CHURCH OF THE BRETHREN NETWORK
Continuing the work of Jesus : Peacefully ~ Simply ~ Together
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Written by Galen L. Miller ~ Published May 14, 1999 ~ Last Updated, May, 1999 ©
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aybe Alexander Mack didn't give it enough thought. Maybe he should have burned a little more midnight oil and hammered out a creed for his new German Baptist Brethren, rather than claiming the whole New Testament for that purpose. It certainly would have saved believers in subsequent generations a lot of grief if he had.Was it oversight on Mack's part? Or did he exhibit exceptional wisdom and foresight in choosing the New Testament as the church's creed? It seems that some members of the church today are questioning the wisdom of Mack's choice. They want something more specific in the way of a creed. Something concrete. Something they can stand on, point to and declare: "This is what we believe!" That "whole New Testament as creed" business feels a bit nebulous. Evidence of their discomfort is not hard to find. It can be seen in Letters to the Editor in Messenger, queries sent to Standing Committee, speeches from the floor of Annual Conference, and in rumblings from many of our local churches. There is an increasingly vocal demand on the part of a minority in the Church of the Brethren for a creedal statement - a litmus test to define who and what is Christian. In fact, the beginnings of a Brethren creed can be found in the Annual Conference Statement of 1994 regarding Jesus Christ as the only divine Lord and savior of the world. Many denominations have taken this creedal route. Hopefully, the Church of the Brethren will not follow suit. Traditionally, we have said there shall be no force in matters of religion. Each of us, in the words of the Apostle Paul, is to work out his or her own faith in fear and trembling, and we have said, as the Holy Spirit of God guides us. Therefore, we will have no creed but the New Testament. Or will we?
It is troubling that this demand for a creed among the Brethren is occurring at a time when many are beginning to believe that denominationalism as we have known it is dying? In fact, I would broaden that to say that institutionalized Christianity is dying. And one of the main reasons for the church's diminishing vitality is its narrow orthodoxy, spelled out in its creeds and other statements of dogma.
Increasingly, people in the 20th, and now into the 21st Century, are being turned off by an orthodoxy developed many centuries ago by a budding church as its response to the religious and cultural demands it was facing. But we live in a an informational and technological age, with a perspective of the world that is vastly different from that of the writers of the biblical and post-biblical era. So people, not finding in the institutional church what they need in order to cope with today's world, are leaving the church. And the Brethren are not exempt.
Paul Mundy was on target in a recent Messenger article when he asked: "Does the Future Have a Church?" This is a most relevant question for the Brethren when we realize that in 1963 the Church of the Brethren had a membership of a little over 203,000, but in 1998, had only 142,000. A drop of 30 percent in just 35 years. So, what does the future hold for the Church of the Brethren? Or, to put it bluntly, what will be our excuse for existence in the 21st Century? What are our options?
One option would be for us to continue the current dying process until we dwindle away to an undignified death. We see this happening from time to time among our local churches. They hand on and hand on until there are only a dozen or fewer members meeting once a month. Finally, the District closes the church, sells the property, and puts the money in a church extension fund, from which, on occasion, they balance the District budget. A second option would be to acknowledge the impact our denomination has had on the church at large (see Don Miller's column on page 22 of the November 1996 Messenger), especially in terms of peace and justice issues, declare that we have fulfilled the mission for which we were called into being, and then, in a celebrative spirit of achievement, and with dignity and intentionality, close or doors and join the Methodists, U.C.C., Disciples of Christ or some other denomination. This option has a lot to be said for it, especially as we consider the stewardship of time, energy and financial resources involved in maintaining ourselves. But there is a third option that appeals to me because it involves a continuing dynamic life for the Church of the Brethren. But first, some background.
