Believers’ Church Movement Re-emerges Amidst Reformation Era Recognitions

Over 40 people gathered on June 22-25, 2016 on the campus of Acadia University for the 17th International Believers’ Church Conference. The theme of the conference was “The Tendency Toward Separation.” This conference marked the renewal of the Believers’ Church conference series that originated in 1967.  Conference papers ranged from broad historical, theological, and sociological presentations to specific denominational and regional case studies.

With strong representation from the Baptist, Mennonite, and Disciple/Stone-Campbell traditions, the gathering also included participants from groups who were not ordinarily part of the earlier Believers Church gatherings:  e.g., European Baptists, Hutterites, African-American Baptists, and Pentecostals. This was the first time Hutterites had attended in person. Major addresses were given by Martin Rothkegel (Germany), Karen Smith (Wales), David Goatley (US), John Roth (US), Teun van der Leer, (Netherlands), Allison McGregor (Canada), William Brackney (Canada), Paul Wipf (Canada), and Douglas Foster (US). Keynote speaker was Prof. Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics.

The separationist (or “Come-Outer”) tendency has been a significant theme in the Believers’ Church tradition, both historically and in our churches today, first noted in modern times by Franklin H. Littell. All Believers’ Church groups began as renewal movements within a larger tradition that eventually led to a clear break, according to John Roth, a participant and co-author of the Findings Report. Even as participants celebrated the distinctive theological, Roth observed, participants noted ethical and ecclesial convictions that birthed believers’ churches—sometimes at great cost to early members:

  • the quest for holiness and purity of ideals has often resulted in separation, division and lack of clarity about the locus of authority
  • a commitment to the primacy of the local congregation has led to a weak theology of the church in its broader expressions and an overly negative view of ecumenism
  • a focus on religious voluntarism and response to religious liberty can easily become confused with modern individualism and autonomy
  • the perfectionist and sectarian impulses in the Believers’ Church tradition can foster a tendency to self-sufficiency that can be narrow, schismatic, and even idolatrous

On-going challenges among Believers’ Churches include:  a more robust understanding of the nature of the church beyond the local congregation; greater attention to the nature of power and competing claims of authority; and a clearer theology of church unity.

The next meeting of the International Believers’ Church Conference will be held at Goshen College, Goshen, Indiana, September 14-16, 2017. The theme will be: “Word, Spirit and the Renewal of the Church: Believers’ Church, Ecumenical and Global Perspectives.” 

For further information, contact Dr. William Brackney, Acadia Divinity College, Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada: william.brackney@acadiau.ca.