Question: "Who are the Two by Twos and the Cooneyites, and what do they believe?"
Answer: The “Two by Twos” are a religious group founded about 1897 by Scotsman William Irvine. They have always held beliefs in opposition to sound doctrine, as have their theological cousins, the Cooneyites.
Originally, Irvine had been sent to County Tipperary, Ireland, by the evangelical Faith Mission, but after Irvine told his new converts to separate themselves entirely from the world, the Faith Mission disassociated itself from him. Irvine believed, based on Mark 6:7, that disciples of Jesus should go out in pairs, preaching as the first disciples did, and that they should not have any material possessions other than one change of clothes (Matthew 10:9–10). Believing they were the only people who were following the right path of making disciples, Irvine’s followers came to the conclusion their denomination should have no name. Thus, outsiders came up with their own names for them: Two by Twos, the No-Name Church, Go-Preachers, Tramp Preachers, Christians Anonymous, Irvinites, Friends and Workers, and other names.
Those who followed Irvine sold all that they had to support him, believing him to be the Prophet predicted in Deuteronomy 18:18–19. Irvine then demanded that all his followers become homeless ministers and go forth to preach in pairs. A man named Edward Cooney sold his stake in a family business and became an itinerant “tramp preacher.” Cooney’s sermons were provocative and hostile toward existing churches, as he proclaimed that members of all other churches were doomed to hell, and he denounced all ministers who received a stipend or any form of financial support.
Both Irvine and Cooney were eventually expelled from the group by later leadership. Both had their faithful followers, however. Irvine’s supporters are called the “Little Ones” or the “Message People” today. Cooney’s supporters remained faithful to what they believed to be the original tenets of the faith. Today, the term Cooneyites refers to those members who continue to follow Cooney’s version of Irvine’s doctrine.
In order to conduct official business, the Two by Twos register names including “Christian Conventions” (U.S.), “Assemblies of Christians” (Canada), “The Testimony of Jesus” (U.K.), and “United Christian Conventions” (Australia). However, most members do not associate a formal name with the church, referring to it as “The Truth,” “The Way,” “The Jesus Way,” or “The Lowly Way.” They meet weekly in homes and do not have any church buildings. Since there are no official records for this secretive group, membership numbers can only be estimated. Depending on the source, worldwide membership in the Two by Twos ranges from 80,000 to around 400,000.
The Two by Twos do not publish doctrinal statements or any literature except a hymn book. They use only the King James Bible in their services. Here are some of their core teachings:
The Two by Twos are anti-Trinitarian. The Holy Spirit is perceived as an attitude or force from God. Jesus is a fully human figure who came to earth to establish a way of ministry and salvation, but He is not God Himself. The Two by Twos believe that Jesus overcame His own flesh. Great stress is laid upon following the example of Jesus but less emphasis on Jesus as Savior—Jesus’ life is more important than His death. The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit is a Person of the Godhead (John 16:8) and that Jesus is not just a good example but is the One in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
The Two by Twos and Cooneyites teach that their workers are God’s direct apostles today. Their word is as authoritative as the Bible. Followers of these “apostles” do not share the message themselves with others; their task is to bring people to the “gospel meetings” and so hear the “truth” preached firsthand from a worker/apostle. In contrast, the Bible teaches that there were twelve apostles (Revelation 21:14) who completed their mission in the first century. No one today can claim that his own extemporaneous speech is directly from God.
The Two by Twos and Cooneyites teach that salvation must be earned. A person must be baptized, uphold the group’s standards, faithfully follow “the way,” and maintain personal worthiness. Salvation is determined at death, is conditional upon works, and is therefore not secure. Sanctification comes before justification. The Bible, in contrast, teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, apart from our own works (Ephesians 2:8–9).
The Two by Twos and Cooneyites reject biblical doctrines of predestination, original sin, justification by faith alone, and Christ’s redemption as the sole basis of salvation. Further, the Two by Twos and the Cooneyites are extremely exclusive. Only they represent the direct historical continuation of the New Testament church. All other churches and ministries are false, according to the Two by Twos. Salvation is only obtainable through them. The Word of God (the KJV Bible) can only be effective for salvation if it is heard straight from the mouth of a Cooneyite preacher. No one can experience the new birth without the human agency of their own preachers. Anyone baptized by any other church must be re-baptized by a Cooneyite.
As sincere and forceful as the Two by Twos are, and for all that their “tramp preachers” have sacrificed, they promote a false gospel and lead unsuspecting people astray. The Two by Twos and Cooneyites exhibit many marks of a cult, including their denial of core Christian doctrine, their insistence that they alone have “the truth,” and their teaching that salvation depends upon being faithful to their leaders.