Appendix A: The Open Brethren
In anticipating a dismissal of the teachings in this book with the summary rebuttal, “Well, the Plymouth Brethren tried liberty of ministry and failed,” this article is written in response.
- A key to understanding the Plymouth Brethren, as it concerns liberty of ministry, is the distinction between the Exclusive Brethren and the Open Brethren. This division was not evidenced until nearly twenty years after the movement’s inception.
- In the early part of the nineteenth century the Holy Spirit moved many believers to separate from the dead formalism of the churches, national and independent, first in England, on the European continent, and in North America. The Brethren were by no means the only Christians moved in this way. However they were surely the most famous.
- The movement which became known as the Brethren had its origins in meetings of men such as Edward Cronin, Anthony Norris Groves, John Nelson Darby, and George Müller in the late 1820’s. They were eventually known as Plymouth Brethren due to a meeting in Plymouth, England being commonly recognized as the first meeting to which the movement’s roots could be traced.
- A founding principle shared by virtually all the Brethren was a belief in the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit in the assemblies. This necessarily required liberty of ministry as found in Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12-14, otherwise there is nothing for the Spirit to direct except “He leads one man to minister every Sunday.”
- Those who became known as Brethren were almost uniformly anti-clericalist (except in Plymouth) and motivated to celebrate a weekly Lord’s table without the sanction of clergy, acting on the direct command of the Lord, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
- While virtually all were motivated to meet on these two principles, they were not all in agreement on what they were establishing. Some thought they were simply establishing independent but cooperating Bible churches. Others held that they had endeavored to start a new “association” of churches from the outset. However these two conflicting ideas were not operative at the beginning of the movement, that is, they did not determine any church’s actions. The test came with the onset of false teaching. Paul wrote, “There must be also heresies (divisions, or sects) among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” I Cor. 11:19.
- The crisis was precipitated by false teaching in the church in Plymouth under the leadership of Benjamin Wills Newton. Not only so, but the church in Plymouth, irony of ironies, operated under the standard clergy system. Mr. Newton and one other nominal “elder,” J.L. Harris, originally did almost all the teaching. The original crisis in Brethrenism was not due to liberty of ministry but to its opposite, i.e., teaching disseminated under the standard clergy system.
- Where there is liberty of ministry, and where there is godly eldership, most errors in teaching are rectifiable on the very day of teaching. When the teaching of a man is either unclear or clearly false, the teaching is tested by other members of the church, i.e., clarification is requested so that the teaching may be construed as sound, or if it is apparently false, the teacher is given opportunity to recant or restate his doctrine clearly, or to be proved false and corrected for it. If the teacher fails to recant false teaching, it becomes a disciplinary matter. (See Matthew 18.) In the process of “iron sharpening iron,” all are edified. There is no harm in the introduction of erroneous teachings so long as they are immediately rectified. All Scripture is suitable “for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” II Tim. 3:16-17. Who is this man of God? He is a spiritually mature (perfect) Christian man, that is all. It is not merely “the clergyman,” but spiritually mature men with speaking gifts, and these to be exercised first of all in the full assembly.
- As time went on, sectarian ideas took hold in some quarters. In 1838, barely a decade after the movement’s inception, G.V. Wigram wrote Mr. Darby, “There is a matter exercising the minds of us at this present time in which you may be (and in some sense certainly are) concerned. The question I refer to is, ‘How are meetings for communion of saints in these parts to be regulated?’ Would it be for the glory of the Lord and the increase of testimony, to have one central meeting the common responsibility of all within reach, and as many meetings subordinate to it as grace might vouchsafe? Or to hold it to be better to allow the meetings to grow up as they may without connection and dependent upon the energy of individuals only?” This is a concise statement of the difference between a sect or denomination and an association of independent, autonomous churches.
- The errors in Plymouth might have been contained in Plymouth had the churches adhered to the principle of independence. Not only so, the errors might have been corrected had there been liberty of ministry in Plymouth.
- Mr. Darby attended several Plymouth meetings at the behest of some individuals, after which he announced his intention to convene a new “table of the Lord” in Plymouth. This he was surely free to do. However he added that this new meeting would thenceforth constitute the (sole) table of the Lord in Plymouth, at least so far as Brethren churches were concerned. This is the original claim of exclusivity by the Brethren.
- Subsequent to the crisis in Plymouth it was greatly magnified in that the church at Bethesda chapel in Bristol, England was “required” by the other churches to decide whether new applicants for church fellowship from the church in Plymouth had “imbibed” the teachings of Mr. Newton. While Bristol initially rejected this requirement as unbiblical, they eventually capitulated to the demand. It is impossible for me to judge whether they were right or wrong to do this, but I only say they would have been justified in continuing to reject the call for “doctrinal examination” of prospective new members.
