Unlike some moderate and progressive Brethren, I have always held the older generation of Brethren Revival Fellowship leadership in high regard (even though I haven’t always agreed with them). Their loyalty to the denomination has been unswerving, their focus has been consistent, and it has departed from mainstream culture — even the evangelical mainstream — in important ways.
Their grounding in an “uncritical” reading of scripture, particularly the New Testament, has led them to take positions over the years that are upsetting not only to Brethren progressives — such as their unwavering opposition to acceptance of homosexuality — but also to evangelical conservatives — such as their sponsorship of an Insight Session on nonresistance (with David Rittenhouse as speaker) in the immediate aftermath of 9/11/2001, and Harold Martin’s thoughtful 2005 article, the “New Testament Doctrine of Nonresistance.”
In the words of Jim Myer, BRF leader and former Annual Conference Moderator, the BRF has intentionally sought to respond to “the spirit of nationalism and military response [that] has been running high in some parts of the denomination.” As prophets of peace, one could argue, the older BRF leadership has been as influential (if not more so) than many Brethren moderates and progressives who have struggled to find ways to speak clearly on such matters. This older leadership also understood that “loyal concern” within the denomination meant the coupling of persistance and organization with a willingness to listen and the manifestation of a gentle spirit, a spirit different than the spirit of stridency and aggressive opposition that plays out in politics and in the larger culture.
But a new breed of Brethren conservatives has emerged, one that falls increasingly silent on the “spirit of nationalism and military response” within the church. Unfortunately, the passing of the baton to this new generation of BRF leaders may be bringing the “loyal concern movement” to a tipping point — away from “Brethren,” away from balance, away from a gentleness of spirit, and toward the very culture that the BRF has historically sought to avoid. Although this (thankfully) is not so evident on the BRF website, one has only to turn to the Dunker Journal website of the BRF Chairman to witness the storm clouds of a different brand of conservatism within the denomination.
Here are some examples:
1. Brethren who, out of their understanding of Christian love, conscientiously support allowing gays to be gay within the church are told online by the BRF Chairman that their religion is “nothing more than an emotion-driven sham.”
2. The BRF Chairman, in his “Dunker Journal” often associates his presentation of the “Brethren part of the Church of the Brethren” with the larger cultural polarization in the United States. Implicit in many of his posts is the idea that “Christian” lies not beyond both the “red” and “blue” of popular culture — as the older generation of BRF leaders might have contended — but on one side of this polarity, the red side. Recently, for example, we find him disseminating a ranking of “freedom in the 50 states,” in which the US mapping of “more free” versus “less free” states essentially parallels the maps we’ve all seen of red versus blue. The map, of course, is not the work of the BRF Chair, but its dissemination to Brethren is.
3. Relatedly, the BRF chairman aligns “the Brethren part of the Church of the Brethren” with antagonism toward the environmental movement. In one recent post, concern about climate change is termed “simply madness,” a bogeyman. The “Dunker” Journal suggests that our environment is cleaner than at any time since industrialization, “not because we live simply, but because we pursued economic growth and accumulated the wealth and expertise to mend our problems.”
4. The gentle, Brethren style of being in constructive dialogue on the issues that divide us is reflected in the BRF Chair’s posting that “Sodomite marriage has been defeated in Maine.”
5. The BRF chair finds the national influence of Jim Wallis of the Christian Sojourners community “disturbing.” He also informs us that the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer is “a politically correct mash-up.”
6. The BRF chairman falls prey to the mainstream conservative rhetoric of “Obamacare,” calling it one of the biggest anti-choice schemes around.
Enough examples. My point is not that the BRF chairman should hold or espouse different political convictions; each of us has the right to formulate our own views on such matters. Nor is it my intent to revive the Old Brethren view of politics, which was to maintain the detached attitude of a pilgrim vis-a-vis political matters. My point is that it is imprudent to present conservative Christian politics of the mainstream American variety as a “Dunker Journal” from “the Brethren part of the Church of the Brethren,” when many blog postings reflect the spirit of political battle more than the spirit of the Brethren faith. Many old-time Dunkers that I have read, studied, and known personally would be appalled.
To be fair, the Dunker Journal also posts notices of revivals, news about mission activities, statements about Brethren heritage and conviction, and other things more in line with its billing as a “Dunker Journal.” But still there is evidence of a tipping away from a Brethren approach to being a New Testament faith community, and toward something much more reflective of the popular culture.
This shift is tone is doubly grievous because it is influential. Other Brethren conservatives pick up on it, becoming even more strident in their politization of church issues. They speak of “swelling the ranks” of the truly Biblical at Annual Conference, provide counsel on how to respond to liberal “talking points,” suggest strategies for dealing with the “gay agenda,” distribute e-petitions, call for silencing discussion on homosexuality after the 2011 Annual Conference, contemplate legal moves that ensure the independence and insulation of their local congregations from Annual Conference actions should they lose, and note, of all things, that “gay activists” demonstrate their true stripes by “attacking Chick-Fil-A’s.” (A fair number of progressives too strategize, calculate, jockey for position, and make plans for “if things don’t go their way” at Annual Conference, but here I am focused upon conservatives.)
My point in all of this is to engage in the time-honored Brethren practice of admonishment, admonishing Brethren conservatives in this case to be Brethren conservatives. And admonishing coming generations of BRF leadership not to abandon the B, leaving only the RF. I’d hate to see the remnants of the BRF a decade from now standing out in Right Field, having forgotten both their New Testament anchor and Brethren moorings, buffeted by American cultural-political winds that overpower their gentle witness to nonresistance, yieldedness, a pilgrim attitude, nonconformity to the (both liberal and conservative) world, and thereby losing the power of their distinctive witness.
I would also love to see the BRF Chairman’s Dunker Journal blog sharpen its New Testiment testimony against what Jim Myer has called the “spirit of nationalism and military response” and abandon the political posturing on Obamacare and “freedom states,” which have nothing to do with the “Brethren Part of the Church of the Brethren,” as proclaimed in the blog’s masthead. Of course another option would be to drop the “Dunker journal” and “Brethren part of…” rhetoric altogether, presenting the forum transparently as a religiously interested political blog of the American conservative variety.
During the 1980s, I asked a well known BRF minister how his congregation dealt with members who enlisted in the military. Smiling, he said, “We don’t tell them they’re going to hell; we just tell them to go to the church down the street.” It was that type of consistent, Biblically-motivated binding and loosing — distinct from progressive/conservative alignments of the larger culture — that lent them my respect even when I disagreed on particular issues.
The younger generation of conservative leadership, by comparison, seem both less consistent and less Brethren. Above all, the Gospel of sexuality seems sometimes to trump the Gospel of peace. And the ancient virtues of waiting, patience, listening, yielding, and taking care not to offend — all are waiting patiently to be summoned from the sidelines.
Respectfully submitted for your consideration,