Cell Theology-Pt.4



              Thus far in this tutorial I  have tried to define the nature of the true church and identify  several key functions of Christ’s  church.  I have tried to show how the cell group ministry can  reveal the true nature of Christ’s Church in a fresh, vital way.   I have now chose to explore foundational truth  of the kingdom of God for two reasons:

1.     Many  scholars believe that the  kingdom of God motif is the unifying theme throughout the Bible and thus a very important theological concept

2.     It enlightens and expands on the role and function of the church in the world, and in once sense, goes beyond it. It also opens up  a new way of understanding cell-based ministry today.  

The Concept Defined  

            Many believe that the central, unifying theme of the Bible  is the kingdom of God (Hasel 1982:52). In both the Old and New Testament this theme appears again and again (e.g., Dan. 2:21; 4:24-25; Mt. 13). But what exactly is the kingdom of God? George Ladd, who is a well-known expert on this subject, defines the kingdom in terms of the ‘rule of God’.  He concisely states,  "...the emphasis is not upon the state of affairs or the final order of things but upon the fact that God will rule. The state of affairs to be finally introduced is but the inevitable result of the final vindication of the divine rule”  (1972:46).  For example, The psalmist declares, “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures through all generations” (Psalm 145:13).  The first words of Christ in Mark´s gospel are His proclamation,  “The time has come, The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15).

What did Jesus mean when He says that the reign (kingdom)  of God  is near? Ladd believes it is used in the sense of "reaching out" without the full experience of all that the Kingdom is to involve. In other words, the Kingdom has come in the person of Jesus Christ, but will be fully experienced in the future (1959:127). It is that concept of ‘already, not yet’ that Ladd  is explaining.

 For example, In Luke 17:20,  Jesus declares, "...the kingdom of God is within you." An alternative reading to "within" you is "among" you. Ladd prefers the latter definition.  In other words, in the person of Jesus Christ, God's Kingdom is now present!  Ladd writes,  "The Age to Come has overlapped with This Age" (1959: 42).        Matthew 12:28  brings this out very clearly. Jesus says to the unbelieving Pharisees, "But if I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you."  

The Gospel Of The Kingdom  

            How does this message of Christ's present power relate to the  church today? Is there a relationship? Perhaps it can be summed up in the concept of the ‘gospel of the kingdom’. Jesus uses this phrase in  Matthew 24:14 when he says,  “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” 

The Power Of The Gospel  

I have already  mentioned the fact that the demonstration of Christ’s power over sin, sickness,  and the demonic were a sign that the kingdom was here.

That hasn’t changed today. Every time a person is set free from sin, healed of sickness, or delivered from Satan, it is a manifestation of God's kingdom on earth. Yes, it is a  powerful message to proclaim, but sadly, this message has been largely forgotten or ignored in much of the  gospel proclamation today. Salvation by faith alone is faithfully preached,  but the power of the kingdom message is oftentimes lacking.

Yet, the gospel of the kingdom is more than a simple  “decision for Christ”  Christ wants to reign in every person’s life, and Satan and his demons will resist every step. Shenk elucidates this truth,

 “The context for mission is the cosmic struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world. Christ is displacing Satan’s rule by His own. This struggle is being carried on within history....To announce the gospel of the kingdom is to side against the kingdom of this world” (1983:213).  

Instead of confronting the powers of darkness and proclaiming a glorious kingdom message, many of the  churches today are bogged down with division, power struggles, and inward focused vision. Neil Anderson sums up his assessment of the present American church situation after having talked with many denominational leaders and missionary executives,

 “…the most optimistic assessment is that 20 percent of the churches are functioning as a living organism and bearing substantial fruit. They [denominational leaders and missionary executives] estimate that between 35 and 50 percent are dysfunctional, bearing no fruit at all. Denominational leaders are overwhelmed with problems. They find themselves,...spending most of their time trying to put out fires instead of offering leadership and vision. The average churches are operating as though their transmission were in reverse, and they have jammed on the brakes” (1994:13).   

Could it be that church leadership has not come to grips with the real enemy? The one behind the board splits, the petty jealousies, the extra-marital affairs? The need for a kingdom message is greater than ever in our day and age. Those who reject the power of the kingdom and in favor of solely an  intellectual approach, might find themselves captive to the god of this world.

            The kingdom of God motif teaches  that the  gospel is powerful and life-changing. The proclamation of the gospel is a sign of the kingdom’ s present work in our midst. Miracles, healing, deliverance, and salvation should be present in a church that is proclaiming the Kingdom and living by the Kingdom.  

The Completeness Of This Gospel  

             On a more practical level, how does the  gospel of the kingdom include the cultural mandate along with  the evangelistic mandate? Is the kingdom only a spiritual reign in the hearts of men and women or does it have practical social implications in a fallen sinful world? Can we only talk about the gospel of the kingdom in terms of  spiritual warfare, signs and wonders, and power evangelism, or are there social dimension as well? Johannes Verkuyl expounds on the holistic implications of the kingdom,

“Jesus miracles...provide special help in understanding how the kingdom is revealed in this world. John’s Gospel calls the miracles signs which point to the approaching kingdom and majestic character of the Messiah. These miracles address every human need: poverty, sickness, hunger, sin, demonic temptation, and the threat of death. By them Jesus is anticipating Easter. Each of them proclaims that wherever and whenever in God’s name human needs and problems are tackled and overcome, there God’s kingdom is shining through” (Verkuyl’s  article in Winter 1978:42)  

The comments of Stephen Mott are illuminating in this area,

“The Reign is not an idea or a purely ‘spiritual’ force. It is manifested as power in the physical affairs of people as they are hindered by demonic forces....The struggles against the demonic in general becomes concrete in the struggles against the oppression exerted by the power structures of our day. These can be discerned through a spiritual awareness of the existence of social evil and the injustices through which they work....In reaction to the liberal preoccupation with the social aspects of the Reign, it has become fashionable in contemporary writings to state that [the] Reign of God is not a social program and that people do not bring it in. But the very fact that it is God’s reign and is already present in grace means that our response cannot be passive....the church is to be the community in which, through its behavior and its mission, the Reign of God becomes visible,...It cannot, therefore, remain passive in the face of the evils of society” (1082:94-96).  

