Church Life
Crawford Paul

Are Assembly Distinctives a Good Thing?

The term “Assembly Distinctives” has different meanings to different people.  To some it is the hallmark of the assembly “Brethren” movement. To others it is a term of baggage that has been dropped upon recent generations.

I’d like to suggest to you a number of reasons why we should drop this term and no longer use it in our local churches. At its core I believe it to be hurting the assemblies and this is not a good thing to continue.

1. Us versus them

I find it interesting that many who use the phrase “Assembly Distinctives” recoil at the notion that the assemblies are a denomination. While I agree we do not have all the features of some denominations, we certainly have many of them.

Creating a list of things “we” hold onto is nothing more than actively separating ourselves from part of the body of Christ. This is essentially denominational-ism. (Note: I am not speaking here for or against being denominational) 

This builds walls between believers instead of building up. It creates division.  I have no problem stating that we meet “a specific way as we see it in scripture” but that should never be a cause for keeping people away from “us”.  

2. Feeding the pride monster

This “us versus them” attitude leads to pride. It screams, “We are better than they are.”  “We are more spiritual than they are.” “We are more obedient to the Lord than they are.” This is nothing more than pride and we know what the Lord thinks of that.

I have seen this played out more times than I would have liked. It’s ugly and it needs to go away. It’s time we killed the pride monster. If we don’t it will devour us. It has only one purpose and that is to destroy. 

How do we kill it? Stop feeding it. That is done by seeing all believers as the Lord does – His precious children. We may not agree on all points of doctrine and practice but that’s ok. It really is ok if we don’t all hold to the same view. 

My dad and I have had some intense discussions on the Word of God and yet we never allow them to get in the way of our fellowship. There is no one I love or respect more and yet we don’t see eye to eye on all areas of truth and practice.  We should treat our spiritual family this same way.

3. Following men, not God

For this point I’d like to quote William MacDonald and highly suggest you take a few minutes to read this article. He says,

“Thus the history of most spiritual movements has been aptly described in the word series: man … movement … machine . . . monument. At the outset there is a man, anointed in a special way by the Holy Spirit. As others are led into the truth, a movement develops. But by the second or third generation, people are following a system with sectarian, machine-like precision. Eventually nothing is left but a lifeless, denominational monument.”

The assemblies were founded upon a movement of men. It was a great movement to be sure. Many great truths were taught and promoted. The problem with creating “distinctives” around these men is, well, they are men.  Is it possible they didn’t get everything right?  Absolutely. 

It would be far better for each local church to search the scriptures themselves and follow those convictions than adhere simply to an established list of the “Brethren”. 

4. Ignoring the unity of the body

I believe this point is paramount. It’s not ok to create division within the church. It seems to have become easy to do though. We pull out our list of things to evaluate someone by (our assembly distinctives) and if they measure up we give them a handshake and if they don’t we show them the door. 

What is ironic is that the acceptance of other believers no matter what their denominational affiliation was the very foundation of the first “Brethren” assemblies. This was the reason they left their specific groups so they could meet simply and under the banner of Christ, not a system.

Is it possible the assemblies have become just that? A system, or as Bill MacDonald says, a monument, that qualifies a person as either in or out? I believe with all my heart that the Lord hates this. He longs for us to strive after unity. He wants us to throw out our list and use only His list. 


I have used it many times in the past. I now see the use of it as harmful in many cases. It is not something I can justify from Scripture. That doesn’t sit well with me. 



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    Thank you for your brave, sincere and honest words, Crawford. I bought into the “Assembly Distinctives” idea when I was a young man but I have since concluded that it is divisive. It seems that the marvelous vision of the founders of the movement has been tragically lost – that of the acceptance of other believers no matter what their denomination. As you state, it is indeed ironic. I have found some of the most joyful times in my life have been when I have been in environments where the diversity of the church is expressed. Much of the brethren movement of my lifetime seems to have been fighting a rearguard movement to protect a set of precious principles that have become nothing more than idols. It is long past time to lift up our eyes, look around, and learn from our brothers and sisters around us. Instead there seems to be an increasingly noisily expressed desperation to point every other individuals and groups “failings” and inabilities to meet the brethren “standards.”
    I have found that rejoicing in others faith and victories and encouraging them in their journey to be far more fulfilling. I am entirely confident that this unity in diversity pleases the Lord than man made “assembly distinctives.”


