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Church Authority

The early Christadelphians came into an existence as a progression from groups which were established after early preaching campaigns by its founder, John Thomas. This started in earnest following a Confession and Abjuration he made accompanied by getting rebaptised. It in essence marked his exit from the Restoration Movement and the start of a new movement. Following his rebaptism he promoted his belief that mainstream Christianity was wrong on every major aspect of what the Bible said. At this point he advocated the independent reading and searching of scripture and was against creeds. As a result, being persuaded and believing his arguments had merit, many people separated into new communities which broadly following his teachings. Since these groups set out their own positions for membership and were totally independent from any denominational structure they did not always adhere or require complete agreement with the views of John Thomas. Many members retained various beliefs from the churches they left and there was varying degrees of tolerance for that. If there was any glue in this emerging movement it was the magazines and publications of John Thomas rather than any formal structure. The communities that formed from his early preaching campaigns were therefore organisationally and doctrinally diverse.

Although he had preached against creeds and promoted independence of thought this result was not satisfactory to John Thomas. As a result he started to retract from his previous espoused non-creedal positions and his belief that such systems suppressed the necessary independence of thought required to find God’s truths. He consequently became less willing to consider as brethren anyone with variance to himself and advocated against considering as brethren those who never adopted views he considered essential.

The name “Christadelphian” itself cannot be considered the start of the movement or as establishing any specific denominational structure. It was instead a moment when the emerging movement gained a name. It came as a result of a need in America for a name to register as conscientious objectors. This can be shown from the fact that the name was adopted by many of these groups who prior to that used other names such as “baptised believers in the kingdom of God.” In its early days without any denominational structure in some cases groups were unaware of similar groups located elsewhere as detailed in the book, “The Early History of the Kingdom of God in Britain.

This process intensified following his death and subsequently a defined creedal position was fully framed. This was principally as a result of the leadership of Robert Roberts and his belief that in his main positions John Thomas had recovered apostolic truth. His leadership was largely supported, although he had an advantage in that he was editor of the major information channel, The Christadelphian magazine where all news was collated. Anyone contesting his position had to establish an alternative means of communication and distribution list fairly quickly. Since each grouping guarded its independence (as John Thomas was against hierarchical systems) it was a very contentious process as different churches took varying stances about both the issues and how church authority was maintained. As a consequence large numbers of people left the movement and growth was curtailed, since the requirement to sign up to the beliefs of one man was not what they believed they had signed up for and the movement became very contentious and divisive.

The two primary factors in understanding why the Christadelphians are organised in their present form are therefore:

  • the rejection of any distinction between clergy and laity and any form of defined hierarchy or paid ministry.

  • the weight that has been laid on adherence to creedal positions.

Rejection of Forms of Leadership in Favour of Voting and Democracy

John Thomas never really wrestled much with how an organised system could work and an emphasis on independence of thought and the independent analysis of scripture has some very real practical difficulties. The questions on how to be the church were left to his successors as a result and the consequence was a system with minimal hierarchy and a strong adherence to established rules revolving around a highly creedal basis. Despite the original principles being a call to independence of thought, the practical realities of being a community led to the gradual and progressive development both of a system of organisation and the adoption of church authority. In “Sects and Society” the author, Andrew Wilson, considered how it developed. He recounts how in Birmingham (which was an initial stronghold) the congregation would decide at the end of each meeting when and how they would next meet and how this came to be seen as involving everyone too much in “temporal affairs” and so a system of organisation based upon roles was decided, everyone being called “brother” and everyone being an equal. With a rejection of formal leadership this required some method of appointment and as a result voting came to be accepted.

In fact he recounts how many early Christadelphians considered voting to be non-Biblical, but in view of the Christadelphian denial of modern day guidance by God’s Holy Spirit it became adopted as a “kind of necessity.” In fact the system that eventually became adopted in the community is based upon a structure in a guide called The Ecclesial Guide and the necessity of adopting a voting system is described in section 16 as “the evil principle of democracy.” This is because early Christadelphians recognised that truth is not determined by voting, right organisation is not determined by voting and church authority is not given divine authority by the rule of the majority.

