|I.||Early Stages in Spiritual Awakening||5|
|II.||The Open Communion of Early Brethrenism||11|
|III.||A People without a Divine Constitution||16|
|IV.||The Results of Individualism and Independency||22|
|VII.||Searchings of Heart Regarding the Open Meetings||38|
|VIII.||Giving Effect to the Truth||42|
|IX.||Contending for the Truth||55|
|X.||The Knowledge of the Truth||63|
|XI.||Speaking Truth in Love||76|
This book gives a short history of certain movements of the Holy Spirit in leading men to a fuller expression of the truth of God as revealed in the Scriptures. History is a store-house of human experience and he is a wise man who seeks to learn its lessons. The Scriptures themselves record the spiritual experiences of men, in their heights and in their depths, the exquisite ones in deep fellowship with God, and the lamentable ones when individuals of the people of God wandered far from Him. These things were written that we might ponder them and find sure guidance in times of perplexity. Human circumstances may change, and the ways of men are mutable in all generations though the ways of God are immutable. The causes of failure remain the same and the ways of God change not for those who seek after Him.
For over sixty years now the whole counsel of God for His present-day people has been earnestly sought by those who are found together of God in the Churches of God, the Fellowship of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who passed through deep waters of spiritual experience in discerning these truths have now, with few exceptions, passed on to their rest and are with the Lord, and it is desirable that later generations should know something of the way in which their spiritual forefathers were led onwards, by ways of many vicissitudes, with fightings without and fears within, with the light ever shining brighter, and the way ever clearer, and how others shunned the light and refused to walk in the way. It was a time of counting the cost, and by many the truth was dearly purchased. If others have paid a heavy price for the truth, then it is but right that we should seek to understand why so many failed to find it, when these others endured spiritual conflict, and hammered out on the hard rock of experience the pure gold of truth regarding the testimony of God on earth.
The material for this history was compiled by a number of my fellow-workers, and my function has been to connect together the manuscripts provided for me, so that an orderly presentation of the story might be made. It is sent forth with the hope that it may meet the need of others who are seeking for the truth. If we have commented on human failures it has been only with the intention of drawing lessons from the past, and to seek for ourselves a sure way wherein to walk. We realize that if greater men than ourselves have erred there is all the more reason for us to cleave closely to the Lord, and to walk with Him in all humility, with love toward all and malice toward none.
THE SEARCH FOR THE TRUTH OF GOD
I. EARLY STAGES IN SPIRITUAL AWAKENING
NINETEEN CENTURIES have elapsed since the glorious day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples who were gathered together in expectation of the manifestation of the mighty power of God. Each of them had already known the Lord Jesus whom they were now to proclaim as the one and only Lord, and in response to their stirring message about three thousand souls, a mighty firstfruits, were saved and gathered to be with them in testimony to the Lord Jesus Christ. From henceforth the recipients of the grace of God were to acknowledge the will of their Lord and Master, and it was with gladness of heart that the word was received, with a ready response to the commands given to them. So we read that they were baptized, and added, and they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and in the Fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and’ the prayers. What was then done was done under the immediate influence of the Holy Spirit, and the record remains upon the page of the Scriptures for the instruction of all disciples in this dispensation of grace.
It is in vain for men to look for a diverse instruction from the Holy Spirit, and we may say that, however much men may speak of being led by the Spirit, the only test of the reality of their claim is that of the faithful response to what is written in the Word of God. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God,” but the Spirit is given that we may freely receive the instruction given to us by God. Doubts as to the need to abide by the written Word of God may be attributed to the influence of Satan who ever seeks to mar a work of God in this fashion. If men had been ready to live in the joy of their first love, and to keep in their hearts that spirit of thankfulness which led them at the first to accept the commands of the Lord, there would not have been the sad declension which was evident ere the apostles left this scene.
Profane history, after the close of the sacred record at the end of the first century, allows of no belief that conditions improved. Rather does it show that heresies and diversions were the outstanding characteristics, even though a few were to be found faithful, as in later generations. Instead of the pure Word of God being the only guide, the traditions of men became paramount, despite the warning given by the Lord to the Pharisees:—
This people honoureth Me with their lips; their heart is far from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men. (Matt.15:8,9).
That warning is as powerful today as it ever was, especially to those who are earnestly seeking the truth of God.
In the goodness of God there were raised up men in due time to perceive the reason for the darkness which lay upon the spirits of men from whom the light of God had been shut off by the dark clouds of human tradition. One who has been fittingly called “the Morning Star of the Reformation” was John Wycliffe, born in 1324. The crowning achievement of this great man’s life was the translation of the Bible into English, and so he paved the way in England for the rediscovery of divine truth in the following century. The spirit which actuated him is evident from the following quotation from his writings:—
Holy Scripture is the faultless, most true, most perfect, and most holy law of God, which it is the duty of all men to know, to defend, and to observe, inasmuch as they are bound to serve the Lord in accordance with it, under the promise of an eternal reward.
We may well take his words for our own instruction. Men of like mind followed him, and of such was Tyndale whose earnest desire was that ploughboy as well as scholar should be able to read the Sacred Writings in his own mother tongue. These men were well assured of the truth lying in the words of Wycliffe:—
The knowledge of the revealed will of God is to be found alone in the Scriptures.
The Reformation was thus made possible because men were able to turn to the Word of God to verify, in the spirit of the Bereans, what they learnt from the men who were being raised up. When Luther discerned the blessed foundational fact of justification by faith, and brought out the value of good works only as they are the effect of faith, he opened the flood-gates of divine truth which swept over Europe. On the grounds of Scripture he denied the right of any man, Pope or otherwise, to authority in matters of faith.
It is a remarkable thing that men’s minds seem able to grasp at any one time only a portion of divine truth. So it has ever been slow in reclamation of the doctrines of the Scriptures. Luther, for instance, did not loose himself from all the errors of his old association; he retained the church festivals of pagan origin; and he missed the teaching of the Scriptures relative to the ordinance of breaking of bread; so that his teaching retained some of the errors of the Romish Church which had arisen from the substitution of the traditions of men for the simple teaching of the Word of God.
It may also be noted that the men who were used of God in the work of reformation after the time of Luther were prone to magnify the truth which they had seen, and thus to mar their work by exaggeration. This observation is true of Calvin, and it is also true of those known to history as the Puritans. The good things that were found in Puritanism were carried to such an excess that a strong reaction set in, particularly in England, and for a time the influences of Puritanism were submerged. It is desirable that we should note these things, for there is always this danger of magnifying the truth which we feel to be of importance in our day. We shall see later that this tendency to see only one thing at a time, and to give it overwhelming importance, characterized other movements where men sought to give effect to the truths they had learnt.
One direct consequence of the reaction against the excesses of Puritanism was a very lax state in the professing church, with worldliness and even immorality rampant among those who were supposed to have a spiritual care for the people. It was to counteract this that men like Whitefield and Wesley were raised up, leading to the rise of evangelicism and Methodism in the eighteenth century. We would all agree that it was an excellent thing that men should be caused to hear and believe the gospel, and that they should be exhorted to change their manner of life. There can be no question as to the direct and indirect influence of this evangelical movement upon the people of this land in which we live. But we note that undue emphasis upon the necessity to maintain good works led Wesley to teach the erroneous doctrine that those who had been saved by grace must maintain good works, as otherwise they would fall away and be lost again.
Despite the shortcomings of the human agents of the Holy Spirit the great movement proceeded. Early in the nineteenth century men began to be exercised about the effects of sectarianism, the evil of clerisy, the need for Christians to maintain separation from the world, and the importance of the Scriptures as the only true guide to matters of salvation and life and to the desires of the Lord Jesus Christ for His disciples. A new movement of the Holy Spirit was soon made evident, and it is this new movement we desire to discuss in greater detail than the previous ones, both in its beginning and in its after history.
We may specially emphasize two things which exercised the hearts and minds of many men. The first was the recognition of the place given by the Lord Jesus to the remembrance of Himself in the Breaking of the Bread, and the second was His desire for the unity of His disciples for which He so earnestly prayed on the night of His betrayal. It was realized that the simple ordinance had lost much of its value as administered by clergymen, and that the existence of sects was a denial of the unity of disciples. There was much else, of course, which influenced these men, but these two things lay at the very foundation.
The consequence was that men of diverse conditions of life, ecclesiastical standing or association, and mode of thought, were led of the Spirit in different parts of the country and in due course were brought together, so that by the year 1827 a small group of believers recognized in one another that the Holy Spirit was moving in them. Outstanding men we may mention at this point were Dr. E. Cronin, Mr. A. N. Groves, Mr. J. G. Bellett, and Mr. J. N. Darby. They were men of great personal piety and of singular devotion to the Lord and to the Word of God. These men met in Dublin, but Groves’ residence was in Plymouth and there grew up in Plymouth a large company of believers who were attracted by the new simplicity of spiritual life. In due course Mr. B. W. Newton exercised a great influence in Plymouth, and many tracts and pamphlets, largely by Mr. J. N. Darby, were issued from Plymouth, so giving rise to the name of “Plymouth Brethren.” Other noted men were Mr. G. Müller of Bristol, ever to be renowned for his strong faith in God, Mr. G. V. Wigram, noted for his concordance, Mr. S. P. Tregelles, a famous textual scholar, and Mr. W. Kelly and Mr. C. H. Mackintosh, both esteemed for their expositions of the Word.
The uplift of the heart and mind which was felt by these early brethren was expressed by Mr. Bellett in the following words:—
I would not doubt but a fresh purpose of God and a fresh work of the Holy Spirit were put forth in the call of the Brethren. The call of the Church is apart from the world, to do service in the light and strength of the Holy Spirit, and to maintain, in living spiritual grace, testimony to a rejected and heavenly Jesus. All within and around us is contrary to this. Such a call can be upheld, such a dispensation maintained, only in the direct grace of the Spirit, ministered to elect vessels and filling them with the freshness and apprehension of truth … I do not doubt that the work of God by and with ” Brethren ” had its special purpose also. It seemed with certainty to present the separateness of the Church from the world, as also to assert that nothing else is worthy of the House of God.
We do not doubt that what Bellett says is a true estimate of the feelings engendered in the hearts of these godly men. Their desire was to find a simple and Scriptural basis upon which all Christians could meet in happy fellowship, and their desire was expressed in the preface to a publication called ” The Christian Witness,” as follows:—
We desire in all humbleness of mind, to receive every light which the Spirit of God may afford us, whether as to the position we are in, or the means of extrication from it, and to be faithful to that light …. Far from pretending to see all the wisdom of God to the Church, we desire that whatsoever of the principles of God’s truth on this important point are unseen by us at present, may be presented to us by any, however different their views may be from things which may appear in this publication, provided they bear the stamp of holiness of purpose and subjection to God’s truth.
This was written in 1837, and within a few years a great division took place between the brethren who had professed such high ideals. Both could not be right, and it is our duty now to analyse the teaching and practice, and to seek for the causes of the weakness which led to such a lamentable result.
II. THE OPEN COMMUNION OF EARLY BRETHRENISM.
There can be little doubt that the fundamental principle of Brethrenism is contained in the conclusion of Mr. W. B. Neatby*, in his book, “A History of the Plymouth Brethren,” page 28:—
A circle was to be drawn just wide enough to include all the children of God and to exclude all who did not come under that category.
This is equivalent to the statement of Mr. C. H. Mackintosh, in “Life and Times of Josiah”:—
We should so meet that all members of Christ’s Body might, simply as such, sit down with us and exercise whatever gift the Head of the Church has bestowed upon them.
Corroborative evidence might be given to these statements, but in what follows hereafter it will be seen that the basis of fellowship was the common life enjoyed by all believers and not their confessed obedience and subjection to the Lord’s will. Brethren set out to found a communion as wide as would include all children of God, all who were members of the Body of Christ, alive on earth at any one time. That the aspiration of the early Brethren was high, and their plan comprehensive, no one can doubt, but to claim that their idea of communion was a Scriptural one, and formed the true basis on which the people of God should be gathered, is another matter. If the foundation of any movement is not divine the thing itself cannot be divine, either in its institution or constitution.
*A number of quotations are made from Mr. Neatby. We are aware that other histories exist, mostly written from special viewpoints, or favouring one side or the other in the controversies that took place, so that we cannot escape the necessity of choice with regard to quotations. It has been our desire to quote Mr. Neatby for facts which are not in dispute, and where he has expressed an opinion which we have quoted it will be evident that we share that particular opinion. But it must not be adduced that we share his views in all matters, for we do not. Our object in quoting his opinion is only to show that we are not alone in having the views expressed.
It is not intended to cast the slightest aspersion on the godly character of the individual lives of the men who were associated with the early Brethren movement, but we must distinguish between personal piety and the scripturalness of the communion in which these godly men were found. Unless we distinguish between men and things we shall be liable to justify bad things because of good men, and condemn good things because of bad men, but good men cannot make a wrong place right, nor bad men make the right place wrong by their presence there.
One of the pitfalls into which brethren fell in the early days (and into which, alas, brethren are continuing to fall through the initial mistake—and men follow men in things both good and bad like sheep) was their looseness in the use of the word “Church.” They write of “the Church of God,” “the Church of God on earth,” “the Church of Christ,” “the true Church,” and such like terms, as though the Spirit of God did not discriminate as to the terms He used. By this slipshod use of the word “Church” they fell, we believe, into serious error from which they have never recovered. It may be a surprise to some to find that ” the Church of Christ ” is not found in the whole of the New Testament. “The Churches of Christ” we do find once, but never “the Church of Christ.” No such conception as “the Church of God on earth ” is anywhere to be found, but we read repeatedly of “the Church of God ” and of “the Churches of God.” We humbly submit, after careful consideration of the Brethren movement, that had the early Brethren only considered the application of the terms “Church” and “Churches,” as applied by the Spirit to the different things indicated, and in the connexion in which they are used, they would have saved themselves from much sorrow, perchance, in the later development and history of the movement.
It seemed that in their eagerness to escape from the evils they saw in the Established and Dissenting Churches they ran with undue haste to establish another communion, which was to include in their view all the children of God on the basis of common life in Christ.
Mr. A. N. Groves, writing to Mr. J. N. Darby in 1836, said:—
I ever understood our principle of communion to be the possession of the common life…of the family of God… These were our early thoughts, and are my most matured ones…The moment the witnessing for the common life as our bond gives place to a witnessing against errors by separation of persons and preaching (errors allowably compatible with the common life) every individual or society of individuals first comes before the mind as those who might need witnessing against, and all their conduct and principles have first to be examined and approved before they can be received…making light, not life, the measure of communion.
Some will not have me hold communion with the Scotts, because their views are not satisfactory about the Lord’s Supper; others with you, because of your views about baptism, others with the Church of England, because of her thoughts about ministry. I receive them all and join with them. On the principle of witnessing against evil, I should reject them all…I make use of my fellowship in the Spirit, to enjoy the common life together and witness for that, as an opportunity to set before them those little particulars into which, notwithstanding all their grace and faithfulness, their godliness and honesty, they have fallen … I naturally unite fixedly with those in whom I see and feel most of the life and power of God. But I am as free to visit other churches where I see much disorder as to visit the houses of my friends, though they govern them not as I could wish.
