What Happened to the Power?
In the early nineteenth century, there arose a group of Christians that did not call themselves by any name at all. As a matter of doctrine, they refused to accept any denominational label. They simply referred to themselves as brethren, but others called them the Plymouth Brethren. This group was famous for its outreach. As described in the extract below, in only a few decades it spread from its origin in Dublin, Ireland, to a world wide fellowship. Though it never grew much larger than 600,000 people, it had a very disproportionate influence on the worldwide church as a whole. Missionaries from this movement evangelized nearly half of Africa. C. I. Schofield, the author of the famous Schofield Reference Bible, came from the Plymouth brethren movement. Hal Lindsey, the famous teacher of Bible prophecy, reportedly said that the Plymouth brethren taught us almost everything we know about Bible prophecy. James Ryrie, author of the famous Ryrie Study Bible, wrote that the Plymouth brethren taught us almost everything we know about the Holy Spirit. And fully a third of the Hebrew and Greek reference works in common usage today came out of this movement. The origins and early growth of this movement were described by their main leader, Mr. J. N. Darby, in the following extract from a letter addressed to a Prof. Tholuck sometime in the 1850's, about thirty years after this movement began.
“What was to be done? Where was this unity, this “body”? Where was the power of the Spirit recognised? Where was the Lord really waited for? Nationalism was associated with the wold; in its bosom some believers were merged in the very world from which Jesus had separated them; they were, besides, separated from one another, whilst Jesus had united them. The Lord’s supper, symbol of the unity of the body, had become a symbol of the union of this latter with the world, that is to say, exactly the contrary of what Christ had established. Dissent had, no doubt, had the effect of making the true children of God more manifest, but here they were united on principles quite different from the unity of the body of Christ. If I joined myself to these, I separated myself from others everywhere. The disunion of the body of Christ was everywhere apparent rather than its unity. What was I to do? Such was the question that presented itself to me, without any other idea than that of satisfying my conscience, according to the light of the word of God. A word in Matthew xviii furnished the solution of my trouble: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” This was just what I wanted: the presence of Jesus was assured at such worship; it is there He has recorded His name, as He had done of old in the temple at Jerusalem for those who were called to resort there.
“Four persons who were pretty much in the same state of soul as myself, came together to my lodging; we spoke together about these things, and I proposed to them to break bread the following Sunday, which we did. Others then joined us. I left Dublin soon after, but the work immediately began at Limerick, a town in Ireland, and then in other places.
“Two years later (1830) I went to Cambridge and Oxford. In this latter place, some persons who are still engaged in the work, shared my convictions, and felt that the relation of the church to Christ ought to be that of a faithful spouse.
“By invitation I went to Plymouth to preach. My habit was to preach wherever people wished, whether in buildings or in private houses. More than once, even with ministers of the national church, we have broken bread on Monday evening after meetings for christian edification, where each was free to read, to speak, to pray, or to give out a hymn. Some months afterwards we began to do so on Sunday morning, making use of the same liberty, only adding the Lord’s supper, which we had, and still have, the practice of taking every Sunday. Occasionally it has been partaken of more often. About the same time also some began to do the same in London.
“The unity of the church, as the body of Christ, the coming of the Lord, the presence of the Holy Ghost here below, in the individual and in the church; an assiduous proclamation of the truth, as well as the preaching of the gospel on the ground of pure grace and that of an accomplished work, giving in consequence the assurance of salvation when received into the heart by the Spirit; practical separation from the world; devotedness to Christ, as to Him who has redeemed the church; a walk having Him only as the motive and rule; and other subjects in connection with these – all this has been treated of in separate publications as well as by means of periodicals; and these truths have been largely spread abroad.
“A good many ministers of the national church left nationalism in order to walk according to these principles, and England became gradually covered with meetings, more or less numerous.
“Plymouth being the place where most of the publications originated, the name “Plymouth brethren” became the usual appellation given to such meetings.
