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The Brethren, Darby and Matthew 18:20


The Brethren, Darby and Matthew 18:20

Have you ever thought that brethren people must believe that they are the only true believers, the only people who will be in heaven, and that no-one is saved outside of their connection?  It’s not true of course, – they don’t think that (at least most them don’t) – even if sometimes that impression comes across.

Personally, I have experienced a spiritual arrogance on the part of some brethren Christians that beggars belief, from the brethren evangelist who reached me a bundle of tracts when he discovered I was a Christian minister, to the girl who professed to be saved, only for her brethren parents to arrange a meeting with the local brethren evangelist, to get her ‘properly saved’ to the two brethren men at a funeral who expressed their surprise that a minister could present a clear Gospel centred message at the grave.  I do NOT believe this to be typical of the movement as a whole.  I maintain that these attitudes are in the minority nowadays, and I have worked with, and been friends with many fine Christian brethren people who have always been kind, helpful and decent.

So, where does this apparent ‘spiritual arrogance’ among some originate?  In the very earliest days of brethrenism, when the Dublin brethren were meeting in the early 1800s and later in the meetings of Groves, Muller, Cronin, Wigram, Newton and others (and yes even the early JN Darby) there was no spiritual pride at all.  People were welcomed to the meetings as fellow believers regardless of what denomination (or none) they ‘officially’ belonged to. The only essential qualification for fellowship was a sincere love of the Lord Jesus.

That should be the rule in brethren circles today too, except that it’s not.  So what do the brethren really think about other Christians, and how do they form their opinion (historically)?1


John Nelson Darby

To get some insight on this issue, we would need to learn a little about JN Darby’s understanding and translation of Matthew 18:20.  The text in the KJV reads, KJV: For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.  The ESV: For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”  It’s the verse that many Christians draw comfort from, especially those who meet in small congregations. When we meet together as believers, as those who are ‘in Christ, redeemed by his atoning death on Calvary’s cross alone, through saving faith in Him, we are assured that the Lord is with us, that He is in them midst of his people.  It’s the foundation of Congregationalism too, where each local fellowship is a complete and entire church, with Christ as its head, and in their midst.   But when JN Darby translated the Bible, look how he rendered the verse,   Darby:  For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them.  Note that the phrase ‘in my name’ is changed to ‘unto my name.’  Now this is an unwarranted translation of the Greek text, Greek: ου γαρ εισιν δυο η τρεις συνηγμενοι / εις το εμον ονομα / εκει ειμι εν μεσω αυτων.  But importantly it is a reflection of Darby’s mindset on the very important issue of ‘WHAT IS THE VISIBLE CHURCH?’  That mindset permeated throughout brethrenism, and is the root cause of the present day ‘spiritual arrogance’ that prevails among some of the brethren. 

For Darby, the brethren assembly were not simply gathered ‘in the name of Jesus’ – meeting as Christians – but were gathered UNTO Christ.  There is a subtle but important difference.  For Darby, all other believers were meeting ‘as Christians’ but they were meeting ’unto a denomination’ – or worse still ‘unto a particular spiritual leader or clergyman.’  (One can appreciate his anxiety to avoid denominationalism, and the ‘celebrity adoration’ that prevails in some Christian circles).  Only the brethren, thought Darby, meeting without denominational ties, and with no clerical structure in their assemblies, repudiating and eschewing such, could truly be said to be meeting UNTO CHRIST, not a denomination or person. 

Darby held this opinion with an unbelievable arrogance, an arrogance that rivalled the outrageous exclusive claims of the High Anglo-Catholics of that day, who believed that they stand in the only true line of Apostolic succession from the apostles.  (Cardinal Newman’s brother was a strong supporter and a heavy influence on Darby).  Darby would not have argued the point.  He had remarked that the brethren had more in common with Anglicanism than with Dissent.   He and some of his followers believed that a true church had not met from the apostolic times until the early nineteenth century.  To be clear, Darby did NOT believe that  brethren people were the only true Christians, but he did believe that the brethren were the only TRUE REPRESENTATION OF THE BODY OF CHRIST ON EARTH.  The brethren meetings were, to Darby, the visible church on earth, even if other believers were included in the invisible church. 

