Though their conceptions of a theological threshold for membership are very different, Josh Brockway’s recent postings brought to mind one of pastor David Stiles’ old postings over at Brethren for Biblical Authority. In it, David wrote:
“If we are following Biblical Authority, then we have the absolute centrality that: Jesus is Lord! Without that, we have nothing….
To function together as a united church, shouldn’t we have what I’m going to call a ‘minimal orthodoxy?’”
Brother David’s search for “minimal orthodoxy” led him to these convictions from the 1923 Brethren Card. The Church of the Brethren:
1- firmly accepts and teaches the fundamental evangelical doctrines of the inspiration of the Bible,
2- the personality of the Holy Spirit,
3- the virgin birth,
4 – the deity of Christ,
5 – the sin-pardoning value of His atonement,
6- His resurrection from the tomb,
7 – ascension and personal and visible return,
8 – and the resurrection both of the just and the unjust.
In Portrait of a People, I have described the bulk of today’s Brethren as theologically conservative; that much is irrefutable in the BMP data. Even so, a singular focus upon the dominant pattern begs the question, What exists at the theological margins, beyond the Brethren conservatism?
My recent observation that an estimated 18,000 members “have doubts” about God’s existence led me to wonder how many Brethren depart from the other tenets of the “minimal orthodoxy” presented above. Point by point, here are the results from the BMP data expressed as the estimated number of members with particular dissenting views. (Somehow it is easier to disregard “5% of the membership” than “6,500 members” even though they are the same figure in a denomination of approximately 130,000. )
1. Approximately 12,000 Brethren reject the position that the Bible is God’s Word, viewing it instead as an ancient book of stories or as having no relevance for today. Another 58,000 members believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, but say that not everything in it should be taken literally.
2. The BMP contains nothing on the “personality” of the Holy Spirit, but does suggest that about 7,000 Brethren never seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Broadening the category a bit, over 25,000 Brethren (more than a fifth of the membership) say they seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance once a month or less. What is more, about 31,000 Brethren (over a quarter of the membership) believe the “charismatic gifts” of the Spirit such as healing, prophesying, and speaking in tongues are more human than divine in origin, reflecting human emotion more than God’s Spirit. A smaller number — about 10,000 — go so far as to say the “Holy Spirit” is just another name for “human insight or inspiration.”
3. Over 12,000 Brethren cannot quite accept the idea that Jesus was born of a virgin. Instead, they say either that they “don’t believe” in the virgin birth or that they are “not sure” what they believe. These 12,000 members represent about 10% of the total membership.
4. About 6,000 members (5% of the membership) don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. Relatedly, about 17,000 members reject the idea that Jesus is the clearest revelation of God, saying instead that Jesus is but “one of many ways” to God or that Jesus was a great prophet and teacher, but “not more than that.”
5. The BMP included no questions about “the sin-pardoning value of Jesus’ atonement,” but did ask whether Brethren considered themselves “saved.” Nearly two-thirds of the membership (63%) said, “yes, I know I am saved,” but this leaves many who gave other answers. About 34,000 Brethren (26%), for example, respond, “I can’t say for sure; only God knows if I am saved.” Another 7,000 admit that “being saved is not central to my faith,” and 3,500 say the “people who know them best” can answer that question better than they can. All told, nearly 50,000 members give some response other than “yes, I know I am saved.”
6. Ninety percent of Brethren say they believe Jesus “physically arose from the dead,” but this leaves 10% — about 13,000 church members — who say either that they aren’t sure, don’t believe it, or decline to answer the question.
7. Over 25,000 members, when asked whether they believe Jesus will physically return to earth, respond with something other than a definite “yes.” Most of the 25,000 say they aren’t sure what they believe about Jesus’ return, but 5,000 reject the idea.
8. When asked whether they believe in life after death, 15,000 Brethren equivocate, responding with something other than “yes.” Even more vacillate on, or reject outright, the idea of hell as a place of eternal punishment — over 30,000 to be precise. The majority of Brethren do believe in hell, but it is notable that a quarter of today’s Brethren question the notion of eternal punishment.
In social surveys such as the Brethren Member Profile, the story of variability — departure from the norm — is often buried by a narrative of averages and dominant patterns. This is unfortunate because the full “portrait of a people” is comprised of both prevailing patterns and departures. What happens at the margins is noteworthy and shouldn’t be treated as if it weren’t part of the fuller portrait.
Beyond the percentages, manufacturers, publishers, etc. pay great attention to the absolute number of purchasers and subscribers. About 8% of the Brethren membership, for example, subscribe to The Messenger. Doesn’t sound like much. But 8% is over 10,000 subscribers — a smaller number than the publishers would wish, but an important base of readers. A survey researcher might write such a small percentage off as inconsequential, yet if 10,000 subscribers are married to 10,000 partners, we may be looking at closer to 20,000 readers. And depending upon their social relationships, these 20,000 may impact a much broader network.
All of the figures in points 1 through 8 above should be digested with that in mind. Small percentages reflect larger numbers of real members — members who may be broadly influential because of their social networks, or members who may be fading to the margins and the memory of the Brethren world — disenchanted at the disjuncture between their own views and those of the majority.