Who are the Brethren: Volume 3

Each volume contains an answer to the question, “Who are the Brethren?” 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.5:18John 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 its 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.

Stephen S. Short

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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