Cell History-Pt.2


Cell History-Pt.3

The Body Of Christ Motif

            The New Testament clearly teaches that the church is not a building or an organization. It is a living organism.  As a living organism under the headship of Christ, it’s function is spiritual as opposed to political.  In the early church, the atmosphere of the house church enriches this important concept. 

Exercise Of The Gifts

In all three of the major passages (Eph. 4; Rom. 12; I Cor. 12-14) in which Paul talks about the body of Christ, he defines each member’s part by their corresponding gifts. In fact, when Paul talks about the church as the body of Christ,  the implication is that the believers were able to participate in the exercise of their spiritual gifts. They had the opportunity to interact among  themselves.  Banks reminds us, “Paul’s communities were instead theocratic in structure. Because God gave to each individual within the community some contribution for its welfare, there is a strong democratic tendency. Everyone participates authoritatively in its activities” (1994:148).

How did everyone participate? Along with the united celebration (Acts 2:46a), we read that they also broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts (2:46b).  Paul taught the people,  not only publicly,  but also from house to house (Acts 20:20).  It is with this intimate atmosphere in mind that Paul could say, “When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction...” (I Cor. 14:26).

Looking at the effectiveness of the early church and drawing from my own personal experience, it seems that there is no  better atmosphere for the exercise of one’s giftedness than in a home group. The primary atmosphere  of the early church was the intimate character  of the home. This atmosphere of participation is being rediscovered in a fresh way through the cell group movement.  Churches are realizing that as they grow bigger, they must also grow smaller.  Only in the intimacy of a small, closely knit  group will many Christians ever be able to exercise their spiritual gift.  George reminds us that,  “Because of the intimate, accountability-inviting context of an affinity-based group, participants will readily accept the call of God that accompanies the discovery of their gifts” (1993: 136). Following the same  line of thought, Dr. Ralph Neighbour asserts,

 All are to exercise spiritual gifts to edify others. The early church did exactly that! Recognizing there cannot be total participation by every member when the gatherings are only made up of large, impersonal groups, the people of God moved from house to house in small groups. By moving among their residences, they became intimately acquainted with each person’s surroundings (Neighbour,  1990:41).  

Ministry To One Another  

The body of Christ motif also demands that we not only exercise our gifts, but that we also recognize other parts of the body, and that we are sensitive to meet  their  needs. It is this intimate sense of community in the body of Christ which the cell movement today  has recaptured (Snyder 1975:143-148).

In so many churches today, those who attend are consumers and not participants. There is the tendency to  go to a building on a special day of the week,  in order to  receive some type of ministry , at a price—the offering . The church at large has become an audience of consumers (Beckham 1995:43-45). Yet, the Scripture is filled with passages about our responsibility to minister to one another (e.g., I Thess. 5:10; 5:18). Yet, in so many large churches the ministry one to another is sadly neglected. Malphurs writes,   

How do we implement these commands and ‘each other’ passages in the church? Most people note them mentally and attempt to apply them when possible. Small group meetings and ministries provide an ideal community in which these may be implemented” (1992:216)

In fact, this idea of community might indeed be the central  contribution of Paul’s writings (Banks 1994:2). Those congregations that only stress the church service on Sunday morning do not truly experience the N.T. concept of the  body of Christ as a participating, interacting organism. John Mallison captures this point when he says,

    Small groups provide situations in which mutual ministry can take place. Only a small number can minister in a large gathering and then only in fairly superficial manner to each individual. The majority are denied an opportunity to exercise their ministry to the gathered church” (1989:10).  

George Hunter believes that Christians who attend ‘church’ without attending a small group are only experiencing ‘half’ of the Christian life:

     Many people are involved in the congregation, and are thus involved in its proclamational, sacramental, and liturgical life, but not in the cell; they therefore never experience half of what ‘church’ has to offer. Only in the church’s redemptive cells do we really know each other, and support each other, and pull for each other, and draw strength from each other, and weep with  each other, and rejoice with each other, and hold each other accountable, and identify each others gifts, and experience what it means to ‘members of one another’ (1996:48).  

