A critique of the Way of the two-by-two preachersIntroduction
This sect is primarily found in English speaking countries. The chances are you have met a member of "The Way", but probably haven't realized it. On the surface, the members of this church seem like any Christian. They are marked by personal devotion and evangelistic zeal. They seem quite orthodox. They claim that their teaching is based on Biblical authority and apostolic tradition. It is only when we start to talk at length with a member that we may get suspicious: slight twists to Biblical truth; certain Biblical points emphasized at the expense of others; an evasiveness as to the name of their church and their origins. Finally, the crunch comes when they will claim that they are the only true church and that only they possess the way to God. Only they are "in the way".
The church of The Way
The church is an association of house churches. There is no institutional property, no church buildings or offices, no observable centralized authority, no centralized financial structure, no authorized publications, either historical, financial or doctrinal.
The church simply meets in a private home designated as a house church - "a church in a home". It is ruled over by an elder (bishop) who is under the authority of a regional overseer. Church members are highly critical of the institutional church with its hierarchy, but themselves have a very powerful and coercive hierarchy. Excommunication, by means of the withdrawal of fellowship, is highly organized. An out-of-fellowship member will find all doors closed throughout the world.
Meetings are conducted on Wednesday evenings and Sundays. The Lord's Supper is a regular service.
A regular feature of the church is its conventions. For example, in Australia, since World War II, conventions have been held in each state. In N.S.W. the major convention site is at Silverdale on the outskirts of Sydney. Others are held at Glen Innes, Cowra, Mudgee and Booyong near Casino. Conventions my go as long as a couple of weeks. Members camp on site and attend daily meetings under canvas or in barns etc. These are the main teaching and training forums of the church.
The most distinctive feature of the church of "The Way" is its ministry. They have at times been given the name of "poor preachers". All members, including new converts, are exhorted to become roving preachers in the terms of Matthew 10:7-15. They must give up all worldly possessions and with minimal personal necessities, set out two by two to preach the gospel. They receive some support from their own house church, but primarily are dependent upon the church members in the region they are sent to. Church members may be required to house and feed a "worker" for up to six months. The "worker" is highly respected in the church. He or she serves as a roving evangelist and teacher in the local house church. It is believed that since these roving preachers have conformed to Christ's pattern of life that only they may offer true teaching in the faith of Christ. They undertake no formal theological training as they believe the Spirit will control and empower their speech. In reality they undertake regular and intensive training at the conventions. Convention speakers, who are mainly "senior workers", restate accepted teaching. As there is no formal body of doctrine, conflicting views are at times presented, but debate and discussion is frowned on.
The method of outreach is either by door to door visitation or "non denominational" missions. On many occasions missions are held in the local denominational church hall, since few ministers are aware that the so called itinerant non denominational preachers are Cooneyites. They mainly work in country areas.
The church is spread worldwide, although details are nearly impossible to arrive at as communication is by personal letters between elders, overseers and workers. There are no official publications. In 1942 in the USA there were 100 annual conventions, with attendances of between 300 and 500. There were 900 preachers and 3,000 house churches.
1. The only true church. Only they are "in the way" and only through their preachers can a person come to saving faith. At times, members have come to hold that others outside "the way" know the Lord and so will be saved, but to state this openly results in excommunication.
2. Salvation by works. The doctrine of justification by grace through faith was originally opposed ("Calvary ranters"), but is now just ignored. The work of Christ on the cross has little place in the Church's teaching. Even references to forgiveness of sins for salvation have been removed from their hymn book. For members of "the way", salvation is dependent upon being a worthy disciple of Christ - "to keep faithful to the way". The way is to follow the example of Christ, the perfect preacher. This entails being separate from the world - practicing simplicity by abstaining from worldly pleasures - and to be devoted to itinerate preaching, preferably personally or at least in the support of the "Workers". They interpret the words from Romans 5:10, "we shall be saved by his life", to mean that they will be saved if they conform their lives to Jesus, the homeless poor preacher.
3. Anti intellectual. Higher education is frowned upon. Books, including theological works, are not to be studied.
4. Anti denominational. When the group was founded in the 1890's, the mainline denominations were seen as sectarian and snobbish. Their initial protest against organized religion has been institutionalized in their teachings.
