The central emphasis of the Church of the Brethren is not a creed, but a commitment to follow Christ in simple obedience, to be faithful disciples in the modern world. As do most other Christians, the Brethren believe in God as Creator and loving Sustainer. We confess the Lordship of Christ, and we seek to be guided by the Holy Spirit in every aspect of life, thought, and mission.
We hold the New Testament as our guidebook for living, affirming with it the need for lifelong and faithful study of the Scriptures. Brethren believe that God has revealed an unfolding purpose for the human family and the universe through the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament), and fully in the New Testament. We hold the New Testament as the record of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and of the beginnings of the life and thought of the Christian church.
Faithful following of Jesus Christ and obedience to the will of God as revealed in the Scriptures have led us to emphasize principles that we believe are central in true discipleship. Among these are peace and reconciliation, simple living, integrity of speech, family values, and service to neighbors near and far.
(Drawn from “The Brethren Heritage,” Elizabethtown College)
What it means to be a Christian?
The specific words vary from congregation to congregation as members are received into the church, but all affirm their belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. They promise to turn from sin and to live in faithfulness to God and to the church, taking the example and teachings of Jesus as a model. Brethren never stop discussing what that model means for the daily life of the believer.
Seeking to follow Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world” (NRSV), Brethren insist members should not thoughtlessly adopt the patterns of the world around them. At an earlier time, features like dress, homes, and meetinghouses were distinictively plain as we sought to live what was called “the simple life.” Brethren refused military service and practiced nonviolence in the face of violence. We refused to take oaths or go to court to solve problems. These practices set us apart from the world.
Today we seek to interpret biblical teachings in fresh ways for our day. We encourage members to think about what they buy and how they use their money in an affluent society. We are sensitive to the limited resources of our global community. We encourage people to “affirm” rather than “swear” when taking an oath. With earlier Brethren, we believe that “our word should be as good as our bond.”
Above all, Brethren seek to pattern their daily living after the life of Jesus: a life of humble service and unconditional love. As part of a larger body of believers—the church, the body of Christ—we go into all the world today with a mission of witness, service, and reconciliation.
(Drawn from “Who Are These Brethren?,” by Joan Deeter; “Reflections on Brethren Heritage and Identity,” Brethren Press; “The Brethren Heritage,” Elizabethtown College)
How do we live out our faith?
It is easy to talk about faith and never get around to doing anything. So the continuing call is to “walk the talk.” Alexander Mack, the leader of the earliest Brethren, insisted that they could be recognized “by the manner of their living.”
Being a disciple of Jesus Christ, then, affects everything that we say and do. Obedience—meaning obedience of Jesus—has been a key word among Brethren. What we do in the world is just as important as what we do in the church. Christ’s style of self-giving love is the example we are called to follow in all our relationships.
That belief shows itself in the giving nature of Brethren. We respond quickly to need. We send money and volunteers to disaster sites. We support soup kitchens, day-care centers, and homeless shelters in our communities. Thousands of people have served around the world through Brethren Volunteer Service. People often know the Brethren through our ministries of compassion.
We believe following Christ means following his example of serving others, healing the broken, and bringing new life and hope to the despairing. We take seriously Jesus’ call to love all people, including the “enemy.”
In fact, the Church of the Brethren is known as one of the Historic Peace Churches. Brethren have considered participation in war to be unacceptable for Christians and have based this understanding on the teachings of Jesus and on other New Testament texts.
In our concern for the well-being of neighbors near and far, Brethren have begun creative programs to enable the world’s poor to walk toward a better life. Heifer Project International (providing livestock for poor families) and SERRV International (supporting craft producers in developing countries), for example, were both begun by Brethren before they grew into ecumenical ministries.
“For the glory of God and my neighbors’ good” was a motto of an early Brethren leader, whose own successful printing operation was destroyed due to his opposition to the Revolutionary War. This two-part phrase, turning us both toward God in devotion and toward our neighbors in service, remains an appropriate summary of the church’s understanding of the nature of Christian faith.
(Drawn from “Who Are These Brethren?,” Joan Deeter; and “Reflections on Brethren Witness” by David Radcliff)
Brethren have a long tradition of “gathering around the Word.” Taking the New Testament as our guide, we discuss what Jesus did—and why. Then we try to pattern our own lives after his.
