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The Plymouth Brethren are a conservative, low church, nonconformist, Evangelical Christian movement, whose history can be traced to Dublin, Ireland, in the late 1820s, originating from Anglicanism. Among other beliefs, the group emphasizes sola scriptura, the belief that the Bible is the supreme authority for church doctrine and practice over tradition. Apart from a few (mostly small) exceptions, such as the Churches of God, Brethren churches are all independent, self-governing, local congregations with no central headquarters, although there are a number of seminaries, missions agencies, and publications that are widely supported by Brethren churches and which help to maintain a high degree of communication among them. They generally see themselves not as a denomination, but as a network, or even as a collection of overlapping networks, of like-minded independent churches. Although the group refused for many years to take any denominational name to itself — a stance that some of them still maintain — the title "The Brethren," is one that many of their number are comfortable with in that the Bible designates all believers as "brethren".
Open and Exclusive Brethren
"Brethren assemblies" (as their churches are most often called) are divided into two major branches: the "Open Brethren" and the "Exclusive Brethren", following a schism that took place in 1848. Both of these branches are themselves divided into several smaller streams, with varying degrees of communication and overlap among them.
The best-known, and oldest, distinction between Open and Exclusive assemblies is in the nature of relationships among their local churches. Open Brethren assemblies function as networks of like-minded independent local churches. Exclusive Brethren are generally "connexional" and so feel under obligation to recognise and adhere to the disciplinary actions of other associated assemblies. Disciplinary action normally involves denying the individual the breaking of bread (taking of communion) on Sunday mornings, and to varying degrees, dependent upon which kind of Brethren group it is, may also involve forms of formal social ostracism or shunning. (For instance, people placed "under discipline" may be asked not to attend any group functions which are purely social, and people may decline to eat with and shake hands with members who are under discipline.) One practical result of this might be that among Open Brethren, should a member be "disciplined" in one assembly other assemblies may feel free to allow the member to break bread with them (if they are not concerned by whatever caused the disciplinary action of the one in question). A numerically small movement known as the Needed Truth Brethren emerged from the Open Brethren, around 1892, partly in an attempt to address the problem of making discipline more effective.
Reasons for being put "under discipline" by both the Open and Exclusive Brethren include refusing to recant and disseminating what is, in the eyes of the fellowship, gross Scriptural or doctrinal error, and/or being involved in what is deemed sexual immorality (including adulterous, homosexual, or premarital sex). Being accused of irregular or illegal financial dealings may also result in being put under discipline. In Exclusive meetings, a member "under discipline" in one assembly would not be accepted (allowed to "break bread" or play an active teaching and worshipping role) in another assembly, as the Assembly generally respects the decisions made by the other Assembly. As Exclusives have developed into a number of different branches, often when there was not universal agreement among the assemblies in a specific case of excommunication, a particular act of discipline may not be recognised by all assemblies. Exclusives are also much more adherent to the shunning (or "shutting up") of the offending party, using instructions given for dealing with a "leprous house" in Leviticus 14:34–48 as guidance. In extreme cases, members may be asked to shun or divorce members of their immediate families (as described in Ngaire Thomas' book Behind Closed Doors).
Another less clear difference between assemblies lies in their approaches to collaborating with other Christians. Many Open Brethren will hold Gospel meetings, youth events, or other activities in partnership with non-Brethren Evangelical Christian churches. More conservative Open Brethren — and perhaps the majority of Exclusive Brethren, on the other hand — tend not to support activities outside their own meetings.
Since the formation of the Exclusives in 1848, there have been a great number of subdivisions into separate groups, but most groups have since re-joined with the exception of the separatist Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (informally known as 'Jimite' from their following of James Taylor,Jnr at the division in 1970). This group practices extreme separation and other Brethren groups generally accuse it of being a cult. Most other Exclusive groups (Closed Brethren) prefer not to be known by any name and are only given such designations by non-members.