5. Anti clerical. Poor preachers, rather then paid ministers. Yet in practice the church is extremely authoritarian.
6. Apostolic in origin. They claim to practice a church life that can be traced back to the apostles. In actual fact their founder, Irvine, simply adopted the evangelistic methods of the Faith Missions of the late 1800's and the religious convention meetings of the Keswick movement.
The nameless house church movement was founded by William Irvine. He was born in Scotland in 1863. At 30 years of age he was converted under the ministry of a Presbyterian evangelist, John McNeill. In 1895 he joined the Faith Mission as a lay evangelist. In 1896 he was sent to the south of Ireland. He was disturbed by the spiritual deadness of the church, especially when it affected new converts. In 1897 he was struck by Matthew 10:8-10 and challenged his fellow evangelist, John Long, to call out from the churches those who were willing to accept the challenge to adopt this simple form of evangelism outlined by Jesus. To live this way, to live by faith, trusting no human organization for a living, but relying on Jesus, would enable the Lord's new disciples to be partakers of Christ's nature. They would even be able to heal as promised in Matthew 10. A number of Faith Mission evangelists and converts joined with him and in 1899 a team undertook a bicycle preaching tour of Scotland. They used Faith Mission contacts for support, but generally succeeded in living by the Matthew 10 principle. In 1901 Irvine resigned from the Faith Mission.
The team returned to Ireland and a growing number of converts joined Irvine's rag-tag preaching team. Edward Cooney, in 1901, was one such convert, although he was already a Christian at the time. He gave up everything, donating £1,300 to the work. All donated money was shared out, as needed, among the preachers.
So, the movement began, fiery young men with a cause led by a charismatic figure. They believed that people were saved by becoming like Jesus in his poverty, homelessness and suffering. They started to believe that only they possessed the true faith for only they had returned to the practices of the New Testament church.
In 1903, seventy preachers met at Rathmolyon, Ireland, at William Gill's farm. This first convention lasted three weeks and at its conclusion all accepted a strict code of discipleship. They took a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
Two by two the preachers set forth on bicycles, camping out, visiting and running missions; hellfire and brimstone preachers they were. The Bible was their only book. They claimed to speak in the power of the Holy Spirit and so preached without written notes or commentaries. From 1903 preachers were sent overseas and by the 1908 convention there were representatives from eight countries, including Australia.
By 1904 most of the preachers accepted the doctrine known as the "Living Witness Doctrine". This doctrine stated that only those who accepted Irvine and his workers were saved. This teaching had been introduced by Joe Kerr, a convert from 1902, who pushed the view that Irvine was the source of a new revelation and thus new life. He proclaimed the view that this new life could only be passed on through Irvine and those who followed him. Kerr later renounced the doctrine and was treated as apostate.
From 1903, annual conventions were held at Enniskillen and over the next three years attracted thousands of visitors. At times there were over 3000 attending meetings. People came from miles around to hear the "tramp" preachers.
Initially, Irvine castigated those who supported him but would not sell everything and become preachers. "Sham hypocrites" he called them. Yet, as this group increased he was forced to compromise his hard line. In 1908 he sanctioned house church meetings and divided his followers into two groups - saints and workers. At the convention in Crocknacrive that summer, Irvine stated that "the true church is a man's home.... the first Christians met in the homes of the saints."
As the preachers moved out, so the movement spread. Naturally there was some opposition. John Hardie was driven from Kilkenny by the local Roman Catholics and moved to Australia to establish the work in N.S.W. William Carroll began the work in Victoria and Tom Turner in Queensland. Irvine visited Australia in 1905-6.
In Australia they were called "two by twos". They ran missions in the local country churches, visited, travelling the back country by pushbike. Converts at any mission were soon removed from the local churches and formed into home churches. The Christian church, said the preachers, is "the home of the Devil."
The Australian preachers were noted for their extreme poverty - at one time they even banned bicycles. They were also noted for their evasiveness as to who and what they were - they simply called themselves "Christians". Of a member they said "he is on the way", and as to their origins, "they were from the beginning". Few converts ever knew that the church had only recently been formed by William Irvine in Ireland.
