1.1 – A worldwide community of believers
The Truth was reintroduced into the western world in the 19th century, under the hand of God, through the efforts of Brother John Thomas. With the registration of the name Christadelphian for conscientious objection a community of believers was established. The Truth spread throughout the USA, the UK and as far as Australia and New Zealand, thus developing into a worldwide community of believers.
As early as 1854 Brother Thomas recognized the necessity of organizing the community and introduced the Royal Association of Believers, a Statement of Faith, a Constitution and Ecclesial Guide, all in one.1 Upon reading this document it is evident that belief alone was insufficient for membership; consistency of walk was equally important. Later, additional organization fell under the hand of Brother Robert Roberts and a formal Statement of Faith (BSF) was developed for the Birmingham Ecclesia in 1875.
This worldwide community became known as the Central fellowship, not because it maintained a middle of the road position, but because it was the Birmingham Central Ecclesia (known for its central location in Birmingham) that met the challenge of Andrewism and led the way by amending its own statement of faith. As a worldwide united community, the Central fellowship compares to the community of believers that existed in the first century. They were of one mind and one judgment (1Cor. 1:10); they shared a fellowship in the gospel (Philippians 1:5).
At the time that JJ Andrew began his new fellowship there were already other splinter groups that had separated from the main body of Christadelphians (the Dowietes, 1866; the Clean flesh proponents, 1873; the partial inspiration proponents, 1884); all of which (including the Unamended) had moved away from established Christadelphian teaching.2 Since the nineteenth century there have been other groups that have separated from the Central fellowship, (notably the Bereans, the Dawn, the Old Paths and many other smaller groups). All these, along with the Unamended fellowship, have operated outside of the worldwide Central community of believers, thus leaving the community divided.
The twentieth century witnessed the dissolution of many of these splinter groups and their reuniting with Central. In 1957 the Suffolk Street reunion occurred (comprising the three splinter groups that formed in the nineteenth century). Reunion was also achieved with the North American Berean community in 1952 and in Australia in 1958. Unfortunately, several attempts have been made to unite the Amended and Unamended communities in North America in the last 50 years, all without success. The Unamended community remains outside the worldwide Central community of believers.
Today, the worldwide Central community shares a common understanding of the gospel with all ecclesias endorsing the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (BASF) as the basis of inter-ecclesial fellowship. All recognize it is a human document which does not replace the scriptures of truth, nevertheless one that clearly defines the community’s beliefs.3 Very early in the history of the Central community ecclesias acknowledged the Birmingham statement as the defining document for community fellowship4 and the BASF provides over 300 references to the scriptures in defense of the beliefs stated.
Since the 1950’s brethren from both the Amended and Unamended communities have engaged in discussions in an attempt to achieve unity, without success. The key differences between the two communities involve both doctrine and fellowship practice. Doctrinally, the differences centre around the nature of man and resurrectional responsibility; these two areas also impact other subjects such as the Lord’s involvement in his own sacrifice and what it means to be “in Adam” and “in Christ”. The other area of contention has been fellowship practice; the Central community strongly upholds an Ecclesial-Based Fellowship (EBF) whereas the Unamended utilize an Individual Conscience-Based Fellowship (ICBF). The Central Amended community has fiercely defended a scripturally based, highly structured worldwide fellowship, with each ecclesia having a responsibility to the whole community in matters of doctrine and fellowship practice. By contrast, the Unamended community is made up of loosely affiliated autonomous ecclesias with no real sense of community responsibility; fellowship in their case is conscience-based; in other words, fellowship is extended to individuals or groups of individuals who are like-minded regardless of ecclesial or community affiliation. Each Unamended ecclesia determines who it will or who it will not share fellowship with on the basis of ecclesial autonomy. This has produced a fractured community; not all ecclesias fellowship each other.
During the 1950’s several reunion efforts were successful in Great Britain, Australia and North America (the Bereans). What enabled these efforts to succeed where reunion with the Unamended has failed? The foremost difference is that in each of the previous reunions, agreement was achieved on the basis of the doctrines believed along with the need to uphold the same fellowship practice. The success of all three reunions resulted first of all from acknowledging a common basis of fellowship, namely the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (BASF). Secondly, when reunion was achieved, all brothers and sisters were members of the same fellowship, i.e. the Central, or Amended fellowship. These two factors contributed significantly to the successful reunions.
Under the present Unity Agreement (UA08/NASU) this is not the case; the BASF is not recognized as a common statement of faith. Moreover the NASU, unlike the unity documents in other reunions, has become the basis for fellowship between the two groups, rather than just a statement of understanding; thus a new basis of fellowship has been introduced. In addition, the UA08/NASU is understood
differently by the two communities involved; the Unamended recognize the NASU as the doctrinal entity, excluding the Final Clarifications, whereas the original four Toronto ecclesias who implemented the agreement viewed the entire UA08/NASU as being doctrinal (this will be demonstrated later). The UA08 Unamended have stated they have no intention of severing fellowship from other Unamended ecclesias that have not signed on to the agreement, if those ecclesias are willing to continue to fellowship them. In addition, the UA08 Unamended ecclesias have chosen not to join the Central (Amended) community, thus the UA08 Amended ecclesias are extending fellowship outside of the Central community; this is unprecedented in our history as a community.
