The Plymouth Brethren or Christian Brethren is a small Protestant denomination which arose in Britain in the 1820s with the goal of returning to the beliefs and practices of the New Testament church. The structure of the Brethren denomination (speaking in generalization) is designed to replicate as accurately as possible the organization of the Pauline Christian Church. In this sense, with a caveat for the exclusives, the emphasis on organization is on locally founded and locally organized assemblies of bible believing and bible practicing Christians. This facet of the movement has made writing about it very difficult, as each locally organized assembly determines in theory its own doctrine and day to day matters. Generally speaking the denomination is loosely organized and does not have ordained clergy; the three main groupings are the "Open Brethren", "Closed Brethren" and "Exclusive Brethren", which due to the lack of doctrinal standardization refers largely to Communion practice, an early splitting point for brethren.
They are best known for devising the theory of Dispensationalism, especially as formulated by Anglican priest John Nelson Darby, later the founder of the "Exclusive" grouping. This theory became a core belief of Fundamentalism in the 20th century.
In 2005 one of the denominations, likely the 'Open' one, reported 86,000 members and 600 clergy in the United States. They do not ordain their clergy. Since 1941 it operates Emmaus Bible College, which since 1984 has been located in Dubuque, Iowa.
With the caveats of the above, there are essentially six defining features of any given brethren congregations. Anti-clericalism and/or anti-churchism, the rejection of the concept of membership in a congregation, celebration of a weekly ceremony commemorating the Lord's death, separation of roles for men and women in the meeting and outside the meeting, absolutely non professionalization of ministers (there are no ministers per the proper definition of the term) and the rejection of charismatic gifts (cessationist position).
A brief explanation of each is necessary.
Anti-Clericalism/Anti-Churchism means that in the Brethren meeting there are no statues, no paintings, no musical accompaniment, nothing to tie the meeting of the local Christians to the ritualistic practices of the denominational church. In Brethren jargon, church refers not to the building or the denomination, rather it revers to the universal body of Christians unified by their profession of faith in their salvation obtained through the grace and mercy of the resurrected Christ.
Following said point, the congregation of believers rejects the concept of membership in the church and membership in any particular faction or congregation. Rather Brethren jargon prefers the word "fellowship." Entering a brethren congregation is styled as entering into fellowship with the Christian body in that particular area.
There is typically a weekly ceremony where the two emblems of bread and wine are sent throughout the body. This is where most congregations differ - some say that any professing salvation may take part in the ritual, others say that only those approved by the church body or a middle ground solution, bearing letters of recommendation from the congregation leaders which are styled as Elders and are typically selected by the congregation from the most learned and Christ centered men. Generally during this meeting an offering plate or box or bag is sent around, but only those in fellowship may contribute, and only to the amount they feel required of them; tithing is regarded as churchist and applying only to the dispensation existing between God and Israel.
Men and women are separate in all matters. Women were created to help men, but this does not imply a relationship of inferiority, rather a differed relationship. Women are housewives, child bearers; women are noted for their quiet worship and subdued nature rather than men who are noted for risk taking and providing. Therefore, generally it is wished that a woman shall stay home and watch the children produced by a marriage. Generally speaking women do not speak during the meetings.
Ministers (in the Open Brethren) are styled workers and are selected from the body of the men in any given congregation according to their gifts for learning and speaking. There is no formal school to produce or accredit them, there is no salary. Ministers live at the bequest of individual congregations which may support their work to the manner they choose. Generally Ministers live very well.
Exclusive Brethren do not maintain a clergy and do not operate in a hierarchy like the Open division does.
Finally, there are no charismatic gifts in the congregation. When the canon of scripture was completed with the Book of Revelation, the outpouring of Charismatic gifts ended.
There are about 100,000 members in Britain.
When 'Brethren' are referred to in the press it is generally in reference to the 'Exclusive' group. Worldwide there are about 46,000 Exclusive Brethren, mostly in the UK, Australia and New Zealand but also with congregations in the USA, Europe and Argentina. The term 'Exclusive' Brethren is in fact regarded derogatory by the Brethren as it is based on the false belief that members of the 'Exclusive' group are not permitted any contact with the outside world. The 'Exclusive Brethren' prefer to be known as the 'Plymouth Brethren Christian Church'.
Dr. William Lane Craig said of the Brethren:
|“||"In fact, I would say that of the churches that I’ve worshiped in the one that would probably have the most plausible claim to be like the New Testament church would be the Brethren. When we were in England, we worshiped at a Plymouth Brethren church. In these churches there was no appointed minister who would preach every Sunday. Instead there were elders. Anyone could stand up during the service and share a song or a Scripture reading or give an exhortation. It sounded very much like the kind of worship service that you have in 1 Corinthians 12 to 14 where various prophets would get up and speak and the others would weigh what is said. That sort of worship service to me probably comes closest to what was going on in the New Testament in these local communities where there were no professional clergy and there were just local Christian groups that would meet together."||”|
- BrethrenPedia :: The Plymouth Brethren Wiki Documenting the history of the brethren movement one assembly at a time
- Bruederbewegung About the Brethren Movement in Germany
- Bible Archive Web Log (blog) system based in the US.
- BrethrenAssembly.Com Forum Discussion Forum operated by Indian Brethren.
- Brethren Online.Org
- Emmaus Bible College Brethren Bible College based in the US (Dubuque, IA).
- Kawartha Lakes Bible College Brethren Bible College based in Canada
- Plymouth Brethren Discussion Forum Discussion Forum operated by Canadian Brethren
- Updated list of assemblies :: News, Reviews & Who's Who
- Plymouth Brethren.Org
- Plymouth Brethren.Com
- ShawnCuthill.com - A Canadian web site for PB assemblies
- BibleTruth.net - A portal for PB information for locating and contacting individual assemblies
- GospelHall.org - A conservative Open Brethren forum site
- MSC (Missionary Service Committee) - A Canadian site with an address book of many PB assemblies and overseas missionaries
- CMML (Christian Missions in Many Lands) - A US site with an address book of many PB overseas missionaries
- Salvation Ministries USA
- Pathways ministries Canada USA Assemblies List
- Brethren News
- Good News Gospel Outreach
- Closed Bible Society
- Plymouth Brethren Christian Church - the official Exclusive Brethren website
- My Brethren.Org (Exclusive Brethren)
- The Brethren Writers' Hall of Fame — a biographical gallery of several prominent writers from the Plymouth Brethren and several others who had similar views.
- Adams, Norman - Goodbye, Beloved Brethren. (1972, Impulse Publications Inc) ISBN 0901311138
- Coad, F. Roy - A History of the Brethren Movement: Its Origins, Its Worldwide Development and Its Significance for the Present Day. (2001, Regent College Publishing) ISBN 1573831832
- Ironside, H. A. - Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement. (1985,Loizeaux Brothers) ISBN 0872133443
- Neatby, William Blair - A History of the Plymouth Brethren, (1901); Reprinted by Tentmaker Publications  covers the first seventy years of the Brethren movement.
- Pickering, Henry, Chief Men Among the Brethren, (1st ed. 1918 London: Pickering & Inglis), Loizeaux Brothers, Inc. Neptune, NJ, 1996, ISBN 0872137988
- Smith, Natan Dylan. - Roots, Renewal and the Brethren. (1996, Hope Publishing House) ISBN 0932727085
- Strauch, Alexander. - Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. (1995, Lewis & Roth Publishers) ISBN 0936083115
- Stunt, Timothy C. F., From awakening to secession : radical evangelicals in Switzerland and Britain, 1815–35, Edinburgh : T&T Clark, 2000, ISBN 0567087190