There are some movements with strong Brethren connections that are less easy to classify. The Assemblies Jehovah Shammah of India, for example, are usually regarded as Open Brethren because of their general willingness to work and worship together with other Evangelical Christians, and because their foreign connections tend to be with Open Brethren. The ecclesiology, however, has more in common with that of the Exclusive Brethren: their founder, Bakht Singh, maintained tight control over the movement until his death in 2000.
Both Open and Exclusive assemblies generally maintain relations within their respective groups through common support of missionaries, area conferences and the ministry of travelling "Commended Workers", "Labouring Brothers", and itinerant evangelists.
The term "Exclusive" is most commonly used in the media to describe one separatist group known by other groups as "Taylor-Hales Brethren", who now call themselves the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church. The majority of Christians known as "Brethren" are not in any way connected with the Taylor-Hales group, who are known for their extreme interpretation of separation from evil and their belief of what constitutes fellowship. In their view, fellowship includes dining out, business and professional partnerships, membership of clubs etc., rather than just the act of Communion (Lord's Supper), so these activities are done only with other members. What other groups refer to as the "Raven" Brethren (named for prominent Exclusive leader F.E. Raven) seceded from the Raven-Taylor-Hales group and are less strict and isolationist. Exclusive Brethren groups that are not in any way affiliated with, nor as isolationist as the PBCC (the "Kelly-Lowe-Glanton" groups, for instance) are happier being called "Closed" rather than "Exclusive" brethren, so as to avoid any connection with these more strident groups.
With the exception of the separatist PBCC, Exclusive Brethren differ on few theological issues. Some Exclusives hold to "Household Baptism" as opposed to "Believers' Baptism", which is practised by the Open Brethren. With the exception of the Lord's Supper, all assemblies welcome visitors to Gospel meetings and other gatherings. Practices of reception among "Exclusive" assemblies vary, many tending to operate a cautious or "guarded" approach to reception and others being more liberal. It is felt by many Exclusive Brethren, and some of the more traditional Open Brethren, that the mutual fellowship with bread and wine can be tainted by the inclusion of those whose hearts are not pure before God. Fellowship in the Lord's Supper is not considered a private matter but a corporate expression, "Because we, being many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf." (1 Corinthians 10:17) A further verse that Brethren refer to is, "Shall two walk together except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3)
Open and Closed Brethren
Terminology which sometimes confuses Brethren and non-Brethren alike is the distinction between the Open assemblies, usually called "Chapels," and the Closed assemblies (non-Exclusive), called "Gospel Halls." Contrary to common misconceptions, the "Closed Brethren" are not a part of the Exclusive Brethren, but rather a very conservative subset of the Open Brethren. The Gospel Halls regard reception to the assembly as a serious matter. One is not received to the Lord's Supper, but to the fellowship of the assembly. This is important because the Lord's Supper is for believers, not unbelievers. Some Chapels, on the other hand, will allow practically anyone who walks in and says he is a Christian to participate, based on the newcomer's profession of faith. Such assemblies are said to have an "open table" approach to strangers. Gospel Hall Brethren, on the other hand, generally believe that only those formally recognised as part of that or an equivalent assembly should break bread. Most Closed and some Open Brethren hold that association with evil defiles and that sharing the Communion meal can bring that association. Their support text is from 1 Corinthians 15:33, "Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners." Among other distinctions, the Gospel Halls would generally not use musical instruments in their services, whereas many Chapels use them and may have singing groups, choirs, "worship teams" of musicians, etc. The Gospel Halls would be more conservative in dress — women would not wear trousers in meetings and would always have their heads covered, while in most Chapels women may wear whatever they wish, though modesty in dress serves as a guideline and many may continue to wear a head covering.
The origins of the Brethren are usually traced to Dublin where several groups of Christians met informally to celebrate the Lord's Supper together in the Dublin in 1827–8. Of these the central figures were Anthony Norris Groves, a dentist studying theology at Trinity College, Edward Cronin, studying medicine, John Nelson Darby, then a curate in County Wicklow and John Gifford Bellett, a lawyer, who brought them together. "A circle was to be drawn just wide enough to include 'all the children of God,' and to exclude all who did not come under that category." They did not require ministers or even an order of service. Their guide was to be the Bible alone.
