The appellation “The Brethren,” as applied to companies of believers who seek to be guided by the Scriptures alone in the principles of their gatherings, is an utter misnomer. It is, or should be, repudiated by those who are so called. No doubt the term “Plymouth Brethren” had an innocent enough beginning, and arose from the fact that in their evangelistic labors and the testimony they gave they were spoken of as “brethren from Plymouth.” The mistake arose in generalizing the circumstances of a particular locality and in applying to other believers besides those at Plymouth a term which was meaningless and applied without the consent or agreement of the believers there themselves.
The appellation is false in more respects than one. It is contrary to the teaching of Scripture, which, in the spiritual sense of the word, includes all believers and gives no justification for any such denominational terminology. Further, it suggests, what is quite unfounded, that the assemblies of those to whom the term is applied are amalgamated into a denominational union, an ecclesiastical system, whereas the New Testament teaches, as a foundation principle relating to assemblies, that each one stands on its own separate basis in dependence on the Lord alone and in subjection to the guidance and ministry, not of some union or organization, but of the Holy Spirit, who indwells each company as His local temple. That principle is maintained by the various assemblies of those who are simply seeking to adhere to the Scriptures of truth as the all-sufficient guide concerning the will of God, and as “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3, R.V.)—“once for all,” that is to say, as the final revelation of the mind of God for His people. The very adherence of such assemblies to the teaching of the New Testament causes them (or should do so) to repudiate the imputation that they constitute a sect misnamed “The Brethren.” It is significant that no such denominational notice board is ever used outside the buildings where such assemblies meet.
An Unfounded Supposition
The term is also contrary to fact in that it presupposes that, at some time or other, those who, in different places, and apart from any mutual association, gained an understanding of what the New Testament teaches, and saw the importance of obeying it instead of following the traditions of religious systems, accepted the term “the Brethren.” In any case it came to be applied as a nickname. The fallacy of such an appellation has been to a large extent successfully exposed, though perhaps inadequately.
The fact is that, by a very marked movement of the Spirit of God, Christians in several places, without knowing what was similarly and simultaneously taking place elsewhere, came to see the absolute necessity of becoming obedient to what the Scriptures teach, in contrast to the denominational systems, which were simply an aftermath of the breakaway, in medieval times, from popery, and which stopped short of discerning and following the whole counsel of God as revealed in His Word. To abandon forms of error is one thing; to accept the truth in its fulness is another.
Freedom from Human Dictates
Moreover, the work of the Spirit of God in opening the eyes of believers in different localities and at different times has gone on for over a century, without being directed by the dictates or teachings of some central authority. It is a significant fact that not only in Britain, but in America, Australia, New Zealand and countries on the Continent, as well as elsewhere, owing to the teaching of the Scriptures, whether by direct and independent reading of them, or by individual teachers apart from any society, assemblies such as those who are miscalled “brethren” have been formed without becoming associated with similar gatherings in other places, as in the earliest times, as recorded in the New Testament.
Dishonor to the Holy Spirit
They cannot help what others call them, but that any in such companies should tacitly accept this unscriptural title is greatly to be deprecated. Its use is dishonoring to the Spirit of God and a falsification of the actual position of any Scripturally formed assembly. The flippant or jocular way in which the appellation, or some modification of it such as “the P.B.’s” or “the Plyms,” is sometimes used, is also to be deprecated. The work of the Holy Spirit in enabling believers to gather according to the Scriptures, to be formed into local assemblies by His power and with the recognition of His rights and prerogatives to provide spiritual gifts for the care of each company, and to control and guide their worship, is all too sacred to permit of the use of such terms. There are those who do so who have never discovered the truth from the Word of God, and are ignorant of what the Scriptures teach as to assembly principles and of the way in which they are being maintained. Such epithets are part of the misunderstanding or taunts which those who are faithful to Christ have to endure, but let them never be accepted or used by any members of such assemblies themselves.
That some local companies of believers are in such a low spiritual state that their character and conduct give the lie to their profession is undeniable, but this affords no justification for the use of the term “the Brethren,” as if they were a degenerate sect, and as if what might be sadly true of any local and individual company was to be regarded as a general characteristic of all such assemblies. The fact which has been mentioned, that each assembly stands on its own separate and independent basis, makes the denominational appellation a complete misrepresentation. What is characteristic of one gathering can never be necessarily characteristic of all such.
Again, that a company of Christians ascertains the teaching of the New Testament in regard to baptism, and its teaching regarding the “breaking of bread,” that is to say, “the Lord’s Supper,” as appointed for the first day of the week, and practices these ordinances as therein inculcated, has, in some quarters of denominationalism, given rise to the false idea that the fulfillment of these two ordinances especially characterizes those who are mis-termed “the Brethren.” That view is not very general but it is existent. It serves, however, to exemplify the fact that faithful adherence to the Word of God is sure to meet with misunderstanding and prejudice and, upon occasion, what is tantamount to a scoff. That kind of thing should, however, only be the means of a continual and steadfast testimony, given in such a way that it will enable other Christians to search the Scriptures on these matters and carry them out in loyalty to Christ. Only so can any assembly meet with that approval which the Lord has expressed in His commendation to the assembly in Philadelphia, “Thou hast a little strength, and hast kept My Word, and hast not denied My Name” (Rev. 3:8).
One who was closely in touch with the revival of the early part of the last century makes known the facts of the movement, in contrast to the imputation which is implied in the misconception concerning the term “Brethren.” After mentioning how this revival began among believers by their reading the Bible together and ascertaining truths respecting the Second Coming of Christ and the assembly, he says, “They cast away all traditions, and read the Bible without note or comment. Many of them were men of understanding and learning, but they laid aside all tradition and commentaries, and resolved, by the help of God, to search for themselves. As they searched the Bible they could discover nothing around them like what was depicted in the Scriptures, and that startled them. They looked at all the sects, but they saw no facsimile of the description contained in the epistles.”
New Testament Teachings
They found in the New Testament that believers met together to partake of the Lord’s Supper without an authorized minister to consecrate or distribute the bread and wine. They were led therefore to meet together as believers as was done in the earliest times. They saw that in every local assembly there were divinely raised up elders (called overseers), always more than one, to care spiritually for each assembly and that it was not according to the teaching of the New Testament that a single ordained minister should conduct a meeting for worship and the breaking of bread, but that a local assembly was a body in which spiritual activities were carried on by the various members, whereas in denominations many gifted persons are unable to exercise their functions.
They decided therefore that they must follow the Scriptures instead of the traditions of the systems of Christendom, which failed to recognize the rights and prerogatives of the Holy Spirit. This attempt to carry out the principles of truth was not made without great cost in many ways, for there was not a sect that was not opposed to it; every one was against this strange company, and thus it was at the cost of many friendships that the separation was made.
That this revival of adherence to the Word of God has given rise to the unfounded appellation “The Brethren” is a device of the spiritual foe, whose aim has been thereby to prevent earnest believers from following the Truth.