Evaluating the Plymouth Brethren Heritage

M. Irons

The style of Assembly meetings came from the Plymouth Brethren:

• No paid pastor (supposedly)--'open platform' for two or three brothers
• Semi-circle seating
• Women wearing head coverings in church meetings
• Acapella congregational singing of traditional hymns
• Extemporaneous congregational prayers
• Weekly communion, called 'the Lord's table'
• No collection but a box in the back for 'tithes and offerings'

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 a Bible study in Dublin, and soon became the leader, 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 preached the absolute necessity of separating from all organized churches.  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, Darby became the dominant force among them.

Darby applied his mantra, 'Separation from evil, God's principle of unity', to individuals who disagreed with his edicts. Eventually he even excommunicated one of the founding leaders. 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.

There was disagreement among the groups about this measure. Darby called upon the leaders of each assembly to 'judge the question'. Those groups which agreed with Darby withdrew from the others and became known as the Exclusive Brethren, a schism that exists to this day.

Several things stand out in this history:

  • One man dominated the movement as a whole, and one or two men dominated in each local gathering. In other words, there was a clergy, and they were the strongest personalities.
  • These men were unaccountable and unchecked in their use of power. This clergy had fewer check and balances than in the established churches.
  • Differing views on non-essentials were not tolerated.
  • Teaching on non-essentials overwhelmed the central message of what God has done for us in Christ. There were no "Articles of the Christian Faith" to keep the central doctrines in the forefront, and provide a reference point for doctrinal debate.

Former Geftakys Assembly members, 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 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 his book, 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 still used as a reference by serious church historians. 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:

  • "...[He] taught the dissolution of marriages", speaking of [his followers] Priscilla and Maximilla, who left their husbands for the ministry
  • "...laid down the law on fasting"
  • "...renamed Pepuza and Tymion, insignificant towns in Phrygia, as Jerusalem, in the hope of persuading people in every district to gather there"
  • "...appointed agents to collect money, who contrived to make the gifts roll in under the name of 'offerings'"
  • "...subsidized those who preach his message"

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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