GOSHEN, Ind. — Fifty years after the first Believers Church Conference in 1967, more than 150 people representing nearly a dozen denominations gathered at Goshen College Sept. 14-16 for “Word, Spirit and the Renewal of the Church,” the 18th gathering in the Believers Church Conference series.
Co-sponsored by Goshen College and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, the conference focused on the legacy of the Protestant Reformation for groups associated with the Anabaptist, or Radical Reformation, tradition. It also was an occasion for worship and discussion about the usefulness of the term “believers church” and the future of the series.
The conference series takes its name from a gathering on “The Concept of the Believers Church” held in 1967 at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The following year Donald Durnbaugh, a Church of the Brethren historian and theologian, published The Believers’ Church: The History and Character of Radical Protestantism, which provided a broader rationale for the concept. In subsequent years, Believers Church Conferences sought to bring together groups with direct or indirect ties to the Radical Reformation, who practiced voluntary, or believers, baptism.
Denominational families associated within this tradition include Baptists, Brethren in Christ, Church of the Brethren, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Churches of Christ, Churches of God, Friends, Mennonites, Pentecostals and others. The term is also known to many through the Believers Church Bible Commentary series, published by Herald Press.
In a plenary session, Joel Carpenter, director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College, reminded listeners of the profound changes in the landscape of Christianity since the Reformation. He highlighted the explosion of Christianity in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as the rapid growth of mission-oriented immigrant churches in North America. He said the challenge for Christians is to rethink assumptions about theology in light of the gifts majority-world Christians bring to the faith.
Humility, not joyless
Miroslav Volf, a renowned public theologian who teaches at Yale University Divinity School, challenged the audience to recover insights on humility and joy from the “young [Martin] Luther.” The modern sense of self, Volf argued, is based on a precarious notion of competition and self-achievement that produces feelings of joyless inadequacy, failure and depression.
Luther’s understanding of humility, in which existence itself is a gift from God, enables Christians to recover their true self and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” Volf’s lecture, part of the Yoder Public Affairs lectureship, drew nearly 400 people.
Panel sessions throughout the conference featured 75 papers focused on topics such as “The Bible and the Reformation(s),” “The Holy Spirit in the Mission of the Church,” “Politics and Ethics” and “Ecumenism and the Believers Churches Today.”
Participants gathered for a plenary discussion on the future of the Believers Church Conference series. After regular gatherings between 1967 and 2008, the series had nearly died out.
Participants acknowledged the limitations of the term “believers church” but determined it could continue to be a useful designation. The group compiled a list of possible future conference themes and set the next dates for 2019 in Washington, D.C., and 2021 in Amsterdam.
The final two plenary speakers — Nancy Bedford, professor of applied theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, and Frank Thomas, professor of homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary — opened their remarks with references to recent racial discord in St. Louis and Charlottesville, Va.
The legacy of the Reformation, Bedford argued, has been hijacked in North America by “toxic whiteness,” which she described as “a self-destructive apostasy.”
“The agency of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential,” Bedford said, “if we are to be transformed by the way of Jesus, whose narrow gate challenges the toxic forms of Christianity in the culture today and opens into a wideness that embraces those who are most vulnerable.”
Sarah Ann Bixler, a student at Princeton Theological Seminary who organized a panel session on “Martyr Narratives in Anabaptist Faith Formation,” was one of numerous younger scholars who attended the gathering.
“As an emerging scholar,” she said, “it was very meaningful for me to be part of the conference, to learn from a variety of Anabaptist perspectives and to have many fruitful conversations.”
The 2019 Believers Church Conference is to be hosted by African-American Baptists.