How Pietism transformed the Brethren in Christ—and has potential to do so again
Recently, a pastor friend and I had a conversation about how we introduce new people to the origins, beliefs, and practices of the Brethren in Christ (BIC) Church in the U.S. In addition to sharing about the Core Values and doctrinal statement that shape the BIC community, my pastor friend mentioned that he always describes its roots in various theological traditions. “I tell people we’re a Protestant denomination with a unique mix of Anabaptist, Wesleyan, and Evangelical doctrines,” he told me, adding, “I usually don’t mention Pietism. It just gets lost in the mix.”
What did my friend mean by this statement? Because he knows that Pietism played a defining role in the formation of the BIC Church, I can only guess that he doubts the movement’s contemporary significance to our community life. Perhaps he meant that Pietism “gets lost” because of its negative connotations. Certainly the term “Pietist” (and related expressions like “piety” and “pious”) smacks of stuffiness and judgmentalism—hardly the basis for effective Christian ministry or true spiritual formation.
Or perhaps he meant that Pietism “gets lost” because it has so little support among the BIC community today. As reported in a 2006 survey,* most BIC would describe their religious faith using terms like “Anabaptist” and “Evangelical.” A meager 1.3 percent would use the term “Pietist.” Clearly, very few among us today identify with this historic theological tradition.
Or perhaps my friend meant that Pietism “gets lost” because its major contribution to BIC theology—the notion of a heart-felt and life-changing conversion experience of the saving grace of God—is emphasized by other theological traditions in our heritage, like Wesleyanism and Evangelicalism.
No matter what my friend meant, it’s clear that this theological movement—so important in our community’s formation—no longer resonates in the way it once did. But can it? Is there more to Pietism than stodgy connotations and a redundant theology of salvation? How did the Pietist impulse first galvanize the BIC Church? And in what ways does our Pietist heritage position us for bold witness and effective ministry today?
Pietism in our past
In the latter decades of the 18th century, a group of German-speaking immigrants in Lancaster County, Pa., experienced a spiritual awakening. These believers were Anabaptists, heirs to a radically communal and countercultural form of Protestant Christianity that originated in 16th-century Europe. But they had become, to one degree or another, disillusioned with the faith of their youth. They craved a deeper experience of God than their Anabaptist heritage had provided. That’s why they were drawn to the preaching of Philip Otterbein and Martin Boehm, two evangelists whose fervent sermons were stirring religious revival in the area. In particular, these Anabaptists responded to Otterbein’s and Boehm’s call for an authentic renewal of vital Christian living—a message inspired by another radical European Protestant movement: Pietism.
Originating in 17th-century Germany, Pietism emphasized an intimate, personal encounter with God’s love and grace resulting in a transformed heart and life—otherwise known as a conversion. Combined with this, the Pietists formed small groups for devotional study of the Bible, prayer, testimony, singing, and intimate Christian fellowship—which, in that era, was an innovative approach to Christian nurture. Eventually, Pietism spread across Europe and over to North America, where it suffused the sermons of colonial preachers, revitalized established denominations, and birthed new religious communities—including the community that would become the BIC.
Indeed, for this small band of soon-to-be BIC, embracing Pietism proved to be a defining moment. On an individual level, and perhaps most significantly, the moment defined each person’s spiritual life. Every member of the group now had encountered—in a deep and transformative way—the boundless grace of God. They had each confessed their sins and received the free gift of salvation. They were all now new creations—new beings in Christ—and they would never be the same again.
On a broader scale, the movement defined a new religious community—a fresh and vibrant expression of Christ’s Church. No longer were these believers just Anabaptists, nor were they only Pietists. As BIC Church historian Luke Keefer, Jr., described, they were Anabaptists and Pietists “with a difference.”** In other words, they were now Brethren in Christ.
For these believers, being BIC meant synthesizing an Anabaptist vision of the Church and a Pietist vision of salvation. The BIC viewed the Church as a covenant community of believers who had actively and personally committed to following Jesus in total obedience, patterning their life together on the teachings of the Gospels and on the pristine model of the Early Church. To be a part of this body, one needed to profess a personal “born-again” experience and exhibit (as a result of this experience) a changed heart and mind, with the result of greater conformity to God and God’s will.
In later years, the BIC added into this synthesis two other theological traditions: Wesleyanism and Evangelicalism. Both of these new influences echoed Pietism’s emphasis on a genuine Christian conversion while incorporating fresh insights and perspectives. Wesleyanism, for instance, added an emphasis on the empowerment of the Spirit for holy living, intensifying conversion through a second encounter with God’s grace. Evangelicalism, with its emphasis on missions and evangelism, complemented the Pietist desire to share the good news of God’s love.
Pietism in our present
Pietism has played a crucial role in our history as BIC, and its message of revelation continues to speak to us today. For those with eyes to see, the influence of Pietism is still evident in our emphases on experience, transformation, and connection.
