Are the People Commonly Called "Brethren" a Sect?
It has been asserted more than once that the "Brethren" (so called) are as much a sect as any of the many denominations. If the answer is in the affirmative, why do they meet different from other Christians? If in the negative, can you give reasons to show that they are not a sect at all, except in the sense of Acts 28. 22? HyP.
Answer 1. By C. F. HOGG, London.
THE word "sect" represents the Greek hairesis, which is translated "heresy" in 1 Corinthians 11. 19; Galatians 5. 20; 2 Peter 2. 1. Its meaning may be learned from the use of the verb form in Matthew 12. 18; Philippians 1. 22; it is always translated "choose."
Sadducees and Pharisees were sects of the Jews (Acts 5. 17; 15. 5); what more natural, then, than that those who followed the Nazarene (Matt. 2. 23) should be known as "the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24, 5)? The Apostle of the Gentiles was not content to allow this to pass without protest, therefore, in his plea before Felix, he said: "After the way which they call a sect, so serve I the God of my fathers" (Acts 24. 14).
The English word "sect" means that which is cut off from the main body, or any part—
Separate from the Whole,
a section. The Church which is Christ's Body (Eph. 1. 22, 23), is spiritual and is spiritually discerned, lying altogether beyond the range of the natural senses, and is without organization, or expression, on the earth. Therefore, it is impossible there should be "sects" in it. The Spirit, Who makes it one, maintains its unity.
Not all that profess to be Christians are such in fact. The pagan notion that baptism secures regeneration, or in any way affects the spiritual status of men, has produced a mass of profession without reality. This mass with pretensions to be "the Church," describes all those who attempt to order their ways by appealing to Scripture as "sectaries," "sects."
As Mr. E. H. BROADBENT has shown in his illuminating book, "The Pilgrim Church," there has never been lacking such testimony outside the organized "churches," but the danger has always been that those who sought out "the old paths" to walk in, shortly degenerated into small bodies even more rigid and exclusive than the main body from which, in their desire for Christian liberty, they had broken away. Denounced as sects by the organized and historical churches, they retaliated by calling all others but themselves "sects and systems," not realizing the danger of throwing stones when you live in a glass house.
Sectarianism is of the Heart,
not merely of outward position. It is easy to denounce "sects," and yet to be thoroughly sectarian oneself. Our Father loves all His children equally, however wayward they may be. For us to continue in fellowship with Him, and love and serve them, while we endeavour to bear practical witness to the Truth He has committed to His people, is far from a simple matter, though to take an isolated, sectarian stand is easy to the carnal mind. True faithfulness to Christ is possible only as we "walk humbly with . . . God," learning from Him Who was "meek and lowly in heart" (Matt. 11. 29). We may be sure that when we compare ourselves with others to their disadvantage and to our own credit, we have lost touch with Christ.
The question assumes that there is—
A Sect Called "The Brethren,"
but that would be to appropriate to a small part what is true of the whole. There are companies of Christians throughout the world, whose sole concern is, or should be, to wait on God in His Word, that they may learn His mind, and to seek His grace to carry it out, individually and collectively. Let these companies cease to "walk even as He (Christ) walked," and they become sectarian; they will soon be found glorying in their shame, for whatever excuse may be made for others, there can be none for such as claim to know.
To adapt the words of an old author, "a new circle of fellowship is but old sect writ large." Scripture knows nothing of an association of churches. In the New Testament, each church is planted and grows independently of all others; they are never seen associated for any common purpose; each is directly answerable to the Lord alone. In our own day, there is no such body as "Open Brethren," inasmuch as each company seeking to carry out what they find written is responsible, not to any other, or to any circle, but to the Lord alone. Thus—
These Companies are not Sects
in the ordinary acceptation of the term; they do not belong to any organized body of professing Christians.
Nevertheless, since sectarianism has its roots in pride, such companies are in daily danger of falling into a sectarian position. Sometimes this comes about in a church because those who constitute it have been careless, or self-satisfied, or through indolence have shirked the labour of making themselves acquainted with Scripture teaching on the subject.
How easy it is to become a traditionalist even as we condemn others for accepting without investigation what they have received in the same way. Thus, we should assuredly describe as sectarian, an announcement to the effect that "Baptized Christians gather here," whereas some have no conscience about using the same form saying, "Gathered-out Christians meet here.” Yet to condemn the one, is to condemn the other.
Only as they are spiritual, can any company maintain an unsectarian position; nor will they find it easy so long as they cultivate the sincerity of God (2 Cor. 1. 12, R.V.); the world, the flesh, and the Devil will see to that. They are few that try, and arrogance is always the besetting sin of minorities; intolerance and spiritual pride which speedily become a hard, unlovely, and wholly unchristian ecclesiasticism, from which only the grace of God can preserve us.
Answer II. By J. B. WATSON, London, author of "The Sinless Saviour," etc.
A SECT, according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is: "A body of persons agreed upon religious doctrines usually different from those of an established or orthodox church from which they have separated, and usually having distinctive common worship." A second meaning is: "A Nonconformist or other church as described by opponents." A third.: "A party or faction in a religious body." A fourth; "A religious denomination."
