What are Assembly Distinctives?

In a series of articles, a little a few months ago, two other authors and I had a back and forth over Assembly Distinctives and if they are a good thing for the assemblies.  

One observation I had was that it can be difficult to talk about Assembly Distinctives because there is no official list of what they are. Ask 10 different people in 10 different assemblies and you will get 10 different lists.  

The purpose of this article is to try and identify what Assembly Distinctives are in general. After establishing some form of a list, we will in another article try to prescribe what Assembly Distinctives should be. Now, the list in this article is not meant to be completely exhaustive.  

Maybe something will appear that you think should not be there, or that I will leave off something you think is an Assembly Distinctives. This list is meant to be general and to represent Assembly Distinctives as they have more or less been understood and practiced by the assemblies. 

A list of nine

One of the more ‘recent’ treatments on ADS is a short book called Assembly Distinctives by H. G. Mackay in the early 1980s. Mackay writes on 9 Assembly Distinctives: 

  1. Christ – The gathering center 
  2. Independent and undenominational
  3. Fellowship, not membership
  4. No clergy
  5. The weekly remembrance feast
  6. Finances-no solicitation for funds
  7. Finances-no salaried ministry
  8. The place of women in the assembly
  9. Foreign missions

Most of these are familiar to any who have spent some time in the Assemblies. A few short comments are important to make.  

Not distinctives

In an introduction, Mackay lays out what Assembly Distinctives are not, which include: 

  1. The fundamentals of the faith 
  2. The Trinity, Christology, authority of the Bible, return of Christ, the millenium
  3. Preaching the gospel of grace
  4. Believer’s baptism
  5. The priesthood of all believers

In the book My People: The History of those Christians Sometimes Called Plymouth Brethren the author, Robert Baylis, identifies some early “Cardinal Principles” of the early Brethren (pages 21-28), many of which are similar to Mackay’s list of 9. 

Early “cardinal principles”

  1. The centrality of the Lord’s Supper 
  2. Unity
  3. Authority of Scripture
  4. Church truth-this is the why church should be organized. Baylis refers to 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians 10-11 and 14
  5. Devotion to Christ-this is more of a radical life devotion and different from Mackay’s “Christ the Gathering Center”
  6. The priesthood of all believers
  7. Freedom to exercise gifts
  8. Dependent on God for financial needs
  9. Expectation of the soon return of Christ
  10. Imperative of the gospel

While there are some differences there are some notable similarities between the lists of Mackay and Baylis. The Lord Supper and dependence for financial needs both appear.  

It is also interesting that some of the things that Mackay claims are not Assembly Distinctives, Baylis has on his list. This may be a result of the fact that Mackay writes as one who is trying to show Assembly Distinctives through the Bible, while Baylis’ approach is that of a historian.  

It is not surprising that over time from the 1820s-1830s to the 1980s we would see some change in what people considered the core principles or Assembly Distinctives to be. 

Despite some of their variations and their differing methods, the lists of Mackay and Baylis do give a good picture of what Assembly Distinctives are. Of course, some may want to include this or that or remove this or that, but I do not think that either Mackay or Baylis misrepresent what Assembly Distinctives are or can be. 

In another article we will begin to consider what Assembly Distinctives should be going forward. 



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    I have been in an Assembly since birth and one item that has recently started to bother me is the ‘independent’ nature that the Assemblies have leaned to. The independent practice has become a ‘don’t associate with any other church’ attitude. Even within Brethren circles! Many churches deal with similar issues and we could benefit with other’s insight on how they came to solutions on them. We may not agree with how another denomination does things, but we are all Christians with the same Jesus and the same Heaven. The Church is being attacked on many levels and we need to stand together. Ecc 4:12 – Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.


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      Yes Brad!! There is a need and I believe it is happening to let go of distinctives and become unified. In fact the early “brethren” in the 1800s had a much more inclusive view than many assemblies have adopted.


