Cell History-Pt.3


Cell History-Pt.4

Small Groups Among Other Pre-Reformation Movements 

            In this category, I lack information to compare adequately. Such groups as the Waldensians, the Lollards  undoubtedly used small groups, but the information about their small groups is lacking.  

Summary of Examination  

From this brief study of  pre-reformation small groups, it seems clear that certain small group components or characteristics were actively present in the small group movement before the reformation. Small Group evangelism and small group community were important characteristics of the monastic motif, as well as some of the later pre-reformation groups.

At the same time, any meaningful comparison between small groups then and now is limited due to contextual, religious, social, and historic differences. Monastic structures were more congregational in size, anti-family in practice, and legalistic in conviction. Yet, the monastic movement was God’s reforming voice to an increasingly top heavy church which tended to separate the clergy from the laity


            Before focusing on   small groups during the reformation period, it’s essential to provide a few details about the reformation itself.  As has been noted earlier, there were many cultural, political, and religious factors that shaped the march of Christ’s church from those initial house meetings to the sixteenth century.  For various reasons, that  initial lay-oriented small group movement had turned into a top heavy  clergy who dominated the affairs of its followers. Yet the winds of change began to blow.  J. Edwin Orr comments,

Just before the fifteenth century something started to change the church. It resulted in a progression of spiritual awakenings in which small groups either spearheaded, became strong catalysts or, or followed as nurturing environments to revivals (quoted in Plueddemann 1990:6).  

These small group awakenings renewed the cry in the hearts of so many for  a return to the  priesthood of all believers, for the authority of Scripture, and for holiness of living. The voices of change which in earlier years were blocked out,  could no longer be silenced. Probably the best way to describe their  cry is to compare the protests of the three major pre-reformation movements.  

Pre-Reformation Protests  

It’s amazing to note how similar  their  cries were. The Waldensians (Peter Waldo) the Lollards (John Wycliffe), and the Hussites (John Hus) all had almost identical concerns about the religious structures  of their day.  The following table gives an overview of the teaching of these movements:  



(Adapted from Latourette 1975:451-453;662-669)  







1.     Conformity to the New Testament

2.     Commitment to the vernacular

3.     The church of Rome was corrupt

4.     The pope was not the head of the church

5.     Masses and prayers for the dead were without warrant

6.     Women could minister

7.     Sacraments admin-istered by unworthy priests were invalid

8.     Laymen could administer the Eucharist

9.     Developed their own training of lay clergy

1.     Popes can err and that a worldly pope is a heretic

2.     The true church is made up of those elected by God; No visible church can control entrance or exclude membership

3.     Popes nor bishops can know who the members of the true church are

4.     Salvation does not depend upon connection with the church

5.     Every elected person is a priest

6.     Condemned the cult of the saints, relics, pilgrimages

7.     Attacked transubstantiation

8.     Layman might officiate in the Eucharist

9.     Repudiated indulgences

10. Repudiated masses for the dead

11. Translated the Bible from the Vulgate into the vernacular

1.     Denounced evils of the church

2.     Christ and not Peter was the foundation of the church

3.     Many popes were heretics and could err

4.     Desired moral reform rather than ecclesiastical revolution

5.     Laity could partake in the cup of communion

6.     The Bible was the ultimate authority


      Although the Catholic Church was somewhat successful in quelling the voices of these  pre-reformation prophets, it could not succeed in quelling Martin Luther, and those who subsequently followed in his train.

Martin Luther’s Protests 

            Luther was the lightening rod for the Protestant Reformation. Latourette says it well, “A humble monk and university professor of peasant stock dared to set himself against the weight of constituted authority in Church and state….he did so as the risk of his life (1975:717). Yet, as we have seen earlier, the foundation for reform had already been laid by those who went before him. Luther’s protests against the church were remarkably similar. The major difference was that Luther succeeded in igniting and maintaining a revolution that the Catholic Church, whereas the others were primarily used to plant the seed.  The following table describes the principle teachings of  Luther:  



(Adapted from Latourette 1975:703-743)  