With such a diversity of definition of the term "sect," the question becomes the more difficult. Yet common to all these definitions is the idea of—
A Well-defined Body,
subscribing to distinctive tenets, unified by common adherence to particular beliefs, which mark them off from other Christians and all recognizing and obeying some authoritative governing body.
"BRETHREN" (so called) have no distinguishing title, for they have never accepted any of the various labels which others have affixed to those whose church order is of the pattern followed by them. They possess no "creed" or formulated belief to which all members are required to subscribe. They have no defined bounds as a "body," but comprise a large number of congregations scattered over many lands, without any central authority, each congregation being an autonomous unit, responsible to no earthly Pope, Archbishop, Bishop, Synod, General Assembly, Moderator, Elder, or other Dictator.
Considerable differences of practice and belief in church order exist among such congregations but because all take the voice of Holy Scripture as—
The Final Authority
in things spiritual; a remarkable fundamental unity is found among them. They account all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, without distinction of denomination, to be of the One True Church, the Church which is Christ's Body. The "Visible Church on Earth" idea is refused by them as being absent from Holy Scripture, and they look upon each local congregation as being directly responsible to the Lord Jesus to manifest His ways and will, in corporate and individual life.
This, they hold, is the teaching of Holy Scripture, and maintain themselves to be endeavouring to render a simple obedience to apostolic teaching and practice. Thus, their aim is not separation from other denominations, but separation "unto the Lord."
It is submitted, that as the general custom of these churches is to welcome all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ who hold to the basic doctrines of the Christian Faith and who manifest in their lives, the godliness which is the fruit of spiritual life, without further conditions, they—
Cannot be Considered a Sect
in any, save the second of the above given senses of that term; and as an opponent's description may not be considered unprejudiced, this second sense may be disregarded.
In common speech "sectarianism" is rather a spirit, an attitude towards others, which judges all others and assumes a monopoly of sincerity and of spiritual enlightenment. Whether among "brethren" there be sectarianism of this kind is, of course, another and an individual matter.
Answer III. By W. E. VINE, M.A., Bath, author of "The Divine Inspiration of the Bible," etc.
THAT a number of Christians in any locality, learning the will of the Lord as revealed in the Holy Scriptures as to the mode and purposes of their gathering themselves together, are found acting in obedience thereto, in contrast to adherence to the mere tenets and traditions of men, does not constitute them a sect.
Originally, Christ Himself separated His followers from the apostate religion of Judaism, and this separation continued under the guidance of the Spirit of God in the formation of churches under the ministry of the apostles. Those who, together with Gentile converts, became obedient to the Faith, are mentioned as "the sect" that was "everywhere spoken against" (Acts 28. 22). This criticism, and the aspersions that were cast upon them, were to their honour in the sight of God.—
The Formation of Sects.
Gradually, owing to the rise of false teachers, and to other influences which led believers away from apostolic teaching, a system of clerisy developed, and under the power of ecclesiastical domination, churches were combined into vast religious organizations. The result was that what is known as Christendom became characterized by a condition of things far removed from that which was instituted by Christ and had continued under apostolic teaching. This general drift away from the faith "once for all delivered to the saints," and the growth of ecclesiastical organizations, did not, however, prevent numbers of true and faithful followers of Christ from obedience to the Word of God, either by the maintenance of a steadfast adherence to it, or by separation from the humanly devised system of ecclesiasticism. While its huge structure maintained its domination as the area of Christendom extended, there were communities of believers who sought to follow the Scriptures of Truth.—
When eventually in mediaeval times, in the period, for instance, known as the Reformation, there was a break away from the two ecclesiastical systems centred respectively at Constantinople and Rome; organized denominations were formed, under the effort to adopt a purer form of religion. There was not, however, a complete return to obedience to the faith on the part of those denominations. On the other hand, there are very clear traces of the existence, both before and during that period, of isolated companies of Christians who gathered in simplicity and dependence upon the Spirit of God, and in independence of unscripturally organized denominations.
The Word of God makes clear, that the Divine intention was for local churches to be formed and developed, each on its own independent basis, maintaining the truths of the Faith, and spreading the light around them and in the regions beyond, the Holy Spirit Himself being sufficient for all spiritual requirements for the fulfilment of the Word of God. Despite every effort to prevent the spread of the knowledge of its truth, copies of the Scriptures continued to multiply, and the true faith therein contained, became more generally available. Priestcraft was ever antagonistic to this, for the Word of God bears no uncertain testimony against it.—
Beginning of Assemblies.
Priestcraft and the various forms of organized clerisy could not, however, altogether prevent people from adhering to the will of God as it became known, even when the measure of liberty granted to them was small. Where such freedom became general, under the liberating influence of the Gospel and the spread of the Light, churches or assemblies of believers guided by the Word of Truth, in separation from the traditions of men, became more numerous. In the early part of the last century, the return to Holy Scripture in this respect became more pronounced, and, in several places, independently one of another, that is to say, without affiliation or centralization, believers found themselves drawn together and formed into churches under the operation of the Spirit of God.
