Church of the Brethren

The 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 Kiss.

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.

The 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.
Brethren 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.

In 1869 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.
At 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 Baptist Brethren.

Recent  History
Since 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.

Although 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.

The 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:
The 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.
The second 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.
The 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 deacons.
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.
Geographical structure
Geographically, 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.
Each 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 Conference.

The Official Homepage of the Church of the Brethren, in the USA
Unofficial Web Site of the Church of the Brethren
Brethren Revival Fellowship
Brethren Mennonite Council on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Interests
On Earth Peace
Voices for an Open Spirit

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