Even as some Brethren in Christ sought to resist the “corrupting” influences of evangelicalism, other leaders pursued a more conciliatory path: reformation. Beginning in the 1950s and continuing into the 1970s, Brethren in Christ people drew on their historic doctrines of nonresistance and nonconformity to challenge the new evangelicalism’s tendency to divorce ethics from theology. In particular, these Brethren in Christ disputed what they perceived as evangelicalism’s militaristic inclinations, as well as the group’s inattention to issues like poverty and social justice.
Among the first to try and “reform evangelicalism” was C. N. Hostetter, Jr., a prominent Brethren in Christ bishop, church leader, and peace advocate. For years, Hostetter had provided a link between the Brethren in Christ and their Mennonite brethren; beginning in the 1950s, he also took an active role in connecting his church community to the evangelical movement. Hostetter believed that the NAE could strengthen the denomination’s commitment to evangelism and missions — a belief that compelled him to defend the NAE when other Anabaptist groups threatened to withdraw from the organization. At the same time, Hostetter lamented what he perceived as evangelicals’ militaristic temperament. As he wrote to evangelical leader Carl F. H. Henry, “The inclination of evangelicals . . . is to take for granted that the Bible approves participation in war. . . . The evangelical fellowship should be better informed.”
One of Hostetter’s most public acts of nonresistant advocacy occurred in 1961, when he joined several Mennonite leaders for a meeting with revivalist Billy Graham. As believers committed to biblical pacifism, Hostetter and his Mennonite colleagues hoped to dialogue with Graham on “the peace issue.” After hearing from the leaders about Anabaptist history, theology, and peacemaking efforts, Graham declared himself in agreement with “ninety-nine percent” of what he had heard. Hostetter and his Mennonite colleagues felt that such engagement with evangelicalism’s most prominent figurehead offered an opportunity to represent the Christian nonparticipation in war as a biblical imperative, not a “secondary doctrine,” as many evangelicals characterized it.
A later generation of Brethren in Christ people drew on their community’s historic identity to address contemporary issues like racism and the Vietnam War. For John K. Stoner, for instance, nonconformity was not a matter of avoiding movie theaters and neckties but a means by which to resist the larger culture’s bigotry and ambivalence toward social injustice. As he wrote in a 1968 article, nonconformity is a “Biblical doctrine . . . [that] will confront the racism, materialism, and nationalism of our society.” His re-interpretation was not just a way to contemporize traditional Brethren in Christ doctrine, but also an opportunity to reform evangelicalism, since “the church in America has failed to be positively separate from the world in these issues.”
Another Brethren in Christ leader eager to reform evangelicalism was Ronald J. Sider. During the 1970s,
Sider — a theologian and educator at the denominational college — gained national attention for his outspoken condemnation of both American affluence and ambivalence toward social and economic injustice. Sider saw these tendencies as corrupting the Christian church and muting
its prophetic witness. In his writings and in his speeches,
Sider frequently reinterpreted the classical Brethren in Christ doctrine of nonconformity in order to urge evangelicals (as well as members of his natal denomination) “to resist society’s call for conformity.”
Sider’s most famous book, 1977’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, did not draw explicitly on a reinterpreted Brethren in Christ doctrine of nonconformity to critique American affluence. Yet, as Sider himself would later admit, his “Brethren in Christ background contributed to the book in a number of significant ways.” Writing expressly to a Brethren in Christ audience, he argued that evangelical Christians must live and act in ways that are fundamentally different from the world around them — an idea, he noted, with deep roots in Brethren in Christ theology. Sider charged the contemporary church with having lost this conviction, to a large degree. Rather than interpreting such a counter-cultural idea as necessitating rigid dress standards or a complete divorce from the political realm, as an earlier generation had understood nonconformity, Sider advocated for “a separation from the materialism of our society.” By recovering its own heritage, Sider concluded, the Brethren in Christ could more effectively draw the larger evangelical world toward a biblical concept of nonconformity. In this way, he — like others before him — drew upon the historic Brethren in Christ identity in a bid to reform the entirety of evangelicalism.