“In 1837 I visited Switzerland, and these truths began to be known there. I returned there more than once. The second time, I remained a considerable time at Lausanne where God worked in conversions, and gathered a number of the children of God out of the world. There were already, in Switzerland, Dissenters who had suffered faithfully for the Lord during twenty years previously. But their activity had declined considerably, and it even seemed that the movement was about to disappear. The work of the brethren has, to a certain extent, by the goodness of God, filled the country, conversions having been numerous. In German Switzerland, the work spread to a much less degree. On two occasions of my spending a protracted time in Lausanne, some young brothers who desired to devote themselves to gospel work spent nearly a year with me in order to read the Bible. We also partook of the Lord’s supper together every day.
“At the same time, quite independently of what was going on in Switzerland, a brother who was labouring in France had awakened an interest in a considerable district where the people were, in general, plunged in infidelity and darkness. Some also of the young brothers of whom I have spoken, and two or three others whose acquaintance I made, but who never stayed with me, went to work in France. Other laborers, belonging to societies, believing that they would be happier working under the Lord’s immediate direction, and not as subject to committees, gave up their salaries, considering such arraignments to be unknown, both in fact and in principle, to the scriptures, since their very existence attributed to the possession of money the right to direct the work of the Lord: these began to work in simple dependence upon the Lord, trusting to His faithful care. God raised up others also, though it still remains true that “the harvest is great and the laborers are few.” God has blessed these labourers by conversions, numerous, thank God, especially in the south of France. From the beginning I have visited these countries and shared with joy the troubles and fatigues of these brothers; but it is they who have actually laboured at the work. In some places, I had the first troubles; in others I have only visited, taken part and helped, when the work was, thank God, already begun. He gave us to be of one heart and one soul, mutually to be helpers of one another, seeking the good of all, whilst recognising our individual weakness.
“Almost about the same time, in the eastern part of France, a like work had begun, independently of this one. It has also been visited, so that at the present time the work extends from Bâle to the Pyrenees, with a fairly large gap in the districts of which Toulouse forms the centre. The country is more or less covered with meetings, and the work, by God’s grace, is still going on.
“I ought to say that I have never meddled in any way with the calling nor with the work of the brethren who studied the Bible with me. As regards some, I have the conviction that they had not been called to it, and they have, in fact, gone back into the ordinary routine of life. As to others, I only helped them in the study of the Bible, in communicating to them the light which God had given me, but leaving entirely to themselves the responsibility of their calling for the work of evangelization or teaching.
“We had the custom of gathering together occasionally for some time, when God opened the way for it, to study scriptural subjects together, or books of the Bible, and to communicate to one another what God had given to each. During several years, in Ireland and England, this took place annually in large conferences which lasted for a week. On the Continent, and latterly in England, they have been less attended; and consequently, with fewer numbers, it has been possible to spend a fortnight or three weeks studying some books of the Bible.
“My elder brother, who is a Christian, spent two years at Dusseldorf. He is engaged in the work of the Lord, wherever he may happen to be at the moment. He has been blessed to several souls in the neighborhood of Dusseldorf. These, in their turn, have spread the light of the gospel and the truth, and a certain number of persons have been gathered in the Rhenish provinces. Tracts and various publications of the brethren have been translated and largely distributed; and light as to the soul’s deliverance, the true character of the church, the presence of the Holy Ghost here below, and the Lord’s return, has been disseminated.
“Two years later, helped, I believe, by the knowledge of these truths, but entirely independent of this work, a movement of the Spirit of God began at Elberfeld. There was in that town a “Brotherhood” which employed twelve laborers, if I am not mistaken, whom the clergy sought to forbid from preaching or teaching. Enlightened as to the ministry of the Spirit, and moved by love for souls, they would not submit to this interdict. Seven of these labourers, I believe, and a few members of the “Brotherhood” detached themselves from it, and certain of them, with others whom God raised up, continued their gospel work, which spread from Holland to Hesse. Conversions have been very numerous, and many hundreds assemble at the present time to break bread. More recently the work has begun to get established in Holland, as also in the south of Germany. By means of other instruments, two meetings in Wurtemberg already existed.