1515 AD


1515 AD

1.     Justification is by faith alone



2.     Scripture alone is the rule for faith and practice

3.     The laity has as much right as the pope to interpret Scripture

4.     Popes and general councils could err

5.     Popes could not establish articles of faith

6.     Individual judgment should not be surrendered to neither church nor pope

7.     All believers were priests

8.     Indulgences did not remove guilt

9.     The pope had no jurisdiction over purgatory

10. The saints had no accumulated surplus credits

11. The Hussites were correct in their views

12. Transubstantiation was wrong and placed people in bondage

13. The laity should participate in the  cup as well as the bread

14. The mass was not a good work nor a sacrifice; Rather a promise of the remission of sins by God

15. Only baptism and communion were valid sacraments

16. Scriptures should be translated into the vernacular, so that all could read them

1.     Salvation through the Catholic Church (combination of  faith and good works )

2.     Scripture and Tradition have equal weight

3.     The pope has ultimate authority to interpret Scripture

4.     Pope and councils are inherent

5.     Pope can establish articles of faith

6.     Collective judgment of the church takes precedent

7.     Distinction between clergy/laity

8.     Could remove temporal penalties

9.     Could remit the penalties on earth but only petition for those in purgatory

10. The saints could accumulate surplus credits

11. The Hussites were heretics

12. Transubstantiation was vital to one’s salvation

13. The laity could only partake in the bread

14. During the  mass, Jesus Christ was sacrificed again and again. Mass was necessary for salvation

15. All seven sacraments were valid and necessary

16. Scripture was dangerous for the laity to use. Best kept in Latin

              Like David before  Goliath, Luther stood up to the Catholic Church and won. Through his teachings, Luther  liberated the church from its Babylonian Captivity (Latourette 1975:712). Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was rediscovering the truth of justification by faith alone and the submission to the Scripture alone. It was because of these two foundational teachings that the church was able to throw off the shackles of institutional religion .

Yet, for the purpose of this study, I will focus on Luther’s  emphasis of the priesthood of all believers. This truth  was the long awaited key that loosed years of separation between clergy and laity. However,  one has to wonder whether Luther went far enough in the  application of this truth.  When it came to providing structures so that the body of Christ could  minister freely and exercise their God given gifts, it seems that  Luther was bound by his personality, culture, and  political factors that surrounded him.   

Luther And Small Groups  

            Luther’s attitude towards small group ministry  undergoes a  radical change  due to the actions of the Anabaptist movement. He initially entertained the idea of using small groups as part of his  reformation, but later he changes his mind in the light of contextual circumstances.  

Earlier  Positive Attitude 

            In a number of his tracts, Luther expressed his concern about the Mass and Liturgy, and he even hinted at the need for house gatherings. In his Preface to The German Mass and Order of Service, he talks about the need for  the gathering of all people in a celebration service. He then adds,

      The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works…Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer and love… (quote in Beckham 1995:116).  

Tan notes, “Luther saw the potential of the house church and had a vision of meeting in homes for deeper expression of faith which was absent in the institutional church” (1994:45).  

Later  Negative Doubts  

            If Luther, therefore,  saw the potential for small group ministry and even talked about forming small groups for the purpose of discipleship, why didn’t he  follow through on  this  conviction? The answer to this dilemma is found in one of Luther’s letter that was discovered in 1982.

Luther  wrote this  letter  on April, 14, 1529 AD to a  fellow priest named Karl Weiss. Because Karl had begun to involve his parish in a small group ministry, he asked  Dr. Luther to write down some guidelines about small group ministry.  Karl Weiss had taken Luther’s advice seriously  about the formation of small groups of  ‘earnest Christians’.

In his reply letter to Karl,  Luther confesses that he had  ‘changed his mind’ about the formation of small groups (White, ed. 1983:274). Luther  states that he no longer believed that  ‘earnest Christians’ should meet together in the home in order ‘to  pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works… (White, ed. 1983:274).  

