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The Open Brethren, sometimes called Christian Brethren or "Plymouth Brethren", are a group of Protestant Evangelical Christian churches that arose in the late 1820s as part of the Assembly Movement. They originated in England and Ireland and now have many assemblies worldwide.

The Open Brethren form independent, autonomous assemblies and the name, "Open," is given to them to distinguish them from "Exclusive Brethren," with whom they share historical roots. The division of the Plymouth Brethren into the Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren took place in 1848 [1] and has been well documented. The Open Brethren are committed to missionary work and hold that the Holy Bible is the first authority in matters of faith and practice. Each assembly (or congregation) is independent of the others in doctrinal matters, yet there is a high degree of communication and cooperation between those who share similar doctrine and practice. Open Brethren assemblies vary from tight gatherings which only extend fellowship to those who have first left the denominations to very loose gatherings which receive any stranger without question into fellowship. [2]

The buildings associated with the open brethren are usually called, "Gospel Chapel," "Gospel Hall," "Bible Chapel," "Christian Assembly," or other similar terms.

Justification by faith

Justification by faith alone (sola fide) states that it is by grace through faith alone that Christians receive salvation and not through any works of their own (see Ephesians 2:8, Romans 3:23). Open Brethren have a strong emphasis on the concept of salvation. The brethren teach that the consequence of human sin is condemnation to eternal death in hell. Christ's death on the cross paid sin's penalty and his resurrection is evidence that eternal life is available to any who will have it. The only requirements being that each individual willfully repents of sin, accepts the substitutionary payment of his own sin by faith in Christ's death and declares that Jesus is Lord (see John 3:14-18 and Acts 10:34-43).

Believer's baptism

The Open Brethren teach that baptism plays no role in salvation, and is only properly performed after a person professes Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. Baptism is an outward expression that symbolizes the inward cleansing or remission of a person's sins that has already taken place at salvation. Baptism is also a public identification of that person with Jesus Christ. In some cases, an individual is considered a member of an assembly once he or she is baptized.

Open Brethren emphasize baptism by full immersion. This mode is preferred for its parallel imagery to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Immersion baptism is also seen as a practice established by the baptism of Jesus Christ by John the Baptist and is therefore Biblically based. Baptism may occur in any body of water that will allow full immersion, though many Brethren assembly halls will have a baptistry. Baptismal services are celebratory and are often linked to an evangelical meeting.


One of the most defining elements of the Open Brethren is the rejection of the concept of clergy. Rather, in keeping with the doctrine of the Priesthood of all believers, they view all Christians as being ordained by God to serve and are therefore ministers. However, some observers believe that too much authority is given to elders within the Open Brethren who are, in effect, a self-elected, self-propagating oligarchy which hinders the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers from being practised. [3]

Generally, Open Brethren recognize two Scriptural offices, those of elder and deacon. The office of pastor, common in some evangelical churches, is usually considered to be the same as that of elder, and not a separate office. The office of overseer or bishop is always considered to be the same as that of elder or presbyter. The prevalent view among Open Brethren is that these offices are limited to men only, following the model of Christ and His apostles and because the Bible says that in the assembly women are not to "teach or have authority over men" (1 Timothy 2:12-14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35). The elder is also required to be male according to 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6 (the Greek translated as "husband of one wife" here literally means: "a one woman man" expressing that an elder is to be a male). This is, however, a controversial issue among assemblies, and since each assembly is free to make its own decisions on such matters, it is not uncommon today to see women taking positions of leadership (especially in assemblies with relatively young memberships).

Neither of these roles are served with pay in most cases, but larger assemblies may sometimes employ a paid bible teacher or evangelist if specific circumstances make it necessary.


The Open Brethren believe in a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 15:6,23; 20:17; Philippians 1:1) - men meeting the Biblical qualifications found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. This position is also taken in some Baptist churches, especially Reformed Baptists, and by the Churches of Christ. It is understood that elders are appointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 20:28) and are recognised as meeting the qualifications by the assembly and by previously existing elders, whereas in the time of the establishment of the first New Testament assemblies it was either an apostle's duty or his directly appointed delegate's responsibility who ordained elders (for example: Timothy or Titus). This original order being consistent with the Christian concept that authority comes from above and does not arise from men.


The main role of the "deacon" is to assist the elders with members' needs. Deacons are usually chosen from members who have demonstrated exceptional Christian piety. (see 1 Timothy 3:8-12). However, in many meetings there is no official list of deacons, the work of deaconship being shared by anyone willing to give a helping hand in a particular task.

Mission work

Open Brethren are noted for their commitment to missionary work. In the earliest days of the Plymouth Brethren movement, Anthony Norris Groves became one of the earliest 'faith missionaries', travelling to Baghdad in 1829 to preach the gospel and the Bible without the aid of an established missionary society[4]. Many later Plymouth Brethren missionaries took the same stance, and included notable missionary pioneers such as:

  • George Müller - founder of orphanages in Bristol, England
  • Dan Crawford - Scottish missionary to central Africa
  • Charles Marsh - missionary to Algeria[5]
  • Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming - missionaries to Ecuador killed by members of the Huaorani tribe

While the majority of Open Brethren missionaries do not belong to a missionary society, there are a number of supporting organisations that give help and advice for missionaries: in the UK, Echoes of Service magazine[1], Medical Missionary News[2] and the Lord's Work Trust[3] are notable organisations. Today, missionaries are found all over the world, with high concentrations in Zambia and Southern Africa, Brazil, India, Western Europe and South East Asia.

Kerala Brethren

An important stream of the Open Brethren is the Kerala Brethren. Kerala is a small state in India, but has more than 500 Open or Plymouth Brethren Assemblies. Brethren members believe that these assemblies are the result of an independent movement of the Holy Spirit in India. Eventually the Plymouth Brethren and the Kerala Brethren recognized the similarities in both the movements and thus the Kerala Brethren came to be identified as a sub-set of the Open Brethren.[6]

See also


  2. History Since 1870
  3. "The Priesthood of All Believers". Retrieved 2010-01-06. 
  4. Dann, Robert Bernard, Father of Faith Missions : The Life and Times of Anthony Norris Groves, (Authentic Media, 2004), ISBN 1-884543-90-1
  5. Marsh, CH, Too Hard For God, Echoes of Service 1976, ASIN: B0007ARR40


  • Coad, Roy. "A History of the Brethren Movement", 1968

External links