The Brethren in Christ have a strong sense of purpose: to build a community of believers who worship and obey God and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all people. To effectively reach non-Christians at the outset of a new century, however, the Brethren in Christ needed a clear statement of identity.

“Like, but Different”

I discovered this for myself as a church planter in the 1980s. With my wife, Connie, and four daughters, our assignment was to start a Brethren in Christ church in Oklahoma City. For this, we were given a list of twenty-five households with some prior connection with the two existing Brethren in Christ churches in Oklahoma.

My enthusiastic descriptions of BIC convictions were woefully inadequate in conversations with people who have different assumptions or beliefs.

One by one, I contacted these households to invite their participation. My primary appeal was the need for a Brethren in Christ church in Oklahoma City. With the identity terminology at my disposal, I said: “No other church has such a biblical and balanced blend of Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan convictions.” At this point, their faces went blank. While they may have had some exposure to the broad sweep of church history, they had no knowledge of the collateral movements that shaped us. Before I could describe the denomination to anyone unfamiliar with these renewal movements, I had to give a tutorial on church history, an awkward detour that effectively diluted the impact of my persuasion.

To cope with this limitation, I took a different tack. I compared the Brethren in Christ to churches common in Oklahoma. I said: “We encourage people to be born again like the Baptists, but . . .” and I would explain the differences. I pressed on: “We share some things with the Nazarenes, but . . .” and I would explain. I concluded: “We’re similar to the Mennonites, but . . .” With each comparison, the conjunction “but” was my segue to the distinctive convictions of the Brethren in Christ. In this cumbersome way, I was able to sidestep church history. To my dismay, I often got tangled up in whatever “baggage” people had in relation to these churches, a serious flaw in this comparative approach.

The strongest critique of both approaches came directly from the Holy Spirit. One evening I visited with a young couple, not strongly churched. I may have been at my persuasive best as I described the Brethren in Christ but nothing got through. For all they understood, I may as well have been speaking Mandarin Chinese. Thoroughly disheartened, I left their apartment and sagged against my car. At that moment a verse came to mind: “For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11).

This emphatic reminder brought me back to the foundation of our faith, to the basic truths about Jesus. I realized that my enthusiastic descriptions of distinctive Brethren in Christ convictions assumed the undergirding tenets of our faith. This is fine when we talk among ourselves because we share the same assumptions, but it is woefully inadequate in conversations with people who have different assumptions or beliefs. From that time on, I started conversations with the Good News of salvation and, later, introduced the contextual emphases of the Brethren in Christ.

To effectively start churches, we needed a compact description of basic tenets of the Christian faith as understood by the BIC.

To introduce new adherents, I photocopied excerpts of a talk given in 1973, titled “The Brethren in Christ Accent,” by John Zercher, longtime editor of our denominational magazine. With a Gospel presentation and this homemade booklet, I had a workable approach to introduce people to Jesus and invite them into an emerging Brethren in Christ church.

This makeshift approach was sufficient for people to come to faith and a church to be established. But I knew there had to be a better way. To effectively start and grow churches in places where we are not known, I felt, we needed a compact description of basic tenets of the Christian faith as understood by our church. The summary would need to place the Brethren in Christ squarely in the stream of beliefs, in the words of C. S. Lewis, “common to nearly all Christians at all times,” yet with the nuances and “accents” that accurately describe our unique place in the Christian faith community. The summary would need to be in everyday language, so that it could be understood by persons unfamiliar with our history and doctrine. And, optimally, it would need to be both compact and substantive, a tightly-worded synopsis of who we are and what we believe.

Coalescing the Consultation

When I was appointed to denominational leadership as general secretary in 1996, I had the opportunity to bring this desire for a clear and concise description of the Brethren in Christ into wider denominational conversation. The Leadership Council agreed that a collaborative endeavor to articulate our values would be an asset to the church.

A proven way to garner the views of a faith community of about 25,000 people was to convene a consultation, an approach commonly used among groups with Anabaptist roots that value consensus. This involves gathering a representative group of people from across the church to talk together, face-to-face. Effectively managed, such representative conversation has the potential to coalesce into common understandings. That, of course, is much easier said than done.

We dared to hope that fifty-two persons could agree on the foundational convictions of the Brethren in Christ.

We designed the consultation to be a dynamic conversation among participants in different configurations: as a whole group, in eight small groups, and in informal conversations over breaks and mealtimes. We assigned a listening team to distill all of this interaction into successive iterations of proposed wording. By this process, we dared to hope that fifty-two persons, all with robust convictions and, among them, more than a few strong personalities, could agree on the foundational convictions of the Brethren in Christ, a high-risk venture!

We set out with four primary aims. First, we wanted to accurately describe the values of the Brethren in Christ. Though we would draw on our history and doctrine for these value statements, we wanted to describe who we are.

Second, we wanted to use language, as C. S. Lewis encouraged, that would be clear and accessible to everyone. Further, we needed language that could have resonance with persons with divergent or secular convictions.

Third, like the Gospel itself, we wanted the convictions and traits we would describe to be perceived as good news. The value statements were not to be watered-down, but substantive truths, stated positively.

Finally, we wanted to accomplish all of this in as few words as possible. We needed to sift through the mountain of words we had read and considered beforehand and reduce them to a cupful of words packed with meaning.

Through two days, in an interplay of small group and whole group interaction, everyone engaged actively and productively. The listening team crafted the emerging consensus into clear words and phrases. Yet with all this, the Holy Spirit carried the day with interventions far beyond our combined human capabilities.

One striking indication of the Spirit’s oversight and enabling presence was the commonality of heart. No one attempted to push a point of view at the expense of others. At times, persons even advocated for points of view other than their own!

In ten tight statements, we asserted our commonality with the bedrock beliefs of all Christians everywhere.

In another instance in one of the final sessions, we collectively stepped back to look at the nine statements we had articulated to that point. Someone said, “There is nothing yet about prayer.” The group agreed, and we crafted a tenth value.

Finally, in a way none of us could fully anticipate, the Spirit shaped these values to communicate the good news of our life together in Christ. In ten tight statements, we asserted our commonality with the bedrock beliefs of all Christians everywhere. We rejoiced in the centrality of salvation in Jesus Christ. We described an appealing quality of life in community. And we realized that we have an important contribution to make to the larger community of Christians.

These ten core values are the ones the Holy Spirit has entrusted to the Brethren in Christ. They describe our faith and life as this has developed over two hundred years. They depict who we are and who we want to be. They sum up the good news we offer to a broken and hurting world. Though shaped by many people over many years and, in particular, 52 participants in a consultation twenty years ago, they are, above all, a gift of the Holy Spirit to be used to build up the body of Christ (1 Peter 4:10).

This article was first published in the Fall 2023 edition of Shalom! A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation.

Warren Hoffman is a retired pastor, bishop, and denominational leader, most recently serving as interim bishop of the Pacific Conference. He lives in Elizabethtown, PA.

Share this Story