1. The Council of Brethren Elders is a revival of historical Brethren polity
The Council of Brethren Elders is a body of elders from conservative1 Brethren churches within the Church of the Brethren who have joined together in an association of congregations. They desire to revive the historic Brethren understanding and application of the Word of God in church polity.
a. Brethren polity was historically based on a high view of the Scriptures
We, like our early Brethren, believe in the inspiration, inerrancy, sufficiency, authority, and providential preservation of the Scriptures. We believe that many of our practices have been set aside in our churches because the denomination has held too low a view of the Scriptures. They have doubted one or more aspects of the nature of Scripture which we have just identified.
When people are uncertain of the inspiration of the Scriptures, they are not convinced that God is the Author (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). If they are skeptical of its inerrancy, they will not believe it is absolute truth (John 17:17; Psa. 119:160). When they question its sufficiency, they will supplement it with unscriptural practices (2 Tim. 3:16, 17; Gal. 1:14; 2 Pet. 1:3). When they reject its authority, they will not obey it (Matt. 28:18-20, Titus 2:15). When they distrust God’s promise to divinely preserve it, they will doubt that it has been kept pure for us today (Psa. 119:160; 100:5; 12:6; 1 Pet. 1:23).
b. Brethren polity was historically based on a common confession of faith
Our early Brethren held a high view of the Scriptures and carefully studied them to find out what they should believe and practice. They arrived at common understandings, and those understandings are reflected in what we now call the “The Brethren Card.” We have also carefully studied the Scriptures and affirm the truths contained in that simple confession of faith and practice—not because the early Brethren believed them, but because they are based on God’s Word. They taught those beliefs and practices and were persecuted in Europe, but they held fast, and the church grew. They were bonded together as believers in like precious faith. They came to America for freedom to worship God and their congregations grew and multiplied.
c. Brethren polity was historically based on the exercise of the elders’ office
The Brethren studied the Scriptures to understand how New Testament church polity applied to many congregations, and they organized their congregations around that polity. The congregations were spread across America and in many cases were isolated from one another for long periods of time. But the adjoining elders met together for the benefit of their congregations. The church grew larger and organized into formal districts, which were sized appropriately for the elders to meet in council as the local “Elder Body.”
With Brethren congregations stretching from coast to coast, they also utilized their Yearly Meeting as a means to keep the congregations unified. The Yearly Meeting was essentially a large elders’ council that was also attended by many church members. It was intended to address items of business that affected all the congregations. The Brethren experienced difficulties and tense times through their formative years, but overall God blessed them. Why? They were blessed because they had a high view of the Scriptures, they held a common confession of faith, and they organized their churches according to scriptural polity. (See Fruit of the Vine pg. 211-217, The Old Brethren-chap. #5, Brethren Encyclopedia-Yearly Meeting).
d. Brethren polity changed in the twentieth century
Unfortunately the Church of the Brethren departed from the historic biblical elders' bodies and replaced them with district boards and commissions, which were often no longer comprised of elders. The initial intent was to be supportive, but eventually they replaced the elders’ bodies. Ultimately, the Church of the Brethren officially eliminated the office of elder that God had ordained to oversee His church. Congregations that retained the elders’ office have depended upon the district for direction in congregational oversight and ministerial ordination rather than adjoining elders. The polity change from biblical to progressive has opened the door to the toleration of manmade doctrine and polity coming into the denomination. We believe this change began when a lower view of the Scriptures was accepted or tolerated, which over the succeeding generations, eroded the biblical doctrines and practices which were formally upheld. The result has been serious spiritual decline.
2. The biblical basis for the historic Brethren church polity
a. Biblical polity requires a body of elders in each congregation
We notice from the following Scriptures that the office of eldership was exercised in every congregation as a plural ministry (Acts 14:23; 15:2; 20:17; 1 Pet. 5:1; Phil. 1:1). From these Scriptures we see that God intended for a body of elders to oversee each congregation.
b. Biblical polity requires cooperation with elders from other congregations
The Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 passages show that elders from outside the local congregation were utilized when taking the voice of the local church to call men to the ministry. These Scriptures teach us that elders from adjoining congregations should participate in the calling of ministers/elders from within a congregation.