“Gospel preaching in Switzerland and England has led to the formation of some meetings amongst emigrants to the United States and Canada; the evangelisation of negroes led to others in Jamaica and Demerara,, as also amongst the natives of Brazil, through a brother who went there and has since died. I am not aware of any other who knows the language sufficiently to continue this work, which has been blessed. The English colonies of Australia have also meetings; but this sketch will be sufficient for you.“
– From “Letters of JND,” vol III, pages 356-360 (Morrish edition) or 301-305 (Stowe-Hill edition)
Today, the Plymouth brethren have almost no outreach. They have an almost insignificant effect on Christians who are not actually part of their fellowship. Indeed, most Christians of today have never even heard of them. What has been the cause of this change? How could a group that was once highly effective so completely lose its outreach? To understand this, we first need to understand the differences between the beliefs of the original Plymouth Brethren and of the modern ones. These differences, and the differences in the results they produce, can be instructive to all Christian groups.
The original Plymouth brethren fellowship has been splintered into numerous sub-groups. In this study, we will concentrate on one of these sub-groups. This group is called by some the “exclusive” brethren. Others call it by various other names, including the “Darby” brethren or the “Tunbridge-Wells” brethren. Internally, they refer to themselves simply as “the meeting.” It is difficult to prove what these brethren teach, because very little of their doctrine has been reduced to print. But their reasoning runs approximately as outlined in this article. My personal knowledge of their doctrines and reasoning stems from close association over a period of many years. I count many among them as dear friends. I can personally testify that, as a whole, they are one of the most godly and loving fellowships to be found anywhere. This article should not be interpreted as an attack upon this group, but as constructive criticism for them, and a warning to others.
We will begin with the differences between the original Plymouth brethren group and the modern one in their interpretations of Matthew 18:20. This is where the Lord promised to be in the midst where two or three are gathered together in His name. The modern Plymouth brethren point out that in this verse the words “are gathered” are passive. They reason that this means that the promise will only hold true where a group is gathered by the Spirit of God. So they conclude that it would not apply if a group gathered themselves together, even if they gathered in Christ’s name.
They correctly observe that the Spirit of God desires to gather all the saints of God together as one. Their prime scripture for this is, “there is one body.” (1 Corinthians 10:16,17) But they have lost sight of what this one body is. The problem is not that they do not know what it is, for they do know it. If you ask them to tell you what the one body is, they will correctly tell you that it is the sum total of all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. But in their sub-conscious minds, the one body has become their circle of fellowship. I must stress that this is sub-conscious, for when challenged on it, they will almost universally deny that they believe this. They are not lying. They really believe what they are saying. But they are mistaken. Indeed, the scriptures say that “he that trusteth in his own heart is a fool.” (Proverbs 28:26)
What they really believe is demonstrated by the application they make of this scriptural principle that “there is one body.” They compare this with scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 1:11-13 and 1 Corinthians 3:2-3, where division is so severely denounced. They conclude that there must of necessity be a single fellowship which God recognizes. They call this “the truth of the one place.” From this they reason that any Christians who gather together independently of that fellowship, that “one place,” could not possibly have been gathered by the Spirit of God. So the promise of Matthew 18:20 would not apply to them, and the Lord would not be in their midst. They say that others eat the Lord’s supper, but not at the Lord’s table. Some years ago, one of their national leaders personally told me that any group that was not in fellowship with this group, would not be the Lord’s table, “even if they know the truth, and even if their attitude is right.” Others of their leaders are not this extreme, but still hold the “one place” doctrine.
This is radically different from the interpretation placed upon Matthew 18:20 by the original Plymouth brethren, as typified in the writings of J. N. Darby, their most prominent leader. He wrote:
“As regards details, take heed to the promise of the Lord, ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ (Matt. xviii. 20)* That is what the heart needs that loves God and is tired of the world. Reckon upon that promise of the Lord, you children of God, disciples of Jesus. If two or three of you meet together in His name, He will be there. It is there that God has put His name, as of old in His temple at Jerusalem. You need nothing else but to meet together thus in faith. God is in your midst; you will see His glory. How greatly has not that God of love blessed us by the simplicity of His intercourse with us! Do not think that you have to build spiritual palaces in order that God may come and dwell in your midst. If two or three are gathered together in His name, it may be a poor tent, but God is there. Do not pretend to build palaces when you have only the materials for huts.”
“* It has been asked why this portion of the word has been taken rather than others tom be applied tom the present time. It is astonishing to what a degree pre-occupation of the mind blinds the judgment. Do not people see that this is a promise which only requires the faithfulness of Him who has promised? Where two or three are gathered together in the name of Jesus, the word receives its accomplishment...”
