Friday, June 22, 2007

Personal Update

In my last post, I indicated I thought my only real course of action is to leave "exclusive brethren". But since that post, there have been a few interesting developments...

First, my wife emailed a friend in the assembly, to give a heads-up that we're leaving. That was yesterday morning. Yesterday afternoon, her husband stopped by the office where I work (I'm a contractor, not an employee, but I work pretty consistently in this office). I assumed he had come in response to the email, but he hadn't talked to his wife about it: he had not even heard about it. Turns out he had been sent out to the company to make a sales call (they had been a customer of his at some point), and figured he'd say "hi" when he was here. Well, we had a good talk, and he told me some news about some discussions I had missed this week.

Second, I got a call last night from an older brother in the meeting. He hadn't heard we were planning on leaving, but he hadn't seen us in a couple weeks, and was calling to check on us. I told him what was going on, and we ended up talking pretty close to an hour. Of all the discussions I've had with people about perhaps leaving, this one was the best. It's been a long time since I heard anyone say "Yes, that is a real problem" without adding "But there's weakness everywhere". This might have been the first time someone was open with me about trouble in "brethren", with no excuses, no accusations, and no arrogance. And no, he didn't try to talk me into staying, but he did pray with me and assure me of his continued prayers.

Third, this morning I checked my email and had a stack of messages from a friend I highly respect; a couple of them specifically asking me to reconsider leaving. This is not a friend here in this state, but a friend intimately familiar with the "brethren", and one with whom I have been corresponding via email for a few years now. He's been reading my blog (hey, bro!) and wanted to pass that caution along.

Fourth (actually, first), someone I have never spoken to before called me two weeks ago, discussing assembly issues with me. This brother is not in "brethren", but we emailed a few years back. We discussed my situation, because he came out of a bona-fide cult. That was a worse situation than I've ever faced, although not much worse than where some "brethren" have ended up.

So the question is, what to do now? I've discussed concerns with a few people in the meeting; and I've blogged about my concerns. Anyone who's actually been reading this blog has a pretty good idea what my concerns are. But at the end of the day, a couple things were said yesterday that makes me wonder whether leaving is my only option.

I'm impressed by two things at this point: first, at least a couple people have tried to talk to me this week just because they haven't seen me at the meetings in a couple weeks. This is the first real attempt at checking up on us I remember in a long time. That's a positive sign. Second, the conversations that have "arrested me" so to speak were not in any way sectarian. I've heard a lot of nonsense reasons to stay, but over the last two days, I've had some actually helpful discussions. I've been waiting, hoping for some of that for months.

It looks like I have a lot to pray about.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Take me to Ramsgate

I think I've almost exhausted what I have to say about "brethren". I'm speaking as an insider---and have been all this time; but I realize that I'm coming to a decision: my convictions and thoughts about "the Church" are more and more at odds with "exclusive brethren", and it is making my continued fellowship with them seem difficult or impossible. Perhaps I'm wrong---I'd like to believe I am---but I have reached the conclusion that the best thing for me to do is leave. Not as a statement, not to stir up trouble; but because it's entirely unreasonable to think I ought to change everyone else's thinking. I'm not wanting to stir the pot or rock the boat, so I think leaving quietly is the best thing to do.

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.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Place

These go to eleven! -- Nigel Tufnel

My post on my twisty path grew out of control; but I think I finally got to my goal: discussing The Place. In the end, my contention against the de facto teaching of The Place is almost symbolic (typical?) of all my beefs with Brethrenism. That is, to me the teachings and discussions of The Place epitomize how Brethrenism grew into a sectarian system, out of a very Scriptural set of propositions.