These extracts show clearly that the early Brethren broke bread and yet moved in and out of the sects without any conscientious scruples as to their condoning by their acts the evils of those sects. How this could, be on “Scriptural lines” is admittedly a great difficulty. If they had been called out (as Abraham was in his day, as a pilgrim-worshipper) to break bread, to engage in the worship of God, and to edify the Body in its members, how they should go back to the things that were to them the very’ denials of the ideals they had before them, is impossible to understand.
Mr. Müller spread the principle of open communion to Germany. Mr. Veitch says in his book “The Story of the Brethren Movement” (pages 40,41):—
In 1843 Mr. Müller received a letter from certain believers in Stuttgart, in Germany, wanting to know more fully the principles which were held and practised by the Assembly in Bristol. Mr. Müller went to Stuttgart in response to this letter, and there in his own gracious way began to teach and preach these Scriptural doctrines. At first, he was warmly welcomed, but difficulties arose chiefly with the Baptists. They welcomed his ministry but refused to allow him to break bread because of his willingness to break bread with Christians in the State Church, or with Christians who had not been baptised as believers.
Where can it be shown in all the range of New Testament doctrine or history that such a thing is ever contemplated, that a baptised believer should break bread with unbaptised believers? Where is there any consistency in one who has professed to see the evils of clerisy (and, truly, if brethren stand for anything at all their very existence is a testimony against clerisy), the sin of the union of Church and State, and the iniquity of mixed communion of believers and unbelievers, joining himself to those who adhere to such evil things? The thing is bad enough, but instead of drawing a veil over this course of conduct it is brought out into the daylight as Scriptural doctrine taught by Mr. Müller. Nowhere in all the Scriptures is open communion seen.
The same looseness that characterized Mr. Müller’s work in Germany characterized Mr. Darby’s work at Vaud, in French Switzerland in 1838. Mr. Veitch again says (page 39):—
Mr. Darby had insisted on there being no denominational barriers to his fellowship. He welcomed fellowship with all believers, irrespective of their Church connexion. His watchword was: “The union of the children of God.” It is recorded that he preached nothing but the truths of salvation, and never allowed himself a word that was hostile to existing Churches.
Mr. Neatby (pages 82,83) quoting from an account of Mr. Darby’s work, says:—
Mr. Darby administered the Lord’s Supper every Sunday after the ordinary service, without troubling about the disciplinary rules of the dissenting congregation. “He is extremely broad,” many members of the National Church who had joined him said in his praise: “he ministers the Lord’s Supper to all without distinction who attend his meetings, and he does not even insist in the least that they should leave the National Church.”
Mr. Darby’s conduct was in keeping with his doctrine in those days, as Mr. Veitch shows (page 24):—•
In 1838, in writing to a clergyman, Mr. Darby makes clear the original basis of fellowship. He says, “But as our Table is the Lord’s, and not ours, we receive all that the Lord has received, all who fled as poor sinners for refuge to the hope set before them, and rest not in themselves, but in Christ as their Hope.”
We readily admit the possibility of mistakes being made in the dim light of the early days of Brethren, when believers met to break bread, and for mutual edification, without the thought of establishing any new thing, when they met simply on the ground of common life in Christ, without requiring that those together should come out of the evil systems, for so brethren regarded them, of the Established and Dissenting Churches, but it is quite another matter when, after due consultation together and waiting on God in prayer, men embark on the establishing of open communion, when they systematize the error of the dim light of early days. In this way the cancer spread. The stream which might have been filtered of initial evil, by adherence to the plain words of Acts 2:41,42, which contained foundational truths upon which the disciples who formed the Church of God in Jerusalem were together, was allowed to flow on, fouling all channels in its onward course. To set aside baptism in water and addition to those together, the apostles’ doctrine and the fellowship, and to make a communion of “bread-breakers” is far from the divine conception of the communion or fellowship in which those in Jerusalem continued steadfastly. This setting aside of baptism as necessary to fellowship is heralded as gathering on “Scriptural lines,” but let the humble disciple take his Bible and measure God’s pattern, and then what men have built (however illustrious these men may have been), and he will have his eyes opened to see how far man’s building today is from God’s building at the beginning of the dispensation. If men would be right they must go further back than Dublin, Plymouth, and Bristol, they must go back to Jerusalem. It is not to Darby and Bellett, or to Muller and Groves, that men must turn, but to Peter and Paul, and from their inspired writings they will get on to ” Scriptural lines,” but not otherwise.
III. A PEOPLE WITHOUT A DIVINE CONSTITUTION.
The strange reluctance of the early leaders of the “Brethren movement ” to accept the principles laid down in the Scriptures relative to the formation, constitution, and government of a gathered-out people led ultimately to one of the saddest possible episodes, in which prominent leaders disagreed on principles, doctrine, and practice, and it is needful that we examine the reasons for the rift which took place.
The assemblies which had been formed had no settled mode of government, and were independent of one another, with no provision for the resolution of any difficulties which might occur. The evils of clericalism had been discerned, but it had not been foreseen that men with exceptional gifts would be liable to exercise individual responsibility to an extreme degree without any mode of control. Individualism carried to excess was as bad as clericalism; in fact, it was much worse, because of the high standing of those who took to themselves unlimited power.
It is ever the desire of God that His people should enjoy unity, and whilst ultimately that unity is a Unity of the Spirit,
it is susceptible to the vagaries and failures of human responsibility, particularly so if that responsibility becomes vested in any manner in one man. The greater the man the more terrible the consequences of his failure. God has therefore made provision for a godly cohesion of His people by the rule of elders (or overseers), who have both an individual responsibility and a collective one. Their function is to “tend the Flock of God” and to make themselves “ensamples to the Flock” (1 Pet.5:1-3). An essential safeguard of the unity of the people is therefore a united elderhood, exercising faithful and godly leadership. It was the failure to apprehend this which led to the divisions which have blemished the record of the ” Brethren movement.”
Of the early days, Mr. J. G. Bellett wrote (Neatby, page 35):—
The settled order of worship which we had in Fitzwilliam Square gave place gradually. Teaching and exhortation were first made common duties and services, while prayer was restricted under the care of two or three, who were regarded as elders. But gradually all this yielded. In a little time, no appointed or recognised eldership was understood to be in the midst of us, and all service was of a free character, the presence of God through the Spirit being more simply believed and used.
Brethren generally (though there are exceptions) utterly refuse to follow the primitive system of governments by recognized elders. A few have believed (for so the Scriptures teach) that rule in the times of the New Testament for a local Church was by a plurality of elders, and they believed also that the qualifications for the eldership are exhaustively defined in the Pastoral Epistles. Mr. Neatby says (page 210):—
To do the Brethren justice, they have not been insensible to the need for explanation. They have accordingly taught that all elders were appointed by apostles or apostolic delegates; that apart from such direct or indirect apostolic intervention there could be no valid appointment to the office of government; that there are doubtless still men that possess the requisite qualifications, in which case they will be Divinely guided to
exercise a pastoral oversight; but that such men cannot properly receive formal recognition.
With every desire to enter sympathetically into the point of view of the Brethren, it can scarcely be denied that in this respect they are hopelessly inconsistent. If it be presumption to recognise elders without apostolic ratification (direct or indirect) why should it not be presumption to hold an open meeting without miraculous gifts?
We think too with Mr. Neatby that Brethren are hopelessly inconsistent in the matter of elders. Both the need for elders and the men themselves are present, but they prefer to indulge in exegetical exposition of a part of Scripture that ties their hands and causes them to adopt mere human expedient to perform a necessary and divine work among God’s people. Has God a people and not provided for their care right to the end of the age? Surely God has not forgotten the need of all time, only making provision in the apostolic era, and leaving the whole dispensation, otherwise without any such provision for the rule and pastoral care of His Flock!
The reverse of this was arranged in Bethesda Chapel, Bristol. Mr. Neatby says (page 57) that Bethesda has been called a Baptist congregation associated with the Brethren, or a Baptist Church “with peculiarities.” Following certain difficulties there, Mr. Müller and Mr. Craik retired for a couple of weeks and gave themselves to study and prayer. The difficulties included “the eldership, its authority and its functions.” Their conclusions were:—
- It is the ” mind of God that in every Church there should be recognised Elders.”
- They are appointed by the Holy Spirit, and the appointment is made known to them and to the Flock by ” the secret call of the Spirit confirmed by the possession of the requisite qualifications, and by the Lord’s blessing resting upon their labours.”
- Matters of discipline are to be reserved for final settlement in the presence of the Church, and with its consent, but
- the Elders, without the Church, are to appoint “the times for meeting,” to decide, “if needful, who are qualified to teach or to exhort, whether a brother has spoken to edification, or otherwise,” and “whether what may be advanced is according to the truth or not.” (Neatby, pages 58,59).
Whilst it was admirable for these two men to consider how to bring in a state of order and government into Bethesda, how much better it would have been if all the leading men in the meetings of Brethren of those days had met to confer on the matter of rule and government as applicable to all! But this, alas! has been the mode of procedure among Brethren from the first, each meeting being a law to itself, forming its own ideas of what should obtain in its midst, except, of course, where a particular meeting might be influenced by some ministering brother, or by some outstanding brother in the neighbourhood.
The condition of things at Plymouth was somewhat different from that at Bristol. Neatby says (pages 108,109):—
Dr. Tregelles…tells us that, in 1831 or 1832, Newton was appointed Elder of the Plymouth meeting, with (he believed) a special duty to restrain unsuitable ministry; that Darby requested Mr. Newton to sit where he could conveniently take the oversight of ministry, and that he would hinder that which was manifestly unprofitable and unedifying; that Darby also, writing from Dublin, addressed a letter to B. Newton, Esq., Elder of the Saints meeting in Raleigh Street, Plymouth, and that on one occasion Mr. Newton had in the assembly to stop ministry which was manifestly improper, with Mr. J. N. Darby’s and Mr. G. V. Wigram’s presence and full concurrence.
It is evident that Mr. Newton’s position in Plymouth (strange as that position should be in a meeting of Brethren, who believed in the freedom of saints in ministry, and the complete control of the Holy Spirit in the gatherings of God’s people) for a time at least, had the sanction of such men as Tregelles, Harris, Wigram, and Darby. But Dr. Tregelles says (in his Booklet, “Three Letters,” page 7),
I do not know precisely how long the office of appointed Elder was held by Mr. Newton; I know, however, that before the early part of 1835 he had voluntarily laid aside this office (which others had conferred upon him) as he had now seen such appointments not to be in accordance with scripture.
It is evident that a state of confusion existed among the assemblies. Much depended upon the men to whom assemblies looked for guidance, and there were different modes of thought expressed and practised. Groves held tenaciously to the independence of each local gathering, counting on the controlling power of the Spirit. Darby believed in the interrelation of assemblies, and the value of unity of action, especially in matters of discipline, a view strongly opposed not only by Newton, but also by Groves. These three men carried out their own thoughts within whatever sphere of influence they possessed, with the result, of course, that the divergence between them increased. True subjection to the leading and teaching of the Holy Spirit would have brought them together to seek to discern what was the mind of the Lord, and this would have demanded a spirit of being subject one to the other in the fear of Christ, an attitude comely for all believers, still more so for leaders in the assemblies, and more so again for outstanding men whose influence was felt far and wide.
The same divergence applied to doctrinal matters, and there was a very great difference between the teaching of Newton and that of Darby relative to prophetic and dispensational matters. Again, men who had discerned the blessings of humility and subjection would have sought counsel from other recipients of the grace and gifts of the Lord.
In 1845 matters came to a head. When Darby returned from the Continent he went straight to Plymouth because of information he had received as to the conduct of the meetings in Plymouth. Neatby says on page 107,
Darby taxed Newton with trying to engross all power within the Church.
Mr. Neatby, on page 108 makes an important observation in the light of the dispute in Plymouth and its sequel:—
Darby had by this time taken up very strong views against the formal recognition of elders.
Though there were other matters of dispute this was at the time the chief one, and because of differences regarding Church government, Mr. Darby forced a division in Plymouth in October,1845, and in December he and fifty or sixty others broke bread together, but apart from the rest of the meeting in Plymouth.
We need to note that Darby did this on his sole authority. His action was deplored by such men as Groves and Chapman, the former viewing Darby’s action as “rending the Body of the Lord” and the latter saying to Darby, “You should have waited before acting as you did.” The significant thing is that both these men recognized that one man had acted on his sole authority, and that they themselves were helpless to intervene, for there was no divinely constituted form of Church government that could take the matter in hand and save the saints from the effects of the battle that was in progress. Mr. Neatby’s remarks (page 121) are very apposite in regard to the situation:—
Whether Newton were wise or unwise—even whether Darby were righteous or unrighteous—may be treated as a secondary question now. The important point is that Brethren in their first great emergency found themselves absolutely unprepared to grapple with it, They had no constitution of any kind.
This is an observation—”they had no constitution of any kind”—that should make brethren consider their whole position, for if they have no constitution, then they are nothing collectively.
How godly and brilliant men, such as were in the Brethren movement at the start, should not have foreseen the need of rule by a divinely constituted elderhood seems amazing, but they seemed to be so obsessed with the presence of the Holy Spirit in all in the assembly that they failed to grasp the fact that the Holy Spirit also works through elders, whom He constitutes elders among God’s people, to rule over and to feed His Flock. This is one of the most necessary divine principles in connexion with God’s people in their collective life. But this was entirely wanting among the Brethren. When two leaders fell foul of each other (from whatever cause is not our concern now) there was nothing to save the saints from the bitter fruits of this battle between spiritual giants.
IV. THE RESULTS OF INDIVIDUALISM AND INDEPENDENCY.
It should have been evident to all leading men in the assemblies that the process of division initiated by Darby at Plymouth must in due time proceed further, but no attempt seems to have been made to deal with the situation. Those who were committed to independency of assemblies had no thought that once unlimited licence was given to independency of action by one man or by many men, such would continue in their course. In human affairs a man who seizes power in a country and attacks one of his neighbours, without any consequences to deter him from further action, proceeds on his course of aggression against one after another of the neutrals, who have to pay a high price for the independency they prized. So it was with Mr. Darby. Having forced division in Plymouth and having caused men to bow to his will, it was only to be expected that if anything should occur which did not commend itself to his view, then similar action would seem to be right. When Groves spoke of rending the body of the Lord, why did he not see the necessity of leaders coming together to rectify the wrong, if it were a wrong, and also come to unity of mind with regard to the future? It was a fatal error.
Though Darby had had many points of difference with Newton, the cleavage that was forced at Plymouth was mainly upon church government and the arrogation of power by one man, Newton. It was some time later that Darby came into possession of some documents shewing that Mr. Newton had been teaching some very wrong things concerning the Lord’s humanity and deity. He forthwith exposed the errors, and the general opposition to Newton’s views was so great that Newton wrote a pamphlet retracting some of the views, but by no means all of them. Darby naturally considered these revelations as confirmatory of the rightness of his attitude towards the Plymouth meeting, and was the more determined not to countenance that meeting or any who came from it. All assemblies coming within the immediate reach of his influence therefore regarded all Newton’s adherents as having been excommunicated.
