Basics of preaching.

In my 20+ years of experience in the open assemblies in the United States, typically there are only three explicit prerequisites for preaching:

  1. Being a Christian
  2. Being a man
  3. Having the spiritual gift of teaching

Formal study in a seminary setting is often discouraged, or at the very least looked upon with skepticism. The idea is that any man under guidance of his local assembly, through the indwelling Holy Spirit and regular study of the Bible, is capable of preaching God’s Word to the congregation if he is deemed to posses the spiritual gift of teaching.

This is not to say that assembly preachers never receive any training at all. Typically, training will come from the elders or a mentor in the assemblies who is also a preacher. With a lack of emphasis on formal biblical study, however, it is not unusual for training to start at a very young age. Boys as young as 8, in my experience, have been given the opportunity to give short sermons or testimonies as a way for them to gain experience. So in the assemblies, an 8 year old boy is more eligible to preach than a grown educated woman.

There are leadership workshops and conferences for training as well, like the Shepherding Conference at Greenwood Hills or the Rise Up conferences. There is one assembly Christian college that is seen as acceptable to attend for training (Emmaus Bible College), though any conservative Christian college is grudgingly acceptable.

There are also numerous books from assembly men teaching others how to preach. One favorite is A. P. Gibbs’ classic, The Preacher and His Preaching.

Preaching styles vary from preacher to preacher and even from message to message. There are topical studies, expository preaching, analytical studies, word studies, and various other approaches to scripture and application. Due to the low church nature of Plymouth Brethren (and my gender prohibiting me from being eligible to preach while I was in the movement), there are specific terms for these preaching styles that I’m simply unfamiliar with. The website Voices for Christ hosts probably the largest online database of Plymouth Brethren sermons.

Just as elders are not generally paid staff for the church, preachers are also not salaried and generally there are several men in an assembly who share the burden. Some preachers travel to other assemblies to preach as well, promoting community and ensuring that no one assembly is entirely insular. It’s not unusual for them to be given a love offering from the church.

Most preachers are not typically considered evangelists, however. While most assembly preachers focus on their congregation and a few local assemblies, evangelists are often commissioned from their home assembly to travel and preach regionally or even nationally. While many of them hold full-time secular employment, it’s also not unusual for an evangelist to rely on financial support from a group of assemblies or through the Plymouth Brethren group, Christian Missions in Many Lands.

The basics of church discipline.

When someone in regular attendance in a Plymouth Brethren assembly is under discipline, they are typically not permitted to partake in the Lord’s Supper. Occasionally they may be asked to leave the church. Since each assembly is autonomous and there is no denominational oversight, it’s possible for someone to be under discipline in one assembly but find a church home elsewhere. However, most assemblies are connected to one other through an informal grapevine and it’s not unusual for other assemblies to uphold the discipline determined by another assembly.

Usually, the process of church discipline follows the steps outlined in Matthew 18. If a person is repentant before the matter is brought before the elders or the entire church, they are often not put under discipline. However, if a person is considered to be living in sin, unrepentant, or showing public consequences of private sin (being pregnant out of wedlock, for example), their sin is brought before the church and it’s made known to the assembly that the person may not partake in the Lord’s Supper. If they are unrepentant and asked to leave the church, the assembly may be asked to refrain from associating with the person unless it is to try to bring them back to the Lord.

Since there is no governing authority over the assemblies, no official resources available for things like background checks and no official record of wrongs committed by assembly members, the environment is an ideal safe-haven for abusers. Particularly since it is difficult to make an accusation against an elder, particularly if his offense or abuse has been private.

Basics of the headcovering.

Plymouth Brethren teach that women are to have their heads covered during church meetings, while men are to have their heads uncovered. This is based on 1 Corinthians 11:1-16.

The argument from scripture is that man is the glory of Christ, woman is the glory of man, and a woman’s hair is her glory. Therefore for a man to be covered is to cover the glory of Christ, so he remains uncovered. A woman’s hair is given to her as a covering so she is not displayed as man’s glory, but her hair must also be covered so that the only glory in the room is the glory of Christ. The headcovering is considered a symbol of authority, since man is head of the woman and Christ is head over all. The reference to the angels in verse 10 is considered to be proof that this passage is not merely cultural, since angels exist outside of culture and time. Since the book of 1 Corinthians is addressed to “all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” this is taken to mean that nothing in the book is cultural or specific to just the church at Corinth.

The type of headcovering varies depending on personal preference and conviction. Some women wear a lace circle that covers the top of their head, while others wear a lace veil that covers more of their hair. I would wear a scarf wrapped around my hair so that none of my hair showed during the meetings.

Basics of church membership.

Plymouth Brethren often do not refer to themselves as Plymouth Brethren except as a last resort when pigeon-holed into identifying themselves to another denomination. They typically refer to themselves as adhering to New Testament church principles, or simply identify as Christians.1 They believe that denominationalism is an affront to God and disrupts the unity of the church.

