That a number of Christians in any locality, learning the will of the Lord as revealed in the Holy Scriptures as to the mode and purposes of their gathering themselves together, are found acting in obedience thereto, in contrast to adherence to the mere tenets and traditions of men, does not constitute them a sect.
The Origin of Present-day Testimony
Originally Christ Himself separated His followers from the apostate religion of Judaism, and this separation continued under the guidance of the Spirit of God in the formation of churches under the ministry of the apostles. Those who, together with Gentile converts, became obedient to the faith, are mentioned as “the sect” that was “everywhere spoken against” (Acts 28:22). This criticism, and the aspersions that were cast upon them, were to their honor in the sight of God.
The Formation of Sects
Gradually, owing to the rise of false teachers, and to other influences which led believers away from apostolic teaching, a system of clerisy developed, and, under the power of ecclesiastical domination, churches were combined into vast religious organizations. The result was that what is known as Christendom became characterized by a condition of things far removed from that which was instituted by Christ and had continued under apostolic teaching.
“Faint Yet Pursuing”
This general drift away from “the faith once for all delivered unto the saints,” and the growth of ecclesiastical organizations, did not, however, prevent numbers of true and faithful followers of Christ from obedience to the Word of God, either by the maintenance of a steadfast adherence to it, or by separation from the humanly devised system of ecclesiasticism. While its huge structure maintained its domination as the area of Christendom extended, there were communities of believers who sought still to follow the Scriptures of truth.
A Partial Recovery
When eventually in mediaeval times, there was a break away from the then existing ecclesiastical systems, organized denominations were formed under the effort to adopt a purer form of religion. There was not, however, a complete return to obedience to the faith on the part of those denominations. On the other hand, there are very clear traces of the existence, both before and during that period, of isolated companies of Christians who gath ered in simplicity and dependence upon the Spirit of God, and in independence of unscripturally organized denominations. (See accounts in “The Pilgrim Church” by E. H. Broadbent and in other records.)
Divine Plan for Collective Testimony
The Word of God makes clear that the divine intention was for local churches to be formed and developed, each on its own in dependent basis, maintaining the truths of the faith, and spreading the light around them and in the regions beyond, the Holy Spirit Himself being sufficient for all spiritual requirements for the fulfillment of the Word of God.
Advancing with Increasing Light
Despite every effort to prevent the spread of the knowledge of its truth, copies of the Scriptures continued to multiply, and the true faith therein contained became more generally available. The various forms of organized clerisy were ever antagonistic to this, for the Word of God bears no uncertain testimony against such organization. This opposition could not, however, altogether pre vent people from adhering to the will of God as it became known, even when the measure of liberty granted to them was small. Where such freedom became general, under the liberating influence of the gospel and the spread of the light, churches, or assemblies, of believers guided by the Word of truth in separation from the traditions of men, became more numerous.
Scripturally Gathered Assemblies
In the early part of the nineteenth century the return to Holy Scripture in this respect became MORE PRONOUNCED, and, in several places, independently one of another, that is to say without affiliation or centralization believers found themselves drawn together and formed into churches under the operation of the Spirit of God.
Not a Sect
This did not consist of the formation of a new sect or denomination; it was a continuation, on a more extensive scale, of that adherence to the faith which, as we have seen, existed in one place and another from the first century of the Christian era. The absence of a local center or an ecclesiastical council or synod, the adoption of the Holy Scriptures as the sole guide, and the freedom from the humanly formulated creeds, should have been sufficient to prevent such churches from being regarded as a sect.
Not “The Plymouth Brethren”
The testimony thus given attracted particular attention in Plymouth, England, and, for reasons beyond their own control, and utterly opposed to their wishes, they became known as “Plymouth Brethren.” The appellation was by no means self-styled, and has always been repugnant to them. That prejudice should dub them by that name does not constitute them a sect. Moreover, the New Testament itself has been sufficient to produce such communities in other lands, where nothing was known of what took place in Plymouth, let alone the fact that collective obedience to the Scriptures had already taken place in other places in the British Isles before such a community was formed in the said town.
Not “The Brethren”
It is true that, in the recognition of this by other Christians, the local appellation of “Plymouth” has been largely dropped. Nevertheless, such churches have been and are still spoken of by the denominational title of “The Brethren.” They reject it equally with the other appellation. No such title appears outside their places of assembling. But, again, the general use of a misnomer does not actually make such assemblies a sect.
No Ecclesiastical Union
Undeniably, certain circles or parties have been formed amongst these communities, and there have been attempts (some more or less successful) to form an ecclesiastical bond of union among them under the leadership of some prominent personage. But the failure of such to r~~e to what is set forth in the church Scriptures into all truth has, in itself, become key to such attempts. Nor have such unhappy adventures prevented abstinence from such formations, and adherence to the Word of God, on the part of a very great number of other assemblies. Apart altogether, however, from these movements, the use of the appellations “Plymouth Brethren” or the “Open Brethren” is entirely un justifiable.
Similarity Necessarily Exists
As we have pointed out, the Word of God is sufficient under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. TO FORM SUCH AN ASSEMBLY ANYWHERE, AT ANY TIME. The similarity of the mode of worship and of the exercise of spiritual gifts in such gatherings (AND THEY EXIST ALL OVER THE WORLD) affords no ground for looking upon them as a sect. Had they an ecclesiastical, localized government, a council or set of councils, and were they formed into ecclesiastical association or federated churches, they would, IPSO FACTO (by the act itself), be a sect. But that is not the case.
No Denominational Title
Suppose, for instance, that in some region where such scripturally formed assemblies have not existed up to the present, and where believers have not heard of the so-called “Plymouth Brethren,” or “The Brethren,” a company of people who have received the light of the Word of God meet together just as assemblies of which we have spoken have done, knowing no other name than that of Christians, or disciples or believers, is a denominational title to be given to them? What are they to be called? Are they to be called “The Brethren,” because they do, under the guidance of the Scriptures, what those who are miscalled “The Brethren” elsewhere are doing? The idea is grotesque. Are they to be looked upon as a sect because they are obedient to the Word of Truth? And yet THE FORMATION OF SUCH CHURCHES IS CONSTANTLY TAKING PLACE, and there are countries where Christians, meeting together like this have not received a denominational title.
Responsibility in Testimony Is Ever Local
It is easy, of course, to use certain failures amongst these communities, and certain unscriptural conditions that have existed in one place or another, as arguments against them, and as supports for the use of a sectarian appellation. But individual or local failure affords no ground for regarding these churches in general as a sect.
It is needful, too, on the part of such assemblies themselves, to bear in mind the necessity of avoiding phraseology which un intentionally assumes that they are sectarian. The use, for instance, of the personal pronoun “we,” with reference to such churches, is reprehensible. For whom does the “we” stand? One assembly may be in a low spiritual condition. Another may have received error. Another may be divided. And these evils have existed, and do exist, in isolated instances. But it is folly to tar all with the same brush, or regard that as characterizing all such communities which attaches only to certain units.
Fellowship versus Affiliation
If a denominational title were accepted, it would be difficult for one assembly in the fellowship thus formed to escape identification with the failures of other assemblies therein, but when such a title is refused, it is made clear that each church is responsible for its own conduct alone before God. There is indeed necessarily a close fellowship between assemblies which seek thus to carry out the will of God, but that does not constitute the aggregate a sect. FELLOWSHIP is one thing: AFFILIATION is another.
W. E. Vine, Bath England