Since assuming the role of executive director of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches (FGBC) in July 2013, I have spent time considering the essence of our movement. That fall, we began discussions around our identity at our Focus Retreats. This Identity Initiative, led by Dave Guiles, is instrumental in reviving the important and ongoing discussion of who we are as Grace Brethren.
Our first round of talks involved participants writing a “Timothy Letter” — a letter that one would leave behind to a child in the faith and that would embody what a person considered most important to their faith. The exercise produced encouraging but not surprising results. Top responses were grouped into seven or so categories, such as “preeminence of Christ” and “passion for the gospel.” The results reinforced our strong evangelical values, but, as some noticed, really didn’t differentiate us from any other evangelical group. (Read many of the letters at graceconnect.us/timothy-letters-1/.)
I did not grow up Grace Brethren but have been part of the FGBC for 17 years. I was part of numerous denominations previously both as a layman and pastor. This gives me some ability to compare objectively. My exposure to the FGBC came through my connection with the Chesapeake and Northeast Ohio districts of Grace Brethren churches. Since starting Grace Community Church in 1998 in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, most of my deeper connections have been through various boards on which I have served. Although I never went to Grace College or Seminary, I have read a fair amount of our history and have talked at length with many of our leaders in order to understand our tribe better.
I write this as someone trying to identify our DNA as I see it in 2014. Identity is not completely static. We may come to realize that certain aspects of our past have faded in significance. Other values may have emerged. I am reporting on what I have learned, seen, and continue to witness as the integral aspects of our identity. I welcome the discussion that will ensue.
There is really no denying that the FGBC has mission in its DNA. Our churches have always been committed to the great commission, both in North America and around the world. Christ’s last command is our greatest concern. In 1900, that passion came to a head when 53 mission-driven men and women spontaneously formed the Foreign Mission Society of the Brethren Church. Since that time, we have multiplied churches across North America and around the world. We have a hard time fellowshipping with people who don’t share this same value. We love the gospel of Jesus Christ and our passion to share it is what unites and drives us.
As a young leader coming to the ministry out of a legalistic background, grace was a powerful new concept. When I connected with the Waldorf, Md., Grace Brethren Church while a student at Washington Bible College, it was refreshing to discover a church that didn’t feel the need to force everything into black or white categories. They gave people room to follow the Bible and the leading of the Holy Spirit in forming personal convictions in the “grey areas.” As I visited dozens of churches throughout the Fellowship, I realized the large majority of congregations held this perspective. Pastors were not forcing their own personal convictions on the people, and there was a sense of freedom I hadn’t experienced as a young person. I have come to believe grace is not only the name of our fellowship, but our greatest selling point. It defines our movement, something that emerging leaders inside and outside of our movement will find attractive.
“The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.” It may be a bit overstated when analyzed closely, but this has been the mantra of our fellowship for many decades. Attribute it to our Anabaptist roots — we will not allow culture, tradition, government, or anything else detract from the preeminence of the Scriptures. We submit to the Bible and its authority. We hold to it unwaveringly and unashamedly. Our history began with a sincere group of men and women trying to understand the Bible and put it into practice for themselves. In fact, they were so committed to the Scriptures alone that they refused to form any other creed. Through the years we have been known for holding to a historical-grammatical hermeneutic. In a world where many churches are caving in to cultural pressure and popular opinion, our fellowship perseveres as a defender of biblical truth. It is not unlikely that many Bible-loving believers from vacillating denominations will make their way into our fold as time progresses.
Groups that hold a high view of Scripture are prone to becoming fixated on doctrine and, in time, becoming cultural separatists. Thankfully, that has not happened to our movement. At every turn throughout our history, we have been the branch of the Brethren that chooses to engage the culture. In Germany, we tried to reform the dead state churches. Once in the U.S., we embraced the English language and American culture. By the end of the 1800’s, we became known as the “Progressives” because we chose to use progressive ministry and evangelism methods. In 1939, we officially adopted the name “Grace” and once again affirmed our position as a culturally progressive fellowship. Finding a denomination that is both biblically grounded and culturally progressive is becoming increasingly uncommon, yet it is a hallmark of our movement. As one of our most respected voices has often said, “The essence of the church never changes, but the expression of the church must constantly change.” The core of our fellowship still believes this.
Committed to Personal Holiness
If finding a fellowship that is both biblically grounded and culturally progressive is rare, then add to that mix an even rarer ingredient — a commitment to personal holiness. As Pietists, our tribe has always placed a high value on the transformative power of the gospel and on the believer’s personal responsibility to grow in Christlikeness. In a day and age when churches tend to overlook the need for ongoing sanctification, our churches remain committed to personal holiness. From among our ranks have risen organizations like CE National and Momentum that never stop strategizing on how to challenge our people to become stronger disciples of Christ. Seeing people come to Jesus is why we exist, but we aren’t into easy-believism. Jesus commissioned us to make disciples — people who are transformed into his very image.
Lots of discussion could be had as to why the Grace Brethren have always maintained a “fellowship” model rather than embrace a more popular and corporate “denomination” model, but this reality has remained an integral aspect of our brand. Perhaps it is the lingering reaction to the German state church that birthed our movement. Whatever the reason, it distinguishes our group in a nation that largely embraces top- down authority structures. What this means on a practical level is that fellowship, not structures, hold us together. The churches in our ranks enjoy their autonomy while benefitting from the support and accountability of a larger network. Our decentralized “starfish” system (see The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom) means that leaders can emerge from any part of our fellowship and influence the entire group, so long as they work along relational lines. Over the years, many national ministries have emerged from among our churches in order to serve our greater movement, and we have great stories of cooperative grassroots efforts.
There are many denominations that possess one or a number of these characteristics. The Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches is the only group I know of that incorporates all six. This combination does not make us the “best” evangelical group, but the ingredients form a recipe that is both nutritious and delicious — one that I can sink my teeth into.
The success of our fellowship will rest on our ability to keep these values strong. They have made us what we are, and they will take us into the future. It is essential that we recognize these values clearly and see how they form the foundation of our movement. They form a cohesive and unique identity. Should we lose sight of them, we will begin to identify ourselves with inferior ideals or practices that are not foundational to who we really are. This would be more than just unfortunate; it would be detrimental.
Personally, I get excited about a list of values like this. I love the missional and biblical tenacity, and I love the tension created by values like grace and progressivism. It is the tension between these values that makes our identity so rich and compelling.
What do you think?
What makes the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches unique? What identifies our movement? What makes us different from other evangelical fellowships or denominations?
Simply post your thoughts at facebook.com/ graceconnectus or send a note to Bartley Sawatsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.