The correspondence on this subject during August and September 1999 has only recently been drawn to my attention. Eryl Davies’ original article drew partly on information gleaned from an account written by me, and published on a website. I was specially intrigued by the reply signed by three Taylorite Exclusive Brethren printed in Evangelical Times in August 1999.
I left the Exclusive Brethren ten years ago and know all three of the respondents. My reason for leaving was simply that it seemed hypocritical to me to publicly denounce the use of computers, while at the same time privately condoning their use for running their own organisation.
At the time that I left the organisation, virtually all UK members of the sect had to sign a form once a year, agreeing to their details being held on a computer database (the Exclusive Brethren called it an ‘Addressing System’). This consent was needed to satisfy the requirements of the Data Protection Act.
But we were also urged to approach schools attended by our children to witness to the wickedness of computers! Their justification for this contradiction between what we did and what we said was that ‘worldly people’ would not understand the ‘special’ use of the computer for the ‘Lord’s work’ at the Brethren publishing house.
Their attempts to justify this attitude helped me make up my own mind as to the deceit involved. They cited one of their leaders, James Taylor Jr, to the effect that when approaching members of a government to obtain a sympathetic hearing, you ‘wouldn’t tell them that you didn’t vote’. Exclusive Brethren never vote, but are happy to carry out vigorous lobbying of government representatives. Such economy with the truth seemed to me to be deceitful.
To return to the letter written by three members of the Exclusive Brethren, I would like to comment on a number of the points made. Firstly, it is important to understand that the language used in the letter is something that would resonate in a different way to members (or former members) of the Exclusive Brethren, than to a reader who had never been a member of the sect.
The teaching of ‘separation from iniquity’ propounded by Darby, and passed on by every other leader of the group, is the doctrine that really makes the Taylorite Exclusive Brethren unique. This doctrine not only teaches that sin should be renounced, but also that any person, organisation or denomination that does not hold Exclusive Brethren views on the interpretation of the Scriptures, should be treated as iniquitous.
The ultimate embarrassment to any member of the Exclusive Brethren is to meet another professing Christian, because of the requirement to ostracise that person (almost as if they had a seriously infectious disease). It is this attitude to other Christians which is one of the defining differences between Open Brethren and Exclusive Brethren. Indeed, I was taught that Open Brethren teaching was ‘Laodicean’ in character, and we know what happened to the Laodiceans! (Revelation 3:16).
Speaking to the churches
The authors of the letter emphasise the Holy Spirit’s right to speak to churches, and that the Holy Spirit’s speaking will always be consistent with the Scripture he has inspired. This is, of course, correct. But I believe that what these correspondents mean by this statement is that the Exclusive Brethren have the right to interpret Scripture as they think fit, without regard to conventional theology, and that nobody can prove that their particular interpretation is not the Holy Spirit speaking.
Of course, this kind of circular argument is responsible for many of the more outlandish beliefs held by thousands of so-called Christian sects around the world.
They also claim that their families are ‘happy and free in fellowship, practising separation as a welcome protection’. However, one could say that millions of people living under totalitarian governments are ‘happy, free and contented’ in the blissful ignorance that any choice is available to them. Matthew 7:13 tells us that ‘wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it’. So, feeling happy and free does not necessarily mean that you are going in the right direction.
I am actually convinced that a large proportion of Exclusive Brethren have misgivings as to some of the teachings, but find themselves so encumbered by family and financial ties, and so daunted at the prospect of starting life over again without friends or relatives, that they simply suppress their misgivings.
‘Proclaiming Christ publicly as a present Saviour and deliverer’ probably refers to the street preaching carried out by Exclusive Brethren. I am not aware of any converts from such preaching during the time I was in the fellowship, although I preached in the open air many times. Even the approach of other Christians with words of encouragement, was nearly always met with an unfriendly and argumentative reply. It is awfully difficult to attract people into the kingdom of God while shouting at them, or having to explain that you cannot discuss the Christian faith over a cup of tea.
The only factual error I noticed in Eryl Davies’ articles concerned the Exclusive Brethren ‘Levitical meetings’. While the disciplinary practice of ‘shutting up’ members was based on instructions derived from the book of Leviticus, I was not aware that this had anything to do with the annual conferences known as ‘Levitical meetings’. It always seemed to me that one important purpose of Levitical meetings was to reinforce the unofficial hierarchy of the Exclusive Brethren.
They will never admit to any form of hierarchical control, but there is absolutely no doubt that it exists. Exclusive Brethren meeting halls are mainly of a circular form inside and, during the latter years of my membership, seating on the front two or three rows during these extended conferences was controlled by the leader chairing the meeting.
Thus, while the official reason for holding these yearly Levitical meetings was for Bible study and ‘enquiry into the truth’, an invitation to be seated in one of the coveted front rows reinforced the importance of the delegate. Promotion to an unofficial inner circle was thus made clear, and such persons were to be respected for their status.
The authors of the letter state that ‘discipline, though rare, is the responsibility of each local assembly and never centrally controlled’. I agree that the processes of ‘shutting up’ (disciplinary suspension from meetings and enforced separation from other members), and ‘withdrawing from’ (excommunication), are expedited by individual local church gatherings. But I would judge it a rare thing during the 30 years that I was a member, for such discipline to be exercised without close involvement and specific advice from the Brethren’s international leader.
In practice, this ‘Man of God’ has the final say regarding any exclusion from, or acceptance back into, the fellowship. To state, as they do in their letter, that discipline is ‘never centrally controlled’ is therefore very misleading.
It is this easy acceptance by sect members of a dichotomy between what is claimed and what is done, that finally convinced me that I was a member of a cult. Just as the power of a prime minister or president can be almost absolute (although he may delegate many of his powers), so the ‘Man of God’ who leads the Exclusive Brethren exercises a similar control.
Furthermore, I would judge that the authors of the letter to your newspaper were people with authority amongst Exclusive Brethren within a wide geographical area (in the case of one of the correspondents I have personal knowledge of his past involvement in disciplinary procedure in local fellowships other than his own).
The letter closes with a threat of God’s judgement, and a clear assertion by the Brethren authors that they were in the right and Eryl Davies in the wrong. The ‘judgement of God’ is a very important factor in the enforcement of Exclusive Brethren theology and rules for living. Teaching that members could experience God’s anger for transgressing Exclusive Brethren rules is, of course, the ultimate way of maintaining control.
Many of those who leave the movement do so with a heavy burden of guilt and a strong feeling that they have been expelled from the Christian faith.
As a postscript, I would disagree with another of your correspondents, W. P. Paterson, on one point. He states that he ‘believes the Brethren to have no ritual except what is prescribed in the Scriptures’. A rite is simply a formal practice or custom, and ritual can be described as stereotyped action or behaviour. Members of the Exclusive Brethren find their whole lives to be a form of ritual, and ultimate control is exercised by the rite of Exclusive Brethren discipline.