– From “Remarks on the State of the Church”, from “The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, vol. I, Ecclesiastical vol. I, pg. 419 (Moorish 1st ed.) 427-428 (Moorish 2nd ed) 272-273 (Stow-Hill ed.)
Again, he wrote:
“If there are but two or three met together in the name of Jesus, He will be there... If you are but ‘two or three,’ who have faith for it, meet together: you will find that Christ is with you...”
“I conclude by a few propositions:–
“1. The object to be desired is the gathering of all God’s children.
“2. The power of the Holy Ghost can alone effect this.
“3. Any number of believers have no need to wait till that power produces the union of all (provided they act in the spirit of unity, which, if carried out, would unite the whole body of Christ), because they have the promise that, where two or three are gathered together in the name of the Lord, He will be in the midst of them, and two or three may act in reliance upon this promise.”
– From “On the Formation of Churches”, from “The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, vol. I, Ecclesiastical vol. I, 230-233 (Moorish 1st ed.) 233-237 (Moorish 2nd ed) 150-152 (Stow-Hill ed.)
He also wrote:
“As regards the promise of the presence of Jesus in the midst of two or three met in His name, it is not I who institute anything, if I meet with others. It is Jesus who accomplishes that which He promised...
“It is a mistake to restrict to discipline the scope of the promise. It is, on the contrary, one reason for which discipline thus exercised is recognized by God; and that reason is, that Jesus is there. But this precious declaration is applicable, and more directly applicable, to requests made in similar circumstances than to discipline. It is a fact always true that, where two or three are met in the name of Jesus, Jesus is there. It is a general declaration given as a reason for which discipline is valid. For, says the Lord, where two or three are met in my name, there am I in their midst. Nothing more simple.”
– From “Scriptural Views Upon the Subject of Elders”, from “The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, vol. IV, Ecclesiastical vol. II, pg. 314 (Moorish ed.) 205 (Stow-Hill ed.)
From each of these quotations it is clear that Mr. Darby did not interpret the words “are gathered” in Matthew 18:20 as having a passive limitation. The most clear statement of this is in the last quotation, where he wrote, “It is a fact always true that, where two or three are met in the name of Jesus, Jesus is there.” Here he changed the words “are gathered” to “met.” His real meaning in doing this is demonstrated by some of his other statements, in which he changed the word “where” to “wherever.” Once, he not only changed it to “wherever,” but stressed the change, putting the word “wherever” in italics.
“But there is provision in the word for this ruined state of things wherever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name...”
– From “What the Christian Has amid the Ruin of the Church”, from “The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, vol. XIV, Ecclesiastical vol. III, pg. 445 (Moorish ed.), 242 (Stow-Hill ed.)
“What I felt from the beginning, and began with, was this: the Holy Ghost remains, and therefore, the essential principle of unity with His presence for (the fact we are now concerned in) wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them. When this is really sought, there will certainly be blessing by His presence. We have found it so, most sweetly and graciously, who have met separately here...
“When there is an attempt at displaying the position and the unity, there will always be a mess and a failure. God will not take such a place with us. We must get into the place of His mind to get His strength; that is now, the failure of the church. But there He will be with us...
“I only therefore seek the original standing of the church, as to believe that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, Christ will be; and that the Spirit of God is necessarily the only source of power, and that what He does will be blessing through the lordship of Christ. These provide for all times. If more be attempted now, it will be confusion only.”
– From “Letters of JND,” vol I, pages 114-115 (Morrish ed.) or 94 (Stowe-Hill ed.)
These quotations clearly show that J. N. Darby interpreted Matthew 18:20 differently than the modern Plymouth brethren. The difference is clear and fundamental. Mr. Darby taught that the promise of Matthew 18:20 applied to all Christians everywhere. The modern Plymouth brethren claim that they are its sole beneficiaries.
But now we must ask, how do they come up with the idea that they are the ones to whom this promise applies? Even if there was indeed only “one place,” how do they convince themselves that their fellowship is that one place? It is clear that they could not even pretend to demonstrate such an idea from scripture. But when confronted on this, their most common answer is, “you have to go back to history.” What do they mean by this? We come back to their unique interpretation of Matthew 18:20. Their reasoning runs approximately like this.