The People Of God Motif  

The People of God motif is especially relevant to the cell- based church. The church is  primarily a an organism and not a building. Thomas Goslin rightly declares,   “When the early church founders spoke of churches, ecclesias, they were referring to gathered communities of believers, not buildings”(1984:2).   Elmer Towns affirms,  “In the early church it is clear that ‘church buildings’ as such did not exist until the second or third century” (Towns 1983: 257, 258).  According to Donald McGavran, archeologists find no hint of church buildings before the year AD 150 ((McGavran in Goslin 1984: ii).          

This is not to say that the early believers did not meet  to celebrate in the temple (Acts 2:46;5:20, 25, 42) and in the portico of the temple (Acts 5:12). Until persecution made such celebration events impossible, large gatherings were quite common in the life of the early church. However, it should be noted that  oftentimes today we become so caught up in maintaining our expensive buildings that we quickly forget that the church must be  primarily concerned with fulfilling  her role as a ‘called out assembly of God´s people.’ Because of the anxious concern ‘to utilize’ the expensive building, the need for more intimate, body oriented  gatherings  can sometimes be overlooked.

Some would argue that the church today is still suffering from the days of Constantine. It was in those days  that   there was a definite  transition from the home church model   to the temple based paradigm  (Hadaway, Wright, & DuBose 1987:70-72). . When the church met in the home, the dynamic of God’s chosen people was kept clear and focused. However, when the church became powerful, political, and institutionalized,  it quickly forgot its moorings. It forgot that God was more interested in developing  His people, rather than a powerful institution.


The early church offers an exciting glimpse into the power and effectiveness of small group ministry. The atmosphere and nature of home meetings brought out the best in Christian community and fellowship. However, persecution made home meetings mandatory during those initial years. When  Christianity became the state religion during the days of Constantine, large, sacred buildings became more esteemed than intimate  home fellowships (Plueddemann 1990:4). From the historical data, it seems that these developments had an immediate negative impact on the church of Jesus Christ.  

The Demise Of The House Church  

            Most historians point to Constantine to  mark the major  transition from intimate home fellowships to  impersonal church buildings. It was during his reign that the church became legitimate in the eyes of the world. The immediate, negative effect of this change was the demise of the house church. David Tan writes,

     The house or community church remained the normative form of church life up until the time of Constantine (c.274/280 to 337). He was the first Christian emperor of Rome. From that time on church buildings (basilicas, chapels, etc.) began to replace the community church (1994:43).  

Yet, even before Constantine came to power, there seems to have been certain factors that were working behind the scenes. One of those factors was the development of a distinction between the clergy and the laity.   

Distinction Between Clergy And Laity  

This distinction was a gradual one that  became a factor early on due to the earnest desire to discern between the true church and teaching of Jesus Christ  in the midst of falsity and deception.  

The Need For Authority  

In the face of sects and false doctrines, there arose a growing need to point to the true,  visible Church.  At a  time  when the body of Scripture was still emerging and the consensus was by no means unanimous, many voices were clamoring for authority. Gnosticism and similar religions were making widespread headway. It seemed clear to many that the only way to distinction between the true church and the false one was through the actual  physical representatives of the apostles. In other words, the way  to distinction the true church from the false one was to establish apostolic succession.  

Apostolic Succession  

Apostolic succession became a quest to determine who were the direct disciples of Jesus Christ. That is, it was an attempt to point out  the disciples of the apostles themselves up until the  present time.  If this could be shown, then it was thought that the ever-spreading heresies would be stopped. 

In the first quarter of the second century, the case for apostolic succession is made very clearly by Irenaeus, an early church father (Latourette 1975:131). Latourette points out,  

He insisted that the apostles had transmitted faithfully and accurately what had been taught them by Christ and had not, as the heretics asserted, intermingled with them extraneous ideas. He was emphatic that the apostles had appointed as successors bishops to whom they had committed the churches….These bishops had been followed by others in unbroken line who were also guardians and guarantors of the apostolic teaching. He hints that he could, if there were space, give the lists of the bishops of all the churches, but he singles out that of the Church of Rome,… (1975:131)  

Irenaeus mentioned that he could point out the list of bishops from Christ to the present, if he chose to do so. A  number of other early church fathers went beyond Irenaeus and actually attempted to establish such a link between  the original apostles and the current leadership. [1]  

A Widening Gap  

It’s understandable that the early church leadership wanted desperately to establish a barricade, a fortress of protection against the onslaught of Gnosticism and other heresies. At the same time, the result of their efforts was the establishment of a concrete wall that separated the ordinary lay person from the holy line of  the bishops. This wall became wider and more fortified until the time of the reformation when the reaction was so great that the voices of protest were finally heard.

