A Sobering Read
Adrian Reynolds is back from his holidays and his time off gave him chance to do some reading. He draws lessons for our ministry and practice from a sobering book about the Exclusive Brethren.
A few days away always allows me to catch up with some reading – in this case a book I saw reviewed a couple of months ago and was intrigued to read.
In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott is the story of her father’s (and to a lesser extent, her grandfather’s) involvement in the movement most of us know as ‘The Exclusive Brethen’ (since renamed The Plymouth Brethren Christian Church).
It’s a sobering tale. Rebecca left the ‘church’ in the 1970s aged six when her father – a senior figure – walked out, along with hundreds of others. The sordid events that precipitated this split are well documented in the book and online. The leader or ‘Chosen Vessel/Man of God’ James Taylor Jr was found in bed with a married woman apparently willingly provided for him by the husband.
Stott’s father lost his faith (despite being apparently converted under the ministry of his Cambridge tutor, CS Lewis) and Stott herself became a secularist, raising her children to be equally critical of religion.
Lessons for our Churches
The book is rather poorly written, at times simply an exercise in self-justification and catharsis. Nevertheless, the tale is compelling, albeit a solemn one. I think there are some key lessons for our family of churches.
A sect with powerful leaders can easily become a cult.
Stott ponders why no one on the inside or the outside called out what was happening as a movement which was just about within the bounds of orthodoxy completely lost the plot during the 1950s and 60s.
The reality is that charismatic leaders of movements (both Christian and not) can exert influence which is frighteningly comprehensive. We need, as churches and a Fellowship, to ensure we always have accountability procedures in place to challenge and correct any such excess.
Ordinary Christian worship is odd to most people.
Stott tellingly describes a standard evening meeting with songs, Bible readings and ‘preaching’ – always on hell, sin and how we need to turn to Jesus. How bizarre, she implies! And yet that’s an ordinary day’s work for most of us.
Of course, there are ways to do gospel meetings well, but as we invite and welcome visitors to church we need to recognise how out-of-the-ordinary normal Christian things are.
There is a real danger of isolationism in a post-Christian world.
Stott lists the prohibitions of the Exclusive Brethren which are extreme but orthodox in the 1930s but heterodox by the 1960s (workers not allowed to eat with co-workers based on a significant misreading of 1 Cor 5 and 2 Cor 6).
We are right to be wary of the worldliness we see (and arguably need to fight harder against it) but isolationism not only cuts the roots of evangelism, it rarely achieves what it sets out to do. The Exclusive Brethren discovered what many before have learnt: closed doors do nothing to beat the worldly desires that wage within us and which ultimately, if left unchecked, find their way out.
We must reclaim a healthy understanding of common grace.
The world is not as bad as it could be, and God causes the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore there is much in the world that we can enjoy and give thanks to God for. This truth can be taken too far, of course, but for the most part we need to teach our congregations how to discern what is good in the world and rejoice in it.
I couldn’t quite work it out from the book, but at some point in the 20th Century, the Exclusive Brethren crossed into cult territory. But there is hope for the movement, of course.
Grace Communion International (formerly the Worldwide Church of God) is an example of a movement which, following the death of its leader Herbert Armstrong, crossed back into orthodoxy and is now a member of the National Association of Evangelicals in the US.
Their website tells the fascinating story of how they changed from an unorthodox church on the fringes of the Christian faith to an evangelical group that believes and teaches orthodox Christian doctrines.
Perhaps God will grant the same mercy to the Exclusive Brethren. And may God save us from the same mistakes they made.