Innovation and Influence
In numerous areas of doctrine and practice the Brethren, as either the original innovator or one of the early innovators, have significantly influenced evangelicals in their understanding and application of the will and ways of God revealed in the pages of Scripture. The following points are notable examples.
In the 1830’s the Brethren, through the lead of men like J. N. Darby, began to take the prophetic passages of the Bible literally. This seems natural to evangelicals today, but at the time it was a huge departure from the spiritualizing approach that the entire church was using and had been using since the days of Augustine. The spiritualizing approach was characterized by three points. One, the prophecies made to Israel would be fulfilled in the church because Israel was permanently cast aside. Two, the prophecies would be fulfilled spiritually, not literally. Three, the prophecies were already fulfilled in the past in events that transpired in church history — events that generally bore little resemblance to the letter of the prophecies.
The literal approach advocated by the Brethren was characterized by three points which stood in stark contrast to the spiritualizing method. One, prophecies made to Israel would be fulfilled in Israel. Only prophecies addressed to the church would be fulfilled in the church. Two, prophecies would be fulfilled literally, not spiritually. Three, the prophecies address the last days of the present age and will be fulfilled by events that unfold during that time.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth — through friendships, books, and conferences — the literal interpretation of prophecy spread into the fledgling Fundamentalist movement and from there into modern evangelicalism. One of the primary tools for this spread was the Scofield Reference Bible. When C. I. Scofield was preparing his notes for this Bible, he kept J. N. Darby’s Synopsis and F. W. Grant’s Numerical Bible on his desk within arm’s reach.
Watchman Nee and the House Church Movement
Watchman Nee fellowshipped with the Brethren for a while, embracing many of their principles regarding the NT pattern for church government, church meetings, and church planting. When he returned to China he carried these principles with him where they greatly influenced the House Church movement.
Modern Faith Missions
The early Brethren missionary Anthony Norris Groves advocated the radical notion of missions and missionaries trusting the Lord for their needs rather than relying on salaries or pledged donations. Through his writings and through men like George Müller and Hudson Taylor this concept was spread throughout the evangelical world.
Plurality in Leadership
Once considered an eccentric idea, the Brethren (and Presbyterian) practice of having a plurality of leaders who share the load of governing the church, rather than a single man who bears that load alone, has become a fairly widespread practice in evangelicalism. Many churches today are governed by a plurality of leaders (elders or shepherds), though they often delegate the educational ministry to a gifted brother whom they engage as a full-time Bible teacher.
When the Brethren first introduced the practice of welcoming all born-again Christians who are walking uprightly to the Lord’s Table, regardless of their church membership or affiliation, it was regarded as an irksome innovation. At that time most churches practiced closed communion, only welcoming those who belonged to their denomination or circle. Today the tables have turned. The perspective that it is the Lord’s Table, not “our” table, has largely prevailed. Most evangelical churches today practice open communion, welcoming every blood-bought believer who is walking uprightly.