It should be noted that although within the community voting and democracy have been accepted as an organisational method, Christadelphians do not engage in voting or participate in democracy in the political system primarily because it interferes with their concept of separation from the world apart from the essential need to earn an income.

Strongly Creedal Setup based upon Statements of Faith

The Christadelphian movement originated because of a very contentious position adopted by the founder, John Thomas. This was based upon his belief he had recovered saving truth and also his claim that there had been a great apostasy from truth by all other churches and that their beliefs originated from a mingling of Christianity with paganism.

The belief truth had been recovered also held the potential it could be lost and hence the community moved towards creed setting in earnest after his death. It was also felt after his death that without defined creeds his different and distinctive doctrines would be lost. This was considered important because of the belief they had been won at great cost after being rediscovered and that a system based upon a consensual statement of faith would maintain them. These had a positive intention of affirming what people believed, but have tended to be used primarily as a basis of church authority.

In addition individuals and issues within the community have consistently emerged which have not been sufficiently well defined within existing statements of faith to ensure conformity. Without any central organisation this has tended to lead to complex schisms with individuals and churches adopting different positions on both the issues themselves and also how authority should apply and to what degree wording should be altered in statemented positions. Many of these issues have been theologically complex and doctrine has been dissected and debated to the detail, often to a degree many cannot really understand.

As a lay community based upon a strong belief in separation from the world, a great apostasy and the importance of correct beliefs to salvation, a strong creedal route being taken is not surprising. Church authority has therefore been heavily weighted around maintaining conformity of belief and practice, often called “defending the Truth.” The system of church authority which has been created within the Christadelphian community has been very effective if judged upon that basis alone.

The Operation of Church Authority​

Held voluntarily and alone statements of faith would have achieved very little in terms of establishing a self-sustaining system of church authority and they can’t be considered in isolation to other aspects also created at the time. Priests, pastors and paid ministers were despised by early Christadelphians as “hirelings” and so the community was based upon a lay design of church organisation that in effect has been a committee approach. The structure suggested and generally adopted involves a written constitution (example here) setting out the operation of each church and acceptance of other churches based upon common acceptance of a statement of faith. A suggested mode of doing this and procedures for inter-church co-operation are found in a document called the Ecclesial Guide.

The effect of all this after 150 years is to create a closed structure. Whilst much of the documentation is rarely read or referred to, the systems established are maintained to a large degree, especially in its historical areas of North America, the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The documents in this situation are if you like the formal or legal paperwork and generally all Christadelphians come under the umbrella of this in some way. However, in considering church authority “the rules” alone are not the sole basis of a community. There are also considerations of how and when the boundaries are maintained in practice. Due to the autonomous nature of individual congregations and a lack of central authority this in practice varies slightly from place to place.

The main intention of church authority is to ensure conformity of belief and practice, but whilst they set out an historical position not all of these systems and procedures end up being applied as rigidly as the official documents would suggest. There are always inconsistencies in the structure with some aspects upheld more strongly than others and in practice churches evolve. For that reason many Christadelphians would state the importance of a core set of doctrines which are essential rather than holding to a position that every element of the statement of faith must be believed and is essential for salvation. For this reason many of the historical issues that led to division would be considered unimportant by many. This is of course historically inconsistent, raises the question of how the “essential saving truths” can change and it also creates a form of authority left undefined and determined by the status quo. These historical inconsistencies are validly noted by some small Christadelphian breakaway groups which seek to be true to the doctrinal positions originally established by the movement, but end up with the difficulties created by high exclusivity and few numbers. (Intend an article on the difficulties of trying to restore the community to its origins.)

The important aspect to realise about the Christadelphian community is that it has historically maintained a highly enclosed, mental belief structure. This isn’t maintained simply as a result of statements of faith or constitutions or church structure, but also through the process of conversion and the constant re-iteration of the importance of maintaining “the Truth.” However, if despite all this a person does change, question or in fact if an individual church does a mechanism of individual or “block” disfellowshipping does come into play. In the result of “block” disfellowshipping it is has led historically to schisms and the tightening up of statements of faith.