Frankly, discussing this with "brethren" is almost a waste of time. Much like discussing amplifiers with Nigel Tufnel, if the truth were told. And that's because "brethren" have fallen into the same error as Roman Catholics: by proclaiming a group as The Place, we've removed any meaningful discussion about what The Place is. Let me attempt to elucidate a little on that. At the risk of over-simplifying somewhat (and honestly, no straw man is intended here), the Roman Catholic Church pays lip service to the idea that the Bible is infallible and inerrant; but it emasculates it, in that it gives the Church two things: 1. the exclusive right to determine what's Scripture, and 2. the exclusive right to explain Scripture. With these two claims, any question of whether the "mother church" is valid inevitably falls to the ground. Similarly, "Brethren" have built a foundation of extremely shaky logic to support the idea that they have The One Place. And, they built it on one verse, Matthew 18:20.
"For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Matthew 18:20, KJV
"For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them." Matthew 18:20, Darby
"For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst." Matthew 18:20, NSAB
"for where there are two or three gathered together -- to my name, there am I in the midst of them." Matthew 18:20, YLT
This one verse has become the foundation for all Brethrenism. I've given it from a few different translations, in order to get a well-rounded look at it. "Brethren" prefer to read this verse from the Darby Translation, apparently for two reasons: 1. it uses the older conjugation of "to gather"; and 2. it transliterates eis "unto", rather than rendering it in correct English as "in". Let's consider these in some detail.

In older English (not "Old English", but "two hundred years ago English"), verbs expressing motion were frequently conjugated with "to be" as an auxiliary. This follows the German and French grammars: ich gehe becomes ich bin gegangen in the present perfect tense. As Darby points out in his margin note for Romans 3:23, the correct conjugation is "are come", not "have come". This distinction is important there, as it clarifies that "All have sinned and come short" is in two tenses: "have sinned" is present perfect, "come" is present. But some "brethren" have equivocated on the very point Darby made so clearly, and have taken "are gathered" to be a passive. Thus, their gathering is an act of God, not of men. "We haven't gathered, we've been gathered". It's foolishness atop ignorance, but there you have it.

Thankfully, this teaching (if one can call such an appalling ignorance of English "teaching") is not common among the "brethren" I gather with. But I have no doubt it is coming. It's common among other groups we seem so determined to imitate.

The fact is, the NASB gets it right: in present-day colloquial English, we use "have" as the auxiliary verbs for all present perfect forms: we no longer say "are gathered", but "have gathered".

The second reason "brethren" seem to prefer Darby's translation is, the transliteration of the word eis. Anyone who's spent any time in any translation work at all knows: prepositions are the hardest thing to translate. For example, "at home" in German is zu Hause (literally "to home"), while you would never go "to home" in German, but must go nach Hause, or "towards home". In Greek, eis to emon onoma "unto my name" should be translated "in my name". Just like in English we say "open in the name of the law!", we would say "gather in my name".

But "brethren" steadfastly refuse to acknowledge this, and insist on replacing "in" in their KJV Bibles with "unto". Why?

I think the reason is something like this: it changes the gathering from an act to a place. Where gathering "in my name" is clearly something we do (the "in my name" implying authority to do so from the Son of God Himself); gathering "to my name" can be seen as somewhere we go ("to" implying there is a place where Christ has placed His Name). Thus, we can conclude there is a Place, and it is the responsibility of all Christians to find it.

In the more cult-like extremes of "brethren", this is unashamedly taught: "This is the One Place the Lord has put His Name". I gather with more moderate "exclusives": a few years ago, claiming The Place would have seemed unthinkable, but as time goes on; I've heard bolder and bolder claims, all progressing toward the claim of The Place. And, I've heard the claim itself. Interestingly, I hear more and more statements that nowhere else is The Place: I think that's a subtle way to claim we are it.

Now here's where it gets to be like an interview with Nigel Tufnel. Once we claim we are The Place, then everything else becomes sin. If we're The Place, then regardless how much evil we tolerate, it's wrong to not gather with us. Or to put it in "scriptural" terms, we have the Lord's Table, and everyone else has the Table of Demons (1 Corinthians 10:20--21). So far as I know, no one in the "exclusives" I meet with has made this claim; but I know of others in different "exclusive" groups that have made this very statement. And I hear more and more arrogance in the statements that are made. We've started down that path, and we seem to be picking up speed.

But back to the point: if the gathering is "to my name", then it's not a moral gathering. But when it's "in my name", it becomes a moral thing: the gathering can cease to be "in my name" through sin, corruption, or moral failure. If we fail to obey the Lord Jesus, or if we gather with any other authority to justify our gathering, we're not gathering "in my name". "In my name" judges hearts and motives, not just forms and outward appearance.

