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Who are the brethren?

In 1986, Echoes of Service Organization published an eleven volume series entitled, “That the World May Know”.  The Volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  At the beginning of each volume appeared an article entitled, “Who are the brethren?” These articles were written by prominent men associated with the brethren movement. Used with permission.

F.F. Bruce

John Heading

Stephen S. Short

Harold MacKay

T. Carson

T.E. Wilson

W. Morrison

H.D. Erlam

W.E. Vine

R.E. Harlow

Professor Alfred Kuen

 

 

 

 

 

 

F.F. Br uc e

The missionary enterprise described in this and the following volumes is probably the most notable aspect of what is popularly called the Brethren movement. As the story of the missionary enterprise begins with Anthony Norris Groves and his associates, the story of the Brethren movement as a whole also begins with them.

The people called Brethren are often so described because they prefer to be known by a designation comprehensive enough to embrace all their fellow-Christians along with themselves. Those with whom this record is concerned are sometimes distinguished as Open Brethren because their church order differs from that of their friends who are known as Exclusive Brethren.

The Open Brethren have no central organization. They belong to a large number of local churches or assemblies, spread around the globe. Each of these local churches is independent in its administration; there is, no federation or union linking them together. Yet there is a recognizable family likeness among them, and their sense of a spiritual bond is strong.

The Brethren movement originated around the year 1825, although the Brethren commonly insist that their roots are really in the apostolic age, for they aim as far as possible at maintaining the simple and flexible church order of New Testament times. Indeed, the nineteenth century witnessed the beginning of a number of spontaneous movements of the same general character in various parts of the world. Some account of these is provided in the later chapters of the late E. H. Broadbent's The Pilgrim Church, a work now fifty years old but still well worth reading.

So far as the British Isles are concerned, the founders of the movement were a group of young men, many of them associated with Trinity College, Dublin, who tried to find a way in which they could come together for worship and communion simply as fellow-Christians, in disregard of denominational barriers. They had no idea that they were starting a movement; still less had they any thought of founding a new denomination, for that would have defeated the very purpose for which they came together. It appears to have been under the influence of Anthony Norris Groves, who was on a visit to Dublin from his home in Exeter early in 1827, that they began to observe the Lord's Supper together regularly.

From Dublin the movement spread to England. In England the first identifiable meeting of Brethren was established at Plymouth in 1831, hence arose the popular term 'Plymouth Brethren'. Another important early meeting of Brethren was Bethesda Chapel, Bristol, which had as one of its pastors the German-born George Muller, best known for the orphanage which he founded in Bristol in 1836 and which survives to the present day. Muller provided a personal link between the movement in the British Isles and similar movements in Europe.

Muller acknowledged his indebtedness to the influence of Anthony Norris Groves, whose sister he married. Groves was a man of large-hearted sympathies, who never forgot that the things which unite Christians are immeasurably more important than the things which divide them. 'I would infinitely rather bear with all their evils', he said of some people with whom he seriously disagreed, 'than separate from their good.' Whether what he took to be 'evils' were really so or not, his words express an attitude which Open Brethren acknowledge as their ideal.

The missionary enterprise launched by Groves continues to the present time in every continent. Some Brethren missionaries have been pioneers in more senses than one. Among them were two Scots, Frederick Stanley Arnot (1858-1914) and Dan Crawford (1870-1926), who in the succession to David Livingstone explored areas of Central Africa previously uncharted by Europeans. It was Arnot who in the 1880s opened up to the knowledge of the outside world what is now the Shaba province of Zaire. Brethren missionaries have been specially active in Central Africa, India, China and Latin America. To meet the requirements of national governments their missionary work is registered in some countries under the designation 'Christian Missions in Many Lands'.

The Open Brethren have no doctrinal peculiarities. They hold the historic Christian faith, because they find it plainly taught in the Bible, which is to them, as to other heirs of the Reformation, 'the only infallible rule of faith and practice'. They are wholeheartedly evangelical in their understanding and presentation of Christianity, proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the all-sufficient Savior of all who put their trust in Him and as the only hope of mankind. For this reason they find it specially easy to co-operate in Christian witness with others who share this evangelical emphasis, and in many inter-denominational causes their influence is greater than their numbers might lead one to expect.

It is practice rather than doctrine that marks them out. Among Open Brethren baptism is administered only to people who make a personal confession of faith in Christ, and the mode of baptism is immersion. Normally, they observe the Lord's Supper every Sunday and hold that the Lord's Table is for all the Lord's people. This is their most distinctive gathering. When they meet for communion, together with any Christians who care to join them for the occasion, their devotions are conducted by no presiding minister and follow no predetermined sequence, but are marked nevertheless by a reverent spontaneity and orderliness. Various brethren contribute to the worship by suggesting suitable hymns, or by reading and expounding a passage from the Bible.

The Brethren have no ordained ministry, set apart for functions which others cannot discharge. A considerable number do give their whole time to evangelism, Bible teaching and pastoral care, but are not regarded as being in clerical orders. The various local churches are administered by responsible brethren called elders or overseers. These have no jurisdiction outside their local churches, and inside them they try to guide by example rather than rule by decree.

The Brethren have always manifested a supreme lack of interest in their numerical strength. Their numbers are difficult to assess, partly because no precise statistics are available and partly because there is no official line of demarcation between Brethren meetings and other independent evangelical churches. A common estimate of their strength in Great Britain and Ireland is 100,000, but this is at best approximate. They are to be found in all grades of society and all walks of life.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service in 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  Used with Permission.

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John Heading

It is an interesting fact that perhaps quite a large proportion of the membership of local assemblies of open or Christian brethren could not give a coherent reason as to why they are members of such assemblies, nor could they answer with any precision the question 'Who are the brethren?'.

The answer can be divided into many parts. 

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul and others used the word translated in the Authorized Version as 'brethren' in the sense of membership of a Christian family with God as Father about 80 times. The name is therefore well founded.

Throughout the centuries of church history, there have been groups of believers who have sought in a special way to be faithful to the Lord and His Word, in spite of persecution and the attractions of larger ecclesiastical associations.

After 1825, in the last century, there were faithful men who felt themselves led of God to turn from their ecclesiastical connections, in order to seek scriptural simplicity in gathering in the Lord's Name, basing their service and fellowship on their reading and study of the New Testament rather than on tradition handed down from earlier generations.

A vast number of 'halls', 'gospel halls', 'rooms', 'chapels', 'evangelical churches' - call them almost what you will in their great variety - are to be found throughout the world, old-fashioned or modern in design, in large cities or small villages, in populated industrial and academic districts or in jungles and deserts, with congregations large and small, independent the one from the other, yet all dependent upon divine guidance from the Holy Spirit, and moving in fellowship the one with the other as possessing common aims, aspirations, interests, motivation, and desiring to serve the Lord in keeping with the Holy Scriptures.

The gospel of God's grace is manifested in life and proclaimed by all Christians, whatever may be their attachments to evangelical or non-evangelical movements. And when such a Christian has the happy experience of being instrumental in God's hands in leading a lost soul to Christ, then usually this convert will also be led to the same religious association as that of the evangelist. The new convert will be quite ignorant of the fact that there are churches and churches, service and service, doctrines and doctrines, practices and practices, since the Christian faith is riddled with differences that are either helpful or unhelpful in the development of a convert in his faith.

Through evangelistic or gospel campaigns, gospel meetings, Sunday schools, young people's meetings, camps, open air work, personal work, etc., converts are gained for Christ. Both in the home country and in the mission field, brethren have been particularly active in this sphere of testimony. Converts, often with no previous scriptural background, are then introduced to the meetings of the assembly of brethren in some meeting-hall.

Up to that time, they may have regarded such halls as religious places of worship, in some way (though unknown to them in detail) distinguished from the more formal churches and chapels of the great denominations. Prior to conversion, the average man-in-the-street would view these halls in the same way as he would view the halls of the heretical sects; he might have read the notice boards outside such halls and noted the various kinds of meetings held, perhaps contrasting 'the Lord's Supper or the Breaking of Bread, Prayer Meeting, Bible Reading, Ministry of the Word, Gospel Meeting, Young People's Meeting with the traditional services held in the 'church' down the road. He might have observed the believers entering and leaving such a hall on a Lord's Day or on a weekday evening, and wondered how they could find any interest and satisfaction in attending these advertised meetings. Had he looked more closely, he would have found in these believers a deep devotion to the Lord that percolated every corner of daily life, a reverent interest in the Word of God that guides in assembly service and in all the activities of life, and a zeal that maintained priorities when family life, daily occupation, and assembly service all made demands upon the believers' time.