By the third century,  this line of succession along with the distinct   church offices had become quite developed in the church. [2] In  major cities, bishops began to grow  in power, evolving into patriarchs and popes. Their  word became the  Word of God. It was they who established correct doctrine and condemned those who did not agree. [3] This wall of distinction between laity and clergy is noted by Paul Johnson in his work, A History of Christianity,

   It [Christianity] had also acquired many of the external characteristics appropriate to its new status: official rank and privilege,... elaborate ceremonial designed to attract the masses and emphasize the separateness of the priestly caste (1976:103).  

The ministry of service which was so typified by Christ Himself began to develop into a profession. Although leaders like Tertullian protested vehemently against these hardened structures, their voices were drowned out (Johnson 1976:80,81).

            By the time of Cyprian (fifty years after Tertullian),  one can notice the  distinct shift from the bishop as a servant-shepherd of God’s flock to an administrative ruler (Mayer 1976:296). Mayer writes, “What emerges in the people’s mind is the picture of an administratively strong pastor upon whom in many real ways their future hopes depend” (1976:296).  

Inadequate Ministry Structure  

It is not that Cyprian and other church fathers like him had lost their  vision for the church or had stopped following Jesus Christ. Rather, there seems to be a change in the care structure that ultimately helped strengthen the separation between the laity and the clergy.  Mayer notes, “…as the congregations grow larger and the intimate supportive relationships of the smaller groups disappear, the nature of Christian charitable work changes…(1976:297).

When the house church structure was functioning properly, there was liberty for the laity to minister. The priesthood of all believers was in full force and the needs of the church were being met. When the distinction between clergy and laity became too strong, a great vacuum  was created. It was because of this artificial vacuum that Tertullian ended up becoming a Montanist. Johnson  correctly sums up Tertullian’s frustration,

In his orthodox days, Tertullian had attacked the Montanist—type heretics because ‘they endow even the laity with the functions of the priesthood.’ Now, having denied the penitential power, he became a Montanist himself….He appealed to the ‘priesthood of all believers’ against the ‘usurped’ rights of particular office-holders, unspiritual ‘lordship’, the ‘tyranny’ of the clerics. Even a woman, if she spoke with the spirit, had more authority in this sense that the greatest bishop (1980:81).  

In many ways, persecution was a blessing in disguise. It helped to place  the ministry in the hands of the laity. Although it didn’t prevent the ‘succession’ philosophy from spreading, it did help stem the tide.  

Centralized Ministry Versus Decentralized  

The frustration felt by Tertullian and others like him went largely unheeded. In fact, the gap  between the laity and the clergy continued to increase. William Brown writes about that time period saying,

  …the reversion to an ‘official’ priesthood or ministry…cast the laity chiefly into the ‘role of hearers of the Law and spectators of the mysterious tableau of the sacrifices. This passive role in worship became once more the normal experience of the people of God as the church developed (1992:37).  

The spontaneity that was once so present in the local  house church began to come under stricter control of the elected bishops (Rosell 1995:Tape 5).

It seems that when the priesthood of all believers is not esteemed and practiced, small group ministry usually dies out. Strong centralization which fears the ministry of lay people normally throws cold water on the flames of cell ministry. The word that perhaps best captures the true meaning of this type of ministry is ‘decentralization’.                     

Decentralization means that ministry is taken out of the hands of a ‘chosen few’ and placed in the hands of the laity.  No one is allowed to sit passively. Everyone must be involved. Like in the early church when the house groups began to grow and multiply,   there was a constant need for  new leaders, interns,  song leaders, witnessing teams, etc. In other words, the responsibility has to be shared among many people  (Hadaway, Wright, DuBose 1987:171). 

It seems that during the period of 250-450 AD,  the tendency was toward centralization in the hands of a few instead of decentralization in the hands of many.  

