Shunning the 'evils' of the rest of society

The Age/September 23, 2006
By Barney Zwartz

When a pair of Exclusive Brethren came to visit Melbourne Presbyterian minister Rowland Ward they refused even a cup of tea. As a member of the Free Church, Ward is about as theologically conservative as a Protestant can get, but he wasn't pure enough for them. "A cup of tea is fellowship, and that's not acceptable — they have to be utterly separate," says Ward, author of Religious Bodies in Australia.

They believe purity comes by separating from evil people and associations — everyone outside the group. They are called exclusive, in contrast with other brethren groups, because they shun anyone outside their teaching, including other Christians. They believe this brings them closer to God.

Exclusive Brethren say the Bible is the literal, inspired Word of God, but they interpret it very narrowly. Worship is simple, with no ritual or liturgy, and women may not preach or pray aloud.

They have two distinctive beliefs, according to Ward. First, they have no clergy, because the New Testament talks of the priesthood of all believers. The second is a particular theory about how the world will end, called pre-millennialism, which focuses on certain Bible prophecies they think are yet to be fulfilled.

According to this theory, Christians will be lifted out of the world by God in a "rapture", the rest of the world will suffer a period of intense tribulation, then Christ will come again and rule for 1000 years from Jerusalem before a final apocalyptic battle with evil. (Some other Christians also believe this scenario, which is filled out in the Left Behind series of novels, which have sold more than 60 million copies.)

The Brethren movement began in Ireland about 1830, as a reaction to the low spiritual state of the churches. According to Religious Bodies, they wanted a fresh start, without authority, precedent or guidance beyond the letter of the Bible.

The early leaders were mostly university-trained, and the various groups of Brethren have always been a middle and upper-middle class movement. But with no structure for resolving conflicts, there have been many splits, the first in 1848.

Exclusive Brethren followed one leader, J. N. Darby, who believed that existing church organisations were doomed and that true Christians must have nothing to do with them. He died in 1881, and his followers divided in 1885, 1890 and 1908, with another group splintering off in 1970.

Because of the insistence on avoiding evil, when members leave the group they are shunned to avoid contaminating the others.

Exclusive Brethren members are mostly self-employed or work for other members. They reject trade unions and professional associations, do not own shares or life insurance, and do not vote or stand for public office, go to university or serve as combatants in the armed services.

They marry only other members, and are expected to marry young.

The women grow their hair long and cover it with a scarf in public, while men should have short hair and be clean-shaven. Families do not have televisions or radios; they don't watch movies or read novels.

Mainstream Christians regard the Exclusive Brethren as a sect, and deny that a person can avoid sin simply by avoiding other people.

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