As a new convert to the Lord, he now comes into close contact with what he had merely noted in his unconverted life Since the evangelical truth of the Son of God, His sacrifice, resurrection and ascension, and the means of repentance, conversion and faith, are all found in the Scriptures, and since as a new Christian he has committed himself to this saving aspect of faith, as a new creation in Christ he must now go forward to embrace other truths found in the same Scriptures, such as baptism, fellowship and service. Old aspects of religion that have no basis in the Word of God must be discarded, the Holy Scriptures being searched regularly so as to find out the way of God more perfectly. His daily life, too, must be changed, so as to be suitable for the indwelling presence of Christ. Conduct and interests must be examined, to see whether they are consistent with fellowship with other Christians who appear to be so different and sanctified in their mature Christian lives. This process may be a painful one, and yet what blessings lie beyond for the overcomer when he yields his life to Christ, saying 'Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?'

Such a pursuit of faith will lead the convert to fellowship with a local assembly - he will cast in his lot with the people of God -he will be one of 'the brethren'; as Paul puts it, 'one of you' (Col. 4.12). But clearly there must be a definite out-and-out commitment to the local assembly; this is essential if there is to be a clear-cut manifestation of zeal and faithfulness. The desire after the sincere milk of the Word will enable him to discern why he is amongst 'brethren' and not with other Christians who are just as much saved by grace as he is. He may know nothing about the historical reasons (2) and (3) stated in our second paragraph; he will know only what the present local assembly of brethren stands for and why they take that stand. He will know that their reasons, as based on the Word of God, must become his reasons also.

Looking at a local assembly of brethren walking in the light of the Holy Scriptures, young converts will see that regular meetings take place because there must be no 'forsaking the assembling of ourselves together' (Heb. 10:25). Depending on local circumstances and on opportunities that can be grasped, the gospel will be preached using local talent and visiting speakers and evangelists. In assembly matters, brethren will continue 'steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers' (Acts 2:42). There will be development of 'gift', since the promise is given that the Lord distributes to 'every one' (Eph. 4.7). There will be the recognition of elders or overseers divinely placed in the assembly; as shepherds amongst the flock they will guide in the service of God, and exercise discipline when this is necessary.

There will be much mutual help amongst the membership, since believers are to 'do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith' (Gal. 6.10). The Word of God will be studied, in its historical, typical, poetical, prophetical, ecclesiastical, moral, Christological and soteriological aspects. There will be support for missionary work, with a prayer-interest in missionaries' testimonies when they have 'rehearsed all that God had done with them' (Acts 14.27).

No heresy or false doctrine will be allowed, and no foreign practices that are out of harmony with the Scriptures.

The young convert will find that these are 'the brethren'. This faith and practice has captured the hearts of many faithful men and women - their lives have become bound up in such a testimony, knowing that it pleases the Lord and glorifies His Name. Some have heard the call of God to the mission field; others have become 'full time' in the Lord's service in their home countries. But the majority serve the Lord locally in their out-of-employment hours, amongst young people, in old people's homes, in hospitals, preaching and teaching the gospel and the Word of God, often with great power as those equipped by God, while others work unseen, coping with the hidden needs of many a soul. No list can exhaust the occupations of those who serve their Lord, with no one man being a minister over a largely indolent congregation. Such service is independent of national heritage, culture and background; the activity of brethren according to Scripture is essentially suitable for every convert in every part of the world reached by the gospel. Although possessing a historical heritage, brethren today can be recognized as a living up-to-date fellowship, rendering a powerful testimony to the Lord until His promised return for His own.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service in 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  Used with Permission.

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Stephen S. Short

Each volume contains an answer to this question by a different contributor in order to show the measure of spiritual freedom in the application of New Testament church principles.

There may be some who read this book who have had little acquaintance with the people who are commonly called 'brethren', and for whom some information about the characteristics of these people would be welcome. This appendix, therefore, is written to indicate summarily certain of their tenets and practices. Some of those which are here mentioned are features also of other communities of Christians, but others of them are rather distinctive of brethren churches.

The basic truth for which the brethren stand is the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture.

This involves that they believe in the utter reliability of Scripture, and oppose those trends of theological thinking which, to varying extents, question and even deny the Bible's truthfulness. Since the Lord Jesus Christ expressed Himself on this matter so forcibly (Matt.5:18; John 10:35) they hold that, as followers of Him, they should do the same. This results in their general doctrinal position being what might be expressed in the phrase 'historic orthodoxy'. They conceive of God, consequently, in trinitarian terms; Jesus Christ they hold to be both human and divine, and they regard the Holy Spirit as truly personal. They believe Christ's death to have been a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of men; and they affirm that His resurrection and ascension were bodily events, as will be also His second coming. They believe that salvation is imparted on the exercise of faith in Christ, and in the biblical presentation of the doctrines of justification, sanctification and glorification.

But they regard the Bible as authoritative not only for Christian doctrine in general, but for church practice in particular, with the consequence that they endeavor to constitute their local assemblies in accordance with the principles described in the New Testament. They only, therefore, receive into church membership those whom they believe to be regenerate Christians. They enjoin and practice the baptism of none but believers, and that by immersion. Thev celebrate with regularity the ordinance of the Lord's Supper. The government and teaching of a local church is placed in the hands of a body of elders rather than those of a single individual, for it would seem from Acts 14:23 and 20:17 that this was how it was in the New Testament Churches.

A second emphasis of brethren churches is— Zeal in evangelism.

Not only have they been 'evangelical' (firmly standing on the truth of God's Word), but they have been also 'evangelistic (keenly engrossed in the work of evangelism). This has been so both in the homeland, as could be illustrated in many ways, and also, as the pages of this book have demonstrated, in country overseas. In relation to the size of the home-based movement, the extent of their missionary undertakings is quite enormous.

The Christian brethren stand also for— The unity of believers.

It was as a Bible-prompted protest against the sectarianism of the Protestant denominations that the movement originally arose. When faithful to their principles, therefore, they received to the ordinance of the Lord's Supper all true believers in Christ, provided that they are not living in open or flagrant sin, for they recognize the Table around which they gather as being not theirs, but the Lord's, and hence that to which all the Lord’s people have a right to come.

They stand, further, for— The universal priesthood of believers.

In view of the fact that whenever the New Testament denotes Christians as 'priests', the reference is always to the Church in its entirety rather than to some privileged circle within the Church the brethren refuse to recognize a priestly 'caste' of Christians, distinguished from their fellow-believers by dress and title. They recognize, certainly, the propriety of setting aside some Christians as overseers of local churches, and indeed of releasing certain of them from secular employment, so as to devote themselves in a full-time capacity to the work of evangelism. Bible teaching and missionary enterprise overseas; but in the light of Christ's teaching in Matt.23:8-10, they discountenance any suggestion (whether by word or symbol) of the division of the Church into 'clergy' and 'laity'. At their observance of the Lord's Supper, consequently, no marked-out individual is in attendance who alone is authorized to officiate. It is commonly held in other circles that the bread and the wine need to be 'consecrated' by an 'ordained minister for the ordinance to be valid, but this idea is alien to New Testament teaching, and finds no place, therefore, in brethren practice.

The person through whom, more than any other, the brethren movement was established in the 1820s was a dentist living in Exeter named Anthony Norris Groves; and he said in 1827 that 'it appeared to him from the Scripture that believers meeting together as disciples of Christ were free to break bread together as their Lord had admonished them, and that, in so tar as the practice of the apostles could be a guide, every Lord's Day should be set aside for thus remembering the Lord's death and obeying His parting command'. The following year, he expressed himself as follows: 'This, I doubt not, is the mind o the Lord concerning us: We should come together in all simplicity as disciples, not waiting on any pulpit or ministry, but trusting that the Lord would edify us together, by ministering, as He pleased and saw good, from the midst of ourselves' To people in the brethren movement today, these are commonplace ideas; but they were revolutionary concepts at the time when Groves expressed them.

The Christian brethren believe additionally in—The local upraising of spiritual gift.

They view the normal way in which God supplied the spiritual needs of a local church as being His cultivation of gift from within the fellowship. Just as, in the natural creation, God made 'the fruit-tree yielding fruit after his kind whose seed is in itself' (Gen 1:2), so it is in the spiritual creation. God plants a church; and then from within that church He provides for that church's development and propagation. The prevalent custom among churches generally is to rely almost exclusively on spiritual gift which is imported from elsewhere; but while this, no doubt, is the easier resort, it has the effect of quenching the upsurge of native ability, the end-result being the weakness which invariably ensues from incessant spoon-feeding. There is indeed clear Scriptural warrant for the making of periodic visits by evangelists and Bible teachers to a church, but God's normal purpose seems to be the upbuilding of churches through the exercise of gift which has been reared locally from the church's converts. So it was among the Corinthians (I Cor.1:7); so it is among the Christian brethren.

