The Open Brethren, sometimes called Christian Brethren or "Plymouth Brethren", are a group of Protestant Evangelical Christian churches that arose in the late 1820s as part of the Assembly Movement. They originated in England and Ireland and now have many assemblies worldwide.
The Open Brethren form independent, autonomous assemblies and the name, "Open," is given to them to distinguish them from "Exclusive Brethren," with whom they share historical roots. The division of the Plymouth Brethren into the Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren took place in 1848  and has been well documented. The Open Brethren are committed to missionary work and hold that the Holy Bible is the first authority in matters of faith and practice. Each assembly (or congregation) is independent of the others in doctrinal matters; yet there is a high degree of communication and cooperation between those who share similar doctrine and practice. Open Brethren assemblies vary from tight gatherings which only extend fellowship to those who have first left the denominations to very loose gatherings which receive any stranger without question into fellowship.
The buildings associated with the open brethren are usually called, "Gospel Chapel," "Gospel Hall," "Bible Chapel," "Christian Assembly," or other similar terms. A sub-set of the Open Brethren are the Gospel Hall Brethren with whom, theologically, they have a lot in common.
The separation of the independent or open brethren from the Exclusive Brethren occurred through the denouncing of Benjamin Wills Newton, an elder of the Plymouth assembly, at that time the largest of the Brethren assemblies, by John Nelson Darby who disagreed with him on matters of prophecy and church organisation. Having forced him to admit to theological errors, Darby then attacked George Müller and Henry Craik at Bethesda Chapel in Bristol for accepting two others of that assembly, even though they were not implicated in any of Newton's errors.
This led to a separation of Bethesda from Darby and a clear adoption of an independent or congregational stance by many of the assemblies. The statement of the assembly at Tottenham gives clearly the position of the Open Brethren:
We welcome to the table, on individual grounds, each saint, not because he or she is a member of this or that gathering or denomination of Christians nor because they are followers of any particular leader, but on such testimony as commends itself to us as being sufficient. We distincly refuse to be parties to any exclusion of those who, we are satisfied, are believers—except on grounds personally applying to their individual faith and conduct.
Unlike the exclusive Darbyites who "became more and more introverted and mystical as the years passed" the open brethren continued their development, with an emphasis on the "faith missions" pioneered by Anthony Norris Groves in India and George Müller with his orphanages in Bristol. In 1853 they started their first missionary journal, The Missionary Reporter. In 1859 the religious revival which reached Britain had a transforming effect on many of the assemblies and brought in new leaders such as Joseph Denham Smith. Ulster became one of the stronger centres and expansion occurred in Scotland and northern England. In London, Thomas John Barnardo began his rescue work with orphans. Dwight L. Moody from Chicago, on a trip to England to visit George Müller and Charles H. Spurgeon met a young man in a Dublin assembly, Henry Moorhouse who was to profoundly influence his preaching style when he preached at Moody's church, revolutionising his work as an evangelist.
This period led to the styling of many of the meetings as "gospel halls", many of which still exist.
In Barnstaple, one of the largest early brethren assemblies developed from the inspiring example of Robert Cleaver Chapman, who continued his ministry until the end of the century. He had made an evangelistic tour of Spain in 1838 and after 1869 the work expanded in Barcelona and Madrid and also in Portugal. In Italy, an indigenous development by Count Guicciardini linked up with T. P. Rossetti (the cousin of Dante Gabriel Rossetti) in England although the Protestant "Brethren" faced persecution and imprisonment by the Catholic church.
The movement soon spread with English-speaking emigrants to Australia and New Zealand as well as to the United States and Canada. Some 600 congregations were recorded in 1959 in the U.S. and 300 in Canada.
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Justification by faith
Justification by faith alone (sola fide) states that it is by grace through faith alone that Christians receive salvation and not through any works of their own (see Ephesians 2:8, Romans 3:23). Open Brethren have a strong emphasis on the concept of salvation. The brethren teach that the consequence of human sin is condemnation to eternal death in hell. Christ's death on the cross paid sin's penalty and his resurrection is evidence that eternal life is available to any who will have it. The only requirements being that each individual willfully repents of sin, accepts the substitutionary payment of his own sin by faith in Christ's death and declares that Jesus is Lord (see John 3:14–18 and Acts 10:34–43).
The Open Brethren teach that baptism plays no role in salvation, and is only properly performed after a person professes Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Baptism is an outward expression that symbolizes the inward cleansing or remission of a person's sins that has already taken place at salvation. Baptism is also a public identification of that person with Jesus Christ. In some cases, an individual is considered a member of an assembly once he or she is baptized. This is not always the norm as an individual (after baptism) must show a desire and commitment to the assembly by faithful attendance to if not all (at least as many as possible) assembly meetings. It is usually the recently baptized individual who will request fellowship, but not always, as any concerned assembly member may contact the individual to determine their intentions with regard to assembly fellowship. Once it is shown that the individual desires acceptance into assembly fellowship, that desire is then communicated to the gathered assembly so that all member’s may have opportunity to express any concerns regarding the applicant. Once the applicant meets with the approval of the assembly members an announcement is made to the gathered assembly that the applicant will be received into full assembly fellowship which would be the first Sunday (Lord’s Day) following the announcement. Open Brethren emphasize baptism by full immersion. This mode is preferred for its parallel imagery to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Immersion baptism is also seen as a practice established by the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist and is therefore Biblically based. Baptism may occur in any body of water that will allow full immersion, though many Brethren assembly halls will have a baptistry. Baptismal services are celebratory and are often linked to an evangelical meeting.
