I don’t remember hearing the word “nonconformity” used in the Brethren in Christ (BIC) church I attended growing up, but I was vaguely aware of the concept. In youth group, sermons urged us to avoid certain “worldly” cultural forms: R-rated movies, alcohol, cigarettes, premarital sex. This message—which seemed identical to the one preached to youth and adults in most evangelical churches—was quite prescriptive in some areas but vague on most others. It occurred to me that, except for abstaining from a handful of activities, most believers (myself included!) looked, talked, and acted like the rest of “the world” around us. Though we professed to be “transformed” Christians, our lives didn’t seem to testify to any new reality; instead, they pointed to a stricter version of the present one.
By college, I knew that the Bible was calling me to something different. And I realized I needed a church community that could hold me accountable to the high standards of Christ’s example.
I had almost given up hope of finding such a family of faith, when I happened to take a course on Brethren in Christ history at Messiah College (Mechanicsburg, Pa.), a school founded by the BIC. For the first time, I heard a more holistic version of our heritage, including our historic teachings on nonconformity. Suddenly, I understood nonconformity as a radical, all-encompassing call to transformed and renewed hearts, minds, and even bodies. I found myself drawn to this message and re-attracted to the Church family in which I’d been raised.
Still, I struggled to reconcile my childhood experiences with my present reality. The late BIC theologian Luke Keefer, Jr., put it well when he observed that, for present-day BIC, “nonconformity is a word victimized by a conspiracy of silence!”1 The message of nonconformity had been central to our identity as a Christian community for more than two centuries, but as my experience illustrates, it has now become so muffled that it’s hard to detect. How had this happened? The story, I learned, reveals much about the long journey of the BIC Church—and offers some insights into how we might begin to recover a robust doctrine of nonconformity today.
The roots of nonconformity
What is the BIC message of nonconformity? In his account of our denomination, Quest for Piety and Obedience, historian Carlton O. Wittlinger claims that the impulse toward nonconformity was rooted in three important doctrines: the doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of conversion, and the doctrine of the Church.
First and foremost, the earliest BIC rooted their understanding of nonconformity in the Scriptures. As a generation of BIC historians and theologians have informed us—and as our founding documents make clear—the BIC were, from the outset, a people of the Book. They took seriously the authority of Scripture in both faith and practice. In light of passages like Romans 12:2 and 1 John 2:15–16, the early BIC sought to distinguish themselves from the rest of society, so as to embody more fully the perfection of Christ.
And early BIC agreed that, in order to embody that perfection, believers first had to experience a life-changing, heartfelt conversion. Which brings us to the second root of BIC nonconformity: their doctrine of salvation. For the BIC, converted individuals were not just sinners saved by God’s grace; they were new creations in Christ, reborn into a new reality. They had turned away from the old and turned to the new. Thus, they sought to follow in perfect obedience God’s will for their lives—a will that included nonconformity in day-to-day living.
Finally, the BIC rooted their understanding of nonconformity in their doctrine of the Church. For this group of Christ-followers, existence was divided into two spheres: the Church and the world. The Church included all converted Christians committed to a life of obedient discipleship—as Wittlinger described it, “an earthly microcosm of Christ’s kingdom.”2 The world included everything else: all of earthly society, from government to labor unions, from the entertainment industry to other “worldly” churches. The BIC saw these institutions as threats to the purity of Christ’s kingdom and to perfect obedience. Thus, they separated themselves fully from the rest of society, claiming that “Christians should not be conformed to this world,” as they wrote in a 19th-century Confession of Faith.
Visible witness to a changed heart
How did this understanding of nonconformity—rooted in the authority of Scripture, in a life-changing act of salvation, and in the Church conceived as a glimpse into a coming Kingdom—play out in the first two centuries of BIC history?
Historically, nonconformity was a simple matter for the BIC: We were visibly different than most of our North American neighbors. Men wore high-collared jackets and eschewed neckties; women wore long, plain dresses with a cape over the bodice, and covered their heads with a prayer veiling and bonnet.
Our church buildings were similarly modest: single-story edifices made of brick or white clapboard, without the stained-glass windows, raised pulpits, or decorated altars of most other Protestant structures. (To further suggest our nonconformity, we even called them “meetinghouses” rather than “churches.”)
These outward appearances testified to our inner commitment to humility and were intended to set an example for the “worldly” people around us. As a 19th-century BIC bishop once wrote, “Our evidence of [nonconformity], to be scripturally complete, must not only show a difference from the world, but also should be that which will . . . visibly witness to our attachment to Christ.”3 In other words, nonconformity in appearance was both a confession of a changed heart and a testimony to society.
Of course, simple living was not the only means by which we BIC historically professed our nonconformity. We registered as conscientious objectors during national and international wars, practicing the nonviolent way of our Prince of Peace while opposing the coercive violence of fallen humanity. We abstained from voting well into the 20th century, refusing to let our allegiance to Christ be compromised by our allegiance to Caesar (Matt. 22:21). We eschewed debt, movie theaters, card games, life insurance, and musical instruments, seeing all these elements as tokens of “the world” rather than the Kingdom.