Anabaptist Movement Influences His Thinking  

It’s interesting to note that when Luther first wrote about earnest Christians meeting together  in 1526,  the Anabaptist movement was just getting under way. However, it was in February, 1527 that the articles of faith for  the Anabaptist movement were written and  officially declared.  Just  three months after the signing of those documents, Michael Slater, one of the key authors,  was burned at the stake (Latourette 1975:782).

My point here is that when Luther first talks about earnest groups of Christians meeting together in 1526,  he was thinking about the pure potential of small group ministry. However, by  April, 1529, with the added concerns of the Anabaptists, Luther  changes his thinking due to the present realities.  

Reasons For  Change Of Mind  

Here are the reasons given in the letter for  Luther’s change of thinking about small group ministry:

1.     People will fool themselves about who is an earnest Christian

            Here, Luther’s doctrine of justification clearly comes into play. Luther came to realize that  if one thinks that he or she is an ‘earnest Christian’ there is the danger of pride and a lack of understanding of grace. Luther taught that we are all on the  exact same level due to our sin and the total  sufficiency of Christ’s finished  work on the cross.

2.     “…that such self-styled ‘earnest Christians’ will start to think of themselves as the one, pure church’ (White, ed. 1983:275).

            Luther  warns, “If we allow small groups of Christians to separate from the rest, to read the Word, to baptize, and to receive sacraments, we will have established a new church (White, ed. 1983:275).  The above quote must be read in the light of the Anabaptist movement which had separated from the reformed church only a few years earlier. With this separation fresh on his mind, Luther fears the potential divisiveness of small groups. He says,

All the elements [of the true church] would be there in these small groups and, as sure as Satan seeks to destroy our souls, some Pharisaical spirit will conclude that his little group is the church, and that everyone outside is damned. Indeed, it has already happened, if I am to believe the rumor I hear. Certain false brethren rebaptize themselves and then sneak away from God’s church to meet with other misled fools in various holes and corners. They claim that they are the only true Christians, and teach that they must separate from all iniquity (White, ed. 1983:275).


Luther  arrived at the conclusion that  a small group atmosphere would engender more divisiveness than  unity.

3.     It is not Scriptural to separate from the church to set up a pure group of earnest Christians

            At this point in 1529, Luther now believes that there is no Scriptural proof for such a small group endeavor. Rather, he quotes a plethora of Scriptures to indicate that the true church has always a mixture of both the pure and the impure (White, ed. 1983:276,277).

4.     The problem of spiritual pride

            Here is another point against the meeting of small groups. He writes, “He [Satan] would be able to get us to isolate all the strongest Christians, and keep them from the weak. Then the strong would grow proud, the weak would give up, and all would go to hell in a handbasket (White, ed. 1983:278).  

Summary Of Luther’s Thinking  

            It’s safe to conclude that at one time Luther saw the importance of small groups as a means of spiritual growth and was even  thinking seriously about utilizing  them in order to  disciple groups of earnest Christians. However,  it appears that the emergence  the Anabaptist movement had a profound,  negative impact upon the attitude of Luther towards small groups.  

Critique On Luther’s View Of Small Groups  

            In my mind, Martin Luther stands out as one of the greatest figures of all times.  God placed in this one man a rare combination of intellectual brilliance matched with  an incredible courage and commitment to stand on his convictions. The reforms that Luther initiated have since altered mankind. Yet, with regard to  his emphasis on  small groups and his application of small groups, it is my opinion that his reforms did not go far enough.

Although he was successful in reforming theological thought, he was only partially successful in reforming ecclesiastical structure. The little that Luther did say about small groups in the church must be  critiqued. I believe there are at least areas of weakness in Luther’s small group concept:  

Limited View Of The Purpose Of Small Groups  

When Luther does talk about small group ministry, it is primarily related to groups of ‘Christians in earnest’ who are willing to meet alone in a house in order to pray, read, baptize, and receive the sacraments (Beckham 1995:116). I believe that  his original concept of small groups  was far too limited. It included  only a certain group of holy people who happened to be  ‘earnest’ about their faith.