It can be seen that, intrinsic to Darby’s understanding of the ‘gathered church’ was his belief on an ‘open ministry.’  To have a stated pastor or clergyman, even an elder, would be to detract from Christ’s headship, and render the assembly void.  As the dissenters repudiated the notion that the Pope could be ‘the head of the church’ so Darby applied that same principle to the local assembly and its pastor.   

[Savoy:  There is no other Head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God, whom the Lord shall destroy with the brightness of his coming.] 

Yet that seemingly worthy objective, of having no man at the head of the assembly but Christ lead Darby and his successors into a series of theological contradictions and exegetical problems.  For example,  

  • The bible teaches that elders should govern the local church.  In a typical brethren meeting there are no elders.  (There may be ‘overseeing brothers’ but their role is ill defined, and their authority is often exercised by familial connections or personality or bullying or threat of excommunication – of which more later). Darby and the brethren tried to explain away the biblical teachings in the Pastoral Epistles on the role and qualifications of elders, by saying that the original elders, when Paul was writing, were appointed by the apostles, and since there are had been no apostles since, there was no extant method of appointment for the eldership. A novel application of cessationism indeed!  By far, the most learned theologians would believe that the eldership was a biblical practice for all time in the church.  

[Savoy: The officers appointed by Christ, to be chosen and set apart by the church so called, and gathered for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power and duty which he entrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are pastors, teachers, elders and deacons.] 

  • The Bible teaches that church meetings should be without confusion.  1st Corinthians 14:33 For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.  40 Let all things be done decently and in order.  The definitive weekly meeting at a brethren hall is on Sunday morning, – the meeting called ‘the Breaking of Bread’ – an acknowledgement that the central act in that meeting is sacramental (yes – Darby DID say that the brethren had more in common with Anglicanism that with Dissent), rather than didactic, as it would be in for example a reformed church.  So there is no appointed preacher.  One brother may have a hymn, another may pray, another a word of exhortation etc.  The only essential is that it must never be one man who leads the entire worship.   
    • What if two people begin to minister at the same time?  This happens.  One brother will rise to pray at exactly the same time as another brother will rise to read.  Which one should give way?  If they are being ‘led of the Lord’ to minister, which one is hearing the voice of God and which is not?  Does someone with a ‘personality presence’ in the assembly override a brother with a more submissive attitude. 
    • What if the person giving the word of exhortation simply talks nonsense?  It would be common on these occasions for a more experienced brother to take him aside after the meeting and advise him – but what if he persists?   
    • Should the ‘word of exhortation’ be prepared in advance?  There was a school of thought, strongly held among Darby and his followers that the morning exhortation should be extempore, as ’the Lord leads.’  The idea that a man should take time to study the word, study doctrine and systematic theology and bring a reasonable, rational biblical message was (and probably still is) anathema to the brethren.  One of the great complaints against B W Newton of Plymouth was that only that he monopolised the entire morning meeting, but that he prepared his sermons in advance, which presumably meant that his words were not, ‘led by the Lord…’ 
  • And who decides who gets to take part?  Here is the crux of the matter.  I’ve made reference to the phrase ‘as the Lord leads’ or similar phrases.  For a meeting to be completely without human leadership, Darby would have suggested that God himself must take the lead.  But that requires a special moving of the Holy Spirit in the heart of an individual, a form of divine communication, or revelation – which occurs outwith the final, written revelation of God in the inspired Word, the Bible.  So how do these personal spiritual movings which prompt the participants in the brethren ‘Breaking of Bread’ differ from the ecstatic movings of God in the fanatical charismatic, the ‘Spirit led Pentecostal,’ the heartfelt piety of the Roman Catholic, or the mystical urges of the Quaker?

Darby: This is the real question… whether I am to look to God or to man – to God’s presence in the assembly, or to man’s competency by acquired attainments.  Can I be satisfied with the latter without some very clear proof that the former is not to be sought, that God has abandoned the assembly of his Saints?  For if there, is He not to make his presence known?  If He do, it is a manifestation of the Spirit in the individual who acts, it is a gift, and if you please an impulse.  It is God acting, that is the great point!’  (The Collected Writings of John Nelson Darby, Vol. 1, p.512, cited in Neatby, W.B. 1901, p.205.)

Once a Christian allows for an extra-biblical personal revelation of or from God, or personal divine inspiration, does that not do despite to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura?   

