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The problem with essentializing the Brethren in Christ's Core Values
This is a first draft of an essay I wrote for the BIC Core Course on History and Values.
What the most important Brethren in Christ core values? Which are the most difficult to follow? These are the questions that this author is assigned to answer. Within the question itself, one may find the answer. The question presupposes that the things that make up the identity of the Brethren in Christ, found at least in part within its core values, can be evaluated individually. It is the contention of this author that they cannot be.
The question of importance alone suggests that one might be more important than the other. In fact, it may seek to fundamentalize the Brethren in Christ, a denomination that has formed on the basis of a communal hermeneutic not an individual one. When one fundamentalizes the values that make up the core of the denomination, we dilute the distinctions that make the Brethren in Christ noteworthy at all. Such essentialization is at the heart of the reformation, and does have its merit. In fact, some degree of essentialization protects the Brethren in Christ from many things, not least of which is legalism. When one considers the core values, perhaps it is more significant and important to ponder their application collectively, as opposed to their individual merit.
If one evaluates the core values based on their merit, one might be left with nothing but generic Evangelicalism. Within Western culture, it seems like the most important values would be the ones that the Evangelical values, since that particular “stream” has influenced the Brethren in Christ most significantly as of late.
Furthermore, an additional problem presents itself because the core values themselves are already, simply by definition, value judgments on their own. The Brethren in Christ has already defined the essentials of its movement. That one would seek to further divide what has already been determined and set apart is a further reduction that threatens the very particularity of the denomination.
The core values are holistic. In other words, one leads to the other. How does one follow Jesus without valuing the free gift of salvation? How can one believe the Bible and not conclude that pursuing peace is at the essence of the Sermon on the Mount? The values create a delicate web that might be adulterated if reduced (not necessarily if altered, however). The core values are not perfect, and they should evolve in a discerning process; but they should not merely be simplified.
In this deconstruction, one finds precisely what is most difficult regarding the values: following them all. The Evangelical temptation may be to discern what values are important to each individual. And in fact, this may be the trend in the Brethren in Christ church. At least anecdotally, it seems like pastors of congregations are left to their own individual thinking, as the denominations’ bishops try to maintain order across dozens of congregations in the large swaths of land, which their unrealistic job description requires.
With that said, the most important values are the ones that make the Brethren in Christ distinct and identifiable. Perhaps it is more prudent to list the values that make the Brethren in Christ distinct so that we do not lose our identity in an era of atomization. What is it then that makes the Brethren in Christ a body at all? The commitment to the cross, to grace, to the Bible, to follow Jesus, to evangelism at large—these are the spoken commitments of any Christian—the application of these values are distinct in the Brethren in Christ. Not only are they distinct, they are crucial.
This era is so individualized that our mere existence is what makes us distinct at all. Nietzsche said, “What does your conscience say? You should become the person you are.” If the Brethren in Christ is to be that individualized, the cost may be its collective self. Certainly, such submission to individualism may allow for inclusion of many people, but the cost is too high. If the essence of the Brethren in Christ becomes flavorless, it may still be substantive, but it ceases to be notable among the ocean of churches that are identifiable only by their names, not their characters.
Both an important and difficult value is that of community. In fact, if there is not a great value placed on community, then one could simply elect which values are of important to him or her, and subsequently continue on with Western individualism, which has most notably been expressed in a preoccupation with a personal relationship with Jesus. Dialogue discerned in the Holy Spirit is what holds the Brethren in Christ together. Its hard-won agreements are the centerpiece to our denomination. If what one learns in the Scripture, and how one experiences the Holy Spirit, and what it means to follow Jesus is not something that is communally discerned and practiced, the world has won.
Moreover, it is its community that makes the Brethren in Christ a witness to the whole world. As the Brethren in Christ witnesses to the globe, it includes the world into its community. It is precisely this incarnational connection where Jesus is best revealed. Participation in the community is how people are most convincingly converted. If indeed every living person is someone to whom one can witness, how can one not pursue peace? How does not forgive his potential brother? How does one do violence to his sister? How does one claiming to follow the Risen Lord in the new creation pledge allegiance to another master?
Following the commitment to nonviolence, is the need to be compassionate. To treat every one of God’s children as if they were one’s own children is at the heart, not just of the Brethren in Christ’s core values, but of the Gospel itself. True Christian living, James wrote, is to take care of orphans and widows. As one witnesses to the least of these, one truly must live simply. The call to live simply is not just a call to be different, but rather, profoundly relatable. It serves as a witness not just against the wanton materialism of the world, but as a tool one can use to relate to those to whom he or she witnesses. Simple living helps one reach the least of these, and it does not ruin the witness to those of more means.
The brotherhood’s core values lead us to follow both the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. Like those great statements, it is difficult to completely and wholly follow the core values. Thankfully, it is not through a legalistic following that one finds his or her salvation. With that said, one must be cautious not to discard the values that most effectively threaten the powers that be and the institutions of the world. The temptation may be to align oneself with the values that least threaten the order of the world. The Brethren in Christ must guard itself against such temptation, for in succumbing to them, it may be left with nothing more than an empty façade.