Still BIC but no longer Brethren

Canadian denomination becomes Be in Christ Church

Oct 30, 2017 by and

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The Canadian BIC has swapped a noun for a verb. After years as the Brethren in Christ, the 67-congregation Anabaptist denomination has renamed itself the Be in Christ Church of Canada.

The change, which had been discussed for a number of years, took effect Sept. 17.

The Canadian BIC Church announces its new name.

The Canadian BIC Church announces its new name.

Executive director Doug Sider said the old name worked well for a long time, but “on a missional basis, we found that it raised more questions and put up more barriers than were really necessary.”

One barrier was that “Breth­ren” was perceived as a word that’s no longer easily recognizable.

“We wanted a name that didn’t contain language that was not in the common vernacular of people in mainstream Canadian society,” Sider said.

The word’s apparent exclusion of women was also a factor, he noted.

Sider said the new name shifts attention from having to defend or explain the word Brethren to addressing the fundamental question of what it means to be in Christ. “[That] gets us to the story of the gospel quicker,” he said, while keeping the time-honored initials BIC.

Canadian delegates approved the new name with 93 percent of the vote at their annual assembly in May. It concluded a process that had started in 2010 with the appointment of a committee to explore the issue.

But the process was shelved two years later when the BIC, then a binational denomination, amicably split into separate Canadian and U.S. bodies. The Canadians resurrected the matter in 2014.

The U.S. Brethren in Christ have no plans to change their name, according to spokesman Will Teodori, although it will be discussed again for the denomination’s 2020 delegate gathering.

Once known as Tunkers

As a faith group, the BIC began about 1780 when a revival energized Mennonites, Lutherans and Baptists along the Susquehanna River in Lancas­ter County, Pa. The movement in its early years was known as River Brethren in the United States. The Brethren in Christ name emerged during the American Civil War for unknown reasons, according to historian Carlton O. Wittlinger. (River Brethren is still used by several Old Order groups.)

In Canada, however, the members called themselves Tunkers, an apparent reference to their baptismal practice of immersion, or dunking. In 1879, U.S. and Canadian national conferences joined to form a general conference called the Breth­ren in Christ. But Tunker remained the popular name in the Canadian fellowship.

Disagreement over the two names reached a crisis in the early 1930s, nearly producing a schism in Canada, Wittlinger wrote in his history of the denomination. The Canadian government had been pushing the conference to adopt and register a name, and a church committee had recommended using Breth­ren in Christ. But Tunker supporters threatened a split until a compromise was reached in 1933: Brethren in Christ (Tunk­er).

“Tunker” eventually died out, and in 1964, the northern group officially became the Canadian Conference of the Brethren in Christ Church.

Other Brethren

The BIC are not the only Anabaptist group that has struggled with the Brethren name. It has periodically arisen among the Mennonite Brethren, but Don Morris, the U.S. MB national director, said the conference has no plans to change its name.

“Some [members] indicate that our name causes people to view us as different than we are and thus causes some difficulty for engaging people well,” he said. “Many of our churches have elected to remove ‘Mennonite Brethren’ from the name of the church in order to remove any barriers that the name may cause. Others choose to retain the name and use it to create meaningful conversations about our heritage and beliefs.”

Church of the Brethren spokesperson Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford said some argue that “Brethren” can feel archaic and no longer has the “warm and welcoming” connotation that it did when first adopted in the 19th century.

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