c. Biblical polity requires that adjoining elders meet in council
In Acts 15:2, 4, 6 we notice that appointed delegates from the Gentile churches brought a doctrinal query to Jerusalem for consideration by the apostles and elders. From this example we see that the early church polity utilized inter-congregational elders’ councils. The elders’ council is a term that can be used to describe a meeting of representative elders to address items of business affecting their congregations.
d. Biblical polity requires that elders’ councils help unite congregations
Next we notice that the local Jerusalem church (brethren) also approved the recommendations of the apostles and elders after some general council discussion (Acts 15: 7, 12, 13, 22, 23, 25). The decisions of this inter-congregational council of elders was not only accepted by the Jerusalem Church, but was also accepted by the other congregations (Acts 15:6,23; 16:4; 21:18,25). God has designed that inter- congregational elder councils would help unite congregations.
e. Biblical polity requires cooperation between elders’ councils and congregational councils
The Scriptures identify general council meetings as the means to govern the local congregation. The authority to “bind” and “loose” is given to the local church in Matthew 18:18. The congregational council is to be involved in all “binding” church decisions (Acts 15:12, 22, 23, 25; 21:21, 22; Matt. 18:17, 18; 1 Cor. 5:4). Therefore, the congregational councils are designed to work in conjunction with the elders’ councils in giving final approvals.
f. Biblical polity requires that congregations cooperate in the work of the church
There is further evidence throughout the New Testament in numerous places that the congregations cooperated in fellowship, evangelism, church planting, and humanitarian aid (Acts 11:28-30; 15:3; Rom. 1:7-12; 16:1-23; 3 John 7, 8). The collaboration of adjoining elders promoted doctrinal unity, closer fellowship, and greater cooperation between their congregations.
3. Questions about reviving the historic Brethren polity through CBE.
After considering the Scriptures the reader may still have questions about the formation of CBE. We will list and respond to some of those questions.
a. Will membership in CBE isolate those congregations from service to the rest of the denomination?
The formation of CBE is intended to carry out the Great Commission both within and outside the denomination. The thrust of the Great Commission is to disciple all people to obey Christ in all things that He has commanded.
b. Is the formation of CBE within the denomination a form of rebellion?
God has established the church and given us His polity for it. His Son is the head of the church and His Word (the Bible) is our guide in governing the church. When we conform to the Word of the Son we are in submission to the ultimate authority of the church. Church authorities who do not recognize the Lordship of Jesus or who do not teach and practice obedience to His Word are in rebellion against the Head of the Church.
We should all identify who our ultimate spiritual authority is and where our ultimate loyalty lies in order to determine who we will ultimately obey. Submitting to God’s Word is never rebellion.
The early Brethren have unapologetically understood and taught that the church is to be modeled after the polity of the New Testament Church. They were rejected and persecuted by those who thought they did not have the right to organize a church according to the Scriptures. We may experience the same. If our denomination had held to their former scriptural polity, there would be no need for CBE. CBE is a restoration of the scriptural polity utilized by the early Brethren.
c. Will CBE cause a schism or separation in the Church of the Brethren?
God has intended that there should be unity between His truth and His church. Schism in the church occurs when people depart from God’s truth. CBE is not intended to initiate either denominational separation or schism; it is intended to once again unite God’s church with His truth. The existing divisions within the denomination today are the result of the rejection of truth.
CBE desires to continue practicing the historic Brethren faith within the Church of the Brethren. Any potential separation from the denomination depends upon whether or not the leadership of the Church of the Brethren acknowledges the biblical right of the conservative congregations to fully obey the Scriptures according to conscience, in a manner similar to that of the early Brethren. Our intent is not to separate but to rebuild what has fallen into ruins.
d. If the denomination still officially professes Jesus Christ, why do we need CBE?
We are glad the denomination has not officially denied Christ in a public statement or the conservative churches would most likely have already left. While the denomination has not “officially” denied Jesus Christ, yet they have demonstrated numerous times that they willfully reject what Jesus taught. Why do they call Him their Lord and yet reject the things which He says (Luke 6:46)? The people draw near with their lips, but in many cases their hearts are far from Christ’s Word (Matt. 15:8). This is the cloak of deceitful apostasy—to profess Christ, but yet in works to deny Him (Titus 1:16). The denomination makes an official profession of faith in Christ but in many ways their works show they have departed from Him—such as in church polity. If we call Jesus Christ our Lord, we must obey Him!
e. Why does CBE reference the Brethren Card as a common confession of faith?