- The problem may revolve around the issue of church membership. The only church membership found in the New Testament is membership in the one, true, spiritual, invisible church of Jesus Christ, admission to which occurs simultaneous with belief on the Lord Jesus for salvation from one’s sins. You believe, you are in the church. That is the message in Ephesians 1. It stands to reason, then, that this might also be a sound basis for local church membership. That is, a profession of faith in Christ is to be taken here on earth as genuine, barring ungodliness unrepented of. Of course there is church discipline, cf. I Cor. 5. Other-wise we are not to separate the wheat and the tares, but to let the two grow together until the end of the age when the angels will separate the two. When we first believed in Jesus for forgiveness of our sins, He received us, cf. Rom. 15:7; on confession of faith here on earth the churches ought to receive new members. Of course confession is not the same as heart belief, but we are nevertheless to receive them on the basis of a good confession.
- So far as I can tell, the reason for church membership in the Brethren churches was to ensure that no unbelievers partook of the Lord’s table. However I believe the alternative to this is simply to advise everyone in attendance prior to the Lord’s table that it is for believers, with the responsibility that each person examine himself or herself prior to receiving the bread and the cup. Thus, “Let a man examine himself.” Recall, Judas partook of the bread and the cup; the error was his own. Had he been a member of a church the error would have been his own.
- Besides, it was not at all clear that the Christians coming to Bristol from Plymouth had indeed “imbibed” the teachings of Mr. Newton. Mr. Newton’s teachings were unclear, abstruse, and went beyond the Scriptures in speculating on the nature of Christ’s sufferings. Therefore the church at Bristol was justified in receiving these new believers, “as also Christ received us to the glory of God,” Rom. 15:7. Also the church would have been justified in continuing to resist the dictum that they examine these new brethren doctrinally.
- When a Christian came from Plymouth, applied for fellowship at Bristol, and was received on the basis of a good confession of faith in Christ, any errors the new member may have held would never have become an object of scrutiny until such time as these errors were positively advocated during the church meeting, or they were made evident during private conversations among the brethren. If the errors were advanced in the meeting, the avenue for redress was readily available in the form of correction up to and including discipline. If the errors were advanced in private, the same process of discipline Jesus taught in Matthew 18 was to be followed, i.e., “If he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more…and if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church.” (Under clericalism, of course, there is no need for the procedure taught by the Lord since there is rarely if ever controversy over the pastor’s doctrines, much less the “private” doctrines held by individual members. Also clericalism precludes any possibility for Corinthian disorder in the assembly.)
- As a matter of fact the Christians from Plymouth were indeed initially received by Bristol on the basis of a good confession.
- But not only did Mr. Darby “require” Bristol to examine its new members from Plymouth, when Bristol refused he required all Brethren assemblies worldwide to judge Bristol as wicked for its failure to do so.
- As a result of the second great controversy, the Brethren separated into two camps, the “Exclusives” and the “Opens.” To this day there remain churches descended from these two groups. (It is unclear to me how many of these retain the name “Brethren.” It seems that the Exclusives may have tended to retain the name, or at least the name Brethren, whereas those following in the traditions of the Open Brethren may not have, the latter simply claiming a sympathetic and cordial affiliation with those formerly called Open Brethren. I claim no extensive knowledge of these churches today. My observations here are based solely on their documented history in the nineteenth century.)
- The recorded history of the Brethren movement subsequent to 1848 is mostly a history of the Exclusive Brethren and not the Open Brethren. As William Blair Neatby wrote in his book (“A History of the Plymouth Brethren”), “From (the time of the controversy involving Bristol) our attention will be focused mainly on Darbyism (Exclusivism); partly from the necessity of the case, since the Open Brethren–as those that refused to abide by Darby’s decree came generally to be called–are in the proverbially happy condition of scarcely having a history…” Christians assembling in independent and autonomous churches “scarcely have a history,” except perhaps for those histories they circulate amongst themselves. These churches are rarely if ever recorded in the annals of the popular church histories.
- Whether the Exclusive Brethren continued to advocate liberty of ministry after the break with the Open Brethren, I do not know. If so their “liberty of ministry” resulted in countless divisions, for the Exclusives splintered many times. I believe this is why “the Brethren tried liberty of ministry and failed” continues as a prevailing view. However it is nonetheless true that Jesus Christ is building His church from among all the churches, whether sectarian or nonsectarian. He surely built and is building His church from among the Exclusive Brethren as well.
- The Open Brethren, exemplified in Müller and Craik’s church in Bristol “scarcely had a history.” The “history” of Bristol was a history of peace, godliness, and piety. The rich and poor were in fellowship, and the church was known for its good works. Where there is “no history” there may be much edification of the saints. While I cannot prove it, I believe there was much edification in many of the Open Brethren churches, for the reason that they functioned like Bristol, and Bristol is on record as having functioned in accord with New Testament doctrine and practice.
- It was the Open Brethren churches which escaped the consequences of Exclusivism (“Darbyism”) due to their adherence to the New Testament example of independent local churches.
- So my answer to the statement “The Plymouth Brethren tried liberty of ministry and failed” is that some and perhaps many of the Open Brethren churches tried liberty of ministry, and they wonderfully succeeded in a way rarely seen in the history of the church.