An important early stimulus was in the study of prophecy which was the subject of a number of annual meetings at Powerscourt House in County Wicklow starting in 1831. Lady Powerscourt had attended Henry Drummond's prophecy conferences at Albury Park and Darby in 1831 was espousing the same pre-tribulational view of the future as the charismatic Edward Irving. Many of those who were to be important in the English movement came to these meetings, including Benjamin Wills Newton and George Müller.
The two main but conflicting aspirations of the movement were to create a holy and pure fellowship on one hand, and to allow all Christians into fellowship on the other. Following decades of dissent, and the expansion of Methodism and political revolutions in the United States and France, believers in the movement felt that the established Church of England had abandoned or distorted many of the ancient traditions of Christendom. To get away from the sectarianism of dissenters, people in the movement wanted simply to meet together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ without reference to denominational differences. Early meetings included Christians from a variety of denominations.
The first meeting in England was held in December 1831 in Plymouth. It was organised primarily by George Wigram, Benjamin Wills Newton and John Nelson Darby. The movement soon spread throughout the United Kingdom. By 1845, the assembly in Plymouth had over 1,000 people in fellowship. They became known as "the brethren from Plymouth" and were soon simply called "Plymouth Brethren". The term "Darbyites" is also used, especially when describing the "Exclusive" branch where the influence of John Nelson Darby is more pronounced. Many within the movement refuse to accept any name other than "Christian".
In 1845, Darby returned from an extended visit to Switzerland where he had achieved considerable success in planting churches. Returning to Plymouth, where Newton was firmly in control, he disagreed with some details of the tribulation that was coming in a book that Newton had published. He also objected to Newton's place as an elder in the Plymouth meeting. But several attempts to settle the quarrel in the presence of other brethren failed to produce any clear result. Two years later, Darby attacked Newton over notes taken by hearers of a lecture Newton had given on the 6th Psalm. A fierce exchange of tracts followed and although Newton retracted some of his statements, he eventually left Plymouth and established another chapel in London.
Darby had instituted a second meeting at Plymouth, and in 1848 he complained of the Bristol Bethesda assembly, in which George Müller was prominent, that they had accepted a member from Ebrington Street, Newton's original chapel. After investigation of the individual, Bethesda defended their decision, but Darby was not satisfied. He issued a circular on August 26, 1848, cutting off not only Bethesda but all assemblies who received anyone who went there. This defined the essential characteristic of "exclusivism" that he was to pursue for the rest of his life.
The Exclusive Brethren have suffered many subsequent splits. McDowell records at least six. The Open Brethren also suffered one split (due to the autonomy of assemblies) which occurred at different times in different parts of the world. But both sides continued to expand their congregations, with the opens, with their emphasis on faith missions, expanding more rapidly than the exclusives.
Itinerant preachers carried both the open and exclusive brethren to North America after the middle of the 19th century. Darby made a number of visits in the 1870s and his emphasis on prophecy was influential.
One of the most defining elements of the 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. The Brethren embrace the most extensive form of that idea in that there is no ordained or unordained person or group employed to function as minister(s) or pastor(s). Brethren assemblies are led by the local church elders within any fellowship and historically there is no office of "pastor" in most Brethren churches, because the term "pastor" is not found anywhere in the original koine Greek language of the New Testament. Therefore, there is no formal ordination process for those who preach, teach, or lead, within their meetings. Men who become elders, or those who become deacons and overseers within the fellowship, are ones whom have been recognized by others within the individual assemblies and have been given the blessing of performing leadership tasks by the elders. An elder should be able and ready to teach when his assembly sees the "call of God" on his life to assume the office of elder (1 Timothy 3:2). Brethren elders conduct many other duties that would be typically performed by "the clergy" in other Christian groups, including: counselling those who have decided to be baptized, performing baptisms, visiting the sick and giving spiritual counsel in general. Normally, sermons are given by either the elders or men who regularly attend the Sunday meetings; but, again, only men who the elders recognize have the "call of God" on their lives. Visiting speakers, however, are usually paid their travel costs and provided for with Sunday meals following the meetings.
