A Brief outline of the “Plymouth Brethren”
History, Doctrines and Practices
Written By Dr John Mathew (Thekkel)
The Plymouth Brethren movement was an independent work of the Holy Spirit, which is apparent from the fact that, in A. D. 1812 and 1820, letters were passed between a company of believers in Great Britain. The Brethren believe that they represent the true church established on the day of Pentecost. The two guiding principles of the movement were to be the breaking of bread every Lord’s Day, and ministry based upon the call of Christ rather than the ordination of men. They follow and obey the Scripture, refusing to follow human tradition and creed. Others call them Brethren, but they prefer to be called Christians.
Doctrine and Practices
The Brethren seek to assemble in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to maintain the apostolic pattern and simplicity which marked the churches of the days of the apostles (Romans 12:4-8). We honor the Lord Jesus and worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). The Church began with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and is composed of all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. These believers are united to Him and to one another by the indwelling Spirit. This means that the Church, as a whole, is not an organization, but a living organism, known as the body of Christ. Every true child of God possesses eternal life, and being justified, sanctified, and sealed with the Holy Spirit, is safe and secure for all eternity. However, a Christian can, through sin, lose his fellowship, joy, power, testimony, and reward, thus incurring the Father’s chastisement. Relationship is eternal, being established by new birth; fellowship, however, is dependent upon obedience.
Order of Worship
The breaking of bread is our communion service. It is usually about one to one and one-half hours in length and is held on Sunday (Acts 20:7). It is unstructured and non-liturgical. However, we want to be led entirely by the Holy Spirit in the order of worship and ministry. Brothers will rise to their feet to pray, suggest a hymn, or read and expound on a passage of Scripture.
The purpose is worship, not teaching or exhortation, and comments will focus on the aspect of the person and work of Jesus Christ. Sisters do not offer audible worship, although they do participate in the singing. They wear a headcovering
The Lord’s Supper is often called the “worship meeting”. There is little outward demonstration. We do not use musical instruments during our worship service. There are often extended periods of silence, but these are not awkward times of “waiting for someone to say something”, but times of rich reflection and meditation. Every eye is fixed on Christ. Everyone is satisfied. There is an exception among most of the Indian Brethren assemblies to this method. They consider it uncomfortable to have silent times, for someone not to start to sing or get up to say some thoughts. This writer does not agree with this practice of interfering in the realm of the Holy Spirit. The Lord’s people, humbly remembering Him, may not appeal to the flesh. Loud music and demonstration are lacking. Although our worship meeting is not entertaining to the flesh, it gives spiritual satisfaction and heavenly bliss. Some outsiders and insiders scorn the emotionless worship as dead and dry. However, one who has really known or experienced it can describe the inestimable sense of satisfaction, the deep welling up of joy within as the heart looks utterly away from itself and fixes its’ gaze upon Him in who all heaven finds its’ delight. Usually toward the end of the worship meeting, a brother will give thanks for the bread and wine. The emblems are passed around with all in fellowship participating. This is the only meeting at which a collection is taken up. After a thirty-minute break for fellowship, there is a twenty-minute period of singing and announcements, followed by a forty-minute sermon.
We consider human creed as unnecessary. The Bible being a record of what “holy men of old spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit”; there is consequently “no private interpretation of the Bible”. We are concerned with having the mind of the Spirit in matters of interpretation of the Holy Writ. The Bible itself is our creed.
Distinction between clergy and laity is not recognized (Revelation 2:6). In the early church, there was no such thing as professional clergy. The New Testament pattern is that the church is to be led, not by a solitary pastor, but by a group of men, normally designated “elders or overseers” in the New Testament. Furthermore, the clear implication is that these elders are to be raised up by God within the local bodies, not hired or imported by churches from without. In addition, there is opportunity at the weekly breaking of bread meeting for any brother, including those who do not regularly minister in public, to share a thought from Scripture. While there are full time evangelists, missionaries, and Bible teachers, the oversight of the assemblies and the public ministry on each Lord’s day is in the hands of men who spend their week in secular vocations. God raises up “pastors and teachers” according to His own will (Ephesians 4:11-13 and Acts 20:17, 20). There is no thought of a stipulated amount of remuneration for the preaching, but we hold ourselves responsible to help those who are in the Lord’s work (III John verse 7). We have certain beliefs in the doctrines as unfolded in the Scriptures: man’s fall and total depravity, his guilty, lost, and hopeless condition, the amazing love of God in providing a Savior in His only Son, the perfection of Christ in His divine as well as His human nature, reconciliation to God through Christ’s shed blood by which man alone is redeemed- not by works, law keeping, or reformation. Christ’s resurrection is proof that God accepted His atonement.
There are two Christian ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism by immersion signifies that the believer, having died with Christ, is buried with Him in baptism and also is risen with Christ to walk in newness of life. The Lord’s Supper is a memorial feast, instituted by the Lord Himself exclusively for His own. In the observance of this supper, believers remember Him. The emblems show His death until He comes
There is no difference in value between men and women, but there are distinct roles. The work of Christ has removed all human distinctions of privilege (Galatians 3:28). Every believer, whether male or female is a priest to God (Hebrews 13:15). As a holy priest (1 Peter 2: 5) and a royal priest (1 Peter 2: 9), we can worship and witness all we desire. However, as in the home, men and women are given distinct roles in the church. Church order, like chronological or alphabetical order, has nothing to do with importance. It has been established by God so that “all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14: 40).