One of the most defining elements of the Open Brethren is the rejection of the concept of clergy. Rather, in keeping with the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers, they view all Christians as being ordained by God to serve and are therefore ministers.
Generally, Open Brethren recognize two Scriptural offices, those of elder and deacon. The office of pastor, common in some evangelical churches, is usually considered to be the same as that of elder, and not a separate office. The office of overseer, bishop, or presbyter is always considered to be the same as that of elder. The prevalent view among Open Brethren is that these offices are limited to men only, following the model of Christ and His apostles and because the Bible says that in the assembly women are not to "teach or have authority over men" (1 Timothy 2:12–14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34–35). The elder is also required to be male according to 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 (the Greek translated as "husband of one wife" here literally means: "a one woman man" expressing that an elder is to be a male). This is, however, a controversial issue among assemblies, and since each assembly is free to make its own decisions on such matters, it is not uncommon today to see women taking positions of leadership (especially in assemblies with relatively young memberships).
Neither of these roles are served with pay in most cases, but larger assemblies may sometimes employ a paid bible teacher or evangelist if specific circumstances make it necessary.
The Open Brethren believe in a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 15:6,23; 20:17; Philippians 1:1)—men meeting the Biblical qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9. This position is also taken in some Baptist churches, especially Reformed Baptists, and by the Churches of Christ. It is understood that elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28) and are recognised as meeting the qualifications by the assembly and by previously existing elders, whereas in the time of the establishment of the first New Testament assemblies it was either an apostle's duty or his directly appointed delegate's responsibility who ordained elders (for example, Timothy or Titus), this original order being consistent with the Christian concept that authority comes from above and does not arise from men.
The main role of the "deacon" is to assist the elders with members' needs. Deacons are usually chosen from members who have demonstrated exceptional Christian piety. (see 1 Timothy 3:8–12). However, in many meetings there is no official list of deacons, the work of deaconship being shared by anyone willing to give a helping hand in a particular task.
Open Brethren are noted for their commitment to missionary work. In the earliest days of the Plymouth Brethren movement, Anthony Norris Groves became one of the earliest "faith missionaries", travelling to Baghdad in 1829 to preach the gospel and the Bible without the aid of an established missionary society. Many later Plymouth Brethren missionaries took the same stance, and included notable missionary pioneers such as:
- George Müller—founder of orphanages in Bristol, England
- Dan Crawford—Scottish missionary to central Africa
- Charles Marsh—missionary to Lafayette, Algeria (1925–69)
- Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Fleming—missionaries to Ecuador killed by members of the Huaorani tribe
While the majority of Open Brethren missionaries do not belong to a missionary society, there are a number of supporting organisations that give help and advice for missionaries: in the UK, Echoes of Service magazine , Medical Missionary News and the Lord's Work Trust are notable organisations. Today, missionaries are found all over the world, with high concentrations in Zambia and Southern Africa, Brazil, India, Western Europe and South East Asia.
An important stream of the Open Brethren is the Kerala Brethren. Kerala is a small state in India, but has more than 500 Open or Plymouth Brethren Assemblies. Brethren members believe that these assemblies are the result of an independent movement of the Holy Spirit in India. Eventually the Plymouth Brethren and the Kerala Brethren recognized the similarities in both the movements and thus the Kerala Brethren came to be identified as a sub-set of the Open Brethren.
- Plymouth Brethren
- Gospel Hall Brethren
- Needed Truth Brethren
- Kerala Brethren
- Elder, Deacon
- Priesthood of all believers
- Believer's baptism
- Emmaus Bible College
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- Although like the other historically related groups the Open Brethren customarily adhere to dispensational concepts, the Open Brethren's congregational polity tolerates various personally held views of biblical prophecy and other issues.
- History Since 1870
- Coad 1968, p. 301
- Coad 1968, p. 164
- J.R. Taylor, Who Are the Plymouth Brethren?, World Christian Digest
- Dann, Robert Bernard, Father of Faith Missions: The Life and Times of Anthony Norris Groves, (Authentic Media, 2004), ISBN 1-884543-90-1
- Marsh, CR, Too Hard For God?, Echoes of Service 1970, ASIN: B0007ARR40
- Coad, Roy (1968), A History of the Brethren Movement, The Paternoster Press, Exeter
- Grass, Tim (2006), Gathering to His Name: the Story of Open Brethren in Britain and Ireland, Paternoster Press, London
- OPENBRETHREN.COM:- Open Brethren Website
- BRETHREN ONLINE.ORG:- Official website of the Open Brethren Church
- BRETHRENPEDIA.COM:- Official homepage of the Brethrenpedia
- IHS-WA.net:- Information site on churches and mission, beliefs and practice associated with the Christian Brethren denomination in Western Australia