When he reacts later to the potential of an exclusive attitude in such groups,  it seems to  me that Luther’s real problem  had to do with his initial limited definition of a small group. One can only wish that he would have amplified his thinking to include ‘not so earnest believers’ in these groups for the purpose of further growth. Better yet, such groups would have been further empowered had there been an evangelistic emphasis.

It’s also noteworthy that Luther  makes no attempt to interconnect these small group meetings to the larger church gathering. [1] Surely, he must have read and reread the many passages in the New Testament which testify to both the small  home meetings as well as the large temple gatherings (Acts 2:46;5:42; 20:20).  It seems to me that such a connection could have helped avoid many of the dangers that concern Luther so greatly. 

Lack Of Application Of The Priesthood Of All Believers  

            To his credit, Luther went far beyond the Catholic structure of his day in promoting the priesthood of all believers. He liberated the laity theologically and in some ways practically. [2] Yet, many people felt that the reformation did not go far enough. [3] Perhaps, the promotion of a small group structure that emphasized the priesthood of all believers,  Christian fellowship, and evangelistic outreach  could have prevented  some of the deep divisions that took place.  

Overreaction Against Anabaptist Abuse  

            Luther was not one to mince words. He said what he felt, and he felt what he said. Only a man such as Luther could have stood up to the powerful machinery of the Roman Catholic Church.

Yet, it seems that with regard to small groups in the church, Luther’s black and white personality hindered a balanced approach. I believe that  Luther overreacted  to the dangers of small groups seen in the Anabaptist movement and instead of warning against potential dangers and moving to middle ground, he ended up throwing out the  baby with the bath water.  D.M. Lloyd-Jones is insightful  by noting  that Luther was hindered from following through on  reforming church lifestyle due to “…a spirit of caution, political consideration, a lack of faith in the people in the churches, and fear of losing the movement to the Anabaptists” (quoted in Beckham 1995:117). 

Martin Bucer  

            We have noted that Luther’s   retreat   from  the use of  small groups in the reformation was largely due to the  abuses and dangers that he witnessed in the Anabaptist movement. However, Luther’s disciple, Martin Bucer (Latourette 1975:709) also witnessed those abuses, but went one step further. Without abandoning the majority church, he nevertheless sensed the compelling need to reform the church by the creation of small home based communities.

Ecclesiological Reform Through Small Groups  

            Even though Bucer faced continual pressure and criticism concerning what ‘might happen’ as a result of his small group reforms, he  continued to press ahead.  

Sanctification Through Small Groups  

He, like Luther, believed strongly in justification by faith. However,  he also emphasized  Christian sanctification. He would not allow one to exclude the other. Bucer, being a sensitive, godly individual, clearly saw the carnality and superficiality in his own church at Strasbourg. He had continually stressed moral reform since arriving at Strasbourg, but the apparent futility of his labors almost shattered his patience (Wright 1994:137). Bucer became increasingly drawn to the model of the primitive church. Wright comments,

Bucer saw in the communities of the primitive church an exemplary and even normative model of a reformed church…when he lamented, often with bitterness, the deficiencies of his Strasbourg church by comparison with the communities of the primitive and ancient churches, he was in fact lamenting his church’s defective apostolicity (1994:136,137).  

Implementation Of Groups In The Face  Of Criticism  

He was continually faced with criticism due to the  Anabaptist movement that sought to take away  people from the state church. As the well-known  reformer of  Strasbourg, he found himself at the heart of the Anabaptist debate due to the fact that there were many Anabaptists within the Strasbourg community. In 1534 AD we see Bucer debating with the Anabaptists about the need for a confessing church, but yet one open to all (Wright 1994:134).

It was in the mid-1540s that Anabaptism rapidly increased  in number and influence. We read about groups assembling secretly at night in the forest of Eckbolsheim, on Strasbourg’s doorstep (Wright 1994:135). It was a very risky thing for Bucer to even dare mention the reform of the church,  and far more risky to suggest the possibility of forming small groups for the purpose of discipleship and spiritual growth. Wright notes, “The more Bucer pressed the magistracy to devote all its energies to the introduction of a ‘true’ ecclesiastical discipline, the more the Strasbourg church seemed doomed to degneration and criticism. Nasty tongues spread scandal about the town and its Reformers…(Wright 1994:135).  He goes on to say,

The creation of groups and other gatherings which…could easily be likened to the separatist ventures of the Anabaptists and other sectarians, exposed him to insidious criticism charging him with a share of responsibility for the fragmentation of Strasbourg’s church community (1994:140). 