To understand fully how church authority operates in a lay community all these elements have to be considered carefully. Our aim in this article isn’t to answer whether a church can in fact operate without some system of church authority or to answer the deep questions about the need for divine validity in operating it, rather it is to simply note that it does exist and that the Bible alone is not allowed to be the sole authority for an individual.

Due to the interconnectness of all these documents and systems it is only fair to say that baptism by Christadelphians is rarely simply baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, but also baptism into a denomination and denominational approach. Acceptance by the community is called being “in fellowship” and those considered “out of fellowship” are denied the right to share bread and drink wine in remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ. There is a process of conversion and examination before a person is baptised and a process of disfellowship for those who change position or question established tradition as well as for moral matters. Baptisms by other Christians are generally considered invalid.

To restate, the mechanics of church authority historically revolve around each church having a Constitution (example of actual constitution here) setting out how it is to be organised, often in great detail even to the order of each meeting. This usually states that members must believe in a statement of faith such as the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (BASF) in both its positive beliefs and also in its Doctrines to be Rejected. There is usually also a formalised list of the Commands of Christ. In addition most have a statement saying that cooperation and fellowship with other churches is also based upon a consensual acceptance of the BASF or such like. They represent the official basis of the church on matters of doctrine and practice, the scriptures, interpretation, etc and what the church considers acceptable and unacceptable. In addition there have been some reunions between different historical divisions and in disciplinary situations these may get referenced to. For example in Australia two main factions reunited under what is called the “Unity Agreement.” The broad outline of the structure described is set out in an historical document often referred to as “the Ecclesial Guide” and which may also be referred to in disciplinary considerations.

An appreciation of some of this is necessary in order to answer questions such as “what determines a person to be a Christadelphian?” Is it adherence to the beliefs of the Christadelphian pioneers or the independence of mind John Thomas promoted and his unwillingness to not allow his thinking to be shackled by any form of tradition? Is it a particular interpretation of scripture? Or is it an acceptable adherence to the present status quo? The logical difficulty is these different elements are in contradiction to each other. For this reason the community is wrestling with the need for change, because it has huge incongruities in its position and structure.

The Incongruities

The major incongruities with the establishment of church authority in the Christadelphians are:

Initial Arguments Now Potentially Apply to Itself

In basing its initial right to come into existence on the promotion of independence of thought and the individual analysis of scripture, a major incongruity for Christadelphians is that a creedal system runs in opposition to that because of its creation of both church discipline and the process of disfellowship. This is a sensitive issue because it was established with a strong emphasis that people should independently search scripture. The claim was that people were conditioned by “priest-craft,” traditions, status quo, creeds and systems of authority. It was also suggested people who did follow scripture alone would be censored and not welcome in any churches proving that scripture alone was not the sole basis of authority. The initial historical arguments that other churches formed closed systems of thought becomes self relevant for the same reasons and in some ways has been even more strongly expected. As a largely closed system of thought it now raises the issue of whether the Christadelphian community itself is in fact maintained by its systems of organisation and authority, church traditions and the status quo. After all, does independence of thought truly lead to conformity?

In fact, if the value of church authority and tradition is admitted, then the initial right to come into existence vanishes. If independence of thought is necessary then everyone, not just Christadelphian founders, deserves the same. If they are not possible and independence of thought has limitations, then it makes the Christadelphian community one based around the personal views of an individual and maintained by the creation of a closed system of thought. It should be noted that creeds and independence of thought are opposing principles, the one suppresses the ability to exercise the other. It is doubtful that a community based around independence of thought would lead to doctrinal conformity. If the stance maintained by Christadelphians is truly a result of being led independently by the individual examination of the Bible, then creeds would not be necessary and everyone would be drawn to the same position. To get the best truth total independence of thought would not be prevented in any way. The suppression of certain thoughts and views would suppress full investigation.

The idea that other church systems become essentially closed systems of thought is particularly applicable to the Christadelphians not only because of the very creedal structure, but also because of the isolation engendered by their view of The World. In addition it is also notable that much recruitment is from the children of the community.

