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July 1975 · Vol. 4 No. 3 · pp. 332–38 

Beehive, Bargain, or Brotherhood?

Norman Jost


The history of the Christian Church is marked by continual efforts to re-create the first century Church. Needless to say, this striving has produced many variant groups, especially in the tolerant settings of North America. Three ideal types of church may be posited: The Beehive, the Bargain, and the Brotherhood.

The dominant characteristic of the Beehive is that it is based on a hierarchical system. At the top is a queen bee. Below her are the drones. Below these two strata are the worker bees who sustain the queen and the drones. The Beehive Church functions in much the same manner. There exists a higher clergy who derive their support from the rank-and-file members of society. These higher clergy are sure that without their guidance and leadership the masses are unable to experience salvation or to have valid religious experiences.

In the Beehive, the only possible way to salvation lies in and through the hierarchical system. By adhering to the value systems and structures which the system establishes, an individual can hope to attain salvation. To be accepted by the system, one must obey the system; and the higher the degree of obedience, the more pious the person appears. In the Beehive, the individual loses his individual identity. Church comes to be seen as a group affair, and all significant interaction finds its expression as a group endeavor. Pushed to its logical extreme, this system almost totally diminishes the value of the individual experience.

But whenever the Beehive moves toward its logical conclusion, there can generally be found a reaction heading in the opposite direction. Whereas the Beehive stressed the group, those who react against it tend to stress the individual. Out of this extreme individualism, the Bargain concept of the Church arises.

According to Webster, bargain is defined as “an agreement between parties settling what each gives or receives in a transaction between them or what course of action or policy each pursues in respect to the other.” Instead of the Beehive emphasis on the group experience as the means to significant religious identity, the Bargain stresses the importance and value of the individual experience. Salvation depends on what the individual achieves.

The Church now becomes a place where individuals meet, but the significant interaction does not take place there. Each individual, upon his “conversion” experience, enters into a basic agreement with God. Certain terms and values are fixed at that time which the individual must adhere to if his experience is to be maintained. Attendance at Church services can be part of that bargain, along with the other accepted Church values: contributions to Church work of time and money, good deeds, participation in Church governance. {333}

When viewed in this manner, the Church is seen as part of the bargain made with God. The essential, crucial factors of the religious experience are not those factors which center in the group, but rather those which stem from and lie in the individual. This expression of individualism disallows to a large extent the validity of the group, although the group is adhered to for various secondary reasons.

The sweep of the pendulum can thus be seen to extend from an expression of extreme group experience to the opposite extreme of individual experience. The Beehive belittles the value of the individual while the Bargain underrates the group. Apart from these two extremes a third concept of the Church, the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood represents, in many ways, a synthesis of the two extremes. The experiences which the individual has are not belittled as in the Beehive, nor are the experiences of the group ignored as in the Bargain. In a Brotherhood, the crucial issues of both the group and the individual are stressed. Each person must be able to share his personal experience, but the outcome of the conversion must find its expression within the group’s circle. Once the individual becomes a part of the group, he can neither retain an extreme individualistic position nor one in which the group bears all significance. The role of the individual is to bring to the group his own experience, but not to dwell exclusively on that experience. The experience must rather blend in with and add to the flavor of the group.

The group, in the Brotherhood view, also plays an active role. No longer does the group become a body which merely encompasses the individuals, but yet it does not become the final entity. Each person within the group contributes his own individuality to the group; the group in turn gives support and advice to the individuals. Hence both the individual and the group assume roles of importance, but neither dominates the other.

These three are ideal types. Not all groups, perhaps none, can be neatly categorized into one of the three. One may, however, describe those which most closely portray the ideal types.


Perhaps the best example of the Beehive church is that institution which grew up during the Middle Ages. The Roman Catholic Church grew into a tightly organized and very powerful hierarchical system. Their power was such that the Popes could decide who could belong to the Church and who would be allowed into heaven. But at the same time that they were perfecting their claims, the system was falling apart. Society was in transition, economic systems were being altered, the subservience of national governments to the Church was fading, and religious revivals were becoming prevalent.

With the advent of the free-thinking men of the Renaissance, the accepted habit of down-grading the potentialities of man was challenged and defeated. The emphasis shifted from the group to a more individualistic approach. This shift can also be detected in the religious life. The emphasis on individualism in church life received its biggest push from the Reformers. Luther spoke often of the {334} priesthood of all believers and insisted that each man was responsible for his salvation. The pendulum had begun to swing to extreme individualism.

