What Ties Us Together
The Basis, Purpose and Value of Denominational Relationships
James A. Beil
Pastors, Elders, Deacons Retreat
Nov. 20, 1982
Pinebrook Bible Conference
I am supposed to convey to you what ties us together. I would like to preface my remarks by declaring that much of what I have to say is based on personal observations and impressions. Much of it cannot be documented. There are men here who have experienced much more of life because they have lived longer than I have. Thus, they may be able to correct me on some things and I am ready to stand corrected but I would like to share with you some things that I believe tie us together.
This retreat is a combined effort of the Christian Education Committee and the Church Government Study Committee and is designed to assist the pastors, elders and deacons in the leadership of the particular church. In order to accomplish this, the fact must be emphasized that the particular churches must also function in relationship to other churches in a connectional form of church polity.
So the first major point we want to consider in what ties us together is the historical perspective. We are Protestants and hence our roots would go back to the Reformation. The Reformation is an interesting time of history. We can see how the western civilization is literally shaken at the roots by the movement of God through some men. Martin Luther stands out, John Calvin, Zwingli, Kramer in England and Menno Simons are some of the leaders in this Reformation period and they alter the course of western civilization. They stood up against the organized church because God had done something in their hearts and they sensed the organized church was not meeting the needs of the people nor properly responding to the mandate of God. They’ ‘began a protest and their nickname became Protest—ants or Protestants. In this Reformation period, there is a movement again given a nickname by the other reformers known as the Anabaptists and it is out of this movement that the Bible Fellowship Church draws its history. I believe the Bible Fellowship Church in a sense has come full circle.
One of the impressions I have from studying church history is that when Zwingli began the Reformation in Switzerland, he had several men who were working with him. I will give you their names not that it will mean that much: Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and George Blaurock. These men were Swiss Germans. They stood with him but they were called later by historians the radicals. They were more radical than Zwingli and their point of departure began with an emphasis on the church. Zwingli wanted to emphasize that Christendom and the church were in a sense equitable and these men said the two were not. There was Christendom but the true church was to be separated from it. If you please, it was to be a gathered church. It was to be a church made up of individuals dedicated to Jesus Christ because He had redeemed them by His blood. They further departed from the reformers in that they said the church should not rely upon the state to accomplish many of its ends. And so the Anabaptists (who were nicknamed that it means rebaptizers) were the first ones to advocate separation of church and state. And that came to its full fruition in this country. These men stood so strongly for this position that they were willing to lay down their lives for it,
Shortly thereafter they concluded that since the church, made up of individual believers, is to be separated and distinct. The separation and distinction would be properly signified by believer’s baptism. Many of these early Anabaptists did not make distinctions in the mode. They only made the distinction in the time. It was to follow one’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ. Because these men stood so staunchly for their position and the most obvious aspect of their position was that of being baptized upon one’s confession of faith, they were called before the civil magistrates and the civil magistrates passed down this decree (note the irony of it) “He who dips shall be dipped in the river.” These three men were martyred by drowning because of what they stood for.
I am surprised as I read the pages of church history, I thought Michael Servetus was the only one who was condemned by the Reformers and had his death approved, but I was wrong. Our Anabaptist brethren paid dearly — with their lives. They saw their loved ones drowned as well, usually the Protestants drowned them and the Roman Catholics burned them. They would not fit the mold of either aspect of what we call the “Christian church” I am using the term here in the sense of “Christendom”. Out of this Anabaptist movement came the Mennonites.
I do not want to give a long drawn—out explanation of the Anabaptists and the like, but just let me say this, the Anabaptists were not at first a well— organized movement. The first organization came from these Swiss brethren and the Anabaptists sprung up all over Europe and some of them were called Anabaptists who had nothing in common with what later became the Mennonites or the Church of the Brethren and the like. They were radicals, they were heretics, but because they would baptize again, they were called Anabaptists and were all thrown into that one common category. But out of this came the Mennonites. There was a leader, a converted Roman Catholic priest, by the name of Menno Simons, He traveled about Europe. He would preach and teach many of these small groups of Anabaptists here and there. As they began to follow his teaching, they were again nicknamed Mennonites. The Mennonites, because of the oppression, and opposition, unfortunately became very ingrown. They would be found in pockets scattered throughout Europe, and were gathered in these pockets where they would gain some degree of protection, or, at least, release from persecution by the civil authorities. As a result they became a very ingrown, closed community. They lost their evangelistic zeal. They became satisfied with living within themselves and proclaiming their doctrines. By the way, one of the places where the Reformers misunderstood them was that they emphasized that when a person claims to be a Christian, his life should show it. So they were accused by some of the reformers of mixing work with faith or making work a way of obtaining salvation. But sad to say, this did begin to develop in these pockets because of their ingrownness and closeness. They were a very frugal people.
