Frequently Asked QuestionS
by Wayne Sutton of the Miami First Church of the Brethren - Atlantic Southeast District
Our e-mail box frequently contains questions about the Church of the Brethren. Since they are often repetitive, we offer the following list of Frequently Asked QuestionS or FAQS, with the hope that you may quickly satisfy your own curiosity about our denomination and receive a more clear understanding of our beliefs and traditions. There are additional links at the bottom of this document to other sections of this web site to further advance your understanding of the Brethren. Wayne Sutton of Miami First Church of the Brethren in the Atlantic Southeast District is supplying the answers to these questions. He has thoughtfully captured and explained the essence of the Brethren experience in each of the following responses. Wayne also hosts a newsgroup on alt.religion.christian.anabaptist.brethren. Please stop in and join the discussion. If you have questions that more properly relate to the dynamics of this web site, please look at:
There are a variety of Christian groups that have called themselves Brethren. Several of these share the same historical roots as the Church of the Brethren while others-most notably the Plymouth Brethren-do not. Still, the concept of church that leads members of various Christian groups to refer to each other as "Sister" or "Brother," that of a close knit and familiar community of believers, is sure to produce other similarities between the groups. This answer will be confined to the context of the Church of the Brethren, the largest of a half dozen groups in the "Dunker" tradition of "Brethrenism."
First of all, "Brethrenism" is not a word that you are likely to hear used by Brethren to describe their faith. Brethren tend to think about their faith more as a way of living in response to God's grace than as an ideology or dogma. An idealized Brethren lifestyle would include traits like piety, simplicity, integrity of one's word, loving service to others, community, humility, and peace. Most Brethren work at realizing all of these characteristics in their daily lives, although each person is likely to prioritize their list differently.
The Brethren expression of Christianity, is a melding of Anabaptism and Pietism. The Church of the Brethren (and other Dunker groups) originated with the illegal public baptism of eight believers in the Eder River near Schwarzenau, Germany in 1708. These baptisms were the result of a search by a small group of Pietists for an obedient following of the New Testament. This small band of Pietists found much common ground with the older Anabaptist movement and adopted many of the practices of the Anabaptist groups with which they had contact.
One of the reasons why the term "Brethrenism" is difficult to define is that the Church of the Brethren is non-creedal. Brethren have maintained that they have "no creed but Christ" and that "the New Testament is their rule of faith and practice". Since the Brethren have avoided reducing their common faith to a formal creed, they are able to remain open to new direction as the Holy Spirit gives light. They are also able to maintain a surprising level of unity among people with a wide range of views on many matters of faith. But this does not mean that the Brethren avoid taking stands. Brethren work together to discover a common understanding of the "Mind of Christ" as it applies to the issues and challenges facing the church and its membership in each new generation. This is done through Bible study, prayer, dialogue among members, and through "queries" sent to the denomination's Annual Conference.
Some Brethren do believe in the inerrancy of scripture while others do not. Most Brethren tend to see the Bible as a book that is inspired by God and yet written down by fallible human beings. But the Bible, or more specifically the New Testament, is the most authoritative written source of guidance for Brethren. The New Testament is the closest thing Brethren have to a written creed.
John David Bowman wrote “That Brethren are more apt to appeal to the mind of Christ than to the Bible. Still, scripture is the central means for us to discover the mind of Christ.” 1 As we work toward a corporate understanding of the mind of Christ, those who view the Bible as inerrant and those who do not would both be likely to appeal to and to recognize the authority of scripture.
This begs the question: Why should anyone accept the authority of a book that may contain errors? Just as God has placed children under the authority and instruction of fallible human beings (parents), the church has been given the New Testament, God's truth written down by fallible human beings, to be her textbook in discipleship.
What is most important about the Bible is not whether it may contain errors, but that it does contain truth. Human error is an element of any search for understanding. In science, dogmatism is rightly understood to be the enemy of truth. Humility requires that we acknowledge the possibility of error at least in our fallible human reading of the scriptures if not in their writing and translation. But by grace God is able to bring out His truth in imperfect situations and to work His will in an imperfect people--the church. Just as God through the Holy Spirit was active in inspiring the writing of the scriptures, the same Holy Spirit must be active in inspiring our reading of the scriptures in order for the truth that is in the Bible to be made manifest in our lives.
If we read the scriptures with honesty and humility, that is with a heart willing to be taught by them, and if we test our private understandings against those of other Christians, we can trust that God will make His truth plain to us.
The third wing of the early Protestant reformation, Anabaptism, began in Switzerland when several students of Zwingli became impatient with his willingness to compromise his beliefs when they met with opposition from civil government. Anabaptism, seeks to restore the New Testament pattern of the church and obedience to Christ. It advocates a radical separation of church and state and views the church as the in breaking of the Kingdom of God into the midst of the kingdom of darkness and death. This "two kingdom" view is what has under-girded the Anabaptist emphasis on "nonconformity" (see Romans 12:2) and has sometimes led to an emphasis on separation from the world. At other times Anabaptists have seen themselves as the avant-garde of a revolutionary new order.