The claim that the Reformation may have potential to have not reached its fullness in all aspects can also apply. The reality today is that the form of organisation in place censures the free examination of scripture within the community, despite the surface claim that the Bible alone is their guide. The exhortation to follow the Bible alone is restricted, because those who do not maintain the status quo, ask “untaught questions” or change views get censored, disfellowshipped or come under pressure to leave. There is in other words strong pressure to mentally conform to accepted ways of interpreting scripture. In fact a huge amount of the effort of the community revolves around continually re-emphasising they alone have “the Truth.”

This constant re-emphasising of the exclusiveness of “the Truth” possessed, combined with a strong status quo and a system of church authority which limits any discussions which doesn’t fit with tradition is in fact the real reason why the community still exists today after 150 years. The fact that it is a lay community without a form of hierarchical control, priests or central equivalent like a synod (as yet) does not mean either that there is no system of church authority and this is what this section is examining: Its mode of operation.

Validates Developing Forms of Church Authority

If practical experiences validates the establishment of forms of church authority, then scripture is not the sole form of knowledge. It lends validity to history, it lends validity to creeds and “evil principles” can be adopted for the purposes of necessity.

This area of thought is also connected to the lack of credibility that the Christadelphian beliefs emerged from a void through Biblical knowledge alone and requires we take a closer look at historical influences of the day such as Adventism, Restorationism and the rise of scientific worldviews. It also means that the historical arguments against churches with “Traditions” loses some of its moral weight and consistency.

It is of course this realisation that led to orthodox Christianity, creeds, the establishment of church councils and eventually centralised organisation in the Catholic systems. The only aspect that hasn’t yet been created is a centralised organisation or synod which itself is a natural response to the limitations of creedal systems.

True Democracy Doesn’t Happen

Although the intent was for everyone to act as equals by mutually engaging in a system which was based upon roles and voting, the need for leadership has consistently emerged. Those who are enthusiastic, committed, have enthusiasm, vision or organising skills emerge as natural leaders. In addition dominant individuals as well as those considered to have intellectual primacy gain extra weight in the decision making progress. As a system democracy needs a lot of rules and it needs everyone to totally hold equal responsibility as well as equal votes.

Throughout Christadelphian history “prominent brethren” have therefore emerged who hold weight in their congregations and who carry members along with them when issues and schism have arisen. In fact there is probably more scriptural precedent for leaders than for a system based upon democracy.

To be clear, establishing a system of authority and church structure has been key to the survival of the Christadelphians and it is doubtful that preaching the independent examination of scripture alone would have resulted in a community based upon conformity of belief.

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Christadelphian Quotes

You lay a great stress upon facts throughout your letters, and are incessant in your demand that I should attend to them. This is good; but facts have to be rightly put together, and then you must have all the facts. I do not think you put the facts rightly together, and you leave out some, I am sure.

(Robert Roberts, a Christadelphian Pioneer, quoted

by Ruth McHaffie in Brethren Indeed)

The Spirit of liberty, based upon the law of faith, is the Spirit of Christ; and this spirit all the Sons of God are privileged to possess, and having it, to breathe. I claim the right of exercising this privilege, as well as my contemporaries; and I require of them that they should do to me as once they loudly required others to do to them…

(written by John Thomas, the founder of the Christadelphians, when he was against creeds in 

The Apostolic Advocate magazine, August 1836)

(John Thomas, from Apostacy Unveiled, p. 137,

quoted in The Christadelphian Magazine, January 1906)

Must a man never progress? If he discovers an error in his premises, must he for ever hold to it for the sake of consistency? May such a calamity never befall me! Rather let me change every day, till I get right at last.

(from a letter written by John Thomas in 1848, quoted by Robert Roberts, in Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work)

Do what is right; be valiant for the Truth; teach it without compromise, and all lovers of the Truth will approve you. For all others you need not care a rush!

(from a letter written by John Thomas to Robert Roberts and published in The Christadelphian magazine, February 1866)