Yet our nonconformity, though thorough-going, was not all-encompassing. As Wittlinger points out, the early BIC “rarely saw any danger of [the world’s ways] entering into our principal vocation” of agriculture. This, he further claims, gave the BIC license to adopt the latest innovations in farm technology and “gave indirect sanction to the aggressive pursuit of material gain”—certainly a manner contrary to the sacrificial way of Christ.4 We also didn’t avoid politics consistently. For instance, at the 1889 General Conference, the BIC debated the permissibility of voting on the issue of temperance. Ultimately, General Conference concluded that prohibition was “a moral rather than a political question” and allowed each member to determine, upon their own conscience, whether or not they would cast a ballot against the sinful liquor trade.5
Despite some exceptions, we remained nonconformed in many significant and radical ways. This vision of nonconformity, as indicated above, grew out of our Anabaptist and Pietist heritage. These two traditions gave us our theologies of the Church and of salvation, respectively, thus informing our particular notions of peculiar peoplehood. Our commitment to nonconformity was further reinforced through our adoption of the Wesleyan Holiness theology of sanctification in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For a people seeking to live obediently and to avoid the temptations of sinful society, holiness theology provided a means by which to achieve these high standards: freedom from the sin nature. Sanctification’s empowerment to live a holy life thus included empowerment to resist worldliness in all its forms.
A “strange silence”
Yet social forces at work in early 20th century North America would ultimately affect our practice of nonconformity. These challenges to nonconformity were spurred by our changing demographics. We moved away from the farm and into urban and suburban areas; we shifted from agrarian vocations and into careers in business, education, and medicine; we accepted higher education; we encountered (and sometimes adopted) new technologies; and we realized increased economic prosperity. As a result, we experienced more interactions with those outside of our churches and stronger pressure to conform to the standards of mainstream society. And driven by this pressure and by an increasing sense of individual autonomy (among other factors), many of us did.
Church leaders responded decisively. Whereas nonconformity standards had previously been unlegislated, now General Conferences in the 1920s and 30s laid down specific mandates for plain dress and recreation. Church leaders stressed the indoctrination of young people and new converts, inculcating “the ways of the Brethren” instead of encouraging discipleship. As a result, conflicts spread throughout our community, both in local congregations and in regional districts. Converts found salvation at our revival meetings, but refused to embrace nonconformity. Some longtime members were even dis-fellowshipped for their refusal to accept the mandated “plain way.” In retrospect, these efforts were earnest attempts to revitalize nonconformity and preserve expressions of faith within the community. But we also see that they were rooted in legalistic regulations and, ironically, resulted in greater diversity of practice.
In the midst of this internal turmoil, we sought resolution, as we’d done throughout our history, by refocusing our vision on Christ and by seeking out expressions of faith that might rekindle our devotional flame. Soon, we found ourselves drawn into the orbit of the Evangelical movement. Here were Bible-believing Christians committed to the Great Commission—just like us. And yet unlike us, they were not racked by internal conflict, and they were drawing unprecedented numbers of new believers into their folds. After attending a meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1950, one Brethren in Christ participant noted that Evangelicals “had a peculiar liberty and an opportunity for ministry that we did not have.”6 Clearly, this community had something to teach us.
Indeed, joining the Evangelical fold had many benefits for the BIC. It helped us become more aware of the dangers of legalism—that many had left our community because they felt like they could not live up to our high standards, standards drawn more from our own convention than from divine revelation. And it helped us to achieve greater success in mission and evangelism: By the middle decades of the 20th century, we had opened a handful of new churches and welcomed a variety of new converts into our pews.
Evangelicalism encouraged us to revise our standards of nonconformity, with the intent of being more biblically faithful and evangelistically effective. Specific mandates were replaced by general principles. Instead of requiring plain dress, we emphasized modesty. Instead of forbidding certain recreational pursuits, we encouraged wisdom and discernment in cultural activities. While this move from proscription to principle was intended to revitalize our practice of nonconformity, it instead made the doctrine more difficult to discuss in practical, tangible ways. Even mentioning the term “nonconformity” sometimes brought up painful memories of the age of legalism. Thus, the “strange silence,” spoken of by Luke Keefer, Jr., crept into our preaching and teaching. Over time, we seemed to cease using the term altogether.
Breaking the silence, renewing convictions
If the preceding historical narrative is correct, and if my growing-up experiences are in any way indicative, then the BIC have arrived in the early decades of the 21st century with an eroded doctrine of nonconformity. Occasionally, I see glimmers of nonconformity—for instance, our Core Values of pursuing peace and living simply are concepts quite foreign to the mainstream of North American society and even to other Christian faith traditions. Yet, on the whole, we look and act much like the rest of the world around us.
Now, I’m not suggesting we simply revert back to the cape dresses and instrument-less worship of an earlier age. Nevertheless, I think that many people today, like me, identify as BIC primarily because we appreciate the historic emphasis on being different and distinct. We want a Christianity that emphasizes separation unto Christ rather than conformity to culture. We want a faith that entirely embraces biblical values like peace and simplicity; that resists politicization and rejects partisan bickering; that fully relies on God and the gathered community rather than on individual achievement or success. In short, we want a Christianity that is transformed and renewed—a Christianity informed by the vision of nonconformity.
1 “Contemporary Nonconformity” by Luke L. Keefer, Jr., Evangelical Visitor (February 1990)
2 Quest for Piety and Obedience by Carlton O. Wittlinger, p. 44
3 Quoted in Quest for Piety and Obedience, p. 349
4 Quest for Piety and Obedience, p. 109
5 Quest for Piety and Obedience, p. 107
6 Quest for Piety and Obedience, p. 480