One Community of Believers

The Brethren in Christ have most strongly sought after the goal of piety—making its pursuit one of the primary aspects of the Church’s identity. Carlton O. Wittlinger refers to piety as:

“…a personal, heartfelt relationship with God through Jesus Christ… the experiential, subjective aspect of the Christian faith, an emphasis historically identified with the movement known as Pietism.”[1]

While an equal part of Wittlinger’s writing was also on the idea of the Anabaptist idea of obedience, seeking after piety was more important to the Church.

Many of the earliest members of the River Brethren were Mennonites.[2] Having been members of the Anabaptist tradition, they had been encouraged to live a life of obedience. However, I hypothesize that obedience by itself was not fulfilling enough for the Church patriarchs and matriarchs. Wittlinger postulates that the early River Brethren might have desired to break away from some Mennonite details of faith and turn to a more Pietistic understanding of faith.[3] As such, they sought after the Pietistic experience that they observed among the Dunkers and the followers of Martin Boehm.

It is important to keep in perspective that the Church also had to balance the tension of both piety and obedience. On the one hand, piety was the driving force for the church’s desire to form its own identity. On the other hand, there was a significant desire for the church to retain a focus on obedience through Anabaptist theological ideas such as biblical literalism, nonconformity, and the separation of church and state—just to name a few. This tension led the Church to a place of recognizing that they were not saved by works of obedience, but that they could not ignore the importance of being obedient as a result of faith.[4] Even if there was a tension between piety and obedience, it appears as though seeking after the Pietistic experience was the primary aspiration of the Church, while often succumbing to the tendency of focusing on obedience through works. Wittlinger notes:

“The strong emphasis upon the fruits of conversion… sometimes produce a legalistic frame of mind. Since overt conduct stood out more conspicuously than inner attitudes, they could perceive correct outward forms more easily than changed hearts. The result was that some members became legalistic and failed to perceive clearly the full implications of the doctrine of salvation by grace.”[5]

Someone could make the argument that because of the legalism that prevailed throughout periods of the Church’s history, that the pursuit of obedience was the most important value of its members. As students of history, we have to be careful not to assume that the reality of a people group was necessarily synonymous with its primary goal. The Church used the value of piety to re-center itself from relying too heavily on works. In times throughout the Church’s history when it would lean too far in the direction of obedience, we have seen the Pietistic passion for renewal rekindled.

The Brethren in Christ pursuit of piety was not only the most important aspiration but was also one of the Church’s greatest strengths. My primary rationale for identifying piety as a strength is based on the fact that this value positioned the Church to be open to change. This openness had its challenges—which I will address further in the next section—but the openness allowed the Church to be more forward-thinking than some of its Anabaptist counterparts.

Owen H. Alderfer indicates that the Brethren in Christ incorporated new changes but…

“…has been balanced with a closedness to new ideas and ways at many points, the readiness to accept new ideas and ways—if they are adequately supported by proper authority—has repeatedly come forward.”[6]

Alderfer continues to list several significant changes that occurred in a thirty-year period of 1880–1910:

“Sunday School, revival meetings, world missions, the Visitor, a college, and holiness…”[7]

The fact that the Church embraced six substantial changes in a period that was one-third the duration of the Church’s prior existence proves that there was an openness to change. One of Alderfer’s theses is that piety and the “Brethren mindset” are responsible for this openness.[8]Along with substantial changes regarding the methodology of ministry, the Church underwent significant geographic expansion, even if it did not achieve great numerical growth. Largely due to promises of better economic prospects, the Church expanded into Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Ontario, and later into other provinces/states.[9] It seemed as though the Pietistic-leaning members of the Church were more open to moving into new areas. With this openness to move, came an openness to new ideas. Wittlinger indicates:

“Those who participated were among the most courageous and adaptable of the membership. Their ventures into and through newly developing areas of Canada and the United States exposed them to new climates, new peoples, and perhaps most important, new ideas.”[10]

The acceptance of new ideas helped the Church embrace the idea of carrying out mission work. Although there were contentious times for the Church regarding the execution of mission work, they were able to carry out new methods for reaching people in rural, urban, and global locations. These new corporate methods of evangelism helped to bring new spiritual life into the Church.[11] Wittlinger makes an important observation regarding one of the outcomes of Brethren in Christ mission work:

“…missions encouraged the Brethren to reevaluate some of their historic beliefs and practices… intermingling [with evangelical Christians] created a setting in which some Brethren began to modify their historic tendency to stress differences between themselves and others and to stress similarities instead.”[12]

While it can be important for a denominational group to emphasize its differences, I suspect that this practice could have led to legalism among the Church. The Pietistic strand running through the Church’s tapestry enabled its members to begin seeing its interconnectedness with other Christians.

