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Charis Fellowship, known before 2018 as the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, and before 1976 under the name of National Fellowship of Brethren Churches, is a theologically conservative fellowship of Brethren churches that was founded in 1939 as a conservative split from the Brethren Church. The word charis is Greek in origin, meaning “grace.” The church traces its roots back to the Schwarzenau Brethren movement of Alexander Mack, founded in 1708 in Schwarzenau, Germany.
For the early history see Church of the Brethren.
The Great Schism
The Brethren (at the time called German Baptist Brethren) suffered a three-way division early in the 1880s, and the more progressive group organized the Brethren Church in 1883. Led by charismatic leader Henry Holsinger, they maintained the standard Brethren doctrines, but wanted to adopt new methods, and desired more congregational autonomy and less centralization. These more progressive Brethren moved into the direction of the mainstream of Christian evangelicalism in America. Several events in the late 19th century and early 20th century, including the Bible Conference movement, emphasis on foreign missions, and the rise of fundamentalism, affected the church. The Foreign Missionary Society of the Brethren Church was formed on September 4, 1900, in Winona Lake, Indiana.
But, also in the early 1900s, two different viewpoints began to emerge. As Robert Clouse writes about this event “the Progressives showed considerable agreement in what they opposed, but were less united in what they wished to create.” The Brethren Church had rejected classical liberal theology in 1921 with "The Message of the Brethren Ministry," written by J. Allen Miller and Alva J. McClain. However the aggressive approach of fundamentalism, led by Louis S. Bauman and McClain, conflicted with the drawn out approach of traditional Brethrenism. The fundamentalists desired strongly worded statements of faith, the traditional Brethren stressed non-creedalism. The classic dispensationalist belief held by the fundamentalists largely disregarded the Sermon on the Mount as a law for an earlier age, while the traditional Brethren statement "the New Testament is our Rule of Faith and Practice" placed a high emphasis on this passage in Matthew 5–7.
Division from the Brethren Church
This tension finally erupted in 1936–37 with a growing controversy at Ashland College. Although the school was under the control of the Brethren Church, it was transitioning from a Christian denominational school to a secular school with a more regional focus. Because of a push to enlarge non-Brethren representation on the board of trustees and establish a "double standard" of conduct for regular college students and pre-seminary students, Bauman and Charles Ashman, Sr. (1886–1967) resigned from the Ashland College board of trustees on June 1, 1937. The next day, professors Alva J. McClain and Herman Hoyt were fired from Ashland Seminary due to increasing tension between the college group and the seminary group. At a prayer meeting in the home of J.C. Beal that evening Grace Theological Seminary was born, where after prayer Bauman announced "I want to give the first gift to the new school."
In the next two years two groups emerged in the Brethren Church: those sympathetic with Ashland College and those sympathetic with Grace Seminary. Traditional Brethren, in part because of their drawn out approach and in part due to their distaste for fundamentalist theology, sided with Ashland College, while the fundamentalists led by Bauman and McClain, sided with Grace Seminary. In 1939, the Grace Seminary group formed the National Fellowship of Brethren Churches. The Fellowship incorporated in 1987 as the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches.
Departure of the Conservative Grace Brethren
Another division occurred in 1992, led by former Grace Seminary professor John C. Whitcomb forming Conservative Grace Brethren Churches, International. The issue of dissension was open membership to individuals who had not been baptized by triune immersion, although the larger issue had more to do with Whitcomb himself. His strong personality along with beliefs such as "second-degree separation," which defines that Christians should not only be separated from "the world" and theological liberals, but also theological conservatives who cooperated with them, brought strife and, "Due to his insistence on issues such as this, his colleagues at the Grace Seminary found it increasingly difficult to work with him." He was dismissed from Grace Seminary in 1990, and consequently formed the Conservative Grace Brethren Association, which became the starter organization for the denomination to follow.
Twelve articles, adopted in 1969, are presented by the fellowship as their statement of faith on the following issues - the Bible, God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Man, Salvation, the Church, the Christian life, Ordinances, Satan, Second Coming, and Future Life. They are generally dispensational, and pretribulational in eschatology.
Encompass World Partners (formerly Grace Brethren International Missions), CE National, Brethren Missionary Herald Company and Women of Grace USA are ministries formed by the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches to help fulfill their mission of making the Gospel known. Grace College and Seminary in Winona Lake, Indiana is associated with the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. The headquarters of the churches are maintained in Winona Lake, Indiana and the annual conference is held there.
As of 2003, the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches is made up of over 265 churches in the United States and Canada, with a membership of over 30,000. There are 23 districts cooperating with the Fellowship, and over 3000 churches have been formed outside North America. Worldwide attendance in Grace Brethren Churches is estimated to be 600,000 people.
- "Charis Fellowship | Planting Churches - Training Leaders - Doing Good". charisfellowship.us. Retrieved 2018-09-18.
- Fellowship, Charis (2018-07-23), the Charis Fellowship (in one minute), retrieved 2018-09-18
- Clouse, Robert G. (1988). "Brethren and Modernity: Change and Development in the Progressive/Grace Church". Brethren Life and Thought. 33: 205–17. OCLC 45189112.
- Homer A. Kent, Sr., Conquering Frontiers: A History of the Brethren Church. Winona Lake: BMH Books, 1972.[page needed]
- Todd Scoles, "A Household Divided," in Restoring the Household: The Quest of the Grace Brethren Church. Winona Lake, BMH Books, 2008[page needed]
- Martin, Dennis. "What Has Divided the Brethren Church". Brethren Life and Thought. 21 (2): 107–19.
- Clouse, Robert G. (1997). "Changes and Partings: Division in the Progressive/Grace Brethren Church". Brethren Life and Thought. 42 (3–4): 187–9.
- ARDA: Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches.
- Frank S. Mead, Samuel S. Hill, & Craig D. Atwood: Handbook of Denominations
- David R. Plaster: Finding our Focus: A History of the Grace Brethren Church, Winona Lake, IN, 2003.
- Norman B. Rohrer: A Saint in Glory Stands: The Story of Alva J. McClain, Founder of Grace Theological Seminary, Winona Lake, IN, 1986.
- Charis Fellowship Web Site
- Grace College and Seminary Web Site
- Grace Brethren Archives
- Grace Brethren Information
- CE National
- Encompass World Partners (Formerly Grace Brethren International Missions)
- FGBC World Publication
- BMH Books
- Association of Grace Brethren Ministers
- Early History of Grace Brethren Churches in Los Angeles/Whittier, California