Around the world, the Christian Brethren are, sometimes
courageously, sometimes fearfully, re-examining their emphases
and practices. One of the motivating reasons is the Brethren
assemblies’ almost universal decline in numbers and influence.
‘We seem to be stagnating’ is a common plaint by perceptive Brethren
leaders. In 1990, for example, 250 Brethren leaders from many
countries attended a summer school on ‘The Christian Brethren
Movement’ at Regent College, Vancouver (a seminary with Brethren
roots). The conference was told that in Britain, for example,
the Brethren movement is in serious decline, with assemblies down
to an average size of about 45 members, half of them are shrinking,
with only a quarter growing. Most have few or no members under
40. In Australia all the major Christian denominations have larger
churches than the largest Brethren assemblies.
I grew up in a Sydney Brethren assembly. I am most
grateful for their emphasis on the Bible, for the encouragement
of most of the men to participate in preaching and leading services
(I preached my first ‘sermonette’ at 13!), and, in particular,
for the strong commitment to the Lord of those who led our fellowship.
As a seminar-speaker in the church-at-large, I have been privileged
to participate in about eight Brethren-sponsored conferences in
the last two years.
Their agenda included these questions: ‘Why aren’t
we seeing people converted as some other denominations are?’ ‘Why
are many young people leaving our assemblies for other Christian
churches?’ ‘Why are conservative Brethren assemblies declining
all over the world, and why do growing assemblies almost always
have a "progressive" flavour?’ ‘What is our response
to charismatic renewal, the call for a more public ministry by
gifted women, and what about the God-given gifts of pastors and
prophets to the church?’ And many more.
ORIGINS. The founders of the Brethren were mainly
Anglican evangelicals, and included Edward Cronin, A.N.Groves,
John Vesey Parnell (later Lord Congleton), John Gifford Bellett,
and J.N.Darby. They first met in Dublin, but the movement was
named ‘Plymouth Brethren’ as their first large assembly was formed
in Plymouth (in 1831).
The Brethren movement began with a desire to return
to the simplicity of apostolic worship; as a protest against other
churches’ prevailing clericalism, spiritual dryness and formalism;
and with a strong expectation that Christ would soon return. They
met to share the Lord’s Supper without any ordained clergy present,
believing the Spirit would guide the participants.
J.N.Darby believed the other churches were in ruins,
and so assemblies should not be set up with elders and deacons.
Because of Darby’s outstanding personal and academic giftedness
he naturally assumed a significant leadership position in the
early days (and was warned by Groves about his propensity to exercise
undue authority). Early controversies centred around ‘prophetic’
interpretations, Christ’s humanity, and separatism from those
who were ‘contaminated’ by the teachings of other groups. In 1847/8
Darby led a breakaway group which had a more centralized leadership
and rigorous separatism. These ‘Exclusive Brethren’ have since
degenerated into a sectarian authoritarianism, and have themselves
split into many factions. Most practise infant (or household)
baptism. The ‘Open’ Brethren, too, have had their factions (eg.
the ‘Needed Truth’ movement begun in 1889, refusing membership
at the Lord’s table to any apart from their own group).
Open or Christian Brethren have had a strong evangelistic
and missionary emphasis (at one stage one in every 100 British
Brethren members became a foreign missionary). They have been
particularly effective in places like Argentina, southern India,
Zaire, Zambia, Singapore, New Zealand, Northern Tasmania, and
HISTORICAL DISTINCTIVES OF THE CHRISTIAN BRETHREN:
The following are the major traditional emphases
of the Christian Brethren. Some of these (eg. eschatology, opposition
to fellowship with Christians of other denominations) have recently
been modified in more ‘open’ assemblies (which now generally call
* Evangelical doctrinal beliefs, based on authority
of the scriptures in all matters of faith and conduct.
* Anti-denominationalism, which has led to varying
degrees of ‘exclusiveness’ in relating to other Christians. (Anthony
Norris Groves warned against the Brethren ‘becoming known more
for what they witnessed against than what they witnessed for’).
