Evaluating the Plymouth Brethren Heritage

M. Irons

Many people who were in George's Assemblies have great loyalty and affection for the ideal of the simplicity of New Testament gathering. They have a strong conviction that it is the Biblical way for the church to meet. 

Steve and I have a lot of sympathy for these folks. We were married at Westmoreland Chapel, and still keep in touch with friends there. Westmoreland and the Geftakys Assembly ministry were both offshoots of the Plymouth Brethren movement which began in the nineteenth century under J. N. Darby. A look at the early history of the Brethren is instructive for us from the Assemblies, because it shows that there were weaknesses in the outworking of the ideal of New Testament simplicity, particularly as it developed in the branch of the Brethren known as the Exclusives, which the Geftakys ministry most closely resembled.

At this point, I can hear some readers deciding to read no further, because they think this will be a biased attack on the Assemblies. This article is not an attack; it is an attempt to let history speak for itself. In several ways, the Brethren history has been already been repeated in the Assemblies.

A Brief Overview of Brethren History

In the 1820's in England and Ireland there were scattered small groups of believers who were meeting in homes for prayer and Bible study. The early vision was to throw off, as they saw it, the 'trappings of religion', and worship simply, without ordained ministers or carefully orchestrated meetings. J. N. Darby, a young Church of England clergyman, was frustrated by his presiding bishop. He joined the Bible study in Dublin, and soon became the dominant force, even though mature men like Dr. Edward Cronin had begun the meeting.

Darby took the subject of problems in the established church and escalated it into his doctrine of the failure of all God's dispensations, including the church age. He believed it was his calling to preach this message of ruin. Some in the Bible study groups disagreed with him, but by the force of his preaching and voluminous writing, and tireless travel to visit the groups, his ideas prevailed. The result was that even though the Brethren "broke bread" every Sunday, the centrality of Christ's work on our behalf was at least partly obscured by interest in Darby's new doctrines.  

In 1832 B. W. Newton invited Darby to minister to the group gathering in Plymouth. Newton, as the key leader, was allowed to make that kind of decision. By 1845 Darby separated from Newton on the grounds that Newton was teaching heresy on the person of Christ.

In the Bristol gathering Henry Craik and George Muller made the decision to receive people into fellowship who had been with Newton. Darby strongly opposed this on the principle of 'Separation from Evil, God's Principle of Unity'. Darby called for all the assemblies to "judge the question".

This caused the division between the open brethren, who agreed with Muller and Craik, and the exclusives, who followed Darby, which exists to this day.

In 1879, the exclusives excommunicated Dr. Cronin, M.D., one of the founding leaders of the Brethren from the 1820's, on the charge of "independency". He had visited a new meeting begun independently of the Brethren, which supposedly violated 'God's principle of unity.' Dr. Cronin was made to sit in the back in the "seat of the unlearned", and died broken-hearted three years later, at the age of 82. Such was the harsh extreme to which Darby carried his control and zeal for schism.

Several things stand out in this history:

Can we stay focused on these facts and draw the necessary comparisons and conclusions? Something very precious to us is being called in question, something which we not only believe in, but have experienced and wholeheartedly committed ourselves to. As George would say, the joy of gathering in simplicity is "better felt than tell't". 

Just how difficult it is to see that there could be problems with the cherished ideal is dramatically demonstrated by E. H. Broadbent in The Pilgrim Church. He cites the Montanists, who appeared in the Phrygian desert in A. D. 160, as one of the exemplar little flocks who faithfully stood for New Testament simplicity.

But the real facts about the Montanists are not difficult to research. They are described by Eusebius in The History of the Church, written in A. D. 324, which is a standard reference for serious church historians today. Eusebius describes how prophetic revelations were received by Montanus and his two prophetesses:  They were "filled with spiritual excitement and suddenly fell into a kind of trance and unnatural ecstasy. [They] raved and began to chatter.." They taught that God was still giving new revelation to the church through these prophecies. Montanus claimed of himself, "I am spirit and word and power." Eusebius says further of Montanus:

Obviously these were serious problems. The Montanists were declared by the bishops in Phrygia to be an heretical sect. Nevertheless, this is what Broadbent says about them:

In view of the increasing worldliness in the Church, and the way in which, among the leaders, learning was taking the place of spiritual power, many believers were deeply impressed with the desire for a fuller experience of the indwelling and power of the Holy Spirit, and were looking for spiritual revival and return to apostolic teaching and practice. In Phrygia, Montanus began to teach, he and those with him protesting against the prevailing laxity in the relations of the Church to the world.

The Montanists hoped to raise up congregations that should return to primitive piety, live as those waiting for the Lord's return and, especially, give to the Holy Spirit His rightful place in the Church. Though there were exaggerations among them in the pretensions of some to spiritual revelations, yet they taught and practiced needed reform.

Interestingly, the characteristics seen in the Montanists are also seen in the early Brethren--the desired simplicity degenerating into power in the hands of a self-appointed few, who emphasize doctrines that obscure the centrality of what God has done for us in Christ.

Loyalty to the Brethren presuppositions clouded Broadbent's evaluation of the Montanists, and the Brethren, and caused him to overlook big problems in his eagerness to justify and legitimize Brethrenism.

This is the danger we face. In our dedication to the ideal of 'New Testament principles of gathering' there is a strong tendency to overlook major problems in actual gatherings.

It is easy to assume that abuse of power has been eradicated with the excommunication of George Geftakys. But the problem is, 'simplicity of gathering' encourages this problem to emerge. In the Geftakys Assemblies, all the Leading Brothers were stringently trained to be controling.

Then there is the problem of aberrant teaching in the Geftakys Assemblies. Seminary training was scorned as head knowledge. But the local gathering as the schoolroom of the believer is a self-perpetuating closed system. To avoid Broadbent's error, the warnings about aberrant teaching in a Brethren style group must be seriously evaluated.

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