This week I was visiting Messiah College in Pennsylvania and speaking at its annual Sider Institute conference. The Sider Institute is devoted to the study of Pietism and Anabaptism–two of three “ingredients” in the Brethren in Christ denomination with which Messiah College is affiliated. I spoke to the conference attendees about “In Defense of Denominations” and “How Denominations Can Survive (If They Should).” I also met with various groups of Messiah students, faculty and administrators as well as with small discussion groups of conference attendees.
I always enjoy these kinds of events where I get to know fellow Christians who are a bit different from my own Pentecostal and Baptist background. I have known of Messiah College for many years and have some “old friends” on the faculty there–known to me from my days as editor of Christian Scholar’s Review. And one of my former students is on the faculty of the college. With others I found various “small world” connections–friends in common. Also my former “boss,” provost, from a college where I used to teach was at the conference and it was good to renew our acquaintance.
Like almost every denomination, the Brethren in Christ (long ago known as “River Brethren”) struggle to hold onto their distinctive identity in a time of “genericizing evangelicalism.” They are evangelicals, in my book, even though a few of them expressed some degree of consternation over that label (because of its popular connotations created by the media).
As Anabaptists, the BIC has much in common with Mennonites and pacifism is one stream of their heritage. As Wesleyan-Arminians, Holiness Christians, BIC has much in common with denominations such as the Nazarenes and Free Methodists. As Pietists they have much in common with groups such as the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Moravian Church.
My two talks will be published in the Brethren in Christ historical journal, so I can’t post them here. However, over the next few weeks I will post essays here expressing some of the ideas in those two talks–which I wrote especially for this conference. The “gist” of the first address is that while “denominationalism” is not ideal it does not necessarily represent “brokenness” in the body of Christ. Everything depends on how a denomination behaves with regard to others. The “gist” of the second address is that in order for denominations to survive in this “postdenominational” era they must know who they are, their “reason for being,” and make that consistent with and helpful to the progress of the kingdom of God. And they must be flexible enough to adapt to new contexts and cultural situations without sheer accommodation to fads and fashions.
Twice during Q&A times–after and between my conference addresses–people very kindly challenged my claim that “following Jesus” is not enough to make one a Christian. I understand that concern, but I stand by my claim. “Following Jesus” is important to authentic Christian living, but it’s not enough–unless it includes believing in Jesus as God incarnate, the second person of the Trinity become flesh and dying to reconcile us to God and rising from the dead in the power of the Holy Spirit. My point is simply that there is a cognitive side to being authentically Christian. I am frankly dismayed when I see people being baptized into the Body of Christ (or confirmed) without any clear confession of belief about Jesus as God and Savior. Even cultists will say they “follow Jesus” and sometimes, they seem to do that rather well in terms of ethical conduct. Our definition of “Christian” needs to be more robust and “thick” than just “following Jesus.”