Open and Exclusive Brethren differ in how they interpret the concept of "no clergy", however. 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. Generally, the elders themselves will look out for men who meet the biblical qualifications, and invite them to join them as elders. In some Open assemblies, elders are elected democratically, but this is a fairly recent development and is still relatively uncommon.
Although officially naming and recognizing "eldership" is common to Open Brethren (cf. 1Thess 5:12–13), there are many Exclusive Brethren assemblies that believe recognizing a man as an "elder" is too close to having clergy, and therefore a group of "leading brothers", none of whom has an official title of any kind, attempts to present issues to the entire group for it to decide upon, believing that the whole group must decide, not merely a body of "elders". Traditionally, only men are allowed to speak (and, in some cases, attend) these decision-making meetings, although not all assemblies follow that rule today. The term "Elder" is based on the same Scriptures that are used to identify "Bishops" and "Overseers" in other Christian circles, and some Exclusive Brethren claim that the system of recognition of elders by the assembly means that the Open Brethren cannot claim full adherence to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Open Brethren consider, however, that this reveals a mistaken understanding of the priesthood of all believers which in the Assemblies has to do with the ability to directly offer worship, whether silently or audibly, to God and His Christ, at the Lord's Supper without any human mediator being necessary – which is in accordance with 1Tim 2:5 where it is stated that Christ Jesus Himself is the sole Mediator between God and men ("men", being used here generically of mankind, and not referring simply and solely to "males").
However, the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, the most hardline of all the Exclusive Brethren groups, has developed into a de-facto hierarchical body which operates under the headship of an Elect Vessel, currently Bruce Hales of Australia. Some defectors have accused him and his predecessors of having quasi-papal authority. This development is almost universally considered by other streams of the Plymouth Brethren movement, however, as a radical departure from Brethren principles.
In place of an ordained ministry, an itinerant preacher often receives a "commendation" to the work of preaching and/or teaching that demonstrates the blessing and support of the assembly of origin. In most English-speaking countries, such preachers have traditionally been called "full time workers", "labouring brothers", or "on the Lord's work"; in India, they are usually called Evangelists and very often are identified with Evg. in front of their name. A given assembly may have any number of full-time workers, or none at all. In the last twenty years, many Open Assemblies in Australia and New Zealand, and some elsewhere, have begun calling their full-time workers "Pastors", but this is not seen as ordaining clergy and does not connote a transfer of any special spiritual authority. In such assemblies, the Pastor is simply one of several elders, and differs from his fellow-elders only in being salaried to serve full-time. Depending on the assembly, he may, or may not, take a larger share of the responsibility for preaching than his fellow-elders.
- Behind the Exclusive Brethren
- Open Brethren
- Gospel Hall Brethren
- Needed Truth Brethren
- Exclusive Brethren
- Indian Brethren
- Kerala Brethren
Notes and references
- Abigail, Shawn (June 2006). "What is the history of the 'Brethren'?". "Plymouth Brethren" FAQ. Retrieved 12 June 2009.
- Mackay, Harold (1981). Assembly Distinctives. Scarborough, Ontario: Everyday Publications. ISBN 978-0-88873-049-7. OCLC 15948378.[page needed]
- Ngaire Thomas. "Behind Closed Doors". Behind Closed Doors. Retrieved 2010-10-24.
- Neatby 1901, p. 17
- Sizer, Stephen. Chapter 3: Edward Irving (1792–1834) The Origins of the Rapture Doctrine.
- Burnham, Jonathan D. (2004). "The Emergence of the Plymouth Brethren". A Story of Conflict: The Controversial Relationship Between Benjamin Wills Newton and John Nelson Darby. Carlisle: Paternoster Press. ISBN 978-1-84227-191-9. OCLC 56336926.[page needed]
- Livingstone, Elizabeth A. (2000). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-280057-2. OCLC 46858944.[page needed]
- Noel, Napoleon (1936). The History of the Brethren. Denver: Knapp. p. 46. OCLC 2807272.
