Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The dog ate my homework

I alluded to my recent poor attendance record in an earlier post.

Just to set the record straight: I haven't been skipping meetings out of protest, or even out of laziness.

Between extreme work demands, personal sickness, and sick kids; we've been more or less unable to make it to the meetings.

So no, I'm not a conscientious objector yet. It's just been a tough row to hoe recently.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Subversion of the Lord's Supper

I've started a post several times, and each time, it wasn't quite what I wanted. Or, my thoughts ended up going in a different direction. So I have a few drafts I may someday turn into posts, but I wanted to try this from scratch one more time.

The central meeting in the assembly is the Lord's Supper. It is not exclusive of others, but it is takes a unique place. Consider some passages from the New Testament (brief comments in italics):
"41 Those then who had accepted his word were baptised; and there were added in that day about three thousand souls. 42 And they persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers. 43 And fear was upon every soul, and many wonders and signs took place through the apostles’ means." (Acts 2:41--43, Darby Translation)
Breaking of Bread was one of the four reasons the early Church gathered: the others were teaching, fellowship, and prayers.

"6 but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and we came to them to Troas in five days, where we spent seven days. 7 And the first day of the week, we being assembled to break bread, Paul discoursed to them, about to depart on the morrow. And he prolonged the discourse till midnight." (Acts 20:6--7, Darby Translation)
So the early church gathered on the first day of the week (not the Sabbath), in order to break bread.

"17 But in prescribing to you on this which I now enter on, I do not praise, namely, that ye come together, not for the better, but for the worse. 18 For first, when ye come together in assembly, I hear there exist divisions among you, and I partly give credit to it. 19 For there must also be sects among you, that the approved may become manifest among you. 20 When ye come therefore together into one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper." (1 Cor. 11:17--20, Darby Translation)
Interestingly, Paul holds up the fact that the Corinthians were meeting "not to eat the Lord's supper" as though it were an anomaly.

"23 For *I* received from the Lord, that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus, in the night in which he was delivered up, took bread, 24 and having given thanks broke it, and said, This is my body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of me. 25 In like manner also the cup, after having supped, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood: this do, as often as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me. 26 For as often as ye shall eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye announce the death of the Lord, until he come." (1 Cor. 11:23--26, Darby Translation)
And we find the the Lord's Supper is the subject of a special revelation to Paul.

So the Scriptural record tells us a few things about the Lord's Supper, just in these four passages. First, it was one of four reasons the early church gathered. Second, the Gentile church in Philippi gathered on the first day of the week to break bread. It doesn't explicitly say this was a weekly thing, but the inference is there. Third, the Lord's Supper was the subject of a special revelation directly to Paul: he received it "from the Lord", not from one of the other Apostles who was there that night. Fourth, Paul tells the Corinthians that there sectarianism meant they were not gathering to eat the Lord's Supper---almost as though that were an anomaly in the early Church.

So it is reasonable to say that the Lord's Supper appears, according to the Scriptural record, to be the central meeting of the Church. And notice in Acts 20, Paul spoke to them when they were gathered to break bread: apparently they did not have a special meeting to listen to Paul, but he took the opportunity to speak to them, when they were gathered to break bread. (The story seems to imply that Paul spoke after they had eaten the Lord's Supper, but I can't really prove it. Eutychus certainly fell out the window during Paul's message, not during the Lord's Supper.) It's singular that most Churches today prioritize preaching over the Lord's Supper; and while they might cancel the Lord's Supper for a special speaker, it's hard to imagine them having a guest speaker (not to mention an Apostle!) and making him take time at the Lord' Supper.

Why do we eat the Lord's Supper? Paul tells us plainly in 1 Corinthians 11:24 & 26 "this do... in remembrance of me". It is to remember the Lord Jesus that we gather to break bread. It's not for sermons (although Paul certainly addressed the Philippian church when they were so gathered), nor for fellowship, but to remember the Lord Jesus.

When I was in the "open" assembly in St. Louis, a brother mentioned once that the Lord called us to remember Him: not His death, not His life, nor His exaltation; but Him. In remembering Him, we do remember these things, but we don't gather to remember that the Lord suffered for us, we gather to remember Him.

