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Bold, sweetened, with a little bit of room

Sometimes a denomination is like a good cup of coffee

by Perry Engle

I make no apologies for how I like my coffee. I order it the same every time. I know it may not be everybody’s preference, but it’s how I like my brew. You can keep your watered-down instant stuff. For me, I like it bold, sweetened, with a little bit of room.

It’s how I like my denomination as well, and I’m pretty sure that’s why I am Brethren in Christ. This issue of In Part is really a focus on our roots as a family of believers. It’s our original blend, if you will, of what it means to us to be serious followers of Jesus Christ.

For me, Anabaptism is like a good Sumatra or a dark French Roast. It produces a bold and uncompromising cup of coffee. In a similar way, when Anabaptists were driven out of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, they were known as earnest followers of Jesus Christ, born of persecution and suffering. Words often used to describe this movement are “radical,” “counter-cultural,” and “self-sacrificing.”

But something happened to a few members of this group after they landed in Philadelphia in the mid-1700s. They encountered a movement called Pietism, which resulted in a spiritual renewal that altered their view of salvation, while retaining their basic conception of the Church. I like to think that these bold and serious-minded believers were “sweetened” by their personal experi-ence of a heartfelt and life-changing relationship with Christ. “Such a relationship,” writes church historian Carlton Wittlinger, in his book Quest for Piety and Obedience “bore outward fruit in Christian love, resulting in a practical, applied Christianity.” It didn’t dilute their understanding of the Church; it simply sweetened their relationship with God and others, and in so doing, inaugurated the BIC Church.

The following century, the Brethren encountered the teachings of John Wesley, which impressed upon them the need for the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. The BIC made room for this Holiness movement because of its positive focus on the transformed life. Then, in the 1950s, Evangelicalism provided needed motivation to reach our neighbors and our young people for Christ. It poured into us the incentive to stop being so cliquish and legalistic, and, instead, to work towards being God’s people incarnated in the world.

For me, Anabaptism is like a good Sumatra or a dark French Roast. It produces a bold and uncompromising cup of coffee.

The BIC made some room for the Holiness movement, but found that too much of it tended to make us susceptible to legalism and judgmentalism. In a similar way, the Evangelicalism movement of the past 60 years, while certainly enriching our experience as Christians in North America, has also threatened to water-down the “flavor” of our original Anabaptist-Pietistic blend. For example, its focus on the merging of Church and politics as well as its openness to resolving conflict through violent means have eroded our historic commitment to peacemaking and seem to have led to the gradual weakening of our original brew.

I heartily affirm the rediscovery of our roots as Anabaptists, as long as we don’t forget the sweet side of Pietism. As well, we shouldn’t be afraid to leave a little bit of room for other traditions, as long as they aren’t allowed to overpower who we are as committed followers of Jesus. They are the cream in our cup, so to speak, and not the coffee itself.

So I’m ordering up a mug of what it seems God has always intended for us as Brethren in Christ: A blend that is bold, sweetened, with a little bit of room. Just the way I like it.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2012 issue of In Part magazine.
Perry Engle

Perry Engle really needs to lay off the caffeine as bishop of the Midwest and Pacific Conferences of the BIC Church. He and his wife, Marta, and their family live in Ontario, Calif.

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