Their form of government was patterned somewhat after the reformed branch of the church. There was probably a bit more autonomy in the local church than in the Reformed branch. There was much more autonomy than what the Lutheran branch allowed. They also developed an office which they called bishop. We will touch upon that a little later. Because of this they also had a plurality of men ordained in the church which they called elders, such as in the reformed churches. These men would then teach and take turns preaching and they became the recognized leaders in the congregation. Many times, again I believe because of their oppression, they laid aside some of the training that other clergymen were receiving anti would come up with strange ideas that led to branches which were cultic in nature,
When the United States was being settled in its colonial days, William Penn, had a charter for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. He was the first one who guaranteed to everyone who came absolute freedom to practice their religion as they wanted to practice it. He was the first one to invite non-English people to settle this country. There were the Holland Dutch who had settled in New Amsterdam or New York and parts of New Jersey. But after the English took over they were somewhat looked down upon and the Dutch did not emigrate very much until a later period. But William Penn invited the Germans over and some of the first Germans to respond to this were the Mennonites. They settled in Philadelphia, known as Germantown. They began to migrate and their first major migration took them north to what we now know as Franconia in the Souderton — Harleysville area. Later they migrated into Lancaster and now they are scattered over much of the United States,
There can still be seen among the Mennonites, ladies who were a prayer covering and men who wear a lapel-less, collarless kind of jacket. Among the Mennonites there came a leader by the name of Oberholtzer, who with others, said this kind of dress is not of necessity, Salvation does not consist in our dress. He said that it is unnecessary to wear such garb. The conservative element in the Mennonites said they were too liberal, so they put them out and they formed themselves into what is called the General Conference Mennonites.
Among the General Conference Mennonites there was a small church in Zionsville, Pennsylvania. This church had as one of its leaders, a man by the name of William Gehman Under his leadership they began to sense the need of having times of prayer. And I must say that as I hear about it and those who talked about it, I get the feeling it was somewhat akin to what we sense today in the charismatic movement but without some of the display of emotions and without the speaking in tongues, but with a kind of fervor that you sometimes hear among those groups today. They would also have prayer meetings that went late into the night. At these prayer meetings they would allow times for testimony. They also permitted the women to pray and testify. This began to spread among some of the other Mennonite churches with the result that some of those preachers did not think too highly of it. As I understand it, William Gehman talked to some of the leaders of the General Conference Mennonites and when it was explained they said, “Well, that appears to be all right, God is in it, we will not stop it.” But other preachers began to say it was not good for the General Conference Mennonites to allow that. Therefore in the year 1858 the Reformed Mennonites were born out of that small congregation. They were locally known as Mennonites Number Three. Mennonites Number One were the old Mennonites, Mennonites Number Two were the new Mennonites and Mennonites Number Three were “us guys”
As time went on they became aware of Mennonite groups in Canada and the western part of the United States. There were some unions with these groups and eventually we were known as the “Mennonite Brethren in Christ”. However, the Pennsylvania Conference of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ developed its doctrinal emphasis in a different vein. In fact the western conferences, as they were then known, accused the Pennsylvania conference of being Calvinists. You may not like that but that is what we were called. If we were Calvinists then, I do not know what they would call us today. A greater emphasis was placed upon the progressive work of God in the life of the individual so that he might grow into maturity in Jesus Christ. The western conferences put a greater emphasis on an instantaneous kind of sanctification and the differences became more apparent. The Pennsylvania conference voted to notify the 1952 General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church (which by that time had changed their name to United Missionary Church while the Pennsylvania Conference retained Mennonite Brethren in Christ) that it wanted to sever the connection with them, It was severed under good feelings; there was no fight or split per se.
Our doctrinal emphasis began to develop further until what we now have today in cur Faith and Order. The greater emphasis is upon the sovereign work of God in the hearts and in the lives of individuals, calling them to faith and repentance before Jesus Christ, recognizing Him as the only means of salvation, and then continuing to bring growth in our hearts, while freely offering this great and wonderful salvation to the world.