What we are faced with under the present initiative is a movement away from Central (Amended) practice, even though it is claimed to be founded upon Biblical principles. In reality, the accepted doctrinal principles promoted and the fellowship practice engaged in is in conflict with the Christadelphian Central body, and more importantly the Biblical teaching of unity. If the UA08/NASU document is indeed a sound basis for unity, why have two of the original Toronto ecclesias continued to pause and a third ecclesia revert back to its position prior to the UA08/NASU being implemented, and why do other Ontario ecclesias still hesitate to accept the agreement?
The unity process as it relates to the present UA08 agreement officially began in 1995. Unlike the Continental reunion efforts, the process began by several Amended and Unamended ecclesias from the Ontario, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions discussing the prospects of achieving unity, resulting in a Steering Committee being formed. By November 2001, a document was distributed to all North American ecclesias, both Amended and Unamended, by the Steering Committee entitled The North American Statement of Understanding (NASU). It was the intention of the committee in circulating the NASU document to provide all ecclesias with a full report and explanation of the unity initiative; no vote was requested but it was anticipated that any feedback would assist in finalizing the NASU document in preparation for a Continental vote.
Over a three year period, further discussions took place and revisions were made as a result of the feedback that had been received. One significant change was made which undermined the benefit of the NASU document. In the NASU 2001 document, under the section on Fellowship, the following statement was present:
“It is recognized that the touchstone for inter-ecclesial fellowship between North American ecclesias and the Christadelphian ecclesias worldwide is the BASF”
For reasons not disclosed this was removed from the NASU 2003 revised document.
On November 1, 2004 the NASU document was distributed throughout the North American continent to assess the will of the Amended and Unamended communities in what was to be the first phase of a two phase process of voting. When a vote was sought by the NASU committee it was not intended to be binding nor, as we have since learned, did the Steering Committee even agree on what the NASU taught regarding resurrectional responsibility.5 These factors should be borne in mind when figures are circulated claiming that the NASU was “approved” by the Amended community. The following comment further illustrates: “We now believe it will be helpful for all concernedto determine the support for the enclosed NASU Unity Proposal, before asking for a final decision to proceed with implementation” and “Any decision in Phase 1 does not bind any ecclesia to a course of action”. In another communication the committee wrote: “This vote was conducted to assess the will of the Christadelphian Amended and Unamended communities regarding the NASU Unity Proposal.” (April 11, 2005)
The outcome of the vote was that it failed to receive overall support across the Continent, largely amongst the Unamended community, and the committee was disbanded on June 10, 2006. It should also be noted that some of the Amended ecclesias that supported the NASU have now reneged on their initial decision. This is not unreasonable in view of the fact that the original vote was simply testing the waters. In fact, some of the original committee members have since rejected the NASU as a suitable basis for fellowship.
During the period April 2006 to June 2007 there was a flurry of activity amongst several Amended Ontario ecclesias attempting to achieve unity with a group of Unamended Ontario ecclesias, resulting in a meeting being arranged in Brantford for all Amended Ontario ecclesias. This was held on June 14, 2008 where various concerns were expressed about the NASU being a sound basis for unity. During this meeting no comment was made from the Toronto ecclesias about a unity agreement being prepared by them. Yet, on September 1, 2008 four Toronto ecclesias (Church Street, Mississauga West, Toronto East and Toronto West) unilaterally implemented a Unity Agreement with 3 Unamended ecclesias; this had been four months in preparation (May to August).
The Unity Agreement 2008 (UA08) was launched without consulting any other Ontario ecclesias. The Unity Agreement consisted of the NASU document plus additional clarifications. Those who drafted the UA08 (at least on the Amended side) evidently recognized a weakness in the NASU document with regards to Resurrectional Responsibility. To strengthen the NASU it was agreed to add two clarifications. This is how it was worded in the introduction to the UA08: “two clarifications we feel need to be specifically included in order to ensure the greatest success in our unity together. We hope and pray for your acceptance of these clarifications so that we may soon welcome each other in full fellowship.”
It became evident through further discussions that the insertion of these two clarifications was understood differently by the Amended and Unamended ecclesias, as was their understanding of fellowship practice, as will be illustrated later.
2 The argument that the Unamended have not changed their position (asserting they retain the original statement of faith) is incorrect. The present Unamended Statement of Faith (contained in the NASU document) is also an amended version; the original BSF document was modified by Thomas Williams in the early 1900’s to confirm his new belief of the Atonement (see clause 29 in both BASF and BUSF) and became known as the BUSF. [Source, R. Pursell, The Untold Story]. Even those Unamended ecclesias who purport to use the 1877 statement have modified the original version.
3 “What is the purpose of a Statement? It is to define the doctrines believed by a community…A Statement is necessary to set forth those first principles as commonly understood by the members of the community, in order that the conditions of association are well defined and that the testimony to those truths may be consistently exhibited to others” (The Christadelphian Magazine, 1955, Vol.92, page 424). But there is a further aspect to our Statement of Faith which is equally important. The Statement lists first principle teachings which we believe are essential for salvation, but it is also a basis of fellowship…The BASF which is the test of inter-ecclesial fellowship in the Christadelphian Central fellowship. (The Christadelphian Magazine, 1998, Vol.135, page 385).
4 “The freedom of movement of brethren and sisters around the ecclesial world, for example, is predicated on the fact that all ecclesias recognize and uphold the common faith. In the Central fellowship, this requires that they acknowledge the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (in all its parts: the Truth to be Received, the Doctrines to be Rejected, and the Commandments of Christ) as a faithful embodiment of the Scriptural gospel” (The Christadelphian Magazine, 1992, Vol.129, page 63).