In 1827 a small group of Christians realized the promise of Matthew 18:20 and claimed it. The Lord, being true to His word, recognized this and blessed this group with His presence. But since that time sad division has come in. When the group divided, the Lord clearly could not recognize both groups. If He were to do so, that would be sanctioning independency. (This, to them, is so obvious they do not need a specific scripture to prove it.) They claim that in all the divisions that have troubled Plymouth brethren, every other group either left them in self will or was put out for evil. This, in their opinion, left them as the “original” group, and thus the sole beneficiaries of the promise of Matthew 18:20. Their presentation of this line of reasoning often ends with a statement that they are the only group that still holds all of the doctrines of that “original” Plymouth brethren group. Though it may be expressed in different words at different times, this is the true basis of their claim that the promise of Matthew 18:20 applies only to their fellowship. They call this the doctrine of “original ground.” Though some of them deny it, this is the basis, and the only basis, of their claim that the Lord could not recognize any group except themselves. But they have abandoned the central essence of most of the distinguishing doctrines of those original Plymouth brethren.
The modern Plymouth brethren’s “one place” doctrine has led to an interesting legend among them. According to this legend, before the original Plymouth brethren laid claim the promise of Matthew 18:20, they made a careful worldwide search to see if any other group had ever claimed this promise, not acting on it until this search had been completed. This is based on their notion that the Lord could not recognize more than one group of Christians. If this were the case, then the legendary search would have had to be made before anyone could have legitimately claimed the promise. If it would have had to be made, then of course it must have been made. So they conclude, without any evidence of any kind, that it was made.
But the written record shows exactly the opposite. In the first quotation in this article, we read “Four persons who were pretty much in the same state of soul as myself, came together to my lodging; we spoke together about these things, and I proposed to them to break bread the following Sunday, which we did. Others then joined us.” So we see that the legendary search never took place. When Mr. Darby first proposed claiming the promise, they acted on it the following Sunday. The other quotations above clearly show why such a search was never made, or even thought of. The original Plymouth brethren clearly taught that anyone could claim this promise at any time, anywhere. Indeed, Mr. Darby’s account included repeated references to places where the movement sprang up independently. As noted above, he said this of the work in France, then again of the work in eastern France. Further down he said it again of a place called Elberfeld. In addition to this, he told of other places where the movement sprang up, although he did not specifically use the word independently. These were in London and Wurtenberg. As all this was said in approving fashion, we see that the original Plymouth brethren had no problem with others claiming this promise independently of themselves. Indeed, when it was done, Mr. Darby simply counted these as part of the movement.
We have seen one significant difference in the doctrines held by the original Plymouth brethren and the modern ones. The original Plymouth brethren insisted that the Lord would recognize any group that simply met in His name. The modern ones think the Lord only recognizes themselves. I believe the real secret of their loss of outreach lies in this one doctrinal difference. But although the details are different, the same error has paralyzed many other Christian groups. Numerous Christian groups think they are the only group recognized by God. Many others, while not this extreme, think no other group quite measures up to their high standards. There are few attitudes more destructive of communication and understanding than this attitude of superiority. In my personal ministry I have visited many Christian groups. But I have not found even one that has this attitude and also has a significant outreach. In the Bible, Job sarcastically told his friends, “No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.” (Job 12:2) But then he added, “But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these?” (Job 12:3) This is the typical response of people who are confronted with such attitudes.
Before we continue, we need consider this concept, held by many Christian groups, that they are the only ones God recognizes on this earth today. We read in 1 Corinthians 10:15-17, “I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” Plymouth brethren, original and modern alike, call this “the truth of the one body.” But whatever we call it, this is a very important principle. We are all one. But who is the “we” in this passage? To see this, we need to see who this was addressed to. We find this in the epistle’s first chapter. It begins: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:” – 1 Corinthians 1:1-2. Thus we see that, although the ancient church at Corinth was the immediate subject of the epistle, it was also addressed to “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” This is the one body recognized by God on this earth. Now no particular group of Christians, no circle of fellowship that exists today, is or can be that one body. Why? Because the one body is the sum total of “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.”
