The Brethren Church, or the Church of the Brethren, based in Illinois, is a fellowship of congregations that has roots in the Anabaptist movement in eighteenth-century Europe. The Church of the Brethren subscribes to no creed but simply advocates following Jesus as a way of life. The emphasis is upon living simply and peaceably with one other and the world at large. The Brethren Church is distinct from the Plymouth Brethren, which is a fellowship of independent, conservative evangelical churches.
There are a number of practices distinctive to the Brethren Church: they observe foot washing and love feasts in conjunction with the communion service. The Church of the Brethren also practices anointing with oil: a person needing spiritual or physical healing is anointed on the forehead in a prayer service. Brethren also teach pacifism and conscientious objection to involvement in war. They avoid taking oaths, saying “I affirm” rather than “I swear” when making a commitment. Adult baptism, with three immersions, is observed as the believer’s first act of commitment in a life of obedience and following Jesus Christ.
The following summary is from the Brethren Church’s website:
“What We Believe
“The central emphasis of the Church of the Brethren is not a creed, but a commitment to follow Christ in simple obedience, to be faithful disciples in the modern world. As do most other Christians, the Brethren believe in God as Creator and loving Sustainer. We confess the Lordship of Christ, and we seek to be guided by the Holy Spirit in every aspect of life, thought, and mission.
“We hold the New Testament as our guidebook for living, affirming with it the need for lifelong and faithful study of the Scriptures. Brethren believe that God has revealed an unfolding purpose for the human family and the universe through the Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament), and fully in the New Testament. We hold the New Testament as the record of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and of the beginnings of the life and thought of the Christian church.
“Faithful following of Jesus Christ and obedience to the will of God as revealed in the Scriptures have led us to emphasize principles that we believe are central in true discipleship. Among these are peace and reconciliation, simple living, integrity of speech, family values, and service to neighbors near and far” (www.bretheren.org, accessed 5/31/19).
The Brethren Church seeks “to interpret biblical teachings in fresh ways for our day.” Since 1958, they have granted women ordination, giving them “full and unrestricted rights” as ministers. In all things, they strive to live “a life of humble service and unconditional love,” and they are active in foreign missions. The church has many areas of outreach that focus on helping the poor, disaster relief, and social justice.
One sentence from their website is very telling: “Steadily, lovingly, even radically, Jesus went about saving the world—by serving its people.” The problem with this statement is that Jesus did not save the world simply by serving the people through acts of feeding and healing. Jesus saved the world through His death on the cross. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Today’s Brethren Church seems to pass over the need for repentance and faith for salvation in favor of a commitment to follow Jesus’ example. While every Christian should follow Jesus’ example, that is not the way of salvation. If following Jesus’ example is how one is finally saved, then all are condemned. Who among us can love God completely and love our neighbors as ourselves? We have to admit that we have utterly failed in following Jesus’ example, and we must turn to Him in faith for forgiveness and grace, accepting the righteousness that only He can provide.
Ephesians 2:8–10 gives us the proper perspective. Salvation by grace through faith comes first, followed by good works: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Most world religions focus on what one must do to become acceptable to God. However, biblical Christianity is different because the focus is on what Christ has already done to make us acceptable to God. Unfortunately, there are many churches and groups that label themselves as Christian but whose focus is on what one must do to be acceptable to God. The Brethren Church seems to fit within this category.