ spelled out in full.  Not only does God come down, but God puts on everything of our bodied existence…and in so doing restores material living.

So what is all this to say?  Simple.  Despite the horrific uses of the ancient creeds and definitions, the theology of these texts is amazingly liberating.  God is God, yet God also so values created and embodied existence to take on flash and bone, life and death … and life.  No getting around it, the Incarnation redeems and restores bodied life, empowering us to be human beings fully alive.

In essence, this Brethren boy longs for the times of reciting the creed, times of true profession of faith.

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Time for Tactics, Part 1

I have been wrestling with the idea of strategies and tactics since reading Michel de Certeau’s important book The Practice of Everyday Life.  In recent months my wrestling has led to some writing in various forms.  Here I offer the first of a two part piece looking at Tactics as the mode of the Post-Christendom Church.  This segment focuses on the need for tactics within the overall strategy of “The Kingdom of God.”  The next segment will use describe how we are to formed into tacticians through the liturgical practice of “Ordinaries” and “Propers”.

The Church of the Brethren recently shared a pastoral letter discussing bullying and provided a number of related resources.  It has been interesting to read some of the initial responses from persons who have accessed the materials.  One person, rather quickly identified the unmentionable element of the whole topic: Don’t we already have a response in Christian Love?  The irony was not lost on me as we worked on these resources related to the increased attention to bullying.  Yes, of course we as Christians are clear about bullying.  Unfortunately, the political and heated moral climate of the United States muddies our clarity.  So, we as Christian leaders must speak.  We must take our historic commitments and traditions for love and peace and connect them to everyday life.  We have to strategically address the issues of the day.

Or do we?

As we met with Stuart Murray several weeks back I related what I senses is a recent emphasis on strategy in the Church.  For example, three of Church of the Brethren agencies have just finished or are in the midst of significant strategic planning process.  Luckily, I have been in the midst of two of those efforts in the last three years.  Stuart quickly caught onto my narrative, knowing just how important articulating a strategy can be for an institution.  Following my description Murray responded rather quietly: Maybe its time for the Church to act more tactically rather than strategically. That statement has stuck with me for weeks.

I can imagine two groups are reacting to that exchange.  I am sure there are those leaders reading this who are running through their head just how essential it is to have a plan for organizing and structuring their institutions.  So the thought of living tactically, that is responding and working in immediate actions, runs contrary to the vary nature of their work.  Budgets, hiring, reporting, and accountability all occur within the matrix of strategies.

The second reaction has more to do with the vocabulary of the conversation.  The most frequent use of strategies and tactics comes in military efforts.  We have come to accept “strategy” as an organizational practice, but tactics still sounds too militaristic.  Yet, a tactic is simply an opportunistic, immediate and time limited action.

I simply ask that you hold those critiques and keep reading.

It’s no wonder so many of the parables start with a very strategic statement: “The kingdom of God is like.”  The strategy is set before us.  Even more to the point we even pray it: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  The question for us as the Church shifts in this light.  We need not create the strategy, but we must be concerned with the tactics.  In other words we should be finding the places to insert a Kingdom ethic, and the slightest opportunity, effect changes toward the vision of heaven.  By shifting to a tactical mode of living we shift from planning to acting, from visioning to doing.

Sally Mogenthaler described this well in an essay on Emerging Leadership in a Flattened Society.  Leadership, she says, needs to be connective, intuitive, and responsive (in Emergent Manifesto, 187).  To me, these three aspects speak of a tactical response to the world.  In working and listening in our culture, we intuit needs, we connect the gifted and passionate people, and we respond.  What is that we do? We act for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God. That is our strategy, our tactics comprise how we live it out.  In the words of that cultural satirist Mel Brooks in the movie Spaceballs, we’re always preparing, just go!

The difficulty with tactical action is that it cannot be sustained.  It is, by definition, limited in time and scope.  As the book of Ecclesiastes says, for everything there is a season.  Unfortunately, we too often mistake our tactics for the strategy, our actions for the Kingdom of God.  When this happens we try to set those actions is stone, make them eternal in their time and universal in their scope.  We want our good idea and helpful practice to continue, and possibly out live its true impact.

