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Anabaptism, Pietism, and the Brethren in Christ’s “Original Brew”

(IN PART / Nate Bridi)

As I’ve written previously, In Part magazine — a periodical published by the Brethren in Christ Church in the U.S. — has embarked on a four-issue journey through the theological traditions that shape our denomination. The first issue, on Anabaptism, appeared last month. (The spring 2013 issue, on Pietism, features an article by yours truly.)

I took some time to better scrutinize the winter 2012 issue, and was pleasantly surprised to read Bishop Perry Engle’s take on the “original brew” of traditions that has shaped the Brethren in Christ. I love Perry’s writing in general, but particularly appreciated this column.

Here’s a taste:

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.

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.

Read the whole article here.

I find Perry’s analysis, at a theological level, to be pretty accurate. Historically, things are slightly more nuanced, but the basic thrust is correct.

I know there are a great many Brethren in Christ — many of whom I know and love — that would balk at Perry’s suggestion that Evangelicalism “waters down” the original synthesis of theological traditions in our church. They see Evangelicalism as a potent force for good within the denomination. They would say that aspects of Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism are the real “problem influences  in the Brethren in Christ. They’d point to Anabaptism’s separatism, or Wesleyanism’s legalism, as the real problems. And they’d likely point to Evangelicalism as the panacea.

Certainly, as Perry indicates, aspects of the Evangelical impulse can and have strengthened our theology and practice. Yet because Evangelicalism is such a diverse and popular movement, much of its insights and ideologies also conflict with our Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan roots.

Readers: What do you think? Does Evangelicalism “water down” our theological “brew”? Or are Anabaptism, Pietism, and Wesleyanism the real “flavor-takers”? What good influences do we draw from these traditions? What bad “habits” have we also picked up?

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