It soon becomes obvious that without the qualified and called eldership properly ordained to office as laid down by Paul in the Pastoral Letters the local assembly quickly succumbs to confusion and disorder, and even threatens the very doctrine of biblical authority and inspiration that the brethren themselves hold dear.2 

Despite Darby’s insistence that no one man can dominate a gathering of the saints, the brethren see no contradiction in organising evangelistic meetings that differ little in format from those of other denominations.  They would suggest that this is because the ‘Breaking of Bread’ is (as discussed above) the visible expression of the invisible church, gathered unto Christ alone, while the evangelistic meeting is comprised of a ‘mixed multitude.’  No hint there then, of the Reformed and Biblical understanding of the wheat and the tares growing together until judgment day.3  

[Savoy: The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error, and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan: nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have, a visible kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.] 

  • The threat of excommunication.  One final consideration.  Because the brethren were influenced by Darby to believe that only the brethren were the rightful and true expression of the body of Christ on earth, to be excommunicated (‘read out of the meeting’) was and is a serious sanction indeed.  Some brethren lived in fear of being removed from fellowship.  Where else would they find fellowship within the true visible church?  This was especially the case within the exclusive brethren, (Darby’s own factions) where disciplines enforced in one assembly were rigorously applied in every other assembly.  Perhaps slightly less so in the Open Brethren, where it is perhaps possible for a looser application of each other’s discipline to apply.

For the effects of excommunication in the Exclusive Brethren click:-

Excommunication and Its Results in the Exclusive Brethren 

So, Darby’s (admittedly worthy) aim – of Christians meeting only unto the Name of Jesus, led him to mistranslate scripture, neglect the divine institutions placed within the church for its governance,  engendered serious doctrinal illogicalities, and practical difficulties.  Yet it has persisted in the brethren until this day.  To a brethren believer, a dissenter like me, (to most brethren) is certainly to be regarded as a brother in Christ, but the pastoral office, the teaching eldership, is abhorred with a vengeance, and the meetings which I attend and in which I worship are not to be (at least officially) considered as true visible representations of the Body of Christ on earth, regardless of the content of the message, or the biblical Content of the worship itself.  It is this understanding of the nature of the visible church, based on Darby’s unwarranted misconstruction of Matthew 18:20 that gives other Christians the impression that the brethren hold an arrogant and disparaging view of other Christian believers.   


1 It would be a fair assumption that few modern brethren are actually aware of the history of their denomination.  Like other denominations, history is not high on their list of learning priorities.

2 This is NOT to say that there are not suitably called and qualified men among the brethren, just that they cannot claim any formal ‘office’ within the assembly.

3 There is no real appreciation of systematic theology among the brethren.  Neatby points out in his ‘General Review of the Movement’ that ‘where logical Puritan divinity was anxious to explain, Darby only cared to feel.  Method and logical coherence are no features of Darby’s divinity… Darby was too impatient to systematise or even indeed to verify.’ (Neatby 1901, p.331-2).  In the preface to his book, “The Heresies of the Plymouth Brethren” James Carson, of Coleraine argues that the brethren do indeed have a system of theology, but that they keep it ‘under wraps’ (my phrase) and away from the general enquirer, – it is only for those ‘within the meetings.’



Adams, N. 1972th, ‘Goodbye, Beloved Brethren’ Impulse Books, Aberdeen. 

Burnham, J.D. 2004, ‘A Story of Conflict’ Paternoster, Milton Keynes. 

Coad, F.R. 1968, ‘A History of the Brethren Movement’ Paternoster, Exeter. 

Dann, R.B. 2004, ‘Father of Faith Missions’ Authentic Paternoster, Waynesborough. 

Groves A.N. 1825 ‘Christian Devotedness’  Nisbet, London. 

Groves, F. 1869, ‘Memoir of Anthony Norris Groves’ Nisbet, London. 

Ironside, H.A. 2016 ‘A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement’ Solid Books. 

Neatby, W.B. 1901, ‘A History of the Plymouth Brethren’ Hodder & Stoughton, London  

Pickering, H.Y. 2nd Ed. ‘Chief Men Among the Brethren’ P&I, London and Glasgow. 

Rhenius J 1841 ‘Memoir of CTE Rhenius by his Own Son’. Nesbit, London.

Wilson, B.R. (Ed.) 1968 ‘Patterns of Sectarianism’ Heinemann, London.  

From → The Brethren

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