We might consider any group on the face of the earth. There are real Christians who are not part of that group. These other Christians truly “call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” But they are not part of the group we are considering. Then the group under consideration is not the one body, because the one body is “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” Since this is true of every group, every circle of fellowship on the earth today, no group is, or ever could be “the one body.” Now if we claim that God recognizes one particular group above all others, we deny “the truth of the one body” as it is taught in scripture. If the one body is a particular group, then it is not the sum total of “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” If, on the other hand, God recognizes the sum total of all and also recognizes a particular group above all others, then there are two bodies that God recognizes on earth today. But God very clearly says there is only one body.
How important is this truth of the one body? We see this in the seventeenth chapter of John, where we are admitted into the deep, internal counsels of the godhead; Jesus praying to the Father. What did He request? Among other things He said, “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” -- John 17:20-21 Our Lord requested that they “which shall believe on me through” the word of the apostles “may all be one.”
Now many dismiss this unity our Lord desired through an invention called the “mystic body.” They say that the Church is really one, even though visibly fractured and divided. Its unity is thus reduced to something “mystical.” Something real, but invisible. But this neglects our Lord’s stated reason for desiring this unity. The unity he desired was to have been a real, practical, vibrant unity “as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” it was to have been something the world could see, for the stated reason for this request was “that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” Now if this unity was to have been something that would have made the world believe, it would have to have been something visible, not just “mystical.” For if the world did not see the unity, it would not make them believe. Do we care, brethren? Does it make any difference to us that this was, as it were, our Lord’s dying request, made just before “he went forth over the brook Cedron, where was a garden, unto which he entered, and his disciples.” – John 18:1-2.
What effect should this have on us today? In Ephesians 4:1-6 we read, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” Do we care, brethren, or do we value our own groups above the one body that our Lord called us to manifest to the world? (It does not matter whether we call our groups churches, assemblies, denominations, fellowships, or anything else.) If we value our own group above the whole body of Christ, we are not being true to Christ.
We could stop here, but as a kind of appendix, we can further benefit by noticing an associated change in doctrine that has completed the destruction of Plymouth brethren’s outreach. Again, this is instructive to the entire church of God, because so many other groups have made similar mistakes. This doctrinal change came in the concept of how to become part of the group. Most Christian groups have some kind of a procedure to become recognized as one of themselves. In some cases you must sign a church covenant. In others you must be baptized into the group. Others have other requirements. But in most cases, you can not be recognized as part of the group until you have completed some kind of requirement beyond a simple faith in Christ and a consistent life. In the modern Plymouth brethren, this requirement is called being “received into fellowship.” While the procedure for reception is not clearly defined, everyone is either “in fellowship” or “not in fellowship.” And the only way to become “in fellowship” is to be “received.”
This is radically different from the concept of the original Plymouth brethren. In speaking of the unity of the body of Christ, Mr. Darby wrote:
“The spirit of a sect exists when we see disciples unite outside this unity, and when it is around an opinion that those who profess it are gathered, in order that they may be united by means of this opinion. The unity is not founded on the principle of the unity of the body, nor of the union of brethren. When such persons are united in a corporation, and mutually recognise each other as members of this corporation, then they constitute formally a sect, because the principle of the gathering is not the unity of the body; and the members are united, not as members of the body of Christ, when they are even such, but as members of a particular corporation. All Christians are members of the body of Christ– an eye, a hand, a foot, &c. (1 Cor xii 13-25.) The idea of being a member of a church is not found in the word. The Holy Ghost compares the Church on earth to a body, of which Christ is the head (Eph. i. 22,23; Col. i. 18); then each Christian is a member of this body, so of Christ. But to be a member of a particular corporation is quite another idea. Now, the supper of the Lord being the expression of this union of the members, (as says 1 Cor. x. 17), when a corporation of Christians recognizes its right to receive its members to it, there is a unity formally opposed to the unity of the body of Christ. It is possible that this may be ignorance, or that these Christians have never apprehended what is the unity of the body, and that it is the will of God that this unity be manifested on earth; but, in fact, they form a sect, a denial of the unity of the body of Christ. Several of those who are members of the body of Christ are not members of this corporation; and the supper, though the members partake piously of it, is not the expression of the unity of the body of Christ.
