How to Deal with Divisions in Brethren History
When diving into brethren history, it won’t be long before you come across a division. Some of them are very defined (especially on the “exclusive/connexional” side) and others are not (particularly in the “open” camp). With so many splits to consider, it’s good to ask how we should learn about and react to them.
I don’t have all the answers, but here are some things I’ve learned from my own experience.
- Avoid the hero vs. villain narrative. It’s easy to find extreme fault with a one or a handful of people on the “other side” and make them out to be villains while those you agree with are treated as heroes. Remember, there are real, dear people on both sides of the division trying to express and live out their faith and convictions as much as anyone else. Folks on both sides can, and do, have a positive impact for the Lord on others in their ministry. Allowing a short season in their life to speak for the whole seems short-sighted and unbiblical.
- Consult primary sources as much as possible. Divisions tend to have a small, core group of individuals directly involved (eg. Leaders and members of the assembly/assemblies having the issue) and a larger, peripheral group who are indirectly involved (eg. Labouring brothers or assemblies that may try to help resolve the issue). The further from the epicenter of the division you get, the more convoluted things can become. Reasons for separating from other believers may vary from place to place (from how a person was treated in one place to Bible translations in another), especially in a large split. If possible, talk to those who were directly involved rather than those who were not. Divisions also tend to cause a flurry of correspondence (both signed and anonymous) in all directions. Try to find letters from those at the core, or at least the earliest letters sent, before taking anything from peripheral people as gospel truth.
- Remember there are biases. Both sides have a bias against the other. This is especially true of books on our history. Recognizing the biases for and against is a good antidote to being blinded to issues by the emotions and reactions of others. And honestly, there’s no reason to get in a big huff about a small schism in England in 1885, that probably doesn’t affect you today.
- Understand the group today, not just at the time of the separation. This is especially important for divisions before 1940 and far away. Other divisions, or mergers, may have happened since they separated. Life continues after a split. People move on and change, culture shifts, and so on. As telling as a group’s actions in a division might be, it’s important to see where they are at today rather than assuming they’re still the same. Family members may have been cut off in the heat of the schism, but are they still shunned? Has the group’s idea about an issue shifted (like, are they more mellow or stricter on a perceived issue or not?)? Have they adopted another belief or practice? These are just some of the questions to consider.
- Love them. Our Lord Jesus taught to love our enemies (Luke 6:27). Brothers and sisters in Christ on both sides of a division are still brothers and sisters in Christ. If we are to love an enemy, how much more a brother or sister? Ephesians 4:32, 1 Corinthians 13, Romans 15:7, and the bulk of Scripture, teach us to love and accept one another as Christ did. After the first division in 1848, John N. Darby wouldn’t let anyone say anything critical of Robert Chapman, who had opposed him. Likewise, Mr. Chapman never spoke ill of Mr. Darby. Let’s also learn to love those we disagree with.
Let’s not avoid learning about our divisions (both historical and recent), let’s learn from our troubles and grow in our love for one another.