Now, in remembering Him, we show forth His death. Many brethren have mis-quoted this, as saying we gather to remember His death, or we gather to remember Him "in His death", but that's not what the passage says: it says we gather to remember Him, and when we do, we show forth His death.

I doubt very much a Christian could eat the bread signifying His broken Body, and drink the cup signifying the New Covenant in His blood without remembering His death. But remembering His death is not why we gather.

I make a this point very carefully, because there is subtle danger in remembering the Lord's death, rather than remembering the Lord. We are called to remember the Lord who went into death for us: but we are not called to remember His death. Why the distinction? Because He's not dead now! We are remembering a Person---a Divine Person---who once died for us, but is now in Heaven, sitting at God's right hand for us. Not now our priest as an offerer, but our Great High Priest as one who has offered, and invites us into God's presence as purged worshipers.

"19 Having therefore, brethren, boldness for entering into the holy of holies by the blood of Jesus, 20 the new and living way which he has dedicated for us through the veil, that is, his flesh, 21 and having a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart, in full assurance of faith, sprinkled as to our hearts from a wicked conscience, and washed as to our body with pure water." (Hebrews 10:19--22, Darby Translation).

Does our remembering Him show forth His death? Absolutely! Does our coming into Heaven remind us of His death? How could it not? We enter by our new and living way, His blood; through the veil, His flesh. When we go into the Holiest of all, it's His blood that we see thrown against the sides of the altar. We can't go into God's presence and not remember Hid death for us.

But it's not to remember His death that we gather. It's not to stir up some emotional response to the sufferings of the Son of God. It's not to visualize a beaten, abused, crucified Man. It's not even to try and see a glimpse of His being made sin for us. It's to remember Him. It's the Person---not the event---we worship.

Having established why we gather, it is easy to see that there are a great many things we can do to destroy the Lord's Supper. Paul mentioned schism and immorality in 1 Corinthians 11. Derailing is also possible, by using the Lord's Supper as a platform for issues other than remembering Him.

It is this last possibility I find the most frightening. Personally, I have seen this done many times, often by well-meaning brethren. I think of this as the subversion of the Lord's Supper.

There are a few ways I personally have seen the Lord's Supper subverted:

One of the things I notice every time I attend an "open" meeting is, that there are a lot of mini-sermons in the Lord's Supper. "Exclusive" brethren consider it a bad thing to speak much in the Lord's Supper: brethren pray, give out hymns, or read Scripture; but they don't make comments on the verses they read, they don't give short messages in the Lord's Supper.

While I don't by any means think "exclusives" have a corner in the truth here; I can appreciate the heart behind this taboo.

Sermonettes in the Lord's Supper are not always terrible: there were many times I can remember when someone stood at the Lord's Supper and gave a short lesson or address that contributed to remembering the Lord. On the other hand, the vast majority of the times I can remember someone standing and giving a short address at the Lord's Supper, it was a distraction.

It is a fact that making some sort of rule about what's appropriate in the Lord's Supper is a bad idea: law (as a principle) always works in opposition to grace. But the fact is, the Lord's Supper is not the time for teaching, exhorting, admonishing, or encouraging: it's the time for remembering. Now, I have no problem with someone doing all those things afterwards (which is apparently what Paul did in Philippi), but we gather to remember Him.

I think the problem of sermonettes in the Lord's Supper among "open brethren" is partly---or largely---due to their scheduling all the meetings. I find it interesting that two common themes I hear in ministry on assembly order from "open brethre" are: (1) the Lord's Supper is a place to remember Him, not a place to teach; and (2) that not every brother should minister publicly in the assembly: only "gifted brothers" should minister. These two messages work against one another, but the "open brethren" don't seem to see that. If you limit some brethren from public speaking in the assembly, but then tell them they are priests, they will take the only opportunity they have for public address (the Lord's Supper) and use it to say what's on their hearts. The best way to ensure brothers don't abuse their freedom to speak up in the Lord's Supper is to allow them the freedom to do so in other meetings.