But there's more. Once we establish a given assembly/sect/denomination/group as the True Church (or The Place), then we can very easily condemn everyone else. Because regardless of how bad things are in the sect we have chosen, it is still the only Place we can obey the Lord in gathering "unto" His Name. Everyone else might live better than I do, but their church amounts to idolatry, since it's not The Place.

Again, I think very few in the "exclusives" I meet with actually would come out and say something like that; but they are starting to say things that infer it. Where a statement like that would have once been stomped on, it seems we are getting more and more tolerant of that sort of arrogance. I've actually been surprised by some of the things I've heard over the last couple years: it seems the meetings are more and more characterized by smug complacency.

So regardless of how bad things are here; regardless of how many problems there are; the comment is "well, we gather to the Lord's name". And then we hear the oft-repeated "there's weakness everywhere". The implication is, The Place matters more than moral purity or correct doctrine.

I heard a telling sermon recently on MP3 from a fairly well-known speaker in "open brethren". Now, "open brethren" pretty much deny the One Place teachings of "exclusives": while I consider them less Biblical in many ways, they've done a much better job than we in that area. Nevertheless, this speaker was talking about the exodus of people from certain assemblies into more mainline denominations. He made the statement "A bad assembly is a good school": then he gave several encouraging anecdotes and left me with the impression "There's no good reason to leave an 'assembly'."

Sadly, when we get into this style of thought, we get into a place where we're willing to tolerate anything, except leaving the group. Of course, the irony is that the "open brethren" speaker I was listening to would probably encourage me to leave "exclusive brethren". His definition of "assembly" and ours is very different.

But the danger is the same error the Roman Catholics generally fall into: rather than discerning whether a gathering is a biblical assembly or not based on the Word of God, we pick the group we're in, and use it to define exactly what an assembly should look like. We get our test of fellowship backward, because we start with the assumption that our group is correct. Worse, we declare ourselves to have the Lord's Presence, then use that to excuse all the corruption and sin we see. Is the priest molesting the altar boys? don't worry, just trust in the Mother Church! In our own circles, we're told that all the problems we see are "weakness". The fact that we condemn other churches for the same things is irrelevant, because we gather to the Lord's Name and they don't.

"Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy" (Luke 12:1, NASB)

But if we can think past the assumption that this is where the Lord has put His name, then we can ask the question: at what point does a gathering of Christians fail to qualify as a biblical assembly? This is an important question, because it is a two-edged sword. The more we allow in our definition of "assembly", the more churches "out there" we need to acknowledge. On the other hand, the less we allow, the more "assemblies" we currently recognize will be excluded. Does a clergyman mean an assembly is disqualified? Then many or most "brethren assemblies" are disqualified. See the problem is, "brethren" fail the very tests they set up for everyone else. The very statements "brethren" make about others in order to prove they aren't legitimate, also demonstrate "brethren" aren't legitimate.

Sadly, I think that too many in "exclusive brethren" fail to gather "in my name", because they see their legitimacy as coming from the group, rather than from the Lord. When we look to the group to give us a legitimacy, then we fundamentally fail to gather in His name: we are gathering under the authority of the group, not the Lord.

The other alternative, of course, is to accept that "in my name" means "Because I said so, and that's all you need". If we take that assumption (which "open brethren" do), then we can be content that our meetings are graced by the Lord's presence. Of course, that also means there are a whole lot of gatherings out there we know nothing about, that are recognized by the Lord.

That's what Darby et al. did. They gathered because the Lord said so, and they knew their only license to gather was His command. They weren't perfect---far from it!---but they got this one thing right. We ought not to gather around a doctrine, a sect, a title, or a man. There's one Man that ought to be the center. To the extent He's the center of a mainline church down the street, they are as legitimate as we. To the extent we're not content to gather solely because He said so; but prop up our legitimacy with sectarian titles, doctrinal "distinctives", and other man-made ideas; we're no different from any other sect.