Reading: Hebrews 13:12-4
I spent the last two weeks, almost three, in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It was a nice time full of new opportunities, as I went primarily to teach Church History over two weeks at “Etnos”, a NTM Training School, yet also preached at several churches on the weekends.
Yesterday morning I spoke at “Lazareto”, a church I preach at on a monthly basis, and one of the elders asked me to speak on “the History of the Brethren”. Such a message is challenging to give, first of all because it takes more than a one hour sermon, and because it is very difficult to speak the truth without unnecessarily offending brothers who are imposing legalism in their churches or homes, unlike the original non-denominational, independent Brethren Movement.
I thank the Lord because the message was well-accepted, and a large number of believers came up to me later expressing thanks for it, seeing it is as a much-needed message, it being important to speak openly on it. It is touchy because the original Brethren Movement was (1) “open“, accepting people from any denomination, working with a wide variety of churches, it was (2) predicated on seeking for unity, distinguishing between primary and secondary doctrines, made (3) no distinction between laity and clergy, for all are “one in Christ”, being independent from hierarchy this way (based on Matthew 18:20), and (4) taking special interest in a meditative, communal, & weekly breaking of bread where all men could share openly. Basically, the original Brethren, before it was “open” and “closed” shared a common goal – return to the literal format of the New Testament Church.
I peeked over at the clock on the back wall, looking over some 150 listeners, now realizing that the time had come for a conclusion and that time was running out. I reminded them of the importance of unity, reminded them of the life of George Muller (one of the founders of the movement), and warned about the dangers of legalism and jealously seen in the last years of John N. Darby (whom I often term “the first Pope of the Brethren”; he initiated the split towards Exclusive/Closed Brethren).
I was done, but the listeners weren’t. As they saw me closing-up to pray several hands rose with questions, so I answered them one by one as quickly as I could. The truth is that while many call themselves “Brethren” (or “Open Brethren” as we do in Bolivia), most have no idea about its origins, radicalism for its time, and desire to be free from legalism (many of you might not either, that is why I wanted to outline it briefly above).
We had gone over time & I wanted to wrap-up, so I took one more question, from the oldest of the elders.
Previously I had told them about the nasty schism between the Open and Closed Brethren, initiated by J.N. Darby. He had excommunicated a young man who had accidentally spoken heresy from the pulpit, and while he asked for forgiveness, Darby would have none of it. Those close to the situation at the time said that Darby was making a power-play out of jealousy for this gifted young man. When Muller took this young man in, who had been literally excommunicated, Darby excommunicated all those belonging to Muller’s church and any that associated with them. Muller’s line continued the course, and many were wildly perplexed and saddened by Darby’s attitude (founder & missionary Anthony Norris Groves among them), and pleaded for him to remember that they were unified by the primary doctrines, not the secondary (this is a huge point, one which I cannot here explain in the detail it necessitates), not to mention that since the young man had repented (though he erred out of ignorance or hurry, not because he was actually a heretic) it should have been forgiven.
Muller reached out to Darby some ten times, trying to find reconciliation, but Darby flatly refused, thinking of Muller and the larger part of the Brethren Movement as not saved (this is why they became the Exclusive Brethren). Since this first rupture, the Closed Brethren have split some fifty times (similar to most other evangelical denomination), while the open have stayed intact, surprisingly. Muller and Darby never reconciled, and when Darby came, years later, now old and tired, he seemed to try and “save face” with Muller by asking for forgiveness. A variety of interpretations abound about Muller’s response, but the bare facts seem to him saying “no”, implying “I don’t have time for this anymore”. I think Muller, the godly man that he was, was unwilling to receive any more abuse. When Darby came to reconcile, he read into the scene and said no. This wound was incurable not on Muller’s part, but in the movement as a whole. He had hurt so many churches, so many godly Christians. If this was to be fixed, Darby was starting at the wrong place and starting too late — here was an old man just trying to sleep well at night. Did Muller make a mistake? Possibly, but I don’t blame him, to be quite honest. Some people think they can mess-up over and over again and then say “you have to forgive me”, quoting Jesus, but that is a worthless excuse, rotten at its core where lies the thought: “sin that grace may abound”. I’m sorry, for all the good that Darby did in his earlier years as a preacher, missionary, evangelist, and theologian, I do not consider him a hero of the faith. I do not want to imitate many things about him. I do not want to gloss over his errors — instead I want them to be seen in all its blood and dirt. All that said, Muller was also a sinner, but the consequences for his human sins had far less reaching effects than that of Darby — at the end of his life I think Darby recognized this. I believe he wanted to change, he desired a fresh start, yet perhaps even he knew it was all too late. I assume his ego held him back from recognizing his fault, as most of men would in his situation.
This part of the Brethren Movement’s history is so very sad, frustrating, and disheartening. The once beautiful rose that was the Brethren Movement became a shriveled, prickly stem. Such a story repeats itself today in this movement, and among most denominations (or independents) every single generation.
Some want to glorify the dead and only see the good in them (any memorial service is a good reminder of this). God doesn’t want us to. Or why is the Bible so chock-full of messed-up, sinful, and broken people? Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Moses, Samson, Gideon, David, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and the list goes on and on.
It was about this clash, which I detailed above between Muller and Darby, which the elder wanted to ask me about in the last question of yesterday’s sermon:
“Surely they resolved this, right brother?” he asked, “I’m sure they found a way.”
I understood where he was coming from. He didn’t like the ending, it looked so black. Surely the church is not this broken! I paused for a bit and thought of how best to answer this honest question.
“I’m afraid that is how the story ended brother,” I responded, “You see this is a message on history, and all I can do is state the story as it happened. I would like the ending to be different. I would like to give you an alternate ending. But I can’t. History is already written, and these two died without reconciliation, the fault lying with one and perhaps both of these men of God.”
I pondered some more and added: “I wonder what Darby will say when he sees Muller in heaven at the resurrection If you ask me, I think he will weep with sorrow and look at him and say: ‘How could I have said such things to you? How could I have treated my brothers so?‘” At this the audience, and even the elder, nodded their heads in approval.
“Brothers,” I concluded, “We only live once. They died without reconciliation and we accuse them, yet how many among us are part of the poison of disunity and not unity?” I then broadened as I continued, “I travel to many churches, brothers, and preach in churches of other denominations, and they are all broken. The question is not if we are also broken, the question is if we are personally seeking to be the change, the bond, walking with God to unify our families and churches. Are we? Am I? Are you?“ Many of my brothers and sisters nodded in approval, heads bowed low.
The story of the Brethren is so similar to that of the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Evangelical churches in general. Augustine once said, “The church is not a cathedral for saints, but a hospital for sinners.” I quote this saying very often.
Today I was reminiscing on the message, praying for my brothers at this church, noting that it was a very hard message to give. I recall walking away from the pulpit feeling very tense and nervous, which is not normal for me. “Thank you,” a brother whispered and shook my hand as I walked past him and to my seat.
Hebrews 13:12-4 comes to mind, as I think of all the brokenness in my own self, all the sins that entraps me personally. How can God use such people as us and even make a church out of it? I long for the day when we will all be able to fully live out the precious messages in the Word. One day we will love truly, seek unity fully, and have peace eternally.
[…To] sanctify the people by his own blood, Jesus also suffered outside the camp. We must go out to him, then, outside the camp, bearing the abuse he experienced. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. (NET)