South African Bible Believers


Purpose of the Series:


To study the origins of New Testament assemblies of brethren and their contribution to Church doctrines and practices.

Purpose of this lesson:


To understand what the professing Church was like before the assemblies emerged.

 Passages: Rev. 2 & 3; Matt. 13; 18:20; 23:8

I      Introduction

The assemblies of brethren, or New Testament assemblies, came into being in the 1800's.  Questions may be asked, such as: "Why did the Lord bring about a new movement when there were already many Church systems and denominations?  Was it merely a revival or did it have greater significance?  What and how did assemblies contribute to Church doctrines and practices?"

It must be noted that in Church history the Lord brought about new movements from the Reformation onwards as necessary steps towards a full and final return to New Testament principles and practices after a long period of departure from Scriptural truths.  This series of studies will explore and answer the above questions and show that the assemblies emerged to fulfill a vital role, to bring about final restoration of Scriptural teachings, not just a revival.

Before dealing with the assemblies movement it is instructive to look at the Church situation that existed before 1800. 

II    Church Systems and Denominations before 1800 (please refer to "7 Periods Church History" series)


Roman Catholic


 Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox


Coptic & Syrian


Waldensians, Albigenses, etc.


Mennonites, Moravians, Anabaptists


Protestants - Lutheran, Anglican, Swiss Reformed, Presbyterian; Baptist, Congregationalist; Methodist


Others - Quakers, Pietists, etc.

III      Doctrines understood by the Church (By "Church" we mean the totality of churches in Christendom professing to be "Christian")

It took many centuries for the Church to understand and define the great doctrines of the Faith, with varying interpretations.  All the various ecclesiastical systems had contributed, to a greater or less degree, towards the following doctrines:


Theology proper  - The Holy Trinity.


Christology      - Deity and Humanity of the Lord.


Pneumatology     - the Holy Spirit's Person and Work.


Hamartiology     - Doctrine of sin.


Anthropology     - Doctrine of man.


Angelology       - Doctrine of angels, holy and fallen.


Bibliology     - Inspiration, Infallibility, Inerrancy, Revelation, Authority of the Scriptures.


Soteriology      - Doctrine of Salvation.

Other doctrines were vaguely understood and ill-defined, or not formulated at all.

The doctrine of "priesthood of believers" had been recovered but not practised.

The doctrine of the Church (Ecclesiology), of exercise of gifts, and doctrine of the Last Things (Eschatology) had not yet been understood fully.

These would be studied, understood and defined when the assemblies emerged as we shall see in following lessons.

IV    Forms of Church Government



Rule of one ordained "Bishop" (Gk. Episkopos) over a group of churches, each church presided by one ordained clergyman, or minister, usually called "Priest". 


Monarchical Episcopacy

One chief bishop would rule over all the other bishops.  He would be called "Archbishop" (eg. Anglican) "Patriarch" (eg. Greek Orthodox) or "Pope" (Roman Catholic).



An ordained minister (clergyman) assisted by unordained (lay) elders or presbyters (Gk Presbuteros), in each church.  Church policy directed by Synods.



Each local congregation chooses its own ordained clergyman to minister.

V     Church Order and Practices



The church members met in buildings which they always called the "church" or "chapel", with or without crosses or steeples or images.   A "sanctuary" was usually set apart from the main hall by railings for the clergyman to perform    his ceremonies.  In ritualistic churches, the whole building was the "sanctuary".

Pews at the back of the hall were free, but front and special pews had to be rented.

Baptism in many churches was an initiatory rite for church membership, and was performed by sprinkling or pouring.  Infant baptism was the usual practice, except for Baptists (believer's baptism by immersion).

Holy Communion was celebrated once a month in Protestant churches (but not by Quakers, who also did not baptize), and the "mass" celebrated frequently by Roman Catholics, for many purposes.

The factor common to all these churches was ˙human ordination of seminary graduates to become clergymen.  This was essential to "enter the ministry" and to become "missionaries" to foreign lands.

The professing Church then had two divisions - clergymen and laymen.  There was always one clergyman for an individual congregation, or several congregations might share one clergyman - a one-man ministry.  He would be paid a salary by his denominational headquarters or from the collections of the church and from pew-rents.

A clergyman need not be previously acquainted or associated with his congregation.  They may "hire" him (as some magazines crudely put it) and even "fire" him if they were not satisfied with his work, as they were his employers, or their church headquarters may place him in a particular church, from a pool of ordained ministers.  If there were no clergyman available for the monthly Holy Communion, a congregation either might do without it, or borrow a clergyman from somewhere else.

The most important feature of the Sunday service was not the Holy Communion, but the minister's sermon.


Hierarchicalism - Titles and Positions.

Titles were given to clergymen.  They would be called "Pastor", "Parson", "Preacher", "Minister", "Reverend", "Priest", "Brother", or "Father".  Even lay leaders were given a title - like "Elder" this or that.

A hierarchy of clergymen was recognised in the older churches.  One may be a deacon, archdeacon, curate, vicar, canon, bishop, metropolitan, cardinal, archbishop, patriarch, or pope, depending on the church system.

These different grades of clergymen were distinguished by elaborate garments or vestments, especially in ritualistic churches.  Vicars were clergymen in charge of parishes, with curates as assistants, and bishops were clergymen in charge of dioceses, each made up of a number of parishes.

VI    A Typical Church in the 1800's

William MacDonald states the following in "Christ loved the Church"

"One man is selected as minister of a church.  He preaches the sermons, baptizes the converts, conducts the communion service, and otherwise generally performs most of the religious duties of the congregation.  The people listen to the sermons faithfully week after week, but in an unfortunately large number of cases, would be quite unwilling to assume any active participation, reasoning that they are paying someone else to do this for them.  Too often they become, in short, sermon-tasters, with little real personal acquaintance with the truths of God's Word.  And the ever-present danger is that these people, reared in an evangelical environment, remain mere 'children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive'" (Ephesians 4:14).

VII   Some Redeeming Features

Before the era of feminism, liberal theology and evolutionism the great doctrines of the Faith were upheld by the evangelical churches.  The gospel was preached with great zeal in some evangelical churches and souls were saved, among them the early leaders of the "assemblies of brethren", a number of whom were clergymen themselves.

Male leadership as enjoined by the Scriptures was upheld, and headcovering was practised, even becoming the accepted apparel of Christian women everywhere.

VIII      Reasons for the new movement

Repelled by the condition of the existing professing Churches, the behaviour of worldly and corrupt clergymen, the ordination of ungodly young men to the ministry, the disunity of Christendom, formalism, ritualism & ceremonialism, laxity in church discipline and general indifference to the Word of God - having a name that it lived, and yet was dead - and yearning for a return to the principles and practices of the New Testament, believers in large numbers and in small groups gathered spontaneously each Lord's Day to "break bread", to study His Word and learn directly from the Scriptures how they should worship the Lord, witness for Him, and wait for His coming.

It was in the areas of the Lord's Supper, worship of the Lord, liberty, leading and exercise of gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Biblical concept of priesthood of all believers and abolition of clericalism and hierarchicalism, in church order and government, in Scriptural missionary principles and practices, and in eschatology that the movement was born which produced New Testament assemblies of the brethren which soon spread rapidly to many parts of the world.  



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