In other assemblies a neutral attitude was manifested, and the strange position resulted that saints might be found at one of the neutral meetings who would not receive one another in the meetings from which they came. To Darby this was very wrong, but his mode of treating the situation was dictatorial in keeping with his previous action at Plymouth.
The matter came to a head at Bristol in the Bethesda meeting, where Müller and Craik were outstanding personalities. Now both these leaders had been tolerant to an extreme degree, as was evident in that while they were themselves originally “Baptists,” they judged that differences of opinion as to the ordinance of baptism should not be allowed to constitute a barrier to Christian fellowship. That is, they were upholders of the principles of open communion to which we have referred in a previous chapter. Their attitude to the division in Plymouth is indicated by Neatby (page 156) as follows:—
When Darby instituted a second meeting at Plymouth, the Church at Bethesda Chapel remained neutral, acknowledging both companies.
A crisis arose when certain brethren came from Plymouth to Bristol, and applied for communion, to which there was some opposition by a minority. Certain brethren were deputed to interview the applicants and the judgement of ten of them was communicated in “The Letter of the Ten,” which was read to the assembly meeting at Bethesda in June,1848, and this was accepted by the greater part, though some dissented and left the assembly. This letter, vindicating the decision to receive the brethren from Plymouth, contains the following statement as to their attitude to the tracts by Newton, and to Darby’s opposition to them:—
Even supposing that those who enquired into the matter had come to the same conclusion, touching the amount of positive error therein contained, this would not have guided us in our decision respecting individuals coming from Plymouth. For supposing the author of the tracts was fundamentally heretical, this would not warrant us in rejecting those who came from under his teaching, until we were satisfied that they had understood and imbibed views essentially subversive of foundation-truth; especially as those meetings at…Plymouth…put forth a statement disclaiming the errors charged against the tracts.
Those competent to judge at the time believed that had Darby and Müller got together at this point the tragedy of division could have been averted. Looking at it from the wider standpoint we have had under consideration, if there had been the desire for fellowship between leading men everywhere, and not only between those immediately concerned, then true subjection to the mind of the Holy Spirit would have resulted in brethren in all assemblies being united in the truth of God.
Individualism, however, was again manifested by Darby, as we see from the following extract from Neatby (pages 157,158), referring to events in April, two months before the “Letter of the Ten” was read to the assembly, but just after the reception of the brethren from Plymouth, Colonel Woodfall and his brother:—
About the 20th of April,1848, after the reception of Colonel Woodfall and his brother, Mr. Darby came to Bristol, and as usual called on Mr. Müller, by whom he was asked to preach the following Sunday evening at Bethesda … In the intercourse between them nothing passed that indicated the course that a few days later Mr. Darby initiated. Mr. Darby stated his inability to preach in Bethesda, having previously engaged to preach somewhere on his road to Exeter. But notwithstanding this friendly intercourse, not many days after, he intimated publicly, at a large meeting of labouring brethren in Exeter, that he could no more go to Bethesda because the Woodfalls had been received. All were not prepared for this hasty manner of withdrawal, and it was asked whether any intimation had been given to those concerned, before so solemn an act as separation took place. This had not been done, though subsequently, on the remonstrance of others, Mr. Darby did write a letter from Exeter to Mr. Müller, intimating his decision in this matter.
In the same year (1848) Mr. Darby called on Mr. Müller and Mr. Craik in Bristol and of the interview Mr. Neatby writes (page 161), as quoting from Mr. Henry Groves:—
Shortly after the reading of “The Letter of the Ten” to the Church, Mr. Darby came again to Bristol, and had an interview with both Mr. Müller and Mr. Craik, in which he again urged the taking up of the tracts by Bethesda, and passing a Church condemnation on them…Finding their judgments were not to be changed, he sought to intimidate by the threats of separating from them all those believers in other places, with whom for years they had held Christian fellowship.
Mr. Neatby comments that “Darby showed characteristic energy in putting his threat into execution” and continues his quotation from Groves’ account:—
He went from one place to another, seeking to enforce everywhere adoption of his course towards Bethesda. Assemblies of saints one after another were placed under the ban of excommunication for no other sin than not being able to see that Mr. Darby was right, and Bethesda wrong. On reaching Leeds, he issued his lithographic circular, bearing the post mark of August 26,1848, cutting off not only Bethesda, but all assemblies who received anyone who went there.
Mr. Neatby writes:—
This circular is one of the great documents of Brethrenism, inaugurating as it does the unique discipline with which Mr. Darby’s name will be associated as long as he is remembered amongst men. The letter may be read in full in the Collected Writings. It is a solemn trifling with facts, in the very act of pronouncing a wholesale sentence of excommunication. The least that can be said is that he was at no pains to verify his assertions, and that upon the very loosest (not to say upon an absolutely erroneous) apprehension of the circumstances that had occurred, he based a decree that was to spread strife, misery, and shame, like a conflagration, to the remotest bounds of Christendom.
Another point of the greatest importance must be kept in view in reading this letter. Whatever the relation to Newton of the persons admitted at Bethesda, they were admitted at a time when Newton’s teaching was being held in suspense. The principal error had been abjured with expressions of penitence, the tracts containing the lesser errors had been withdrawn for reconsideration, and the results of the reconsideration were then unpublished. Bethesda was excommunicated for suspending judgment in the meantime.
This circular letter to all the meetings of Brethren commences with the most solemn accusation against Mr. Müller and Mr. Craik, and those associated with them in a position of responsibility in Bristol (Neatby, page 162):—
I feel bound to present to you the case of Bethesda. It involves to my mind the whole question of association with brethren, and for this very simple reason, that if there is incapacity to keep out that which has been recognised as the work and power of Satan, and to guard the beloved sheep of Christ against it—if brethren are incapable of this service to Christ, then they ought not to be in any way owned as a body to whom such service is confided: their gatherings would be really a trap laid to ensnare the sheep.
On page 164 Mr. Neatby observes:—
On Mr. Darby’s own showing he had now receded indefinitely far from the only platform where, as he once held, “the fulness of blessing” could be found,—a “meeting…framed to embrace all the children of God in the full basis of the Kingdom of the Son.” No ingenuity in proving that Muller and Craik had made themselves obnoxious to ” the discipline of the house of God ” could get rid of the plain fact that two Christian leaders, whom all their fellow-Christians were at liberty to honour “for their work’s sake” were to be cut off with their whole flock from the Table of the Lord on ecclesiastical grounds.
Looking at these facts at this distant date the thing that amazes one most, and that seems to tower above all else, is that one man on his sole authority could issue such a letter that was to work such havoc amongst brethren. How brethren bowed and carried out the evident intention of the letter—the ex-communication of Bethesda—on the sole authority of Mr. Darby seems incredible. On the one hand we have the definite opposition of Mr. Darby to the recognition of elders, and, on the other, we have an assumption of power that only a man inditing an inspired epistle ought to have. Infinite Power, we are glad to think, is balanced by Infinite Love. It is well to practise Solomon’s wise words in the Proverbs, in view of human limitation both in love and wisdom: “In the multitude of counsellors there is safety” (words twice given by the Holy Spirit, Prov.11:14; 24:6). These words seemed to have been entirely overlooked in those days of division and sorrow, when one man seemed to hold an irresistible power over the consciences of other men to bow them to his will.
The result of Darby’s action was to divide the ” Brethren movement” into two parts. Darby believed that fellowship should be refused to a church tolerating moral or doctrinal evil, such exclusion being from every assembly of saints on earth until there was repentance and separation from evil. Such “exclusive” views were in contrast to those of Muller and his brethren, who held that it was necessary to consider each individual on his merits, receiving such as had not imbibed the error or subscribed to the evil doctrine. This was the “neutral” position of “Open Brethren” as they came to be called in contrast to those who were “Exclusive.”
The principles of “Exclusivism” need some further examination if we are to arrive at a right understanding of the mind of the Lord for those who seek to follow Him. It must be admitted that where heretical teaching exists there is a responsibility to be met with regard to judging the error, and taking steps to cause the teaching to cease, otherwise any testimony for God will be in hopeless confusion. The question we considered is whether that responsibility lies upon one man arbitrarily to enforce judgement and excommunication without the matter having been laid before all those who have been led of the Holy Spirit and made responsible for the Flock. We can sympathize with the abhorrence which Darby felt for the heretical teaching while we condemn the methods he pursued.
It is evident that the moment it is decided that a man’s teaching is so heretical that fellowship with him is impossible, then that man is placed outside the circle which was intended to include all those who were in possession of common life. This was the original basis of fellowship among the early brethren. Here is a point of very great importance. Were not Newton, and Müller and Craik, in possession of the common life in Christ? Yet, because of evil doctrine, an entirely new basis of communion was formed. Moreover, would not both Exclusive and Open Brethren separate from those who hold erroneous doctrine of a fundamental nature? If so, then where is their original basis of communion? It is all gone, yet to this day they refuse to acknowledge the error of the early brethren’s basis of communion, that of the common life in Christ. Mr. Darby said in early days:
But as our Table is the Lord’s, and not ours, we receive all that the Lord has received, all who fled as poor sinners for refuge to the hope set before them and rest not in themselves but in Christ as their Hope.
But in 1875, in a letter to San Francisco, he indicates something more than this as now being necessary.
The assembly has to be satisfied as to the persons, but … is supposed to be satisfied on the testimony of the person introducing them, who is responsible to the assembly in this respect. This, or two or three visiting, is to me the question of adequate testimony to the conscience of the assembly. At the beginning it was not so, i.e., there was no such examination. Now I believe it a duty according to 2 Tim.2.
We may ask, what is 2 Tim.2? It provides a base of communion in a time of heresy and apostasy. But was not 2 Tim.2 available for the guidance of the early Brethren in 1825, as well as for them in 1848 and 1849, at the time of the Bethesda question, or in the year 1875, when Mr. Darby wrote this letter? If the communion of saints in a day of apostasy is described in 2 Tim.2 (and we are far from denying this), and we are to “follow after righteousness, faith, love, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart,” then we have here a very circumscribed base of communion. Paul’s thought of communion is certainly not the common life in Christ, nor because we are members of the one Body. Those that name the name of the Lord must, if they would obey the Lord, depart from unrighteousness, and departure from unrighteousness must precede following after righteousness. Unless subjection to the Lord’s authority and obedience to His word form the basis of fellowship, then the ground of gathering is a false one.
Moreover, in addition to personal testimony, other conditions of reception are imposed in some cases, and it is an astounding fact that even now, over a hundred years after the original rupture resulting in the two great divisions of Brethrenism—Exclusive and Open Brethren—the Exclusives still require, as a pre-requisite of fellowship, that a person from the Open Association should give an assurance that he had “judged the question,” i.e., as to the right action of Darby as against the wrong action of Müller and his brethren at Bethesda.
Whatever justification the strictly local circumstance and controversy of that early day might provide for such a requirement it is strange that it should persist until now and be asked of persons very few of whom could be aware of its sordid origins. And more serious still it is to observe that such requirement is apart from the doctrine and behaviour of the applicant as enjoined in the Word.
It should be noted, therefore, that at reception into fellowship little regard is paid to Scriptural principles. The work of examination and of testimony, the responsibility for baptism and admission into fellowship and to the privileges and responsibilities of the assembly are surely matters for the most responsible brethren, those who have been made so by the Holy Spirit. The fundamental error of Brethrenism, as we have already indicated, lies in this disregard for adherence to Scriptural principles, and the substitution of the doctrine that “the Church is in ruins”, so that men can only come together on rules formulated by themselves as a matter of expediency.
In exactly the same manner, the responsibility for making clear the mind of the Lord regarding any matter of doctrine, or discipline, has not been taken by those who have been fitted by the Holy Spirit to lead in the assemblies, who also have a responsibility to confer with one another, according to the general teaching by precept and example in the Scriptures, as we shall show later. Experience had shown that there was a need for some means whereby a judgement could be given by a responsible body. For a time Darby was the self-constituted arbiter of doctrine and practice, but ultimately the assembly meeting in Park Street, London, where Darby normally broke bread when in London, became the arbiter.
This matter of Church government had been under consideration even in early times, as we see from the following letter, dated October 6,1838, from Mr.Wigram to Mr. Darby:—
There is a matter exercising the minds of some of us at this present time in which you may be (and in some sense certainly are) concerned. The question I refer to is, How are meetings for the communion of saints in these parts to be regulated? Would it be for the glory of the Lord and the increase of testimony to have one central meeting, the common responsibility of all within reach, and as many meetings subordinate to it as grace might vouchsafe? or to hold it better to allow the meetings to grow up as they may without connexion and dependent upon the energy of individuals only? (Neatby, page 60).
The exclusive Brethren eventually developed the first idea of Mr. Wigram, of one central meeting, with other meetings subordinate to it. It was an easy way of broadening the base for human responsibility to adopt this purely human method of giving judgement upon all matter of difficulty, but it was
entirely unscriptural. Its baneful influence is abundantly evident in the history of the Exclusives. The arbitrary and often heartless decisions of the Park Street meeting led to one division after another. Mr. Neatby (page 303) tells us:—
“Bowing to Park Street” became a mania amongst Brethren,
Mr. Neatby continues (page 305):—
The claim of plenary authority for the decision of an “assembly” (a claim that was of course not preferred on behalf of “assemblies” that had decided in an opposite sense to Darby) seems to have been even more effectual on the Continent than at home. At Vevy old M. Rossier addressed some remonstrance to the meeting with respect to its support of the Park Street decision, and received a brief reply containing the following words:
“The assembly…accepts no kind of discussion on matters settled for the assemblies of God, and so held by every brother who recognises and respects the presence of the Lord in the assembly.”
A simple question might be asked to bring a little light into this state of chaos as regards church government: Was the Lord present in the Park Street meeting, to give judgement to the saints that composed it, in a sense in which He was in no other meeting whatsoever in the Exclusive communion? If He were (and the Scriptural authority of His word would require to be forthcoming on the point), then all other meetings did well to bow without demur to the decision of the meeting, backed as it was by plenary authority of the Lord, vested in it in this absolutely exceptional and unique way. But if the Lord’s presence were in one Exclusive meeting equally with another, then all the decisions of Park Street lacked any divine authority, and the assumption of a premier position, in the matter of giving judgements as binding on other meetings, was without any divine warrant from the Holy Scriptures. Mr. Neatby shows what this centralisation meant (page 216):—
The centralisation of Exclusivism has to be reckoned with. Darby’s influence, for example, would have sufficed in the long run to secure the expulsion of any teacher, no matter how honoured a name he bore or how strongly he were entrenched in the love and esteem of the church in which he laboured. And the authority of the “assembly” was the instrument of this astounding despotism.
