“Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”1 With that in mind, I believe it might be helpful to consider the current divisions within Christadelphia, how they arose, and why they persist. We will exclude the existing Advocate (or Unamended) fellowship, as their reasons for existence and persistence differ from that of the relatively small fellowships we will consider.
The other groups all seem to have a consistent, but different, view of fellowship from that of the larger body, and this, to a large extent, appears to be the fundamental reason for their continuing presence. They share the same statement of faith, at least to a large part, but have very little contact with the larger body. The best estimate I have of the total number involved in all the various groups, only some of which we will discuss, is around 2,000: this compares with the number in the main “Central” body of around 55,000. What contact there is, is largely family based, and there are no current attempts to heal the breaches on a community basis. There is movement within the groups, and between the Central body and some of these groups, but these almost universally involve leaving one fellowship and joining another: there is an almost total absence of members having fellowship across the group boundaries.
It is a criticism often leveled against the Christadelphians that we are constantly dividing and splintering. There was some truth to this: in 1950, “Central” Christadelphians were in the minority in both North America and Australia, and were only around 50% of the total numbers. But since then, most of the then existing divisions have been healed, and there has, in fact, been a steady, slow drift to further unity.
The Bereans began to form in England around the time of the first world war. In 1917, the subject was raised of whether it was lawful for a Christadelphian to be a policeman (or police constable). By vote of the Birmingham Central ecclesia, this was denied, and the last revision to the BASF made: the phrase “or as police constables” was added to Doctrines To Be Rejected #35. Two brethren demurred, A. Davis and T. E. Pearce. Others in the ecclesia objected to the continuing of fellowship of these two brethren, and a split ensued, the minority forming a new ecclesia called the “John Bright” ecclesia. By 1923, the leadership of this split had moved to London, and the Berean2 Magazine succeeded the previous Mutual Magazine. Thus the Berean fellowship began.
Prior to this, around 1910, Bro. A. D. Strickler of Buffalo, NY had issued in manuscript a pamphlet called “Out of Darkness into Light”. After Bro. Smallwood published an article objecting to these views in 1913, a series of ecclesias in North America also objected to its contents, accusing Bro. Strickler of believing in “clean flesh”3. However, he was regarded as confused, but acceptable, by most in England, including particularly CC Walker, the editor of The Christadelphian. This caused a split in North America, and the majority of those previously associated with the “Central” Ecclesias withdrew from it and joined with the Bereans in England. Thus by around 1924 those associated with the “Central” Ecclesias were in a minority in North America.
It is of interest to note that a previous division in Australia around the turn of the 19th century had resulted in the Birmingham Ecclesia accusing the then editor of the Australian Shield Magazine of promoting “Clean Flesh” also, and had withdrawn from him and the majority of the Christadelphians in Australia. Thus the Birmingham ecclesia was in fellowship with those who objected to “clean flesh” in Australia, but out of fellowship with those who did the same in North America.
Essentially, in both cases the formation of the Berean fellowship can be traced to the reluctance of the critical ecclesia (Birmingham in England, and Buffalo in the USA) to discipline or withdraw from the offending brethren. Rather than follow the Ecclesial Guide, which counsels ecclesia-to-ecclesia involvement and discussions, the disgruntled ecclesias withdrew not only from the offending ecclesias, but also any ecclesia that would fellowship them.
By 1940, the vast majority of the Bereans in the UK had joined with the Dawn fellowship, over the divorce question, with only a few in North America joining that group. However, the Bereans in North America were still numerous.
Reunion and after
. In the 1930-1940 period, there was considerable discussion about re-union among most of the divided community, but any progress was sidelined by WWII. By 1952, however, Bro. John Carter, the then editor of The Christadelphian, was able to build on the previous attempts with the Bereans in North America, and a conference was held in Jersey City, NJ. At this Bro. Carter gave an address on the atonement to general approval, and a simple three-point statement was agreed. Previously, there had been a ten-point statement proposed, but two Central Ecclesias objected, and the statement was shelved. However, a minority of the Bereans did not join the united fellowship. Partially, this was over doctrinal issues, but it was mainly over a view that the agreement allowed the persistence in fellowship of those who did not necessarily agree with all the agreement: the ecclesial votes were by majority, so a minority could disagree but still be retained in fellowship.
. Although not previously mentioned in this review, the next re-union was with the “Suffolk Street”4 fellowship. Originally separated in 1885 by a disagreement over “partial inspiration”, this reunion was again shepherded by Bro. Carter, along with Bro. Cyril Cooper, and resulted in the joining together of the two largest groups in the UK. However, once again a minority disagreed with the reunion. This resulted in the formation of the “Old Paths”; they principally objected to the fact that the reunion was by majority vote, and those who disagreed with the reunion document were retained in fellowship. They wanted to ensure every member was interviewed, afraid that otherwise false doctrine might be tolerated. The autonomy of each ecclesia to deal with such problems was not considered sufficient. In addition, by this reunion, the Unamended Ecclesias in North America lost their connection to the Suffolk Street ecclesias in the UK, for the two groups had fellowshipped together since 1920.