Participation in Billy Graham crusades has done as much as anything
else to break down this tendency. ‘Plymouth Brethren’ don’t like
that name. Recently it has been rejected in favour of ‘Christian
Brethren’ or ‘Brethren’. (In Australia the term ‘Christian Brethren’
was accepted by the then Attorney-General when a ‘Marriage Bill’
passed by Federal parliament in 1961).
* Baptism of believers only, by immersion.
* Weeekly ‘breaking of bread’, with freedom for
any (males) to lead in thanksgiving, prayer, scripture exposition,
* Opposition to stipended ‘ordained’ clergy, or
church government outside the local assembly, (although inter-Assembly
agencies are set up for coordinating Bible conferences, camps,
overseas missions, publications, and Bible colleges).
* Dispensationalist eschatology, developed by J.N.Darby,
and popularized in the Scofield Bible.
* ‘We abstain from pleasures and amusements of the
world. If we have evening parties, it is for the purpose of studying
the Word and of edifying ourselves together. We do not mix in
politics; we are not of the world; we do not vote.’ (J.N.Darby
* Strong evangelistic and missionary emphasis (their
first missionary was A.N. Groves, in Baghdad and India). ‘Christian
Missions in Many Lands’ (CMML) currently has about 1200 missionaries
SOME CURRENT CHALLENGES FOR THE BRETHREN.
Sociologist Robert Merton has said all institutions
tend, over time, to be degenerative. No church, denomination,
or Christian movement has ever been automatically self-renewing:
they all lose their founders’ fervour from the second generation
onwards. In some ways the Brethren movement has seen less spiritual
declension that most other Christian movements, due partly to
their leadership by non-clergy. The following issues (tinged
with some editorializing!) have emerged in conferences of thoughtful
* Are we as biblical as we think we are? Most of
the 22,800 Christian denominations or groups think they’re more
‘biblical’ than all the others! (After all, meeting in ‘Gospel
Halls’ or running Sunday Schools have no biblical precedents!)
* Why are we declining in numbers? Why are most
assemblies not seeing regular conversions?
* How can we biblically reassess the ministry of
women in our churches? Brethren scholar F.F. Bruce has said we
must view the NT ministry of women through the window of Galatians
3:28: Christ has abolished man-made hierarchies of race, economics
and gender. Whereas the NT churches were way ahead of their culture
in granting significant public roles to women, our churches are
creating a scandal for the opposite reason! (And if God wanted
to raise up a Deborah to lead his people, many of us would stop
him. Fortunately God is not a legalist!)
* As with the Pentecostals ought we to review the
practice of anyone speaking in worship services? How does this
equate with the NT emphasis on the ministry of the spiritually
* What about the criticism by other evangelicals
that we are ‘docetic’ – emphasizing the deity of Christ but downplaying
his humanity? Or our eschatology: perhaps dispensationalism was
not the NT churches’ way of interpreting ‘end-time prophecy’.
* Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees centred on their
lack of emphasis on social justice, mercy etc. (Matthew 23:23,
Luke 11:42). They knew their Bibles but missed the whole point!
How many Brethren assemblies have ever, until recently, heard
biblical teaching about the great prophetic emphasis on social
* What of Christ’s gift of leadership to his people?
Sometimes Brethren assemblies are eldered by people who may be
faithful, but lack leadership skills. Is it time for all of our
assemblies/churches to look hard at the appointment of pastor-
teachers? What authority should they have? (Titus was asked by
Paul to ‘appoint’ elders: should a pastor have that kind of authority
today?). The NT seems to have three ‘authorities’ – episcopal
(strong rule by some individuals), presbyterian (rule by elders),
and congregational (participation by all in the decision-making
* What traditions are stifling the work of the Spirit
in our midst? (A Canadian Brethren pastor told me the elders in
his assembly would not change their ‘morning meeting’ format or
time to reach outsiders: traditional methods were more important
to them than winning the lost!).
* What is to be our response to the charismatic
renewal? Although there are some excesses it is obviously a movement
of God’s Spirit. Are we in danger of repeating the mistake Gamaliel
warned about, and fighting against God?
