Who are the Brethren?
The Brethren movement has had an influence on Protestant evangelicalism that is out of all proportion to its size. This is because of the zealous spirituality of its members, its conservatism in theology, and the participation of many of its members in para-church institutions. They represent an expression of lay piety which has recurred in Christian history, with theirs originating in the early nineteenth century among radical evangelicals (for more on the history click here). They have been called by Professor D. W. Bebbington 'evangelicals of the evangelicals'.
The most common names by which the Brethren movement is known are Plymouth Brethren, Christian Brethren, or just simply, Brethren [Note: they are distinct from the various Mennonite groups who also use the name 'Brethren']. Historically the Christians who make up Brethren churches (or 'assemblies' as they are most usually called) resisted taking an official name and even establishing any official headquarters or denominational institutions. The Brethren have, in fact remained a movement - churches which share the same tendencies and currents of thought. So although they have a distinctive family likeness, all the names by which they are called have an unofficial status only. To further complicate matters, the movement has suffered a number of schisms throughout its history and there are several types of Brethren. For example, there is one group, the Churches of God, who are the exception to the preceding statements: they have an official name and a denominational structure; one Exclusive Brethren connexion has also adopted a formal name - the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church.
All forms of Brethren are evangelical Christians and subscribe to the four distinguishing marks of an evangelical as defined by Prof. D.W. Bebbington (in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 1989):
In addition, all forms of Brethren are distinguished by the following:
The name 'Brethren' was applied to those within the movement because of their habit of referring to each other as 'brother' or 'sister'. It being the nineteenth century, the archaic plural of the King James Version, 'Brethren', was the name that quickly stuck with them. Most members of the movement have been happy enough to accept it as an unofficial designation as it captures the closeness of their fellowship. Not all will accept the name, however, as some argue it sets them apart as a division within Christianity, and others (often younger members) will not use the name because of what they perceive as its old-fashioned and negative connotations. Those who think like these last two groups are more likely to call themselves simply Christians, or sometimes, if pressed for a label, evangelicals.
One widely-publicized section of the movement is known as the Exclusive Brethren or the Close Brethren, which has itself divided into several mutually excluding groups. The group you are most likely hear about from the news media is the section which since 2012 has called itself 'The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church'. However, the most widespread section of the Brethren movement is the one commonly called the Open Brethren. They were originally given this name because they welcomed all Christians to their communion service. They are present in some 200 countries throughout the world due to a vigorous missionary programme and its members are the people you are most likely to encounter personally. In Britain the Open Brethren will often use the newer term 'Christian Brethren', but the practice in North America is to continue to use the more traditional 'Plymouth Brethren' as a blanket term. Needless to say, these different sections of Brethren are entirely independent of each other, which has led one noted historian of the movement, Dr H. H. Rowdon, to question how useful it to discuss them as a whole.
The following differences between the different streams of Brethren should also be noted:
Table showing differences and similarities among the different streams of Brethren:
As will be clear from the above, because the Brethren have remained a movement and because the different sections have had over 100 years of separate and independent evolution, one of their features is their variety, making it difficult to give a simple answer to the question 'Who are the Brethren?'. The answer to the question will often depend on to whom you are talking.