“Where two or three are gathered together in my name,” Jesus promised, “there am I in the midst of them.” Through the practices described here, Brethren come together—as small groups or larger ones—in loving imitation of Jesus’ actions. At these times, we’re especially aware of God’s presence. We call these practices our ordinances, beause we think of them as instructions from God.
Before making any serious commitment—to marry, to accept a responsible office, to practice healthier living—a person considers the meaning and consequences of that choice. Often, he or she undergoes a public ceremony to acknowledge the momentous personal decision. For Brethren, the ordinance of “believers’ baptism” marks just such a deliberate, thoughtful commitment.
Choosing to follow the example of Jesus begins with repenting, or humbly re-examining one’s relationship with God. Jesus himself showed us the way: He asked to be baptized by John, and he instructed his disciples to baptize others who wanted to be symbolically “reborn” through God’s grace, into a new life of mature belief and service.
Three hundred years ago, the first Brethren chose adult baptism as their ceremonial response to God’s saving act—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today, in the presence of the congregation, a newly committed person kneels in the water of the baptistry, publicly acknowledges his or her decision, and is immersed three times forward, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Through this symbolic cleansing and rebirth, the person becomes a full member of the Brethren congregation and of the larger body of Christ. The decision to be baptized indicates a willingness to take on both the joy and the responsibility of living Jesus’ teachings.
Jesus knew that this evening, this meal, was the last time he and his twelve disciples would gather as a group. He wanted his followers to remember, in the difficult days ahead, why he had come and what he had taught them. When the disciples began to argue about which of them was more important, Jesus decided to make his lesson plain: Taking a towel and a basin of water, this great teacher knelt beside the first disciple—and did not stop until, like a lowly servant, he had washed the feet of each one there.
By including the service of feetwashing in our love feast, Brethren imitate Jesus’actions and honor his lessons. No person ought to be greater than another, Jesus taught. Love has no need to prove status or position; love simply gives—and keeps on giving.
A symbolic, cleansing act, feetwashing prepares us for the meal and communion that follow. It reminds us that in God’s sight, everyone needs loving attention, and everyone can offer that service to others. First we humbly accept attention and care from the one who washes our feet. Then we in turn wash someone else’s feet. After each act of feetwashing, the two people embrace and share a simple phrase of blessing.
In receiving this emblem of God’s cleansing grace, we remember that as followers of Jesus, we can help distribute God’s blessing to others—through steady, loving service, symbolically washing the feet of the world.
|Love feast & communion
In an act of great love, Jesus gave his life for ours. The Brethren, as Jesus’ followers, love God and each other—and take that love into the world. Once or twice a year, Brethren celebrate what the earliest Christians called agape: the outflowing love that seeks not to receive but to give.
Jesus taught us this practice, sharing with his disciples a last, loving meal the night before he died. He washed the disciples’ feet, ate supper with them, sought to draw them closer into the fold of his love, and offered them the symbolic bread and cup.
During love feast, we repeat these simple, meaningful acts. After reconciling any discord among ourselves, we lovingly wash each other’s feet, then enjoy a meal together. Quietly we share communion, the bread and the cup that remind us of Jesus’ great gift; we renew our commitment to follow his example of sacrificial love. Congregations may also observe the eucharist, or bread-and-cup communion, at other times and in other settings.
Love feast closes with a hymn; then follows the humble task of cleaning up, in which all are invited to participate. When we leave the feast, reunited in our dedication to Christ and to each other, the deep, nourishing love goes with us.
At some time, almost every person—even the most devout—may become anxious, despairing, or ill. Following instructions given in the New Testament, the Brethren practice an ordinance called anointing: the prayerful, loving application of oil to the forehead of someone in physical or spiritual need.
Most of the time, members take initiative to request anointing for themselves or for members of their family. Recently more and more people have discovered anointing as a powerful symbol for the full range of renewal and healing. People ask for anointing before surgery or during serious illness, and they also request it in times of grief, emotional turmoil, or brokenness in relationships.
The anointing serice is usually conducted in a home or small-group setting, although some congregations use it in public worship. A time is provided for confession. Then the minister or other representative of the church applies oil three times to the forehead, symbolizing forgiveness of sin, strengthening of faith, and healing of body, mind, and spirit.
Finally the minister lays hands on the one to be anointed, sometimes inviting others present to do the same, and prays specifically for this persons’s expresed concern. The laying on of hands is a reminder that the whole congregation, whether present or not, joins in prayer and support.