Excerpted from Restoring the Household: The Quest of the Grace Brethren Church, published by BMH Books of Winona Lake, Ind., in 2008. The author is the late Dr. Todd Scoles, who served as BMH board chairman and was one of the leading historians of the Grace Brethren movement. Todd went suddenly to be with the Lord in mid-October, 2010.
by Todd Scoles
In the first week of August 1708, eight religious dissidents gathered on the banks of the Eder River near Schwarzenau, the “Black Meadow,” in the county of Wittgenstein, Germany, to be baptized. The group read from Luke 14:25-33 about counting the cost before committing to follow Jesus, because they knew their simple act of faith would likely bring persecution from the authorities of the Reformed Church.
Several members of the group, including their leader Alexander Mack, had been baptized as infants, but they had come to believe they had never joined the true church “since they had not received the baptism that they believed was the only Christian baptism.”
Mack’s son, writing more than sixty years later, drew from his father’s papers to describe the event in which “all eight were baptized in an early morning hour.” Four witnesses to another Brethren baptism just three years later testified that the candidate was dipped “three consecutive times under the water with these words: ‘I baptize you in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.’”
Departing from the accepted practice of the Reformed Church, Mack and his companions, through a process of study and prayer, had sought for “the old paths” and “the good way” and had concluded that trine immersion was the form of baptism taught by Jesus and practiced by the first Christians.
The eight radicals had carefully considered the reasons for the action they took that day. In an open letter circulated later the same summer they declared, “We have left all sects because of the misuses concerning infant baptism, communion, and church system, and unanimously profess that these are rather man’s statutes and commandments, and therefore do not baptize our children, and testify that we were not really baptized.” They chose one of their members to baptize the others, but they did not record the person’s name.
When they entered the water, none of them “had ever seen the ordinance performed in the manner in which they expected to receive it this morning,” but their hope as expressed in their letter of explanation was, “If we then begin in the footsteps of the Lord Jesus to live according to His commandment, then we can also hold communion together according to the commandment of Christ and His apostles in the fear of the Lord.”
The founding of the Brethren church in 1708 did not spring from a desire to be innovative or progressive. The Brethren considered the New Testament ordinances in their original form a visible sign by which Christ’s true church could be recognized. The eight who gathered at the banks of the Eder did not believe they were leaving one church to found a new church. They believed that they were re-founding the true church.
They were not the first. They were a further expression of a movement of believers that has existed in every period of the history of the church. Sometimes the members of this movement identified themselves closely with the beliefs and structures of one of the predominant churches of their time and accepted names such as Catholic or Protestant, Reformed or Lutheran. Sometimes they joined with others who explored and adopted models that could be called Anabaptist or Pietist. Sometimes, they felt compelled by their study of the New Testament to separate from any of the recognizable groups of their location. At times, they were expelled forcefully and regarded as heretics.
The movement resisted the common tendency to make the present expression of the church, in any period of its history or any location of its operation, the determinative model for all times and all settings. No theological tradition – Anabaptist, Radical Pietist, or Reformed – was above scrutiny by Scripture. The movement certainly learned and adopted doctrines and perspectives from each of those traditions, but it tried to sift and mix them under the higher authority of the Bible.
Henry Holsinger, in his history written more than a century ago, claimed of the Brethren church that “all her sacred peculiar doctrines may be traced all along the historical highway from Christ and His apostles down to the organization at Schwarzenau.” This conviction fostered the Brethren value of looking backward through history to the New Testament for the patterns to be applied to a body or community of believers.
It led Alexander Mack and his associates to search beyond the new traditions that the Reformation had laid upon the previous traditions of the Roman Church. Instead, they studied the external witness of the Scriptures and listened for the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. For the early Brethren, this calling outweighed the voices of rulers backed by the strength of the state or councils authorized by declarations of the organized church.
It is easy to dismiss the past without pausing to understand it. Models and methods will and should adjust and evolve. Circumstances and environments emerge, influence, and are replaced. Important people and initiatives shape new perspectives that eventually become old in their turn. The constant changes make it difficult to trace a clear path from a rich heritage to a rich future. Brethren historian Donald Durnbaugh said that our heritage has formed our present, and we should not ignore it when projecting our next steps. We must recognize the values and principles that have become part of our fiber and character. We can choose to change them or set them aside, but we should do so intentionally and not ignorantly.
In the case of the Grace Brethren movement, this historical perspective should not be limited to events and developments since the division of 1939 or even to the time of Alexander Mack. The Brethren movement is a relatively recent manifestation of a line of people who have studied the Scriptures for their models and practices since the founding of the New Testament church. At times, they were part of the dominant churches because they found freedom to pursue their faith within that framework. At other times, they did not join but watched from a distance and learned, adopting certain features that seemed to fit the commands of the New Testament. Occasionally, they made the decision to separate in order to follow what they deemed to be obedience to Christ. That was the position claimed by Alexander Mack and his companions in 1708.
I have been involved in the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC) for more than 30 years, the last 20 as a licensed or ordained elder. Many of the friendships and associations I have forged in those years are deep and abiding. People within the Fellowship have taught me, challenged me, listened to me, and cared for me in ways I cannot repay. The FGBC is my close family within the universal body of Christ. We are a group of people who sincerely want to know and follow Jesus, but I believe we have suffered from a sort of identity crisis.
Our commitment to finding our practices in the Bible slows us in quickly rolling out new innovations. Our sense of equality within the body makes us suspicious of dynamic, autocratic leaders as we initially give them an audience but resist their calls to action. Our instincts toward separation make us reluctant to join too closely with the styles and authority structures of other groups, and our understanding of discipleship creates discontentment with events and rallies that stir a lot of energy but then move on to the next venue. These limitations and characteristics frustrate us at times, but if they are tied to biblical values, we have to accept them as traits of our identity.
Our distinctive beliefs and practices do not make us Brethren, but they are expressions of convictions and values that identify us as the offspring of a distinctive stream within church history; one that interweaves with the more recognizable channels of the Reformation, Anabaptism, Pietism, fundamentalism, and evangelicalism. Certain consistent values mark the Brethren movement. We have, once in a while, drifted from them, but we have never lost them completely, and they continue to shape our identity and our mission. These are the true “distinctives” of the Brethren movement with their origins in the principles and commands of the New Testament, rediscovered and applied to contemporary settings.