“Don’t just drift into what you do, but be sure you are called into whatever it is,” Inter-Varsity’s Paul Little challenged the 1,300 Plymouth Brethren young people who attended a holiday missions congress at Wheaton College. The congress was sponsored by Literature Crusades, an organization founded in 1960 and headed by Kevin Dyer. The agency works within the framework, but not under the control, of the Plymouth Brethren, who have about 60,000 full communicants in 1,100 congregations in North America.
As one astute observer put it, Literature Crusades is “an organization within a non-organization.” Like other Brethren agencies, it has no official standing, since there is no central governing body for the Brethren. (Their fellowship is strictly voluntary; even the designation “Plymouth Brethren” is only a nickname.)
Beginning with a scholarly address by Wheaton College president Hudson Armerding, formerly with the Brethren himself, the congress centered on commitment to the Word of God as the guiding standard in the Christian’s life. Armerding told the young Brethren at Congress III (so called because it was the third triennial congress of its kind), “We are now at a place in history in which trust in the validity of Scripture is an ultimate.” He entreated the conferees to cling to their “heritage in the Holy Scriptures.”
The delegates, one-third of them Canadians, came from forty-five states and provinces. Their “heritage” began in the British Isles in the mid-1820s. Since that time the Brethren have tried to cling to what they understand to be the guiding principles established for the Church in the New Testament. They do not see denominationalism envisioned in the Scriptures, and therefore it is censored, or at least not praised. The name “Brethren” was derived from their most common reference to one another. Outsiders tagged them “Plymouth” after the location of one of the earliest and largest English congregations.
The Brethren arose in a situation in which almost everyone was nominally related to some denomination, and in which the walls dividing members of the established churches and those in the various dissenting churches were comparatively high. The Brethren intended to provide a means of fellowship open to all true believers, based not upon distinctive doctrines but upon recognition of the common life in Christ. Christian unity was to be exhibited by weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper. The much-debated question of who held valid ministerial credentials was side-stepped by a radical application of the historic Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers.
Through the energies of many men, notably John Nelson Darby and George Müller (of orphanage fame), the movement soon became worldwide. The Brethren, despite their intentions, came to be more or less like other denominations (except for the lack of a central organization). They even had divisions (starting with the basic one in 1848) over what seem like minor issues to outsiders, chiefly involving the degree of autonomy of each “assembly” (as the Brethren usually term their congregations.)
The strongly congregational side, known as “Open” Brethren, were the participants in the Wheaton missions congress. They are now much larger and more widespread than all the various groups of “Exclusives” (each of which has an unofficial but strong sense of connectionalism) combined. The “Opens” on the whole are cooperative with other evangelicals and, in view of their staunch congregationalism, have more latitude of belief and practice than most evangelical denominations. As Paul Little mentioned, “I’m with the Brethren because they’ll have me as I am.”
Missions has traditionally been a strong emphasis of the Open Brethren. There are now approximately 1,300 Brethren missionaries (including some 500 from North America) in about sixty foreign countries. They minister and are supported as individuals rather than through central agencies. However, service committees exist in each sending country to help with government relations, forwarding funds, and publishing magazines. Christian Missions in Many Lands is a common name used by such committees, including the one in the United States.
Most of the Open Brethren have proved to be quite flexible in adopting new ways to proclaim the message of salvation. Dyer found this true when he started Literature Crusades, which offers short-term service for young people. His idea was revolutionary to those who knew missions only as a lifetime call. The agency has helped add scores of workers to the career missionary force. The congress was intended to promote missions generally rather than just recruit for Literature Crusades, said Dyer.
His latest venture is a new, less formal assembly at the Prospect Heights, Illinois, headquarters of Literature Crusade. It is an attempt to recapture the intense fellowship of the New Testament believers as practiced by the earliest Brethren. It seems innovative only to those unfamiliar with the past.
The Brethren are not without their problems. Argentina missionary David Sommerville said, “We Brethren today are paying lip service to the Word but are not practicing it.” Little, the son of a prominent Brethren family, declared, “Forty years ago the average Brethren stood out among evangelicals as someone who really knew Scripture. That’s not the case today.” Dyer said that congregations are stagnating and that individuals must start new ventures to regain the life found in deep study and practice of the Word of God.
Will the Brethren die out? Dyer replied, “Our basic principles are right.… Our practices have deteriorated.” It is interesting to note, however, that often groups that meet in a similar manner are known as Brethren assemblies even though they may not affiliate with the Brethren or think of themselves as such.
Then, too, signs of life are to be noted the world over—signs such as the proportionately large missionary outflow of the group, the strength of the Christian Church in Communist-dominated lands in which nineteenth-century Plymouth Brethren missionaries left a lasting imprint, and the influence of the Jesus people, who hunger for fellowship and worship like that of the New Testament church.
Perhaps, as Sommerville said, “Brethrenism as so-called Brethrenism may die out … but the groups that practice the New Testament principles will not.… But Congress III seemed a sign of health rather than moribundity, for as one conferee phrased it, “the focus here has been that each person be committed to Jesus Christ and the Word.”
PATRICIA BALSAM and JANET JOHNSON
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