Yet, in spite of all of the criticism, Bucer was compelled to press ahead,  because he so strongly believed in the  two-fold structure of cell and celebration. 

The Need For Cell And Celebration  

For Bucer, it was not a matter of deciding  to support the state church (Luther) or the gathered church (Anabaptist). Rather, he felt the need for both. Wright concludes,  “This motif of twofold ecclesiology, at once both majority-based and confessing, played an important role in the slow maturation of Bucer’s plans for small communities (1994:134). Bucer felt that he would have actually been ‘unfaithful’ to Scripture by not promoting the gathering of believers in small groups (Wright 1994:137).

In the face of so much criticism, Bucer found himself having to explain the two pronged structure. Instead of creating divisiveness, the small  groups aimed specifically at promoting unity among all Christians. The  Sunday morning worship service would bring them all together. In fact, Bucer felt that the communion table on Sunday morning was the perfect time for the ‘true’ Christian community to meet (Wright 1994:141). 

Focus  Of Groups  

            It appears that these groups met for the purpose of serious Christian discipleship. These groups provided an ideal structure for the church to grow in sanctification (Wright 1994:141). Earnest Christians  gathered for the purpose of encouraging each other and thus  growing deeper in the Christian faith. The goal of these groups  was to make the church at Strasbourg “…more faithful to the primitive and ancient churches” (Wright 1994:142). Wright comments,

In specifying how the small communities would function, the Reformer sought ever closer conformity to the pattern of the organization and life of the apostolic communities, as described in the New Testament Acts and Epistles….Not only confession of the same doctrine, but also demonstration of the same practice must attest this apostolic faithfulness—hence, for example, the insistence on the sharing of good on the model of the communities described in Acts 2 and 4 (1994:142,143).   

Only born again believers were admitted to these groups. In fact a potential member had to be interviewed by the pastor and the group’s elders. The interview dealt with  member’s beliefs  concerning  doctrine, the sacraments, Christian behavior and repentance. If the person was willing to make a commitment into the community his name would entered into a register. 

Critique Of Bucer’s Small Groups  

            I can’t help but be completely impressed by the cell/celebration system developed by Martin Bucer. I find myself admiring Martin Bucer for at least three reasons:

1.     He did not allow the doctrine of justification to void the doctrine of sanctification. Or stated another way, while openly preaching the positional truth of our perfect standing before God, he did not neglect the importance of promoting  practical holiness within the church. [4]

2.     He followed the teaching of the  Scripture  both doctrinally as well as methodologically. He mined the Scripture for the riches of its methodology as well as its doctrine. He noted that the Christ-likeness of the early church was in part due to their cell-celebration structure,  as well as to their obedience to the Lord Jesus.

3.     He pressed on in the face of major criticisms. Small groups had to have been a major priority for Martin Bucer for him to continue in the face of so many difficulties  and criticisms. His examples gives me strength to press on with my small group convictions.

            Granted, Bucer’s small group system was primarily discipleship oriented. Yet, the context was also quite a bit different from  our context today.  In that day, everyone in the particular state or region was required to attend church. Therefore, it does seem right that the major  focus under those conditions be discipleship, purity, and Christian unity.                       On the other hand, in our pluralistic society, I believe that it is equally important that small groups maintain a dual focus—both focused on evangelism and discipleship.   

Anabaptist Movement  

            I’ve already hinted at the beliefs and the practices of the Anabaptist movement while covering Martin Luther and Martin Bucer. Because of  chronological order,  I have waited until now to write about the Anabaptists. We have previously seen  that it was  this movement that provoked such  fierce reaction in Martin Luther that he ‘changed his mind’ about the role of small groups in the church. It was also this movement that stirred  untold criticism against Martin Bucer for his participation in small group reform. What were  these strange beliefs of the Anabaptists?  