This did not consist of the formation of a new sect or denomination; it was a continuation, on a more extensive scale, of that adherence to the Faith which, as we have seen, existed in one place and another, from the first century of the Christian era. The absence of a local centre or an ecclesiastical Council or Synod, the adoption of the Holy Scriptures as the sole guide, and the freedom from the humanly formulated creeds, should have been sufficient to prevent such churches from being regarded as a sect.—
The "Plymouth Brethren."
The testimony thus given, attracted particular attention in Plymouth, and, for reasons beyond their own control, and utterly opposed to their wishes, they became known as "Plymouth Brethren." The appellation was by no means self-styled and has always been repugnant to them. That prejudice should dub them by that name does not constitute them a sect. Moreover, the New Testament itself has been sufficient to produce such communities in other lands, where nothing was known of what took place in Plymouth, let alone the fact that collective obedience to the Scriptures had already taken place in other places in the British Isles before such a community was formed in the said town.
It is true that, in the recognition of this by other Christians, the local appellation of "Plymouth" has been largely dropped.
Nevertheless, such churches have been and are still spoken of by the denominational title of "The Brethren." They reject it equally with the other appellation. No such title appears outside their places of assembling. But, again, the general use of a misnomer does not actually make such assemblies a sect.—
Undeniably, certain circles or parties have been formed amongst these communities, and there have been attempts (some more or less successful) to form an ecclesiastical bond of union among them under the leadership of some prominent personage. But the failure of such to adhere to what is set forth in the Scriptures in regard to Church truth, has not prevented abstinence from such formations, and adherence to the Word of God, on the part of a very great number of other assemblies.
Apart altogether, however, from these movements, the use of the appellations "Plymouth Brethren" or the "Open Brethren" is entirely unjustifiable. As we have pointed out, the Word of God is sufficient, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to form such an assembly anywhere, at any time. The similarity of the mode of worship and of the exercise of spiritual gifts in such gatherings (and they exist all over the world) affords no ground for looking upon them as a sect. Had they an ecclesiastical, localized government, a council or set of councils, and were they formed into ecclesiastical associations or federated churches, they would, ipso facto, be a sect. But that is not the case.
Suppose, for instance, that in some region where such Scripturally formed assemblies have not existed up to the present, and where believers have not heard of the so-called "Plymouth Brethren," or "The Brethren," a company of people who have received the light of the Word of God meet together, just as assemblies of which we have spoken have done, knowing no other name than that of—
Christians or Disciples or Believers,
is a denominational title to be given to them? What are they to be called? Are they to be called "The Brethren," because they do, under the guidance of the Scriptures, what those who are miscalled "The Brethren" elsewhere are doing? The idea is grotesque. Are they to be looked upon as a sect because they are obedient to the Word of Truth? And yet, the formation of such churches is constantly taking place, and there are countries where Christians, meeting together like this, have—
Not Received a Denominational Title.
It is easy, of course, to use certain failures amongst these communities, and certain unscriptural conditions that have existed in one place or another, as arguments against them, and as supports for the use of a sectarian appellation. But individual or local failure affords no ground for regarding these churches in general as a sect.
It is needful, too, on the part of such assemblies themselves, to bear in mind the necessity of avoiding phraseology which unintentionally assumes that they are sectarian. The use, for instance, of the personal pronoun "we," with reference to such churches, is reprehensible. For whom does the "we" stand? One assembly may be in a low spiritual condition. Another may have received error. Another may be divided. And these evils have existed, and do exist in isolated instances. But it is folly to tar all with the same brush, or regard that as characterizing all such communities which attaches only to certain units.—
Fellowship v. Affiliation.
If a denominational title were accepted, it would be difficult for one assembly in that fellowship to escape identification with the failures of other assemblies therein, but when such a title is refused, it is made clear that each church is responsible for its own conduct alone before God. There is indeed necessarily a close fellowship between assemblies which seek thus to carry out the will of God, but that does not constitute the aggregate a sect. Fellowship is one thing; affiliation is another.
Answer IV. By GEORGE GOODMAN, Tunbridge Wells.
IT is always difficult to answer a question that uses the term "Brethren," the "so-called" added makes no difference. It presupposes a sect and thus begs the whole question. If we admit such a distinctive body, we admit a sect.
But if we are only brethren, in the same sense as all true believers are brethren, we can answer the question in the negative. No, true believers, since that term includes all Christians, are not, as believers, a sect.
They may, and most do, wrongly take up a sectarian position. This is done—
I. By raising—
Some Wall of Partition
that separates some believers from others.
The Hierarchy of Rome, by the declarations of the Council of Trent, separated itself from other Christians, and thus became the narrowest of sects, turning to curse those who did not agree and submit.
The institution called the Church of England built up a Prayer Book that excludes all who cannot subscribe to its somewhat contradictory tenets, and thus became sectarian.
Directly therefore, any number of believers cut themselves off from other believers by some distinctive creed, rules, or principles (not common to all Christians), they constitute themselves sects.
II. If, however, some believers refuse to do this, but accept only such things as are common to all true believers,—
They Remain Unsectarian.
For example, they confess the sevenfold Unity of Ephesians 4. 4-8: "One Body, One Spirit, One Hope, One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, and One God and Father of all," and do so without any sectarian position. If others do not, they depart from the simplicity in Christ and not those who do. This sevenfold confession is the non-sectarian position.