Now we will move to the practical perspective, from the historical perspective. Our church polity ties us together. If you were to go back and study the church polity of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church and then the Bible Fellowship Church, you would notice the church polity inc our early history paralleled to a large degree that of the Methodist Church. We never had bishops as such but we had presiding elders. The name of this office was later changed to district superintendent. One outsider remarked to me they functioned more like a bishop than any bishop he ever saw in the Mennonite Church. They could be very strong and very autocratic in some of their decrees.
Local churches had some autonomy. They could address certain issues at Annual Conference. They always sent their pastor, as well as a lay representative, a delegate, to Annual Conference. They always had some ability and privilege to speak on the floor at Annual Conference and churches were always given a hearing in some way at Annual Conference. The Annual Conference established a basis for tying us together. However, Annual Conference was looked upon many times as being the authority. Because this idea filtered down to the churches, they did what Annual Conference decreed. The local churches, thru their representatives, had given some input into such decrees, but nonetheless Annual Conference decreed many things. We began to question this font of church polity in the late 1950’s and in the 60’s. We began making changes in our church polity, giving more autonomy to the local churches, and, in a sense, realizing that the authority that Annual Conference has is derived from the authority vested in the local churches. As the members of Annual Conference sit together and deliberate, it is determined what the issues are and how they are to be decided with the churches agreeing to support the decisions. This is where we are now, and this is how we are tied together. We meet annually and we deliberate. I have never had the privilege of sitting in on such deliberations of other denominations but I have talked with some pastors of other denominations. When I described to them how our Annual Conference functions, one man said to me (and he was a Presbyterian nonetheless), “How do you ever get any business done?” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, "Well, we sit in our deliberation but things are pretty well established and figured out in a certain way and the body approves them without very much deliberation and in a rather routine manner.”
I really thing our strength is in the fact that we allow open debate. Sometimes feelings run high. Sometimes things get a little warn, but one of the reasons why this happens is that we are concerned and care about our Church.
Also in the practical perspective; what are some of the church practices? We dropped the name “Mennonite” because we were not Mennonite in dress. We were not Mennonite in the mode of baptism. We baptize by immersion, not by pouring as many of the Mennonites do. We were not Mennonite in polity because we never had bishops. The bishops in the Mennonite church function differently than any denominational leaders that we have or had. We were not like Mennonites, at least as many of them used to be, in communion, in that we always practiced open communion We make it a point many times in most of our services to announce that the communion table is open to each and every believer.’ who professes to be born again. What then are some distinctives that we have in our practices? Baptism is baptism by immersion, following one’s profession of faith. And also our communion is open to all believers in Jesus Christ.
This leads us next to the doctrinal perspective. If you look at our doctrines, one at a time, there isn’t much to distinguish us on the basis of individual doctrines. We are not the only group or the only church that practice baptism by immersion, following one’s profession of faith.
We have an emphasis on eschatology This is one of the things the .Anabaptists had in their Reformation days. These are things that sometimes the reformers denied them the right of believing while accusing them of believing things that were not true, The Bible Fellowship Church throughout its history has always emphasized eschatology. This eschatology stresses a premillennial return of Jesus Christ, believing that He is going to come before He sets up a kingdom on earth for a thousand years called the millennial kingdom of Jesus Christ. Theologians have labeled such views with the term premillennial We are not the only church that has such an eschatology,
A greater emphasis has also been placed on the work of salvation for we believe that it is God by His Spirit who graciously calls us to the place of repentance and points us to the Savior. We recognize that man of himself does not have the ability to bring about salvation, I remember that while I was at Berean Bible School, Brother Jansen Hartman emphasized to us that as he looked back over the history of the Bible Fellowship Church he noticed there has always been an emphasis on original sin: on how man was a slitter and he needed the Savior, and also on the inability of sinful man of himself and of his own innovations to turn to God and ask for salvation. It ii by God’s grace and by His Holy Spirit that He calls men to repentance. Redeemed men must then share in that ministry by boldly proclaiming that Jesus Christ died to save sinners, and that all men are born as sinners into this world. That is the emphasis of soteriology. We are not the only church that has that emphasis.