Cardinal Beliefs  

            Actually, the core beliefs and practices  of the Anabaptists are probably closer to those espoused by Evangelical Christianity today. At the same time, the Anabaptist Movement cannot be pigeonholed into one neat category. There are a number of streams that flow form this movement. There are also groups that manifest Anabaptist characteristics in one area and not in another. 

For the most part, it is safe to say that  the Anabaptists followed reform theology. They were children of the reformation, as opposed to the institutional Catholic Church. They embraced  Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith, Scripture alone,  the priesthood of all believer, separation from the Catholic Church, and other key doctrines.

However, the Anabaptists believed that Luther and the reformers did not go far enough. They believed that there were two foundational  truths that the reformers had overlooked:

1.     Adult baptism versus infant baptism

2.     The gathered church versus the state church  

Adult Baptism Rather Than Infant Baptism  

The name Anabaptist means ‘to be baptized a second time’. They rejected infant baptism as contrary to the Scriptures and regarded only that baptism valid which was administered to conscious believers” (Latourette 1975:779). Therefore, according to the Anabaptists,  the true church of Jesus Christ consisted only of those who were born again and baptized as adults.  This belief ties in with the next one (i.e., rejection of the state church), in that they did not believe that it was right to include all people in the church,  just because they were born in a particular region.   

The Gathered Church Rather Than  State Church  

            Latourette defines this aspect of their belief by saying, “They believed in ‘gathered’ churches, not identical with the community at large, but composed of those who had had the experience of the new birth”  (1975:779). It’s important to remember that the church for both Luther and Calvin consisted of the entire community. It was through infant baptism  that one entered into the state church (Latourette 1975:778). [5] Therefore,  when the Anabaptists met in small groups, it was because they didn’t believe in the state church and were trying to separate from it.

           Perhaps the state church  paradigm was as much cultural as religious. In other words, the practice of the state church was not only a carry over from the Catholic tradition, but this practice served as an instrument for order and cultural transmission.    The state church was the means through which cultural mores and beliefs  communicated  to the  rest of the people.

However, it was the state church idea that the Anabaptist movement attacked most radically. It’s easy to now see why the Anabaptist were looked upon with such suspicion and skepticism. In that day,  to separate from the church was akin to separating from society. Such actions threatened the very moral fabric of society.

It must not be thought that Anabaptism was widely accepted. It didn’t attract the multitudes that were drawn  to Luther or Calvin. Probably the major reasons was that, as Latourette notes, “…they seemed to be dangerous revolutionaries, upsetting the established order” (1975:779).

And yes, the state church reacted by persecuting them severely. Surely, some of the persecution came as a result of theological disagreement, but most of it came because the Anabaptist challenged the  normal cultural norms. Latourette says, “Late in the 1520’s and early in the 1530’s hundred of Anabaptists were killed, some by drowning, some by beheading, and others by burning” (1975:782).  

Diversity of Belief  

            From the above cardinal doctrines that united the Anabaptist movement, there were an array of opinions and beliefs  among Anabaptists on such matters as:

1.     Degrees of relationship to the State

2.     Forms of worship

3.     Return of Christ

4.     Nature of Christ

5.     Missionary  emphasis

            At a time when the Bible was being read in the vernacular, individual salvation by faith in Jesus was being preached, and the priesthood of all believers being emphasized, it was natural that a wide array of beliefs should develop (Latourette 1975:780). For the diversity of their beliefs yet unity in overall direction, the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century seems to resemble our modern denominational diversity today.  

Commitment Of Anabaptists  

Many of the Anabaptists made a total commitment to the Lord and to the life of the small gathered community.  The seriousness  of their Christianity and their commitment to discipleship can be seen by the fact that they would often meet together four or five times per week (Tan 1994:46). Writing about their commitment Latham says,

When someone followed the Anabaptist doctrine, he/she was expected to separate him/herself from the world and follow a new way of life. The new way of life excluded them from most of their communities social functions. Activities such as weddings, christenings, banquets or archery matches were considered too worldly. When a person was converted to Anabaptism he/she would reject all former friends and neighbours as being heathen, devils, or Turks (1993:12).  

