The Church of the Brethren
THE ORIGINS OF THE BRETHREN MOVEMENT can be traced to 18th century Germany. The draconian control that the government of the day exercised over the established church and the little tolerance for religious diversity had driven some dissenters to take refuge in the German town of Schwarzenau.
There these non-conformists – among whom was Alexander Mack, who was influenced by both German Pietism and Anabaptism – gathered at the Eder River to be re-baptised (they were all baptised as infants) to express their fresh commitment to Christ.
This group of Christians called themselves “brethren” in the desire to shed the fetters of denominationalism and to embrace the simple and pristine way of the early Christians. In Ireland, a group of Christian believers in the early 19th century called themselves the “Brethren”, forming associations in Dublin, Plymouth and Bristol. The Brethren movement spread in England under the leadership of John Nelson Darby and George Muller.
Many prominent leaders of the evangelical movement in the West are associated with the Brethrens, including: F. F. Bruce (New Testament scholar), D. Stuart Briscoe (pastor and author), Peter Maiden (leader of Operation Mobilisation) and Brian McLaren (of the Emerging Church movement).
The history of the Brethren Church in Singapore can be traced to the mid-19th century with the arrival of Philip Robinson and his family from Bristol in 1857. On Sept 30, 1886, the Bethesda Chapel at 77 Bras Basah Road was opened, with a small congregation of 10 believers. Today there are more than 22 Brethren Churches, Chapels and Gospel Halls across the island. The Brethren has produced a number of prominent leaders like G. D. James and Dr Benjamin Chew, who have made significant contributions to the Christian community in Singapore.
Despite its non-conformist orientation, the Brethren movement is historically and theologically rooted in the Protestant tradition. This is seen in its unswerving commitment to the authority of the Scripture, which it understands to be the Word of God, written by men who were divinely inspired (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21).
It is precisely because of their desire to be obedient to the Word of God that the early Brethrens felt that they needed to dissociate themselves from some of the practices of the established church of their day. It is also for this reason that the Brethrens have a long tradition of “gathering around the Word”, in small or large numbers, to reflect together on the teachings of Scripture and to challenge one another to deeper commitment.
Brethren spirituality therefore has to do with the ordinances of Christ, the commitment to follow the Lord despite the challenges and temptations. Paul’s injunction in Romans 12:2 that believers should not be conformed to this world is one of the most important building blocks of Brethren spirituality.
In their attempt to avoid the negative influences of society, the early Brethrens distinguished themselves from the others in the way they dressed and furnished their homes. They embraced the “simple life” in the desire to detach themselves from the hold of material wealth and possessions. They also refused to go to court to resolve their Problems, and they refused to take oaths, insisting that their word should be as good as their bond.
Although modern life has required that some of these practices be revised, the Brethrens continue to emphasise the principles behind them. Thus the Brethrens would urge their members to be mindful of the trappings of materialism. Women are warned against following worldly fashions and wearing immodest clothes (1 Tim 2:8-10).
LIKE THE BAPTISTS, the Brethrens practise credobaptism, that is, the baptism of believers only. The re-baptism of the early leaders of what was to become the Brethren movement was not merely a demonstration of their renewed commitment to follow Christ in simplicity, uncluttered by the frills of ecclesiastical tradition. It was also an expression of a theological stance, influenced by the Anabaptists of the day that the Church of Jesus Christ is made up of true believers who have repented of their sins and accepted the Lord by faith.
Baptism is a rite that bears public witness that the individual believer has already made this commitment and is already a member of Christ’s body. It must not be seen as a sacrament that effects this faith or commitment, or a rite that receives infants into the church simply because they are the children of the members of the Church. For the Brethren, baptism is an ordinance that Jesus gave in conjunction with the command to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28: 16-20).
The political and social vision of the Brethren centres on the influence of the regenerate individual. That is to say, the Brethrens believe that only the true follower of Christ – not political or social systems and structures – can bring about genuine improvement to society. In obedience to the commands of Scripture to provide for the orphaned, the aged, the needy and the sick (Matt 25:35; Luke 10:27-37; Acts 6:1-7), the Brethrens teach that contributing to the common good of society is the duty of every Christian. Although they recognise that civil government is ordained by God (Rom 13:1-7), and that Christians are called to obey its authority in all things as long as they do not transgress God’s Word, the Brethrens strongly advocate the separation of Church and State. Just as Jesus rejects every attempt to make him into the political Messiah, so the Church must not resort to civil power to fulfil its mission.
Following John Darby, most Brethrens are dispensationalists, believing that God unfolds his plans in a succession of different economies or dispensations. Most Brethrens believe that the rapture of the Church of Jesus Christ will occur before the period of great tribulation (pretribulationism), and that Jesus will return and reign for a period of a thousand years (premillennialism) before the final judgement.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.