Shoring up our values in the wake of the Evangelical flood
When Jesus talks, we listen. So when early Brethren in Christ believers read “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19b–20a), we took it seriously. Our evangelistic tactic—wear plain clothes, live apart from the world—is probably no longer on anybody’s top-10 list of most effective ways to share the Gospel. But in hindsight, we can see the wisdom of our forebears, who believed quite simply that the best way to lead others to Christ was to live an authentic life of obedience; anyone hungry for peace with God would naturally seek to join us.
The difficult commission
On a cross-cultural scale, we have been going to all nations since the 1890s, when intrepid BIC believers heard God’s call to share the Gospel beyond North America. On the home front, however, making disciples was slow work. By the middle of the 20th century, we had become a cultural sect, cut off from “the world” by our lifestyle choices and dress. Not many people wanted to become Brethren in Christ, and as our children came of age, an increasing number left the Church.
Enter the Evangelical movement. Having fueled a number of revivals in England and North America, Evangelicalism preached a high view of the authority of Scripture and the importance of personal conversion. What gave Evangelicalism its name, however, was its high-octane fervor for sharing Jesus with everyone—and subsequently warming the pews with plenty of born-again converts.
Feeling irrelevant, and that we were neglecting Jesus’ commands to engage the world, we folded away our head coverings, joined the National Association of Evangelicals, and sought to move from isolation to become a more diverse, hospitable community of believers. Plain clothes gave way to more modern fashions, bi-vocational pastoral ministry was replaced by full-time pastoral staff, and Church members began voting in political elections at much higher rates than before. Following the lead of other Evangelicals, we began to focus a great deal of energy on children and youth, starting up a Bible Quizzing program and other youth outreaches.
When a trickle becomes a flood
The “Evangelicalization process” did not happen overnight—and indeed there were more than a few brothers and sisters who resisted—but over time, the Brethren in Christ Church grew from what was essentially a large extended family to a modern denomination galvanized by the Great Commission.
Ron Bowell, pastor of Crossroads BIC (Salina, Kans.), puts it this way: “Before Evangelicalism, the feeling was that, where we were visible, the world would be drawn to us. After Evangelicalism, we realized more fully our call to go out and preach the Gospel. Evangelicalism has helped us balance the call to go into the world with the call to be separate from it.”
That same call has been on the BIC since the beginning, says Heather Brickner, pastoral resident at Carlisle (Pa.) BIC: “Evangelicalism can compel us to continue the early BIC Church’s desire to see individuals, families, neighborhoods, and whole cities being transformed by Jesus Christ. If you take away its political affiliations and history of proselytizing without ongoing discipleship, Evangelicalism can serve as a catalyst to partner with God in what He is doing in all of creation.”
But, as Brickner notes, we may have gotten more than we bargained for when we jumped on the Evangelical bandwagon. With the tools for more effectively sharing the Gospel, we also received theological and practical influences that didn’t line up with our historical commitments. And more than 50 years later, we have yet to fully reconcile the discrepancies between our pre- and post-Evangelical selves. “We believed we could learn from [Evangelicalism] discreetly, adopting only what was of value,” wrote Church historian and theologian Luke Keefer, Jr., in 1996. “But the stream had more force than we anticipated. We have not domesticated [Evangelicalism . . .]; instead, it has domesticated us.”1
Validating Keefer’s concerns 16 years later, Scott Elkins, pastor of Canoe Creek BIC (Hollidaysburg, Pa.), affirms the difficulty of gleaning what’s helpful from the tradition without becoming overwhelmed by it: “Trying to learn discreetly from American Evangelicalism is like trying to sip from a fire hydrant.” As he considers its broad-ranging influence Elkins believes, “Without a doubt, Evangelicalism has affected our practice of the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan streams of our heritage.”2
A turbulent theology
Early Brethren in Christ embraced a non-participatory approach to government, insisting instead that Christ’s followers were citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. Having come from Anabaptist groups that fled religious persecution in Europe, our forebears had good reason to draw such a dramatic distinction between Church and State. But that line began to blur when Evangelical thought entered our congregations.
At the turn of the 20th century, Evangelical voices were calling loudly for the Church to become a more active political force. In many cases, Evangelicalism’s conservative theological views put it in line with conservative political perspectives, as espoused by the Republican Party. Hence the rise of the Christian Right, a socially conservative coalition that seeks to apply its understanding of Christianity to public policy. Modern critics of the Christian Right point out that Jesus was not a Republican, but early Anabaptists would probably go a step farther and remind us all—wherever we are on the political spectrum—that our ultimate citizenship is in heaven. They knew how easily nationalism and social agendas could take the place of our allegiance to Jesus, and they steered clear of politics. “If we know our heritage well,” wrote Keefer, “we shall realize that what we stand for is a model of the [C]hurch’s penetration of the world which avoids aggressive use of the state to achieve religious and moral ends. The [C]hurch’s responsibility to the world is that of witness and friend. We are not in the position to be its master.”1
With wider political participation also came a greater acceptance of military involvement among our membership. For hundreds of years, non-resistance was a defining component of Anabaptist discipleship; when Evangelicalism entered the Brethren in Christ bloodstream, it became one of many ways to interpret Jesus’ words about peace. Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and a credentialed BIC pastor from Lansdale, Pa., laments this waning commitment. “Our tendency and temptation as we’ve come in contact with Evangelicals has been to lose the peace witness,” Sider says. “Thinking and saying that Jesus meant His disciples never to kill? That’s a very unpopular thing in the Evangelical world.”
We must continue to highly value Scripture, we must share the Gospel, we must disciple, and we
must go to the lost—this
is not just acceptable Evangelicalism, it is who we have always been.
