I have been asked before, “What is Brethren”? I know the answer. But to do justice to what is a Brethren cannot be done in one sentence or thought. The question is really asking, “How is Brethren different than Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, or even Catholics?”
Brethren are not small, insignificant, and out of the way denomination. Instead, the Brethren are very deep and rich in History, legacy, and stances. To capture that entirety in one blog would be laughably inexcusable. Time would fail to write about Johannes Naas, Alexandar Mack, and many, many others. But what makes Brethren different?
There is a great work called, Fruit of the Vine, by Donald Durnbaugh. It is a very strong and powerful work that really gives a good History of the Brethren. But we still have not answered the question, "What is Brethren?"
I should start with the easy answer first. We are like other denominations in some core beliefs of the traditional faith. We believe that Jesus is the Only way to the Father (John 14:6). We believe we do not need a mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5). We believe in salvation is by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8; Titus 3:5; etc.). We believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16). We believe baptism is only for believers and is done three times forward (Matthew 28:19; Acts 8:36-38). These are generalities, of course, and I would encourage reading the Statement of Faith as well as the Brethren Card. So there are some overlap from the other denominations as long as they hold to these things. But there are several areas which set us apart. Durnbaugh lays these out and I will do a very brief enumeration here. But Durnbaugh even says on page 45 of his work,
"Because the Brethren were in reaction to what they considered to be an overly creedalized and dogmatic state church, they opposed any effort to spell out their beliefs in a systematic and complete fashion."
Therefore, in that tradition, I would reiterate our forefathers by saying, "We have no creed but the New Testament." Yet, reading many Brethren writers, apologists, and founders, we do get a sense of a shared belief that is common among Brethren. That is what we will put down.
1. Discipleship and Obedience. The Brethren believe that true faith will in fact bring forth true obedience. A faith that does not produce such is no faith at all. So when many who claim Christianity live lives and possess actions which are the very antithesis of the Scripture, the Brethren would look at that and wonder if true faith is even found. We are saved by faith, and that faith will demand of us obedience to our Master. Then, through discipleship we grow and mature in our faith, desiring to become more like Him, learning from Him, and about Him. This is discipleship.
2. Restitution. This is not what our society is pushing as being reparations. That is not Biblical. Restitution is something else. In this sense, the Brethren desire to RESTORE the early church's life and virtues. The further we have come from the time of Jesus, the more convoluted and watered down "Christianity" has become. Brethren desired and desire to return the church to the early days.
3. Nonconformity. When we see Christians today, often it is hard to distinguish them from the world. It has been shared with me personally that Christians are the worst group to do work for and business with. They try to avoid paying or pay so little that it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the business. Often you will find a "Christian" in a bar dressed in a way that leaves little to the imagination, and then on Sunday singing, "Holy, Holy, Holy". The jokes between the world and Christians: same. The movies: same. The clothes: same. The attitudes: Same. The actions and reactions: Same. The point being, Brethren believe there must be a set standard that differentiates between the world and Christians. What is done in the world should NEVER be considered for a church or believers. This is nonconformity. We follow a different Master. One who demands us to be different.
4. Church Discipline. Churches and Christianity handle discipline differently. Everything from, "Come as you are, we love you for you!" to "Tow the line or else!". Brethren hold to Church Discipline in areas that are deemed absolute by Scripture. Alexandar Mack dealt with this in his writings, Rights and Ordinances. This includes even banning one from church (following Matthew 18:15-19). Brethren do not practice this haphazardly or gleefully. We do so to keep the Body of Christ pure and clean; to encourage the body to grow and mature in Holiness. The phenomena of just accepting anyone and everyone and all they do is something that Brethren do not believe. We believe all come to salvation in Jesus Christ and none are turned away no matter their past. But they do not have a right to live and stay as they were or are. They are to change and transform into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29-30).
5. Mutual Aid. Brethren believe in giving aid to help those in the congregation. The physical care and well being is important, therefore those in the body who are in need of aid are cared for as best as possible. I could tell story after story of this, even from Calvary, but I will refrain for privacy. This is practiced in Brethren churches, and beautifully so. Early Brethren would do without so their brothers and sisters would also be helped. But it isn't just in the church. Other Brethren churches in need, can receive help. Other ministries (The Covenant Brethren Church, and Calvary CBC partner with Samaritan's Purse to aid in disaster relief in the nation and around the world).
