“Living by Faith”: A Short History of A Brethren Practice -- By: Timothy Larsen

Journal: Emmaus Journal
Volume: EMJ 12:2 (Winter 2003)
Article: “Living by Faith”: A Short History of A Brethren Practice
Author: Timothy Larsen

“Living by Faith”:
A Short History of A Brethren Practice

Timothy Larsena


In several major ways the Brethren movement has had a greater influence on the wider Christian community than its numerical size would have led one to predict. The practice of “living by faith” is one such area. Although this concept was pioneered by early Brethren leaders and was adopted as a key distinctive of the movement, its impact has been felt far beyond these circles.1 George Müller has been adopted as a kind of Protestant saint by the evangelical community generally, and the faith example he set is retold in numerous settings as a model of an admirable Christian ministry. Pentecostal itinerant ministries, independent evangelical missionaries, and Christian workers with a wide variety of denominational affiliations can be found today claiming that they are “living by faith.” Nevertheless, whilst these are more often than not making a virtue of a necessity (by claiming they are braving the undertaking of ministry despite lack of financial guarantees), the peculiarity of the position held by the Brethren is that they came to make a necessity of this virtue (by arguing that it was unbiblical for Christian workers to receive a salary).

This study will explore the theological and practical considerations which encouraged the fostering of this stricter position, and will trace its evolution over time from the more fluid stances of the founders of the Brethren movement to the emergence of challenges in recent decades to the strict position held by the Brethren for much of their history.

The Established View

“Living by faith” as understood by the Brethren for most of the twentieth century was the belief that full-time workers, such as missionaries or individuals meeting the pastoral needs of a church, should not be paid a salary. Instead, all such workers should “look directly to the Lord” for support, and trust that he would lead Christians to send them money. This doctrine is still held by many of the Brethren today. Whether or not the founders of the Brethren movement strictly adhered to this system is a point of debate.2 It is clear, however, that this tradition has come under attack during recent decades.

Nevertheless, throughout a good portion of Brethren history (conservatively 1900–1960), “living by faith,” as defined above, went unchallenged. In this chapter, I will explore the nature of this doctrine during this period. During the first half of the twentieth century “living ...

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