Christ is the Common Lord and Saviour of all believers. The Bible is the common "Creed" of all true believers. It is not sectarian therefore, to confess Him and abide in and hold fast the Word of God.
Truth is not and cannot be a sectarian thing.
III. The reply to the question: "Why do they meet differently—
From Other Christians?"
The reply is: Because they see that the way in which they meet is the Scriptural way. They must meet somehow, and in deciding how, they must do two things:
I. Refuse sectarian barriers, and
2. Consider the will of God as declared in Scripture.
In this they do not separate themselves from others. They take the ground common to all, that is, the Scriptural ground, and invite all to join them on the sole ground of their common redemption and confession of the truth (provided they are walking uprightly).
If unscriptural restrictions are insisted on, as in some cases where an exclusive spirit prevails, then sectarianism is again manifested.
IV. In order to maintain—
This Unsectarian Attitude,
it is necessary to avoid all rings of meetings, all centralized authority, and recognize that each company of believers meets, not as a sect, but as believers only, seeking to obey their Lord's will without any party spirit or other lordship than that of the Lord in the midst.
TO GATHER AROUND HIM IS UNSECTARIAN, TO GATHER TO ANY OTHER NAME OR CENTRE IS SECTARIAN.
A TESTIMONY FROM SPAIN.
I HAVE read with interest what has appeared in The Witness touching the question of sects. Sectarianism is one of the deeply rooted evils of our fallen nature. And even in those who are born of God and taught by the Spirit of God to love each other as brethren, the same evil may take such a subtle form as not to be detected in ourselves, while ready to see it in others. It existed among the disciples in the days of our Lord, as seen in Luke 9. 49, 50. The answer which our Lord gave them is very notable and may be considered by us. —HENRY PAYNE, Barcelona.
Answer V. By C. W. ROSS (son of the veteran DONALD ROSS, Kansas City, USA.
IT seems to the writer, impossible to say Yes or No to this question, although its form demands this. He is reminded of a question that logicians put forward to illustrate the fallacies that may lurk in the form a question is put. They would say: “Have you left off beating your wife, Yes or No?" and of course, the trap in it was that if you said Yes, it was an admission you had been beating her, and if you said No, it was an acknowledgment that you were still beating her. One is forced in such a case to refuse to answer the question altogether, or demand that it be put in a form that allows of a proper answer.
In the question before us, we feel great difficulty in giving a categorical reply, and can only submit some reflections that the question has awakened in the mind. The name “Brethren,” for example, applies to several parties of saints (alas, that we have to say so), and thus constitutes an insuperable bar to a direct reply to the question as put.
Suppose we go back to—
The Beginning of the Movement
in the professing church, that the term “Brethren” is linked with. No one will question that it was a deeply spiritual movement, an exercise of heart and conscience that brought saints into the presence of God in self-judgment and confession. Among the various elements that exercised saints in the movement was the state of the Church of God. Its condition as divided and rent caused in some cases, tears and lamentations before the Lord. In the spirit of Daniel 9, they went back to the Church as established of God in a Divinely formed unity and compared it with its state now.
There was, moreover, an acceptance of shame as belonging to all saints to-day because of this condition, and real and fervent prayer for deliverance from the many ills affecting the heritage of God. Accompanying these prayers was the determination to forsake—
The Sin of Sectarianism,
if a way could be found to do so.
The outward result of all this was the gathering of saints together in two and threes in the Name of the Lord Jesus alone, and thus was realized (in a small way, of course) the Divine unity of the Church. No name was accepted save that which belonged to all saints, and the Word of God as a rule of conduct was substituted for the articles and creeds of men. There was no repudiation of other saints in any sense of the word, but rather a strengthened realization of their unity with all who were united to Christ by the Holy Ghost, whatever might be their ecclesiastical connection. Did the saints who acted thus, constitute a sect? To this we say, No, without hesitation.
But it is the sad history of every Divine movement, that when left to the responsibility of men, the fine gold soon becomes dim, and freshness and power give way to decay and weakness.—
Are we Better than our Fathers?
Did those on whom fell the burden of maintaining this testimony keep it in its original state? True enough, it is not the twos and the threes now, and we do rejoice in the wonderful work that God has wrought and the spread of Divine principles all over the world, but has not sectarianism crept in and disfigured the testimony? Is it good for any of us to seek to feed our self-complacency by thinking that whatever others are, we, at least. are not a sect. Would it not be wiser to heed the words of the prophet Amos: "Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?" And the words of Hosea: “Come and let us return unto the Lord, for He hath torn and He will heal us, He hath smitten and He will bind us up."
The other point the writer thinks is important to notice at this time, and his paper would be seriously incomplete without it. The point is this: Are not divisions or sects among saints sometimes a judgment from the Lord? Is not this the meaning of 1st Cor. 11. 18: "There must be—
Divisions Among You?"
In reading this passage, I always emphasize "among you," because I feel the words are limited to Corinth, and, of course, to saints in a like state. Would it not be prudent to raise the question: "Are we in a similar condition in some respects to Corinth?" Can unity be preserved in a carnal condition? Impossible, unless we are content with a unity like that of Rome. The unity of the Church is the unity of the Spirit, and cannot be maintained apart from Him, and if He is grieved and quenched, nothing can keep us from falling apart.
