Church of the Brethren originates from the Schwarzenau Brethren formed
in 1708 by Alexander Mack, a miller,and seven others in Schwarzenau,
Germany. The Brethren movement grew out of the convergence of Pietist
and Anabaptist beliefs. Its first church in America was established in
1723 and subsequently their churches became known as German Baptist
Brethren. The denomination holds the New Testament as its only creed.
The Church of the Brethren has a strong belief of non-resistance or
pacifism. Distinctive practices include believers baptism by Trine
Immersion (a threefold Love Feast consisting of feet washing, a
fellowship meal, and communion), Anointing for Healing, and the Holy
The present Church of the Brethren is the largest body
descending from Mack's Schwarzenau Brethren church. The German Baptist
Brethren underwent major division in the early 1880s, creating the Old
German Baptist Brethren, the Brethren Church, and with the majority
adopting the name Church of the Brethren in 1908. It has 129,000
members in about 1,000 congregations and fellowships. There are six
liberal arts colleges and one seminary (Bethany Theological Seminary in
Richmond, Indiana, USA) related to the Church of the Brethren. General
offices and the Brethren Press are located in Elgin, Illinois.
Brethren are non-creedalist and state that they have "no creed but the
New Testament." If there is a single part of the New Testament that is
most important as a guide for member's life it is The Sermon on the
Mount. The early Brethren were very meticulous in applying the New
Testament to every situation. For example, they baptized in a forward
direction because "we are baptized into His death," and at the moment
of his death, Jesus' head fell forward.
When disagreements arise as
to the correct interpretation of New Testament passages, the final
authority for settling such disputes is the Annual Conference. The
minutes of Annual Conference give a clear picture of what matters have
been in dispute and how Brethren interpret the New Testament.
accept the basic beliefs of Christianity, such as the divinity of
Christ. They emphasize peace, simplicity, the equality of believers,
and consistent obedience to Christ.
They also believe that "faith
without works is dead". The more conservative members emphasize
consistency and obedience. They oppose the use of musical instruments,
Sunday Schools, and worldly amusements. They promote plain dress,
simple lifestyle, and church discipline. Progressives in the church
focus on grace and acceptance. They promote higher education, salaried
ministers, Sunday Schools, and revivalism. The majority of Brethren
hold a moderate position between these two positions.
and again in 1880, a group of Brethren in the Miami Valley of Ohio
(USA) submitted a petition to Annual Conference pleading for a halt to
liberalization and a return to traditional Brethren values. Instead, a
more moderately worded substitute petition was submitted to the
delegates. The rewording was totally unacceptable to the Miami Valley
group. So in 1881, they resubmitted their petition to Annual
Conference. This time it was rejected on the technicality that it had
not come through a district meeting. In November of 1881, the
conservatives met and formally split from the Church of the Brethren to
form the Old German Baptist Brethren. They held their first annual
meeting in 1882.
Meanwhile, Henry Holsinger, a leader of the
progressives in the church, had published some writings that some
called slanderous and schismatic. As a result, he was disfellowshipped
from the 1882 annual meeting of the Brethren. He met with other
progressives on June 6 and 7, 1883, and formed the Brethren Church.
the Annual Conference of 1908 at Des Moines, Iowa, (USA) the name of
the denomination was officially changed from the German Baptist
Brethren to the Church of the Brethren. According to William Eberly,
the name change was precipitated by the predominant use of English in
the church and to further distance themselves from the Old German
the end of the Second World War, church and member positions on social
issues have caused further divisions between congregations, districts,
and individuals within the church. Particularly difficult issues which
have been the source of much debate and division include the authority
of the Bible, the ordination of women, tolerance of homosexuality, and
the promotion of ecumenicalism. All issues which other denominations
have struggled with.
At the 1958 Annual Conference in Des Moines,
Iowa, trine immersion was no longer required for all members, women
were given an ordination status equal to men, love feast was opened to
members of any church, and bread and cup communion was permitted
without having love feast. In response, at the 1959 Annual Conference
in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, a group of conservative and evangelical
Brethren joined to form the Brethren Revival Fellowship (BRF). It
describes itself as a loyal concern movement within the Church of the
Brethren. The BRF promotes simple dress, biblical inerrancy, church
discipline, and a much more evangelical worldview than the denomination
as a whole. It has been critical of the church's involvement in
political and social causes and its involvement with the World Council
of Churches and the National Council of Churches.