The problem with scheduling (or limiting) the roster of speakers in an assembly is, the criterion for doing so is always wrong. As wrong as it is to include men who have nothing to say (and haven't we all seen that?), it's just as bad to exclude someone who very much has something to say. But in all the messages I have heard out of "open brethren" about how "only gifted brothers should minister", the criterion is always presented as "brothers gifted for public ministry". The criterion is wrong for several reasons:
1. There is not a hint in Scripture that the Lord limits His activities to working through "gifted" people. Quite the opposite: Moses and Paul were both said to be poor speakers (Ex. 4:10; 2 Cor. 10:10), and yet they were both sent with a message from the Lord.
2. A gift for speaking is not the same as something to say. It's quite possible for a gifted speaker to fill an hour without saying anything: possible, but not profitable. The criterion ought not to be whether a brother is gifted to speak, but whether he has something to say.
3. Spiritual gift is a very real thing, but it's very hard to diagnose. There are many gifted, unsaved speakers. Natural talent, learned skills: these are deceptively similar to spiritual gifts. To select speakers based on "spiritual gift" is impossible, and ends up being a selection based solely on eloquence.
4. There are many gifts that might be appropriate for public ministry at one time or another: "open brethren" assume that public ministry is teaching, but there are also encouragement, exhortation, admonishment, etc. These all have a place in public ministry.

But the biggest problem of all is, it replaces the Holy Spirit's leading in the assembly---the practical Headship of Christ---with man's agenda and schedules.

I believe one of the reasons "exclusive brethren" have a more purely worshipful time at the Lord's Supper is precisely that they have "open ministry" meetings, where any brother with something to say is allowed to get up and say it. Brothers don't need to try and get their message into that one meeting: there are meetings explicitly for a brother to address the assembly.

Laws and Rules
While this is a somewhat sensitive topic, I sincerely believe one of the biggest subversions of the Lord's Supper is when brethren declare some formal rules for it. For example, I once heard a brother declare that all prayers and singing in the Lord's Supper should be directed to the Son, as we are gathered to remember Him. The Father, while certainly worthy of worship and praise, was not to be addressed in prayer or song in that meeting. I heard another brother go further, saying we are to worship the Son before the bread and wine are passed around, and then the Father after. I've also heard a lot of people saying we are only to remember the Lord's death, or suffering, not anything else---not His life, not His resurrection or ascension, just His death.

This sort of nonsense causes a lot more trouble than anyone realizes. At the very least, it forces the brethren to examine carefully every word they say before saying it: the focus becomes scrutinizing every word, rather than remembering the Lord. More importantly, it takes the Lord's place as center of the gathering and puts in it the brethren's rules for meeting. It practically usurps Christ's place.

Now, I'm all for limiting our meetings to what's in Scripture, but if you don't have a chapter and verse, you need to keep quiet. That's all there is to it. We all have preferences, and that's fine: but if you can't tell the difference between the weight of Scripture and your personal preference, then you are not in a spiritual position to declare what the brethren should do in the meetings.

Pressured Participation
This is closely related to the last point, but I think it's deserves special attention. One of the best things about the Lord's Supper is, it is unscripted and loosely scheduled. Any brother who feels led of the Lord may give out a hymn, read Scripture, or pray. The meeting is almost completely free-form, progressing as the brethren feel the Lord directs. But the sad reality is, we all fail to see the value in that from time to time.

If you spend enough time among "brethren", you eventually hear someone lamenting "long silences" in the meeting.

If you're a young man in the meeting, you will almost invariably be told you need to participate in the meetings: pray, give out a hymn, whatever.

The sad reality is, the same people who arrogate to themselves the exclusive claim of the Lord's presence Sunday mornings (because "we gather to the Lord's name alone, not to a man's name, a pastor, or a denominational title"), casually and frequently deny the Lord's place in the assembly by their constant meddling: telling others what they ought to do where the Holy Spirit is supposedly in control.

Does this sort of nagging have an effect on the meetings? Of course it does! We are better off with someone sitting silently than to have him say something designed to stop the nagging.

