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The Plymouth Brethren or Assemblies of brethren are a conservative, low church, non-conformist, evangelical Christian movement whose history can be traced to Dublin, Ireland in the late 1820s, originating from Anglicanism. The group emphasizes sola scriptura, the belief that the Bible is the supreme authority for church doctrine and practice, over and above any other source of authority. Plymouth Brethren generally see themselves as a network of like-minded free churches, not as a Christian denomination.
The Brethren movement began in Dublin, Ireland where several groups of Christians met informally to celebrate the Lord's Supper together in 1827–28. The central figures were Anthony Norris Groves, a dentist studying theology at Trinity College; Edward Cronin, studying medicine, John Nelson Darby, a curate in County Wicklow; and John Gifford Bellett, a lawyer who brought them together. They did not require ministers or even an order of service, as their guide was the Bible alone.
An important early stimulus was the study of prophecy, which was the subject of a number of annual meetings at Powerscourt House in County Wicklow starting in 1831. Lady Powerscourt had attended Henry Drummond's prophecy conferences at Albury Park, and Darby was espousing the same pre-tribulational view in 1831 as Edward Irving. Many people came to these meetings who became important in the English movement, including Benjamin Wills Newton and George Müller.
The two main but conflicting aspirations of the movement were to create a holy and pure fellowship on one hand, and to allow all Christians into fellowship on the other. Believers in the movement felt that the established Church of England had abandoned or distorted many of the ancient traditions of Christendom, following decades of dissent and the expansion of Methodism and political revolutions in the United States and France. People in the movement wanted simply to meet together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ without reference to denominational differences.
The first meeting in England was held in December 1831 in Plymouth. It was organised primarily by George Wigram, Benjamin Wills Newton, and John Nelson Darby. The movement soon spread throughout the United Kingdom, and the assembly in Plymouth had more than 1,000 people in fellowship in 1845. They became known as "the brethren from Plymouth" and were soon simply called "Plymouth Brethren". The term "Darbyites" is also used, especially when describing the Exclusive branch which has a more pronounced influence from Darby. Many within the movement refuse to accept any name other than "Christian".
In 1845, Darby returned from an extended visit to Switzerland where he had achieved considerable success planting churches. He returned to Plymouth where Newton was firmly in control, and he disagreed with some details in a book that Newton had published concerning the tribulation that was coming. He also objected to Newton's place as an elder in the Plymouth meeting. But several attempts to settle the quarrel in the presence of other brethren failed to produce any clear result. Two years later, Darby attacked Newton over a lecture that Newton had given on the 6th Psalm, and a fierce exchange of tracts followed. Newton retracted some of his statements, but he eventually left Plymouth and established another chapel in London.
Darby had instituted a second meeting at Plymouth, and he complained of the Bristol Bethesda assembly in 1848, in which George Müller was prominent; he was concerned because they had accepted a member from Ebrington Street, Newton's original chapel. Bethesda investigated the individual but defended their decision, and Darby was not satisfied. He issued a circular on 26 August 1848, cutting off Bethesda and all assemblies who received anyone who went there. This defined the essential characteristic of "exclusivism" which he pursued for the rest of his life.
The Exclusive Brethren have suffered many subsequent splits. McDowell records at least six. The Open Brethren also suffered one split (concerning the autonomy of assemblies) which occurred at different times in different parts of the world. But both sides continued to expand their congregations, with the opens expanding more rapidly than the exclusives. Itinerant preachers carried both the open and exclusive brethren to America after the middle of the 19th century.
Brethren assemblies (as their gatherings are most often called) are divided into the Open Brethren and the Exclusive Brethren, following a schism that took place in 1848. Both of these main branches are themselves divided into several smaller branches, with varying degrees of communication and overlap among them. (The general category "Exclusive Brethren" has been confused in the media with a much smaller group known as the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC) or the Raven-Taylor-Hales Brethren, numbering only around 40,000 worldwide.)
The best-known and oldest distinction between Open and Exclusive assemblies is in the nature of relationships among their local churches. Open Brethren assemblies function as networks of like-minded independent local churches. Exclusive Brethren generally feel an obligation to recognize and adhere to the disciplinary actions of other associated assemblies. Conversely, Open assemblies aware of that disciplining would not automatically feel a binding obligation to support it, treating each case on its own merit. Reasons for being put under discipline by both the Open and Exclusive Brethren include disseminating gross Scriptural or doctrinal error or being involved in unscriptural behavior. Being accused of illegal financial dealings may also result in being put under discipline.