About 45 years ago, my study of the New Testament led me to the conclusion that Jesus never intended to start a new religion or remodel an existing one. Instead, his intention was to reveal agape/love as the nature of God, and the way God means for all people to relate to one another. But then something went awry. Jesus had not been out of sight for very many years before some of his followers began the process of myth-making, thus turning Jesus' revelation into a religion. The result has been to rob Jesus' revelation of much of its life-changing and life-affirming power. To make the above two paragraphs clearer, two definitions are needed. The first is "religion." A religion is a personal or institutional system of beliefs, rituals and practices by which a person or an institution is defined. Therefore, one who subscribes to the Christian religion is a Christian religionist, or as we commonly say, a Christian. The second definition is for the phrase: "Follower of Jesus." For the purposes of this paper, a follower of Jesus is one who recognizes the intrinsic truth in Jesus' revelation of agape. The follower of Jesus may not be religious, as defined above, but tries with all his/her heart, soul and mind to incorporate agape into every area of life. Such an individual feels no need to have that revelation of agape buttressed by anything other than the conviction that Jesus knew what he was talking about. The revelation is its own witness. It carries a self-evident truth sufficient for life. One could wish that being a Christian and being a follower of Jesus would be synonymous. Too often they are not. Historically, a lot of garbage has gone on, and is still going on, in the name of Christ and Christianity that the follower of Jesus simply cannot buy into or accept. Over the centuries, the church has used its creeds and orthodoxies to engage in heresy hunts, to excommunicate people, to violently persecute and oppress people, to support and engage in war, to support and defend slavery, to minimize women, and on and on, all in the name of Christianity.
Also, there are a number of theological affirmations, or mythologies, connected with being Christian that the follower of Jesus may not feel are essential to being a true and committed follower. These definitions and distinctions become important as we recall how the Brethren, as well as other churches of Christendom, have looked to the New Testament church as the model for life and belief. However, recent scholarship has revealed to us that there was a level of following Jesus that was earlier and much different from that portrayed in the narrative gospels of the New Testament. Let me elaborate on that. And remember, we are still working on the third option for the Church of the Brethren in the 21st Century.
Students of the New Testament have long known that Matthew and Luke had two major sources of material for their gospels. One was the gospel of Mark. Almost the entire gospel of Mark is found in Matthew, and somewhat less in Luke. But Matthew and Luke shared a second major source of material. Something over 230 verses are shared by Matthew and Luke - verses not found elsewhere in the new Testament. This second source of material has been given the designation "Q," for the German word quelle, which means source. Sadly, but understandingly, the influence of the narrative gospels had become so strongly entrenched over the centuries that no one seriously wondered if the Q material might offer a perspective on Christian origins that was different from the traditional. Until relatively recently, that is. About 50 years ago, stimulated by a resurgence in the desire to discover the "historical Jesus" as over against the "Christ of faith," New Testament scholars began to wonder what the Q material would tell us about those first followers of Jesus if Q were separated from Matthew and Luke and looked at as a document in its own right. For surely it had to be an independent document known to the Christian community if it were to serve as source material for Matthew and Luke in the writing of their gospels.
So Q was withdrawn from Matthew and Luke, and it revealed itself to be a "sayings" gospel. That is, it had no editorial insertions or biographical material about Jesus. It contained only sayings attributed to him. For some time scholars wondered if Q were a one-of-a-kind document, because they knew of no other "sayings" gospel.
Then in 1945, an Egyptian farmer by the name of Muhammad Ali ( I kid you not) was working among some caves in the cliffs along the Nile River near the town of Nag Hammadi. He was after the natural fertilizer that is found along the Nile in that area. In the process, he discovered a bunch of old clay pots. He broke some of them open, hoping to find treasure. He did, but not the kind of treasure he anticipated. Among other things, the pots contained some very old manuscripts and papyrus books. One of the manuscripts turned out to be a complete copy of the Gospel of Thomas, translated in the fourth century into the Coptic language. Bible students had long known there was such a thing as a Gospel of Thomas from references to is by early Church fathers and commentators, and from a couple of fragments of it in Greek. But no complete copy was known to exist until Nag Hammadi.
It tuned out that it, too, is a sayings gospel, containing only the sayings and teachings of Jesus - some of which are also in Q. Now there were two sayings gospels to work from: Q and Thomas. So the questions became: What do these two documents tell us about what the very first followers of Jesus thought about him, who he was and what he taught. This was exciting to explore, for it soon became clear that these sayings gospels reflected a time and level of thinking about Jesus that was very close to the time of Jesus himself. Certainly many years older than the picture portrayed for us by the narrative gospels of the New Testament. One of the exciting insights is that Q and Thomas show us that there were more groups following Jesus - naming him as the founder and teacher of their movement - than simply the Christ community of the narrative gospels.
