“Jesus within us”: Pietism in the Brethren in Christ Church

In Part logoI linked to it on Saturday, but the Spring 2013 issue of In Part, the denominational magazine of the Brethren in Christ Church (BIC), deserves its own spotlight here, since it focuses on Pietism.

It’s the second in a series of four special issues, each focused on the four theological traditions that have shaped the distinctive identity of the BIC: Anabaptism kicked things off this past winter, then issues on Wesleyanism and Evangelicalism will presumably follow. On how the four relate to each other, see BIC bishop Perry Engle’s column in the Winter 2012 issue of In Part (“Bold, sweetened, with a little bit of room”), or this panel session from the BIC Study Conference (“Why We Must Take Our History Seriously”) held last November.

The moderator of that panel, historian Devin Manzullo-Thomas, contributes the central article in the Pietism issue, one that builds from the themes of his talk at our Pietism studies colloquium last April: while few BIC identify as Pietist and that stream seems to “get lost in the mix” with the other three, Pietism decisively shaped the BIC and retains enormous relevance for that church today. Devin begins with a historical overview of the late 18th century encounter between some German-speaking Anabaptists in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and the pietistic evangelists Philip Otterbein and Martin Boehm. The combination produced a unique hybrid:

For these believers, being BIC meant synthesizing an Anabaptist vision of the Church and a Pietist vision of salvation. The BIC viewed the Church as a covenant community of believers who had actively and personally committed to following Jesus in total obedience, patterning their life together on the teachings of the Gospels and on the pristine model of the Early Church. To be a part of this body, one needed to profess a personal “born-again” experience and exhibit (as a result of this experience) a changed heart and mind, with the result of greater conformity to God and God’s will.

The later additions of the Wesleyan “emphasis on the empowerment of the Spirit for holy living” and the Evangelical dedication to missions and evangelism reinforced the Pietist emphases on conversion and witness, respectively.

Brethren in Christ, 1911
A group of Brethren in Christ, 1911 – Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives

In the present day, Devin sees three Pietist themes most strongly influencing the BIC:

Experience: “Shaped by Pietist revival, the BIC emphasized genuine Christian conversion as a result of a powerful encounter with Almighty God. Therefore, experiencing God—comprehending at a deep and intimate level God’s limitless love and grace—has always been at the heart of the BIC.”

(Recalling the August 1974 evening when he experienced his own “profound, personal, heartfelt conversion, a new birth,” Perry Engle uses his own column in this issue to challenge readers “to recapture the dynamic of our Pietistic heritage that emphasizes the point in time when non-believers take that decisive step in saying ‘yes’ to God and are truly born again.” See also BIC pastor Zach Spidel’s reflection on the moment he accepted Jesus’ love, and the set of BIC conversion accounts — one each from the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries — collected in the issue.)

Transformation: “Although the BIC also recognized the need to declare their trust in God and seek forgiveness for sin, they were driven by the Pietist impulse toward renewal, and they viewed salvation as both dynamic and comprehensive.”

Connection: “Now, as then, we BIC also stress the spiritual significance of personal devotional practices. Yet we maintain that corporate gatherings provide an equally important environment for spiritual growth and development.”

Devin Manzullo-ThomasLooking to the future of the BIC, Devin argues that recovering Pietism not only strengthens what’s at the core of the Brethren in Christ, but “supplies us with the theological resources for bold witness and effective mission-minded ministry in the 21st century…. In a world desperate for authenticity, awakening, and relationship, our Pietist-inspired emphases position us well for a Spirit-directed mission of reaching the lost and expanding the borders of God’s kingdom.”

See also the essays by Kimberly Forry (“Embodied mercy“) and Deb Wiles (“Rising hope“), which (without using the language of Pietism) echo Devin’s themes of experience, transformation, and connection.

2 thoughts on ““Jesus within us”: Pietism in the Brethren in Christ Church

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.