Another less clear difference between assemblies lies in their approaches to collaborating with other Christians. Many Open Brethren will hold gospel meetings, youth events, or other activities in partnership with non-Brethren Evangelical Christian churches. More conservative Brethren tend to not support activities outside their own meetings.
There are some movements with strong Brethren connections that are less easy to classify. The Assemblies Jehovah Shammah of India, for example, are usually regarded as Open Brethren because of their general willingness to work and worship together with other Evangelical Christians, and because their foreign connections tend to be with Open Brethren. The ecclesiology, however, has more in common with that of the Exclusive Brethren; founder Bakht Singh maintained tight control over the movement until his death in 2000.
Both Open and Exclusive assemblies generally maintain relations within their respective groups through common support of missionaries, local conferences, and the travelling ministries of "commended workers", "laboring brothers", and itinerant evangelists. All assemblies welcome visitors to gospel meetings and other gatherings, with the exception of the Lord's Supper. Many Exclusive Brethren and some of the more traditional Open Brethren feel that the Lord's Supper is reserved for those who are in right standing before God. Fellowship in the Lord's Supper is not considered a private matter but a corporate expression, "because we, being many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf" (1 Corinthians 10:17).
The term "Exclusive" is most commonly used in the media to describe one separatist group known as Taylor-Hales Brethren, who now call themselves the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church (PBCC). The majority of Christians known as Exclusive Brethren are not connected with the Taylor-Hales group, who are known for their extreme interpretation of separation from evil and their belief of what constitutes fellowship. In their view, fellowship includes dining out, business and professional partnerships, membership of clubs, etc., rather than just the act of Communion (Lord's Supper), so these activities are done only with other members.
The group called the Raven Brethren (named for prominent Exclusive leader F.E. Raven) seceded from the Raven-Taylor-Hales group and are less strict and isolationist. Exclusive Brethren groups who are not affiliated with PBCC prefer being referred to as Closed rather than Exclusive brethren to avoid any connection with these more strident groups.
Terminology which sometimes confuses Brethren and non-Brethren alike is the distinction between the Open assemblies, usually called "Chapels," and the Closed assemblies (non-Exclusive), called "Gospel Halls." Contrary to common misconceptions, those traditionally known as the "Closed Brethren" are not a part of the Exclusive Brethren, but are rather a very conservative subset of the Open Brethren. The Gospel Halls regard reception to the assembly as a serious matter. One is not received to the Lord's Supper but to the fellowship of the assembly. This is important because the Lord's Supper is for believers, not unbelievers.
Some Chapels, on the other hand, will allow practically anyone to participate who walks in and says that he is a Christian, based on the newcomer's profession of faith. Such assemblies are said to have an "open table" approach to strangers. Gospel Hall Brethren, on the other hand, generally believe that only those formally recognised as part of that or an equivalent assembly should break bread. Most Closed and some Open Brethren hold that association with evil defiles and that sharing the Communion meal can bring that association.
Their support text is from 1 Corinthians 15:33, "Do not be deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners." Among other distinctions, the Gospel Halls would generally not use musical instruments in their services, whereas many Chapels use them and may have singing groups, choirs, "worship teams" of musicians, etc. The Gospel Halls tend to be more conservative in dress; women do not wear trousers in meetings and always have their heads covered, while in most Chapels women may wear whatever they wish, though modesty in dress serves as a guideline, and many may continue the tradition of wearing a head covering.
Apart from a few (mostly small) exceptions, such as the Churches of God, Open Brethren churches are all independent, self-governing, local congregations with no central headquarters, although there are a number of seminaries, missions agencies, and publications that are widely supported by Brethren churches and which help to maintain a high degree of communication among them.
Adding to the confusion over labels, many Exclusive Brethren have more recently sought to distinguish themselves from their most extreme sect, the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, by rebranding themselves as "Closed" rather than "Exclusive".
Both Open and Exclusive Brethren have historically been known as "Plymouth Brethren." That is still largely the case in some areas, such as North America and Northern Ireland. In some other parts of the world such as Australia and New Zealand, most Open Brethren shun the "Plymouth" label. This is mostly because of widespread negative media coverage of the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, the most hardline branch of the Exclusive Brethren (and the only numerically significant Exclusive group in either country), which most Open Brethren consider to be a cult with which they do not wish to be misidentified.
One of the most defining elements of the Brethren is the rejection of the concept of clergy. Their view is that all Christians are ordained by God to serve and therefore all are ministers, in keeping with the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The Brethren embrace the most extensive form of that idea, in that there is no ordained or unordained person or group employed to function as minister(s) or pastors. Brethren assemblies are led by the local church elders within any fellowship.