The fact is, silence in the meeting can be a very good thing. If we really believe the Scripture; then we must accept we are there to remember Him, not to talk. To the extent that silence in a meeting is the result of spiritual apathy, it is a problem. But spiritual apathy isn't cured by nagging: it's just hidden that way. As one brother said "If you think the meetings are too quiet, you're talking to the wrong man. Take it to Him, and let Him deal with it."

I think one of the worst things is, when the meeting is going along so well: we're all remembering the Lord, enjoying His presence, and someone stands up to stop the meeting, because we've gone way past time, and we're going to need to start Sunday School soon.

I have no solution to this problem, but I hate it when it happens. I suppose we could just say "Look, Bro., we're not done yet. But we'll finish soon," or something to that effect. But no matter where you go, there's always at least one who would rather die than be off the schedule...

In the end, the Lord's Supper is of the first importance in the assembly. But our desires to do it right seem to cloud the issue: get in the way of our actually doing it. Almost all the problems I see in assemblies are the result of meddling; and we seem to meddle more in this one area than all others.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Bible Reading

The Bible Reading is a distinctive "brethren" meeting. While I don't question many different groups of Christians have and have had meetings that were basically the same thing, I would consider it especially characteristic of "brethren" because of the informal, unstructured enivronment in such a meeting.

In "open" circles, the Bible Reading has been all but forgotten: replaced by a "family Bible hour" or something similar. This is certainly a loss: it undermines the concept of the priesthood of all believers, puts yet another control on the leading of the Holy Spirit in the assembly, and allows us to gather with less individual exercise. That's not to say "Family Bible Hour" is evil or anything like it: it's just to say that assemblies appear to have been compensating for lack of teaching, study, and exercise by scheduling more and more of their meetings, and displacing many of the "distinctive" meetings.

So what is a Bible Reading? Well, in simple terms it's a round-table discussion of a Bible passage. Much like the home Bible studies I grew up with, the Bible Reading is more or less open for all the participants to comment or pose questions. Frequently there will be some sort of leader: either a moderator or someone who is clearly the expert on the passage under study; but this person shouldn't monopolize the meeting. Occasionally a question will be posed: sometimes to the whole assembly, more rarely to a specific brother. I've also seen corrections given in the meetings. That's a good thing, of course.

I frequently hear that churches ought to focus on expository teaching. The idea is, expository teaching starting in Genesis and going through to Revelation allows us to open up the whole counsel of God and ensures we have at least some grasp of the whole Bible. I don't have a problem with that in principle, although I think there are some bad assumptions, and some bad conclusions, that result from such a statement.

First, I see nothing in Scripture to indicate that the Church's focus ought to be teaching. I see the Church is to gather for edification, and to remember the Lord. Is teaching part of that? Certainly! But to place it as the prominent function is really a mistake.

Second, there is the unspoken assumption that the indivduals in an assembly will not go through their whole Bibles unless those passages are covered in meetings. Let's be crystal clear here: there is no excuse---none---for a believer in America (or indeed anywhere else Bibles are readily available) not to have read through their Bibles: completely and frequently. It is quite irrelevant whether one's church or assembly ever teaches on a passage or not: the serious Christian takes reponsibility and reads them herself or himself. Churches that plan out teaching over every verse in order to ensure believers have been through the whole Bible would be infinitely better off teaching the believer's individual responsibility to the Lord and His Word.

Third, there is the unspoken assumption that the indivduals in an assembly will not learn unless taught in the meetings. This is just clerisy: there is no reason any believer who is indwellt by the Holy Spirit can't pick up their Bible and learn from it.

But in principle, the desire for complete, verse-by-verse teaching through the Scripture is a good one. And---all the above problems aside---the assembly that chooses to work through the whole Bible has made a good choice. And this is where the Bible Reading comes in. The Bible Reading is the perfect setting for verse-by-verse exposition. In my experience, Bible Readings are typically a verse-by-verse through a book of the Bible selected in advance.

Along with the frequent calls for expositional teaching, I hear statements that topical teaching is inferior. While I appreciate the thinking behind such a statement, I find no evidence for it in Scripture. In fact, the vast majority (arguably all) of the Lord's teaching in the Gospels is topical. I understand the concern that topical teaching easily becomes a law unto itself, leaving Scripture behind, but the Scripture clearly gives us many more examples of topical teaching than expository.

