the missionary Jim Elliot,
the evangelist Luis Palau,
the author Ken Follett,
the poet Luci Shaw,
the entertainer Garrison Keillor,
the Sojourners activist Jim Wallis,
Moody Radio Pastor Don Cole
have in common?
We were all raised in Plymouth Brethren assemblies.
My grandpa was Jim Elliot’s Bible Study leader at Wheaton; Jim Wallis’ father was my camp director for all the summers of my youth; Don Cole will always have a warm dwelling in my heart. His wife Naomi was the first woman to hug me after my mom’s death. My grandpa was an old-time traveling preacher who started dozens of Plymouth Brethren assemblies across America. My father taught at the assembly Bible College (Emmaus), managed a Bible Camp in the summer, and preached at chapels and conferences. My brother David is a full time worker at an assembly in Pennsylvania and preaches across the east. He was even invited to Scotland to preach! My roots run deep in the Plymouth Brethren.
These are my memories of growing up Plymouth Brethren 30-50 years ago. Change is a constant; a visit to a PB assembly today will certainly be different.
The Plymouth Brethren are very scholarly. Their influence on evangelical culture is inescapable. They believe in New Testament principles of the church: a plurality of elders, no clergy/laity (no paid pastor, no membership), no denominational structure, and women wear head coverings (not every woman does anymore).
The assembly was the center of our family’s culture. We attended Breaking of Bread and Family Bible Hour on Sunday morning, Gospel Service Sunday night, Prayer Meeting Wednesday night, Awana Thursday night, and Young Peoples on Friday.
The weekly Breaking of Bread service went like this: Women wore head coverings. When I was an infant wearing hats was in vogue (think Jackie Kennedy); as I grew older we kept a lace mantilla (black, white, navy or ecru) in the pocket of our Bible holder and bobby pinned that to our hair. Loaners were in the back for visitors.
After we took our place in the pew there was silence. A man, led by the Spirit, would stand and give out an exhortation, or devotional, or just read some Scripture. Moments of silence seasoned the time. When a man called out a hymn, the designated hymn-starter would sing the first phrase and we sang the hymn a capella. Towards the end of the service we would pass a broken loaf of bread (never crackers) and one large silver goblet, a common cup from which we sipped.
Family Bible Hour was similar to a typical evangelical church service. Hymns (picked out two minutes before the service, scribbled on a torn paper from the bulletin and given to musicians), announcements and a sermon. There was never an offering passed. With no “pastor” we relied on visiting preachers or preaching from men in our assembly. What this meant is that each sermon stood alone and wasn’t connected to the sermon before or after. We heard many different styles of delivery, exegesis and application.
Careful in particulars, Plymouth Brethren strive to maintain their theological distinctives in their speech. This lends itself to a jargon, with acceptable and forbidden discouraged terminology.
Assembly / Chapel Church
Elder or Full Time Worker Pastor
Breaking of Bread Communion
PBs (we say Peebs as short-hand) stress the different dispensations of history, believer baptism, strong world mission emphasis, serious Bible study, simplicity in worship, and pre-trib rapture. When my grandfather started tent meetings in a new city he usually began with a Bible study on end times in Revelation. When it wasn’t Revelation, it was Daniel.
I got the idea that we were the only true Christians. I was reprimanded at camp for telling a girl who went to a Free Methodist church that Methodists weren’t Christians. Blech. Forgive me, girl whose name I can’t remember. I’d say we were ingrown.
Separation from the world was stressed to the point that we often lived within a Christian ghetto (except for support of government education). It was easy to measure holiness by pharisaical standards: we didn’t drink, smoke, cuss. With the rapture about to occur any day, we didn’t worry about engaging or improving our culture.
Knowledge, by itself, is dangerous. It often bred nitpicky, arrogant attitudes. Being right often trumped other Christian virtues such as love, graciousness, forbearance, sacrifice. I know that I took pleasure in being smart (or fast at looking up Bible verses) and failed to exhibit wisdom by living out what I knew.
There was an element of patriarchal authority that was disrespectful of women. There is good patriarchy and bonehead patriarchy; I have seen both exhibited in the Brethren.
I will always be grateful for my upbringing: for the high view of God, the high view of Scripture, for Jesus Loves Me, for weekly communion, for learning to meditate in silence, for a capella hymns, for regular visits from missionaries, for a heritage of men and women who invested themselves in the care and maintenance of souls.