The Churches of God, Their Origin & Development in the 20th Century by Jim Park is an interesting account of the formation of the brethren sect The Churches of God in Fellowship of the Son of God the Lord Jesus Christ (normally just referred to as the Churches of God.)
The Churches of God are an offshoot of the Brethren movement which began around 1826-27. The brethren movement was a grass-roots restorationist type movement which sought to restore the simplicity of New Testament Christianity. They emphasised the ministry of the brethren rather than the ministry of the clergy, their churches were led by a plurality of elders and they rejected the concept of a full time minister presiding over a local church, their main meetings centred around the breaking of bread rather than the sermon. Regarding the Brethren, Park observes, 'These people desired to free themselves from the dry, lifeless formalism of the churches to meet together as true believers, to share their common life in Christ and their hope for the future.' In addition to these characteristics, Park identifies two main characteristics of the early brethren assemblies:
'Traditionally . . . The Brethren believed that all believers have a birthright to a place at the Breaking of Bread and none should deny it to them . . . Also, they held and practiced that each assembly was independent of all others and responsible directly to God alone for its teachings and practices.'
The early brethren churches were marked by inclusiveness and non-denominationalism. In other words in regards to fellowship they emphasised unity in Christ and in regards to church government each local church was autonomous.
'The Brethren movement began with a few people meeting in a house for the Breaking of Bread and the study of the Bible. One of those people, but not the first, was John Nelson Darby . . . In 1826 he was ordained curate . . . but only a year later his high church ideas began to wane.'
Darby grew in stature and leadership within the brethren churches, however he soon had a clash with one of the other leaders (B.W Newton) and left the group with about 60 others to start a new assembly. Later Darby would clash with another Brethren leader (the well known George Muller) and as a result went to all the churches and excommunicated all the fellowships who remained in communion with George Muller's church (Bethesda Chapel.) This conflict between Darby and Muller lead to a split in 1848 which resulted in two distinct Brethren movements, the Open Brethren (led by Muller) and the Exclusive Brethren (led by Darby.) The Open Brethren maintained the Lord's table was 'open' to all the Lord's people who led a godly life but the Exclusive Brethren would '"Exclude" those who did not hold to what they considered to be sound doctrine.' Park notes that 'This was the beginning of doctrinal conditions being attached to reception to the Breaking of Bread.'
According to Park the Exclusive Brethren 'Had many thoughts on the need for doctrinal soundness on matters of assembly fellowship and fellowship between assemblies.' In contrast to the Open Brethren who practiced local church autonomy, the Exclusive Brethren adopted a centralised model, where 'One church became a centre of control of doctrine and judgement, which other churches were expected to accept.'
Due to the independent nature of each brethren assembly, there began to emerge a multitude of varying beliefs and practices. Some churches were credo-baptist and some were not. There was a lack of discipline; a person could be excommunicated from one assembly but be accepted by another. The movement was marked by confusion and disunity. A number within the churches were concerned about church unity and began to raise their concerns through a publication which became known as Needed Truth. Park states that 'Teaching about a union of assemblies continued verbally and exercised many people. They saw such truth as the way to unity of doctrine and practice for which they longed.' In response to the articles appearing in the Needed Truth publication, the mainstream Brethren publication: The Witness,in 1889, raised the following question:
Is it necessary to have a union of assemblies to form a basis of acting independently from those they consider as not following the Lord fully?'
In other words, was there a need for the independent brethren churches to reorganise themselves on a presbyterian model where decisions on doctrine, discipline and practice are worked out at district, national and international levels?
There were three responses to the question: One group wanted to keep the independent model, others wanted to adopt the Needed Truth position and others wanted something in between. Consequently there was a conference of bible teachers which met in Windermere on the 13-15th July 1891 where it was hoped that the assemblies could determine a way forward. The leaders could not arrive at a consensus; in 1894 a large number of individual Christians and assemblies left the Open Brethren to form the Church of God on the basis of the ideology of Needed Truth.