But again, the Bible Reading is a great tool here. While assembly public teaching is often topical: the Bible Reading provides a solid foundation of expository teaching on which to build the topical. Here is how it works where I fellowship: there are two Bible Readings in a week: one Sunday morning, one Wednesday evening. There is typically "ministry", or preaching Sunday nights. Thus, both topical and expository teaching are covered.

There is no mention in Scripture of the Bible Reading per se, but I'm satisfied it fits in with the Scriptural model of meeting:
  1. 1 Corinthians 14 tells us meetings were unscripted, and everyone came with something: "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." (1 Corinthians 14:26 , KJV)
  2. We find the Lord's pedagogical technique with the disciples was to ask questions, answer their questions, and challenge them. It was an interactive approach.

That's not to say there are no examples of preaching in the New Testament---nor even in the Old. But the fact is, preaching is by far the exception, rather than the rule. In fact, preaching is specifically connected with the Gospel in Scripture. Of course, we tend to get that backwards: rather than preach the Gospel to the lost and teach believers interactively; we try and tell the Gospel interactively to the lost, and teach believers by preaching.

So what are the benefits of the Bible Reading? I think there are at least four:
1. It allows all the believers to participate vocally, regardless of gift. I suppose I'll end up writing an essay on this point alone in the near future; but I'll try and articulate this briefly now: where meetings are exclusively preaching-oriented, speakers are basically chosen based on ability to speak. This is, of course, a reasonable criterion from man's point of view. But what about God's? Moses wasn't a good speaker (Ex. 4:10), neither was Paul (2 Cor. 10:10). Of course, the theory is that we are looking for someone with spiritual gift, but how can we tell? The fact is, we tend to choose eloquent speakers, and that can be natural talent as much as spiritual gift. Further, the question of gift avoids the real question: does the speaker have something to say? Moses and Paul both came with a word from God in contrast to good speaking skills.

Does that mean good speakers can't have a real word from God? Of course not! But the ability to speak is secondary to actually having something to say. Finally, the problem with trying to select gifted speakers is, it presupposes that one gift is more appropriate---or even more important---than another. Who gets selected to speak? Teachers. What about exhorters or encouragers? There is need in the Body of Christ for much more than we can choose in all our [lack of] wisdom.

2. It allows interactions: questions, challenges, etc. Preaching is not enough to teach the Word of God. There are questions to be answered, and they can't all be thought out by the speaker in advance. Bible Readings allow a listener to pose a question.

3. It allows correction. Whether an overt correction, like pointing out someone is in error; or gentler correction like someone saying "I think we're missing the point here": Bible Readings allow for the course of the teaching to be changed when it takes a misdirection. This is invaluable.

4. It requires preparation. What's the best way to keep meetings from becoming spectator sport? Get people involved! What's the best way to get people involved? Take away the safety net of a program. Face it, with preaching services, there is nothing to motivate people to actually open their Bibles, or even pay attention. But put those same people in a position where they can actually participate, and you see some wonderful things.

There is a multitude of people talking about how "you should be prepared for church!", but experience tells us it doesn't work. Take those same people, and let them know there isn't any church without preparation, and the results are interesting. To be sure, someone can slack off in the Bible Reading too: and too often people make comments who are clearly unprepared... but when that happens, it's obvious: a rebuke that's not hidden and softened by blaming the guy on the stage.

Finally, there are some dangers too. The Bible Reading is an extension of each person's individual walk with the Lord: when the individual is lax on Bible reading and study in his own life, the quality of the Reading meeting follows this decline. Too often comments are made that are a result of trying to fill silence, rather than having a point. And of course, "leading brethren" are the most likely culprits: they are most likely to make an inane comment unchallenged.

And there is the ever-present danger of thinking a better format means a healthier assembly: it's quite possible---probable, even---for a very unhealthy assembly to cling to a right format, in order to salvage an outward appearance.

But despite the dangers, I am convinced that the Bible Reading is one of the most valuable meetings: an invaluable teaching tool in the assembly.

Monday, March 12, 2007

My history with "open brethren"

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.