A final matter by which the Christian brethren arc characterized is— Heart-devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is certainly not to imply that such is not the case on the pan of other Christians, but simply that it is a notable feature of the brethren. Reflect, for instance, on their distinctive service, their meeting, usually on Sunday mornings, for the remembrance of Christ in the celebration of His Supper, when they spend a full hour or more in leisurely meditation on Him they love. Reflect on brethren hymnody (so little known outside their own circle), hymns, not dealing to any extent with practical or evangelistic subjects, on which much is elsewhere available, but with it’s adoring contemplation of Christ. It is this same devotion brethren show towards the Person of their Redeemer that has made them abnormally occupied with Second Advent teaching, the drive at the back of its having been their longing to behold Christ's face and be transformed into His likeness.

It would be unrealistic not to acknowledge the serious faults and failings characterizing many brethren assemblies. One would contend, however, that these are due, not to their principles being erroneous, but to the effect of the human element, the (much to be deplored) worldliness, carnality and ungraciousness of certain of their members, not to mention those over whom, in some way, our adversary Satan has gained an advantage, so that they have fallen into sin, dishonoring the Lord and troubling His people. Such tragedies, regretably occur in all Christian communities, and brethren (though, one believes, with a better record than most), have not been altogether exempt from them. There is no room for complacency therefore.  Those belonging to this movement need to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God, confess their waywardness and seek to rectify it; and, that done, hold their New Testament principles with increasing tenacity, meticulously translating them into practice in accordance with the needs and circumstances of the present time.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service in 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  Used with Permission.

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Harold Mackay

Each volume contains an answer to this question by a different contributor in order to show the measure of spiritual freedom in the application of New Testament church principles.

The brethren is the designation generally given to those Christians who reject all sectarian names, and who gather in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ alone, with the avowed purpose of returning to Scriptural simplicity in church principles and practices. The reception accorded this title by those so designated is mixed. By some there is a reluctant acceptance; by others total rejection. The capitalizing of the 'B' is objectionable to the majority, who would prefer to be known simply as Christians, believers, brethren, members of the Body of Christ, or any other Biblical title belonging to ALL God's people, and not divisive in nature. This preference stems from one of the major tenets of their faith that all God's people in this present church age are members of the Body of Christ and therefore one, and should not be divided into various segments, each with its distinguishing name. Even more objectionable is the misnomer, Plymouth Brethren, given through a mistaken notion that Plymouth, England was the birthplace of a movement of which they arc a part.

The history of the Church of God during the past twenty centuries since its inception at Pentecost has been one of recurring manifestations of the Holy Spirit's activity in restoring and revitalizing the testimony. Such times of revival have inevitably followed periods of declension and departure. On sonic occasions there has been a mighty outpouring of the Spirit's power in the convicting and converting of sinners, and thousands have been swept into the kingdom of God. In the Reformation movement of the sixteenth century, the blessed recovery of the truth of justification by faith was the outstanding feature. In (he early part of the nineteenth century there was an evident movement of the Spirit that resulted in the recovery of many precious truths which had been long buried under the accumulated rubble of ecclesiastical tradition and superstition.

This movement of the Spirit appeared almost simultaneously in various places - Dublin in Ireland, Bristol, Plymouth, and London in England, and on the Continent of Europe. At the beginning, those involved were unknown to each other, and for some time there was no direct contact between the various groups. Under the convicting influence of the Spirit of God, godly Christians became deeply concerned regarding the low spiritual state prevailing among professed believers, and about the numerous unscriptural practices in the organized churches with which they were affiliated. Concern led to prayer, and prayer to Bible study, both individual and collective. As a result many neglected truths came to light under the illumination of the Spirit of truth. Among these were: the true nature of the Church as the Body of Christ, the position of the individual believer as a member in that Body, the priesthood of all believers, with a resultant liberty in worship, the sufficiency of the Name of Christ, the ministry of the Spirit, the simplicity of the Lord's Supper, the imminent coming of Christ to the air for His Bride and the 'Rapture of the Church, the literal, earthly, millennial reign of Christ.

The enrichment these truths brought into the lives of the believers, and the spiritual joy produced led, inevitably, to a deep desire to share them with others, and to meet collectively in such a manner as to be at liberty to preach and practice them in their church fellowship. Thus came into being a true restoration to Scriptural simplicity. Companies of believers began to gather simply in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, recognizing the unity of the Body, and receiving all who belonged to Christ.

They owned allegiance to no denomination, took no sectarian name, recognized no human head or earthly headquarters, and sought only to return to the New Testament pattern for the Church. Characterized by a deep concern for the salvation of the lost in the homeland and abroad, these assemblies were soon sending forth gifted evangelists, teachers, and missionaries to carry the glorious evangel of Jesus Christ near and afar. When men and women were brought to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ through the labors of these servants of Christ, they were instructed in the truths that meant so much to them, and thus companies of believers began to meet as local assemblies in many parts of the world. These assemblies were strictly autonomous, governed solely by elders in the local congregation, and in no way subject to outside legislation or leadership. The link between these assemblies was not an organizational one, but that of fellowship based upon a common salvation (Jude 3), membership in the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12: 12-13), and the recognition of one Lord, one faith and one baptism (Eph. 4:5).

If this is termed a movement, then it should be designated, not as a brethren movement, but as a movement of the Holy Spirit calling the Church back to its pristine position of Scriptural simplicity. The assemblies of Christian brethren today are not concerned about perpetuating a nineteenth-century movement, but in holding fast to the apostolic principles and practices as enunciated in the New Testament Scriptures. While gratefully acknowledging their indebtedness to those who pioneered the way back to the Scriptural pattern, in situations requiring a decision, the question raised is not, 'What was done in the past by the early brethren?' but 'What saith the Scriptures?'

The assemblies (for so the brethren designate their local gatherings) are firm in their loyalty to 'the faith once for all delivered unto the saints' (Jude 3), including the virgin birth, the impeccable life, the vicarious death, the bodily resurrection, the literal ascension, and the enthronement of Christ as Great High Priest and Advocate of His people. They unreservedly accept the Bible as the inspired, infallible and inerrant Word of God, the sole guide for the faith and practice of the people of God. Much of their preaching and teaching is of an expository nature, with considerable emphasis on prophetic truths. They believe in the total ruin of mankind through the Fall of Adam in Eden, and the futility of all human efforts for salvation. They believe in redemption by the blood of Christ and regeneration by the Holy Spirit, by which alone man is fitted for entrance into the kingdom of God. They believe in salvation on the principle of grace alone procured through individual faith in Jesus Christ. They believe in the eternal security of the born-again believer, in a heaven for the saved, and a hell for the unrepentant who die in their sins.

These fundamentals of the faith are the common property of all true evangelicals. Not only so, but many of the 'recovered' truths of the nineteenth-century renascence are today being faithfully proclaimed in thousands of denominational and independent churches. This is a cause for heartfelt gratitude to God. Undoubtedly the written and oral ministry of many gifted servants of Christ connected with the assemblies of brethren has contributed to the dissemination of these truths.

Possibly the two characteristics which distinguish the brethren assemblies from many other fundamental, independent church groups are to be found in their views regarding worship and ministry. Collective worship is given priority in importance. There is a complete rejection of liturgical formalism, and strong reservations regarding the appropriateness of designating services for evangelism, prayer, Bible study, etc. as worship meetings. The term is reserved for a service set apart in a definite way for the giving to God of thanksgiving, praise, adoration and homage by the priestly family of believers. In most instances, this is the weekly remembrance feast of the Lord's Supper. Such services are not programmed in any manner, are not conducted by any designated leader, but are left open to the leading of the Spirit.

As to ministry, clerisy is totally rejected. Gifts from the Risen Head of the Church (Eph. 4: 8-13), distributed by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12: 4, 7, 11), are gratefully recognized for evangelism, pastoring and teaching. The human ordination of such is deemed unnecessary and unscriptural. The dividing of the members of the Body of Christ into clergy and laity is likewise believed to be artificial and unscriptural, tending to stifle the development and functioning of these divinely given gifts. Because the title Reverend lends support to this notion of a clergy as distinct from the laity, it is rejected by those who minister among the assemblies. Let it not be thought, however, that these views have robbed the assemblies of brethren of adequate, edifying preaching and teaching. By no means. Rather, it has enriched their ministry, both oral and written. There are few libraries in evangelical circles that do not contain the writings of Anderson, Bellett, Darby, Groves, Grant, Ironside, Kelly, Lincoln, Mackintosh, Newberry, Soltau, Trench, Wigram, Wolston, and many other brethren. This volume, and the others in this series, will contain the names of many honored missionaries from the assemblies who have laboured for the Lord around the globe.

Because of the emphasis on fellowship rather than on membership in the assemblies of Christian brethren, membership rolls are a rarity.  This precludes any accurate information as to their numbers.  And, not only are local rolls unavailable, a complete list of all assemblies seeking to follow the New Testament pattern would be impossible to compile.  As in Gideon’s day, it is not the quantity of professed followers that is important, but rather the quality of dedication to the Lord that counts.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service in 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  Used with Permission.