In the trouble that ensued over Dr. Cronin, all who refused to accept the Park Street decision were regarded as cut off. This resulted in the excommunication of a large number of Assemblies in the British Isles and in the West Indies. Mr. William Kelly did not endorse the Park Street judgement and he too with the rest had to go, hence came the beginning of the Kelly Party of Exclusives. Besides Mr. Kelly, other leading brethren refused to bow to Park Street, men such as Dr. Thomas Neatby (the father of the author referred to in this book), Mr. Andrew Miller (the Church historian), and Mr. J. A. Von Poseck. We need not say more about the decisions of Park Street, save that the Raven division (1890) and the Glanton division (1908) are attributable to the same cause, such decisions being binding, because they were claimed to be ratified in heaven.
In later chapters we shall seek to expound Scriptural principles with regard to this matter of Church government. Where there is no wise guidance the people perish, and it is to the Scriptures we must look for guidance. From what we have here recounted, it should be clear that pre-eminence, whether of a single man or an assembly, is as great an evil as it was in the case of Diotrephes, and leads to the same result of “casting out of the Church.” If, however, men say that since the days of the apostles there has been such great apostasy that the early principles and practices cannot be put into operation then there is room for all manner of human expedients, and it is precisely this reason which was given by Darby, who enunciated the doctrine that “the Church is in ruins.”
Many questions have been raised as to what Mr. Darby meant in his “central doctrine of the ruin of the Church,” and it has been well-nigh impossible to reach what he meant by the term “Church” so used. But accepting what Mr. Neatby says, on page 88, as a correct definition of Mr. Darby’s thought, that the Church that is ruined is “The Church on earth, at each successive period (which) is thus the aggregate of the elect who are then manifested” we can understand at least his conception, though it is necessary at once to say that this conception of the Church, and the use of the word “Church” in this way, cannot be found in the whole range of the New Testament. We find the following uses of the word “Church” in the New Testament, but not one of them agrees with Mr. Darby’s idea of the Church:
- The secular use of the word church (Acts 19:32,39,41).
- Israel, the Church in the wilderness (Acts 7:38).
- The Church which is His (Christ’s) Body (Matt.16:18; Eph.1:22,23; 5:27).
- The Church of God and the Churches of God (1 Cor.1:2; 10:32; 11:22,16; 1 Thess.2:14; 2 Thess.1:4).
- The Church of the Living God, the House of God (1 Tim.3.15; Heb.3:6; 10:21; 1 Pet.2:5; 4:17).
- The Churches of Christ, the Churches of the Saints, the Church at the house (Rom.16:5,16; 1 Cor.14:33).
- The Church of the firstborn (ones) (Heb.12:23),
Mr. Darby’s “Church,” as comprising all the elect on earth at any one time in the dispensation, is entirely an idea of his own, and hence it is useless effort to endeavour to align his thoughts with those of the apostles. It is this loose and unscriptural use of the word “Church” that has led to all the confusion of thought on ecclesiastical matters in the writings of Brethren.
It cannot be denied that the Scriptures speak of a Church of God in a place and of Churches of God in several places. This conception is clear, but the moment the term “Church of God” is applied to all believers in all places upon the earth it is an impossibility to consider what the plural can be applied to. In place of the clear conception of the matter as given in the Scriptures we have a maze of spurious philosophy.
Another instance of the confusion of thought which arises from Darby’s false definition is given when we consider the matter of excommunication. The Exclusives claim that a person excommunicated by them is outside the Church of God on earth, as may be seen from a letter written by Mr. Darby on February 19,1864, concerning a brother excommunicated by the meeting in London:—
He…is rejected in London. The assembly in London have weighed, and I with them, the case, and counted him as either excommunicated or in schism. I put the two cases, for I only speak of the principle. I take part in this act, and hold him to be outside the Church of God on earth, being outside (in either case) what represents it in London.
Now if, as they hold, the Church of God on earth includes every believer, who finds his place therein by the act of the Lord and not of man, how did they get authority to put away therefrom? We might well ask, Where was the man when he was put outside the Church of God? The only logical conclusion from the definition is that he can no longer be numbered among the believers in Christ. Such power as this has never been granted to men. But the Scriptural definition causes no difficulty at all. The man of 1 Cor.5. was put outside the Church of God in Corinth, but he was still a brother in Christ.
One is perfectly certain that “the Church in ruins” is a mere theory; it is not the Church that is in ruins, but it is their doctrine that is in ruins.
VI. OPEN BRETHRENISM.
The present teaching and practices of those who refuse to follow Darby, and who maintained their position of neutrality in matters between one assembly and another, also need to be brought under review. So far as the reception of individuals is concerned there can be no doubt that the original basis of fellowship has been altered by them, though not to the same extent as by the Exclusives. The original basis of fellowship was described by Mr. A. N. Groves as follows:—
I ever understand our principles of communion to be the possession of the common life … of the family of God…These were our early thoughts and are my most matured ones.
Their present teaching appears to be that
Open meetings receive all who are (1) “Born again”; (2) “sound in faith”; (3) “godly in life.”
This is not the original basis of fellowship amongst the early brethren, and we have already quoted Mr. Groves as deploring any suggestion of making light, not life, the measure of communion. Experience proved the necessity of some more stringent conditions than those laid down in the beginning. Far be from us to controvert the conditions last mentioned. The weakness of the early movement was the ignoring of conditions (2) and (3), for doctrine and conduct are essential matters for examination when a believer applies for fellowship.
But more light needs to be thrown upon condition (2); assuming that it is the faith once for all delivered unto the saints that is referred to, then great care is needed to ascertain if Open Brethren are clear as to what is involved in being sound in the faith. If this faith is the body of doctrine to be found in the New Testament then soundness in regard to it can easily be tested, but we have no hesitation in saying that the application of this second condition is very short of what it ought to be, and we shall give many instances to show that those who do not accept the faith themselves can hardly be expected to make condition (2) what it ought to be.
For instance, some assemblies have no hesitation whatever in receiving unbaptized believers. Yet we would judge that the most elementary and concise exposition of what is involved in the faith is seen in Acts 2:41,42, with baptism in the very forefront. A larger number of assemblies have no difficulty about receiving to “occasional fellowship”. those who are unbaptized, and so permit them to partake of the Loaf and the Cup in remembrance of the Lord whose Lordship they have refused in its most elementary form. It matters little to many assemblies if these occasional visitors are in full fellowship with so-called churches where clerisy exists, or in which blatant infidelity is taught under the guise of High Criticism. It is regarded by some as sound doctrine for leading men among them to take the pulpit for a clergyman when they are asked, or to join hand in hand with sectarian organizations in gospel efforts and religious activities, reckless of the fact that many of those in such movements are “Christian” only in name, not by the experience of being born again.
We shall refer again to these matters, but sufficient has been said to show that while the conditions of reception into fellowship are theoretically correct, in practice they lack Scriptural precision.
Then as regards Church government the Open Brethren have followed the second alternative suggestion by Mr. Wigram (page 30):—
Would it be…better to allow the meetings to grow up as they may without connexion and dependent upon the energy of individuals only?
Meetings grow up without connexion, independent of each other in governmental matters. Mr. Neatby comments as to this (page 325):—
The looseness of the ecclesiastical organisation of the Open Brethren has saved them from the necessity of pushing local quarrels to the point of a “universal schism.” Each local meeting grants regular communion to such other meetings as it sees fit; and though there is some approach to an understanding amongst them as to what meetings should be generally recognised, there is nothing to prevent two meetings that disown each other from being both alike recognised by the mass of “open” meetings.
The Open Brethren are wont to hold up to ridicule the divisions and subdivisions of Exclusive Brethren, as though their own case in the matter of division were immaculate; but, truth to tell, if their own story were written, the record would be one of innumerable divisions. In fact, it is questionable if in any community whatever there have been so many quarrels, with consequent splits, followed by lasting feuds.
The new companies ofthe divided meetings neither receive from each other nor do the believers in the respective new companies recognize each other locally (till perhaps the original quarrel is forgotten). Sometimes when away from home, believers from both companies break bread together, which they would never do in their own home town. All this is held to be justifiable conduct, quite consistent with their doctrine, in agreement with the requirement of godliness, for they speak of being gathered on “Scriptural lines.” Many of their meetings came into existence as the result of some quarrel or internal trouble, not usually doctrinal, and so what seems to be a vast unity is, in reality, no unity at all, but an association or confederacy of meetings, each meeting being a self-governing body, having no governmental responsibility whatsoever toward any other meeting. The Open association is in fact and spirit a “Congregational Union.” It is one of the most democratic of institutions and we may well borrow the well-known definition of democracy and say that the Open meetings are characterized by “Rule of the meeting, by the meeting, for the meeting.”
VII. SEARCHINGS OF HEART REGARDING THE OPEN MEETINGS.
The unsatisfactory condition of the Open Meetings, and the irregularities disclosed in the previous chapter, naturally led to much searching of the Scriptures and of men’s hearts relative to what they learnt from them. The system was one of utter confusion to anyone seeking order in the things of God, with the knowledge that God is at all times a God of order, whether in nature or in grace, whether in heaven or on earth. This exercise was apparent as early as the year 1876, when a question appeared in “The Northern Witness,” and it slowly grew until a climax was reached in the year 1893. In order to understand what it was that troubled the minds of brethren we quote a letter which appeared in “The Witness” in October,1888, and this gives first-hand evidence of the state of things that existed even then when the subject had been under comment and discussion for some years.
About ten or eleven years ago I was what is called a Baptist, but several Christian friends pointed out to me the sin of being in any way mixed up with any sect, and that it was wrong for a Christian to attend any sectarian meeting for any purpose whatever, or in fact any meeting except those of believers gathered out to “The Name.” I then turned my back on sects once and for all, and broke bread with those who professed to be obedient believers, thinking that all those who met on the first day of the week around the Lord, really were gathered-out ones. Gradually I was undeceived, and, to my horror, found out that a large majority of those I met with, went in and out among the sects, and that they denied the truth of separation, and were angry at same being mentioned. In the town where I live we have a small meeting, and (would you believe it?) those in fellowship go to the following meetings, and in some cases take part in same—
- The (so-called) Church of England.
- Congregational Chapel, where the minister holds the doctrine of non-eternity of punishment.
- The Baptist Chapels, at one of which theatre-going is advocated.
- Wesleyan Chapel.
- Wesleyan Mission, where recitations, readings from novels and plays, and worldly songs are part of the attractions.
- A so-called unsectarian Mission, where every sect is represented.
- The Young Men and Women’s Christian Association Rooms—two of those in fellowship take part in the Bible Classes at these places.
- The Salvation Army.
- A Mission held by a nobleman, where, at the gospel meetings (men being present) women are encouraged to, and do, take part in the meetings. On Lord’s day evening brethren from various gatherings preach the Gospel at the hall here, and speak a word to the saints, but never mention the truth of separation. The elder brethren in the gathering not only do not mention the truth, but go to the above named meetings themselves. If any brother in the gathering does mention this truth (and only two profess to hold it in sincerity) it is always received with manifest tokens of disapproval, and the elders encourage the young saints to shut their ears to it. I have found an almost similar state of things in many gatherings, and that same is rapidly increasing. Can we wonder that but little blessing is visible in such meetings?
This condition of things is very grievous to one who has seen the truth of divine separation in obedience to the call of God, but to teach the truth of separation among Open Brethren was simply to introduce what is contrary to their accepted doctrine. There is no use trying to hide the naked truth. If sectarianism is sin in the eyes of God, as this letter which was printed in the “Witness” says it is, then the position of Brethrenism is serious indeed, for from the first they have moved in and out of the sects.
It is only when we study the Scriptural usage of the word “sect” that we get our eyes opened to the seriousness of this matter. The Greek word used in the New Testament denotes a choosing or a choice, and is thus applied to personal preferences or opinions, and it is especially used of such strong self-choosing which brings in its train divisions and the formation of parties. It is used in this sense, and rendered “sect” in Acts 5:17; Acts 15:5; 24:5; 26:5; 28:22, and it is so rendered in Acts 24:14 according to the Revised Version, but the Authorised Version renders the word as “heresy”. In Gal.5:20 the word is again rendered heresy, and we learn from that scripture that “heresies” are of the flesh. Many who have not examined the usage of Scripture may have an innate abhorrence of heresy and may yet not have realized that the same abhorrence should be applied to a sect, which is a name given to those who practise the heresy.
This was seen clearly by many earnest seekers after the truth whose experiences had been for many years the same as those so fully described above in the letter of 1888. It sent many to their Bibles to learn the way of God more accurately. There began to be much exercise in many quarters as to the Scriptural definitions of the Church which is His (Christ’s) Body (Eph.1:22,23), the Church which Christ is building (Matt.16:18), and the Church and Churches of God, the House of God, and the Kingdom of God, etc… .
In the December issue of the “Northern Witness”, of 1882, the following question appeared:—
Can an assembly of Christians who meet together on the same principles as those in apostolic days be called the Church of God, even though there be other Christians in Denominations in the same town or village?
To this was given the reply:—
The use of the term “the Church of God” in Scripture is very special, and surely refers either to the entire membership of the Body of Christ, as in 1 Cor.10:32; Acts 20:28; 1 Cor.15:9; 1 Tim.3:15; or to all the saints in a given town, as in 1 Cor.1:2; 2 Cor.1:1.
Local assemblies are termed “Churches of God,” see 1 Cor.11:16; 1 Thess.2:14; 2 Thess.1:4; “Churches of Christ,” Rom.16:16; “Churches of the Saints,” 1 Cor.14:33; “Churches of Galatia,” Gal.1:2; or simply “Churches.”
It is fitting to say “a Church of God” or “a Church of Christ” or “the Church meeting in” a certain hall, but to say that such an assembly is “the Church of God” in a certain town or locality, to the exclusion of saints who are not so gathered, is an assumption that is not warranted by Scripture, and which if persisted in will end, as all assumption must, in shame and confusion.
The answer is a fitting example of what we have indicated elsewhere regarding the Brethren’s loose and unscriptural use of the word “Church.” The Church of God according to the answer given to the question signifies three things:—
- It is an equivalent term to the Church which is Christ’s Body, and includes all the saints of this dispensation.
- It applies to a particular group of saints meeting in a certain hall.
- It also applies to such saints as meet in a particular hall plus all the saints who are not so gathered (even though they should be morally or doctrinally delinquent) in the particular town or village.
This is simply exegetical confusion. It is playing fast and loose with the proper names of Scripture, but it is a fair example, in few words, of the fog in the minds of Brethren in regard to the truth of the Church and the Churches of God.
Not long after this a tract appeared (actually written in 1883) entitled “The Church and the Churches of God”* by Mr. Frederick Arthur Banks, a young man who was deeply taught in the Word. It is of perhaps more than ordinary interest to note, that whereas many of his tracts were published by The Publishing Office of “The Northern Witness,” this one was published by Mr. H. Pickering, who carried on then a publishing office in Newcastle-on-Tyne. In this tract the truth concerning the Church and the Churches of God is stated in a clear and concise manner, and it had a salutary effect on the minds of many brethren at the time at which it appeared, and for years after. Some date the dawning of new light upon their exercised minds from the day the tract fell into their hands. It proved to them as beaten oil for the light of the testimony which was within a few years to be raised to the truth—truth which had lain hidden from the minds of God’s saints for long. Indeed we shall search ecclesiastical literature in vain to find traces of the truth in practice relative to the Church and the Churches of God, the House of God and the Kingdom of God. We do not deny the possibility that there may have been saints together who carried out similar truths, but their existence is not revealed by any history which is known to us.