On the one hand, Park's account of the 1894 division seems to indicate that the nature of the split was simply over church government. In other words, independency was destroying the movement because there was no clear standard of truth and means of preserving the purity of the church. It seems that Needed Truth Brethren were arguing for a presbyterian system of church government that would preserve essential evangelical doctrines. In reality, the Needed Truth Brethren held to an elitist ecclesiology and they needed a presbyterian model of government in order to enshrine their strict and exclusive beliefs. Park identifies the concerns raised by the Open Brethren and informs us that many within the Brethren saw the teaching of the Needed Truth publication as being a 'Revival of the exclusivism of J.N Darby.'
As the division was emerging those in favour of the Needed Truth position began to make their convictions known. They began to speak of a recovery of 'The pattern of God's house.' and to claim that 'Brethrenism rested on a false foundation.' In other words, in the same way that the Exclusive Brethren (Darbyites) had excluded from the Lord's table those who failed certain doctrinal tests, the Needed Truth Brethren were claiming that only those churches who met certain doctrinal conditions could claim to be The Church of God and the House of God. Essentially this meant that only those Brethren churches who reorganised themselves on the 'district oversight' (presbyterian) model, and submitted to this group's interpretation of scripture, were considered to be the true church.
While many in the Open Brethren recognised the weakness of independency, the Needed Truth solution to preserving purity and restoring unity was sinister and schismatic. Park notes that F.R Coad identified that the Needed Truth Brethren 'Unashamedly reserve to themselves the name the Churches of God.' Park claims that Coad's criticism is 'inaccurate and unfair' but the evidence is to the contrary. Park's response to Coad makes this clear:
The Fellowship (Churches of God) holds that all christian believers should be baptised by immersion then added into congregations known as Churches of God and that these congregations should be joined together into one fellowship worldwide.'
In other words, Park is rejecting Coad's accusation of exclusivism by arguing that the Churches of God are not exclusive, but that 'all Christians' should join themselves to their fellowship if they want to be a part of the true Church of God. Essentially Park is arguing that all believers should be added to the Brethren sect known as the Churches of God. In this sense there is a dangerous cultish element at work within the ideology of the Churches of God.
As noted earlier, the Open Brethren were concerned that the Needed Truth Brethren were reviving the 'Exclusivism of J.N Darby.' Charles Spurgeon published and article in the Sword and the Trowel which dealt with some of the sinister characteristics of the Darby (Exclusive) Brethren, as identified by Mr Grant. When these characteristics are compared with the teaching of the Needed Truth Brethren it is clear that the concerns of the Open Brethren were not unfounded. In particular, the following observations from the article in the Sword and the Trowel are relevant:
"It (Exclusive Brethren) recognizes no other denomination, whether the Church of England, or either of the Nonconformist denominations, as a church of Christ. Mr. Darby has again and again said in print, as well as written in private, that those who belong to his party in the metropolis, constitute the only church of Christ in London."
"Darbyites who gather together in London, can go so far as to exclude all other denominations, even the most godly among them, 'believing themselves to be the one or only, assembly of God in London."
The Open Brethren concerns regarding the Needed Truth Brethren were not unfounded, the Churches of God clearly share the exclusive ecclesiolgy that was promoted by J.N. Darby. This exclusive teaching on the nature of the church (which denies the catholicity of the church) is still very much at the heart of the movement today. This can be seen in the The Brethren Movement written by Keith Dorricott.
In describing the separation from the Open Brethren and formation of the Churches of God, Dorricott states:
"Finally by 1894 there was a mutually known fellowship of about 100 assemblies, including Melbourne, Australia. The house of God was once more in operation after an interval of hundreds of years."
This is an outstanding claim. The Churches of God believe that the formation of their movement was actually a recovery of the House of God which had not been in operatio
n for hundreds of years. Dorricott does not state how many hundreds of years, but their rejection of the Open Brethren, the Exclusive Brethren, the established denominations make it clear: there has been no House of God in operation since the early apostolic period! After making this incredible claim, Dorricott incredulously asks 'Why is this truth not embraced by more believers?' Yet rather than consider the possibility that the teaching might not be true, Dorricott concludes: 'Only the Lord can answer that.' On the contrary, proper exegesis of the scriptures, theological study, and a basic understanding of church history will provide a crystal clear answer to Dorricott's question. Scripture, history and theology reveal that The Churches of God are extremely misguided and set themselves in opposition to the scriptures and two thousand years of church history.