Historically, there is no office of "pastor" in most Brethren churches, because they believe that the term "pastor" (ποιμην "poimen" in Greek) as it is used in Ephesians 4:11 describes one of the "gifts" given to the church, rather than a specific office. In the words of Darby, these gifts in Ephesians 4:11 are "ministrations for gathering together and for edification established by Christ as Head of the body by means of gifts with which He endows persons as His choice." Therefore, there is no formal ordination process for those who preach, teach, or lead within their meetings. Men who become elders, or those who become deacons and overseers within the fellowship, have been recognized by others within the individual assemblies and have been given the blessing of performing leadership tasks by the elders.
An elder should be able and ready to teach when his assembly sees the "call of God" on his life to assume the office of elder (1 Timothy 3:2). Brethren elders conduct many other duties that would typically be performed by "the clergy" in other Christian groups, including counselling those who have decided to be baptized, performing baptisms, visiting the sick, and giving spiritual counsel in general. Normally, sermons are given either by the elders or by men who regularly attend the Sunday meetings—but, again, only men whom the elders recognize as having the "call of God" on their lives for that particular ministry. Visiting speakers, however, are usually paid their travel costs and provided for with Sunday meals following the meetings.
Open and Exclusive Brethren differ in how they interpret the concept of "no clergy". The Open Brethren believe in a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 15:6,23; 20:17; Philippians 1:1), men meeting the Biblical qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3:1–7 and Titus 1:6–9. This position is also taken in some Baptist churches, especially Reformed Baptists, and by the Churches of Christ. It is understood that elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28) and are recognised as meeting the qualifications by the assembly and by previously existing elders. Generally, the elders themselves will look out for men who meet the biblical qualifications, and invite them to join them as elders. In some Open assemblies, elders are elected democratically, but this is a fairly recent development and is still relatively uncommon.
Officially naming and recognizing "eldership" is common to Open Brethren (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:12–13), whereas many Exclusive Brethren assemblies believe that recognizing a man as an "elder" is too close to having clergy, and therefore a group of "leading brothers", none of whom has an official title of any kind, attempts to present issues to the entire group for it to decide upon, believing that the whole group must decide, not merely a body of "elders". Traditionally, only men are allowed to speak (and, in some cases, attend) these decision-making meetings, although not all assemblies follow that rule today.
The term "Elder" is based on the same Scriptures that are used to identify "Bishops" and "Overseers" in other Christian circles, and some Exclusive Brethren claim that the system of recognition of elders by the assembly means that the Open Brethren cannot claim full adherence to the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Open Brethren consider, however, that this reveals a mistaken understanding of the priesthood of all believers which, in the Assemblies, has to do with the ability to directly offer worship to God and His Christ at the Lord's Supper, whether silently or audibly, without any human mediator being necessary—which is in accordance with 1 Timothy 2:5, where it is stated that Christ Jesus Himself is the sole Mediator between God and men ("men" being used here generically of mankind, and not referring simply and solely to "males").
The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church, the most hardline of all the Exclusive Brethren groups, has developed into a de facto hierarchical body which operates under the headship of an Elect Vessel, currently Bruce Hales of Australia. Some defectors have accused him and his predecessors of having quasi-papal authority. This development is almost universally considered by other streams of the Plymouth Brethren movement, however, as a radical departure from Brethren principles.
In place of an ordained ministry, an itinerant preacher often receives a "commendation" to the work of preaching and teaching that demonstrates the blessing and support of the assembly of origin. In most English-speaking countries, such preachers have traditionally been called "full-time workers", "labouring brothers", or "on the Lord's work"; in India, they are usually called Evangelists and very often are identified with Evg. in front of their name.
A given assembly may have any number of full-time workers, or none at all. In the last twenty years, many Open Assemblies in Australia and New Zealand, and some elsewhere, have begun calling their full-time workers "pastors", but this is not seen as ordaining clergy and does not connote a transfer of any special spiritual authority. In such assemblies, the pastor is simply one of several elders, and differs from his fellow-elders only in being salaried to serve full-time. Depending on the assembly, he may or may not take a larger share of the responsibility for preaching than his fellow elders.
This list consists of mostly nineteenth-century figures who were associated with the Brethren movement before the 1848 schism. They are the leading historical figures common to both the Open and Exclusive Brethren. Two exceptions are H.A. Ironside and Watchman Nee, twentieth-century preachers who spent time associated with both the Open and Exclusive Brethren. See the respective articles for other more recent figures who have functioned primarily or entirely in either the Open Brethren or Exclusive Brethren.