I do not say that the Lord afflicts us with sects as if I would make Him responsible for sin in any circumstances, but is it not inevitable that when He is dishonoured, the Spirit is grieved, and the power to maintain unity is gone, and disintegration comes naturally? It is better so, for if we should be allowed of God to go on in unity without godliness,
"Spiritual pride, that rampant heart,
Would roar its haughty head;
True faith would soon be dispossessed.
And carelessness succeed."
Answer VI. The Marks of an Unsectarian Church. By FRANKLIN FERGUSON, New Zealand.
"WHERE two or three are gathered together in (or unto) My Name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matt. 18. 20). "Unto Him (that is Shiloh, which is Christ) shall the gathering of the people be" (Gen. 49. 10). "Gather My saints together unto Me" (Psa. 50. 5). "Let us go forth, therefore, unto Him without the camp, bearing His reproach" (Heb. 13. 13). "They saw no man, save Jesus only" (Matt. 17. 8).
We quote these verses of Scripture to show that the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ is the one gathering Name for all saints, in this the "Day of Grace." It is the privilege, as well as the duty of all Christians, everywhere, to own no body or name but the Lord's, no creed or rules but His Word, to recognize the unity that all true believers have in the "one body" (Eph. 4. 4), and be ready to welcome any fellow-Christian whom the Word of God may not disqualify from the fellowship of saints.—
Human Names Make for Division;
Scriptural names make for unity. You meet a stranger and discover to your joy that he is a saved soul. He may describe himself as a "Christian,” a ''saint," a "believer," a "brother," and you feel not a breath of division between you, for God-given names embrace all God's people. But let this stranger, though a Christian, tell you he is a "Presbyterian," a "Methodist," or "Anglican," a "Baptist," then at once you are aware you are divided, and fellowship is restricted, though not wholly prevented. These names mean that there are more bodies than the one only Body we read of, and that articles and creeds govern them instead of the Word only. Thus, man spoils the unity and simplicity which God made, dividing the Body of Christ into sects.
What really concerns us in an evil time like the present, is whether there is to be found in any place, a company of believers, similar to the New Testament churches, gathering simply unto the Name of the Lord. Such cannot be regarded as a sect but is a local expression of the Church of God.
Thank God, there are to be found in many places in all countries such companies, acknowledging no sectarian name, humbly walking in the truth. What then are the marks whereby we shall be able to recognize an unsectarian church of the New Testament order? The following will help us:
1. It is composed of SAINTS ONLY (Acts 2. 47; 5. 13).
2. They gather in the LORD 's NAME, not in any other (Psa. 50. 5; Matt. 18. 20).
3. The Holy Scriptures, their ONLY CREED and appeal in all matters (Isa. 9. 20; John 17. 4).
4. They own there is "ONE BODY," which is the Church, and that the various religious sects are dividing the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12. 12; 1. 13).
5. They own the LORDSHIP OF CHRIST, and that alone (Heb. 3. 6).
6. They own the leading· of the HOLY SPIRIT in ministry, "dividing to every man as He will" (1 Cor. 12. 7-11).
7. They own the PRIESTHOOD OF ALL BELIEVERS, refusing such an idea as clergy and laity (1 Peter 2. 5-9).
8. They recognize GOD-APPOINTED, not man-ordained GIFTS, elders, etc. (Eph. 4. 11; Phil. 1. 1).
9. They have gone forth to the Lord "WITHOUT THE CAMP, bearing His reproach" (Heb. 13, 13; 2 Tim. 2. 19).
10. They wish to recognize they are FELLOW-MEMBERS with all who compose the body of Christ, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit, ready to joyfully welcome all whom the Word of God may not disqualify for fellowship, refusing all whom it would (1 Cor. 12. 21-27; Rom. 15. 1; Eph. 4. 3; 1 Cor. 5. 6, 7).
This is not a complete statement, but the leading marks of a New Testament Church.—
Such a Testimony,
for God can only be of a "remnant" character now, in weakness and reproach, far below the glory of apostolic days, when "all that believed were together, and had all things common," when with "great power” they gave witness, and "great grace" was upon them all (Acts 2. 44; 4. 33). But of old, when times were apostate, the faithful remnant, however small and weak, were a pleasure to the heart of God.
May we be found cleaving to Him in these "perilous times," in true humility of heart, avoiding all boastful pretentious, but keeping His Word, not denying His Name, and holding fast what we have, till the Coming of the Lord (Rev. 3. 7-13). Then we shall neither be sectarian in name nor in heart.
Answer VII. Concluding Paper and SYNOPSIS OF THE SUBJECT. By HY. PICKERING, London.
VARIOUS judgments have been expressed as to the value and utility of the 6 papers which have appeared as answers to this question. Naturally, those in a Sect, sectarian in heart, though claiming an unsectarian position, have not approved the raising of the question; whilst those who, in much failure, have sought to be unsectarian, both in position and condition, have welcomed the papers, even though disagreeing in a few points.—
The Question is of Great Importance.