An institutional strategy adds to this desire for permanency by setting out a vision without the expectation of intuitive, connective and responsive people.  It is about making the institution survive no matter the people who inhabit it.  Such a strategy so objectifies the project that intuition and connection are barely part of the program.  Even if responsiveness is built into the strategy, it is not guaranteed since every action must be evaluated against the canon of the strategy.  When a Church sets a secondary canon next to the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven it limits the Church’s ability to see a need and act.

Post-Modernity and Post-Christendom are pressing the Church to reclaim its tactical nature.  We are a people pointing to that Strategy of God one place and person at a time.

“the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed….”

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Priesthood of All….

I have been amazed lately how thin our understanding of “The Priesthood of All Believers” has become.  At the Consultation on Ministerial Leadership several years ago the phrase barely surfaced in the discussions.  Instead, in its place, people most often spoke of the Church of the Brethren as “Egalitarian.”  Such a vocabulary takes the robust Reformation conviction, which speaks of the ability of each believer to intercede and guide one another on the journey of faith, and completely flattens the concept to a thinly veiled form of democracy.

Some have said it more clearly: The priesthood of all and the leadership of none.

If it is not clear by now, I think this democratic and flattened egalitarianism is nearly heretical.  At the very least, it is not scriptural.  In fact, Paul is very clear that as a community the Church is comprised of multiple gifts and roles.  Through the metaphor of a body, he helps reveal how the gifts of one person serve the whole.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. (I Corinthians 13:7-12, NRSV)

For leaders, there are few things as frustrating as a misunderstanding of this scripture and the beautiful confession the Priesthood of All.  If God had flattened the Church to the point of egalitarian democracy there would be no need for Spiritual Gifts.  To say that the community (congregation or organization) is flat with no uniqueness is to dismiss the created plurality of the human race.  It simply is a means to erase difference, erase responsibility, and erase purpose.  We’re all just the same and have everything and yet nothing to offer one another.  That cannot be the right view of the Priesthood of All.

As leaders, it is necessary to counter the flattening urge of our current culture within the Church of the Brethren. Here are a couple of ways to think about the multiplicity of gifts within a confession of the Priesthood of All.

First, we must reclaim the gift language of Paul.  Here we have to spend time looking inward to ourselves and claim our own gifts.  The flip side of such introspection is to assess the gifts of those around us.  For, as Paul says, all are gifted for the common good.  By naming, valuing, and celebrating the gifts each member brings to the congregation we recognize the pallet with which God paints the Church.

Second, the Church must reclaim the language of roles and ministries.  That is to say, that from the gifted community emerge those who are set apart for the various needs of the congregation.  Here again we turn to Paul:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13, NRSV)

Today we may add several vocations to the list, but the idea is clear.  For the Church gifts are spread so that various functions are covered by members of the priesthood.  It should be said that there is no hierarchy here, rather the jobs of the Church are defined by tasks “for the building up of the body of Christ.”  Some are sent out, some gather in, some care for the members, some exhort, and some inform.  To draw this out even further is to say that the pastor nurtures the apostle and the prophet, while the teacher forms the evangelist and the preacher.  In more negative terms, if the pastor were to try on prophecy as a vocation within the community, the Church would be very comforted but never make strides towards the kingdom of God.

We cannot assume that everyone can easily fill the role outside their giftedness.  For the common good we must recognize both that all are gifted and that each one ministers uniquely.  To follow Paul’s image of the body, a flattened view of the Priesthood of All would leave us a body of all ears which never moves, or of all feet which never sees.

The fear among us is that such a diverse approach means that lines must be drawn, differences must be noticed, and expertise must be sought. The challenge is that such a flattened view of community is central to American culture.  The hope is that such difference can be celebrated and nurtured without resulting in clericalism.  However we approach the dangers and opportunities, it is necessary for the vitality and vibrancy of our Church that we reject the “egalitarian” perspective and live into the New Testament image of the diversely gifted and vocationally unique body.