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      Hi Brad! Unfortunately there are what we call Exclusives (assemblies that do not fellowship outside their own 4 walls) and these are in error. This being said, on the opposite side, there is ecumenicalism –> the risk and and danger of a philosophy that seeks to include everyone under the lie that we are all God’s children so we ought to band together… recall that the demons also believe in Jesus but are not His. Those who embrace ecumenicalism base it on the universal church but we must be careful with this as this is also error. Man-made religious systems and denominations are foreign to God’s Word — many deny the Headship of Christ, that He is the Son of God and that He is God incarnate. Light has no fellowship with darkness (2Cor 6); the Lord cautions that there are wolves in sheep’s clothing (Mt 7, Acts 20) as well as tares among the wheat (Mt 13), and that the Devil himself disguises as an angel of light (2Cor 11)…only the LORD knows the heart and intents of each… as much as we are to receive true born again believers that are part of the body of Christ, He tells his disciples (Mark 9) to let be those that are not against them. He alone can judge and deal with them in due time — remember He controls all things. The assemblies planted by the Lord/Apostle Paul as seen in the NT were part of the universal church so-called, as imperfect as they were, did support one another and fellowshipped with each other as the disciples carried out the commission. Each assembly is ‘run’ by God appointed elders/bishops/overseers, supported by deacons, teachers, etc and each is independently responsible to give account (as is each believer) but corporately, they are all to work together for God’s cause and purposes. God always has a remnant… classic example is Gideon who had amassed an army of 30,000 to be told by God that he only needed 300… why? so that man would not get the glory that was to be God’s… it was God who delivered them… he did it time and again and will continue to do so until the end of time (Heb 13 — His methods and approaches may change but He changes not). Commentaries and similar books can be helpful but the authority is not any one man’s book but God’s Word alone. It is with the latter that all will be judged at the appointed time.


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    Thank you for this! You know what would be even more helpful? An article per distinctive explaining from Scripture what it is and why we do it. I would LOVE to read those articles if someone did that 🙂


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    I feel the whole emphasis on assembly distinctives the past 5 to 15 years or so in conferences and workshops has been a disservice to the furtherance of the Gospel you hadn’t heard much in terms of evangelism or discipleship or anything during those years, mainly just distinctives which isolate us from the total body of Christ which is growing and which is emphasizing evangelism and emphasizing discipleship and ministries to people in various needs. I feel by withdrawing and concentrating on our isolationism that we are doing disservice to our young people and others in the assembly who really should help in soul winning and then discipling.
    I basically didn’t go to any assembly distinctives conferences during the early 2000s because of this, and I’m tired of hearing that emphasis instead of the Great commission.


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      You are right Jim. There is a need for a more balanced approach to the whole truth of the church including evangelism.


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      Once must walk carefully though. Yes we can partner with believers in furthering the gospel but we are to make disciples not converts and we are to take the whole counsel of God into account. Yes this is slipping as well in the assemblies as more and more move to a “community church” style where all are welcome (I am speaking in terms of leadership) and less and less is taught as unity is in something else other than Christ (who is the truth, the way and the life).

      Although, yes! Preach and teach the word and do not get caught up again and again on the distinctives but teach the entirety of the word…sharing the good news will follow as we learn to trust and obey!!!


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    I used to be part of an assembly where the men’s meeting spent three long years going through MacKay’s book. Very eye-opening but not very encouraging or convincing on many “distinctives.” Ultimately how different are “assembly distinctives” from “denominational distinctives” if they cannot be convincingly supported by the whole counsel of scripture (not just cherry-picked verses)? If a meeting holds to 8 of 9… or 7 of 9… is it no longer an “assembly”? It was a huge distraction from more important matters, at least for me, and ultimately was part of a painful process of realizing we needed to be elsewhere.


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      It’s true that many NT principles are ignored due to an over emphasis on a small set of “distinctives”. There should be more balance in a healthy church. There have been many who have left the assemblies for the same reasons.


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        Yes. I believe, having seen this and playing out, is the need to teach the Bible (you will find that you will these so-called distinctives taught and commanded in the word of God!!!) and instead of putting our ideas and etc, we need to put His word, His ways ahead of our stupidity.


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