—Hank Johnson, Harrisburg (Pa.) BIC
And perhaps that’s due in part to a changed understanding of salvation and discipleship, courtesy of—you guessed it—Evangelicalism. The Evangelical impulse to lead others to salvation—while well-intentioned—has frequently been characterized by a lack of follow-through in the area of discipleship. If you take the “once-saved, always-saved” view, there’s little motivation to help new believers grow in continual obedience and surrender to God through relationship with Him.
“Our Brethren in Christ ancestors understood true conversion to be substantiated by following Jesus, not merely, ‘Repeat this prayer after me,’” says Timothy Fisher, pastor of the Walkersville (Md.) Community Church and a member of the BIC Commission on Ministry and Doctrine. “This is a message that Evangelicalism needs to hear. In many cases, the salvation Jesus described as narrow and hard is substituted by a salvation that demands nothing.”
Fred Miller, pastor of Cumberland Valley BIC (Dillsburg, Pa.) agrees: “This ‘easy salvation’ has affected the BIC, especially in ministry to children and youth. The view that people become Christians by believing the correct things has lost the Gospel’s transformational emphasis and requirement that we acknowledge Jesus for all He is for us—Savior, Lord, friend, teacher, bread, and water.”
Our BIC predecessors more clearly understood that salvation demanded everything—full submission to God and unfailing dedication to the faith community. Ruth Pawelski, 78, a member of the Dayton (Ohio) Mission, reflects that discipleship and obedience to God were key teachings in her Brethren in Christ upbringing. “We were taught tremendous faith in the Scriptures from [the time we were little],” Pawelski remembers. “So when we were taught specifics or principles from God’s word, we were eager to understand them. And because, with loving nurture, we had also been led to embrace the truth that loving and obeying God with all our hearts was the only satisfactory way to live, we espoused them.”
We’ve come a long way from the Church of Pawelski’s childhood. Ron Sider remembers joining the Church as a teenager in the 1950s, listening to Matthew 18 and solemnly promising to submit to correction by another believer if he was found to be sinning. “That’s been lost,” Sider says. “There’s a sense that it’s just a matter of me and Jesus, me and God. But Christian community is also a matter of being brothers and sisters and being accountable.”
Eduardo Llanes, who served as bishop of the Southeast Regional Conference from 2006–2012, is not quick to be critical of Evangelicalism. However, he acknowledges that Evangelicalism has, at times, deemphasized communal connection and accountability, teachings that have been revitalized through the community-oriented Hispanic BIC churches planted over the last 20 years. “Evangelicalism can espouse individualism,” he observes. “Instead, we stress the need for life in community.”
A call to communal discernment
As Brethren in Christ, we are accountable to one another as we discern what it means to be faithful Christ-followers in our current age. Key voices within our community have been proclaiming that it’s time to fully assess Evangelicalism and its influence on us, to claim the tenets of Evangelicalism we can affirm, and discard what we cannot. “Our great mistake was embracing Evangelicalism without critique, and embracing North American culture without shame,” observes Nate Hulfish, pastor of Circle of Hope Marlton and Crescent (Pennsauken, N.J.). “We have—like good American citizens—gone with what works because being a citizen of the kingdom of God is too demanding and requires too much trust in Jesus.”3
At the same time, Eduardo Llanes maintains that taking into account voices from across the BIC U.S. family—including those of us who are Spanish-speaking—will provide crucial insight and perspective as we tease out the extent to which we identify as Evangelicals. “Among Hispanic people, Evangelicalism has a very different meaning than it does in the North American mainstream,” he explains. “For Spanish-speakers, being Evangelical has to do with passionate faith and charismatic worship. I am eager to embrace the gifts that Evangelicalism has to offer us in how we understand our call to follow Christ.”
How do we begin to navigate these waters? Hank Johnson, youth pastor at Harrisburg (Pa.) BIC, says we have already made a good start: “We must continue to highly value Scripture, we must share the Gospel, we must disciple, and we must go to the lost—this is not just acceptable Evangelicalism, it is who we have always been.” However, Johnson insists, “We must no longer let Evangelicalism erode our view of salvation, our focus on discipleship, our value of piety and obedience, our doctrine of two kingdoms, or our theology of life.”
And, if the popularity of recent books by authors such as David Platt, Kyle Idleman, Carolyn Custis James, and Shane Claiborne exploring these alternative perspectives are any indication, Evangelicals are hungry for much of what the BIC Church stands for.
“I frankly think that the combination we have of Anabaptism, Pietism, Wesleyanism, and Evangelicalism—with a strong emphasis that the Holy Spirit intends to change us and sanctify us—is finally solidly biblical,” says Ron Sider. “We have a lot to give.”
That is, if we can find the still waters beyond the convergence of all these theological streams. But Beth Claassen-Thrush, of Upland (Calif.) BIC, offers hope. “As we have been engaged in this identity crisis,” she says, “suddenly Evangelicalism itself slows down and catches a whiff of something ‘new’ and enticing—and it smells a lot like Anabaptism.”4 With Jesus sending us, let’s go and make disciples—in our very own Anabaptist-Pietist-Wesleyan-Evangelical style, of course.
1 “The Three Streams of Our Heritage: Separate or Part of a Whole?” by Luke Keefer, Jr., reprinted in the August 2012 issue of Brethren in Christ History and Life.
2 “Sipping from the Fire Hydrant of Evangelicalism: A Response to Luke L. Keefer, Jr.,” Brethren in Christ History and Life, August 2012.
3 “Why We Must Take the Three (or Four) Streams in Our History Seriously: A Panel,” Brethren in Christ History and Life, April 2013.
4 “Fellow Pilgrims: A Response to Luke L. Keefer, Jr.,” Brethren in Christ History and Life, August 2012.