I, too, have many obligations that would preclude spending the time to discuss at once all the issues that have been raised.
I also apologize for what you took to be a personal attack. (Is it really an apology when one fails to express regret for his offensive manner?) It is too easy to get carried away in the heat of writing. So, actually, I apologize for the counter-offensive manner of my response. At least a conversation has been initiated that has potential to bear fruit. Hopefully, we will be able to shake hands when the matter is concluded (which I hope will not be too soon).
As you well know, the personal is deeply entangled with the issues we’re discussing. It can hardly be surprising that it surfaces in these sorts of interchanges. I do not care to deny that I have a personal stake in discussions about the Brethren. How could I not? I was nurtured in that community for the first twenty-five years of my life. As I see it, the inherent dispositional flaw of Brethren actually did not originate with them and is far more prevalent in society than I realized when I made my original break from them almost fifteen years ago. The problem is deeper and more pervasive, as I will attempt to explain further in this letter.
And surely, ___, I’ve nothing against you personally. Why should I? I think I can count on one hand the number of real conversations we’ve had together, even though we are family. We simply don’t have the personal rapport that gives you the right to come into my “territory” and start blasting without certain social preliminaries. I’m willing to trade body blows with you any time we set the ground rules for the fight as sporting men, not as brawlers.
Some conventions I think we both can accept are:
- The Primary appeal is made to God’s will as revealed in Scripture, not the authority of man, not even “spiritual men” (Surprising isn’t it?);
- Secondary corroborating appeals may be made to historical evidences (including cultural contexts, opinions of eminent believers, etc.);
- An attempt is made to fairly represent the opponent’s motivation and rationale; and
- The strictures of Christian charity are to be observed at all times.
Feel free to modify or add to the list as you see fit.
I originally deployed a broad “scatter-shot” response in order to give you a fuller picture of the life-and-worldview I am operating within. There may be some similarities/ commonalities in our systems, and both may be broadly categorized as “Christian.” However, due to the extreme divergence that exists, one side is definitely *more* orthodox and the other is heretical. Yet, the Lord is gracious, and he knows the weakness of our frame, the intention of our hearts, and the extenuating circumstances that obtain. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
Now to respond to some specific points you raised. You said:
1) “It has been an interesting observation, that when individuals move on to other Christian communities, the often open hostility to those who seek to be gathered to the Lord's name alone.”
To begin with, it is hardly unique to defectors from Brethrenism to react strongly against the system they have rejected. It takes an incredible spiritual toll and expense of effort to traverse a paradigm shift. Family and friends are often alienated as a result. It may actually be a change for the worse (e.g., Obama’s platform for change), but you cannot deny the costs involved in such a fundamental transition.
I trust I have never directed an attack against any person for the simple reason that he desires to gather to the Lord’s name alone. Rightly construed, I agree with the sentiment. Just as I do not attack liberals because they want to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, or shelter the homeless I do not attack Brethren for wanting to gather to the Lord’s name alone. It is not what they affirm that I detest, but what they deny.
I appreciate the desire for Christian unity on the part of JND [John Nelson Darby] and the early Brethren. The original motivation is praiseworthy. However, Darby’s principle of unity—separation from evil—was an after-the-fact justification for the original meetings, which were clearly undertaken without divine authority (new revelation) or authentication (miraculous testimony).
Separation from evil (doctrinal or moral) is a purely negative principle. First of all, it assumes the possibility of cleansing one’s self from ALL doctrinally and morally corrupting associations. Do you realize how impossible this is? It means remote, static, unchanging capital “P” Perfection, in other words, total alienation from the company of our fellow men! [And don’t worry, I believe what St. Paul said in 2 Tim. 3:19ff., just not in a rationalistic way—see below.]
Second, to make an attempt at such a thing, does not magically or automatically place one in union with Christ! How could it? Faith (a positive thing) is the divine instrument for that, not our imperfect strivings. The Church, a concrete historical society of redeemed yet sinful people—not the invisible company of all the elect—was established at Pentecost, not in 1830 or whenever it was the Brethren started meeting. All the attendees of those first meetings had previously been baptized into Christ’s fellowship in the form of the existing churches.
Descartes, the great French philosopher, tried to completely eliminate the possibility of error by subjecting everything he knew to radical doubt. He feigned to purify his intellect of all opinions and pay attention to the first thing he knew to be indubitably true. From there he would build a system of indubitable truth—truth that could not be doubted. The attempt to sustain such a project is known as Rationalism in the history of philosophy.
Similarly, Darby thought he had sufficiently purged himself of all evil associations to arrive at the primordially pure association of Christ alone. In the process of doing so, Darby gradually disassociated himself from the actual company of Christ’s people on earth to commune with the solitary “Heavenly Man” a phantasm of the real Christ who is associated with His People, which is a corporate body on earth (“Saul, Saul, Why persecutes thou me?”).
