Proscriptive Principles of Small Groups

In the previous posts, it was proposed that the paradigm of small assemblies from the early church was still applicable today. Further, there has been no other prototype given in biblical revelation that replaced that paradigm for Christian gatherings. That limited size structure is what properly supports the growth of each believer in all required ways. It effectively disavows the need for cookie cutter approaches.

Any assumptions that contemporary social science has developed new or even superior paradigms that make biblical paradigms less sufficient or outdated would in effect propose that the Scriptures are incomplete, insufficient, in need of help, or all three. That is simply not part of our system of beliefs.

So, are small groups the answer to the apparent insufficiency of mass Sunday assemblies in supporting biblical Christian growth and need for interpersonal connection? I would have to answer with the proverbial yes and no.

What, you say? All this palaver to take the fifth? Well, not quite…

Small groups have much to offer any sized church. They provide an intimate fellowship structure that is solidly Christian and with legitimate biblical oversight. That is no small contribution. They allow a membership that is (hopefully) voluntary and therefor can reflect individual preference. However, does this fulfill that same need as the fellowship of the regular assembly, where everyone knows one another? I would say no.

The church in the present age often seems about growth, growth and more growth. That is understandable to sustain building, staff, programs and other infrastructure. But that is not what the local church is about. The result can be a local church where people are there by alone. And the bigger the church, the bigger the issue. The solution given is small groups. My point is that they are not the solution and they are definitely not a reflection of the early church. The local church as a mega institution does not reflect the church of the Bible.

The church assembly is not present in Bible as scalable. Once it gets beyond a couple of hundred members there is no possibility for biblical  church fellowship and a Christian family relationship among the members and adherents. Splitting into small groups just yields a fragmented set of groups.

I would propose that the church should always divide once it has reached the point where members can know most other members, and where the care of the membership requires a staff infrastructure. Saying that small groups make it possible to provide the early church environment while having many hundreds or thousand of members is simply untrue even if it supports the organization.


Are Small Groups Biblical?

The contemporary church (irrespective of denomination) has seen a legitimate need to minister to individuals outside of the usual Sunday Service and Sunday Schools. This comes from a realization that a mass gathering does not often reflect the mentoring requirements for individual Christian growth and accountability. The Bible makes clear that we are to study the scripture and be accountable in community (for example Acts 17:11). But a large group can easily stifle more intimate sharing and questioning.

In our time, this rational for smaller group mentoring and fellowship has often been unconsciously melded with the theories and assumptions of secular and New Age psychology surrounding personal growth, self esteem, group dynamics and the individual entitlement of man. Not that these areas of study do not yield results for society, but they are frequently not based upon biblical principles and make very different assumptions about the status of man in creation. They are, at their root, completely at odds with Biblical values based upon the absolute sovereignty of God.

Secular values are predominantly post-modern. They have a relative value structure, assuming that all truth is relative (either socially or individually), and that every individual is entitled to self-drive actualization. Many congregants operate unconsciously from a mindset which selectively uses these values, with each set given almost equal weight or the post-modern more weight.

This is completely at odds with the Biblical truth of a sovereign God, His absolute universal laws, and individual responsibility to precepts beyond individual entitlement of any sort.

Put more practically (and to use the biblical analogy of Isaiah 29:16 very loosely), society see the clay as entitled to a hearing and compliance from the potter, while the biblical truth of creation is precisely the opposite. with the potter having completely independent and sovereign control over the clay, owing it nothing whatsoever (Isaiah 64:8, Jeremiah 18:4).

Why does this matter? It matters because the view point that current small group ministry grows from determines whether it can fill the need that the formal church does not, that of the smaller integrated fellowship described in the early church (see Gathering in the Beloved).

So, we have something of a quandary. Does the present small group structure in most churches address the Biblical proscription modeled in the early church gatherings – one based on wholly biblical precepts?

Let me also close this post by pointing out that this discussion does not discount the many wonderful benefits of fellowship in current groups. The question is whether they address the biblical model and any regulative principle that it implies, since all biblical principles are by definition important.


Gathering in the Beloved

Let us start with biblical prototypes for believer interaction.

“…be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” Ephesians 5:18-19. There is no indication at all that this is culturally or time period relative. It is a time independent prototype.

In Colossians 3:16 we have method. As we gather “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”

And in Hebrews 10:24-25, motivation to gather regularly. “…let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

Thus, we have believers exhorted to gather together regularly, to study and speak of the Word, to exhort and support one another in holiness, while thankfully (and by implication humbly) rejoicing in Psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.

The disciples modeled this in their behaviour once they were on their own, after Pentecost.

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Acts 2:42

“Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,” Acts 2:46.

It is significant to note the “Day by day continuing” phrase. This was not something occurring only periodically, be that weekly or monthly. It was a daily mode of living the believing life.

Putting this prototypical model together, what do we have and what happens when we follow this paradigm? As an aside, we should take note that, although church is vitally important, this does not sound anything like many, if not most, church services – an issue for another blogging day.

A key here is that the focus and feeling of these gatherings centered around a humble thankfulness in salvation, and the upon the Lord, through the primary means he specified, scripture. This may have taken several forms and many possible expressions, but the focus was on Him and His Word.

It is useful to note what the focus was not on. It was not on ‘activities’ outside of praise, worship and directly associated fellowship. It was not on the work of the assembly in the community. It was not that this work did not exist or was not important, but it played no apparent part in the assembling. That work was external to and a result of  it. For example, there was no focus on the men who were helping the widows. In fact, it appears from the necessity of their appointment that they were appointed so that work would not be disruptive to the gathering in the Lord’s name. “Then we can appoint those men over this business, and we apostles will continue to devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Acts 6:4

The sole reason for the beloved to gather was to fellowship in rejoicing in the Lord and His work of salvation. All part of gathering were an expression of that rejoicing. And this was a daily way of life, which would result in that mindset overshadowing all other worldly activities. It was their worldview¹.

Considering what the Lord has done, especially in salvation, rejoicing in Him in a way that eclipses all else would seem only appropriate. But here we see that path modeled explicitly.

So, how about us in the 21st century? I don’t see that anything has changed much or at all. Yes, life has become cluttered with countless distractions of the world, and as with the early church world it would have us believe that this clutter is of over-riding importance. But remember who the world represents and to whose ends this worldly emphasis contributes – none other than the Prince of the Air, Satan (Ephesians 2:2). And the Scriptures have not changed. There has not been any new revelation that changes the prototypes as given in the existing canon.

The implication is that we and our earthly brethren are to follow suit in our focus. Our worldview is to be centered on the Lord.

The resultant experience, though mine has been tiny and sporatic, is wonderful, humbling and convicting even on a small, tentative scale. The gatherings in this model that I have experienced can only be expressed in the words of David in Psalm 139:6 “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it.” The humble thankfulness and joy of such gathering with other believers is just too wonderful to be truly take in. And that, I think, is how it is intended to be.

¹For more on worldview, see Naming the Elephant, Worldview as a concept, 2ed., James W. Shire.