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T Carson

Who are the brethren? All Christians are brethren. But who are the Brethren? That is more difficult. Some would deny that any such people exist. They would say that early last century, in places as far removed as Dublin, New York and South America, there was a movement of the Spirit of God which led many Christians to turn from ecclesiastical traditions and to go back to the New Testament to practice what they found written therein. If other people wanted to call them Brethren or Plymouth Brethren, that was their responsibility. As for themselves they had no thought of forming a sect or a denomination. They would have agreed with W. E. Vine that the term 'Brethren' was 'an utter misnomer', which they whole-heartedly repudiated.

Well, that is the theory, the ideal. How far it has been realized in practice is another question. In the remainder of this article I will use the term 'brethren', not with approval, but simply as a means of identification.

But what was it in particular that exercised the minds of those earnest people? 'They shared a profound faith in the authority and adequacy of Holy Scripture and the gospel contained therein. They were distressed at the condition of the church in the world of their day, and they were convinced that the hope of Christ's return should figure more prominently in the thinking of Christians. ... It was regarded by some as a serious defect thai the laity (in the established church) were almost totally excluded from sharing in spiritual duties, except in menial and semi-administrative matters. . . . The early brethren, such as those assembled at Powerscourt in 1833, were deeply concerned at the spectacle of a divided Christendom rent into competing factions' (The Origins of the Brethren, by Harold H. Rowdon, pp. 2, 4, 7).  So they began to meet together simply as Christians, as fellow-members of the Body of Christ. They remembered the Lord each week in the Breaking of Bread. They looked to the Lord alone for their edification. There was a renewed interest in the Scriptures, in prophecy, in the Church, in the Gospel.  Dr. Rowdon points out that many of the early brethren were 'highly educated young men, frequently former clergymen or ministers, who built up religious groups of considerable size, mainly in large cities and often through the transformation of existing congregations'. But some were men of lowly birth and occupation, and he cites Robert Gribble, who did a remarkable work in North Devon (op. cit., p. 147).

But it was all too much for Satan and he soon began to sow tares among the wheat.

In 1845 J. N. Darby visited the church at Plymouth, where B. W. Newton occupied a position of influence. Darby disapproved of Newton's views on prophecy and the Church and also of a tendency to clericalism at Plymouth. The result was that on the last Lord's Day of 1845 Darby and some others began to break bread in another part of the city.

In 1847 Newton was charged with heretical teachings concerning the person of Christ (teachings which he later withdrew). Then in 1848 a certain Captain Woodfall and his brother came from Newton's church and were received at Bethesda Chapel in Bristol where George Muller and Henry Craik ministered. Darby demanded that they should condemn Newton's tracts, and when they refused to do this, he excommunicated Bethesda and all those who upheld their decision. Henceforth the brethren movement was divided into two, the exclusive brethren and the open brethren. It is concerning the latter that these volumes and the rest of this article deal.

The open brethren (so-called) believe that they have remained true to the undenominational character of the movement, that a church should be 'an available mount of communion for any consistent Christian', to use words of Mr. Darby. They practice believers' baptism. They have no central organization, each local church being autonomous.

But even they have not been unscathed. In the 1880's, especially in Scotland, there was a movement among them called 'Needed Truth' which sought to form a fellowship narrower than the Body of Christ and to this day some churches have been affected by it.

What then do the brethren believe and practice?

They are orthodox, evangelical Christians. They can subscribe to statements of belief such as those issued by the Inter-Varsity Fellowship or Scripture Union. They have also, on the whole, been positively evangelistic. There have been numerous evangelists among them who have been used in greater or less measure. The influence of Henry Moorhouse on D. L. Moody is well-known and Billy Graham freely acknowledges his debt to the brethren.

They reject the distinction between clergy and laity and they believe that the priesthood of all believers has an application to the meetings of the church. There are those among them who devote all their time to preaching of the gospel or to teaching and pastoral work. These are supported by the believers but are not looked upon as a separate clerical order. In most of the churches, however, there are recognized elders.

They believe that a church should function as a body, as we see it in Romans 12:3,1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4 and I Peter 4.  They believe, with Dr. Rendle Short, that Paul 'did not want to make churches like comets with a brilliant head and a long, nebulous tail' (Principles of Christians called 'Open Brethren', p. 114). No, he wanted them to function like a body.

Their most distinctive feature is the occasion when they gather each Sunday for the celebration of the Lord's Supper.  There, various brethren are able to make their contributions of prayer, praise, worship, exhortation or teaching. It is a meeting without a president or a program, in accordance with I Corinthians chapter 14. See especially verse 26. Brethren would not agree with the comment of Charles Hodge on that verse: 'It was only so long as the gifts of tongues, of prophecy, of miracles, and others of a like kind continued in the church that the state of things here described prevailed. Since those gifts have ceased, no one has the right to rise in the church under the impulse of his own mind to take part in its services.' They would rather agree with James Denney in his comment on I Thessalonians 5:19, 20: 'An open meeting, a liberty of prophesying, a gathering in which any brother could speak as the Spirit gave him utterance, is one of the crying needs of the modern Church.' For there are still gifts of the Spirit and the Spirit Himself remains with us.

It is interesting to notice that in recent years there has been an appreciation of the above truths in the main-line denominations.  For example, Robert C. Girard, in Brethren, Hang Loose, though a Lutheran, tells how he introduced some of these principles into his church. He had learned from Watchman Nee, who had drunk deeply from brethren teaching, that a church should function as a bodv.

Another example is found in the September issue of the Harvester, a brethren magazine. There is a review of David Watson's / Believe in the Church, and the reviewer writes: 'Some readers who are unaware of the changes that have come to the Church of England in recent years may be surprised to find Watson accepting the following six principles of Christian ministry.' And the six principles could almost have come out of a handbook of brethren doctrine.

Another example is seen in a recent work, Paul's Idea of Community, by Robert Banks, a scholarly examination of the churches in the Greek cities of Paul's day, and much in the book is commonplace brethren teaching.

With regard to the numerical strength and worldwide growth of brethren the reader is referred to A History of the Brethren Movement, by F. Roy Coad, chapters 11 and 12. It was estimated that the total membership of independent brethren churches in the British Isles at that time may be between 75,000 and 100,000.

But this article would be incomplete without reference to the foreign mission work of the brethren, and that is really the subject of these volumes.

The great pioneer of this work was Anthony Norris Groves who, with his wife, two sons and three others, set out for Baghdad in 1829. He had no missionary society behind him and no guarantee of financial support from England. He looked to the Lord alone to supply his needs. The story of his journey and sufferings is one of the most heroic pages in missionary annals, and he has been an inspiration to thousands who have followed his example, and, as they believe, the example of the Apostles. A copy of A. N. Groves by the author of this book may be obtained free from the publishers.

They have gone to the ends of the earth, and especially to India, Central Africa, South America and China. Among the better known are Frederick Stanley Arnot, Dan Crawford, and the martyrs of Ecuador.

These have not been commended by a missionary society but by their local churches, following the pattern of Acts 13:1-3. There are, however, agencies such as those described in Appendix II which distribute gifts and seek to promote missionary interest.

Readers wishing to learn more of the brethren should especially consult the volumes by Coad and Rowdon already mentioned. A smaller, more recent work, The Brethren, by Peter Cousins, is instructive. Excellent brief accounts are by G. C. D. Howley in the Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by J. D. Douglas.

Older works of value are those of Dr. Rendle Short, already mentioned. The Story of the Brethren Movement, by T. S. Veitch, An Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement, by H. A. Ironside, and Chief Men among the Brethren, by Hy. Pickering.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service in 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  Used with Permission.

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TE Wilson

The brethren can be simply described as companies of Christians to be found in many countries of the world who are attempting in all sincerity to practice early church principles as they are outlined in the teaching of Christ and His apostles in the New Testament.

Any intelligent observer looking at the mainline churches in Christendom today, cannot fail to notice a wide divergence between the teaching and practices of the early church and that being taught and practiced today. In the course of church history, the Holy Spirit has raised up men of spiritual vision who have been burdened about the decline and whom God has used to re-discover long-lost truth.

Martin Luther in the sixteenth century was appalled by the departure from primitive Christianity and his vibrant protest resulted in the Reformation. He recovered the great truth of justification by faith alone in the vicarious death of Christ. The evangelical revivals in the eighteenth century under the Wesleys and Whitefield were undoubtedly a work of the Holy Spirit, but both of these movements failed to revive very much vital truth buried under ritual and tradition.

In the nineteenth century the Holy Spirit moved again. It happened concurrently in widely scattered parts of the world, each quite independent of the other. A number of godly spiritual men, many of them scholars and theologians, were raised up to promote scriptural truths which had been ignored and neglected for centuries. Most of them were young men filled with a burning desire to get back to the Bible and to practice what they had learned.