* Members of Brethren Assemblies seem to complain
more often than those in other churches about the lack of appropriate
pastoral care in times of crisis.
* To what extent are we still ‘sectarian’? A sect,
sociologically, is a religious group that believes it has a monopoly
on the truth, with little or nothing to learn from others. Everyone
outside the sect is ‘in error’.
‘The contribution of the Brethren… has been out
of all proportion to their numbers. They have held to the authority
of the Bible during a time when it has been under constant fire.
Many of their members have had leading positions in interdenominational
agencies. They have been active in evangelism and have drawn attention
to the church as the body of Christ, made up of all true believers
and equipped with spiritual gifts distributed amongst the members.’
[Harold H. Rowdon, ‘The Brethren’, The History of Christianity,
Lion Publishing, 1977, pp. 520-521]
Commenting on the seminar mentioned at the beginning
of this paper, Dr. Cedric Gibbs, ex-principal of Emmaus Bible
College in Sydney, asks: ‘Why are some assemblies effective in
outreach and growing in humbers while others stagnate? Three things
seem to mark successful assemblies in all parts of the world:
a high view of the authority of Scripture (preferring this to
cherished traditions), Godly and strong leadership (willing to
make decisions that involve risk), and relevance to their local
communities (even when that means changing established ways so
as to be able to reach our neighbours).
‘Has God still got a role for the Brethren Movement?
My personal conviction is that he has not – if by Brethren Movement
we mean a pattern of local church life which is the entrenched
and inflexible product of 160 years of history. But the Brethren
never wanted to have a name and a ‘movement’ anyway.
‘Has God got a role for assemblies of Christians
that want to practise NT church principles, that will allow themselves
to be governed by the Word, that will hear what the Spirit is
saying to the churches, and that will spend themselves in devotion
to the person of Christ? Of course he has – churches like this
will grow and prosper under his hand until he returns and presents
to himself his ‘radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any
other blemish, but holy and blameless’ (Ephesians 5:27).’ (Reported
in Outreach, Assembly Links, and New Life, February 1991).
E. H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, Pickering &
G. Brown and B. Mills, The Brethren Today, Paternoster,
F. R. Coad, A History of the Brethren Movement,
Peter Cousins, The Brethren, Religious Education
J.N.Darby, ‘The Doctrines of Early Brethren’, The
Witness, October 1929.
H.L. Ellison, The Household Church, Paternoster,
Alfred P. Gibbs, Scriptural Principles of Gathering,
Light & Liberty Publishing Co., 1934.
George Goodman, God’s Principles of Gathering, Pickering
Montague Goodman, God’s Greatest Wonder: The Church,
Its Foundation, Growth etc., Pickering & Inglis.
F.B.Hole, Assembly Principles, The Central Bible
Wm. Hoste, Things Most Surely Believed Among Us,
Pickering & Inglis.
G.C.D. Howley, ‘Plymouth Brethren’ in J.D. Douglas
(ed.), The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church,
Zondervan, 1974, pp. 789-780.
Garrison Keilor, Leaving Home: A Collection of Lake
Wobegon Stories, Viking, 1987.
Peter Lowman, ‘A Plea for a Radical Brethrenism’,
paper presented to Regent College conference, 1990.
R. McLaren, The Origin and Development of the Open
Brethren in North America, 1982.
Ken Newton, A History of the Brethren in Australia,
unpublished PhD. dissertation, 1990.
H.H. Rowdon, The Origins of the Brethren, Pickering
& Inglis, 1967. —–, ‘The Brethren’, The History of Christianity,
Lion Publishing, 1977, pp. 520-521 —–, Who Are the Brethren
and Does It Matter?, Paternoster, 1986.
Nathan D. Smith, Roots, Renewal and the Brethren,
H.W. Soltau, The Brethren, Who are They? What are
their Doctrines? Pickering & Inglis, 1938.
(Paper presented to a combined conference of the
Romaine Park Christian Centre and Montello Baptist Church, May
1993 by Rowland Croucher, Director of John Mark Ministries, Melbourne).