In order to justify this exclusive position Dorricott claims:
"In Christian circles generally there is little understanding in evidence of the distinction between the church the body of Christ (consisting of all believers) and the house of God (the gathering of baptized disciples of the Lord Jesus serving God in full obedience and unity)."
Like the Churches of God, the reformers were interested in the marks of the true church, however unlike the Churches of God, the reformers acknowledged both the catholicity of the church but also the weakness of church, as the Westminster Confession states: 'The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error.' Failure to recognise this truth has caused the Needed Truth Brethren to assume for themselves a utopian ecclesiology and to fail to discern the House of God among other churches.
Dorricott correctly identifies the broken state of the churches, but he wrongly concludes that Christians are excluded from God's house because they do not embrace the Church of God teaching and join with them:
"The Christian world today is totally fragmented, unlike the New Testament years, and totally contrary to the pattern of unity that the Lord prayed for. Unlike those early years, most believers today are not in the house of God, but may not be aware of it."
On the contrary, it is impossible to be a Christian and be excluded from God's house. Christians are not in God's house, they areGod's house.
"But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ . . . Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone . . . In him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit." (Eph 2: 13-22)
The scriptures are clear, it is God who draws us to himself and accepts us on the basis of Christ's shed blood. True Christians are those who are 'In Christ Jesus', and if we are 'In Christ Jesus' the apostle tells us that 'Consequently, you are . . . members of his household.' Church of God doctrines are not the basis for membership in God's house: Faith in Christ is.
Sadly, this exclusive teaching has been used as a means of keeping people bound in legalism. Some of the choicest Christians are found among the Churches of God, yet they are bound by a legalistic teaching that seeks to control them, separate them from fellow believers and rob them of the liberty that is in Christ Jesus. The exclusive ecclesiology not only teaches that it is God's will for all Christians to be in a Church of God, but it also teaches that it is never God's will for a Christian to leave a Church of God:
We have reviewed many instances over the years of both good and evil, of truth and error, of faithfulness and apostasy. What about our generation, as the torch has been passed to us? We have been called by God into the Fellowship of His Son, and He will never call us out of it.And so, when the Lord comes, will He find the faith on the earth (Luke 18:8)? That is up to you and me, by the power of the Holy Spirit."(Dorricott)
Dorricott is not speaking
of the fellowship of His Son that all believers enjoy, he is talking about membership in a Church of God (read: Their particular sect). Consequently many believers are bound into thinking that their favour with God rests not in their faith in Christ alone, but in their faith in Christ and membership of a Church of God (again not a local bible believing church but their sect). This is legalism, and it is the type of thing that Paul was dealing with in his letter to Galatians. Those who are trapped in this type of teaching have 'fallen from grace' and do not realise that the basis of God's favour and fellowship is in Christ and Christ alone.
The following verse is often used to justify the exclusive ecclesiology of the Church of God:
'But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.' (Hebrews 6:3)
However, the verse is taken out of context. To be sure it teaches that membership of God's household is conditional, but what is the condition? According the above text it is 'holding firmly' to the 'confidence and hope in which we glory?' What is this confidence in hope in which we glory? It is certainly not ecclesiastical dogma! It is Christ himself! The Hebrew Christians were being persecuted and many were abandoning their hope in Christ and returning to Judaism. The writer of Hebrews is encouraging them to remain faithful to Christ. As the following verses make clear, he is explaining that those who belong to God are those who remain faithful to Christ to the end: 'We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.' (Heb 3:14) In other words he is teaching that true believers are those who persevere to the end. Persevere in what? Church government? Premillenial views about the Lord's return? Exclusive ecclesiology? No: Persevere in faith in Jesus Christ.
In summary: Jim Park's book is an interesting account of the Open Brethren and Church of God split. It raises afresh the problems encountered in an independent approach to church government but (if read critically) it also reminds us of the dangers of exclusivism and legalism. While the Churches of God are faithful in maintaining a gospel witness and have some outstanding Christians in their ranks, they are the inheritors of an exclusive and legalistic ideology that is still active at the heart of their movement.