- Neatby comments "The important point is that the Brethren in their first great emergency found themselves absolutely unprepared to grapple with it. They had no constitution of any kind. They repudiated congregationalism, but they left their communities to fight their battles on no acknowledged basis and with no defined court of appeal."Neatby 1901, p. 61
- Neatby 1901, pp. 61–84
- McDowell, Ian (1968). "A Brief History of the "Brethren"" (PDF). Victory Press, Australia. Retrieved 2010-06-10.
- e.g. in the US in 1916, the Open Brethren accounted for 71% of a total of 13,700 brethren, though only 61% of 473 assemblies. United States. Bureau of the Census (1916). Religious Bodies: 1916: Separate denominations. Retrieved 2012-06-12.
- Piepkorn, Arthur Carl (1970), Plymouth Brethren (Christian Brethren) (PDF), Concordia Monthly, retrieved 2012-06-11
- "Defining Religion In American Law". Retrieved 2009-07-18.
- "Elders and Bishops". Retrieved 2009-07-18.
- "The Priesthood of All Believers". Retrieved 2009-07-18.
- Carroll, H. K. (1912) Religious Forces in the United States. New York
- Adams, Norman (1972) Goodbye, Beloved Brethren. Impulse Publications Inc. ISBN 0-901311-13-8
- Coad, F. Roy (2001) A History of the Brethren Movement: Its Origins, Its Worldwide Development and Its Significance for the Present Day. Regent College Publishing ISBN 1-57383-183-2
- Embley, Peter L. (1966). The Origins and Early Development of the Plymouth Brethren (PDF). Ph.D. Thesis
- Grass, Tim (2006) Gathering to his Name Carlisle: Paternoster
- Ironside, H. A. (1985) Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement Loizeaux Brothers ISBN 0-87213-344-3 1st edition 1942.
- Neatby, William Blair (1901). A History of the Plymouth Brethren (PDF). Retrieved 2012-06-11.
- Noel, Napoleon (1936). History of the Brethren. W F Knapp, Colorado.
- Pickering, Henry (1918) Chief Men Among the Brethren. London: Pickering & Inglis, 1918; Loizeaux Brothers, Inc. Neptune, NJ, 1996, ISBN 0-87213-798-8
- Smith, Natan Dylan (1996) Roots, Renewal and the Brethren. Hope Publishing House ISBN 0-932727-08-5
- Strauch, Alexander (1995) Biblical Eldership: an Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. Lewis & Roth Publishers ISBN 0-936083-11-5
- Stunt, Timothy C. F. (2000) From Awakening to Secession: radical evangelicals in Switzerland and Britain, 1815–35. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark ISBN 0-567-08719-0
- Teulon, J. S. (1883) The History and Teaching of The Plymouth Brethren. London Free download site
- Kelly, William (1883) Response by William Kelly to J. S. Teulon's Plymouth Brethren Free download site
- Groves, Mrs. (1869) Biography of A. N. Groves, by his widow, 3rd edition. London
- Taylor (1866) Biography of Henry Craik. London
- Dorman (1866) The Close of Twenty-eight Years of Association with J. N. Darby. London
- Groves, Henry (1866) Darbyism: Its Rise and Development. London
Other sources of information are writings by B. W. Newton and W. Kelly.
- Brethren Online.org:- Official website of the Open Brethren Church
- Plymouth Brethren.org:- Official website of the Open Brethren Church
- Brethren Assembly.com:- Official website of the Open Brethren Church
- Gospel Hall.org:- A Worldwide Directory of Open Brethren Churches
- Grace and Truth Magazine:- Official website of the Grace and Truth Magazine (A Christian Publication of the Open Brethren Churches)
- Brethrenpedia.com:- Official homepage of the Brethrenpedia
- Brethren Archive.org:- Online archive of historical reference material related to all strands of 'Plymouth Brethren'
- The Wikkid Website:- A support website for members ex-communicated as "wicked persons" from the Plymouth Brethren and shunned for life.
- Partnership UK Support organisation for the local church
- IHS-WA.net:- Information site on churches and mission, beliefs and practice associated with the Christian Brethren denomination in Western Australia