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):

  • conversionism, the call for a change of life
  • activism, an energetic expression of the individual’s faith
  • biblicism, a high regard for scripture
  • crucicentricism, belief in the cardinal importance of Christ’s atoning death.

In addition, all forms of Brethren are distinguished by the following:

  • they are primitivists in ecclesiology: that is in their corporate life they try to express the earliest models of the church as represented in the New Testament.
  • they have no clergy: the movement has no concept of ordination although Brethren groups may have full-time evangelists, missionaries or Bible teachers (however, it should be noted that increasingly a number of large and influential Open Brethren congregations have appointed full-time pastors).
  • they give prominence to the Lord’s supper: it will be celebrated weekly, usually on a Sunday morning, and the members will participate spontaneously in prayer, Bible reading, devotional homilies, or in suggesting a hymn.
  • they give a high priority to evangelism: they will have one church service in the week devoted to evangelistic outreach or will give prominence to a call to faith in special services (however, this is less true of some Exclusive groups which keep themselves separate from society).

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 Closed Brethren, which has itself divided into several mutually excluding groups. The group you are most likely to hear about from the news media is the section that 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:

  • The Open Brethren are independent with each church (or ‘assembly’) being autonomous. However, they have developed several agencies for the purposes of achieving common goals, the most important of which are Echoes of Service in the UK, or Christian Mission in Many Lands in the USA, for overseas missionary outreach. Exclusive Brethren and the Churches of God have developed different forms of connexionalism, in which all the assemblies come to a common mind on debatable issues. 
  • The Open Brethren and the Churches of God are believer’s baptists, baptizing individuals on a profession of faith, but many of the Exclusive Brethren are paedobaptist, baptizing children as they are added to the household. However, among the Kelly-Lowe-Glanton connexion, both forms of baptism might be found.

Table showing differences and similarities among the different streams of Brethren:

Open Brethren

Churches of God

Exclusive Brethren

autonomous assemblies

government by overseers’ council

connexional government

believer’s baptism

believer’s baptism

household baptism

weekly Lord’s supper with open worship

weekly Lord’s supper with open worship

weekly Lord’s supper with open worship

no ordained ministry

no ordained ministry

no ordained ministry

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.

Further Browsing:

  •  As you are most likely to be talking to a member of the Open Brethren (by far the largest grouping) it is worth reading a pamphlet by their noted New Testament scholar, Prof. F.F. Bruce, Who are the Brethren? (1961). 
  • For a useful briefing note on the varieties of Brethren, click here.
  • Dr. Tim Grass has authored a masterful one-volume history of the Brethren movement. Click here to learn more.