Precious truths have been recovered by God’s servants at different epochs. To the early brethren we are all indebted for much in regard to the truth of the Body of Christ, and the coming of the Lord for the Church. But we must part company with them on the matter that membership of the Body, as in the case of the Exclusives, or, because we are children of God, in the case of the Open Brethren, forms the ground of gathering for saints in collective life and testimony.
* This tract has been recently reprinted along with other writings of Mr. Banks, in a book entitled “Spiritual Growth,” as a companion volume, to this book. It is not considered to be necessary to reprint it here, but the substance of it is incorporated in the exposition given later.
VIII. GIVING EFFECT TO THE TRUTH.
To carry out the principles of the Churches of God of earlier and purer days might well appear to be an unattainable ideal to many who had studied the development of the brethren movement during the previous sixty years, but for five years the truths set out in Mr. Bank’s pamphlet were pondered by many who were deeply exercised as to the place where the Lord would have them to be. Their writings evidence the way in which they sought to establish the things that remained, finding, alas, but little response. In 1887/8 therefore the time was judged to be ripe for a definite setting forth of truth relating to the Churches of God and God’s House. A “Circular message” was therefore issued in which it was stated that:—
Amongst the matters in which there has, in recent times, been much recovery of truth as to the will of God, those relating to the Churches of God, and to the divine principles which ought to govern the relationships of Christians to each other, as well as their collective dealings with the Lord, with their brethren, and with the world, have a marked and prominent place.
There are many whom God has greatly blessed through these truths, and to whom He has shown, in their place of separation, and sometimes of solitude, the secret things of His grace, in a manner they once never dreamed of. To some of these it has been an occasion of grief, of searching of heart, and of prayer, for a lengthened time, that amongst the many religious papers and magazines now issuing from the press, there is not a single periodical in which things that have been made precious to their own souls, are regularly and clearly presented, and this, though there are some publications which all rejoice to see circulating among Christians.
Of these it may be said, that each one is doing a special and peculiar work of its own, leaving still a want, a felt need, which apparently can only be met by the issue of a new magazine, that would be supplemental to those which are now in circulation amongst believers gathered to the name of the Lord Jesus.
In the hope of meeting this want in some degree, it is proposed to issue a New Quarterly Magazine, having as a special reason for its existence the regular presentation of truth as to the assembly of God, the fellowship of saints, the fellowship of assemblies, the order of the House of God, and kindred subjects.
With this special line of things, it is desired that papers on, and studies of, prophetic truth and other matters may be blended, as well as special articles on the question of doctrine and interpretation, which now disturb the minds of many Christians, and through which many souls are being led into the darkness of rationalism and infidelity.
The new magazine being born under such conditions took its name from the circumstances of its birth, and so was called “Needed Truth,” a very appropriate title, though a title odious to many, because of the truth which has been expounded in its pages. The new magazine appeared under the joint-editorship of J. A. Boswell, John Brown, A. J. Holiday, W. H. Hunter, and C. M. Luxmoore. Appearing quarterly until 1891, “Needed Truth” then became a monthly periodical, as at the present time (1947).
In October,1888, the first number appeared, and in the first article the significance of the new publication was reiterated in the following words:—
Despite all that has been written and published, despite the fact that many minds are ever at work in many forms of worthy diligence, it cannot be denied that one of the most important and needed lines of truth that have been given by revelation of God, yet remains almost without exponent in the press, certainly without serial exposition. If for a moment some may feel surprise at this assertion, may regard it as strained, or perhaps exaggerated, we would venture to suggest that such should ask their own memories how much they have seen in any paper they could recommend their younger brethren to read, of direct teaching as to that “house of God which is (an) assembly of the living God, pillar and ground of the Truth” or how much they have been helped to understand “the things concerning the kingdom of God”. by ministry in any present reliable periodical?
Different subjects have from time to time called for the production of new magazines, but who can doubt the great importance of the subject which provoked in the minds of men who were at the commencement of this magazine the need for such a vehicle for the teaching, without hindrance, of the truth of the House of God? Both the Old and New Testaments throb with the longing of the heart of God that He should dwell with men on earth. The glory of the millennial reign of Christ will radiate from the House of God, when the glory of the latter House shall be greater than the former. Sweet and precious as it is to know and realize in a measure what it is for Christ to unite men as members of His Body to Himself, to nourish and cherish such members of His Church, to minister to their need by the Gifts He has given for their edification, and to put a mutual care through grace into the members for each other; not less sweet and precious is the thought of God by the Spirit dwelling with men, who are builded together as a habitation for Him, in which they may do Him service with affection and devotion.
In Brethrenism, “the Church of God” and “the House of God” were used as equivalent terms for the Body of Christ, as though they included all believers in Christ, but it having become evident to brethren whom God had enlightened that this was mere confusion they could not but speak what they had seen and heard, cost what it might. No doubt one of two courses was open to them, either to go on quietly with that which was to them manifestly wrong, both in doctrine and practice, hide their light, live with a condemned conscience and dread the day of Christ, or, teach what God had taught them, with the inevitable consequence of doctrine—the seeking to practise what they had taught. The seeking to give effect to the truth caused the issue to be joined between them and those who wished to live in ecclesiastical error, who practised the “open table,” which they called the “Lord’s table,” and which they said was for “all” the children of God. Indeed some went the length of calling it the “Father’s table.” The teaching of the truth of separation was opposed by those who moved freely in and out of the sects, according to their feelings.
When it was apparent that the differences on matters of doctrine and practice were acute, a conference was called, which was held in Windermere, July 13-14,1891. The following is from the Circular calling the conference:—
In view of the marked and growing differences of judgment among brethren who are prominent as teachers and guides in assemblies of believers gathered to the Name of the Lord Jesus, especially in matters relating to the fellowship of assemblies one with another, a special meeting of such brethren was called on one of the days of the Conference held in Bradford last month.
A suggestion was then made that it might be well if a limited number of brethren representing the different lines of thought could meet together for two or three days: first, for confession and prayer as to the humbling and sorrowful fact of such differences; second, for quiet and careful examination of the Scriptures together, as bearing upon them.
This suggestion seemed to meet with the hearty approval of all present, and we were requested to make the necessary arrangements, and to invite brethren to come together, Windermere being suggested as a suitable place for holding the meetings …
We hope you will be able to share with us in these three days of waiting upon God together, and we would earnestly invite you also to help beforehand in seeking the face of God, that He would grant us all the spirit of grace and supplication, so that our coming together may be for His glory.
Will you kindly send word as early as possible if we may hope to have you with us?
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Alfred J. Holiday.
When brethren were in conference assembled, it was arranged that three brethren, from each of the three sections of thought in the Open meetings of those days, should address the conference, setting forth their respective points of view: (1) from the very open section; (2) from those who were not so open; (3) from the close section.
In the course of the discussion which followed, Mr. Holiday showed the inconsistency of the practice of the very open section, when he asked Mr. Henry Dyer (one of the very open Brethren) the two following questions:—
(1) Would you allow a Christian to break bread with you who presented himself at your assembly, but who did not wish to be received into fellowship?
To this Mr. Dyer answered in the affirmative, that he would allow such a Christian to break bread.
(2) If you had an application from a Christian for reception to fellowship, would you keep the applicant sitting behind those in fellowship for one Lord’s day, until his testimony had been received by the assembly?
Again Mr. Dyer answered in the affirmative, that he would ask the person to sit behind and not allow him to break bread until his testimony had been accepted by the assembly.
Mr. Holiday pointed out to Mr. Dyer how absolutely inconsistent this was for it put the person who wished fellowship in a worse position than the person who was merely a visitor and only wished to break bread—the visitor was inside sharing assembly privileges, but the person who wished to be permanently inside was kept outside.
The conference was fruitless of any substantial results, except to emphasize how far apart brethren were in doctrine and practice. The fact was that many leaders condoned the looseness and lawlessness of many of the Open meetings.
Despite the failure to reach agreement at Windermere there continued to be deep exercise of heart amongst many as to the truth newly opened up. By some assemblies of brethren the teaching was embraced wholeheartedly, whilst in others there was a measure of acquiescence without that positive acceptance which would have resulted in taking the definite stand of an assembly of God. Many of the assemblies holding to the truth realized their responsibility to their fellow Christians, and in the years 1892 to 1894 there was issued a number of letters (of which at least a score are still available) setting forth the reasons for the attitude adopted and henceforth to be taken by the individual assemblies concerned.
From Cardiff and Cromer, from Liverpool and London, from Belfast and Glasgow and many another gathering came brief, but positive, statements in all of which exercise of heart was manifest, together with a clear appeal to Scripture. One fact worthy of comment stands out, and that is the absence of connivance on the part of responsible brethren. The leading of God’s Spirit is clearly evident, and whilst some letters appeared as early as 1892, others followed more than two years later as the result of waiting upon God and “waiting one for another.” Extracts from some of these statements—all of which were signed by the overseers of the assembly—merit careful thought and are worthy of record.
We the undersigned, after long and patient waiting in hope of a better state of things being brought about in the assemblies in and around…believe in ourselves that the time has come when, at the bidding of the Lord, we must come out from that so-called fellowship in which we have been. It is with much sorrow of heart we take this step, for we may have to leave many behind whom we love in the Lord, nevertheless we can no longer remain in fellowship with that in which lawlessness and highhanded independency are openly allowed. There are meetings who receive with open arms those who at the bidding of the Lord have been put away from another assembly; also, receiving those who have gone away in open rebellion. By so doing they put an end to all Godly discipline. Others again receive from “non-eternity” meetings. Some allow men to come and break bread who are not in the fellowship. Some also allow un-baptised ones to be in the meeting. There are those who sit down in the morning to break bread and are found in fullest fellowship with all the sects in the afternoon and evening, and in so doing, are weakening the hands of those (especially in country districts) who are endeavouring to carry out the mind of the Lord. Others will not allow a word to be said about separation or Believers’ baptism. Much more might be said, but we refrain as we believe that what we have said will be quite apparent to spiritually minded men who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Should the overseeing men of any Assembly desire to have a conversation with us on this matter we shall be only too glad to meet with such.
Having for years past endeavoured to establish the fellowship of Assemblies, meeting only in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are grieved to say that our efforts have been futile, owing to the action of both Assemblies and individuals, for when companies have dealt with sin in their midst, other companies have immediately received the excluded ones, and so discipline has become of none effect.
Some, also, who have gone out in division, have been, and still are, upheld in their position by leading brethren from other parts of the country, and are invited to minister to the Saints and in the Gospel in violation of all principles of fellowship. At the bottom of all this, two opposite principles are at work; one party believing in only one Scriptural fellowship (for remnant days) as found in 2 Tim.2; the other believing in fellowship with all God’s children, termed “Open Brethrenism.”
These two principles we cannot see that God has ever linked together, and as we are told that “the servant of the Lord must not strive” we believe the time has come to step outside all that is of human arrangement, or is in fellowship therewith. We are therefore obliged to leave many beloved brethren whom we esteem, hoping that ere long they may take their place with us “outside the camp.”
Some will reply, “We are outside the camp”; others will equally assert, “We are nothing of the kind.” With the latter, we can have nothing in common regarding Church order; with the former, we have in many cases few points of difference save laxity in maintaining fellowship and discipline in the Church of God.
Ps.119:125-128; Num.15:14-16; 2 Tim.2:19-26; Rom.15:5-7; Heb.13:10-13.
The Lord has been exercising some of our hearts as to His chief interest on earth, viz.—His House (1 Tim.3:15) from which all blessing should flow to save and unsaved. We see from Lev.1:1, that the Lord spake to His people out of the Tabernacle, which was His earthly dwelling place at that time. We also see from Ezek.47:1-12 (please read carefully) that the water issued out from the House. Coming to the New Testament the same thing opens up (see 1 Thess.1:8).
In God’s mind all service should begin from His House. When Joshua was entering on his great life-work of service for God, he must present himself in the Tabernacle before God (Deut.31:14).
Paul, the servant, had the pattern of the House before he went to Corinth to preach Christ (1 Cor.3:10).
After much exercise of soul we clearly see that the fellowship in which we are has never been the result of such truths as these. We, therefore, in seeking to carry out the Lord’s mind, have to withdraw from this fellowship, though it separates us (for a little time only, we trust) from some who are desiring to maintain the same truths.
On Lord’s Day, June 11 (God willing), we will take this stand, and earnestly hope that the making known of our action through this circular may be the means of stirring up others to seek unto God and the word of His grace concerning His will in these matters.
In view of mutual obligation laid upon the Assembly and its guides, see Acts 20:28; 1 Thess.5:12,13; Heb.13:8,17, etc., we the undersigned, your servants for Jesus’ sake, now lay before you our united mind and judgments as to the Scriptural course for us to take in the crisis which has arisen among Assemblies professedly gathered into the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We believe the time has come to us to cease fellowship with every meeting, everywhere, which denies, or refuses to carry out, certain parts of “The faith once for all delivered unto the saints,” such as,
- The sinfulness of sects and sectarianism, Gal.5:20 (“Heresies”—sects, same word translated sect in Acts 5:17, etc., etc.), and our consequent obligation to be separate therefrom according to the command—”Abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess.5:22, R.V.).
- The breaking of the bread by the disciples of our Lord Jesus inside “The Fellowship” of “baptised” and “added” ones only (Acts 2:41,42).
- The application of the title “Church of God” to the local Assembly uniformly (never to the Body of Christ) and embracing only those who are “called out” and “called together” of God, as in 1 Cor.1:2, etc.
- The unity of the Assembly in any town, as composed of all therein who are gathered into the Name, though such may be distributed into many companies, meeting at different houses or other buildings, as “The Church (not Churches) which was in Jerusalem,” Acts 11:22, with its “multitudes,” Acts 5:14, yea, its “many thousands,” Acts 21:20 (“many ten thousands,” Newberry).
- The unity of the oversight thereof, as, Acts 15:4,6,22; 20:17, etc.
- The fellowship and collective responsibilities of Assemblies as grouped together in districts. Thus—”The Churches of Galatia,” Gal.1:2, “The Churches of Macedonia,” 2 Cor.8:1 (which are seen, in this chapter, perfectly joined together in the “ministering to the saints,” All the Churches uniting in one “gift,” verse 4, and the joint choosing of those administering the gift, verse 19).