The last reunion was with the “Shield” fellowship in Australia. It was finalized in 1958, after many years of regional reunion, which caused much turmoil locally. The Christadelphian had for many years noted in its intelligence that “The ecclesial position in Australia is at present confused and Intelligence is published for information and without any judgment on the facts.” Together with Bro. Cyril Cooper, Bro. Carter visited Australia in 1958. He found that the Shield ecclesias with which he was out of fellowship, had in fact a set of beliefs, especially on the atonement, which was closer to his than that of the local Central ecclesias. His visit resulted in a reunion on a very satisfactory basis, as can be seen in the booklet “Christadelphian Unity in Australia”. Again, there was a dissident group, primarily from the former Central ecclesias. They joined up with the “Old Paths” fellowship, again worried about individuals with false doctrines being included in the reunion, and did not want to allow the respective ecclesias the autonomy to deal with any such individuals.
The current status
Focusing on the larger groups5, we currently have the Bereans6 in North America and the remnants of the Dawn fellowship mainly in the UK and Australia. The history of what was the Old Paths is very confusing, with the Companion and Lightstand fellowships resulting from splits within this group, but with some of these later joining with the Dawn group and some remaining separate. All refuse association with any other fellowship, and all share three main characteristics:
They all have a view of the nature of Christ that differs from that usually associated with most Central Christadelphians (although some hold somewhat similar beliefs); i.e., that sin is a part of our physical nature which is the cause of moral transgression, disease, and death.7
They claim that the Central fellowship is either apostate or willing to accept apostasy.
They have a view of fellowship which differs from that of the Central fellowship in that they are, implicitly or explicitly, advocates of what is known as “guilt by association”. Thus if a member of an ecclesia is believed to tolerate a member with erroneous views, or allow a member with an unacceptable moral situation (usually concerning divorce) to remain a member, that ecclesia will be withdrawn from: and if other ecclesias refuse to go along with that decision, they too will be withdrawn from. This applies whether the two ecclesias are on the same continent, or not.
Dawn (and others) fellowship practice
Ecclesial responsibility for unity8
The official Dawn position on ecclesial fellowship is as follows:
“The ecclesia is the body responsible, through its appointed representatives, for the discharge of all these duties: for the instruction and proper baptism of new members; for the spiritual as well as physical welfare of all its members; for the repudiation of error and, where ultimately necessary, for withdrawal from disorderly or erring members. These duties are carried out by the ecclesia concerned on behalf of the whole body of believers, and therefore there must be complete agreement among all ecclesias as to the basis on which fellowship is shared. As previously stated, we believe that all ecclesias in a community should be regarded as part of a single body; the division into individual ecclesias being only a matter of geographical convenience. For this reason the concept of “ecclesial autonomy”, where individual ecclesias accept different standards in matters relating to fundamentals of belief and practice, is rejected by the Dawn community. But on non-fundamental matters there must be ecclesial independence. We firmly reject any idea of an overall controlling body.”
This sounds reasonable at first glance: but in practice the idea of all ecclesias being one body “with complete agreement among all ecclesias” results in it being a prescription for endless divisions. These groups have continued to differentiate and divide because their members either can’t resist (or don’t want to resist) the urge to police anyone and everyone in their “fellowship”. If you have this mindset, and look long enough and hard enough under every rock, you’re eventually going to find someone who makes statements with which you disagree. Then, by their philosophy, you have to set about to identify it, and then get a consensus from all your members (wherever they live) about what to do with what you’ve found.
Central fellowship practice
The Central fellowship has been using the Ecclesial Guide, appreciating ecclesial autonomy and ecclesia-based fellowship, as based upon the Scriptural principles encapsulated in the BASF. It has rejected those who demand the BASF only, and allowed instead for different expressions of the same saving truths, both in its different reunion documents, and in individual ecclesial statements. This has given the breakaway fragments, if they sought unity again, a way back into the larger group. And the reasonable combination of ecclesial autonomy, a common set of beliefs, and a more or less standard fellowship practice has allowed ecclesias and individuals of some diversity to remain together. It is a paradigm that works (with some glitches, of course) for a worldwide community.
Guilt by association?9
Some would say that to allow a decision we feel is wrong, even if it is taken by a distant ecclesia, is to partake of another man’s sin (1Tim 5:22; 2John 11). This idea of guilt by association has plagued many discussions about fellowship with members of other groups. Though the word for ‘partake’ means ‘fellowship’, the passage in Timothy is actually talking about the appointment of elders and the need to be sure of their credentials. When it is applied as a doctrine of fellowship, however, it has the effect of denying what it claims to uphold. Fellowships which practice what they call “Ecclesial Unity” — requiring universal approval of every fellowship decision — are prone to division.