Lessons  For Present Day Ministry  

The deadening of the early church due to an unhealthy distinction between laity and clergy should be a constant warning to the church today. I believe that there is a built in tendency for us to place the ministry in the hands of a few,  instead of allowing the  laity to do the work of the ministry (Ephesians 4:11,12)  

The Need To Utilize The Laity

The ‘unemployment’ of the laity is a  very serious  issue that is facing the church  today.  The typical teaching and preaching ministry on Sunday morning  does not involve enough lay people.  Only very ‘gifted’ and ‘highly educated’ people are allowed to use their gifts.  The Western church has in many ways  contributed to the widening gap between lay people and clergy. Hadaway  writes,

    “The clergy-dominated Christianity of the Western world has widened the gap between clergy and laity in the body of Christ. This division of labor, authority, and prestige is common when a professional clergy exists (Hadaway, Wright, and DuBose 1987:203).  

To correct this problem, it seems to me that we need to be constantly reminded that it’s okay to take risks with lay leadership, even to the point of allowing them to fail in their initial attempts.  

The Need To Take Risks With Lay Leadership

I have  heard on more than one occasion  about the dangers of allowing lay leaders to do the work of the ministry through the cell  groups. And yes, there are very real dangers involved. 

Yet,  examining  the  ministry of Paul, the apostle, one discovers that Paul was willing to take risks.  As Paul evangelized the then known world, he trusted in the Holy Spirit to guide and direct  the new lay leadership  (Allen 1962: 84-94).  I believe that God calls upon us to do the same.   I have found, along with  many others,  that  leading a cell group is an excellent way to  give the laity ‘hands on experience’ (Malphurs 1992:217).

If cells are going to multiply rapidly,  new leaders must be constantly sought and released. It seems to me that this is the key. Paul Cho agrees. He was recently asked by Larry Kreider why the cell church concept had not experienced the same, exciting fruit in America as it has  in Korea.  Without hesitating Cho said that the problem here in America is that pastors are not willing to release their lay people for ministry. [4]  

The Legalization Of Christianity  

Besides the huge gap that developed between clergy and laity, the other factor that contributed to the demise of the house church was the sudden legalization of Christianity. Because of the incredible conversion of the emperor Constantine, a new chapter in the history of Christianity was opened for the persecuted  church (Latourette 1975:91).  Christianity was suddenly acknowledged and accepted as the state religion. Christians could now worship in public places.

It’s amazing to think that just 250 years before, many did not know of this little religion. Now the Christians are received with pomp and honor.  Christians in Rome in 250 AD might have been 30,000. By 340 AD  Christianity had grown to some 340,000 (Harnack quoted in Rosell 1995: Tape 8). For the first time in history, it was advantage to be a Christian.  

Ornate Structures Replace Simple Ones  

The  initial surge of church building began to take place  between 250-300 AD. Christians were willing to undergo  much personal sacrifice and hard labor in order to erect  huge, ornate church buildings. It was surmised that a holy, sacred God is worthy of a fabulous, magnificent  temple.  Large basilicas gradually  began to dot the landscape.  

Laxity Leads Toward Secularism  

With the sudden freedom to legally be a Christian and with the great influx of undiscipled people joining the church, a certain complacency and  tendency toward secularism began to develop. Prior to Constantine, Christians lived in a hostile world. They were threatened with death. They were on their toes continually. Martyrdom purified the church. To many it was the ultimate test. When Constantine came, everything changed so suddenly. Laxity developed in the church.  This laxity did not go unnoticed. Paul Johnson writes,

     In the second half of the fourth century, for the first time, we get hints of public complaints against the wealth of Christian clergy and the splendour of its buildings.  Some Christian writers took note: ‘Our walls glitter with gold’, wrote Jermoe, ‘and gold gleams upon our ceilings and the capitals of our pillars; yet Christ is dying at our doors in the person of his poor, naked and hungry” (1976:79).

When the church ceases to struggle against the world, something is desperately wrong. Yet, in the midst of  this spiritual dearth, it seems that small group structures filled some of the void.  

Small Groups Among the Clergy  

            Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (339-397 AD) lived during the time when it was acceptable to be a Christian. People were permitted to join the church legally, and therefore the churches received a great influx of people. Although there is no record that small group structures were established to care for the burgeoning needs of these growing congregations, we do know that Ambrose and his colleagues resorted to small groups to fill their own spiritual needs. Mayer writes, “Ambrose and his clergy associates continued to draw much of their own Christian strength from small group associations. Assistant  clergy gathered around Ambrose and this group ministered the gospel of Jesus Christ to each other” (1976:298).

