Please pray for my family in connection with this: if there's a way to avoid leaving, I would like to take it.
But I want to take an opportunity to discuss this subject. I want to, for this post, ignore the implications of most of what I've posted to date, and become blatantly sectarian for a while. It'll save time to get that out up front: I know some of what I'm going to say is overtly sectarian, but there is a point to all this, so please bear with me.
What is now called the "Brethren Movement", or "Plymouth Brethren", began in Dublin in 1827. There, a few Christians, including J. G. Bellett, J. N. Darby, and (apparently) A. N. Groves started to gather to remember the Lord Jesus on Sunday mornings. There appear to have been several spontaneous, independent "awakenings" (if I can say it that way) that occurred about the same time. By the mid 1830s, there was quite an obvious "Brethren Movement" in full swing.
Then, in the mid-1840s, the assembly on Ebrington Street in Plymouth blew up. There were some significant individuals there, including B. W. Newton, who became very prominent as teachers. Over time, these eventually emerged as unofficial clergy in Plymouth. This caused some uproar among more idealistic "brethren" (including J. N. Darby); but the tension eventually developed into a full-scale war when Newton's teachings on the Incarnation emerged. He alleged that Christ was under Adam's federal headship as a Man, and thus was under the curse of sin. Newton was a very intelligent man, and I don't want to over-simplify his teaching; but he essentially taught that although Christ never sinned, he was born "under sin".
The "brethren" pretty much universally condemned this blasphemy (which is exactly what it was), but split into two groups over how to deal with it. The first group separated completely from the assembly at Plymouth, and had nothing to do with anyone who associated with them. The second group refused to fellowship with Newton, but continued to fellowship with others at Plymouth who didn't personally agree with his teaching.
Eventually this rift developed into two full-fledged groups: "exclusive brethren" and "open brethren".
Over time, each group has developed further apart. "Open brethren" eventually developed their teachings on "autonomy", insisting each assembly is independent. They built an ecclesiology that is open to fellowshipping with other Christians, unless there is specific evil known about them, and have more recently started to fade quietly into mainstream Christendom. "Exclusive brethren", on the other hand, have followed the idea that each assembly is interdependent, and so developed a "circle of fellowship". As the years have gone on, this circle has fragmented many times in many divisions, with each party to each schism claiming posession of the original circle. Some of the divisions have been of serious doctrinal import, but most were simply squabbles that the "brethren" could have stopped, had they been more concerned with the Lord's reputation than their own.
The first division amongst "exclusive brethren" occurred (or perhaps "came to a head") in 1881, and is commonly called the "Ramsgate Division" or "Kelly Division", because that was the division when William Kelly was excommunicated.
The Ramsgate Division was about something that was silly, but it blew up out of proportion. Basically, the case started when a man wanted an illegal marriage: he wanted to marry his sister-in-law (he was a widower). When English law forbade the marriage, he went to France, got married, and returned. This started a long string of events that brought out the worst in everyone, and culminated in a massive division.
William Kelly was excommunicated by the brethren at the Park Street assembly in London. More than a few assemblies felt Kelly was right in the division, and followed him out of the Park Street group, to later become known as the "Kelly Brethren".
I want to spend some time talking about this, because when Kelly was excommunicated, he made his case in a letter entitled "Why Many Saints Were Outside the Park Street of 1881". I have converted this document to PDF, but it's not online at the moment.
But consider these snippets from the letter:
Claiming that “they broke bread together on the alone divine ground of one body, one Spirit,” they quickly ceased nevertheless. Too self-confident to see or judge the real evil of their proceedings, yet finding out their mistaken policy, they seized on flaws in their Brethren who remained, both to deny their standing and to reintegrate their own pretensions. Hence (in 1880) they repeated their party effort, with the bold assumption that “the Lord would own and protect” their second table. This the Lord did not; nor was it long before they themselves dropped it.
This was the evil deliberately committed by Park Street in the Lord’s name, and sought accordingly to be imposed upon all. Its acceptance was not left as usual for the Lord to vindicate if sound, or disannul if wrong. It was speedily required on pain of forfeiture of fellowship, in the face of known, wide, and deep disapproval.
To idolize assembly judgments as necessarily right is condemned by His Word.
The more that episode of sin, shame, and sorrow is weighed, the clearer it will be that ecclesiastical independency had unconsciously and extensively infected those who talked loudly of “one body and one Spirit.”
But dissolving for the time, and for this matter only, into independent assemblies, each judging for itself, was to adopt the human device of a voluntary society, and to ignore the ground of God’s church, abandoning for the nonce our divine relationship and its duty. God thus allowed an evil movement of party to fall into a flagrant contradiction alike of his principle and of our own cherished practice in faith. Could it be for anything else but the worldly and rather vulgar end of catching votes?
What Kelly describes here is essentially the same evils "exclusives" have resorted to in every division, rupture, or crisis since: form a party, loudly denounce everyone who doesn't join, and start a "new lump". William Kelly called it starting a sect.