1. It is ever of great value to bring our doctrines and doings to the test of the Scriptures of Truth. Not what was said or done 20, 50, 100 or more years ago, but what am I? what do I hold and teach to-day? how does it compare with the Divine standard—the WORD OF GOD?
2. If I am sectarian in position, let me seek to quit it in the fear of God. If sectarian in condition, let me seek forgiveness, and deliverance therefrom in the future. If neither, let me seek grace to be preserved in humility.
3. Those who are in any sect, and in favour of sectarianism, should even profit by the seeking to compare their views and ways with what all claim as the final appeal—THE BIBLE.
Truly all who love the Word, and desire to be guided thereby, can learn much from the many precious things enunciated in these papers, of which this aims to be a summary.
To answer the question, we must first be clear as to—
What is a Sect?
PAPER I, gives the origin of the word "sect," which represents the Greek hairesis, or "heresy," and is so translated in 1 Cor. 11. 19; Gal. 5. 20; 2 Peter 2. 1; it shows that a, "sect" means ''that which is from the main body", or any part."
PAPER II, quotes the standard authority—the Oxford Dictionary—for the present meaning, which defines a sect as "a body of persons agreed on religious doctrines, usually different from that of an established or orthodox church from which they have separated, and usually having distinctive common worship." Or, a simpler definition, "a party or faction in a religious body." "Sects" to-day are quite easily defined.—
Sects have Distinguishing Marks.
1. A SECT HAS A TITLE which is distinctive. They are known (1) by country, as Greek Church, Roman Catholic, Church of England, of Scotland, of Ireland, of Canada, of Prussia, and efforts are being made to add ''of India," "of China," etc. (2) By doctrine or ordinance, as Baptist, Conditional Immortality, Universalist, Unitarian, Christadelphian. (3) By men, founders, or leaders, as Calvinists, Lutherans, Wesleyan, Walkerites, Sandemanians, Moravians, Irvingites, Buckmanism, Russellite (and its many aliases), Cooneyism. (4.) By some peculiarity of Church order or government (distinguishing them from the whole), as Presbyterianism, Friends or Quakers, Methodist, Salvation Army, Seventh-Day Adventists, Disciples, Church of Christ, Christian Science; and various other marks.
2. A SECT HAS A CENTRE or HEAD, as: R. C. Rome and the Pope; Ch. of England, Canterbury and the Archbishop; Greek Church, Constantinople and the Patriarchs; Calvinism, Geneva, etc., and the Synod of Dort; Lutheran, Berlin, etc., and the Augsburg Confession and Catechisms; Methodist, London and the "Legal Hundred;" Presbyterian, Edinburgh and the General Assembly; Baptist, London, etc.; Christian Science, Boston; Salvationist, Head-quarters (Queen Victoria St.) and the General (or the recently formed Council).
3. A SECT HAS HEAD-QUARTERS, with officials, secretaries, etc; centres for correspondence, collections of funds, publications, and official information and news, as Rome (Papist), Lambeth (Anglican); City Road (Methodist); Bishopsgate (Baptist); Euston Road (Friends); Queen Victoria St: (Salvationist); Farringdon St. (Congregational); Watford (Adventist); and with colleges and other centres.
4. A SECT HAS A CREED, or Declaration of Faith, which is supposed to be subscribed to by all their members, as: Rome, the Bulls or fiats issued by the Pope and his Cardinals; Anglican, the Prayer Book (including the 39 Articles) and the Catechism; Methodist, Wesley Sermons and Notes; Presbyterian, Westminster Catechism; Baptist, Revised Confession of Faith; Quakers, "Extracts of Minutes;" Salvation Army, book of rules or laws; Scientists, "Science and Health;" Dawnists, "Plan of the Ages," etc.
5. A. SECT HAS BOUNDS. Wherever a man may reside, if he is a Romanist, he is within Papal jurisdiction; if an Anglican, he is a member of the Church pf England, or its auxiliaries.
Whether he resides in Russia, Australia, or elsewhere, he is within the Denominational Pale; and so with every denomination with its centre and circumference of defined limits, even if the limits be world-wide.
A person with one head and many bodies can not be contemplated. Yet this is the spectacle before the world to-day of 300 leading sects or bodies (as is generally admitted), with numerous smaller bodes. All claiming the one Great Head. Well did the Apostle, in the earliest days of division, inquire, "Is Christ divided?" (1 Cor. 1. 13). This leads us to the question of origin.—
Are Sects of God?
1. WHAT WAS GOD’S INTENTION from the beginning? That His offspring should be ONE human family. But Satan came in and marred that unity by the Tower of Babel, leading to the division of the race into nations, peoples, and tongues so numerous and sadly confusing even to-day—4000 years after.
2. WHAT WAS CHRIST'S PURPOSE? Expressed in His own prayer concerning His followers: "Father, I will that they all may be ONE" (John 17. 21). His purpose was that the Church (meaning all those redeemed by His Blood, and no others) should go forth as one united Band, owning one Head—Christ; having one Guide or Comforter—the Spirit; acknowledging only "one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one "God and Father of all' (Eph. 4. 5). Whereas the enemy of souls has peeled, scattered and divided the Church, until now there are numerous denominations, sects, or parties, large and small.