Apparently, quite a number of the early church fathers found a tremendous amount of strength in small community interaction. Mayer writes, “This was the common pattern for centuries: the real strength and vitality of the church lay in the small groups of clergy gathered around a cathedral and the bishop or in the small group of monks gathered around a strong and influential leader” (1976:298). One person who was significantly influenced by small groups was  St. Augustine of Hippo. Again and again, Augustine writes about the powerful impact that small groups had on his life ( Mayer  1976:298).  

The Rise Of Monastic Orders  

Latourette explains the context of monasticism,

   It was partially as a reaction against this laxity and partly because of the dissatisfaction which the teachings of Jesus and the apostles aroused with anything short of perfection that monasticism arose…To some degree it was a rebellion of the individual against the organization of the Catholic Church, regimented as that was under the bishops and clergy (1975:223).  

Obviously there were a number of reasons. However, whatever the case, we know that from 300 to 700 AD many monasteries appeared.  

From Isolation To Community  

The  call and attraction of the desert demanded a  more radical obedience. Many solitaries were drawn to the  Judean wilderness. Scores of monasteries occupying 1000's of missionaries rose up over the dessert of Palestine. In the beginning, many of these zealous reformers were hermits. They kept entirely to themselves. However, the balance between individual isolation and Christian community began to occur. Brown writes,

…gradually some of these hermits discovered that if they grouped together in small communities they experienced spiritual as well as practical benefits. In time many of the features of the Christian community in Acts 2 were reincorporated into monastic life, and yet there was still a separation from the people (1992:37).   

At first this movement developed quite apart from the clergy dominated Catholic church. In fact, it was looked down upon by those in authority. Yet, the end of the fifth century, monasticism had become so extensive that it became characteristic of the Catholic church (Latourette 1975:222).  

Evangelistic Emphasis  

For many people, the terms monasticism and evangelism are contradictions. And yes, many forms and expressions of monasticism confirm that suspicion. However, for the most part, the monks have filled the role as  missionaries of the Catholic church. Small groups of monks were sent out as evangelistic teams. These small bands of dedicated monks  were small, well-disciplined, and closely bound to the other communities of their order (to receive prayer and support). 

Monastic Evangelism In Ireland  

In Ireland, it appears that the entire church  was organized around the monastery. Since Patrick, the Briton, went to Ireland around 388 AD, Ireland seems to have been the ‘bastion of learning and Christianity’ (Pierson 1989:9).  One of the outstanding features of the monastic emphasis in Ireland was that as the monks migrated to other countries, they zealously spread the Christian faith (Pierson 1989:10).  

Monastic Evangelism In England  

Celtic Christianity flourished and grew through the efforts of the great Celtic evangelists and missionaries like Aidan, Brendan, Columba, and Patrick (probably the most famous and revered of all Christian saints). Churches and monasteries were established throughout Ireland, Wales, and Scotland -- the most renowned  being at Iona and Lindisfarne. The Celtic missionary movement probably began with Columba in 563 when he went to Iona with 12 helpers (Hardinge quoted in Pierson 1989:10). Speaking of the inner drive that motivated these Celtic missionaries Hardinge writes,

Individual response to a divinely placed inner drive to spread their faith, singly or in groups, impelled Celtic missionaries to go forth. Without credentials or material support, self-reliant and trust in God they accomplished more than their numbers would warrant. Spontaneity, lack of traditionalism, and individuality were the features of this movement (Hardinge quoted in Pierson 1989:10).  

In 596 AD Gregory the great (bishop of Rome at the time) sent the monk Augustine and 40 companions to England. Gregory felt that England should be converted. Through this missionary band some 10,000 people were converted and the church was established (Rosell 1995: Tape 13).  Concerning this Roman  mission to England,  Latourettes notes, “While…it did not win as many converts as did the Irish, it effectively forged a connection between the Church in England with the Papacy which was not to be severed until the sixteenth century…(1975:346).   

Monastic Evangelism To The Rest Of The Continent  

Using the same small group strategy, Columban and twelve companions went to Gaul around 590. They preached and taught, living and toiling with any who shared hospitality with them (Hardinge quoted in Pierson 1989:11).

Waves of  these small bands of missionaries were sent out all over the continent. A community of monks(10-12) would settle in a non-Christian area in Europe and establish a Christian church. They would preach and congregate those converted. They would teach those converts. Once they had established the church they would leave to  go to another part of Europe. It was a marvelous missionary strategy.  