Promoting the more
liberal ideas, including changing the name of the church because it is
seen to be sexist and exclusionary of women, tolerance of homosexuals
(as members and as ministers), and increased social and political
activity are groups such as Women's Caucus, Voices for an Open Spirit,
and the Brethren Mennonite Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and
Transgendered Interests (BMC).
Although a great divide exists within
the church on these issues, the official position of the Church is that
of "unity in diversity", which allows for decisions at the district and
congregational level to determine church positions and practice.
no formal splits have occurred recently, the Church of the Brethren,
like many other denominations, has suffered a steep, steady decline in
membership from about 203,000 members in 1963 to 129,340 in 2005.
Studies were underway in 2006 to determine the reasons for this
decline. Some key things found in the report were: the Church is too
prideful and needs to live more in humility, and the Church needs to
remove idols, and has lost its first love for Jesus as found in Rev.
II. Despite the overall decline, there has been welcome growth in the
church in Puerto Rico (where it is called "Iglesia de los Hermanos")
since the late 1970s. It has also spread into other countries including
the Dominican Republic. In Nigeria, the Church of the Brethren is known
as Ekklesiyar Yan'uwa a Nigeria, or the EYN. Mission work began in
Nigeria in 1923 and the membership of EYN, which must be renewed
annually, reached 148,000 members in 2002, surpassing the membership of
the US-based church.
Brethren practice the "priesthood of all believers," and their
structure is egalitarian. Some members still address each other as
"Brother Smith" or "Sister Jones," for example. The practice is more
common in the Eastern United States. Even the moderator of Annual
Conference, the highest elected office in the church, is addressed as
"Brother (or sister) Moderator." The term "minister" is understood as a
functional role rather than an hierarchical position of authority. In
the early days, most congregations had several ministers chosen
("called" or "elected") by the members of the congregation. The concept
of a professional pastor (first explicitly permitted in 1911) has
slowly become the predominant model, although many congregations still
have "free" (nonsalaried) ministers and plural ministry.
There have been three degrees of ministry in the Church of the Brethren:
first degree known as licensed minister is bestowed on those who are
considering serving as ministers. The first degree is a time for
education and self-examination, after which the individual either
advances to the second degree or returns to lay status.
degree known as ordained minister is one who intends to continue
serving in a ministerial role, usually, but not always as a
professional pastor, teacher, counsellor, or administrator.
third degree of minister known as an elder, serves as a head minister
and supervises other ministers in a congregation. Some elders were
perceived as being arrogant regarding their position, and the Annual
Conference of 1967 decided that no further elders would be elected
however some congregations in the Southern Pennsylvania and Atlantic
Northeast Districts still elect elders.
The Brethren also select
deacons in most congregations. They assist in ministerial functions,
particularly by tending to the physical and spiritual needs of
individual members. Often, a husband and wife will serve together as
The leading officers in the Church of the Brethren for
business purposes are called moderators. Their principal function is to
chair business meetings. There are congregational moderators, district
moderators, and an annual conference (denominational) moderator. The
annual conference moderator is elected a year in advance, and in the
interim serves as "moderator elect."The Brethren
have numerous boards and committees (sometimes called "teams") that can
be either temporary or permanent and either highly focused on one issue
(e.g. evangelism) or general in scope. The most important of these are
the General Board, which carries out the policies established by Annual
Conference, and the Standing Committee and Annual Conference Council,
which interprets Annual Conference decisions. Other Annual Conference
agencies include Bethany Theological Seminary, Brethren Benefit Trust,
Association of Brethren Caregivers, and On Earth Peace Assembly.
the church is divided into congregations, which have indistinct and
often overlapping geographic boundaries. Congregations are collected
into districts (23 as of 2006), whose boundaries are clear and usually
correspond with state borders or county lines. The vast majority of
present congregations are located east of the Mississippi.
congregation selects delegates to serve on an Annual Conference
(sometimes called annual meeting), which is the final human authority
in questions of faith and practice. Issues that cannot be resolved on a
local level, or which have implications for the church as a whole are
framed as "queries," and they are submitted by a congregation to the
district, and then if necessary, are passed on to Annual Conference.
Typically, a committee is formed to study the matter, and an answer is
reported and adopted by a vote of the delegates at the Annual