3. WHAT DOES THE NEW TESTAMENT SET FORTH?
PAPER I, makes clear that "the Church which is Christ's Body" (Eph. 1. 23) is spiritual, and spiritually discerned . . . beyond the range pf the natural senses and is without organization or expression on the earth.”
PAPER II. "The Word of God makes clear that the Divine intention was for local churches to be formed and developed, each on its own independent basis, maintaining the truths of the Faith."
PAPER IV. "The will of God, as declared in the Scripture is that true believers "take the ground common to all . . . and invite all to join them on the sole ground of their common redemption and confession of the Truth.”
The Apostle Paul, to whom the Lord revealed the great Mystery concerning the Church, makes it very clear that—
SECTARIANISM is both CARNAL and SINFUL,
reminding the Corinthians of their saying, “I am of PAUL, and I of APOLLOS, and I of CAPHAS, and I of CHRIST” (the latter being as wrong as the others, if used in a divisive sense), he makes the grave inquiry, "ls Christ divided;'' then puts the test of cleavage: “Was Paul crucified for you?" implying that only the One who died for them had the right to their heart allegiance, and this should ever have remained the one and only test (1 Cor. 1. 11-13).
Then he tells plainly that those who follow Paul, Apollos, Peter, or any other name, are not spiritual, but carnal, and walk as men. With this carnality, or sectarian spirit, he associates envying, strife, divisions (factions) and glorying in the servants or ministers given by God (1 Cor. 3. 1-3).
Further, the Apostle makes it plain that "the Body is one," therefore to have numerous bodies is unscriptural; and "all the members . . . are one Body," therefore, to be members of any sect, denomination, party, or body on earth, is a practical denial of the One Body.
He also points out that the various members are members of "but one Body," therefore to be a member of any body, less than the one Body, including all members, is antagonistic to the Divine Ideal of Christ the Head, and all the members one Body. And solemn conclusion for all who favour sectarianism, openly by denomination, or inwardly in heart, he asserts, “THERE SHOULD BE NO SCHISM (or sects) IN THE BODY" (1 Cor. 12. 12-25).—
How Unsectarian are the Ordinances,
though, alas, as being central in practice, and acknowledged by most true Christians, they have been manipulated into sectarian service and party tests as nothing else.
Take BAPTISM. The Risen Saviour's commission was to make disciples of all nations, “baptizing them in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28. 18, 19). The disciples in the Acts baptized "in the Name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 8. 16). Paul, who taught baptism as strongly as any N. T. writer, took care to avoid "lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name" (1 Cor. 1. 15).
There is no thought in connection with the ordinance of making it the test of a party, a test of fellowship, or of any separation of saint from saint, but rather the opposite, baptized into "one Body" (1 Cor. 12. 13).
And THE LORD'S SUPPER. In the 11th of 1st Corinthians, the Great Charter for this ordinance, the words, “This do” are delivered to “The Church of God . . . at Corinth . . . with all, that in every place, call upon the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord,” (1 Cor. 1. 2). There the “one loaf” represents the “one Body;” every member of that Body, having birth-right to the “Communion of the Body of Christ,” and the Communion of the Blood of Christ, being for all the “Blood-washed” (Rev. 7. 14). The only Christians to be excluded from this great rallying centre of Christianity—the Lord’s Table—are those who can be rightly styled wicked or unsound persons (1 Cor. 5. 11-13; 2 John 10).
Both ordinances loudly proclaim the unity of all true believers in Christ, irrespective of country, colour, caste, or creed. Both ordinances to be rightly, and Scripturally observed demand an absolutely non-sectarian position. Both tell of saints as "all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3. 28) "till He come" (1 Cor. 11. 26). Would that it had ever remained so, or that such a happy condition could become world-wide to-day!—
Then are So-called "Brethren" a Sect?
Now we arrive at the crux of the question. Has a non-sectarian position been attempted or practiced in the past? Is a non-sectarian position attainable to-day? Are the people generally called "brethren" able to show that they are unsectarian?
In the history of "The Pilgrim Church." E. H. BROADBENT has plainly shown that an attempt with more or less success has been made all through the history of the Church, to avoid the organized sects, and carry out New Testament principles. Such were the Cathars, Novatians, Albigenses, Waldenses, Lollards, Independents, Mennonites, Stundists, and many more. Probably the nearest to what has been known as "the Brethren" was that of THOMAS KELLY (1769-1854), the well-known Irish Hymn Writer (not to be confounded with Wm. Kelly, colleague of J. N. D.), author of "Look ye saints," ''The Head that once," etc. Of this movement in Ireland, little is on record. There may be a remote connection between these independent companies of 1850 and the Movement we are now considering, which took form in Dublin about 1828. No exact date can be fixed, as being of the Spirit, it had spontaneous developments in Demerara, Dublin, Plymouth, Italy, and elsewhere. The thought of forming a sect, beginning a new Denomination, inaugurating a Movement, or even leaving the Communions in which they worshipped was not in the minds of the first seven who met in a private house, and afterwards in an auction room in Dublin.
As some one aptly put it, without any thought of a new formation,—
"They Separated from all Sects, in order to unite all Saints.”
that is, they gave up all idea of sectarianism, acknowledging only the already formed union of “all saints.” "All one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3. 28).
