I have spent time on both sides of the Great Divide of the so-called "plymouth brethren". While I currently fellowship with so-called "exclusive brethren" (Kelly/Grant brethren, to be exact), I spent many years among "open brethren" first.
"Open brethren" are basically divided into four groups: "Needed Truth", who are practically much like many "exclusive brethren," essentially claiming exclusive possession of the Lord's Table ; "tight-open brethren", who are very like most "exclusive brethren" (not just in good ways), except for their [wrong] teaching on inter-assembly relationship and the ruin of the Church; and then the "wide-open brethren", who are slowly developing into two groups: one more liberal than the other.
My father had grown up in "open brethren", my mother had grown up in a non-Christian home, but had been saved in a Baptist Church as a teenager. When we were growing up, we lived a strange dichotomy for years where we attended the Baptist Church on Sundays (there was no "brethren assembly" in my home town), but learned all week how the Baptists were wrong. So I was the only one in my Sunday School classes who didn't think drinking and smoking were sins, or who thought the clergy system was silly. We spent a couple years in a house meeting, and eventually (when I was 16 or so), we started the weekly commute to the neighboring town, where there was an "assembly".
When I went off to University, I tried a couple different churches, but finally found what I was looking for: an "open assembly". I was at UVic for four years, and spent almost all that time at Victoria Gospel Chapel. I have no idea whether there's anyone there now: last I heard, they sold the building and left; I'm not sure they ever found another place to meet, or whether they just folded. There were several "open assemblies" in Victoria: there was Lambrick Park (extremely liberal), Oaklands Chapel (very liberal), Victoria Gospel Chapel (conservative), Westview Gospel Chapel (conservative), and Oak Bay Gospel Assembly (very conservative). There were also umpteen house meetings, and there was a "Needed Truth" assembly: "Cooke Street Gospel Hall"; I visited Cooke St. once.
After University, I moved to St. Louis, where I taught at Victory Christian School. VCS was run by the "open assembly" in St. Louis---or one of them: Southside Bible Chapel---which was my first long-term encounter with the more liberal "open brethren". The "open brethren" here in the USA seem to be more liberal than those in Canada, for the most part.
In St. Louis I got married, and we came to North Carolina after two years in St. Louis. After a few weeks in my wife's home town, meeting at the excellent Preston Gospel Chapel, we moved to Charlotte, and encountered more of the rampant churchiness that characterized the "open assemblies" in St. Louis.
We lasted four weeks at the "open assembly" in Charlotte, and we left.
Looking back, we left wrongly. Not that it was necessarily wrong to leave, but we left abruptly and silently, just sort of slinking out. Perhaps one person noticed we were gone.
The beginning of the end of my time in "open brethren" was in St. Louis. An older brother there, who was a bit of a persona non grata, asked me this question: "Is it more biblical to have five 'pastors' than one?" At first I argued with him, thought he was a nut; but over time, as I discussed the issue of church order with him, and as I studied my Bible; I became convinced that "eldership", as taught among "open brethren" was essentially the very clergy system we condemned in "the churches".
Around the same time, I was reading 1 Corinthians 14:26 "How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying." (KJV). I remember clearly when I first saw that verse: I was sitting in the meeting hall, before the meeting began, and I was reading my Bible. I stumbled across that verse, and as I looked at it, I realized "We don't do that!". 1 Corinthians clearly describes the meetings of the early church as rather informal, impromptu, very free affairs. The "open brethren" schedule things fanatically.
What finally drove me out of the "open assembly", though; was a remembrance meeting where someone stood up and talked about how "people would think we were crazy if we worshipped an electric chair, but we worship the Cross..." I can't remember anything else the guy said; but when that was said publicly, and no one stood up and corrected him, I turned to my wife and said "we're not coming back here again."
That night, we stumbled into the "exclusive" meeting hall.
I wrote that protracted, somewhat detailed precis of my time in "open brethren' for a few reasons---it's not just gratuitous story-telling! First, my time in "open brethren" has come up in a few conversations recently. Second, the question "why don't you go and join 'open brethren'?" has come up too.
