As the preceding stories illustrate, the Brethren in Christ readily embraced the new evangelicalism as a partner in the church’s mission of spreading the Gospel. But some church members also saw the movement as a model for the struggling church.
“Unity in Diversity”
In the years after World War II, minister John Climenhaga noticed a disturbing trend among the Brethren in Christ: a tendency to quash questions and expressions of discontent with the status quo. Climenhaga was especially concerned by what he saw as efforts to enforce a strict uniformity on church practices like plain dress, nonresistance, and the women’s prayer veiling.
In a 1947 article in the denominational newspaper, the Evangelical Visitor, titled “Unity in Diversity,” Climenhaga articulated his distress. “In frowning upon the eclectic we become narrow and dogmatic, selfish and judicious, unkind and uncharitable,” he asserted.
As a remedy for the church’s present crisis, Climenhaga prescribed “unity in diversity.” In the main, he argued that Brethren in Christ people should focus on biblical essentials — like the divinity of Christ and the authority of the Bible, among other doctrines — and allow for conscientious differences of opinion on less important matters.
While not explicitly calling the church to focus less on
doctrinal particularities like plain dress, Climenhaga did suggest that his fellow church members spend less time prescribing religious practice. “Of all organizations,” he concluded, “the Church should be a democratic body and
not a dictatorial one. It can and will be, not by destroying individualism but by having unity in Diversity.”
To whom did Climenhaga credit his “unity in diversity”
thesis? A fellow member of his evangelical minister’s fellowship. Perhaps this unnamed minister had gleaned his own insights from the writings of other evangelical leaders — like National Association of Evangelicals co-founder William Ward Ayer, who told delegates to the NAE’s first convention that Christians should try to cooperate on the basis of their shared faith in Christ, and not on doctrinal particularities. “[Since] there cannot be unanimity” on all points of doctrine, Ayer argued, “there must be unity, even in division.” Years before Climenhaga, evangelical leader Ayer also argued for “unity in diversity.”
Principle Over Proscription
Beyond the push for “unity in diversity,” Brethren in Christ of the 1950s and 1960s also urged “principle over proscription” — the idea that church practices and doctrines were more biblical and more effective when rendered as principles for daily living rather than mandated requirements for church membership.
Arthur Climenhaga, a missionary to Africa and a prominent leader in the North American church, made this point clearly in a 1954 sermon. Climenhaga argued that the Brethren in Christ “must come to understand the principles underlying” doctrines like plain dress and nonresistance and “ad[a]pt them to the age in which we live.” He concluded that the “understanding of the principle . . . must supercede [sic] any tendency toward legalism and save us from ritualism.”
Church doctrinal statements issued in this era reached similar conclusions. Typifying this tendency was a statement on the women’s head covering ratified by the 1957 General Conference. Contending that the “form of head covering for the woman is not specifically prescribed in Scripture,” the statement advised church leaders and members alike to “seek primarily to promote commitment to principle. . . . The observance of this doctrine should be motivated by a concern for spiritual victory, obedience to the teaching of the prayer veiling or the covering [in the Bible], and the welfare and unity of the group,” rather than by legislative action, the statement concluded.
Once again, this emphasis appears to have been borrowed from the larger evangelical movement. Reacting against the “legalistic” tendencies of fundamentalism, many evangelical leaders argued that the church needed to redefine the expectations for proper Christian attitudes and actions. While admitting that there are some things, like truth-telling, that are “always right,” and some things, like cursing and lying, that are “always wrong,” evangelical writer David Cowie noted that the vast majority of life’s choices lie in “a ‘no-man’s land’ which is not governed by law, but guided by [biblical] principle.” By arguing that adherence to such principles was more biblical than adhering to strict denominational regulations, Cowie (and others like him) contended for “principle over proscription.”