- The further unity of districts as together forming but one “Flock” with one oversight circle, embracing in detail the “allotted portions” (see Newberry and Rotherham) of oversight locally, through the whole area. Compare 1 Pet.1:1 with 1 Pet.5:1-4 and further—
- The divine linking together of each Church of God with every like church the wide world over, as expressed in 1 Cor.1:2. “The Assembly of God which is in Corinth…in conjunction with all those invoking the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place—theirs and ours” (see Rotherham and Alford). One teaching everywhere, in every Church,1 Cor.4:17, according to the “one faith,” “once for all delivered unto the saints ” (Eph.4:5, Jude 1:3).
We cannot see how any company of saints rejecting these truths can possibly be a Church of God, seeing that a Church of God bears this divine characteristic—it is “pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim.3:15). And as we find in Scripture no linking together of churches except Churches of God, our fellowship evidently lies with such only.
In conclusion, we beseech you, individually, to examine, with much prayer and scrupulous care, every statement herein made, and every scripture referred to, which if endorsed by you will express and define our Assembly position from Lord’s Day, 22nd inst.
We, the undersigned, on behalf of saints gathered “Unto the name of the Lord” in…desire to communicate to you our withdrawal from a fellowship which has linked us on with “Open Brethrenism,” the teachings of which we find to be contrary to the Word of God (1 Thess.5:21). For years we have been contending against principles which have sought to overthrow “The Faith” once delivered to the saints (Jude 3).
Our efforts, however, have been hindered, for whilst we have been by the Word of the Lord as companies separated from such in our own city and neighbourhood, still we have found that by individuals locally, and professed teachers from distant places, we have been linked on with that which dishonoured our Lord Jesus Christ, and also by Christians bringing letters of commendation with them from Assemblies which refuse to teach “Believers’ baptism” and “Scriptural reception into fellowship,” but contend that every Christian has a right to the Table, at the same time being identified with sectarian movements.
We have not taken this step without much prayer and waiting upon the Lord for guidance, at the same time seeking to discharge our responsibility to each saint, that they may with us intelligently act before the Lord. It is a matter of great sorrow to us to have to separate from many children of God who are in this position, but refuse to leave it (1 Jn 5:2; 1 Sam.15:22). At the same time we pray that the Lord will deliver all godly ones from the snare into which, perhaps unknown to themselves, they have been led captive.
We, therefore, in much fear and trembling, seek to continue stedfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship (Acts 2:42), endeavouring to manifest Rom.15:6, by which God will be glorified and the name of the Lord honoured.
We pray that the making known of our action through this circular may be blessed by the Lord to the exercising of the hearts of those who desire to acknowledge Him as Lord, remembering the solemn injunction of 2 Tim.2:19—”Let every one that nameth the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness ” (R.V.).
We are deeply conscious that there is much of the will of God concerning which we are yet in ignorance, but our desire is to walk in the spirit of Phil.3:16 knowing that our Lord has promised that “If any man willeth to do His will, he shall know of the doctrine” (Jn 7:17), therefore our prayers to God and purpose of heart are that we might “stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col.1:9,10; 4:12), being fully assured that the path of obedience is always the safe one, and the only sure place of blessing—1 Sam.15:22; Ps.1:1,2,3; Ps.19:11.
Yet another assembly reported:—
We may have to leave behind those whom we love in the Lord, nevertheless we can no longer remain in a fellowship where lawlessness and independency are openly tolerated, and where sectarian Christians are being received to “occasional fellowship,” and where those who have been righteously put away from the fellowship are received with open arms, thus weakening and utterly setting aside all Godly discipline.
From a seaside resort a letter was issued stating:—
Our local circumstances (as residing at a favourite seaside resort) have brought us in contact with many believers from assemblies in England. By this means we have acquired such a knowledge of meetings beyond our locality as to cause us very considerable exercise of conscience. This exercise has increased greatly within the last few years, for, as God has been pleased to grant unto us increased light from His Word and increased knowledge of His Will, we have been increasingly pained and distressed by certain doctrines and practices which obtain elsewhere, and of which, alas, we have had sad proof before our eyes and in our ears…We are persuaded that deep down beneath the surface lies the root error that each Church is responsible only for itself, hence what one builds another destroys, and yet they are both “in fellowship.”
These are specimens of others of like kind and they may be left to tell their own story. Brethren who had seen the pattern of God’s House had to come out of the Open meetings where they were, if they were to give effect to the truth that God had graciously taught them. Whatever may be said to the contrary, this was their only course.
It has been said by many well-meaning but ill-informed brethren, that the brethren who left the Open meetings at the separation of 1893 should have remained where they were and put things right. The desire is a worthy one, but it manifests complete failure to grasp the issues that were at stake in the separation. The fact was that Brethrenism rested on a false foundation. The principles on which they came together and their basis of communion were wrong, and they are wrong to this day. Can it really be expected by the brethren who talk about putting things right, that those who believed in “occasional fellowship,” receiving unbaptized believers, going in and out of the sects, and many other things contrary to the Word of God would at length yield to teaching and entreaty? Was not this course followed for years before the separation took place? and instead of things becoming better they were becoming worse. Many spent years of fruitless labour in an endeavour to put things right and had at last to give up the task, convinced that it was hopeless. Some others remained behind among Open Brethren after the separation, thinking that this was the right thing to do, and sought to go on putting wrongs right. The following is an extract from a printed letter entitled “A letter to Enquirers concerning the Late Crisis,” by one who remained in the Open association after others had left, and had himself to come out later—
From our experience of nearly twenty years, we have known only of independent action, that is to say, in a city, such as London, where there may be twenty companies located in different parts of the city, each company acts upon its own independent basis, each one claiming to be a Church in itself, with its own oversight, etc., having the right to judge and act for itself, apart from the other larger part of those with whom they are in fellowship in the city. So that one refused fellowship at one company can and does get in at another, and further, the principle of independency which is held admits of even one being put away from one company for holding bad doctrine, being received by others, which makes it impossible for the will of the Lord to be carried out in connection with discipline or the order of His House; and further, the open Table, which is to be found at most meetings also admits of one from any sect in Christendom breaking bread.
We could enlarge upon this line, but refrain, our object being to bring the Word of God to bear upon such practices.
We had been long exercised about this condition of confusion and lawlessness, and had remained in it hoping that with others we could have put into practice the principles referred to in the foregoing pages; but after long experience we are forced to the conclusion that it is utterly impossible to do so, in the midst of so much diverse teaching.
Solemn facts having come to our notice (which we are prepared to give in detail to those who may desire it) led us to deep exercise before God, not to look for a Scripture upon which to “come out” as we had done; but rather to compare that which we were in with the Scriptures of Truth, to see if we had the Word of the Lord for being in that in which His will could not be done.
And after much prayer and carefully looking into His Word, which we believe to be written for all time, we humbly have to own that we cannot find one line of Scripture to justify us in remaining in association with that, the constitution of which we believe not to be based upon the Scripture of Truth…The deep sorrow in parting with those with whom we have happily laboured for so many years, has led us to know a little by experience of what it is to “buy the Truth.”
This extract and those previously given bear eloquent testimony to the fact that the brethren so acting, in separating themselves from other fellow-Christians, did so with sorrow in their hearts, and only after considerable exercise before the Lord. The honour of God and the love they bore to Him forbade condoning that which was evil. They bore with their brethren until it was evident that there was no remedy.
From that time brethren have sought in the Churches of God which are after the pattern of the Word, in the Fellowship of the Son of God, to give effect to the Word of God. It has been in much weakness, but the principles of subjection to the Word of God have been continually before the minds of all, and especially before the minds of those whom God has raised up as elders to care for the assemblies, to whom the saints look for spiritual guidance. These have exercised their care in the spirit of subjection one to another, so that the Fellowship has been maintained in unity in corporate testimony for the Lord. One serious failure occurred in later years which we shall describe, but this failure arose because this spirit of subjection was lacking. It was insubjection that led Satan astray, and the Lord came to earth to make it manifest that He Himself was subject to the Father. This is therefore the golden rule for men, that they should be in subjection to the Word, and to one another, in all the circumstances of their spiritual life.
IX. CONTENDING FOR THE TRUTH.
Those who separated themselves from the Open Meetings, having known the birth pangs of a new movement, had now to learn to dwell together in unity. It is often found to be easier to come together than to dwell together, and the latter needs much guidance and patience, much bearing and forbearing. It was not to be expected that Satan would allow those who came out at the Lord’s bidding from looseness and lawlessness to rest undisturbed; and it was not to be expected that every trace of Open Brethrenism would have been completely eliminated from the spiritual make-up of all who came out at the separation.
In the days of the remnant who returned from Babylon, everything that was Babylonish was not left behind.
Again, when Israel were separated from the Egyptians and came out to serve the Lord in the wilderness, a mixed multitude went up with them, and these were a trouble to them in days when they looked back to the land of plenty. So it happened in the case of those who came out at the separation, that there were traces of Open Brethrenism among them. In consequence of this, trouble arose in Ayr in the year 1901 over a comparatively minor matter, but with serious consequences to the Churches of God in Scotland.
The original cause of trouble was a case of discipline in regard to a man who had fallen into moral sin. His case was examined and the five overseers of the assembly judged that it was one demanding excommunication. It was duly intimated to the church on a certain Lord’s day morning that he was a person who should be put away, and a week was allowed in which any who were not satisfied with regard to his excommunication could lodge their objections with the overseers. On the following Lord’s day an intimation was made that a meeting had been arranged that evening with certain who had objected to the proposed discipline. At that meeting two of the overseers, while they made no attempt to help the objectors, indicated that they had now rescinded their former judgement and were now of the same opinion as the objectors. The meeting concluded with the objectors unsatisfied and the oversight divided, three overseers (including Mr. Vernal, an evangelist of considerable gift, and a man of strong personality) upholding the decision to excommunicate, the other two opposing it.
No further meeting was held by the overseers to reach unity of mind among themselves. The three, however, including Mr. Vernal, visited some (not all) in the assembly and acquainted them of the possibilities of action being taken on the following Lord’s day as regards the offender, and not only so, but on the Saturday secured another meeting hall against possible eventualities on the Lord’s day morning. The three overseers were determined to carry out the discipline despite the divided state of the assembly, and the ignorance of those who had not been visited relative to the state of disunity existing. No attempt was made to secure unity in the assembly, but instead a violent party spirit was manifest. There was apparently no thought given to the reaction which such a state of affairs would have on the rest of the Fellowship.
When the assembly was gathered for the breaking of the bread on the Lord’s day the three overseers sought to lead the assembly to excommunicate the erring brother, and when the other overseers immediately protested they left the hall to gather with their followers, elsewhere as previously arranged. Having then themselves excommunicated the man concerned they proceeded as a newly constituted assembly to break bread.
In point of fact there was no need for the party that left the hall to do so, for the man, over whom the trouble arose, was not present that day and the open breach with its train of tragedy might well have been averted had they waited. Moreover, a few days later there was to be the meeting of the overseers of the Churches of God in the County of Ayr, at which the advice and judgement of other overseers could have been obtained, with the possibility of unity of mind being secured.
On the following Saturday, when the meeting of the overseers in the district was held, the five overseers were all present, and at the commencement of the meeting the two overseers objected to the presence of the other three, owing to the fact, as they said, that these, with others, had left the assembly on the previous Lord’s day.
This was the beginning of trouble extending over several years, during which divided counsel prevailed throughout oversight circles in the country. This tragic state of affairs was largely the result of the activities of Mr. Vernal, who, in his movements among the assemblies, pleaded his own case and by virtue of his standing as an evangelist and teacher exerted considerable influence on overseers in many parts. We have, in fact, another example of that unrestrained individualism which was manifested by Darby. The practice obtaining among Open Brethren would have “solved” the difficulty by recognizing both companies in Ayr. Amongst those of whom we write, however, such a course could not be followed if any attempt were to be made to give effect to that righteousness which is a characteristic feature of the kingdom of God.
To what advantage would have been the separation from Open Brethren if, after about ten years of being separate from them, such a course of action as that had been permitted? The answer is, None, and in view of the division brought about in many assemblies by Mr. Vernal’s activities, four leading brethren, three from England and one from Ireland, were chosen to enquire into the Scottish trouble and give their conclusions thereon with a view to its settlement.
The investigating brethren pronounced their judgement to be that both sections of the overseers of the assembly involved were to blame for dividing the assembly. The two overseers erred in entertaining and supporting the objections to the excommunication (these objections being entirely without Scriptural foundation), and Mr. Vernal and his two associates failed in not taking proper steps to restore unity among the overseers. Moreover, their actions in visiting certain of those in the assembly, the taking of a hall in view of a possible separation, arid the consequent dividing of the assembly, were all judged to be serious failure.
The four brethren stated among other conclusions two which we shall denote for ease of reference by (a) and (b):—
(a) The overseers shall be of one mind in bringing a person before the assembly for excommunication.
(b) In the event of overseers becoming divided in judgment at any point in a given Case, they are responsible, by conference and otherwise, to take whatever steps are possible to restore unanimity. If perchance all efforts among themselves prove unavailing they should then approach the overseers of the county (or district) for advice and help.
When these conclusions were submitted to the overseeing brethren in Ayrshire, Mr. Vernal and others refused to accept conclusion (b), and some of the leading men in Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire also refused to accept that conclusion. One of them, Mr. McLaren, asserted that it was a new principle and they had never believed such a doctrine. It was evident that many in Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire were even more pronounced than Ayrshire men in opposing the principle contained in conclusion (b).
Nevertheless, a temporary settlement was come to, whereby Mr. Vernal and his associates were not asked to make confession of wrong conduct, and it was agreed that the principles for future procedure should be discussed at a representative meeting of meetings of Overseers of the British Isles, with a view to attaining oneness of mind in the Lord and securing uniformity of principle and practice throughout the Community.
In due course this conference was held in Glasgow in January,1904, and among other matters it considered the following proposition which we denote by (c).
(c) When overseers in a given circle have a difficulty in becoming of one mind in the Lord, the next larger circle of Overseers should come in to assist in producing the desired oneness of mind in the Lord.
The following comment on this subject was made in a Printed report of the discussion:—
This is manifestly of great importance. In it is involved the whole question of fellowship in the work of oversight. If it is not the duty, for example, of the overseers of a county or district to deal with a difficulty or lack of oneness of mind on any subject that exists amongst overseers of an Assembly of God, then the responsibility of the county or district circle of overseers is reduced to naught.
It is regrettable to have to state that men who for years have been known as taking a leading place amongst saints in Scotland refused to give their clear consent to this proposition. Moreover, in the course of the discussion, several statements were made by these brethren that manifested only too clearly that they held doctrines utterly incompatible with the maintenance of fellowship amongst overseeing men. In other ways also it was made clear to brethren from England, Wales, and Ireland, as well as to many in Scotland, that we had with us those who were not with us in the Truth, but whose doctrines and practices were subversive of the Faith once delivered to the saints.
The brethren from England and Wales and Ireland returned to the respective districts and took early opportunity of presenting the state of affairs to their fellows in the meetings of overseers in respect of the respective districts. Much prayer went up to God for His guidance and help, both privately and when we came together for conference in each district.