Q and Thomas also reveal that those first followers of Jesus knew nothing about a virgin birth or any of the miracles reported in the new Testament, or an atoning death or a physical resurrection.
Those first followers, they of the community of Q, simply saw Jesus as a social revolutionary who challenged them to a new way of living in the face of oppression, discrimination, poverty and hardship. He taught that all people were equal before a loving and caring God. Jesus called them to love each other - even to love their enemies.
Those first followers of Jesus understood him to be talking about living in the realm of God. They would be doing this, Jesus said, when they lived a life of agape, even though the culture around them operated out of an almost entirely opposite set of values. Which is to say that wherever and whenever agape is being lived, there the realm of God - the Kingdom of God - is being lived. Think about that for a moment and it will blow your mind. This means that when among the Muslims true agape is being lived, there is the realm of God. Whenever among the Aborigines of Australia's Outback true agape is being lived, there is the realm of God. "Wherever there is truth, it is the Lord's," said Justin Martyr. So what does that do to our traditional Christian arrogance that says we have a corner on God's truth? We're still working on option number three for the Church of the Brethren in the 21st Century, remember?
So, what does all this have to do with the Church of the Brethren in the 21st Century as we face the hard realities of our declining membership and the need for retrenchment in our ministries? William Easum, in his book, "Dancing with Dinosaurs," argues that if the church is to survive into the 21st Century, it must begin operating out of a whole new paradigm. Simply improving what we are now doing will not be adequate for survival.
While it is not Easum's paradigm, I am suggesting that if the church is to survive in Century 21, the new paradigm must be a movement away from the orthodoxy inherited from the first, second and third centuries, and which was developed further and buttressed by the Roman Church. If it is to survive, the church must move toward a strong focus on Jesus' revelation of agape. In the early years and beyond, the church moved from the "Jesus of history" to the "Christ of faith." We now need to move from the "Christ of faith" to the "Jesus of history." Only by doing this can we truly recapture the power of Jesus' revelation of agape.
Parenthetically, I have often wondered what our world would now be like if for 2,000 years we had been focusing on Jesus' revelation of agape instead of spending so much time and energy developing and defending an orthodoxy. Here then, is what I see as Option Three for the church of the Brethren in the 21st Century, and it excites me to the very bottom of my being. Could not our role for the 21st Century be to call the institutional church away from its concern for an orthodoxy developed by the church centuries ago, and challenge the church to focus on the agape of Jesus? We would be calling the wider church to a kind of radical discipleship such as we have rarely, if ever, seen. I am aware that, for some people, radical discipleship means strict adherence to a structure of beliefs, dogmas, rites and ordinances. But in the 21st Century it must mean a radical lifestyle that grows out of a prior and strong commitment to Jesus and his revelation of agape.
What I am really saying is that there is a need in the life of the Institutional Christian Church for a new reformation - a reformation as deep and profound and as "church shaking," as the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century. Option Three calls for the Church of the Brethren to be the prophetic voice that calls the wider church to the reformation that must occur if it is to survive.
I think the Church of the Brethren is eminently qualified to take on such a challenge. Alexander Mack and the seven were engaging in a revolutionary activity when they broke away from the state church and began a new movement. In World War II, the Brethren provided leadership in the successful effort to persuade the federal government to allow for an alternative form of service for those conscientiously opposed to war. Oftentimes, and more recently, the Church of the Brethren has prodded the National and World Councils of Churches regarding peace and justice issues. Yes, the Brethren are qualified by their heritage and their commitment to become a prophetic movement, calling the wider church to a renewed perspective and a deeper understanding of what it really means to be a follower of Jesus.
The Church of the Brethren is facing a time of major transition. Declining membership and plummeting income, among other things, have brought us to a fork in the road. Suddenly, like it or not, we are finding ourselves forced to make some major decisions.
If the structural design adopted by the Long Beach Conference only restructures us to do better what we already are doing, then, in Easum's terms, we will die as a denomination in Century 21. But if their work will help structure us for the challenge of calling the institutional church to the new paradigm of focusing on Jesus' revelation of agape, then I see hope for a revitalized Church of the Brethren in the 21st Century.
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