WHY SMALL GROUP BIBLE STUDIES
by Bob Wheeler
Today we think we know what a church is – an organization that owns a building and hires a pastor who comes in from the outside to run things. The church puts on a variety of programs and activities, and on Sunday mornings gathers together in the building to go through a formal routine which involves a brief prayer, some congregational singing and “special music,” and a message from the pastor. In the more traditional churches there might be a choir wearing special robes, responsive Scripture readings, and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or Apostles’ Creed. And then everyone goes home, enjoys their Sunday dinner, and gets on with the rest of life.
It may come a shock, therefore, that that is not how the church in the New Testament operated at all. First of all, there were no church buildings. How, then, you ask, did they gather for worship? “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart . . .” (Acts 2:46; NKJV). The primitive church apparently operated on two levels: on the one level was the entire Christian community of a given metropolitan area – the church at Corinth or Ephesus, for example – and then there were smaller groups that met in individual homes – the church that met in Priscilla’s and Aquila’s house, for example (Rom. 16:3-5; I Cor. 16:19).
Moreover, a church in the New Testament was not under the control of a single pastor, or “senior pastor.” The church was not his personal domain to govern as he wished. Rather churches in the New Testament were under the oversight of boards of elders, spiritually mature men who were chosen from within the congregation.
But must we imitate the New Testament church today? That was then, and now is now. We live in the Twenty-First Century, not the First.
The answer is yes and no. Just because something was done then does not necessarily mean it must be done now. But it must always be remembered that Christ is the Head of the church; our aim must always be to please Him. The real question, then, is how did Christ intend for the church to operate?
In answering that question we must distinguish between passages of Scripture that are prescriptive and those that are merely descriptive. Just because we are told in the Book of Acts that a church did something 2,000 years ago does not mean that we have to do that today. But the prescriptive passages, passages that command us to do something, are binding on us today. They tell us how the church is supposed to operate.
The first thing to consider, then, is the general nature of the church itself. It is not primarily a legally incorporated organization that owns property, nor is it a mere social club. Rather, it is “the communion of the saints,” a group of born-again believers bound together by the common bond of the Holy Spirit in a kind of mystical union with Christ himself. The church, in fact, is referred to in the New Testament as “the body of Christ” (Rom. 12:4-8; Eph. 4:11-16) or as a kind of building or temple (Eph. 2:19-22: I Pet. 2:5). This is a mystical bond that transcends ethic and cultural boundaries (Gal. 3:26-29). And the Scripture makes it clear that each member of the body has a spiritual gift and a corresponding role to play within the body (I Cor. 12:14-30: Eph. 4:7-16; I Pet. 4:10,11). That means that if a church is functioning properly all of its members should be actively involved in the work of ministry.
The next thing to be considered is the responsibility that the members of the church have towards each other. The most basic responsibility, of course, is to love one another, and this is mentioned in numerous passages throughout the New Testament. But what does that mean in actual practice? First of all, it means that all the members must be zealous to preserve the unity of the church (Eph. 4:1-4; Col. 3:14,15). That in turn means that decisions are to be made by consensus (Rom. 12:16; 15:5,6; I Cor. 1:10; Phil. 1:27; 2:1-4; I Pet. 3:8,9). We are to submit to each other (Eph. 5:21), and bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). We should seek to build up one another (Rom. 14:19; I Thess. 5:11).
But how is this to be accomplished? First of all, we are to admonish one another (Rom. 15:14); and pray for one another (Eph. 6:18) and with each other (Matt. 18:19,20). We are to speak to one another “in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs” ((Eph. 5:18,19; Col. 3:16). We are to provide financial aid to those in need ((Rom. 12:13; I Tim. 6:17-19; I Jn. 3:14-18), and we are to restore those overtaken in sin (Gal. 6:1).
What all of this requires is that we meet together on a regular basis. “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:24,25). And Christ himself has promised that “where two or three are gathered in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).*
What all of this virtually requires is some sort of small group interaction, in which believers have the opportunity to know each other on a personal level and interact with each other. It is also significant that most of these exhortations are addressed to entire churches, but the elders are practically never mentioned by name. The spiritual life of the church is the responsibility of all of its members and each one must do his part. In my experience the spiritually healthier churches supplement the Sunday morning service with some sort of small group interaction in which committed disciples study the Bible together and pray together. This is as Christ intended it to be.
*It is significant that He says “in My name.” It is not to be primarily in a denomination’s name ((I Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).