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    Another interesting article coming from you, Crawford, in the past number of issues. These are things that need to be discussed, so thank you for bringing them to the surface. I’ve certainly enjoyed the last number of discussions that have come through my email Inbox.

    As one who is no longer “in fellowship” on a regular basis with the assemblies (for reasons I’ve discussed publicly in past comments on assemblyHub, but do try to visit an assembly whenever possible), I would like to add something to the mix. First off, I do find some truth in what you are saying, but I’m not convinced it is bound up in the term “Assembly Distinctives.” I’m assuming this refers to a phrase coined by H. G. Mackay, from his booklet with the same title. If this is the case, perhaps it would be useful (and necessary) to actually have the booklet in front of us as we discuss the ramifications of the terms used and what they seem to have evolved into.

    It’s my understanding that the “distinctives” we are referring to were derived from principles found in Scripture as they were “newly” discovered by a certain group of men in the mid-1800s. The principles in question were generally lost to the church soon after the canon of Scripture closed, as warned by the apostle Paul, and as a result, the “church” as seen in the NT was not in evidence in the world (generally) for some 1,500 years. Even in saying that, we all realize that God has preserved His people all during this period of darkness.

    I trust we can agree that this “movement,” accorded to men now infamous for discovering these long-lost principles, was definitely a movement due to the working of the Holy Spirit, was it not? If we agree on that point, then I think we need to be careful and examine our comments with this in mind. If however, we feel that the “Brethren movement” (with a capital B) was simply due to the efforts of certain men, Godly or not, then the matter needs no further discussion. If God wasn’t behind it, then everything we conclude about it is moot, and we can safely say that all who follow the ideas that came out of the Plymouth Brethren are simply characteristics of yet another denomination. I, for one, do not believe this to be the case, and I believe it’s doubly important to our spiritual health and well-being that we are on the right side of this matter.

    I will say at this point that your Point #2 is the main reason I no longer seek out fellowship of some local assemblies. The Pride Monster is real, active, and it’s devouring some of our local churches. Pride in what? Pride in believing they are doing “all things right,” with the result that believers are starving to death under their noses. Pride in putting millions of dollars into structures instead of caring for and feeding and leading the flock to green pastures. Pride in position, of being “close to the throne,” when all the while, the Head of the Churches is walking about among the candlesticks, so near that they should be able to feel the wind move as He walks by and feel His breath as He speaks to churches who no longer have the ears to hear what He is saying. I would say that this is true of most local churches today – not only those who hold to “Assembly Distinctives.”

    If I am correct in the origin of the term “Assembly Distinctives,” in the Foreword of the booklet, brother Mackay states,
    “Among the precious truths recovered at that time were: the true nature of the church, the position of the believer in Christ, the priesthood of all believers, the unity of the Body of Christ, the sufficiency of the Name of Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit in relation to the individual and to the corporate body, the rapture of the saints, the second coming of Christ, and His millennial reign on earth.
    The re-discovery of these truths led to an exercise of heart to put them into practice as well as to preach them. Companies of believers began to gather simply in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, recognizing the unity of the one Body, the Lordship of Christ in His assembly, and the leadership of the Holy Spirit. They owned allegiance to no denomination, took no sectarian name, recognized no human head, and sought only to return to the New Testament pattern for the Church. These local assemblies were characterized by a deep concern fo the salvation of the lost, both in the homeland and abroad, by a reverent searching of the Word of God to learn His will and ways, by sacrificial dedication to that will, by purity of personal life and by Scriptural discipline of evil in the local testimony.
    In the intervening years there have been faults and failures, discord and divisions…”

    The principles that were at one time fresh and alive have become all too familiar, old-hat, crippled and bent over with age. But whose fault is that? Certainly not the fault of the principles themselves! All that is needed is to lose them again, to be burdened down with ideas of men, devoid of any true influence of the Holy Spirit, that’s all we need to appreciate once again the things that were lost. And that right there is the issue.

    The assemblies have walled themselves off from any “denominational” influence. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be under “one-man-ministry,” even though they often talk about it – they don’t experience it. They’ve forgotten what it’s like to be under teaching where “the commandments of men are taught as doctrines of God.” They have no idea what that is really like. They no longer appreciate the freedom they have as companies of believers where the opportunity to speak directly to God as a representative of the rest is simply taken for granted — it is not taken as seriously as it should. Go to a place like this and learn what it was like in the old days, back in the mid-1800s where the only thing available were places where those principles did not exist or were not recognized and practiced.

