A local church, as envisaged by Scripture, is a called-out company of believers gathered in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt 18:20). It is part of no overarching organization, but stands directly responsible to its risen Lord (Rev 1-3). Those who form part of it have first been saved, and then have publicly acknowledged that faith in baptism. The church is led by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23, Acts 20:17). Its activities include the breaking of bread, prayer, the teaching of God’s Word, the spread of the gospel, and ministering to the material needs of individual saints and other churches (Acts 2: 42; 1Thes 2:8; 2Cor 8:2-4; Phil 4:10). It is striking that so simple an entity, without elaborate governance, ornate premises, or the support of a great organization, should be described as the “temple of God.” Yet, it is this sort of company that Scripture describes as the “church of God,” and it knows of no other place where Christ’s blood-bought people can gather in His name and with His presence.
Wherever the apostles witnessed, these churches were the result. Sadly, though, even before the apostolic period had come to an end, there was evidence of a shift away from the simplicity of the Scriptural pattern. Men like Diotrephes arose, loving to have pre-eminence amongst God’s people (3John 9). A Scriptural plurality of elders was replaced by a single ruling elder, and local responsibility gave way to federated central authority. The Scriptural church as a local spiritual entity was displaced by a super-national church, which wielded enormous political, and military power that placed unsaved and venal men in authority over God’s people.
There were, however, always those in all parts of the world who gathered in Scriptural simplicity. While they have left little trace on the pages of history, it is important not to forget about these faithful believers. The recovery of truth about the nature of the church that took place in the early decades of the nineteenth century was unusual in the breadth and longevity of its results, but in its return to the teaching of the New Testament it shared much with other movements that had gone to the same source. To understand this historical context is not to underestimate or devalue the remarkable work that was accomplished by the Holy Spirit, but it may preserve us from arrogance or complacency about our place in divine purpose.
The events that took place in Dublin in the late 1820s must have a special interest for any believer in assembly fellowship. It was there that a small group of believers began to gather, in separation from the surrounding denominations, and in obedience to the Scriptural pattern.
The Anglican Church of Ireland was at a low spiritual ebb. Many of its ministers saw their calling as merely a source of employment, and the interests of the gospel and the souls of the perishing came a poor second to maintaining the social status and political power of the church. Those ministers who too plainly preached the gospel were liable to be silenced by their bishop. In the last half of the eighteenth century, a number of these ministers had seceded from the Anglican Church, impatient to preach the gospel without hindrance. By contrast, the believers who began to meet together in Dublin in the 1820s had no interest in forming themselves into another denomination. Though they included men of great intellectual ability, high social position, and considerable persona charisma, they did not gather to, or under, any of these. Instead, they gathered to the name of Christ, in distinction to the denominations around them. Their convictions about the church owed much to their saturation in Scripture.
The willingness of these men to be guided by Scripture alone meant that their gatherings looked very different from the prevailing practice of Christendom. The Reformation had recovered the Biblical truth of the priesthood of all believers in theory, but it continued to be denied in practice. Those who gathered in Dublin believed that the office of the clergyman was, in J. N. Darby’s words, “a sin against the Holy Ghost,” and they allowed for the exercise of gift by all brethren who possessed it.
The principles expressed in the gatherings in Dublin soon crossed the English Channel. One of the first assemblies in Great Britain was in Plymouth. Those who gathered refused to adopt any unscriptural name. This frustrated those who wanted to label this new movement, and, focusing on the characteristic mode of address amongst these believers and their location, they gave them the name “Plymouth Brethren.”
The speed with which this teaching spread indicated that the Spirit of God was at work, preparing the hearts of God’s people and directing and empowering the work of revival. As the decades passed, a clearer understanding emerged of the distinctiveness of the local assembly, and the need for separation from the religious confusion of Christendom. Progress was not uninterrupted; but, in spite of these challenges, God’s work carried on, and assemblies were formed throughout the world.
At home and on the mission field, these believers were active in the spread of the gospel. In gospel halls, tents, and in the open air they labored to discharge their responsibility to their fellow men. Missionaries commended by assemblies in the United Kingdom and Ireland were responsible for pioneering in China, in Central Africa, in India, and in South America. They eschewed the support of missionary societies, and relied on God to supply their needs. These devoted servants of God echoed something of the energy and devotion of the apostles and, like them, “turned the world upside down.”
The history of the assemblies over the past century has not always been a positive story. At all times, though, it is an important one. Time and again, the experience of God’s people has proved that strength in testimony directly depends on obedience to God’s Word, and separation from the world – socially, religiously, and politically. Too often, truth that was hard-bought by earlier generations has been frittered away by those who undervalued or despised their birthright and inheritance.
We live in a dramatically different world from the Dublin of the 1820s. It is even more different from the world inhabited by the believers of the first century. But God’s pattern for His people has not changed, and we understand very little about God if we doubt that His pattern is best.