Anabaptists And Small Groups  

Small groups played a vital part among of the  Anabaptist movement  throughout the  sixteenth century. However,  it’s not conclusive that they met in small groups due to theological reasons or whether circumstantial reality (i.e., persecution) drove them to do so.  Yes, they believed that only believers should meet together,  but they seemed to be just as open to larger believers meetings as they were to smaller ones.  

Pure Beginning  

It was in 1522 that those with Anabaptist tendencies gathered in homes for small, private meetings. These meetings expanded into a wave of lay reading groups throughout 1522 and 1523, which met mainly in Zurich and the surrounding area (Latham 1993:13).

These small group meetings  were directed toward strengthening  the faith and expanding the  knowledge of eager Christians. At first, the only motivation seems to have been deepening the reform movement. In fact, some of these small home studies were so effective in and around Zurich that Zwingli commented that as a result of these meetings certain lay people were better acquainted with the Scriptures than some priests (Latham 1993:15).  

Initial  Separation  

            However, very subtly, it seems that the group meetings began to take a different direction. Latham comments,

The Brethren came together because they felt that the limits of the Zwinglian reforms were suppressing the truth. Meeting together in private, the Brethren hoped to discover the truth and obtain scriptural guidance for church reforms….Discovering the biblical truths, which they believed were being suppressed by Zwingli and the Town Council, was their primary concern” (1993:17).  

It was in 1523 that Conrad Grebel and Simon Stumpf proposed that the church should be separated from the rest of society in order to establish a church consisting solely of ‘true’ Christians. Although Zwingli, the official reform leader in Zurich,  strongly disagreed with their conviction, they would not be dissuaded (Latham 1993:17).  

Total Separation  

            On January 21, 1525  the Swiss Brethren came together in a small group to officially dedicate themselves to a separate movement which they felt was the true church. As part of this ceremony, each person was re-baptized. Latham notes, ‘Their re-baptism was the action of disobedience which place them in direct opposition to the secular and religious authorities (1993:24).

            Although it’s hard for us to believe today, the reformed church in Zurich actively sought out the Anabaptists in order to put them to death. Mantz was the first Anabaptist martyr,  who was put to death by drowning for the charge of conducting illegal re-baptisms (Latham 1993:27).  

Community Emphasis 

            The Anabaptists had a high view of community. They preferred to call each other brethren. Closely tied to the Anabaptist belief  that the true church of Jesus Christ was composed of re-baptized, gathered Christians, was the conviction that the gathering of small groups for intimate Bible Study and worship were part of the true nature of New Testament community (Latham 1993:36). 

Circumstantial Necessity  

            Again, it’s hard to say whether or not the Anabaptists met in homes due to their theological convictions or because of circumstantial necessity. This point seems to come up again and again in my study of the Anabaptist movement. In other words, I did not discover in their teachings that  small group meetings were part of their theological conviction.

Yes, they constantly met in small groups, but it seems that there was no other alternative. Did they believe that their small group meetings better represented  the true church of Jesus Christ or was it more of a necessity? Perhaps, a little of both. Plueddemann writes,

The Anabaptists had no church buildings but met in homes several times a week for worship and nurture. This may have been partly because of the persecution they experienced from Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics combined. But Durnbaugh points out that even when persecution let up, the preferred to meet in homes because this was more faithful to the practice of the early church (1990:7).  

Latham concludes her dissertation on the Anabaptist movement by saying,

As well as being used as an effective means of evangelism and cultivation of the Anabaptist faith, the small group was also employed out of necessity…The Anabaptists sometimes met in small, scattered groups for the sole reason that there was little interest in the movement. Another reason why Anabaptists met in small groups was because all Anabaptist activity was illegal….The factors of little interest, persecution, and the Anabaptist concept of the church as a gathered community combined together to produce the small group meeting as the movement’s main mode of existence (1994:110,111).  

Critique Of Small Groups In Anabaptism  

            This movement is a hard one to critique. I found it difficult to analyze their convictions or philosophy of  small groups.  