    I have become firmly convinced that the verse “Be ye separate saith the Lord” does NOT apply to our relationships with others of the Body of Christ. To use that command against other groups of believers is to deny the truth of the one Body. We ARE all of that one Body. We ALL are part of His soon-to-be Bride! And that is why the “distinctives” that should mark ALL of us in the Body have become “Assembly Distinctives.”

    Brother Mackay discusses in his Introduction what constitutes “Assembly Distinctives.” He begins by outlining what those Distinctives are NOT: the fundamentals of the Christian faith (inspiration of the Bible, the trinity, the absolute deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, His perfect humanity – the virgin birth, His sinlessness, His vicarious death, His bodily resurrection, His coming again, the millennial kingdom, the complete ruin of mankind through the fall of Adam, etc., etc.); the preaching of the gospel of God’s grace; believer’s baptism – thankfully, none of those are assembly distinctives and can be found, more or less in degree, in various places in Christendom. He does include the priesthood of all believers in the list above, but I am beginning to question this. Due to the clergy/laity relationship found in the majority of churches today which effectively negates this principle, I believe this has become a “distinctive,” a characteristic found only in its true form in the brethren assemblies.

    He does go on to list what he believes are “Assembly Distinctives,” a list of nine characteristics that were, at one time, possibly only true of assemblies, but the list perhaps has changed now. These are:
    1. Christ, the gathering Center of His people
    2. Independent and Undenominational
    3. Fellowship vs. Membership
    4. No Clerisy
    5. Weekly Observance of the Lord’s Supper
    6. Finances – no Solicitation
    7. Finances – no Salaried ministry
    8. The place of Women in the assembly
    9. Foreign Missions

    Those nine points should be under scrutiny. Others may have a different list (I know I do). Some are more important than others. There may be somethings not on the list that should be. But the main point is this: if any one of the “distinctives” becomes a point of boasting, then we’ve gone off track. We’ve lost it. In fact, we’ve become worse off than if we didn’t recognize it.

    What “we” need to do, both individually and corporately, is to decide what is important as a body, points which should be true of the whole Body of Christ. Not only list them, but practice them. That does not make us a “denomination.”

    We must acknowledge some things as true to the whole, things that should mark all of us. Those that do those things are in the place where God wants us to be. All the others – ALL the others outside of this place are just that – outside. There is no need to separate from them, because we already are, and that’s the way they want it.

    And we need to recognize that it is only by God’s grace we are there. Pride has no place in it.


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    I would like to correct you on a number of issues.
    The movement of the assemblies started with a rejection of a one man clergy and the people who are just spectators.

    It was recognizing the priesthood of all believers.

    It was a movement to develop the gifts of all in the church and have them work toward a common goal.

    It was a movement where there would be no denominational board that would hire and fire pastors, but each assembly would look to the Lord for guidance.

    The elders would be men from the meeting who were known and NOT a man hired to come for 5 years and then a board would hire another man to come in and be the pastor. (This could cause doctrinal confusion)

    A pastor would look to the Lord and not demand a salary equal to the middle class living standard.

    The assemblies are NOT a denomination but look to the Scriptures for their doctrine and practices.

    It is NOT being divisive if some prefer to fellowship where they feel it is closer to the Scriptural pattern of church government in the Scriptures that they see. That does not mean that we deny that other churches have true believers, and can meet for conferences or pray with them.
    … I am sorry Crawford but it is not pride to want to be obedient to the Scriptures.Yes we should show respect for other believers but that does not mean that we have to work together especially if there are doctrinal differences. The question is which doctrinal differences are we willing to compromise on?

    I find your comments to be critical of the Scriptures, and not the assemblies. Some assemblies have men who are not especially gifted in teaching or evangelism, but they meet because they feel that this is God’s pattern of meeting.They can visit other churches for special meetings, or Men’s prayer breakfasts or Christian women’s meetings, but they are not criticising others, but seeking to follow the Lord as they understand it.