A meeting of overseers in England and Wales with those in Ireland was convened and was held in Birkenhead, April,1904, when four conclusions were arrived at unanimously, and of these we only need to quote the one related to (b) and (c) above:—
(d) When overseers in a Church of God have a difficulty in becoming of one mind in the Lord, the overseers in the county or district should come in to assist in producing the desired oneness of mind in the Lord. Similar responsibility rests on overseers in wider circles.
A further meeting was held in Glasgow in May,1904, to consider the conclusions of brethren in England, Wales, and Ireland. At this meeting the crucial point was this, that the supposed settlement of the Ayr matter had been accepted by many on the express understanding that the doctrines held and practised by those involved in that affair would be submitted to thorough enquiry. The reference of the matter to the British Isles Conference was a tacit admission of a principle which was not, as Mr. McLaren claimed, a new principle, for, as can be shown, it had been clearly taught in the early volumes of “Needed Truth.” It was inherent in the willingness of brethren to come together in districts and in countries. It is involved in the principle of being in subjection one to another. It was this lack of subjection as manifested in the stubborn and intransigent attitude of Mr. Vernal and his followers which was fully manifested at this meeting that made it evident that fellowship with them was an impossibility.
The final result of Mr. Vernal’s actions in Ayr was thus to bring about a wider and more sorrowful division throughout the Assemblies in Scotland. The Vernal party so formed had no solid foundation of divine doctrine, and the principles of assembly autonomy which they professed, as in the case of Open Brethren, could only lead to further division among them, which came about in due course in a very remarkable way. In Aberdeen three overseers sought to override two others, the very circumstances that had arisen in Ayr. The details are given in a statement read to the assemblies in the party in July,1934, from which we shall quote, and in greater detail in a booklet entitled, “A short history of the Aberdeen case.” The trouble ” necessitated the calling in of Boddam” (the only other assembly in the county) “to help towards a rectifying of the unhappy condition of things.” Boddam overseers reported a settlement to overseers in Lanarkshire, but trouble arose again, and Lanarkshire men were concerned about reports which reached them and offered “to send a small delegation to have a talk face to face,” but this was refused.
Lanarkshire, having had the door closed on them, and unable to move further, had either to acknowledge this plain and avowed Open Brethren principle of independency of Assemblies, or bring the matter to the next largest circle of Overseeing men, Scotland.
Aberdeenshire protested against it going there, but if listened to, what would have happened? If would have meant that Aberdeenshire, having closed the door, satisfied that Aberdeen’s action was right, would have compelled all the Assemblies to acknowledge a principle which they knew to be wrong, but would have been helpless to remedy. This would have meant, on the principle of Fellowship of assemblies, that we would have been with eyes open going on in Fellowship with evil.
These statements show clearly that there had been a complete reversal of attitude to the responsibility of assemblies to one another. The principles given in (a) to (d) above are here conceded. Much earlier than 1934, the overseers in Ayrshire, in June,1917, re-considered the original case in Ayr and framed the following minute:—
It was also pointed out that while we believed that the men guiding were right in carrying out the discipline of God and appearing in the assembly in a divided condition, that we do not believe this now.
This is the first confession, and the only one, so far as we know, by those who followed Mr. Vernal, that the overseers who forced division in the Ayr assembly had erred. In consequence of this, a few saw the need for a departure from the sectarian position into which they had been led by Mr. Vernal, and they returned with repentance and confession to their place in the Fellowship. It would have been well if all those, who saw in 1917 the truth of the principles which were flung aside by Mr. Vernal and his associates, had gone the further and logical stage of reviewing the error which had led them astray so long, and also if the plain lessons of the Aberdeen case had been reviewed alongside the history of the Ayr case.
Following the separation from Mr. Vernal and his followers, the Churches of God in Scotland were weaker in numbers, but they still held the truth which in the grim struggle of the preceding years had not been wrested from them. Unity among elders, a vital matter in their caring for the little Flock, still remained a fundamental principle in their collective life. Much had been learned in the hard experience of past days, and truths but dimly apprehended were more clearly defined. They had learned much as to how matters of difference, which were sure to arise among them from time to time, ought to be met and dealt with. The words of the Holy Spirit through Peter to the elders of his time had been fastened as a nail in a sure place: “Likewise, ye younger (elders), be subject unto the elder (elders). Yea, all of you gird yourselves with humility to serve one another: for God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time” (1 Pet.5:5,6).
It was seen that apart from this spirit of humility obtaining among overseers, and a due regard and esteem for each other, there could only be a repetition of the disastrous experience of the past, but if in humility and contrition of spirit they drew closer together then, with heart joined to heart and hand to hand, something could be accomplished that would be God-honouring amidst all the confusion existing on earth.
It is a great and glorious privilege, and none should dispute its rightness, to rebuild God’s House even though but a very small remnant is in it, nor should men wilfully allow the day of their life’s opportunity to pass without seeking to find a place in this great though lowly work.
X. THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE TRUTH.
Now that we have considered the way in which men have had to buy the truth, oft-times in much sorrow, it becomes us to set forth, briefly and systematically, the truth which we believe has been recovered. This we do in the spirit of Paul, that we might serve “God our Saviour, who willeth that all men should be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth ” (1 Tim.2:3,4). The following extracts from “Doctrines of the Holy Scriptures” deal with matters which have been prominently before us in preceding chapters: the Church and Churches of God, the Fellowship, and the care of the churches through elders. We close by a brief outline of some essential features of the truth of God in relation to these matters.
It has not been considered necessary to deal with many matters touching the individual lives of believers, the need for godly living, and for the manifestations of the Christian virtues which are becoming to all believers. We trust that none of our readers will think that we undervalue any of these things, which will be referred to in some small way in our last chapter, but it is our desire to keep clearly before the minds of all the particular truths with which we have been dealing.
” My Church “—His Body.
Before passing on to other subjects which are matters of human responsibility, we tarry to refer to the subject of the Church which is built by Christ (Matt.16:13-20). Into this believing ones are brought by Him, and in it are kept by Him beyond the power of man, Satan, or self to interfere or mar. In the days of His flesh the Lord spake thereof—”Upon this Rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” This work of building His Church the Lord began on the day of Pentecost (Jn 7:39, Acts 1:5) and has since continued.
This Church is also spoken of in Scriptures given through Paul as the Body of Christ, especially in connexion with its including believers both from amongst Jews and Gentiles (Eph.2:11-18; 3:6; 4:1-17).
As to entrance thereinto see 1 Cor.12:13: “In One Spirit were we all baptized into One Body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free, and were all made to drink of One Spirit.” Let it be well noted that it is not baptism by the Spirit or baptism of the Spirit. The baptism is in the Spirit into the Body, and clearly from Jn 1:33, Acts 2:33, and other scriptures the Lord Jesus Christ Himself is the One who baptizes in One Spirit into One Body.
That believing is the one thing now needed on man’s part for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and baptism by the Christ in the Spirit into the Body, appears plain from Gal.3:2,5,14 read in connexion with 1 Cor.12:13 (see also Acts 10:44,47 contrasted with Acts 2:38).
From the letters to Ephesus and Colossae we learn that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Head of the Body and the Saviour, that is the Preserver, of the Body, and we are thus assured that the place and portion of the believer in the Body is secure and eternal in virtue of the sovereign will and unfailing care of its Almighty Head.
We are not oblivious to the fact that manifold responsibilities to fellow-saints arise out of their and our position as co-members of the One Body, but rather seek grace to fulfil them unto the building up of the Body in love as the gracious Head may direct and help. This fact, however, in no wise touches the truth that the place of each member in the Body is in no manner or sense whatever conditional, but stands immutable because of the good pleasure of Him who has put us there.
From the early chapters of Acts we learn that the disciples were together in one Fellowship, or Community. This Fellowship or Community evidently consisted of all that believed who were together in obedience to the Lord. Commencing as a very small number they were rapidly multiplied. We note particularly the expressions used in Acts 2:41,47; 4:4; 5:14, whence we learn that they who received the word and were baptized were added. It is clear that the addition is something beyond that which necessarily accompanies believing. It is addition by the Lord and addition to the Lord, and is an addition of believing ones, of such as were being saved. Thus, the Fellowship increased in numbers.
We note that the Fellowship or Community, of which we read in Acts 2:42, “They continued stedfastly in the Fellowship” (so the Greek) and 1 Cor.1:9, “God is faithful through whom ye were called into the Fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,” must on no account be confused with that fellowship of which 1 Jn 1 speaks.
For this latter is fellowship, that is communion (partnership or common possession) with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ, first enjoyed by those who knew the Son of God in the days of His flesh, and then enjoyed by others to whom comes the declaration of what these had seen and heard. In other words the word “fellowship” of 1 Jn 1 describes the fact of common possession and common enjoyment, whilst the previously quoted passages (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor.1:9) describe as a Fellowship or Community those who have and enjoy and work in common, as a firm or partnership may do; but all under the Headship and control of our one and only Lord.
This Community of believing, baptized, and added ones is elsewhere spoken of as a Flock, or a little Flock.
The company around the Lord Jesus in the days of His flesh was comforted by Him in the words, “Fear not, little Flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (Lk.12:32). And the word here used for Flock, which is by some regarded as the diminutive of the word in John 10:16, is applied by Peter to the company of believers scattered through Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia, who though thus found in many places were regarded as a united whole, to be cared for as one Flock by the elders thereof (see 1 Pet.5:2).
And again Paul, in his parting words to the elders in Ephesus, speaks of the Flock in the which the Holy Spirit, had made or placed them as overseers; the Flock which the grievous wolves would not spare. We particularly note that the word “Flock” is used of those who are together in the love and fear of God under the leading of the Chief Shepherd.
Though applied to a company together in a single town, yet the word “Flock” is never used in the plural when the gathered saints in different towns are referred to, the governing principle being that expressed by the Lord in Jn 10:16, One Flock.
Compare here Song of Songs 1:5-8, where she who would avoid the flocks of the companions is bidden to go forth by the footsteps of the Flock, that is, His Flock. Though He has many sheep and many, alas! go astray beside the flocks of others, yet He Himself has but one Flock, though indeed it be but a little Flock.
Most important it is to observe the relationship of the Fellowship to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is His place, His portion in the midst of the world that has rejected Him. It is here that even on earth as in Heaven the will of God His Father may be done; and here, the reign of God may be known in the collective obedience of His gathered saints to His will and Word (Matt.6:10). From Him through the Holy Spirit whom He has sent, the Fellowship is supplied with power for collective worship of the Father and for testimony to the Name
The Fellowship must be carefully distinguished from the Body of Christ. Into the Body every believing one of this age is brought once and for all by the sole will and act of the Christ, the Head; from it none can ever be sundered, being kept there by the will of its Preserver; for this is the Church which He builds, against which the Gates of Hades never can prevail (Matt.16:18. See also Eph.1:22,23; 3:6).
Whilst the Body of Christ is heavenly as to its membership, for this is unconditional, the Fellowship is on earth, and they who pass away from this scene, though they continue to be in the Body of Christ, no longer have part in the Fellowship of which, for example, Acts 2:41,1 Cor.1:9, speak.
Moreover, confining ourselves for the moment to apostolic times, it was not only death which could sever one from the Fellowship (Acts 5:5; 1 Cor.11:30). We learn from 1 Cor.5:9-13 that one who had been called into the Fellowship had to be put out therefrom as an immoral person, a wicked man. Later on many went forth under different circumstances, as see Acts 20:30 and 1 Jn 2:19. All of these (except any who might have been unbelievers) continued to be in and of the Body of Christ though they ceased to have any share in the Community or Fellowship.
Nevertheless, we nowhere find in Scripture any justification for children of God being elsewhere than with those that call on the Lord out of a pure heart, in the Fellowship which is of the Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, careful consideration of the whole subject in the light of other passages of Scripture leads us to the solemn conviction that to be in any other association of Christians is absolutely contrary to the Word of God and the will of the Lord.
The Churches of God.
In the earliest days following after Pentecost the saints gathered into the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and forming the Fellowship, were all together in the one city Jerusalem and are called “the Church,” “the whole Church,” “the Church which was in Jerusalem,” “the Church of God” (see for instances Acts 8.3; 5:11; 8:1; Gal.1.13, respectively; especially comparing Acts 8:3 with Gal.1:13 and 1 Cor.15:9). And we desire especially to draw attention at this stage to the difference between the Church of God as mentioned here and the Church of which the Lord Jesus Christ spoke in Matt.16:13-20. The difference is sufficiently manifest here, for this Church of God in Jerusalem was laid waste, whereas such could never happen to the Church built by the Christ Himself, which is invisible to the natural eye and invulnerable against all attacks.
After the disciples had been scattered from Jerusalem in the persecution that arose about Stephen there was no longer only a Church of God in Jerusalem, but other Churches of Judaea (Gal.1:22). Later on as the gospel spread, and especially as a result of the work of Paul and his coadjutors, the Churches of God became numerous (see 1 Cor.11:16; 1 Thess.2:14; 2 Thess.1:4, for the use of the plural “Churches of God”).
The words of Paul to that particular Assembly or Church of God which was in Corinth, will help to mark the difference between a local Church, a Church of God, and the Assembly or Church which the Christ Himself builds. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase…we are God’s workers together, ye are God’s husbandry (or tilled land), God’s building. According to the grace of God, which was given unto me as a wise master builder, I laid a foundation” and so forth (1 Cor.3:6-15). So that here men are builders, whereas in the building of the Church which is the Body, there is but one Worker or Builder, the Lord Christ Himself.
Because that God is pleased to use human instrumentality for the planting of Churches of God, for their nourishment, their care, and their protection, it follows that the prosperity of Churches of God and their continuance in His favour are conditional, and in this again they are unlike the Church of Matt.16. That which pertains to Churches of God is conditional. Blessing and prosperity are possible, so too wasting and woe are possible. Love to God may abound or it may become cold. There may be times of revival, and alas! times of somnolence may follow.
The Church of God in any given city or town we understand to be those together of God in that place as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, baptized and added, added to the Lord, and added together and forming a local expression of the Fellowship of the Son of God (compare 1 Cor.1:2 and Acts 18:8-11).
The Assembly or Church of God in any town or city is one, at however many places the meetings of the Assembly may be held. The smaller company of disciples gathered for the Remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ and forming a part of the whole Assembly, where the whole do not meet in one building, is called in Scripture the Church at the house of such a one, a Church of the saints (1 Cor.14:33,34; 16:19; Philemon 1:2).
We never get the expression “Church of God” used of a smaller company than all who are together of God in a town or city. Neither is the expression “Church of God” ever used of more companies than those of a city. There is no such expression found as “the Church of God in Asia.”
The Churches of God in apostolic times were themselves very closely linked together, and in particular thus:—Assemblies very near were firstly linked in service and testimony (see Col.4:15-17 for example).
Assemblies or Churches of God in a country or in a province of the Roman Empire are found in Scripture to form a definite group for administration and joint responsibility. As see Macedonia and Achaia in 2 Cor.8,9.
The groups of Assemblies in contiguous provinces are further linked together, as see for instance Peter’s first letter addressed to those in the Flock in what is now called Asia Minor.
