Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Plymouth Brethren

I'm slowly making my way through the current issue of Books and Culture. Last night I read a wonderful article by Robert Gundry on F. F. Bruce. Gundry's review of Tim Grass's F. F. Bruce: A Life brought back memories of my ThM thesis at Regent College on the ecclesiology of the Plymouth Brethren.

I wanted to study the Plymouth Brethren because of my church background. While growing up in Toledo, Ohio, I attended a non-denominational church that did not have a pastor. The Christian Fellowship of Toledo was led by a board of elders and rotated in a group of speakers, some of whom were elders and others were professors at nearby universities and seminaries. When I later found out from my parents that our church was modeled on congregations affiliated with Open Brethren churches, I decided to research the ecclesiology of the Plymouth Brethren in order to understand my church heritage.

While studying the Brethren I learned that Regent College has deep connections with the Brethren. The principal founder, James Houston, along with former NT professor Ward Gasque, church historian and cultural theologian John Stackhouse, and current president Rod Wilson all come from Brethren backgrounds.

Many people mistake the Plymouth Brethren as being a church movement of sectarians that were united under John Nelson Darby, the nineteenth-century clergyman who popularized the idea of the "rapture" and dispensationalism. Darby was only one of the early leaders of the Brethren. His group broke off from the more "open" Brethren to form "closed" Brethren communities which did not allow Christians outside their circle to participate in the Lord's Supper. The Open Brethren, by contrast, were much more inclusive and ecumenical in dealing with other Christians. Some of their most famous leaders include the missionary Anthony Norris Grove and George M├╝ller, who famously ran an orphanage funded by faith-based giving. F. F. Bruce came from the Open Brethren tradition. 

If you are interested in learning more about the Plymouth Brethren, there are some excellent  scholarly books on this movement, including Tim Grass's Gathering to His Name, Neil Dickson's The Brethren in Scotland, Roy Coad's A History of the Brethren Movement, and my favorite, Harold Rowdon's The Origins of the Brethren. Other related books that would be of interest include Timothy Stunt's excellent From Awakening to Secession and Ernest Sandeen's The Roots of Fundamentalism.

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