The result of the Brethren defection was the formation of a new sect. And without a Rapture bailout, the historic fruits can be clearly seen. For instance, their highly anticipated expression of visible unity failed to materialize in any stable way. A multitude of small, private, contentious, and homogeneous groups fails to qualify as a public testimony to anything other than failure.
When JND tried to reconcile many years later with his old friend George Mueller, Mueller refused to see him. The moment for reconciliation had long past. Apparently, Darby never truly repented of his schismatic proclivities for he died in separation from his old compatriot and fellow dissident, William Kelly.
2) Again, you wrote: “The struggle of those in the 1830s to break away from the established church was very real and cost many of them everything in this world. Yet they were willing to do it, because they saw that Christ was not contained in the ordinances of men through religious rituals. But was instead operating through each and every believer who names the name of Christ. There is only one mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus. Anyone or system that would interfere with must be rebelled.”
Yes. At the beginning of the 1830’s there were established churches of Christ.
Yes, paradigm shifts are costly. Many religions have produced martyrs... Why do you not accept the authority of the ecumenical councils? The Church at that time was full of men who had suffered torments because of their faithfulness to the Savior. We call them “confessors” because they confessed Christ under duress of physical torture. Orthodox Christians regularly endured persecution in various parts of the world throughout the pre-medieval period. Many of these confessors became popes, bishops, and founders of religious orders.
True, Christ is not contained—as in circumscribed—by what you term “ordinances of men.” God is perfectly free to work alongside normal means he has established. But where has he placed his Name and his promises? Is the Church an ordinance of man? Is ministerial ordination an ordinance of man? Are Baptism and the Eucharist ordinances of man?
Away with this unbelief! The God who created creaturely things, who has a stake in the world he created—after all, Jesus gave his flesh for THE LIFE OF THE WORLD (Jn. 6:51)—employs means to bring his power to bear in the world. Things, created material things, bear His grace. People bear his grace. The love of God radiates through every charitable act performed in His name. This is true of the regular ministry of the church or more informal acts of private Christian charity.
You say that anything that “interferes” with the sole mediation of Christ is to be rebelled against. By “interference” I suppose you mean every person or instrument that is conceived to channel particular graces to individuals. Do you see how faulty this is? Does not the Gospel come except through preachers who have been sent to preach (Rom. 10:14-15)? Did I not learn of Jesus on my mother’s knee? Do I not read a collection of writings that have been preserved and transmitted to me from others? Does not the kindness of Jesus come to me in the form of a cup of cold water offered in His name? Does not the Holy Ghost teach me of Christ? (I.e., The Person of the Holy Ghost is distinct from the Person of the Son.)
What is this rationalistic “mediation” of which you speak? Your conception is some kind of ahistorical, anti-social, anti-material, Gnosticism. The Book of Hebrews expounds what Christ’s Mediation truly means (Heb. 7-10). It means the royal, High-Priestly MINISTRY he undertakes between God, on one hand, and all the men he desires to save, on the other (Cf. 1 Tim. 2:4-6).
It means there is no salvation through any other than Jesus Christ, but it places no limit on the number of agents that participate in His ministry or instruments He may employ to channel the benefits procured by His redemptive Sacrifice.
Faith itself is a specially created instrument or medium for the application of these graces in time!
We are not brains in a vat, receiving direct communications from a Supreme Brain. We are created persons situated in a particular time and place, a particular context. It’s time to accept the fact that the world is fallen, but that God is active and has not abandoned the world, His Creation. It’s time to accept the fact that Christ is perfectly able to sustain His historical Church with all her sins and imperfections till the end, when He shall at last purify her completely of every spot and wrinkle.
3) You said: “You make a charge of Docetism as held by Darbyites. I do not know who you are referring too or precisely what, but regardless, the scripture clearly spells out that Christ is in heaven as a man, i.e. the first born/fruits. We too shall be like him in physical form when we too are present in glory. We shall have a body that is suitable for heaven, both physically and spiritually.”
JND was much too smart to be caught teaching straightforward Docetism. I said his doctrine of Christ tended toward Docetism. And, it should be plain by now what concerns I have about this tendency. I have attached a paper by F.F. Bruce (who was an eminent Open Brethren biblical scholar) entitled “The Humanity of Christ”, originally published in a 1973 publication of the Journal of the Christian Brethren Research Fellowship. The paper will provide you with an overview of the issues involved.
Also, I’m reading a pamphlet by JND entitled, “The Sufferings of Christ”, from which I will be able to demonstrate his heterodoxy...
You... are called to a higher standard through the good name of Christian. You should not disappoint those who were tortured and martyred, the very same who built Christian civilization for your benefit. This Civilization has been under heavy assault from within by the revolutions that began in the 17th Century with the regicide perpetrated under Cromwell. The sexual revolution is but the latest of these assaults. The spirit animating these rebellions, which is none other than the spirit of Antichrist, is that spirit that denies Christ came in the flesh to save the flesh from its corruption (1 Jn. 4:1-6; Jn. 6:51; cf. Jn. 16:33; 17:22-23).
[Here the letter concludes.]