Since Christians are baptized in one Spirit to one Lord of one universal church, Plymouth Brethren accept all Christians into their midst whether they adhere to “assembly principles” or not. Participation in the Lord’s Supper only requires one to be saved and in good standing wherever they choose to assemble for Christian fellowship.

With no church membership, there is also no overseeing board or governing body to regulate how churches or those who attend those churches conduct themselves.

Consequently, when trying to find information on the Plymouth Brethren, it’s rather difficult since there are few identifiers to search for. Hence this blog!

Basics of church leadership.

Plymouth Brethren do not employ pastors as leaders of their churches. There is no expressed clergy/laity divide in an effort to affirm the priesthood of all believers, based on 1 Peter 2:9-10.

The leadership that does exist within the Plymouth Brethren takes the form of a group of elders who oversee the care of individual assembly. There are many reasons given for this. They argue that the pattern of scripture does not allow for one man to govern a local church but rather demonstrates that a group of men are appointed from within the church (rather than brought in from outside the church) to oversee the teaching and care of the flock. Since Christ is head of the church, they believe that having one man govern a church body denies the headship of Christ. They often contend that every time scripture mentions an elder, it is as part of a group, demonstrating that no one man is to have total authority over a group of believers.

Eldership is limited to men, and often to only married men who do not have rebellious families living at home.

There is no denominational governance or oversight, typically referred to as each church having autonomy. This can have a very serious affect on church discipline.

Basics of baptism.

Plymouth Brethren teach baptism by immersion, using the examples of the baptism of Christ and the baptism of the eunuch by Philip in Acts. They point to the language of Christ coming up out of the water and the eunuch going down into the water to support this claim.

They reject baptism as necessary for salvation, but proclaim that it is necessary for obedience to Christ. Some Plymouth Brethren assemblies will not allow Christians to partake in the Lord’s Supper if they have not been baptized, though this isn’t something I’ve encountered regularly. They argue that one does not need to understand the symbolism of baptism, but simply need to be baptized in order to be obedient. Thus it’s not unusual for small children to be baptized.

Infant baptism is rejected, as baptism is considered to be for Christians only, thus giving rise to the often-repeated title among the brethren as practicing “believers baptism.”

Basics of the Lord’s Supper.

Plymouth Brethren observe the Lord’s Supper on a weekly basis as a meeting on its own, usually an hour or so in length. Often this meeting is held Sunday morning before the preaching service, but it is up to each individual assembly to determine how they’ll observe the breaking of the bread.

They observe it weekly because of the pattern the describe being found in Acts 20:7, where it is mentioned in passing, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread…”

The organization of this meeting is often described as having root in the latter portions of 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, respectively, and is typically conducted as follows:

The saints gather together, either in a typical congregational setting of pews, or perhaps in a circle. In either case, the centrality of the room’s focus is on a table where a loaf of unbroken bread and a cup of the fruit of the vine are displayed. There is occasionally discussion over whether the bread should be an unleavened loaf and whether the contents of the cup should be fermented or not, but often these are considered secondary concerns. So long as it is bread and fruit of the vine, they are content.

The meeting usually begins in silent contemplation. Then, as men feel led by the Holy Spirit, they stand up and talk about Christ, pray giving thanks for Christ, read a passage of Scripture that reminds them of Christ, or call out a hymn that speaks of Christ to be sung acapella by the congregation. As you’ve probably picked up on, the entirety of the meeting is concerned with the person of Christ, particularly His death on the cross. This is not considered a time for preaching, exhortation, or sharing of testimonies. All things are expected to focus the believers’ hearts on the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus.

Only men are permitted to speak or pray. Women are expected to remain silent, though they are permitted to sing with the rest of the congregation. If two men stand up at once, whoever stood up first is to concede the floor to the other man. If tongues are used (taken by the brethren to strictly mean another language), an interpreter is expected or the person speaking in tongues is expected to remain silent.

When enough time has passed, one of the elders of the assembly will stand up and specifically give thanks for the bread. Then he will go to the table, tear the bread into halves or quarters, and a group of ushers or deacons will pass the bread among the assembly for the people to tear off pieces and eat. After this, another elder will give specific thanks for the cup. Then he will go to the table and either pass the single cup around the congregation, or else pass around trays of individual communion glasses. Directly after this, an offering is taken up. The offering is considered part of the worship meeting, and is typically only taken during the Lord’s Supper to encourage only believers to give and discourage unbelievers from trying to give money.

A hymn of praise is usually sung at this point, and the meeting is concluded in prayer.

In the open assemblies, since they do not have church membership and they recognize the salvation of many denominations and believe that all believers are called to remember the Lord, there are very few regulations for who is permitted to eat the bread and drink the cup (usually called “partaking of the Lord’s Supper”). Typically, the only restrictions are that a person is a Christian “in good fellowship” in a local church, meaning that they are not under church discipline anywhere. Occasionally an additional restriction of having been baptized is expected, but in my experience this is rare.

This meeting is considered the most important meeting of the church, since it was specifically requested by the Lord Himself while on earth (and apparently again after His death via the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:23). It is often said that if you are unable to attend any other meeting in a given week, you ought to attend the breaking of bread.