Finally, all Assemblies of God were recognized as forming one united whole; this is the Fellowship and the Little Flock of which we have already written. All these terms are applied to those who were together of God, and formed His House, His Temple, His place of dwelling and of rule on earth.
We have written of what was in those early days. We believe that God has made provision in His Word for the needs of a remnant in later days, who turning back from the traditions of men, seek to find all they need in God and the Word of His grace. Assured of this we find ourselves together in a Fellowship which is indeed of God’s Son, there, by answering grace, to remain till the Lord come, or we become absent from the body and at home with Him.
Elders and Overseers.
In the very beginning of the history of the Fellowship, after the Lord’s ascension, the responsibility for rule and ministry manifestly centred in the apostles. Even before the first scattering they associated others to some extent with themselves as to service (see Acts 6:1-6). But especially afterwards we find others acting with them, as witnessed for instance by the contribution for saints in Judaea being sent to the elders (Acts 11:30). Compare too in this connexion Acts 15, and note Acts 15:2,4,6,22,23, also Acts 16:1-5. Evidently the elders were being educated to act together as would be necessary for them when the apostles were no longer with them (see Acts 21:19).
In connexion with the planting of Assemblies of Gentile believers we find Paul and Barnabas pointing out certain of the leading men among those who had been made disciples to be elders of the Church (see Acts 14:23). The word translated “ordained” in the Authorised Version means literally, “to stretch out the hand” and is correctly rendered “appointed” in the Revised Version. Note that here it is the apostles Paul and Barnabas who appoint; not the Churches, as in 2 Cor.8:19, where the same word is used, but where those appointed were simply stewards of a temporal gift. These men of Acts 14 were not made elders (that is, older men and leaders) by the apostles, but being already such, and being approved, they were appointed to be elders of the Church in the given town.
Everywhere in apostolic times we find a group of men responsible for the rule and guidance of the Flock. These are often called overseers (bishops), in reference to their duty or business of caring for and overseeing the Churches of God. See in passing, Acts 20:17-35; 1 Thess.5:12,13; Phil.1:1; 1 Tim.3:1-7; 5:17; Titus 1:5-9; Heb.13:8; 1 Peter 5:1-5; Rev.1:20.
From the first to last of New Testament Scripture we find the elders or overseers acting together during the apostolic period. In the admonition of Paul to the elders at Ephesus (Acts 20:17-35), and often in other scriptures just listed, it is to be noted that the overseers are addressed together, which suggests joint responsibility. And much that is said necessarily involves their joint action, as for example in 1 Thess.5:15, where they have to prevent any in the assembly from rendering evil for evil and themselves to follow good one toward another as well as toward all. Again, in the same scripture it is together that they are exhorted to prove all things.
In Acts 16:2 we read that the brethren had together recommended Timothy to Paul as a fit coadjutor, whilst 1 Tim.4:14 mentions that the presbytery (that is, elderhood) had put their hands on him in fellowship with Paul, when Paul had imparted to him the gift to which he refers in 2 Tim.1:6. This use of a word in the singular for the elders (presbyters) acting together clearly marks their corporate action. And it is to be noted that those brethren were from more than one Assembly of God (see Acts 16:2). For even if it be claimed that “brethren” of Acts 16 includes a larger circle than “presbytery” of 1 Tim.4, still the very use of the word “presbytery” is itself proof positive that elders acted together as a corporate whole.
So also 2 Cor.8,9, and Rom.15:26 show us the Churches acting unitedly by their elders in Achaia and Macedonia, for, as the brother who was to accompany Paul was appointed by the Churches, it is clear that those who had the care of the Churches must have acted together in connexion with his appointment. The very word used for “appointed,” which means to appoint by show of hands, indicates that the overseers by whom the Assemblies acted were together for the purpose of appointing; and afterwards they approved him by their letters (compare 1 Cor.16:3).
Then Peter in his first letter exhorting elders in the Assemblies throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia to care for the Flock speaks of them as being among the Flock, and then as having the Flock among them—language clearly indicating the necessity of unitedness on their part.
Finally, in the very latest time of Scripture, we find the angels of the Churches in that sad time of declension are as seven stars in and upon the hand of One like unto a son of man. This clearly shows His will that His serving ones should be united (Rev.1:16,20, and Rev.2:1).
Essential Features of the Truth.
In conclusion one might summarize essential features of the Truth as expressed by the Fellowship in the following statements:—
I. We believe that all believers of this dispensation, from Pentecost to the coming of the Lord for the Church, the Body, form that Church which is the Body of Christ, and that all these believers are baptized in one Spirit into one Body (Acts 1:5; 1 Cor.12:12,13). They are in consequence members of Christ (1 Cor.6:15), members of His Body (Eph.5:30), and members one of another (Eph.4:25). No unregenerated person can be a member of the Body. Against this Church which the Lord is building the Gates of Hades cannot prevail (Matt.16:18) and it will be presented by the Lord to Himself without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing (Eph.5:27).
II. We believe that the term “The Church of God” describes a local Church, into which saints are gathered with local responsibility and accountability, as for instance, the Church of God in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1; Gal.1:13).
There was only one Church of God in a city, however many Churches of the saints might be comprised in it, companies that met at different houses. It is the merest confusion to speak of ” The Church of God on earth.” Scripture knows nothing whatever of such an idea. That the Church of God is a local thing is proved by the fact that we read, time and again of ” the Churches of God “—the Churches of God in Judaea (1 Thess.2:14; Gal.1:22), the Churches of Galatia (Gal.1:2), of Macedonia (2 Cor.8:1), of Asia (Rev.1:4,11). (See also 1 Cor.11:16 and 2 Thess.1:4).
III. There is no such thing in the New Testament Scriptures as being a member of the Church of God. Membership is of Christ, or of His Body, or of one another. Membership shows the vital and indestructible union that exists between the Lord and His own, and between all who are His.
IV. Saints who are in a Church of God are added thereto (Acts 2:41,42)—and may be excommunicated therefrom for moral sin (1 Cor.5:4,5,7,13), doctrinal error (Titus 3:10), or trespass against a brother, unrepented of (Matt.18:15-17), but this does not affect membership of the Body, nor does it affect the pristine condition of holiness of all members of Christ’s Body, for the Church will be presented to Christ without spot. Saints may be cast out of the Church unlawfully (3 Jn 10). The Church of God anywhere may cease to be, as have all the New Testament Churches long ago. Note the warning to the Church in Ephesus, in Rev.2.5.
V. The House or Temple of God is not the Church, the Body of Christ. This is evident from the fact that those in the House may cease to be therein, as the House of God is conditioned upon “if we hold fast” (Heb.3:6), and the Temple of God can be corrupted and consequently destroyed (1 Cor.3:16,17). There is no need to hold fast in the case of members in the Body, and the Body for ever remains without spot. Moreover, the House of God is the place where judgement begins (1 Pet.4:17), but there can be no judgement in the Body.
VI. We find God’s House in the Old Testament (for both the Tabernacle and the House built on Mount Moriah are called the House and Temple). The House of God will be built again in the Millennium, and will be the centre of all religious activity on earth in those days of coming glory (Isa.2:2-4; Zech.6:13). The Church, the Body, is an eternal purpose which God purposed in Christ, which is being fulfilled in this dispensation of grace (Eph.3).
VII. The Church of God should be ruled and cared for by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17; Titus 1:5). These should be definitely recognized, and known by those over whom they are in the Lord (1 Thess.5.12,13; Heb.13.17).
VIII. Saints are taught to obey them that have the rule over them (Heb.13:17), not some of them (even as children are taught to obey their parents, not their parent), hence, in all matters in which saints are called upon to act under the guidance of overseers, the overseers should never appear before them in a divided state. Unity in the oversight circle is absolutely essential to the maintenance of unity in the Church of God.
IX. When overseers in a Church of God have a difficulty in becoming of one mind in the Lord, the overseers in a county or district should come in to assist in producing the desired oneness of mind in the Lord. The wisdom of this course should be evident to all, so that the Church may be saved from internecine strife and probable rupture.
X. No man should be allowed to predominate so that he has power to sway a Church of God or the Churches of God as he may deem proper, according to his own personal view of what is right.
XI. As the Churches of God were linked together in Roman provinces, it was necessary in the joint acting of those Churches that the Overseers of the Churches should be joined together. Hence, when the brethren in Antioch sent relief to their brethren in Judaea, where there was a famine, they sent it to the elders (of Judaea) by the hand of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:29,30). In 2 Cor.8,9 and Rom.15:26, we read of the Churches of Macedonia, and also of Achaia, contributing to the need of the poor in Jerusalem. Likewise, overseers are seen joined together and caring for the Flock in wider areas than one Roman province. See how elders are addressed by Peter in five Roman provinces (1 Pet.1:1; 5:1-10). If the Flock is to be one then the elders must be one.
XII. Men who are leaders amongst the people of God ought to consult together on matters affecting the well-being of God’s Flock, especially on the important matters of doctrine and the promoting of the Lord’s work (Gal.2:1-10), and decisions that are called for regarding doctrine and practice amongst God’s people should be settled in a conference of elders, after the character of the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-29), at which were settled the matter of circumcision and such other matters as are mentioned in verse 20, in relation to the Gentiles.
XI. SPEAKING TRUTH IN LOVE.
It was the desire of the apostle Paul that the disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ should speak truth in love that they might grow up in all things into Christ (Eph.4:15) with the further object that the Body of which He is the Head might be built up in love. This visualized the need for the divine unity of verse 16 where the functioning of the Body is seen. Here is the high ideal and it is with this in mind that the spiritual experiences described in this book have been analysed. It may be a lofty vision of the apostle which he had before him, for saints to be perfected unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, but it would ill become us to despair of such an ideal being realized. Nearly two thousand years have rolled on since the apostle wrote, and, if it is still true that we are as children of whom he wrote in verse 14, it is high time that we be no longer so. Men have been, and still are, tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, and this will continue while men are content with the ruins which they allege to exist, or with the unordered and ill-defined system of assemblies that deny the very thought of being fitly framed together (Eph.2:21,22) which was before the mind of the apostle in the Epistle to the Ephesians.
If the desire of the Lord for His disciples is to be realized we need to be assured as to His will. It is very evident that there must be, on the one hand, repudiation of the sectarianism which has so disastrously wrecked the unity amongst saints of God on earth, and, on the other hand, recognition of the fact that such unity on earth is essential to the exercise of service of a corporate character, which the Lord expects from His people. That service is of a threefold character, and this will be outlined later. But let it be emphasized again that visible unity for it is imperative, and that Scriptural principles alone must delimit that unity as expressed by persons. There must be no taking lower ground so as to include more, or as many as possible, of God’s children, no tolerance or latitude allowed for merely human opinions. There must be abandonment of sectarian position and views, and a wholehearted, single minded submission to the Word in harmony with the desire of God, “Who willeth that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim.2:4). It may be that such a position, involving as it does a rejection of much of traditional Christianity, will find those who occupy it in comparative fewness of numbers, much weakness, and very real reproach. But such will have for their encouragement the lesson of the remnant day of Ezra and Nehemiah, of whose lot and experience their own are reminiscent (as God indeed designs that they should be) and to which there is a close analogy.
The threefold service mentioned above is the broad classification of 1 Pet.2, covering worship, testimony and fellowship. There is, within the scope of these particular departments of Divine service, a diversity of occupation and ministry.
The high and primary service of God’s united people is Godward in worship. This is the service of the Holy Priesthood delineated in 1 Pet.2:5, whereby spiritual sacrifices, i.e., the sacrifice of praise (Heb.13:15), are offered to God through Jesus Christ, Himself the Great Priest over God’s House (Heb.10:21). This high service of the sanctuary finds its functional centre in the weekly remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ, when God’s gathered people, confronted again by the emblems which the Lord appointed to bring Himself to remembrance and to show forth His death, are led in heart-felt worship to give unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ their tribute of thanksgiving and praise.
Then secondly there is the world-ward, or man-ward, service by the Royal Priesthood as presented in 1 Pet.2:9. Herein as from God’s House there flows out to men a testimony to redeeming love, a witness to the gospel of the grace of God for the salvation of sinners and a testifying of the Kingdom of God as the true place of the redeemed in subjection to the claims of Christ as Lord. Thus, testimony in the gospel is not only to “rescue the perishing,” but it is something much more than that, as the Lord showed once for all in the commandment of Matt.28:16-20. The instruction was to make disciples, to baptize them, and to teach them to observe all things which He had commanded them. For this service Scripture envisages a people “dwelling together in unity.”
Thirdly, and still with 1 Pet.2 in mind, the design of the Lord is to have His people together as a “holy nation,” as His Fellowship or Community—His called out and called together people: “That they may all be one…that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). There can be little doubt that infidelity has been reinforced because of the schismatic condition of the children of God, and the multiplicity of creeds and heresies (or choosings)—opposed as it is to the Divine ideal ” that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfected together in the same mind and in the same judgement ” (1 Cor.1:10). Indeed the Fellowship is designed for fellowship (not division and chaos), a fellowship of saints having fellowship in Divine things, together as fellow-citizens, fellow-workers, fellow-elders (in their place, sharing together in unity a responsibility for the rule of God’s people) and, as circumstances may require, fellow-prisoners. To take as an example the grand ideal of “fellow-citizens”; their heavenly citizenship (Phil.3:20) is not simply a remote objective of heavenly hope, though it is that too, but a present and practical expression of corporate heavenly life on earth, expressing distinctive heavenly life by way of behaviour— abjuring worldliness in all its forms and being found “transformed by the renewing of your mind that ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Rom.12:2). This, in unity of corporate life, “walking in the Spirit” (Gal.5.), is the realization in the present of the “Holy nation” (1 Pet.2).
These three ideals of Christian faith—oneness in service Godward, and then man-ward, oneness in nationhood as they are one racially—these are the only worthy aims for those who have “tasted that the Lord is gracious.”
Those who have tasted of the graciousness of the Lord Jesus should endeavour to drink deeply of the well of truth which springs from Him. As our hearts are moved to contemplate the Lord who died for us in the dark night of Calvary, we should remember that He desired His disciples to be kept from the world and sanctified in the Truth. For any of us to be content with any but the fullest expression of the truth of God is but a reflection of the feebleness of our love for the Man of Calvary.
Oh, wonder to myself I am,
That I can view the dying Lamb,
Can scan the wondrous mystery o’er,
And not be moved to love Him more!
The truth He came to declare is in the Word of God: “Thy word is truth.” It should be our joy to explore to the uttermost what is revealed therein. Some may say that they have sought to honour the Lord in their individual lives, and have sought ever to live godly lives. All that is in the Scriptures, and all that has been written by godly men, as to this aspect of truth is dear to us as our own souls, and we would fain stay to set forth here and now something of the excellencies of the Lord Jesus Christ that each of us might the more enjoy the life that is in Him. We have not been unmindful of these things, but we have had before us a particular line of truth which many believers have hitherto neglected and we believe that in the framework of this truth the collective and individual lives of believers may be exhibited in all fulness and perfection.