It must be remembered, however, that in every age of church history there were small persecuted groups that met in all simplicity for worship and testimony. The ruling ecclesiastical hierarchy attacked them and sought to destroy them. E. H. Broadbent in his important book. The Pilgrim Church traces their history down through the ages.

The origin of the people known as 'the Brethren' can be traced to a group of young men, most of them with an aristocratic background, who met in the palatial home of Lady Powerscourt, located near Dublin in Ireland. On a Sunday morning in 1830, four of them met in a home in Dublin to celebrate the Lord's supper. The numbers gradually grew and they rented a building to carry on their meetings for worship and the ministry of the Word. The leader of this group was John Nelson Darby, who on account of conviction had resigned his position as a curate in the Church of Ireland. About the same time another group started meeting along similar lines in Plymouth in England. The growth here was rapid and in a short time more than a thousand people were meeting in the Lord's name. Outsiders called them 'Plymouth Brethren' and the name has adhered to them ever since, but they preferred to be known simply as brethren or Christians (Acts 11:26). Simultaneously another company of believers met in Bristol under the leadership of George Muller and Henry Craik. The name of Anthony Norris Groves was prominent at the commencement of the movement. He is credited with making the suggestions that later developed into the principles from the Holy Scriptures under which the brethren met and carried on their church services.

From this inauspicious beginning, groups multiplied all over Britain, U.S.A., Canada, West Indies and in many countries overseas. On the continent of Europe they were found in France, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, Italy, Spain and in Russia. Many assemblies sprang up along the valley of the Nile in Egypt. Some of the greatest expansion was in South America, especially in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. Practically all of the Latin Republics have assemblies. Central and South Africa has seen phenomenal blessing. Fred Stanley Arnot was the pioneer. He penetrated the heart of Africa with the gospel in 1881-1886 before the Belgian or British colonial occupation.

The movement which commenced in Dublin, Plymouth and Bristol in 1830 continued in fellowship with each other for nearly 20 years, but in 1848 they divided into two distinct groups.  Darby, influenced by his episcopal background, initiated a centralized form of church government, which dictated policy, procedure and discipline to every individual and local assembly connected with it. They became known as exclusive brethren.  Darby was a brilliant scholar, theologian and linguist. He translated the Bible from the original languages into English, German and French and other works into Italian. He is credited with the recovery of much truth, especially along dispensational and prophetical lines. But his policy of centralized control resulted in successive divisions over the years. On the other hand those who remained with Anthony Norris Groves and George Muller and who followed the principles outlined by Groves at the beginning, became known as open brethren. But many today would prefer to be known simply as brethren without the capital B.

It would be opportune at this point to outline what those principles are. As each local assembly is autonomous with no creed but the Bible, there may be slight differences of interpretation in certain areas, but the general overall picture is as follows:

First of all these brethren hold tenaciously to the historic fundamental doctrines of Christianity, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, co-equal and co-eternal, the essential deity and true impeccable humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, His vicarious death on the cross for sin. His bodily resurrection and ascension, His High Priestly work and His coming again to reign in a literal millennium. They believe in heaven for the regenerate and eternal punishment for the Christ-rejector. They hold without reserve to the plenary inspiration and inerrancy of Holy Scripture in the original writings.

But there are a number of distinctive doctrines which they felt had been lost or altered and which they seek to emphasize and practice.

The church of the New Testament is called the body of Christ and has only one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Every horn-again believer is a member of that body. It commenced at Pentecost and will be completed at the Rapture.

The local church is composed of born-again believers meeting in the name of the Lord Jesus, refusing any denominational title, as that would put it on sectarian ground and would deny the truth of the one body. It is autonomous, responsible to the Head, the Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His promise is in the midst (Matt. 18:20). There is warm fellowship with other local churches but no federation.

The local church is governed by a plurality of elders with delegated authority from the Risen Head to exercise leadership and discipline. Clerisy or one-man ministry is unknown in the New Testament. Elders are raised up by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). They are not self-appointed but recognized by the local church as those who are fitted and doing the work (1 Thess.5:12-13).

The priesthood of all believers. Every believer is a holy priest to worship and a royal priest to witness (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). This negates entirely a clerical caste and a so-called laity. There is glorious freedom for Spirit-led worship and ministry.

The role of women in the church. They are to be in silence as far as public teaching in the church is concerned (1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). Her subjection to this ordinance is indicated by her wearing a head covering (1 Cor. 11:1-16). But she has a tremendously important sphere of service, both in the home and among her own sex (Titus 2:4).

Baptism by immersion in the name of the Trinity for born-again believers only, on confession of faith.

The priority and importance of the Lord's Supper, observed on the first day of every week. There is never chairman nor presiding elders: they recognize the Lordship of Christ and the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide the worship and in the ministry of the Word.

The dispensational interpretation of Holy Scripture. The importance of distinguishing between the earthly calling and the promises to Israel in the Old Testament and the heavenly calling of the church in the New Testament.

While there may be cases in their fellowship of those who hold other views of the Lord's Coming, it would be true to say that the majority of brethren believe and teach the pre-tribulation and pre-millennial rapture of the church.

An active outreach with the gospel both at home and abroad has always characterized the brethren assemblies. It has been said that in relation to their numbers at home, the brethren have more full-time missionaries in most parts of the world than any other evangelical body. Following the example of Anthony Norris Groves and George Muller they go forth commended by their local assemblies, with no stated salary, looking to God alone in simple faith for their daily needs and supplies.

These principles may seem idealistic and impractical in this modern world, but many thousands of God's servants in the past 150 years have proved experimentally that God's work done in God's way can count on God's blessing.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service in 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  Used with Permission.

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W. Morrison

Like the great Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Puritan renewal of the seventeenth, and Methodism in the eighteenth, the brethren movement began in the early nineteenth century as a constructive protest against formality, coldness and unspirituality in the professing Church of its day. The beginnings of the brethren were characterized by a lack of publicity, a fact which has rendered difficult the task of later historians. Almost spontaneously, it would seem, groups of men and women in such cities as Dublin, Plymouth, Bristol and later London came together in unpretentious meeting places for the purpose of celebrating the Lord's Supper with primitive simplicity and encouraging one another by the exposition of the Scriptures. Since the standard Bible of the 1820s and 1830s was the King James Version, the archaic plural form of brother (brethren) was a word they frequently read in the New Testament, especially in Acts and the Epistles, as a synonym for believers. The new companies came to be known as brethren, and were happy to have a name which, they hoped, would not sound sectarian. To this day they would not wish to be regarded as a denomination, even if the word brethren now sounds somewhat unusual and therefore almost inevitably has acquired a special sense to designate a particular group of Christian churches or assemblies, as the N.T. word for churches might be accurately translated.

What then were and are the chief features of these assemblies? Conversion to God through repentance from sin and faith in the crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ has always been the starting point for local church membership, and this has usually been publicly attested by the ordinance of baptism by immersion. Mention has just been made of the Lord's Supper as the central gathering of brethren companies. With no presiding minister or elder the church assembles to sing the praise of Him who died (a number of hymns suitable for worship have been composed by brethren poets to add to existing hymns of this nature), to express in extempore language the adoration of the Lord Jesus, to eat the bread and drink the wine as a living act of remembrance and proclamation, and to read passages of Scripture appropriate to such an occasion. It has been truly said that this weekly meeting offers the main reason why brethren have not become a modernist, 'liberal' movement. You cannot address Jesus directly as the eternal Son of God without also accepting His Virgin Birth, sinless life, atoning sacrifice, triumphant resurrection and imminent Second Advent.

Although without ordained clergy, the brethren are not without leadership. Men recognized as possessing the spiritual gift of teaching exercise this ministry in their local church and in other similar assemblies. A plurality of elders functions in terms of 1 Tim. 3:1-7, caring for the flock and attempting to maintain discipline with due regard for both grace and truth. Each local church is financially self-supporting and autonomous in its government, although on terms of good fellowship with other like-minded companies. The spread of the gospel in the local area and through missionary endeavor overseas has from the beginning been a marked feature of brethren evangelism, and the honored name of Anthony Norris Groves has been regularly mentioned in successive versions of Appendix 1 in this series.  Even in today's complex world many hundreds of brethren missionaries are actively spread over every continent. They have no guaranteed salary, however small, and they are not subject to any direction by a home board, whether in Britain, North America or Australasia, although grateful for advice and encouragement from such men as the Editors of 'Echoes of Service' in Bath, England, and other Missionary Service Groups.

