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Search For The Scriptural Basis Of Testimony

Towards the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, some believers began to be exercised about the supremacy of Scripture and the error of having systems of clergy. Following the trend of the sixteenth century Reformation, a fresh impetus was experienced in the on-going process of replacing the traditions of men with simple adherence to the Word of God.

The early pioneers of the Brethren Movement concentrated their minds on two vital points. The first was the emphasis placed by the Lord Jesus on the breaking of the bread, and the second was the Lord's expressed desire in John 17 for the unity of His disciples The declared aim of the leaders of this movement was to find a simple, scriptural basis upon which all Christians could meet in fellowship.

Underlying the ensuing search were two key principles: that of church fellowship and that of the fellowship of churches. As to the first, the original basis of gathering was a circle drawn just wide enough to include all members of the Church the Body alive on the earth. Thus, the sharing of common life in Christ was taken as the basis of church fellowship and any who were unbaptized or unseparated from ecclesiastical systems were not, in principle, debarred from communion. As to the principle of the fellowship of churches, since emphasis was put on the free ministry of the Spirit, there was correspondingly little or no stress placed on the recognition of elders. This prevented any effective lines of communication being maintained between assemblies. Largely then, each assembly was responsible for its own affairs. In this way, the early Brethren genuinely attempted to establish a basis of testimony. They had in so doing stripped away much error remaining from Reformation times, and had clearly grasped the precious truth of the Church the Body of Christ. But was the position they had reached scriptural, or even workable?

It did not take long for practical situations to arise which challenged the above basis. How was doctrinal or moral error to be dealt with? Locally, it could not be dealt with by denying fellowship, since the ground of gathering was the Body of Christ. Furthermore, even if any were put away, the looseness of assembly association allowed them to go to another company and be received there. It seemed to some, then, that a change in the original stance on these principles was necessary. Sadly, all were not agreed on such a change. But Brethren, being a people without a constitution, had no means of dealing with dissension, and so crisis followed. The movement divided around the middle of the century.

It is possible to characterize the division in terms of the two highlighted principles. Those who left the mainstream movement took the exclusive view that fellowship should be refused to any church tolerating moral or doctrinal error. Allied with this, their principle of government was to have one central meeting with all others subject to it. It was a principle which encouraged individualism. On the other hand, those remaining in the mainstream movement held it only necessary to examine an individual on his merits, receiving such as had not imbibed error. It may be seen that, although declaring the Lord's table to be open to all believers, some form of examination was now to take place before receiving to communion. The original principle of communion was gone, although this was not acknowledged. Among companies loyal to the mainstream movement, independency continued to prevail, such that assemblies were associated loosely in little more than name.

As the nineteenth century moved towards its final quarter, many of the brethren who had remained with the mainstream movement now began to

be further exercised as to the scripturalness of their position. Gradually they came to accept the line of teaching which has consistently been upheld by this magazine since its inception in 1888. Regarding the two basic principles they began to see that the principle of church fellowship is clearly illustrated in Acts 2:41,42 which reveals the scriptural basis of fellowship as being that of subjection to the Lord's authority and obedience to His Word. Thus they came to understand that in Scripture a church of God signifies those who are not only called-out but also gathered together.

Disciples were seen to be joined together in a fellowship in which they were to continue steadfastly. This showed its conditional aspect, and precluded entirely any such thing as casual fellowship. As scriptural clarification was received on the term "church", it was seen from 1 Corinthians 5 that a believer could be excommunicated from such a local church of God as that at Corinth; whereas he could never lose his place in the Church which is Christ's Body.

Thus brethren began to prove the things that differ: that which is conditional and that which is unconditional. Further, they saw hoc interdependency between churches is impressively taught in the New Testament. Provincial and wider groupings of churches are mentioned in Galatians 1:2 and 1 Peter 1:1. Paul taught the same doctrine throughout all the churches (1 Cor. 1:2; 7:17). As to their principle of government, it was understood from Acts 15 that cohesion among the local churches of God was maintained by a united elderhood. Thus the churches collectively were one house; the house of God. All this answers to the Old Testament which provided in practice for the consultation of city elders in judgement (Deut. 19:12), and in type provided for the linking of tabernacle curtains, so that the tabernacle was one (Ex. 26:6).

As further light on the scriptural basis of testimony dawned in the period 1892-1896, after much searching of heart, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, many left their former association with the Brethren Movement. Their vision then was of a fellowship of churches, comprised of disciples who had been baptized by immersion, gathered together in obedience to the Word of God, separated to God from worldly associations, and who were under the leadership of God-appointed elders. This has been the line of teaching which this magazine has always upheld, and reflecting on these events as we have done, we may borrow the words of Scripture: "What then shall we say that... our forefather... hath found?" (Rom. 4:1). Humbly we submit that it is a line of necessary truth which must be maintained if there is still to be a house of God on earth today. We live in days of ecumenical union when a separated attitude is not popular. And yet, as regards the separation issue, we say again: "Is there not a cause?" (1 Sam. 17:29). We feel compelled to say "yes", since, for there to be a Unity of the Spirit, it must be on the constitutional basis of New Testament teaching.