The brethren can be simply described as companies of Christians to be found in many countries of the world who are attempting in all sincerity to practice early church principles as they are outlined in the teaching of Christ and His apostles in the New Testament.
Any intelligent observer looking at the mainline churches in Christendom today, cannot fail to notice a wide divergence between the teaching and practices of the early church and that being taught and practiced today. In the course of church history, the Holy Spirit has raised up men of spiritual vision who have been burdened about the decline and whom God has used to re-discover long-lost truth.
Martin Luther in the sixteenth century was appalled by the departure from primitive Christianity and his vibrant protest resulted in the Reformation. He recovered the great truth of justification by faith alone in the vicarious death of Christ. The evangelical revivals in the eighteenth century under the Wesleys and Whitefield were undoubtedly a work of the Holy Spirit, but both of these movements failed to revive very much vital truth buried under ritual and tradition.
In the nineteenth century the Holy Spirit moved again. It happened concurrently in widely scattered parts of the world, each quite independent of the other. A number of godly spiritual men, many of them scholars and theologians, were raised up to promote scriptural truths which had been ignored and neglected for centuries. Most of them were young men filled with a burning desire to get back to the Bible and to practice what they had learned.
It must be remembered, however, that in every age of church history there were small persecuted groups that met in all simplicity for worship and testimony. The ruling ecclesiastical hierarchy attacked them and sought to destroy them. E. H. Broadbent in his important book. The Pilgrim Church traces their history down through the ages.
The origin of the people known as ‘the Brethren’ can be traced to a group of young men, most of them with an aristocratic background, who met in the palatial home of Lady Powerscourt, located near Dublin in Ireland. On a Sunday morning in 1830, four of them met in a home in Dublin to celebrate the Lord’s supper. The numbers gradually grew and they rented a building to carry on their meetings for worship and the ministry of the Word. The leader of this group was John Nelson Darby, who on account of conviction had resigned his position as a curate in the Church of Ireland. About the same time another group started meeting along similar lines in Plymouth in England. The growth here was rapid and in a short time more than a thousand people were meeting in the Lord’s name. Outsiders called them ‘Plymouth Brethren’ and the name has adhered to them ever since, but they preferred to be known simply as brethren or Christians (Acts 11:26). Simultaneously another company of believers met in Bristol under the leadership of George Muller and Henry Craik. The name of Anthony Norris Groves was prominent at the commencement of the movement. He is credited with making the suggestions that later developed into the principles from the Holy Scriptures under which the brethren met and carried on their church services.
From this inauspicious beginning, groups multiplied all over Britain, U.S.A., Canada, West Indies and in many countries overseas. On the continent of Europe they were found in France, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia, Italy, Spain and in Russia. Many assemblies sprang up along the valley of the Nile in Egypt. Some of the greatest expansion was in South America, especially in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. Practically all of the Latin Republics have assemblies. Central and South Africa has seen phenomenal blessing. Fred Stanley Arnot was the pioneer. He penetrated the heart of Africa with the gospel in 1881-1886 before the Belgian or British colonial occupation.
The movement which commenced in Dublin, Plymouth and Bristol in 1830 continued in fellowship with each other for nearly 20 years, but in 1848 they divided into two distinct groups. Darby, influenced by his episcopal background, initiated a centralized form of church government, which dictated policy, procedure and discipline to every individual and local assembly connected with it. They became known as exclusive brethren. Darby was a brilliant scholar, theologian and linguist. He translated the Bible from the original languages into English, German and French and other works into Italian. He is credited with the recovery of much truth, especially along dispensational and prophetical lines. But his policy of centralized control resulted in successive divisions over the years. On the other hand those who remained with Anthony Norris Groves and George Muller and who followed the principles outlined by Groves at the beginning, became known as open brethren. But many today would prefer to be known simply as brethren without the capital B.
It would be opportune at this point to outline what those principles are. As each local assembly is autonomous with no creed but the Bible, there may be slight differences of interpretation in certain areas, but the general overall picture is as follows:
First of all these brethren hold tenaciously to the historic fundamental doctrines of Christianity, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, co-equal and co-eternal, the essential deity and true impeccable humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, His vicarious death on the cross for sin. His bodily resurrection and ascension, His High Priestly work and His coming again to reign in a literal millennium. They believe in heaven for the regenerate and eternal punishment for the Christ-rejector. They hold without reserve to the plenary inspiration and inerrancy of Holy Scripture in the original writings.
But there are a number of distinctive doctrines which they felt had been lost or altered and which they seek to emphasize and practice.
The church of the New Testament is called the body of Christ and has only one Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Every horn-again believer is a member of that body. It commenced at Pentecost and will be completed at the Rapture.
The local church is composed of born-again believers meeting in the name of the Lord Jesus, refusing any denominational title, as that would put it on sectarian ground and would deny the truth of the one body. It is autonomous, responsible to the Head, the Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His promise is in the midst (Matt. 18:20). There is warm fellowship with other local churches but no federation.
The local church is governed by a plurality of elders with delegated authority from the Risen Head to exercise leadership and discipline. Clerisy or one-man ministry is unknown in the New Testament. Elders are raised up by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28). They are not self-appointed but recognized by the local church as those who are fitted and doing the work (1 Thess.5:12-13).
The priesthood of all believers. Every believer is a holy priest to worship and a royal priest to witness (1 Pet. 2:5, 9). This negates entirely a clerical caste and a so-called laity. There is glorious freedom for Spirit-led worship and ministry.
The role of women in the church. They are to be in silence as far as public teaching in the church is concerned (1 Cor. 14:34; 1 Tim. 2:11-15). Her subjection to this ordinance is indicated by her wearing a head covering (1 Cor. 11:1-16). But she has a tremendously important sphere of service, both in the home and among her own sex (Titus 2:4).
Baptism by immersion in the name of the Trinity for born-again believers only, on confession of faith.
The priority and importance of the Lord’s Supper, observed on the first day of every week. There is never chairman nor presiding elders: they recognize the Lordship of Christ and the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide the worship and in the ministry of the Word.
The dispensational interpretation of Holy Scripture. The importance of distinguishing between the earthly calling and the promises to Israel in the Old Testament and the heavenly calling of the church in the New Testament.
While there may be cases in their fellowship of those who hold other views of the Lord’s Coming, it would be true to say that the majority of brethren believe and teach the pre-tribulation and pre-millennial rapture of the church.
An active outreach with the gospel both at home and abroad has always characterized the brethren assemblies. It has been said that in relation to their numbers at home, the brethren have more full-time missionaries in most parts of the world than any other evangelical body. Following the example of Anthony Norris Groves and George Muller they go forth commended by their local assemblies, with no stated salary, looking to God alone in simple faith for their daily needs and supplies.
These principles may seem idealistic and impractical in this modern world, but many thousands of God’s servants in the past 150 years have proved experimentally that God’s work done in God’s way can count on God’s blessing.