But what then makes us distinctive in our doctrines? It is that these doctrinal emphases are put together. Where is found a church that has a connectional form of church government with a position of baptism by immersion, emphasizing eschatology in the sense of a pre-millennial return of Jesus Christ, and of God’s gracious provision of salvation through Jesus Christ alone, As these doctrinal emphasis inter-relate and are then combined as they are, this church has its distinctions, This is our doctrinal perspective.
In conclusion, the major point, the major reason we are tied together is the perspective of Christ’s authority. Turn first of all to Ephesians 1:22, 23. The implied subject of the verb in verse 22 is God, so I’ll read it there:
And God has put all things under His (Christ’s) feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things, to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.
From studying some courses in Biology, one can gain a sense of the unity of the individual organism, the human being, and how all the processes of that organism that go on within the individual are really mediated in the head. There are some that are mediated in the spinal column up at the “top” known as the medulla, but it is still really tied into the brain or head. And Jesus Christ is that mediating force, shall we say, that brings about the unity to the body, the church. One day in my ministry as a pastor in one of the churches, I received a call that one of the men of the church was involved in a near fatal automobile accident, he was bread-sided and his neck was broken. At that point the doctor’s did not know the damage to his spinal column, but he had no feeling from his shoulders down, As far as that man was concerned here was a head without a body. That head could no longer communicate to the body. And dear friends the church in its relationship to Jesus Christ is not like that. It is dynamic and it is vital. The text says He is the fullness of Him. God is the fullness of Christ, who fills all in all; He fills up his body full. It is He who connects us. Now we all arrived here tonight because our hands, and our feet, and our eyes, and our ears, yes and even our mouths, are coordinated together, as well as all our other organs. All is coordinated together. So it is in the body of Jesus Christ, We are all coordinated; He is the mediating force; He is th4 head; He is that dynamic that permeates through us; He invigorates us; and He brings us together to function as a dynamic organism for Him. Some might function as hands, and some might function as some other organ of the body, but is all together as one with His headship. Now as we look at His permeating influence, we find it even more in John 15. These are the word of Christ as He again speaks of a dynamic organism, a grapevine. Please read the first sixteen verses.
The permeating influence of Jesus Christ in His church is like hat of a vine and its branches. Study a grapevine sometime. Study a tree as you walk about (not the pine trees, the hardwood trees). Try to figure out w ere the main stem or trunk stops and the branches begin. You may say this happens where the first fork comes. But what happens after the first fork? There are more branches coming off. It is not so easy to put your finger on a point and say. “That’s it!” And yet somehow, when we go to a grapevine, we know that it has branches, and we know that it has a main trunk or a vine, as Jesus says. We know that if those branches are cut off from the vine they will not ‘abide alone. They will wither up and die. By the way, you know a grapevine only has one real purpose: to bear fruit. Did you ever see any furniture made of grapevine wood? In this day and age, with a great emphasis on log-burners and heating your house with wood, do you find there is a great rush of people to the woods to find grapevines, to cut them up for good, effective firewood? No.
Jesus says the branches that are cut off can be gathered and burned, but do you know how they are burned? They are not burned to make heat in a fireplace. They are burned as trash. A grapevine is planted for one purpose: to bear fruit. That is what the church of Jesus Christ is for: to bear fruit for her master, for her Lord, who permeates her. Further, if you out off all the branches, how much fruit is the vine going to bear? Maybe I am carrying the analogy too far. If the branches are cut off of the vine, they die and if all the branches are cut off the vine, the vine dies. Jesus needs us, He needs the branches and we need Him, and we need each other. The branches do not go off on their own and say, “I do not need any other branch.” All the branches in that grapevine work together. They are part of a whole, permeated by Jesus Christ. This is what ties us together.
I am sure if someone else were asked to speak this evening, their emphasis would be on something else. But as we look at this week—end, we are tied together in our history. We are tied together on the practical emphasis of what we have. We are tied together on our doctrinal perspective. And above all else, we are tied together because of the permeating influence of Jesus Christ. I want to tell you something, without that, the others do not mean much. I believe there are many denominations today. They have a historical perspective. They have a practical perspective. They have a doctrinal perspective. But the permeating influences of Jesus Christ appear to be gone. May that not be said of the Bible Fellowship Church. If we do not have His presence, we might as well fold up and go out of business. We need Jesus Christ. In a very real sense, He needs us, we need Him and we need each other.