But fellowship is about unity and reconciliation among brethren, not about schism! Once a split has occurred because of a difference of judgment on a non-fundamental point, or by seeking to define a principle more closely than Scripture itself does, there is a tendency for further and more rapid splintering into ever smaller fragments. As we have seen, the history of minority fellowships sadly proves this process to be true. There is probably not a single group which still exists in an undivided state following its original secession from the Central fellowship.
If the formation of a new fellowship is not the way to deal with these matters, what can be done if an ecclesia persists in upholding a decision which is considered unwise and inflammatory when it is brought to the attention of the wider ecclesial world? The answer depends on the nature of the case.
If it concerns a brother’s or sister’s personal behavior, experience has shown that the local ecclesia is usually the best judge of the matter — they know the person, they know the circumstances, and they probably know the best way to resolve the problem. Their judgment in this matter, even if it differs from what others might do, ought to be trusted and respected.
A neighboring ecclesia could reasonably question whether the Scriptural teaching about that particular aspect of behavior is denied by the ecclesia. But it would be unwise to take the matter further. In almost every case, the principle will not be denied, even though the treatment of the offender may vary from ecclesia to ecclesia.
A Brother’s (or an Ecclesia’s) beliefs
A more difficult situation arises when brethren’s or sisters’ beliefs are called into question, perhaps by something they have said, or by something they have written. Sometimes it appears to be the belief of a whole ecclesia. Yet very rarely, if ever, do brethren (or ecclesias) set out deliberately to preach something they know to be false. If things are said or written that are not in accordance with the Truth, it is usually because of imperfect knowledge, both of the Scriptures themselves and of the general understanding current in the brotherhood. This should cause us all to be wary, for none can claim “to know even as also we are known” (1Cor 13:12). But within the extent of our understanding, the first objective if we believe that error is being taught should be to expound “the way of God more perfectly”. This is what Aquila and Priscilla did when they approached Apollos (Acts 18:26).
The ecclesia or brother in question could have been teaching a partial gospel. This is the concern usually expressed when ecclesias appear not to take action if one of their members says or writes something not in accordance with the Truth. The responsibility, as we have seen, lies with a brother’s own ecclesia. But ecclesias also have a responsibility to the brotherhood worldwide to ensure that they uphold our common basis of faith, and they should listen carefully to any comments brethren from surrounding ecclesias make who may feel this basis has been threatened.
The situation will not be helped if the problem is ignored or swept under the carpet. A larger and more serious difficulty will arise if this is done. There will be inter-ecclesial friction arising from inaction or irresponsible action. The very fundamentals of our fellowship together are threatened if this happens. For such a situation to exist, the principles outlined above will have been ignored or treated as only of secondary importance.
Problems very rarely reach this stage. When they do, it has been found helpful to involve the ecclesias in the immediate area where the trouble is centered. They are more likely to be affected by the difficulty, and will be better placed by their knowledge of those involved to understand both the problem and the potential solution. They will help to reinforce the apostolic teaching we have been considering about behavior “in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1Tim 3:15).
Unfortunately, in this era of instant communication and widespread travel, the situations in one area can have ramifications across the continent, if not around the world. It is perhaps understandable for some brethren, remote from the situation by thousands of miles, to want to “help” the situation, or express an opinion on the situation, or declare that one side or another is upholding wrong beliefs. Rarely, if ever, will the remote ecclesia be in possession of all the relevant facts: a rush to judgment is almost always unwarranted.
We have looked at how, since 1900, divisions have arisen within the diverse “Christadelphian” community, largely on the basis of an erroneous view of fellowship and ecclesial autonomy. The Central community itself has successfully healed many of the breaches stretching back to the 1880’s and consequently represents over 95% of the wider group. It has survived many challenges and is still undergoing problems, and we cannot claim all are totally united in all their beliefs and fellowship principles. But we have been united on a common set of beliefs and a practical outworking of these beliefs in an ecclesially based fellowship practice.
We pray this unity will continue until the return of our Lord.
1. Attributed to Winston Churchill.
2. In August of 1922 the name of the Mutual Magazine was changed to the Berean Mutual Magazine, and in January 1923 to the Berean Magazine. I can find no comment on the origin of the name.
3. The term “clean flesh” was not used in this sense until 1889, but it describes the views that originated with Edward Turney in 1873: he claimed that Christ was different in nature from mankind, and thus his flesh was clean of sin.
4. The “Suffolk Street” fellowship is so named from the location of their largest ecclesia: its magazine was The Fraternal Visitor, lastly edited by Bro. Cyril Cooper.
5. Many smaller groups have come out of these larger splits, but most are tiny.
6. The Bereans split again in the 1980’s, so there are two separate groups using the same name.
7. The Wikipedia article on the Berean Christadelphians is quite useful.
8. Cited from “The ‘Dawn’ Christadelphian: Belief, Practice and Fellowship”, a pamphlet widely circulated in 1998.
9. This section is loosely based upon an editorial in The Christadelphian, 1992, p 63-66.