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Who Are the Brethren?

In 1986, Echoes International 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.

In addition to these articles, there is another article produced by John Barber. It is a very thorough and up-to-date introductory essay.

"Who Are the Brethren?" (Volume 1 by FF Bruce)

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.

"Who Are the Brethren?" (Volume 2 by 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, or 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.

"Who Are the Brethren? (Volume 3 by 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. They 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, regrettably 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.

"Who Are the Brethren?" (Volume 4 by 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 thousand* 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 horn-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.

"Who Are the Brethren?" (Volume 5 by 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 that 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 brethre 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.

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.

Who Are the Brethren? (Volume 6 by T.E. 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.

The Rest of the Articles are to be added soon.

Brethren History

Some Brethren Assemblies

The Gospel

The Bible says that we are all sinners. No one does what God considers right. Only God Himself is perfectly right in all He does. In fact, He is completely separate from sin. He is too Holy to tolerate sin. According to God's law, the result of sin is death. Because you sin, you deserve death. Do not think that God will choose to overlook your sin. Little as it may be, God is perfectly just. He will punish all sin. However, God is also perfect in love and mercy. He will have justice, but He will also have mercy. God's law says that the punishment for sin must be death, and the punishemnt must be paid. But God himself sent His Son to the Earth in the form of a man to die to pay the punishment for our sins. The punishement of sin is death. We sinned, and we deserved to die. God's Son did not sin, and He did not deserve to die. We sinned, and God's Son chose to die. Then, He rose from the grave, and now He offers salvation from sin to all who are willing to receive His free gift. How can we receive God's forgiveness of sin? We cannot attain salvation through our good works. The punishment for sin is death, not the obligation to do good. The Bible says that the only way to be saved is to believe on God's Son, Jesus. Admit your sin, and receive Jesus. Put faith in Him — not a dead faith but a living faith that is willing to take action — and God will save you. He will not only forgive you from sin, but He will save you from it. We cannot break free of the power of sin, but God will free us from sin so that we don't have to continue living in sin. He will live inside us and keep us from sin. He will give us a new desire for what He desires rather than for sin.

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Exclusive Brethren

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