Experience. Shaped by Pietist revival, the BIC emphasized genuine Christian conversion as a result of a powerful encounter with Almighty God. Therefore, experiencing God—comprehending at a deep and intimate level God’s limitless love and grace—has always been at the heart of the BIC. In fact, as Luke Keefer, Jr. expressed in Focusing Our Faith, experiencing “the love and grace of God serves as the foundation for all that we as BIC hold dear.”
This emphasis, born of our Pietist convictions, leads us to believe that the God we experience is active and relational. Our understanding of God is not book knowledge resulting from extensive doctrinal study, nor is it an esoteric perception of God as derived from mystical clairvoyance. Rather, we come to know God as God flows through and works within each of us. As we read the Scriptures, pray, and participate in the life of the Church, we begin to see God’s activity throughout history and in our lives still today. And to know God in this way—to enter into this kind of intimate, Person-to-person relationship with the Divine One—is what the Bible means by salvation.
. . . our Pietist-inspired emphases position us well for reaching the lost and expanding the borders of God’s kingdom.
Transformation. In their first Confession of Faith, the early BIC spoke of conversion as a “revival of the heart.” This is not the judicial language of justification, but of regeneration—a transformation of heart and life. These believers felt that too many Protestants were content to profess their faith at the moment of conversion but were not ready or willing to commit to a life of discipleship and growth. Although the BIC also recognized the need to declare their trust in God and seek forgiveness for sin, they were driven by the Pietist impulse toward renewal, and they viewed salvation as both dynamic and comprehensive. Put another way, these believers were not simply content to profess faith in Christ; they wanted Christ to work in them, to nurture a new creation.
Today, we BIC continue to speak of conversion in these terms. BIC churchman John Zercher captured this emphasis well when he wrote that we BIC “find a little difficulty in saying that ‘a saint is only a sinner saved by grace,’ because a saint is a new creation.”***
Connection. After experiencing their conversions to Christ, the early BIC began meeting regularly for fellowship and worship. Like the 17th-century Pietists who convened in collegia pietatis (“schools of piety”) for spiritual edification, these brethren gathered in homes and barns, where they shared testimonies, sang joyfully, and studied the Bible for new revelations. In the process, they began to connect. No longer were they just individual sinners transformed by grace; now, they were sisters and brothers in Christ, unified by their commitment to the Lord and eager to grow together.
Now, as then, we BIC also stress the spiritual significance of personal devotional practices. Yet we maintain that corporate gatherings provide an equally important environment for spiritual growth and development. When we connect, we can share our spiritual struggles and triumphs, learning the sufficiency of God’s grace for all. We can engage in fruitful conversation about what God is teaching us through the Word, sharpening our own insights and gleaning new ones. And we can seek support and encouragement for the journey ahead, creating networks of accountability and “spurring one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24). Indeed, as the early BIC Confession of Faith declares, in such gatherings “confidence is strengthened . . . and the body of Christ is renewed.”
Pietism in our future
I never got a chance to defend Pietism to my pastor friend. But if I had, here’s what I would have said: For an almost 400-year-old revival movement with a stuffy-sounding name, Pietism remains incredibly relevant today. It doesn’t “get lost” among other theological influences; rather, it strengthens our various emphases to form the core of who we are as BIC. What’s more, it supplies us with the theological resources for bold witness and effective mission-minded ministry in the 21st century.
Recent studies by Barna Group and others have revealed that non-Christians, especially those in the younger generations, largely regard Christians as legalistic, hypocritical, and overly individualistic (to name only a few of their critiques). Our Pietist heritage empowers us to combat these stereotypes as we embody and proclaim what it truly means to follow Jesus. Rather than perceiving God through rigid doctrine or hazy mysticism, we emphasize a firsthand experience of God’s boundless love and grace. Rather than encouraging efforts to “get right with God,” we emphasize new birth transformation into a new creation in Christ. Rather than teaching a piety of individualism, we emphasize growing closer to God personally as well as in community, through fellowship and discipleship. In a world desperate for authenticity, awakening, and relationship, our Pietist-inspired emphases position us well for a Spirit-directed mission of reaching the lost and expanding the borders of God’s kingdom.
More than 200 years ago, a small band of Anabaptists experienced a defining moment when they discovered and embraced Pietist virtues. Today, those virtues continue to shape our identity as followers of Jesus. May we rediscover the deep well from which these virtues spring, and may we recommit ourselves to living them out every day. As we do, we just might experience a defining moment of our own.
*The 2006 Church Member Profile (CMP) was conducted to assess the demographics, attitudes, and theological perspectives of people across the Brethren in Christ Church in the U.S. The results of the survey are available at bic-church.org/cmp.
**“The Three Streams of Our Heritage: Separate or Part of a Whole?” by Luke Keefer, Jr., reprinted in the Augusr 2012 issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life.
***“The Brethren in Christ Accent” by John Zercher, in Reflections on a Heritage, ed. E. Morris Sider.