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Drawing Lines: A look at history as rhetoric

Recently, Brethren sociologist Carl Bowman opened a blog which provides a forum for further assessing the cultural landscape of the Church of the Brethren. As a historian, Bowman rightly champions both the documents of our past and the changes which come with time. As a social historian however, Bowman is equally clear that the narrative be based upon a preponderance of evidence. Thus, his work is not a story of great individuals nor the development of ideas. Rather, his narrative is one which attempts to describe the beliefs and practices of a people.

Before venturing much further, its necessary to say that Bowman is in good company. His style of research and narrative aspirations are shared by many a scholar who have appropriated anthropological methods for the study of the past. Any critique, then, must take his methodological assumptions as appropriate and necessary tools for historiography. Yet, all historians are subject to the same criticism when change is the operative assumption. Every student of the past must acknowledge change; practices shift, ideas evolve, and people inherit and adapt both. The past, then, is always somewhat alien to every observer whether they live in the archives or in cultural artifacts. The daunting task, then, is to take the unknown and make it known, making the alien recognizable. This requires equal attention to what has also remained the same. Such an awareness is essential in the sub-field of Church History when continuity is equally as important as change.

Attending to continuity and change is a delicate balance, and as such requires that the researcher draw lines. Some of these are lines of connection and some of these are lines in the sand. No matter the type, these lines mark out an understandable starting point. For Bowman’s monograph, Brethren Society, this foundation is Brethren of the 19th century. His unabashed starting point is evident in a recent series of exchanges on his blog.

While discussing church statements an inevitable reference to the Brethren dictum “no force in religion” surfaced in the comments. The historian of the 19th century soon reminded all the readers that such a doctrine was the work of modern thinkers and “was not the tradition of 18th and 19th century Brethren.” As a good historian, Bowman marked out the line in the sand which defined the changes which naturally occur over time.

The conversation soon focused on further demarcations. Can we consider lines of continuity between the ideas of early Radical Pietists who had influenced the first Brethren, the likes of which include Gottfried Arnold and Hochman von Hochenau? Or, is Brethren tradition necessarily limited to those who have claimed a spiritual home among the Schwarzenau Neu Taufer? How one answers such questions is dependent on those lines of separation and connection, that is in how the student of the past accounts for continuities and change.

Here again, Bowman drew the line of distinction clearly between historiography and theologizing: “Let’s just keep the difference between theology and history, and between Hochmann and what the Brethren embraced, clear.” Scott Holland, one of the conversation partners, quickly queried: “So, are you still, in the 21st century, identifying authentic Brethrenism as something either Old Order or something necessarily locked into an 18th century historical moment?”

Here is where I could no longer observe, and joined the conversation. Though my reply may appear as a critique of Bowman the historian, the scope of my response should be understood to include the theologian Holland. In sum, I responded to say that “both History and Theology are narrative arts in that they are constructed for the present.” In other words, theology makes claims about history and tradition just as history makes claims about the present. Holland’s responses championed an understanding of the past which drew lines of connection to the present while Bowman asserted lines in the sand defining the difference between then and now.

However, both claims are theological. More precisely they are both ethical in that they make claims about what ought to be. Here in lies the methodological shadow which most modern scholars avoid at all costs: the appearance of subjectivity. It also is the ground on which most of the humanities are based. Each student, knowingly or unknowingly, brings a vision for what ought to be. For Bowman, and for many historians including myself, there is a time which ought to be restored. For Holland, there are thinkers within the corpus of historical sources which ought to reshape our thinking now.

Whether by drawing lines in the sand showing in and out, then and now, or lines of connection showing influence and continuity, the contemporary thinker makes theological and ethical claims about what ought to be. When we deal with the practical matters of life as the Church, it is best to identify those assumptions about what ought to be. Otherwise, scholarly speech is but rhetoric designed to shape the outcome for a desired end. Ought we not then lay our cards on the table and name our desired outcome before we employ and invoke days long past?

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