ABC OF ERRORS: ‘The Brethren’

Historically, the Brethren have taken a strong stance for nonresistance or pacifism—it is one of the three historic peace churches, alongside the Mennonites and Quakers.

The Brethren descend from the early German protestants and are authentic pietists. Some of their 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.

Origin

The history of the Brethren began in 1708 when a group of eight Christians organized themselves under the leadership of Alexander Mack (1679–1735) into a church and baptized one another in Schwarzenau, Germany. One of the members of the group first baptized Mack, who then, in turn, baptized the other seven.

“The Brethren believed that both the Lutheran and Reformed churches were taking liberties with the “true” Christianity revealed in the New Testament, so they rejected established liturgy, including infant baptism and existing Eucharistic practices.”

They believed that both the Lutheran and Reformed churches were taking liberties with the “true” Christianity revealed in the New Testament, so they rejected established liturgy, including infant baptism and existing Eucharistic practices. The founding Brethren were broadly influenced by Radical Pietist understandings of an invisible, nondenominational church of awakened Christians who would fellowship together in purity and love, awaiting Christ’s return. These eight Christians referred to themselves as the New Baptists (German: Neue Täufer). The name alluded to the use of the name Täufer (Baptists) by the Mennonites.

The “German Baptists” or Dunkers (Immersionists)

The denomination reorganized in America and founded its first American congregation on Christmas Day 1723 in Germantown, Pennsylvania, then a village outside Philadelphia. They became known as German Baptists (although this name was not officially recognized until 1836, when the Annual Meeting called itself “The Fraternity of German Baptists”). In 1871, the denomination adopted the name, “The German Baptist Brethren Church”. Until the early 20th century, Brethren were colloquially called ‘Tunkers’ or ‘Dunkers’ (from the German for immersionists).

“Brethren do not adhere to doctrinal standards; rather, they focus on what binds another in love.” 

Teachings and practices

The church claims their primary loyalty in a world that offers many societies for association. It is understood more as a community of people who love God and one another than as part of an organization or a body that formulates doctrine. Brethren do not emphasize tight doctrinal standards; rather, the spirit of God within each one, binding another in love, takes precedence for them.

They live a simple, unadorned life. In their early decades in Europe and America, Brethren were separatists from the state and conventional churches. While not manifesting a judgmental attitude they devote themselves to a purity that may set them apart from Christians, as well as from general society.

“Music composer Johann Sebastian Bach was a follower of pietism, a reform movement that was flourishing in Germany when he wrote his cantatas and passions.”

Followers of pietism

Brethren are former German Reformed bodies that took their theology and much of their practice from the pietists of the 17th and 18th century. Most Pietists were lutherans who had become unhappy with the formal worship and ritual in their state church and the general “barrenness” of German protestantism.

It has frequently been stated that music composer Johann Sebastian Bach was a follower of pietism, a reform movement that was flourishing in Germany when he wrote his cantatas and passions.

“They took the New Testament literally and endeavored to put its teachings into practice, even in the last detail of their living.”

What the Pietists (and the Brethren) believe

The pietists took the New Testament literally and endeavored to put its teachings into practice, even in the last detail of their living. They spurned the idea of apostolic succession, and at the heart of their practice was a love feast or agape, the serving of the Lord’s Supper, preceded by a ceremony of foot washing.

They saluted one another with a ‘kiss of peace’, dressed in the plainest of clothing, covered women’s heads at services, anointed their sick with oil for healing and consecration, refrained from worldly amusements, and refused to take oaths, go to war, or engage in lawsuits. These doctrines, with certain modifications, are held today by many Brethren.

“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.”

Rejection of priesthood

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 has slowly become the predominant model, although many congregations still have “free” (nonsalaried) ministers and plural ministry.

“Regarding gender issues, the denomination ordains women as pastors. In some congregations there has also been acceptance of publicly gay pastors and transgender members.”

Regarding gender issues, the denomination ordains women as pastors. In some congregations there has also been acceptance of publicly gay pastors and transgender members.

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 serve together as deacons.

Followers Today

The Church of the Brethren represents the largest denomination descending from the Schwarzenau Brethren, and adopted this name in 1908. The denomination had 122,810 members in 2010 and a littler over 1,000 congregations in the United States and Puerto Rico as of August 2010.

(Sources: Wikipedia, Church of the Brethren; Handbook of Denminati0ns in the United States, F. Mead & S. Hill)

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