Examples of the Bargain can be found among those Puritans and others who adhered to what is commonly known as “covenant theology.” These persons envisaged themselves as in a contract with God to achieve those things in this world which God had previously given to Israel, but in “these late days” had given to the select few. This contrast or covenant was extended to men on a very individualistic basis. Each person had to be able to testify to an experience which was very intense and demonstrated God’s direct influence on his life.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the movement that came to be known as Fundamentalism also personified this type of Bargain. The Church was not seen so much as a place for becoming more Christian, but as a place where the already regenerated could gather. The crucial interactions which first century churchmen saw as so vital to their experience and continued existence were no longer seen as essential. It was the saving of individual souls which became important for these modern Christians.

Sixteenth century Anabaptism represents the most ideal type of the Brotherhood concept (except for first century Christians). They sought to deal with all the problems of man, not merely his unsaved soul. The interactions which took place within the group were viewed as being as important as the individual conversion experience. They sought to incorporate the best from both extreme positions, blending them into one position which they saw as the legitimate expression of the Christian faith.


During the process of settling and developing their land holdings in Southern Russia in the early nineteenth century, the Mennonites allowed their Church to decline more and more into the form of the Beehive. There came to be a hierarchical pattern, and the individual had a very defined role in that system.

During the mid-nineteenth century, the reactionary movement which came to be known as the Mennonite Brethren grew up as a response to this departure from the values of the early Christian Church as well as those of the Anabaptist forefathers. The Mennonite Brethren sought to recreate a spirit of brotherhood, not only in a church setting, but also in their everyday existence. They wished to share one another’s burdens and problems and to hammer out theology as a brotherhood, not as individuals. They expressed their utter dissatisfaction with the compromises they envisioned their Mennonite predecessors to have allowed, seeing main stream Mennonitism as betrayal of the true values of the Church.

Being so extreme in their stance, this group was censored quite severely by their fellow Mennonites. When the opportunity arose, many chose to migrate to America and Canada. Life was difficult for the first Mennonite Brethren in North America, but once again their determination and ambition led them to affluency. But the affluency {335} which Mennonites encountered in North America was different from that of southern Russia. In North America they encountered freedom and toleration and a new pattern of social transition.

These social changes attacked many “pillars” of the traditional Mennonite heritage. Migration and the new freedom had disrupted their “Mennonite” way of doing things. The closed community which had allowed for the control of outside influences was now becoming more open and tight ecclesiastical control gave way to an increasing freedom of thought. Most noticeably changed was the use and maintenance of the German language. Moreover, the hardships of the frontier left them with a greater devotion to survival and economic stability. The need to survive was often stronger than the need to maintain the ideals of their “fathers.” All of this contributed to the growth of individualism.

Although they were not aware of where they were heading, these Mennonites did know where they had come from and they knew that they wanted to hold onto those ideas and traditions they had valued. When trends of conservativism came along which seemed in many ways similar to traditional Mennonite beliefs, Mennonites jumped onto the bandwagon in an attempt to keep their past alive. But these attempts only resulted in the solidification of aspects of their tradition. The vitality of that tradition was stifled by the desire to maintain the tradition for its own sake.

Mennonites did not hold an exclusive corner on the problems of social transitions. Much of America was in a process of transition in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. America was shifting from a rural, agricultural, nation to one based on industry and centered around growing urban centers. This type of social transition also placed a significant strain on theological values for Americans. Many Americans found themselves embracing a theological system which was no longer able to identify or grapple with the new trends. There arose a reaction to the great loss of personal identity inherent in the shift to an industrial, metropolitan life. The movement which subsequently came to be known as Fundamentalism arose to champion the validity of the individual and his unique experience. It sought to counter the trends of a Beehive type of society by advocating a Bargain system, and the emphasis on individualism was pushed to an extreme degree.

The trends which produced this type of reaction among those who considered themselves the defenders of traditional, conservative Christianity were also at work among the Mennonites. More and more threats were being felt by Mennonites who were concerned that their “faith” was eroding. Hence Mennonites were open to the influences and the theological systems which the Fundamentalists came to proclaim as essential to Christianity.

By embracing the values of the Fundamentalists, Mennonites unknowingly sacrificed many of their traditional values, and they moved from Brotherhood to Bargain. This process has taken place in many areas, but most noticeably in the area of Church structure.

In the attempt to maintain their traditions and to hold to what was {336} envisioned as a traditional type of Christianity, the first distinctive to really feel the pressure was one which is essential to the Brotherhood concept of Church: the process whereby members of the Church care for and assist fellow members when times get hard. The new settings of freedom and toleration, coupled with the spaciousness of the American scene, loosened the bonds of community. No longer was the Church able to command primary importance for the various members. There was a shift from community to individualism. Those things which the member did in his personal life were no longer to be viewed by the congregation. Each member was allowed (forced) to go out into the world to fend for himself; he alone was accountable for what he did in his private life. Physical, material, and spiritual sharing between members were no longer church concerns.