“But now a difficulty is presented: the children of God are dispersed; many pious brethren are attached to this opinion, to that corporation, and mixed up for advantage’s sake, even in religious things, with the world. There are, alas! Many who have no idea of the unity of the body of Christ, or who deny the duty of manifesting this unity on earth. But that does not annihilate the truth of God. Those who unite themselves, as I have already said, are but a sect in principle. If I recognize all Christians as members of the body of Christ, If I love them, and receive them, from an enlarged heart, even to the supper, supposing they are walking in holiness and truth, calling upon the name of the Lord out of a pure heart (2 Timothy ii. 19-22; Rev. iii. 7), then I am not walking in the spirit of a sect, even although I cannot gather all the children of God, because I walk according to the principle of this unity of the body of Christ, and seek practical union amongst the brethren. If I join with other brethren to take the Lord’s supper only as a member of the body of Christ, not as a member of a church, whichever it may be, but verily in the unity of the body, ready to receive all Christians who are walking in holiness and truth, I am not the member of a sect; I am a member of nothing else but of the body of Christ. But to gather upon another principle, in whatever manner it may be, to make a religious corporation, is to make a sect. The principle is very simple. The practical difficulties are sometimes great by reason of the state of the Church of God; but Christ is sufficient for all; and if we are content to be little in the eyes of men, the thing is not so difficult.
“A sect, then, is a religious corporation united upon another principle than that of the body of Christ. It is formally such when those who compose this particular corporation are regarded as being the members of it. It is to walk in the spirit of a sect when those alone are recognized in a practical manner, without giving themselves out as properly members of a corporation. We do not speak of the discipline which is exercised in the bosom of the body of Christ, but of the principle upon which we are gathered together. The word does not recognize any such thing as to be a member of a church; it speaks always of the members of the body of Christ. But these are bound to manifest unity in walking together.”
– From “What is a Sect?”, in “The Collected Writings of J. N. Darby”, vol 14, pp 552-554 (Morrish ed.); 363-365 (Stow-Hill ed.)
Now the concept of receiving members into a group is not in itself crippling in regard to outreach. Indeed, this is such a universal practice that very few would ever object to it. In truth, this is included in this article mainly to demonstrate the total reversal of doctrine that this group has experienced. It is rather the use of this concept that has damaged the outreach of the modern Plymouth brethren. And that damaging usage is all too common in Christian groups today.
The modern Plymouth brethren point to the many scriptures that tell us to have no fellowship with evil. This is commanded in regard to sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5:1-8 and in regard to other kinds of serious sin in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 and 2 Timothy 3:2-5. It is also said in regard to teachers of anti-christian doctrine in 2 John 2:9-11. But contrary to scripture, these modern Plymouth brethren include every kind of doctrinal error in their definition of evil. Indeed, one of their national leaders personally told me that he did not know how to distinguish between error and evil. This, of course, makes anyone who disagrees with themselves on anything, an evil person. If this bad notion was unique to the modern Plymouth brethren, it would be bad enough. But sad to say, this attitude, while usually not quite so extreme, is very common in religious groups today.
The modern Plymouth brethren will occasionally allow a member of some other religious group to partake of the Lord’s supper as a visitor. But they will never allow newcomers to be “received into fellowship” until they have withdrawn from whatever group they came from. I personally challenged one of their local leaders on this once, asking him if someone really thought the Baptist church was more right than “the meeting” (as they called their fellowship), would it be godly for that man to withdraw from the Baptist church? He answered, “no, of course not.” “Then,” I said, “the only way you would receive him into fellowship is if he would give up his godliness.” He was speechless, only asking, “if he really thought the Baptist church was right, why would he want to come into fellowship?”