All of the foregoing practices of assemblies would be generally agreed among all members. It would, however, be only honest to add that from the earliest days there have existed two distinct tendencies which have created both flexibility and ambiguity within the movement. Two Old Testament references may help to illustrate these separate tendencies. In 2 Kings 7 a group of Israelite lepers came upon enormous wealth, the spoil left by the fleeing army of Syria, and they said to one another. This day is a day of good news' (v. 9). They decided to share their new-found riches as widely as possible among their fellow-Hebrews. Over against this incident may be set the insistence, oft repeated in the Pentateuch and symbolized by the Tabernacle in the wilderness, that the name and service of God must at all times be kept absolutely pure and holy. Early brethren like Groves, Craik and Muller embodied the first attitude, men like J. N. Darby and his associates the second. Are the precious truths rediscovered by brethren too valuable to squander or too valuable to hoard?

Some brethren and some brethren assemblies have felt it right to share their spiritual gifts and insights with other evangelical groups to help spread the gospel and upbuild God's people in the church as a whole. Others have considered that by doing so they were weakening the distinctive virtues inherent in the brethren, encouraging younger people to act similarly and so undermining what they ought to have been strengthening. Again, different attitudes exist in assemblies about the desirability of change in certain aspects of local church life. Honest men, equally indwelt by the Holy Spirit and equally reverent in their adherence to Scripture, differ when they ask themselves whether Biblical principles should be applied in the same ways to the circumstances of the 1830s and the 1980s.

It is arguable that the brethren would be a stronger and more effective influence if uniformity rather than variation of attitude and practice were discernible in these matters. Quite apart, however, from the fact that no central body exists to legislate for all local churches, there is room in the great heart of God for variety within the brethren movement, in which good men and women of differing outlooks abound. Meantime tolerance and respect are needed for stances which one does not personally adopt.

What of the future? A brethren assembly by its very nature demands a high degree of dedication from all its members. Time, money and love have to be given sacrificially to the Lord if an autonomous local church is to prosper. The insidious encroachment of materialism, linked with a diminution in personal conviction, poses a threat to a movement which after more than a century and a half may be tempted to sink from Philadelphian zeal to Laodicean lukewarmness. If Christ's return is not soon, brethren assemblies and influence may decline. God's work could be accomplished after the brethren, as it was for eighteen centuries before them, but a distinctive contribution to the universal church would be lost if they disappeared.

There is ground for hope, however, as well as cause for concern. The qualities of simplicity implicit in brethren assemblies make the movement well suited to missionary situations all round the world. The insistence on the authority of Scripture provides a bulwark against a destructive liberal theology. A passion for souls is the proper emotion to stimulate the evangelization of the poor, the permanently unemployed, the exploited and the disillusioned in tomorrow's world.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service In 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  Used with Permission.

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HD Erlam

This is a good question, since the brethren, although they have no central organization or system of control, or indeed any hierarchy of management, have spread all over the world during the last 160 years, and have made an evangelical impact quite out of proportion to their numbers.

While it may be said that there have been groups of Christians all down the centuries from New Testament times who have met together according to principles revealed in the New Testament (as has been well documented by Broadbent, Carron and others) there was nevertheless a remarkable reawakening in the early part of the nineteenth century to the fellowship that Christians might enjoy together in the Scriptures, a fellowship which had been largely lost under the restricting formalism of the church 'establishment' that had developed by that time.

In several places in Britain and Europe, and independently of each other, small groups of Christians began meeting for study of the Scriptures, outside of any ecclesiastical limitations or denominational constraints upon their earnest enquiry as to divine teaching, and they soon found that existing church practices and systems which had formed the greater part of their religious background and experience could not be sustained from the New Testament evidence. Many of the people in these groups therefore withdrew from their earlier connections and began to hold meetings among themselves for Bible study and, arising out of this, a weekly breaking of bread meeting, following the example of the early church as seen in the Acts of the Apostles and in 1 Corinthians.

This spontaneous movement then attracted others who were likewise searching the Scriptures, and the existence of these groups soon became widely known throughout Britain, Ireland and on the continent of Europe. Because one of the earliest of these gatherings was located at Plymouth in England the Christians there became known as Plymouth Brethren. The members of these groups however had themselves avoided the adoption of any sectarian name, using only the Scriptural term so often applied to similar groups in the Book of Acts, or else finding that others designated them as brethren, and later as Open Brethren to differentiate them from a party that had separated itself, this latter becoming known as Exclusive Brethren.

Like those companies of Christians of New Testament times, the brethren became very active. In fact, they went everywhere preaching the gospel (Acts 8:4), and it could also be said of them that they turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). For example, on quite the other side of the world, in New Zealand, it is evident that the contemporary surge in emigration to this newly developing country brought evangelists here also. Other brethren, noted for their gift as preachers or expositors of the Scriptures, paid visits to this colony (as it then was) from time to time during that century, so that there was a very active evangelical witness established also in the Antipodes.

Alongside this positive thrust in proclaiming the gospel, there developed a remarkable understanding of the prophetic content of the Scriptures which in itself attracted many from the church systems. This unfolding of the Scriptures actually reflected one of the major characteristics of the so-called 'Brethren movement', the presence among them of a significant number of men who were thoroughly familiar with their Bibles and well able to expound the Word of God. Herein lies yet another feature of this movement - the acceptance of the Bible as the inspired Word of God, the only and ultimate authority for all doctrine and practice.

The doctrine to which the brethren subscribe has not been formulated at any time into a creed, but it is clearly understood as involving the universal fallen state of man as a sinner, unable to effect any atoning sacrifice himself, his redemption being secured only by the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and obtained by an essentially personal faith in His sacrificial death, as set forth in the first half of Paul's Epistle to the Romans. A firm belief in the bodily resurrection and ascension of Christ, and His personal return, firstly to rapture His Church and later to reign on the earth, is also maintained.

Baptism is observed by immersion, only of those confessing a personal faith in Christ, hence infant baptism is rejected. The weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, as the central part of the worship meeting, is maintained, and here a plurality of contributors is the pattern, arising out of the Scriptural evidence 01 the priesthood of all believers, whereby all brethren in any local church setting may exercise the priestly function of offering worship, this also being in accordance with the principles seen in 1 Corinthians 14:26, 29-31. One brother may announce a hymn, with another leading in a prayer of thanksgiving and worship, or in a Scripture reading and exposition appropriate to worship. Ai these 'remembrance' meetings a particular theme often evolves that in itself enhances the spirit of worship. There is no regularized particular or predetermined order for such contributions at this meeting, and yet the overall sense of reverence and devotional response is so often clearly evident, all being subject to the leading of the Holy Spirit Himself.

Mention was made earlier of a vigorous activity in preaching the gospel, and this was no less evident in New Zealand in the early days of colonization, for devoted brethren undertook long and arduous itineraries in what were essentially pioneer conditions, on horseback, on foot or using horse-drawn wagons (or coaches) to penetrate all parts of the country where settlers were to be found as land was opened up for farming, some of the territory being quite inhospitable by standards more familiar to them in their homeland of Britain. But their labors were rewarded in that many turned to the Lord, not only from among the European settlers, but also among the native Maori people, some brethren learning the native language to better reach these indigenes.

The result of these efforts was such that a large number of assemblies were established all over the country, the great majority continuing to the present day, there being currently some 250 of these in a total population of just over 3,000,000. The number of adherents in New Zealand is not at all certain, since brethren do not always list themselves as such in census returns, and, moreover, they have no organizational or central controlling authority which might be expected to have such statistics, but a rough estimate could set the figure at around 1 of the population, or some 30,000.

A feature of the brethren has been their strong emphasis on evangelism. This quickly extended beyond national frontiers, in that many brethren - and sisters - left their native shores to take the message of the gospel to other lands. A remarkably fruitful work was developed in Central Africa, while many also served in India, China and the South American continent.

In due course the same missionary fervor became evident in New Zealand, and a large number went forth from this country, notably to India, China and Africa, although there are scarcely any areas of the world where New Zealanders have not served in one way or another. Their numbers have been high in proportion to the total assembly population. If one were to ask what motivated so many to go overseas with the gospel, often to difficult language areas or where cultures were so fundamentally different, one would most likely be told that they had responded to a definite exercise of heart and a call of the Lord for such missionary service.

Here again one finds a distinct characteristic of brethren -that without any centralized authority or supervisory missionary council or society, individuals can go forth from a local assembly, with the commendation of that assembly to the work they feel called to undertake, often without any guaranteed or regular financial sup-port, and then continue to labor in a foreign field over many years.

Finally, a senior medical student went as one of a team under the auspices of a relief aid group to a certain area for a short-term program. The interest other team mates was soon aroused when they noticed that she was invited out every evening while they just sat around at base with little or nothing to do. After enquiry they all felt that they too should join the brethren, for she had found brethren there (Acts 28:14). And for those non-missionary brethren who have traveled widely, even into foreign countries of unknown languages, the fraternity and brotherly love and fellowship experienced is yet another characteristic of the brethren.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service in 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  Used with Permission.

