Two hundred years ago John Nelson Darby, a minister in the Church of England, became thoroughly disillusioned with that church, all churches in fact. He began to teach a doctrine of the ruin of the church. “The church lies in ruins and cannot be restored, revived or rebuilt.” From there he moved to teaching that all that was left was for Christians to gather together for worship in any way they could. For justification, he used the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:20, removing them from the context of Jesus’ instructions on dealing with a wayward brother and making them stand alone. He became one of the leading figures of the Plymouth Brethren movement and its chief theologian.
He read some Jesuitical writings about an Antichrist who would appear at the end of the age and began to develop his dispensational premillennial doctrine. (Prior to this, Anabaptists and Protestants had taught that the Biblical references to Antichrist pointed to the Roman Catholic church.) Then he heard of the dream of a Scottish teenager, went to visit her and added her message of the pre-tribulation rapture to his doctrine, slicing and dicing the Scriptures to find snippets of verses to support it.
Some notable figures of the Brethren movement, such as George Muller, could not swallow all of this. Darby then insisted that all who wished to remain in fellowship with him must cut off all fellowship with Muller and the assembly that he attended. Not all complied, so Darby went a step further, calling all who wished to be in fellowship with him to cease to have any fellowship with any assembly that still had fellowship with Muller’s assembly at Bristol.
Thus John Nelson Darby, who had been so open and generous of spirit in the beginning, became the virtual pope of his own brand of exclusive brethren. After the death of Darby this movement divided even more. And the virus of division has spread throughout most all of Christendom.
Some years ago I got to know an Old Order Amish bishop. One day he told me, “You know Bob, we have a doctrine of division in the Amish church. We don’t openly call it a doctrine, but it is what we believe. We believe that there can be disagreement within an Amish church that progresses to the point that they can no longer worship together. They separate into two new churches, excommunicate each other, yet we still believe that each one is a church of God. That is not what the Bible teaches.” I heartily agreed with him.
This bishop was growing disillusioned with the Amish church in another way. He was in contact with a number of “seekers”, people who were attracted to the Amish way of life. But the Old Order Amish tend to be deeply suspicious of outsiders who wish to join them. So he formed a new movement.
I visited him once after this new group had been going a few years. By then he had four or five congregations. He asked me, “Bob, can you find it in your heart to grant that what we have here could be a church of God?” I didn’t believe I could. What I really wanted to say to him, and have regretted ever after that I did not say it, was: “You are a kind, warm-hearted man and you will be able to hold this movement together as long as you live. But this is your church and it won’t outlive you.” That came true sooner than I expected. A few years later he had a heart attack and died suddenly. The movement collapsed and disintegrated.
I have seen far too many other one-man churches. They all profess to be built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, but their concept of that foundation is mediated by their leader. Some leave to follow a different leader, some become themselves the leader of a new group. Others abandon all hope of finding a genuinely Christian fellowship.
Petr Chelčický lived 600 years ago in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. It was a time of much religious confusion and he wrote that the Bohemians were like people who had come to a house that had burnt down many years ago and were trying to find the foundations. The ruins had become overgrown with different sorts of growths and one would take one of these growths for the foundation and proclaimed that this is the way that all should go. Another would take a different growth for the foundation. How much better it would be if all could see that the old foundation had become lost among the ruins and then would dig and search for it and build upon it. That is still good advice.