Small Groups In The Middle Ages  

            By the year 1250 AD, the Gothic cathedral had achieved the pinnacle of its success and popularity. Ironically, the catacombs which at one time hosted the early persecuted Christians were now bought by the Roman Catholic hierarchies. Ornate churches were now built upon these meeting places (Tan 1994:44). One could argue that the outward church began to be identified with a building instead of a community of God’s people.  

Monastic Small Groups Continue  

            Yet, as Elijah discovered, God always has His  remnant.  That remnant continued to be seem in monasticism in the middle ages. Under the direction of Berno, in about 950 AD, the monastery at Cluny experienced a revival. From that one monastery about 300 monasteries sprang forth. Latourette notes  that at Cluny along with the larger monastery structure, “…there were still more smaller groups, cellae, ‘cells,’ affiliated with the larger units” (1975:418). Although Latourette does not go into detail concerning the purpose or function of these cells, the general impression is made that the Cluny movement experimented with small group structures.

From 950 AD to 1350 AD, men such as Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi, and Dominic entered the scene.  These men were dedicated saints who followed hard after God, as they understood Him. From my knowledge, these men don’t stand out as having pushed the  small group structure to new heights and depths. We do know that  dynamic believers like St. Francis of Assisi did meet regularly with other like minded believers in small groups for prayer and study (Brown 1992:37).  

Sectarian Groups Emphasize Small Group Structure  

There were also various sectarian groups who were not favored by the Roman structure. Like the early church under persecution, these groups were forced to meet in small groups in order to survive. Our information about these groups is limited due to the awful persecution against them.

  One of the more Scriptural groups was known as the Waldensians. Founded by Peter Waldo in 1176 AD,  this group continued to preach the gospel even after being excommunicated by the Catholic church. Driven by the New Testament ideal, they began to preach against the abuses and non-Scriptural practices in the Catholic church (Latourette 1975:452, 453).

It seems that small group meetings played an important part among the Waldensians.  Tan writes, “…the Waldensians met for simplified worship and fellowship in their homes” (1994:45). Because the Roman church branded the Waldensians as heretics,  they were forced to go completely underground and were practically crushed (Latourette 1975:453).

            Under the heavy hand of Rome, other such groups sprang up, desiring a more New Testament lifestyle. For example, there was a group called the Unitas Fratrum. Again Tan says, “In Czechoslovakia, just before the Reformation, the Unitas Fratrum assembled in homes to hear the teachings of Peter Chelicky around the 1400s (1994:45). Other examples such as the Lollards and Hussites could also be cited. [5] Yet, it wasn’t until after the reformation that the small group as a tool for discipleship and evangelism came of age.   

An Examination of Small Groups Before the Reformation  

As one examines the types of small groups before the reformation and the priority given to these  structures,  a mixed message often comes across. On one hand, many of the principles of small group life are clearly there. On the other hand, there are many dissimilarities.

Obviously, my point of comparison is biased. My knowledge of small group ministry is founded not only upon my own personal experience, but also upon what is happening in the small group movement today. Yet, because I have no other yardstick, and because of my desire to draw out application from those historic examples, I will endeavor  to compare the similarities and differences of  small group ministry today with what took place before the reformation.  

Small groups in Monasticism  

            For the most part, Monasticism was a purifying element to the Roman Catholic Church, as well as a powerful evangelistic outreach. To what extent, these monks were motivated by a quest for personal perfection or from a grateful heart due to the finished work of Jesus Christ, remains to be seen.  Yet, what were the similarities and differences between small group ministry back then and today?  

Similarities Among Small Groups  

The study of monasticism is complex.  There is a dizzying array of orders and reasons for existence. Not all  of the small groups found in monasticism are applicable to this study. However, I have noted  at least two small group values that were very prominent in the monastic small groups.  

Sense Of Community

Apart from some of the more radical, legalistic orders, it seems that much of monasticism treasured and promoted community among the brethren (or sisters). The small group structure was utilized to promote this type of Christian community and brotherly relationship. In this sense, the monastic movement follows in the same  vein of the small group movement today—a strong emphasis on community and relationships.

It also should be noted that monasticism fulfilled a prophetic role in a day and age when the Christianity had lost much of its meaning and intimacy. Monasticism arose because of a  growing awareness that the Cathedral style of  Christianity could not satisfy the God-given drive for a deeper, more personal relationship.