The developments apart from the author’s deductions, are fairly correctly set forth, with all their successes and accessions in W. B. NEATBY’s "History of the Plymouth Brethren" although if place of origin be the guide, they should more correctly be termed Demerara or Dublin brethren.
That in the 100 years since the movement became known, there have been many sectarian in heart, in speech, and especially in pamphlet, and that all companies or parties looked upon as "brethren" are unsectarian is not contended.
The question is as to the companies of which there are at least 7000, in most parts of the world to-day—Are they a Sect as much as any of the acknowledged Denominations?—
"Brethren" (so called) are Not a Sect.
As pointed out in Paper II, these companies are not "a well-defined body, subscribing to distinctive tenets, unified by a common adherence to particular beliefs which mark them off from other Christians, all recognizing and obeying some authoritative governing body."
Nor have they the "distinguishing marks" of a sect, for—
1. THEY HAVE NEVER ACCEPTED THE TITLE, "Brethren” "The Brethren," "Plymouth Brethren," "Open," or "Exclusive" brethren, but have on public platforms, and many times in print, repudiated the title. Accepting freely the N. T. titles of "brethren," "believers," "saints," or that of "Christian" only when it is used to include "all who love our Lord Jesus in sincerity" (Eph. 6. 24). That soldiers in time of war, under compulsion, used the title; that novices in assemblies, and that individual believers carelessly have used it, any more than that the world freely styles the companies "brethren," does not make the name official, or accepted by responsible leaders. The nickname is as detested inside, as it is offensive outside the assemblies.
2. THERE IS NO CENTRE.
Accepting the Scripture that the Head is in Heaven (Col. 2. 10), they have ever refrained from having a man-head, or building-centre on earth. Each assembly is individually responsible to the Head, and each continent, country, county, or district, acts mutually in responsibility to the Head alone.
The Divine Pattern in Rev. 2, that the Seven Churches were alone responsible to, and in vital link with the Risen Christ, is the example for N. T. churches of all time, individuality, not independency, being the mark; each individually responsible to, yet each independently linked to the other, through the Head.
The Master still holding the “seven stars” in the hand of authority, has not relegated control to any Pope, Patriarch, Prelate, Archbishop, Moderator, Priest; Synod, Assembly, Elect Hundred, Elderhood, or human agency of any description.
3. THEY HAVE NO CREED, no Formula of Belief, no Declaration of Faith, no human doctrine which can be referred to as "the 'Doctrinal Basis.” Individuals may have made statements, so that the general public may distinguish these nameless companies from Mormons, Russellites, and other propagandists, but these have no collective authority—"the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible" is the only and final appeal in all matters. "What saith the Scripture?" (Rom. 4. 3) settles all points of doctrine, methods and movements. Surely that is not sectarian!—
"Brethren” and the Fundamentals.
Without boasting, and in order to make clear their doctrinal position, it may be well to state that although, to their shame be it admitted, there are some 6 parties, large or small, one thing is true of all, they are loyal to what are the generally acknowledged vitals of the Christian Faith: (1) The Inspiration of the Scriptures; (2) the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; (3) the Deity and Humanity of Christ; (4) the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit; (5) the Personality of the Devil; (6) the Fall of Man; (7) Salvation only by Faith in Christ; (8) the Christian Church, embracing all the saved; (9) the Priesthood of all true believers; (10) the Coming of the Lord; (11) the Perseverance and Final Glory of all the "born again," or the everlasting punishment of all the "wicked;" (12) the Crowning Glory, when "God will be all in all" (1 Cor. 15. 28).
4. THEY HAVE NO CIRCUMFERENCE. In "all the. world," irrespective of parish or any geo-graphical or ecclesiastical boundary, there are believers seeking to carry out N. T. principles and practices, untrammeled by laws or rules of man. More than 1000 men and women are seeking by faith and under the guidance of God alone to carry the 'Glad Tidings to the uttermost bounds of earth. No board engages them, no society or trust pays them, no central meeting controls them, they look alone to the Lord for guidance as to where they should labour, how long they should be there, and for their support, without guarantee of any kind from man.—
Publicity and Inquiry.
In addition to some 250 evangelists and teachers at home, on the same footing, each individual believer seeks to act as those of old; who when "they were scattered. abroad, went everywhere preaching the Word'' (Acts 8. 4).
They publish more books than most companies, issue numerous magazines, and. at Conferences and other public meetings, make plain statements as to their aims, position and hopes. They welcome the public at all their ordinary meetings; there is no attempt at secrecy, and they ever court the fullest inquiry as to their doctrines and doings.
These believers are in this happy position that if anything can be shown them in the N. T. which they are not holding or practicing, they freely and cheerfully accept the same. And if anything they hold or teach can be shown to be unscriptural, however antiquated or venerated, by God's grace, they seek to be done with it for ever. Only it must be the plain teaching of the Inspired “Word of our God, which shall stand for ever" (Isa 40. 8).
Therefore, we unhesitatingly conclude that these companies, misnamed "Plymouth Brethren," have never been, are not now, and we trust by God's grace, never will become "a SECT."
“The Witness” 1932-1933