One’s greatest strength is often also his or her greatest weakness in excess. Such is the case for the Brethren in Christ in regards to the issue of piety. The Church’s Pietistic identity helped balance the obedience-driven nature of itself, but often at the expense of being exposed to some questionable theological and methodological concepts and practices. Essentially, the Church’s openness has allowed it to become susceptible to some new ideas while continuing to hold on to some less-than-ideal ideas which were learned many decades before. There are two specific theological streams which have influenced the Church over the past century which I believe might have had some dangerous effects on its members: the American Holiness Movement and Evangelicalism.

The Church often uses the term “Wesleyan” to describe its third theological influence, but I believe that the American Holiness Movement is a better term to use when describing the specific branch of Wesleyan theology which most influenced the Church. Wesleyan theology could have been the theological stream which could have united piety and obedience—helping to bring resolution to the tension of Pietism and Anabaptism.

However, the holiness influence brought about great strife among the Church’s members, particularly regarding the concept of a definitive second work of grace. In the early 1930s, the Brethren in Christ saw a significant increase in holiness perspectives being presented in the Evangelical Visitor.[13] In 1937, the Church saw a doctrinal statement which nearly endorsed the concept of perfectionism.[14]

While the classical Wesleyan idea of Christian perfection is founded in liberation from sin, it appears that the idea of American Holiness perfection brought with it a sense of legalism when combined with Anabaptist and Pietistic ideals. Wittlinger highlights a staggering statistic that in the 1930s the Church experienced a plateau, including disinterest from outsiders and poor retention of church members’ children.[15]

There might be some correlation between a strong adoption of holiness theology and the stagnation that the Church experienced from the 1930–1950s. Wittlinger quotes one of the members who were present at a conversation held in an Indianapolis hotel room at the National Association of Evangelicals convention:

“There was unanimity within the group that we had come into legal bondage… we had been feeling almost wrongly about the outside, and we found that they had a peculiar liberty and an opportunity for ministry that we did not have.”[16]

Luke Keefer Jr. identifies that the holiness understanding of faith and practice would significantly alter starting in the 1950s resultant of this event in Indianapolis.[17] Holiness theology began to give way to a new stream of influence for the Brethren in Christ—Evangelicalism. While this new evangelical influence provided much-needed changes in the Church, it also created tension that eroded the Anabaptist aspect of the community. Wittlinger states that the changes due to evangelical influence led to greater individualistic Pietism at the expense of Anabaptism, bringing back into focus the debate of piety and obedience.[18] Keefer makes an important observation that Evangelicalism was born from Calvinistic Fundamentalism, resulting in a mild-Calvinistic model that could be adopted by other theological streams.[19] He further indicates:

“We believed we could learn from it discretely, adopting only what we felt was of value. But the stream had more force than was anticipated. We have not domesticated it as we did Wesleyanism; instead it has domesticated us.”[20]

My concern about the shortcomings of Pietism is an echo of Keefer’s words of caution. Just as Evangelicalism had greater force than we anticipated, the Church must also be aware not to let other sources erode the Church’s theological identity. This could include theological identities such as Calvinism, Pentecostalism, Protestant Liberalism, etc. Admittedly, I tend to lean more toward the Anabaptist side of the Church’s spectrum, but I know that I need Pietism to balance my understanding of faith, just as the Church’s founders did. I find value in Pietism, Wesleyanism, and Evangelicalism, but I fear Anabaptism being eclipsed by any one of these streams. What makes the Brethren in Christ unique has been the ability to synthesize several meaningful Christian traditions into one community of believers.

This article has been adapted from an essay written for the Brethren in Christ U.S. History & Values Core Course.

[1] Carlton O. Wittlinger, Quest for piety and obedience: the story of the Brethren in Christ (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), ix.
[2] Ibid., 18.
[3] Ibid., 19.
[4] Ibid., 42.
[5] Ibid., 41–42.
[6] E. Morris Sider, ed., Reflections on a heritage: defining the Brethren in Christ (Grantham, Pa.: Brethren in Christ Historical Society, 1999), 146.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Wittlinger, 131–132.
[10] Ibid., 151.
[11] Ibid., 192.
[12] Ibid., 192–193.
[13] Ibid., 328.
[14] Ibid., 331.
[15] Ibid., 476.
[16] Ibid., 480.
[17] Sider, 39.
[18] Wittlinger, 498.
[19] Sider, 41.
[20] Sider, 43.

Tidemand, Adolph. Low Church Devotion. 1852. Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo, Norway.
This painting highlights a Pietist conventicle gathering of lay people, who were part of the Haugean movement in Norway. Although this movement likely had no influence on the Brethren in Christ, this image has often been used to symbolize Pietism.

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