The growing size and wealth of the movement started to affect Irvine. The dedication of his early years gave way to a grab for privileges and power. He spent most of his time travelling around the world to speak at conventions and increasingly exercised a dictatorial control over the church. Opposition grew. His fall came when he allowed himself to be influenced by C.T. Russell, the founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses. He adopted Russell's second coming theology - 1914 was the end of the age of grace. He saw himself and John as the "witnesses" from the book of Revelation. His strange teachings disturbed many and so in 1913 John Hardie did not allow Irvine to take the stand at the Woodside convention in South Australia. Opposition grew and finally in 1914, William Carroll, the Overseer in Victoria, Australia, decided to take control. Overseers worldwide acted to exclude Irvine from the movement. It was simply reported that his health was not "as good as usual". He continued to write to many members, prophesying a worldwide drought in 1919. He then travelled to Jerusalem and lived there till his death in 1947. Naturally, some members continued to support Irvine and were summarily excommunicated.
Edward Cooney, the movements most prominent preacher, was greatly disturbed by the removal of Irvine. He believed it right, but also believed that the church must have sinned for such a thing to happen. He concluded that the Living Witness doctrine had been wrongly adopted by the group. Both he and Irvine had been converted before the church was ever thought of. He was also critical of the loss of individual freedom through the growing power of the overseers and the growing wealth of some preachers. During the war years he preached regularly in Australia at the Sydney Domain, but by 1921 he had begun to disturb the hierarchy. In 1922 he was warmly accepted at the Launceston convention and was given a free hand at the Guilford convention in Sydney by John Hardie. Yet, opposition grew and after a foolish attempt to publicly heal a young girl, he was excluded and in 1928 made "outcast". Large numbers of members who supported him or who ever questioned the action of the overseers, were excommunicated. Great hardship and pain was inflicted upon many godly people for little reason. Cut off from friends, relatives and financial support, many people became physically and emotionally destitute. Cooney, in 1954, visited may of the excommunicated members in Australia, speaking to groups of outcasts in several States. He spent his last years in Australia, dying at Mildura in 1961 at the age of 93.
The exercise of authority continued to be a vexing problem. In the USA, the two overseers, George Walker and Jack Carroll, were continually at loggerheads from 1930 onwards. William Carroll, the Overseer in Victoria Australia, ruled like a feudal king. Any member under suspicion was purged. Following his death in 1953, the position of overseer was reaffirmed and strengthened. Disquiet continued at the growing move toward a centralized system of administration, but any open complaint was met with excommunication. In Australia there were three groups of excommunicated members. Those removed during the 50's (Christian Assemblies of Australia), those loyal to Edward Cooney, and those loyal to William Irvine.
Up till recent times, consolidation has been the main thrust of the church. Membership is mainly second and third generation adherents. As most members who knew of the Irish origins and the leadership squabbles have been removed, the majority of the membership actually believe the church's claim to apostolic origin and authority. Fear of excommunication guarantees the continuation of that belief and also the belief in the "Living Witness Doctrine".
Sadly, this group of obviously dedicated people bears the marks of a sectarian church - exclusiveness, Biblical eccentricity and group tyranny. The original young men and women who pioneered the work, with personal devotion and evangelistic zeal, were quickly debilitated by human frailty and theological naivete.
They gave unreasoning loyalty to their early charismatic leaders without recognizing that power corrupts. Today, all they are left with is overbearing and stifling authority.
Theological naivete caused them to stress a particular Jewish method of evangelism as though it was not only the one and only method for today, but was in itself the gospel, the way of salvation. In Israel, custom required that the prophet be cared for in the village he visited. Jesus' sending out of the disciples in this manner was in itself a messianic sign - a billboard proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is at hand. Thus, as Jesus made it clear to his disciples, they were to go to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel". Luke 22:35-36 makes it clear that this methodology is not set in concrete. Yet, to go on and stress this pattern of life as though it is the way of salvation, is to move from eccentricity to error. Salvation is not gained by doing, but by believing. Placing our trust in the Lord Jesus not only achieves our salvation, but also enables us to freely live for Christ in the power of the indwelling Spirit.
The belief that authority is given to the preached word when the preacher lives in complete reliance upon the Lord, has much to commend it. The early "Poor Preachers" believed this truth, but they went on from there. They believed that the actual doing of it gave them power and authority. Soon it was only they who had that power and authority. They then believed that the doing of it became the gospel. The gospel of grace learned from the Faith Mission was slowly replaced by a gospel of works. The power of the preached word was replaced by sectarian exclusiveness and authority. Today we are left with a quaint, but Biblically unsound church.
"The Secret Sect". Doug and Helen Parker.
Edward Cooney (in the foreground) with George Scott at Ingleburn N.S.W. Australia, 1954.
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