6. Biblicism. In the "Christian Culture", there are many who profess to be Christian that cast doubt on the very Word of God. Brethren do not. Instead, Brethren were known and should still be known as the people of the Book. The Bible informs, instructs, corrects, and moves us. We hold to the Bible and its inspiration. We may not agree on everything in regards to interpretation, but we do not doubt the Word of God and what it says. Their are varying positions within Brethren for sure. Some hold to the modern Greek texts by Nestle-Alan, and others hold to the Textus Receptus. This is not the post for such a debate, but through this whole thing, God's Word is held and revered. It alone is our soul source of authority and control. The Word of God, given by God perfectly to us so we can be instructed in how to live. But Durnbaugh says it best,
Because the Brethren were not highly educated, their approach was to take the Bible in a straightforward, common-sense manner. They undertook to interpret the Bible together, believing that the Holy Spirit would assist the faithful..."
It is in this we find the statement, "We have no creed, but the New Testament is our rule of faith and practice." (quoted also in Durnbaugh's Fruit of the Vine, page 49). The Brethren believe that all Christians MUST have the same love and respect for God's Word. Cherish it. Uphold it. Love it. Read it. Live by it.
7. Nonresistance. The Brethren are what is called the traditional peace church. We do not believe that war is the answer to disagreements. Brethren also are Conscientious Objectors (or we disagree with going to war and taking lives). Much of this comes from what they experienced but also because of how they followed Jesus (John 18:36). The only way to solve problems and conflict is not by war but by calling all men everywhere to repent of their sins, confess them to God and be saved by Jesus Christ who is the true Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). This is the only way for peace and bringing about the change desired. Today's Brethren vary on this point. There are some Brethren that are in the all war is evil camp. Others celebrate Veterens Day, Fourth of July, etc. with flags, ceremony, and songs. Some are in the middle. We recognize our roots, but we are also very thankful for those who have put their life on the line, and remember those who paid the ultimate price for our civil liberties. We do not shun or shame them for their decision to be in the service, but welcome them with open arms, whether they are joining, active, or retired. We do not believe that war solves problems, but we recognize God given authority for government to use force for defense and protection. We also recognize that God uses war and conflit to further His plans and to execute His judgement on sinful nations and people (Israel against the Caananites [Deuteronomy 9:5; 18:9, 12; Leviticus 18:24-25]; Assyrians against Israel[Isaiah 10:5-21]; Babylon against Judah [Ezekiel 21]). However, we desire and long for true peace. Eternal peace. That comes from the knowledge of Jesus Christ and His salvation He offers to everyone, everywhere. The encouragement would be to ask the Brethren where they stand. This will be more exact than what can be covered on a blog post.
8. Love and Unity. This is what early Brethren are known for. Many churches are known for this, some are less. But Brethren made this their lifestyle. Even in the church discipline, it was motivated by love. Alexander Mack, as stated by Durnbaugh,
"They rejected the soft and permissive "false love" practiced among some Pietists who shrank from honest confrontation. Nevertheless, the warmth and sincerity of their concern for fellow members were widely recognized and proved to be attractive to new converts." (Durnbaugh, Fruit of the Vine, page 50)
Love is not just being nice and pleasant. Love also calls for hard confrontation, as long as it is done with the purpose of bringing back the unity. The Brethren were not interested in unity, simply on a creedal system where everything else does not matter. The Brethren believed that unity was to be found in all parts of life, both public and private. The shared faith in Jesus Christ. The unity built upon that faith. The demands and expectations that it held. That was the basis of unity and love.
Sadly, as time has progressed, even many Brethren do not always practice this or have completely walked away from being Brethren. But some Brethren still hold fast to the truth and the standards set forth by our forefathers from as early as 1708. It is in these segments of Brethren we find these teachings practiced and life lived.
So, what is Brethren? It is more than just a denomination. Brethren themselves come from two threads called Pietism and Anabaptist which guides and shapes us. This also separates us from the reformers of times past and were therefore persecuted, not only by governments and states, but also by those who were part of the sanctioned churches and faith (Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics). But it was our core beliefs and faith that we held and still hold to. They free us, and strengthen us. They move us and mold us. They make us who we are because we find them in the pages of the eternal Word of God.
Who are Brethren? Yes, it is a denomination, but it is not just a denomination. It is deeper than that. Brethren is a practice of faith but Brethren is a way of life.