    You need to go to the mission field where there are no believers and try and start an assembly. YOU DO NOT with a lot of money from the west buy a building, and set it up with a piano and an organ that only the missionaries can play and where the foreign missionary does all the preaching and the the wife plays the piano pr organ. Your objective is to invite people to come in where the meeting has a definite western style. A foreign pastor may be accepted, but the group works better if from the beginning the local people have some ownership and involvement in the activities..

    You will always find leaders and others whose personality is domineering, and one may prefer to leave because of a personality conflict, … but no church is perfect, and you will find other. that will conflict with you wherever you go. Rather than criticize the group you leave, pray for them, keep in touch with them and think of the many positive qualities they have.

    However, We should not desire to be like other denominations, but to see God’s wisdom in the pattern He gives us.

    I am glad that I went to the mission field following the pattern of the Scriptures.


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    First, my apologies for the lengthy comment above. But your article hit a nerve… in a good way.

    On reflecting what I did write, just an additional thought, and it concerns point #2 in Harold Mackay’s list – Independence and Undenominational. I ordered a book this week and received it only a couple of days ago, entitled “Comments on The Ground of The One Body,” by L. M. Grant and R. P. Daniel.

    One of the thoughts in this book runs counter to what we think of as being “Independent” or what some call being “autonomous.” I realize that principally it refers to the government of the assembly and any decisions made by elders, etc., but the thoughts brought out in the above mentioned book explains what we should be describing is not “independence” from every other local church, but rather “interdependence.” We are all part of the one Body, both individually and corporately (as local churches). That means realistically, what one assembly (or local church) does really does affect other churches. We are not truly “independent” in the real sense of the word. We all answer to the same Head, even as a denomination (Col. 1:18, 2:19) so we are connected simply through the relationship with the Lord Jesus. To make the point, even in the letters to the seven churches in the Revelation, there are points to be heard and heeded by all if we understand the directives found at the conclusion of each letter: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches…”

    I’d like to see more about this topic. To what degree should we be independent? How do we, as local churches, affect each other even when not in the “magic circle” of fellowship, and yet part of the Body of Christ?


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    I hear this expression too often and it comes across with some pride and confidence. That is scary! Let’s not become proud of who we are!
    I have been preparing lessons based on the book of Acts before returning overseas. As I have been reading it over and over, there is one verse that keeps “popping” off the page every time I come to it – Acts 11:23 “when he (Barnabas) arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and …”

    The good news in this context is that the Gospel went to the Gentiles. The Jews criticized Peter for what he was doing – Acts 11:2. That is the easiest thing to do! Trust me, been there done that!

    Was the leadership of the church in Jerusalem skeptical? Likely! So they sent Barnabas to check things out. Regardless of their intention, the bottom line is that he was glad! He praised the Lord for what he saw! Were there signs that the Gentiles were gradually conforming to Jewish traditions, such as circumcision, abstention of certain food, and keeping the Sabbath?

    NO! NO! NO! He was not looking at issues! He rejoiced when he saw the evidence of the grace of God at work in people’s lives. Obviously, what the Gentiles and Jews were doing on a daily basis as they walked with God, were two different things. Let me also be very clear, we are not talking about sweeping sin under the carpet. The context tells us that some Jews were upset, but Barnabas rejoiced over the evidence of the grace of God at work in people’s lives.

    Let us build on this principle! Let the grace of God be our measuring stick!


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    There is utility in claiming distinctives to go along with the drawbacks. The reality is that many groups (if not most) claim to have them, not just the assemblies. However my experience is that sometimes the things I claim as distinctives end up being things I have in common with other believers. But I thought the assemblies had the monopoly on pluratilty in leadership (that church has “a pastor”), autonomy of the local church (they have a formalized relationship with other churches), headship/submission (she prays audibly in a gathering), etc. I would propose that more often than not we’re actually following most of the same principles, while applying them in different ways.

    Our Heavenly Father is not surprised or thrown off by His children disagreeing on how to follow His household principles. Are some kids going to follow the ‘rules’ more diligently than others? Oh ya, happens in most families. Praise be to God that He is able to work through the great diversity we see in the body.

    “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.” 1 Cor 12. (Yes, I know it’s not entirely in context.)


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    I’d be curious how Bill MacDonald, as you reference on a couple of occasions, would answer the question “is it a good idea for my church to bring in a punk rock band like Hawk Nelson”? But hey, as long as we all love Jesus right?


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