How true this is of  small group movement today. For many, the church has become top heavy with programs. Pastors and lay people find themselves incredibly busy, but there is a growing uneasiness that the true purpose of the Church has been lost somewhere. For this reason, there is a renewed vision and quest for cell-based ministry. Small group ministry enables the church to meet face to face in intimate fellowship—much like the early house movement.  

Evangelistic Effectiveness

Certain similarities can  also be seen in the evangelistic emphasis. In this tutorial, I analyzed in some detail, the small group missionary method that was so successfully utilized in monasticism.

Like the missionary bands in the monastic period, so also missionary bands are becoming a  common feature of the cell church today. For example, Bethany World Prayer Center in Baker, Louisiana is using their 300+ cell groups for the cause of world mission. This summer (1996), they  will send six teams of cell leaders for three week, on site visits to their unreached people groups (Ministries Today  July, 1996: 38). At Bethany’s conference I heard about one cell church in Singapore which is sending 140 cell groups (with all of their cell members) to unreached people groups. [6] The ultimate goal of Bethany World Prayer Center is to send cells to  plant churches among unreached people groups.  

Differences Among Small Groups  

On the other hand, there is quite a bit of dissimilarity between the two movements.  

Emphasis On Asceticism  

Although small group structures might have been utilized in fulfilling their particular purposes, these structures would have very little to do with present day models. For example, various monastic orders emphasized total silence or harsh asceticism---abstinence from some things normally  considered good (e.g., marriage, family, sleep, etc.). Motivated by the example of the rich young ruler (Matthew 19:16-29), normal everyday activity was replaced by the practice of rigorous spiritual discipline such as  fasting and prayer  (Rosell 1995: Tape 12).

It also should be noted that oftentimes the monastic lifestyle was an attempt at saving one’s soul through the denial of the body’s entanglements and the pursuit of Christian perfection (Rosell 1995:Tape 12). Obviously, only the most holy and committed would undertake such harsh discipline. [7] These motivations and values have very little to do with small group structure today.  

Absence Of The Family  

Another key difference in my mind is the absence of the family unit in the monastic small group. Plueddemann notes, “…unlike the house churches, monasticism had no room for the family, Christian instruction in homes continued, but it no longer had an integral connection with church life" (1990:6). In other words, there was imbalance in the small group. The family atmosphere that permeated the New Testament house church was largely absent in the monastic movement.  

Closed Community

            Small Groups in monasticism never really bridged the gap between the clergy and the laity. In other words, those who joined the monastic orders were considered different from the normal lay person. It seems that there were three classes of people: the priest (clergy), the saint (monk), and the lay person.  The sacrifices of celibacy and ascetic denial were far too great  for the majority of the laity to make.

In contrast the small group movement today, seeks to involve everyone—from minister to those sitting in the pew.  

Congregational Size Groups  

I also found it difficult to compare monasticism with the small group movement today because of the size of the monastic small group. One can talk about community, relationships, discipleship, and evangelism among the monastic community, but we are really talking about these characteristics on a congregational level as opposed to a small group level.

It is true that some of the missionary bands were comprised of smaller groups, but the smaller groups seemed to be the exception rather than the rule. Really, these monastic communities were individual congregations which worshipped as churches, while at the same time maintaining the broader connection with the Roman Catholic Church.



[1] Many of the early church fathers (e.g., Cyprian) made extensive lists that supposedly connected the bishops at that time to the Peter himself.

[2] Most of the background material used in this chapter were derived from the lectures of Dr. Rosell. I took a correspondence course in 1995 from Columbia International University  in which Dr. Rosell, Ph.D.., was the lecturer. This course covered  the time period from the birth of the church to the Reformation.

[3] A case in point is the Donatist & Novatian schisms. As I’ve studied church history, it always amazes me how seemingly minor differences could result in severe excommunication and possibly even death.

[4] Larry Kreider is the author of House to House (Touch, 1995). He referred to this conversation with Cho during his panel discussion at the Post Denominational seminar on May 22, 1996. Cho reportedly made this comment several year earlier.  

[5] These groups were a persecuted minority, so I assume that they were forced to meet in small groups. However, I lack any information which states that small group meetings were a highlight of these two movements.

[6] I heard this comment during  Bethany’s annual Cell Conference which I attended in June, 1996.

[7] In certain monasteries, they would only eat once a day and bath twice a year (Rosell 1995: Tape 12).



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