God’s glory is to be seen alone in the assembly of the saints. In order to do this, the man’s head remains uncovered by not having long hair and by removing any head covering, because the man is the image and glory of God (I Corinthians 11:7). Any covering on the man would veil God’s glory. The women, however, are the stewards of the coverings. There are two competing glories in the church. “The woman is the glory of man” (I Corinthians 11:7) and “If a woman have long hair, it is a glory to her” (I Corinthians 11:15). Because there are two symbolic glories to be covered, there must be two coverings. The first head covering , Greek (peribolaion), is the woman’s long hair (verse 15) to hide the glory of the man ( the woman herself). The second head covering, Greek (katakalupto), is to hide her glory, which is her own hair. In this way, God’s authority is declared in the church. By it the men are reminded that, in their ministry, their glory is to be hidden. The angels are also instructed by it (I Corinthians 11:10).
Origin of the Movement
During the first part of the 1800’s, some Christians began to feel uncomfortable about denominationalism, a clerical hierarchy, and certain “compromises” creeping into their churches. They resolved to simply read their Bible and try to gather in the same simple manner as Christians did in the New Testament. As some of these Christians began to travel and preach, they found believers in other cities and countries who were doing the same thing. Early gatherings originated in Dublin and in Plymouth. Prominent among the pioneers was Dr. A. J. Cronin, Mr. J.G. Bellett, Mr. H. Hutchinson, and Lord Congleton. Plymouth became prominent, so others began to call them as brethren from Plymouth.
In 1827, John Nelson Darby joined this group. J. N. Darby saw the church as a special work of God, distinct from the program for Israel. This truth, integrated with his premillennial eschatology, led him to believe that the rapture would occur before the tribulation, and that during the tribulation God would turn again to deal specifically with Israel. Until Darby’s time, Christians believed that the church was a continuation of Israel, and some others believed that the church replaced Israel.
John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)
Few today who would identify themselves as fundamentalists have ever heard of John Nelson Darby or the Plymouth Brethren. Yet as Earnest R. Sandeem correctly observes in The Root of Fundamentalism, “Much of the thought and attitudes of those who are known as fundamentalists can be mirrored in the teachings of this man”. Many scholars believe that John Darby was the greatest Christian teacher that ever lived since the apostle Paul. Early leader among the Plymouth Brethren and developer of dispensational premillennialism, John Darby invested his life in strengthening the saints as they gathered simply “to His name” and awaited their Lord’s imminent return.
Born in London of wealthy Irish parents, Darby received his middle name from Admiral Lord Nelson. Upon returning to Ireland in 1815, he entered Trinity College in Dublin, graduating in 1819 as a classical gold medalist. Although called to the Irish chancery bar in 1822, he gave up a career in law after one year in order to enter into religious ministry. After a prolonged spiritual struggle leading to his conversion, Darby was ordained as a deacon in 1825, and as a priest in the Church of England in 1826. From 1827-1833, Darby’s ecclesiology and eschatology were formed. Disenchanted with the state-church religion, Darby addressed in his earlier writing the heavenly nature of the church and the need for it to be unencumbered with earthly things. He soon discovered a group of like-minded men. The Powers Court Conference from 1831-1833 would provide the context in which Darby’s eschatology would be aligned consistently with his ecclesiology. Afterward his innovations in both fields of theology would be widely accepted throughout the Brethren movement, yielding a new perspective and interpretation of Scripture that would be known as dispensationalism. Darby traveled, taught, and wrote extensively from 1832 to 1845.
In 1845, the great schism over B. W. Newton’s differing views concerning the “secret rapture” and his lapse into clericalism, brought tremendous dissension among the Brethren assemblies. Combined with the Bethesda question (in 1848, George Muller and Darby disagreed as to the interrelationship of assemblies over matters of discipline), the schism would leave the Brethren from that time forward divided into the exclusive and the open Brethren. During this time, both groups would be deeply involved in missions, although the exclusive Brethren seemed to be more occupied with truth for the believer, while the open Brethren were given to evangelizing the lost.
Darby visited and preached numerous times in Germany, France, Italy, New Zealand, West Indies, Canada and U. S. Amid his extensive teaching tours, he found time to translate the New Testament into English, French, and German, and he assisted in translating the Old Testament into both French and German. Most of his papers and articles are gathered into thirty-four volumes in The Collected Works of J. N. Darby, which was edited by his long- time associate and friend, William Kelly.
Bibliography Abigail, Shawn, “Plymouth Brethren.”
Couch, Mal, Ed. The Dictionary of Premillennial Theology.
Crutchfield, Larry V. , John Nelson Darby: Defender of the Faith.
Elmore, Floyd, John Nelson Darby.
Frees, Mark, “What I Have Found.”
“Is it Possible to Meet as a New Testament Church Today?” Gospel Folio Press.
Noel, Napoleon, The History of the Brethren, 1936.
Simon, K. V. , A History of the Malankara Brethren Movement, 1938.