This could hardly be more different than the stand taken by the original Plymouth brethren. In 1864 Mr. Darby wrote of the Lord’s table that, “The unity of Christ’s body being the ground assumed, all Christians have, in principle, title to be there, the Lord’s name being maintained as to doctrine and discipline. If you insist on a certain standard of intelligence beyond Christ, before receiving them, you prove that you are not intelligent, and you abandon your own (namely God’s) principle.” – from “Letters of J. N. D., vol I, pg 451 (Moorish ed.), 370 (Stowe-Hill ed.) In another place he wrote of the right to partake of the Lord’s supper, “I hold that every known Christian has the same title as myself; and membership of an assembly I totally reject.” – from “Letters of J. N. D., vol III, pg 543 (Moorish ed.), 459 460 (Stowe-Hill ed.) In another place he wrote that “I could not recognise an assembly that does not receive all the children of God, because I know that Christ receives them.” – from “Letters of J. N. D., vol I, pg 42 (Moorish ed.), 34 (Stowe-Hill ed.) In this position Mr. Darby was so decided that he even objected to one local congregation’s decision to change the time of their meeting from eight o’clock to twelve o’clock. He found this objectionable because twelve o’clock was the time the other churches in the area met. Such a change would force everyone to choose whether to attend the Plymouth brethren meeting, or that of another church. – See “Letters of J. N. D., vol I, pg 22 (Moorish ed.), 18 (Stowe-Hill ed.)
The modern Plymouth brethren’s false definition of evil has led to an expression I occasionally heard them use. The expression was, “he’s a good man, but I could not have fellowship with him.” I once asked one of their national leaders what his response would be to anyone who objected to this statement. He answered that such a person “just didn’t know what he was talking about.” It is interesting that this expression evidentially originated late in the period of the original Plymouth brethren. A man named A. Moody Stewart wrote an article condemning the Plymouth Brethren’s “oft repeated statement, ‘he’s a good man, but I could not have fellowship with him.’” Mr William Kelly, one of the later leaders of the original Plymouth brethren answered this complaint in the following words:
""Their frequent enunciation, 'He is a good man, but I could not break bread with him'" strikes me as a strange assertion; for in thirty years' intercourse and ministry in Great Britain, Ireland, France, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, I have never heard such a thought once, even from the least enlightened brother. I do not say that Mr. M. S. has not encountered some such mistaken and untoward speech, and often too; but I am assured that his acquaintance must have lain with persons wholly unworthy to represent ‘Brethren's’ principles or practice, wherever this had been their language or feeling. It is their distinguishing feature that the table of the Lord is open to all who are His, where they are known to be walking as such; and this, as a matter, not of courtesy towards them, but of honoring Him in His members, according to the place they have in the assembly of God, hence they might not only break bread, but speak in worship or to edification, without the smallest violation to their conscience. On the other hand, when there was deliberate maintenance of, or indifference to, evil against Christ, no name, place, or reputation would induce ‘Brethren’ to receive such."
– From "The Bible Treasury" vol. 9, dated October, 1873, pg 351
The progress of this idea can be seen in another article written nine years later by this same William Kelly:
“For a long time Satan has been endeavouring to falsify the testimony of Christ among those professedly gathered to His name. One of his wiles has been, under pretense of light and righteousness, to undermine grace and truth in recognising freely the members of Christ’s body. Utterly misconceiving the stand against neutrality,* they would make no Christian welcome to the Lord’s table who did not judge his old position by more or less intelligence of the one body and the one Spirit; that is, without a virtual pledge never again to enter their so-called church or chapel. This is, to my mind, not unbelief only but a bad and base principle. It is an underhand way to make a sect of those who know the church, but really prove how little they themselves appreciate the one body; else they could not let knowledge override relationship to Christ, as they do.”
– From “the Bible Treasury, vol. 14, pg. 172, dated 1882
These doctrinal differences between the original Plymouth brethren and the modern ones clearly show what happened to their power. The original Plymouth brethren recognized any group that simply met in Christ’s name* and received every person known to be a Christian and living a godly life. The modern Plymouth brethren recognize no group but their own, and will not receive anyone unless they first renounce all ties to any other group. The early Plymouth brethren had an outreach few others have ever achieved. The modern Plymouth brethren have almost no outreach. This should serve as a lesson to all, for many religious groups hold the same crippling notions as those held by the modern Plymouth brethren. And none of them has a significant outreach
*After some years, the original Plymouth brethren decided they had to modify this stand. This was because they concluded that some claimed Christ’s name, but tolerated blasphemers against Christ within their fellowship. They called this stand “neutrality,” and rejected all groups that held it.
By James C. Morris
Holy Word Publishing
510 Yale Ave.
Farmington, MO 63640