In the end, there were godly women and men in the "open brethren" that I knew and enjoyed fellowship with. There are many people there I wouldn't hesitate to fellowship with again. There was teaching and ministry of higher quality than pretty much anything I have heard in "exclusive brethren".
But as inviting as the other side of the fence always looks (you know the grass is always greener and all that), there are problems there too. There are reasons I left the "open brethren". Real reasons, good reasons. On the other hand, there may well be some good reasons to return. The most difficult thing is always to allow God to be God, and not dictate what we will or won't do.
Church order is the biggest reason I left the "open" meeting. We in "exclusive" circles do a terrible job of church order. We make a real mess of almost everything. But I firmly believe that what we hold and teach about it is correct---we just never actually practice what we preach. "Open brethren" teach some important truths about the Church, but their take on church order is fundamentally wrong. They teach a modified clergy/laity system, where the church is kept orderly by "strong leadership".
This has some trickle-down effects: one example is the tendency for the Lord's Supper to degrade into a free-for-all, where brethren frequently give sermonettes, or even motiviational talks. The Lord's Supper is to be a remembrance: ministry and teaching really don't fit that description. However, when brethren are taught on one hand that they are all priests, and then denied the opportunity to minister on the other (i.e. only "gifted brothers" are invited to speak in the meetings); they inevitably attempt to minister in the one meeting where they are free to stand up and speak without being on an agenda. Of course, some "open assemblies" deal with this by scheduling the Lord's Supper in advance too, but this is only exacerbating the problem.
Ecclesiology is another one: "open brethren" fundamentally fail to see the truth of the One Body. Yes, they understand that the Church transcends denominational boundaries, but they fail to see that there is only one body. They use terms like "local body" to indicate that they actually believe in a single Universal Body, and a multitude of smaller "local bodies". This fundamentally denies the truth of the Unity of the Body as taught in John 17, 1 Cor. 5, 12, etc.
Now, there are areas where the "open brethren" put us to shame. Evangelism is frequently more complete and faithful in "open" circles. And, the "open brethren" frequently have a better handle on the Unity of the Body when it comes to receiving other believers, regardless of whether they are "with us". There is much we would do well to imitate from "open brethren".
One interesting quirk of "open brethren" is their tendency to use building names to indicate what sort of assembly they are: "Gospel Hall" refers to a meeting hall belonging in either "tight open" or "Needed Truth" circles; "Gospel Chapel" typically refers to a conservative "wide-open" assembly, where "Bible Chapel" typically refers to a liberal "wide-open" meeting hall. I found it confusing when I started breaking bread with "exclusives" and they just sort of named their buildings randomly: "Gospel Hall", "Christian Assembly Hall", "Bible Truth Hall", and "Grace and Truth Chapel" are all names of various "exclusive" meeting halls. I've had more than one conversation with someone from "open brethren" who was upset that we don't categorize our meeting halls more carefully.
I'm not interested in condemning the "open brethren". While I believe them to be wrong in some areas, I also believe them to be right in many more.
At the end of the day, I've become convinced that "open brethren" are facing the same problems we are facing in "exclusive" circles. I'm basing this on messages, articles, comments, and sermons from "open brethren" I'm seeing online, etc. I'm not sure which of us is dealing with these problems better: they seem to think the solution to every problem is strong leadership; we seem to think problems will just go away if we convince one another we're correct in our doctrine. So while "open brethren" spend a lot of time saying things like "you need to submit to your elders", "exclusives" spend a lot of time saying "remember, we're gathering to the Lord's Name alone!"
I don't see either solution as very successful, nor very Biblical.
So as far as I can see, we're in the same boat. Perhaps that ought to spur us to some fellowship with one another. Somehow I doubt that will happen: neither side of the family wants to acknowledge the existence of the other.
But it does put me in an interesting dilemna: on some subjects, I find myself in closer agreement with "open brethren" than with "exclusives". On others, I find myself closer to "exclusives" than "opens". This is all part of the uphill battle we call the Christian life.