"Exclusive brethren" continued to have several divisions over the next several years: apparently Ramsgate was just the beginning. Over the next 12 years, there were the "Stuart Division" (excommunicating C. E. Stuart), the "Grant Division" (excommunicating F. W. Grant), and the "Raven Division" (excommunicating W. J. Lowe (or F. E. Raven, depending on your perspective)). And that's just twelve years! After that, the "Tunbridge Wells" division afflicted the "Lowe Brethren", who became known as the "Lowe-Continental brethren". The "Lowe-Continental brethren" made peace with the "Kelly brethren" in 1926 (Kelly himself was dead by then), and formed the "KLC brethren" ("Kelly-Lowe-Continental").
And every single group that was formed (every division produced at least two groups, both claiming to be the original group), eventually divided again; except possibly the "Kelly brethren"---I am not aware of any divisions in their history between 1881 and 1926. So eventually you had no fewer than the following groups: KLC, Grant, Grant-Ames, Grant-Booth, Stuart, Raven, Raven-Taylor, Glanton, Renton, NHH (Tunbridge Wells), and Perth. I can't remember any more at present, but I doubt I listed even half there.
Rather sordid history for people who insist on "the unity of the Body".
Contrary to what you might think, I had a point in taking you on a jaunt through "our" dirty laundry. The point is this: that the accusations Kelly made in 1881 were true then, and have never been repented of. The "brethren" were goaded into leaving their principles when crisis struck: they abandoned the "visible unity" "brethren" have claimed, and resorted to the same independency they condemned the "open brethren" for. Although they talked a good game, then fundamentally played a different one.
William Kelly's solution to the Ramsgate problem was no doubt terrifying: he proposed that they eschew formalism, avoid sectarianism, and be willing to wait "however long" for the Lord to make it clear what they should do. Rather than stong-arming brethren into acting, he advocated praying together until everyone came to an agreement. He suggested something very idealistic, but also very Scriptural (cf. Acts 15). In fact, Kelly advocated that "brethren" continue doing as they had before, and not allow their circumstances to pressure them into doing what they had formerly condemned.
My conclusion is that "exclusive brethren" ceased to exist as a group of people willing to gather only "in the Lord's name" in 1881, and formed a sect instead. The rise of Brethrenism as a sect dates from 1881.
A friend of mine from real life has a blog entitled "rublev's dog". In it, he takes a paeleo-conservative approach to American politics and current events. That's not my interest per se, but I find his thoughts and comments very interesting. One view we both share is, the Civil War in America fundamentally ended the United States af America (a confederacy dating from 1789) and replaced it with the modern USA: a monolithic republic with the same name, but fundamentally different structure and philosophy. The Ramsgate Division of 1881 essentially had the same effect on "exclusive brethren". Where we were once content to gather because Christ told us to (whether anyone else wanted to join us or not); now we won't gather without a "circle of fellowship" to legitimize us. Where the Word of God used to be sufficient to guide us, we now have a series of doctrines that explain away all our inconsistencies and hypocrisies. Where we used to meet on the principle of "One Body", now we meet on the principle of doctrinal assent: if you don't agree, you're not welcome.
In many ways, "open brethren" seem to have preserved the "exclusive vision" better than "exclusives" have done.
Sadly, "brethren" before and since have pleaded for what Kelly held up as godly: J. N. Darby's writings uniformly advocate there is no other principle for gathering than we are all in one Body, and C. A. Coates (almost 100 years later) re-iterated the claim. And those two aren't alone. But there is a fundamental difference between the writings of J. N. Darby and C. A. Coates: where they both appeal to the same principles, Coates came after they had been abandoned in practice. In the days of Darby (he died in 1882, the year after the Ramsgate Division), the "brethren" were still largely content to gather without a form or a sect to lend them credence. By Coates' time, the "brethren" had developed the doctrines of One Place, and it colours all his writings.
I doubt very much there was a moment-in-time paradigm shift at the Ramsgate Division. I expect the evils Kelly denounced had been lurking for years under the surface, but they became open and obvious in 1881. And since 1881, they are (for better or worse) the established doctrine of "exclusive brethren".
So in the present day, there are certainly Christians who gather according the same principles early "brethren" found in Scripture. But those of us who claim those "early brethren" as our spiritual forbears have adopted their failures as well as their insights. I don't think it's too late for "exclusive brethren" to return to the principles they held before 1881, but I doubt strongly they want to. You see, there is something comforting about a sectarian identity. There is security in a denominational title and a group identity. To return to the simplicity of the "exclusive brethren" of 1845--1881 requires a willingness to have no other identity than one who gathers in the Lord's name. No circle of fellowship, no threats to hold us together: just a walking out of what's in Scripture.
The thing is, when we take a stand, we can expect to be tested. Over and over, I have seen "brethren" tested: seen something wrong pop up, and then watched our response. I've seen us react correctly, but much more frequently I've seen us fail. We fail when we allow circumstances to pressure us into moving away from Scriptural principles to react according to our own wisdom. When we come up with a reason why a Scriptural exhortation can't work, then we have failed. When we accuse "open brethren" of sin because they practice independency, while saying "every assembly has to take a stand individually", then we have failed.
A lot of "brethren" say "the point of return is the point of departure". That is, you can't just ignore what's gone wrong: you need to go back to where things went wrong, and make that right before moving on. If they're correct, then I can't help but conclude our point of departure was in 1881, and we've never been willing to revisit that.