Anabaptism has understood the church as a community of mutually accountable believers. Jesus Christ is viewed as the model or prototype for the new (restored) humanity as well as the Lord and Savior of the church. Anabaptists are pacifist or "non-resistant." They avoid recourse to the courts, and generally avoid taking oaths. Unlike the Calvinist branch of the Zwinglian reformation, Anabaptism strongly emphasizes the free will of the individual and encourages the voluntary realignment of the individual will with the will of God as revealed in Christ. Beside the Brethren, other familiar Anabaptist groups include the Mennonites, the Amish, and the Hutterites. See also a more lengthy article on Anabaptism.
The Pietist movement marked a religious reawakening in the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Germany and the Anglican church in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. Pietism stresses conversion and a personal experience of salvation, Bible study, devotional life, evangelical witness and a continuous openness to new light. There is also an emphasis on Christian social responsibility as an appropriate response to Grace. Probably the most widely known pietist is John Wesley, founder of Methodism. See also a more lengthy article on Pietism.
The Brethren custom is to baptize by "trine immersion". Following the administration of the baptismal vows, the candidate kneels in front of the minister, facing toward the minister's left or right, and is then "dunked" or immersed three times forward in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This style of baptism is what earned the Brethren the nickname "Dunkers".
Immediately following the baptism, while the candidate is still kneeling in the water, the minister lays hands upon the head of the new member and prays for the in filling of the Holy Spirit.
Because Brethren hold to an ideal of "no force in religion" they do not baptize infants. Candidates for baptism must freely choose to join themselves to the Body of Christ after first "counting the cost" (Luke 14:28) of following Christ. Baptism marks the beginning of discipleship. It is a public declaration of ones intent to amend one's life and to obediently follow after the example of Jesus. It is also the beginning of a relationship of mutual accountability with the other members of the church.
"Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work." (see: Ephesians 4:15 & 16)
In INVITATION TO THE JOURNEY, John David Bowman identifies six things that Brethren find symbolized in baptism: “repentance, obedience, cleansing, empowerment by the Holy Spirit, covenant to community, and relationship to the Risen Christ.” 2 Baptism also symbolizes the ordination of the believer into the priesthood of all believers. Remember that Jesus' public ministry began following his baptism by John.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey every thing I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:19
William M. Beahm wrote:
“They (the Brethren) share with other immersionists the belief that complete dipping under water is the New Testament symbol for sin cleansing and of being buried and raised again with Christ into newness of life. They differ with most other immersionists in the use of three separate dips in the one rite of baptism. This is not because of additional cleansing symbolism, as such-that three dips will make one cleaner than one. It is related to the fullness of the Godhead.” 3
Sixteenth century Anabaptist, Balthasar Hubmaier pointed out in his 1527 treatise ON FREE WILL that humans are also triune in nature, being made after the image of God.
“Man is a corporal and rational creature, made up by God of body, spirit, and soul. These three things are found to be essential and distinct in every man...Now since no-one by dint of Scripture, can deny these three essential things, it follows that three kinds of will must be recognized in man, namely, the will of the flesh, the will of the soul, and the will of the spirit.” 4
So Trine immersion may also be seen as symbolizing our intention to bring all three aspects of our nature or will under the lordship of Jesus Christ.
Brethren have attempted to emulate the model of the early church in their practice of Baptism and other ordinances of Christianity. R.H. Miller in the book, DOCTRINE OF THE BRETHREN, 5 provides abundant references to early church documents that show trine immersion to be the practice of the early church. Several are repeated below...
(1) Early church fathers understood baptism as immersion.
"I do believe and was immersed." -Ambrose, Bishop of Milan "By three immersions, the great mystery of baptism is accomplished." -Basil, Bishop of Caesarea "To be baptized and plunged, and then to emerge or rise again." -Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople "If persons that have been sprinkled while on their sick bed are properly to be esteemed as genuinely Christian. If they recover (from their illness) let them be immersed." -Magnus asks Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage-------------------------------
(2) Trine immersion was accepted by the greatest majority of bishops until the twelfth century. "By three immersions, therefore, and by three invocations we administer the important ceremony of baptism...and that the souls of the baptized may be purified by divine knowledge." -Basil, Bishop of Caesarea "You were conducted to a bath just as Christ was carried to the grave and were thrice immersed to signify the three days of His burial." -Clement of Alexandria "The true doctrine of our holy mother, the catholic church has always, my brethren, been with us, and does yet abide with us, and especially the article of baptism and the three immersions." -Monulus at the Council of Carthage "You were led to the holy pool of divine baptism as Christ was carried from the cross to the sepulcher and each of you were asked whether you believed and made that saving confession and descended three times into the water and ascended again and that water of baptism was a grave to you." -Cyril of Jerusalem "Christ delivered to his disciples one baptism in three immersions." -Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople "When Mr. Wesley baptized adults professing faith in Christ, he chose to do it by trine immersion, if the person would submit to it, judging this to be the Apostolic method of baptism." -John Wesley, Moores' Life of John Wesley
1 Bowman, John David, Invitation to the Journey: Membership in the Church of the Brethren, Brethren Press, 1990, (3).
2 Bowman, John David, Invitation to the Journey: Membership in the Church of the Brethren, Brethren Press, 1990, (8).
3 Beahm, William M., Studies in Christian Belief, Brethren Press, 1958, pp. 168-169.
4 Miller, R. H., Doctrine of the Brethren, Brethren Publishing House, 1907.
5 Williams, George H. and Angel M. Mergal, Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, Westminster Press, 1957, pp. 116-117.
* Thanks also to John David Bowman and to Ron Gordon for resource material contributing to the answers on baptism and triune immersion.