The Brethren Card represents the fundamental beliefs and practices of the early Brethren and was approved for general circulation by the 1923 Annual Conference. Being joined together in a common fundamental confession, as CBE is proposing for its member congregations, has the following benefits:
- It provides a unified confession of faith and practice among closely fellowshipping congregations. Truth unites those who embrace it.
- It allows for congregational liberty and flexibility within a common doctrinal confession. Christian liberty is designed to work within recognized boundaries of truth.
- It also gives us a framework for addressing divisions caused by sin or false doctrine. False teachers and false doctrine are to be disciplined by the church because they break the unity of a common confession of faith. Paul at times called out false teachers by name to protect the church from their influence (1 Tim. 1:19, 20; 2 Tim. 2:17, 18). When the church refuses to discipline for false teaching, it gives error a platform within from which it can continue to cause separation from the truth. The current spirit of tolerating error has already fragmented the church.
CBE desires to provide ministry training that is scriptural and beneficial to our conservative congregations. Much of the current ministry training is influenced by progressive trends and false teaching that has infiltrated the denomination. The Scriptures give us guidance for ministerial training. “And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).
- Timothy was instructed to convey the “things that thou hast heard of me”; i.e. the apostolic faith. The purpose of training ministers is to convey “sound apostolic doctrine.”
- The training is to convey sound doctrine that was heard among “many witnesses”; i.e. what the apostolic church “corporately” confessed and practiced. Ministerial training is to follow the corporate practices of the apostolic churches.
- This truth and commission was to be committed to “faithful men”; i.e. to the faithful--those who are sound and steadfast, and exclusively to the male gender. Ministers are to be men of proven faith.
- The truth and commission was to be given to those who would be able to “teach others also.” The training ministers receive should be scriptural and suitable for teaching in a conservative congregation.
4. What are the benefits of reviving a biblical church polity?
Is it enough for us to say that we will follow God as best we can in our circumstances, yet stopping short of full obedience in matters of church polity? The early Brethren counted the cost, followed God’s Word, and organized their churches according to the Scriptures. We will let the Scriptures speak for themselves as to the benefits of obeying them.
a. We desire to obey God’s Word that we may grow in our understanding of it
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all
they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever” (Psa. 111:10).
b. We desire to obey God’s Word that we may be under His blessing
“But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (James 1:25). “Blessed are they that do his commandments that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city” (Rev. 22:14).
c. We desire to obey God’s Word that we may have the witness of the Holy Spirit upon our ministry
“And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him” (Acts 5:32).
d. We desire to obey God’s Word that our churches may be built upon the rock
“Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:” (Matt. 7:24).
e. We desire to obey the Word of God that it may increase and that the disciples may multiply
“And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
We believe that the answer to our denominational decline is simply to follow the same pattern that grew our churches and spread them across the country. We must begin by embracing a high view of Scripture. The Scriptures must be the final answer in all matters of faith, practice, and polity. Our first question when considering any course of action must be, “What does the Bible say?” When we understand what it says, we must obey it even if we don’t understand how everything will work out. That is walking by faith. The fear of man or the fear of the unknown can be a snare that can trap us and keep us from stepping out in faith.
Faith can lay hold on God’s Word and obey it. Faith can claim the blessings of obedience without knowing all the future challenges. Faith believes that God’s Word will never lead us into error—because it is inerrant. We must believe that the Bible is God speaking to us. We must believe that His Word is sufficient to answer each difficulty we may encounter. We should believe that the Bible’s authority gives us the permission and responsibility to fully obey it in spite of opposition. We should believe that in every act of obedience there is a real blessing.
Embracing a high view of the Scriptures sustains our common confession of faith among our uniting congregations. With a common confession of faith in place, we can use the Elders’ Council to organize our congregations into a scriptural inter- congregational polity. If we have scriptural doctrine, practices, and polity, God can bless us again like He has in the past. When we walked according to God’s way, we were blessed and we grew. When we departed from God’s way, we went into a decline which is leading to decimation and death.
We hold a high view of the Scriptures and a common confession of faith among our uniting congregations. Because we desire an inter-congregational polity that completely models the pattern of the Scriptures, we are forming the Council of Brethren Elders for our associating churches.
1 The definition of conservative for this paper is: "Those who hold to historic biblical truth and are convinced that it is still relevant and are opposed to making changes which are based on the progressive/liberal ideas of man."