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WE Vine

THE appellation "The Brethren", as applied to companies of believers who seek to be guided by the Scriptures alone in die principles of their gatherings, is an utter misnomer. It is, or should be, repudiated by those who are so called. No doubt Ac term "Plymouth Brethren" had an innocent enough beginning, and arose from the fact that in their evangelistic labors and the testimony they gave they were spoken of as "brethren from Plymouth". The mistake arose in generalizing the circumstances of a particular locality and in applying to other believers besides those at Plymouth a term which was meaningless and applied without the consent or agreement of the believers there themselves.

The appellation is false in more respects than one. It is contrary to the teaching of Scripture, which, in the spiritual sense of the word, includes all believers and gives no justification for any such denominational terminology. Further, it suggests, what is quite unfounded, that the assemblies of those to whom the term is applied are amalgamated into a denominational union, an ecclesiastical system, whereas the New Testament teaches, as a foundation principle relating to assemblies, that each one stands on its own separate basis in dependence on the Lord alone and in subjection to the guidance and ministry, not of some union or organization, but of the Holy Spirit, who indwells each company as His local Temple. That principle is maintained by the various assemblies of those who are simply seeking to adhere to the Scriptures of truth as the all-sufficient guide concerning the will of God, and as 'the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3, R. V.) — "once for all", that is to say, as the final revelation of the mind of God for His people. The very adherence of such assemblies to the teaching of the New Testament causes them (or should do so) to repudiate the imputation that they constitute a sect miscalled "The Brethren". It is significant that no such denominational notice-board is ever used outside the buildings where such assemblies meet.

AN UNFOUNDED SUPPOSITION

The term is also contrary to fact in that it presupposes that, at some time or other, those who, in different places, and apart from any mutual association, gained an understanding of what die New Testament teaches, and saw the importance of obeying it instead of following the traditions of religious systems, accepted the term “the Brethren". In any case it came to be applied as a nickname. The fallacy of such an appellation has been to a large extent successfully exposed, though, perhaps inadequately.

The fact is that, by a very marked movement of the Spirit of God, Christians in several places, without knowing what was similarly and simultaneously taking place elsewhere, came to see the absolute necessity of becoming obedient to what the Scriptures teach, in contrast to the denominational systems, which were simply an aftermath of the breakaway, in medieval times, from Popery, and which stopped short of discerning and following the whole counsel of God as revealed in His Word. To abandon forms of error is one thing; to accept the truth in its fullness is another.

FREEDOM FROM HUMAN DICTATES

Moreover, the work of the Spirit of God in opening the eyes of believers in different localities and at different times has gone on for over a century, without being directed by the dictates or teachings of some central authority. It is a significant fact that not only in Britain, but in America, Australia, New Zealand and countries on the Continent, as well as elsewhere, owing to the teaching of the Scriptures, whether by direct and independent reading of them, or by individual teachers apart from any Society, assemblies such as those who are miscalled "Brethren" have been formed without becoming associated with similar gatherings in other places, as in the earliest times, as recorded in the New Testament.

DISHONOUR TO THE HOLY SPIRIT

They cannot help what others call them, but that any in such companies should tacitly accept this unscriptural title is greatly to be deprecated. Its use is dishonoring to the Spirit of God and a falsification of the actual position of any Scripturally formed assembly. The flippant or jocular way in which the appellation, or some modification of it such as "the P.B.'s" or "the Plyms", is sometimes used, is also to be deprecated. The work of the Holy Spirit in enabling believers to gather according to the Scriptures, to be formed into local assemblies by His power and with the recognition of His rights and prerogatives to provide spiritual gifts for the care of each company, and to control and guide their worship, is all too sacred to permit of the use of such terms. There are those who do so who have never discovered the truth from the Word of God, and are ignorant of what the Scriptures teach as to assembly principles and of the way in which they are being maintained. Such epithets are part of the misunderstanding or taunts which those who are faithful to Christ have to endure, but let them never be accepted or used by any members of such assemblies themselves.

Thai some local companies of believers are in such a low spiritual state that their character and conduct give the lie to their profession is undeniable, but this affords no justification for the use of the term "the Brethren", as if they were a degenerate sect, and as if what might be sadly true of any local and individual company was to be regarded as a general characteristic of all such assemblies. The fact which has been mentioned, that each assembly stands on its own separate and independent basis, makes the denominational appellation a complete misrepresentation. What is characteristic of one gathering can never be necessarily characteristic of all such.

ANOTHER MISUNDERSTANDING

Again, that a company of Christians ascertains Ac teaching of the New Testament in regard to baptism, and its teaching regarding the breaking of bread", that is to sav, 'the Lord's Supper', as appointed for the first day of the week and practices these ordinances as therein inculcated, has, in some quarters of denominationalism, given rise to the false idea that the fulfillment of thee two ordinances especially characterizes those who are mistermed -the Brethren. That view is not very general but it is existent. It serves, however, to exemplify the fact that faithful adherence to the Word of God is sure to meet with misunderstanding and prejudice and, upon occasion, what is tantamount to a scoff That kind of thing should, however, only be the means of a continual and steadfast testimony, given in such a way that it will enable other Christians to search the Scriptures on these matters and carry them out in loyalty to Christ. Only so can any assembly meet with that approval which the Lord has expressed in His commendation 10 the assembly in Philadelphia "Thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My Word, and hast not denied My Name (Rev 3:8).

One who was closelv in touch with the revival of the early part of the last century makes known the facts of the movement, in contrast to the imputation which is implied in the misconception concerning the term Brethren. Alter mentioning how this revival began among believers by their reading the Bible together and ascertaining truths respecting the Second Coming of Christ and the assembly, he savs, "They cast away all traditions, and read the Bible without note or comment. Many of them were men of understanding and learning, but they laid aside all tradition and commentaries, and resolved, by the help of God, to search for themselves. As they searched the Bible they could discover nothing around them like what was depicted in the Scriptures, and that startled them.  They looked at all the sects, but they saw no facsimile of the description contained in the Epistles."

NEW TESTAMENT TEACHINGS

Thev found in the New Testament that believers met together to partake of the Lord's Supper without an authorized Minister to consecrate or distribute the bread and wine. Thev were led therefore to meet together as believers as was done in the earliest times. They saw that in every local assembly there were Divinelv raised up elders (called overseers), always more than one, to care spirituallv for each assembly and that it was not according to the teaching of the New Testament that a single ordained minister should conduct a meeting for worship and the breaking of bread, but that a local assembly was a body in which spiritual activities were carried on by the various members, whereas in denominations many gifted persons are unable to exercise their functions. 

They decided therefore that they must follow the Scriptures instead of the traditions of the systems of Christendom, which failed to recognize the rights and prerogatives of the Holy Spirit.  This attempts to carry out the principles of truth was not made without great cost in many ways, for there was not a sect that was not opposed to it; everyone was against this strange company, and thus it was at the cost of many friendships that the separation was made.

That this revival of adherence to the Word of God has given rise to the unfounded appellation “The Brethren” is a device of the spiritual foe, whose aim has been thereby to prevent earnest believers from following the Truth.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service in 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  Used with Permission.

RE Harlow

In the United States there are twelve denominations using the name Brethren in their official title, and since 1680, a Roman Catholic order has used the name Freres Chretiens, in the U.S.A., Christian Brothers.

Perhaps it would be better to note how the word is used in the New Testament.

Beside natural relationship, the word is used sixteen times for the people of Israel. The Lord Jesus declared that all who do the will of His Father are His 'brethren', Matthew 12.48-50. His disciples had only one Master (Himself) and they were all 'brethren'. This expression is used five more times of believers before Pentecost. After that the word is found 210 times referring to all Christians. It is always inclusive, never limited. The feminine form is used four times of individual believers, only once in the plural, 1 Timothy 5.2.

It is a precious name for Christians. It says we belong to a family, we have brothers and sisters. We have a Father, he has a home for us. With one Father, we all have the same life, eternal life, the divine nature. We have identity, a name (the Father's); an address, heaven, at the end of the journey. In the family we have a noble ancestry, roots going back to faithful Abraham. The family has a solid foundation. There is fellowship in the family, with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, with the apostles and with one another. We are all blood relations and the similarity can be noticed: the sons of God are led by the Spirit of God. Soon we will be manifested as such, at the Adoption.

This truth was very prominent in the early church. The believers were taught to pray for one another, to love one another, to bear one another's burdens, to give their lives for the brothers.

The truth of being brothers in Christ was shrouded when the Church became a great inchoate mixture of believers and unsaved persons The clerical system to retain power insisted that only those in the 'true' church were able to hope for forgiveness.  Human organization soon replaced divine organism.

But in every age God has had His seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal - or Jezebel. These who loved the Lord helped one another by prayer when separated, and mutual ministry when they got together. Two or three meeting in His Name, had Christ in their midst. Where there is the Head, there is the body, so we can call these minimum gatherings little New Testament churches.