This decline of the practice of sharing each other’s concerns was achieved over a period of time and was so gradual that it was often not even noticed. In the days when community still meant something, there were family gatherings and Sunday dinners when families would gather for fellowship and fun. There were “barnraisings” and community workdays. When the individual begins to fend for himself, that sharing ceases to exist. Sharing which does take place occurs on the level of business matters or superficial concerns. The influx of individualism is so strong and has affected Mennonites so extensively that issues which now confront the members of the Church are not answered by a unified Church statement, but are faced by each person alone. The brotherhood function of plotting a course of action is viewed as somehow outdated and of no more value to the Church.

The new individualism resulted also in an individual approach to the various theological issues of the day. Thus one of the traditional cornerstones of Anabaptist-Mennonite beliefs, the pacifist non-resistant relation to the State, was also relegated to the individual to decide upon. Guidance is given upon request, but even unspoken support, such as “That’s the way it is with Mennonites,” is now lacking in this crucial issue. Support is now often publicly voiced concerning political candidates and many churches have an American flag in a place of honor. This process too has been a very gradual one, so that by now instead of being peace lovers, Mennonites have increasingly become war hawks. They have tended to align themselves with the Fundamentalist position of participation in the affairs of state and identifying the causes of “God” and “country.”

Also altered is the Church’s participation in social affairs. Where the traditional Anabaptist stance stressed aid to those who were in need, Mennonites have increasingly delegated social concerns to a special commission or committee which is to evaluate and act on behalf of the constituency. This allows for greater freedom and mobility for the individual member; he can justify mistreating those he associates with by telling himself that he has done his share by contributing to those in need overseas. Each individual is therefore allowed to conduct his own affairs as he pleases. Instead of being responsible to the brotherhood, his private life becomes “a personal issue.” {337}

This process of individualization has been infused into all aspects of Church life and theology. The Bible, instead of being viewed as a book which must be interpreted and discerned by the entire body, comes also to be seen in “a personal way.” The group cannot temper its own extremists, for each is able to decide for himself. Unfortunately, once the process has begun, stopping it becomes more and more difficult.

By embracing the Bargain view and by Fundamentalist trends, Mennonites have sacrificed much of their foundation. Whether or not this embrace was intentional is a debatable matter. Most likely, Mennonites entered into an alliance with Fundamental/Evangelical Christians more accidentally than intentionally. Because they were not fully aware of the nature of the issues confronting them, Mennonites turned to a theological system which they thought would assist them in holding fast to their earlier beliefs and traditions. They were perhaps not fully aware that these values were interpreted in a different fashion by the Fundamentalists.

When individualism was allowed to develop in the Church, the process of decay of the brotherhood principles began. However slowly, it was nonetheless a distinct process which can be detected when viewed from a modern perspective. The final analysis of this process cannot be made as yet, for the process is not yet completed. There appears to be a rising tendency among certain ranks of Mennonites who are aware of the trends to swing the pendulum back to a Brotherhood. The older heritage is being evaluated in a much more positive light by modern scholarship. It is being discovered that the benefits of a brotherhood, communal, type of relationships is more advantageous than individualism. In a society which tends to make man a bee in a large metropolitan hive or to stress an extreme “Do your own thing” individualism, there needs to be a mediating mode which strengthens the individual within the necessary boundaries of a group experience.

An analyst must conclude, however, that the uniqueness of Mennonitism has been lost. Through the influences of modern society and of conservative religious trends such as Fundamentalism, the specific doctrines which formed the distinct nature of Mennonitism have been transformed into the shapes and forms of many other American religious groups. Efforts at reclaiming the vision, however sincere, will never and can never result in a re-creation of situations as they were. The old closed community and agrarian style of life has been lost, and modern, urban, man cannot reclaim that status. Out of an attempt to re-create the vision will come a new style of life and a new understanding of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology. A new application of the old principles is, however, very necessary. What was discovered and learned in the old model cannot simply be allowed to fall by the wayside. There are elements that are worthwhile for modern man and they must be held to. Although the old vision cannot be re-captured, a new one can be shaped by the lessons of the past.

Caution must also be exercised in this process that the new Mennonites do not become too egocentric and sectarian. What has traditionally been ours in the past is not the only approach that can be {338} accepted, and any endeavors at maintaining the unity of Mennonites must not be sectarian in nature. Mennonite heritage does indeed hold much which can lead and direct a group, but that heritage and those things must not become the end—they must remain the means to establishing a Christo-centric and Biblio-centric Church.

Norman Jost, a 1974 graduate of Pacific College, is a graduate student in the Department of History at the University of Washington, Seattle.

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