The Sad History Of This Movement  

            For me the study of this movement is one of the saddest  in the history of the Christian faith. It’s sad because both the state church led by the reformer Zwingli and the Anabaptists believed the basic tenants of the reformation. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that both groups were  solid evangelical believers! What a tragedy that these Christians killed each other for varying theological convictions! Yes, the intensity of their separation also points to the importance of the state church in  religion and society at that time period.  

Focus On Beliefs Rather Than Small Groups  

With regard to the place of small groups in Anabaptism, there seems to be mixed signals. Granted, Anabaptism came into being as a result of small groups of Christians meeting together to study the Word of God. Yet, after discovering from the Word of God the truth that only baptized adults should form part of the  gathered church of Christ, the focus shifts drastically to Anabaptist doctrine rather than Anabaptist methodology (small group theology).

Their  writings are filled with references to what they believed theologically, but there is very little about methodology. [6] They eventually came to believe that they were fulfilling the functions of the true church (as opposed to the state church), but the emphasis was on the fact that they ‘gathered’ together as baptized adults rather than their  place of  gathering.  

Comparison To House Church Movement  

It seems that the Anabaptist movement is  better  compared with the house church movement today. Unlike Bucer who promoted small groups as a way of purifying the majority church, the Anabaptists only knew one type of meeting—the cell. They are much like the house church today that see their home gatherings as independent churches and do not recognize other entities over them.  

Warnings For Cell Group Ministry Today  

            Rather than extolling the virtues of small groups in the Anabaptist  tradition, I have come to conclude that their example should serve as a warning to the small group movement today. While small groups can be a glorious tool of discipleship and evangelism, they can also  be very divisive. This is my impression of  the Anabaptist   small group movement. I have several concerns about this particular movement:

1.     The lack of connection with any other accountability structure

2.     The ‘holier than thou’ type attitude. In my opinion, what  Luther feared would happen seemed to be present among Anabaptist circles. 

3.     Their  dogmatic separation from the reformed church at that time. To me, this separation  appears overly zealous and dogmatic, without sufficient patience and brotherly love. 

More than my own personal convictions concerning the beliefs of the Anabaptists, my primary concern is that all of this happened within the context of small groups. These groups  had no authority structure to guide them and lead them. They were lone ranger type groups that were permitted to teach, believe, and structure themselves according to their own whims and convictions. [7]

I think that the Anabaptist Movement is perhaps a warning of what can happen in the church when there is a lack of control and accountability from the top leadership downwards.  



[1] Considering the authority  and respect that Luther possessed at that time,  it seems to me that he could have brought about this structural change.

[2] He allowed the laity to partake in the bread as well as the cup during the Eucharist. I also understand that he implemented various changes in the mass (emphasis on preaching, etc.)

[3] Obviously, the Anabaptist Movement reacted to the lack of reform that they detected.

[4] It seems to me that at times, Luther pitted the one against the other. Luther felt that small group meetings would give the wrong  impression by ‘acting’ as if  the group was more holy than the rest of the church. Bucer’s stance appears more  Scriptural in that he held the doctrine of justification and sanctification in the  proper tension. 

[5] Latourette notes that Luther was not entirely in accord with this set up due to the fact that it did not ‘fully accord with his basic principle of salvation through faith’ (1975:775). Calvin avoided it somewhat by teaching that only the elect would ultimately be saved and not because one was baptized as an infant (1975:778).

[6] Through the inter library system, I obtained an entire dissertation about  small  groups within Anabaptism and Pietism. Although the dissertation was filled with quotes from Anabaptists about their beliefs, the author could only repeat the fact they they were always meeting in small groups, rather than providing references from their writings (or the writings of others) concerning what they believed about small groups. . Since this dissertation came from a Mennonite seminar, I’m sure the author had the resources available. Again, it could be that there are a lot of quotes about small group philosophy within Anabaptist circles; I simply do not know of it.

[7] I’m not saying that their convictions were wrong, but I am saying that there is a great danger in this type of independent Bible study atmosphere.






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