Often they were dispersed by martyrdom or intimidation In partially quiescent periods, they might grow and spread. When neighbors asked questions, they might say they were just Christians, nothing more but nothing less As Christendom spread, more definitive identification would be demanded, since everybody was 'Christian'. The citizens might give the little groups the name of some prominent teacher among them or a doctrine which they seemed to emphasize, making them different from the mass of professors in the state establishment. Gradually the believers in the second generation came to accept the title, but a control group became necessary to decide who could use the name. So what started in utter simplicity after a hundred years often became just another denomination.

This sequence may have occurred many times in 19 centuries.  Something similar started about 160 years ago. A number of believers came to see the fallacy and unscripturalness of the mainline denominations around them, so started to meet together, for prayer and worship and mutual ministry. They learned from the New Testament that all believers are Christians and brethren so they tried to keep open channels of communication with all other true Christians. Many joined with them but neighbors and fellow-citizens had to know who they were. Friendly outsiders were content to call them 'brethren' and this was partly acceptable as applying to all believers.

The little congregations did not want to use the term "church" for their gatherings, a word already having three different meanings. 'Assemblies' seemed more appropriate and the expression 'assemblies of Brethren' could be properly understood by those who tried.

Today there are thousands of these assemblies around the world They have no official name so no control group is needed. Usually determined to retain their independence, many of these groups still have some common features: no full-time pastor or minister; breaking bread weekly; welcome to all true believers, if walk and doctrine are pure.

In five countries (Great Britain, United States. Canada, Australia, New Zealand) a substantial transcultural missionary effort has been put forth. Thousands of missionaries have gone out with the full backing of their home assemblies. Their civil needs as to passports, visas, etc. have been met by groups formed for this purpose in each country.

This series of books That the World may Know is an attempt to record part of this missionary history. The full account awaits the Coming Day, and all the glory will be the Lord's.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service in 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world.  Used with Permission.

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Professor Alfred Kuen, Switzerland

Each volume contains an answer to this question by a different contributor in order to show the measure of spiritual freedom in the application of New Testament church principles.

During the early centuries, the churches deviated quickly from the apostolic pattern given in the New Testament. Since those times there have been countless attempts to reform the Christian doctrine and the life of the churches so as to bring them back to their original purity. The 'Brethren' benefited from such age-long efforts and were enriched by the legacy left by their forerunners.

Among them we find the Waldenses, from whence the brethren inherited their love for the Bible, its study by lay men and the principle of individual evangelization.

From the Reformers, the brethren took the three directing principles Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide. (Among the Reformers, Martin Bucer, the first to create 'Christian Communities' of believers, and Caspar Schwenkfeld, who stressed the necessity for sanctification and believers' churches, deserve a special mention.)

The Anabaptists, and their heirs the Mennonites, taught the importance of a close and detailed faithfulness to the Word of God, as well as the link between believers' baptism and believers' churches.

The brethren adopted from the Pietists the priority given to individual conversion, and also the importance of sanctification and of the Lord's supper being taken only by God's children.

The Lord's supper was also central in the life of the Moravians. Moreover, they taught fellowship with believers of all denominations and to have a vision for missionary work.

This vision was transmitted to the Methodists, who added to it a concern for the evangelization of our Western countries and the practice of meeting in small groups.

The XIXth century Revival stressed Christ's return and the priesthood of all believers.

The brethren welcomed with gratitude this rich legacy, but also examined it carefully like the Bereans (Acts 17:11) in the light of the Bible, their only foundation being the Word of God. What did the brethren build on it? What are the brethren today?

They form churches: The local church assembly is the only bib-lical pattern for the gathering of God's children. Many other forms have been tried over the centuries: the monastery, the 'ecclesiola in ecclesia' (i.e. small groups of believers inside the large churches) and the specialized effort in evangelistic movement. The Church gathers believers of any age, class, and intellectual, social or spiritual levels. It is an autonomous entity, a living structure, which is compared in the Bible to a body and to a family. This implies that each member of a brethren assembly should show a genuine commitment and a spirit of the fellowship.

Free churches: The Reformers maintained the union between church and State, dating from the IVth century. This principle was questioned only in the XIXth century, by A. Vinet. The brethren immediately adopted the system of a non-established church, thus protecting its life against any interference from civil authorities which have no jurisdiction to deal with religious matters.  This principle also implies an inner and outer independence from any ecclesiastical authority wishing to enforce a line of conduct contrary to that shown by the Word of God. It also means that each member should feel concerned about financial and administrative responsibilities in his assembly.

Believers' churches: The large churches have been established according to the same principle which ruled the people of God under the Old Covenant: all those who are born in a Christian family are considered part of the Church. On the other hand, the people of the New Covenant join the Church one by one, by a personal answer to the call of Jesus Christ. Only a church where every member confesses his faith - generally at his baptism that he accepted by faith the atonement of his sins by the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross - can be said to be in harmony with the church model of the apostolic times. This model is also revealed to us by the name 'Ekklesia' (called out from . . .), the words designating church members (-believers', 'brethren, Gods beloved'   .), the details given in the Epistles about the past hie of those members (called Trom death to life'), the practice of baptism by immersion, of the Lord's Supper and of church discipline.

Evangelical churches: The Evangelicals are distinguished from the other groups in Christianity by their acceptance of the sovereign authority of the Bible considered as the Word of God and fully inspired. This means the brethren believe m the funda^ mental doctrines of the Bible: the Trinity, Christ's divinity and His bodily resurrection. His return in glory, His atoning sacrifice, salvation by faith and the necessity of being born again to become a child of God.  The brethren do not have a Confession of Faith of their own but they would agree largely with the great Confessions of Faith of the first centuries (Apostles' Creed, Nicene and Chakedoman Creeds . . .), those of the Reformation (La Rochelle, Confessio Helvetia posterior) and the modern evangelical declarations of faith (Evangelical Alliance, Lausanne 74. . . .) Evangelical churches admit, more or less, a plurality of opinions about secondary issues (of Rom. 14:15; Phil. 3:15), but refuse pluralism about essential doctrines (of Gal. 1:8-9; 11 John 10-11).

Missionary churches: From the beginning, mission to foreign lands was for the brethren a central preoccupation. As early as 1829 A N Groves sailed to Baghdad. George Muller founded a missionary institute which spread the Gospel in several countries.  'That the World May Know' gives clear indication of the extent of this movement. Each assembly also seeks to evangelize its surrounding area: the evangelistic service has been maintained by almost every brethren assembly. Even if, in its traditional form, it draws few people from the outside.

A biblically charismatic church: Even though the word 'charisma' has become a bone of contention among Christians in the last twenty years, it is a biblical word: God bestows gifts of grace upon his children in order to equip them for a particular service in the church. The different charismatic movements have called attention upon the number and variety of these charismes. The brethren had already rediscovered the Church as a body where each member has received a gift for the common good (I. Cor. 12:7).  For this reason the preaching of the Word of God is not the monopoly of those who have studied theology and have been ordained to the 'holy ministry'. According to the principle of [he universal priesthood of believers, the brethren believe that every member of the Church is called to the ministry, that is to serve God and his fellow believers according to the gift he has received.  'Biblically charismatic' means that the brethren do not agree with the specific pentecostal doctrine that considers the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as a second experience, happening after conversion and apart from it, accompanied necessarily, or normally, by speaking in tongues. The brethren also refuse any form if ecumenicalism based on experience and not on the Word of God.

Churches which follow the biblical pattern for the sacraments and the ministry.  Because they want to remain faithful to all the commandments of the Lord, the brethren baptize by immersion those who declare their faith in Christ, their Savior and Lord. They celebrate [he Lord's Supper every Sunday, and all those who have accepted salvation by faith and who adhere to the Christian doctrine and way of life may take part in it.  Like the primitive churches, brethren assemblies are not led by a single pastor, but by a body of elders - often assisted by deacons - who make collective decisions. A certain number of brethren assemblies have 'full time workers', whose task is the same as that of pastors, evangelists or deacons, but they always serve within the framework of the body of elders and only wield the amount o( authority which is related to their function. It is probably most of all by their view of the ministry that the brethren distinguish themselves from the other evangelical-groups. This view is for them a source of great riches and it can bring to the rest of Christianity an often ignored aspect of the body of Christ.

These seven characteristics are inseparable from each other. Concerning any other issue, the assemblies are very free and arc actually quite different from each other, but when an assembly gives up one of those seven characteristics, it ceases to walk in the historic line of the brethren. Only a constant vigilance on the part of the leaders and of all the members will keep them in this line, which tries to remain as faithful as possible to the model traced once and for all by the Founder of the Church.

This article was first published in a series of volumes entitled, “That the world may know”, by Echoes of Service In 1986.  The volumes are a record of the work and legacy of assembly missionaries around the world. 

Used with Permission.