Perhaps the gospel of the kingdom is the best way to  bring together an accepted conclusion today that the cultural mandate along with the evangelistic mandate  is part of God’s agenda toward  a lost world. The one without the other is simply incomplete. Earlier on in this paper, we contemplated   two prominent   functions of the church:  discipleship and social concern. These two are accurately brought together under the gospel of the kingdom motif.

            Granted, the evangelistic mandate has priority. The kingdom must first invade the hearts of men and women. Without being personally saved, no one will be ready for  the future reign of His Kingdom (John 20:18:36). Christ’s commandment to make disciples of all nations must first and foremost be interpreted from a evangelistic/perfecting posture. I agree with Bob Logan when he states, “God desires that churches grow both qualitatively and quantitatively so that the Gospel of the kingdom will spread to the uttermost ends of the earth in fulfillment of the Great Commission” (1989:18). I interpret Logan to mean that the  gospel of the kingdom primarily fulfills the evangelistic mandate.

             Although I would agree that evangelism must our central focus, the message of the gospel of the kingdom challenges us  to think in a more global manner. After all, our Lord Himself   was not passive toward  human needs and suffering. He fed the hungry (Mt. 15:29-39), healed the sick (Mt. 9:35), spoke against oppression (Mt. 21:12-17; 23:1-38), and ended up dying on the cross for taking a stand  against sin (Heb. 12:4). Jesus Himself declared, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first....If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:18-25).

            I believe that it is correct to assert that God’s present rule on this earth should stir us to be concerned with all human suffering. In fact, understanding the global dimensions of the gospel of the kingdom, should encourage those believers  who protest the abortion holocaust, speak out against the slavery of child pornography, organize voters to vote down unjust laws that destroy the family, establish orphanages, etc. This is all part of the gospel of the kingdom. However,  it is my conviction, that we  should never forget the central place of evangelism in this gospel.  

The Church And The Kingdom  

            The kingdom and the church are two distinct realities which at the same time overlap. Ladd distinguishes  five vital principles which help discern the relationship between the church and the kingdom (1964:111-119):

1.     The church is not the Kingdom; It is only the people of the Kingdom.          

2.      The Kingdom creates the church; Had the Kingdom not entered in the Person of Jesus Christ, there would be no church.

3.     The church witnesses of  the Kingdom through faithfully proclaiming the gospel.

4.     The church is the instrument of the Kingdom; The works of the Kingdom are performed through the body of Christ.

5.     The church is the custodian of the Kingdom; Through her proclamation, God will decide who will enter the Kingdom and who will not.

            These helpful principles remind us that the kingdom is greater than the church. God’s sovereign rule must direct all that the  church is and does.  The church is not an end in herself. She is to testify of  the gospel of the kingdom (Mat. 24:14).  She must hold in tension that already/not-yet reality of the gospel. Her proclamation must include a glorious future hope, and yet be  powerful and  life-changing in the here and now.

            In a day when certain  churches are only concerned with market strategies, poll taking, and modern techniques that attract people, the kingdom of God approach  calls the church  back to her primary mission responsibility.  

Cell  Groups And The Kingdom Of God  

            There are several ways that the kingdom of God motif  can helpfully  critique  the cell group movement. First, with regard to the cell group agenda. The gospel of the kingdom teaches that discipleship as well as social concern is  fundamental in the cell church. Ronald Sider’s  words touch a raw nerve, 

 “Thousands of churches today have small groups--encounter groups, biweekly groups, serendipity groups, prayer cells and an infinite variety of action groups that aim at fellowship. Do these small groups fulfill the same function as Living Word´s home meetings and Church of the Savior’s mission groups?  Hardly ever” (1984:187). [1]  

            However a balance is needed. Why? Because there are other small group ministries who appear to have taken the opposite  extreme.  Liberation Theology is a good example. In Latin America this movement has organized itself into thousands of small groups called ‘base communities’ (Dyrness 1990:99-102).  One can say with certainty that these groups are socially concerned for justice and use the kingdom of God motif (Dyrness 1990:91). However to promote this social justice,   a Marxist analysis has been adopted which is not opposed to the use of violence. In fact, at times it is necessary to promote their gospel (Dyrness 1990: 92,93).  This interpretation of the gospel of the kingdom is certainly foreign to the life and teaching of Jesus who is an  example of one who did not resort to violence before His enemies (I Pet. 2:20; 3:14-18; 4:12-16) (Yoder: 1972: 123-134).

            Secondly, God’s kingdom and rule must be central  in the  cell ministry agenda. The cells of any church must minister under God’s sovereign rule.  Each cell group is a community of the living King who is actively reigning here and now. Because of this fact, the cells should expect the intervention of God’s reign in each meeting. The cell  leader, as well as the members,  should ask the hard questions, Are there  miracles in our midst? Did God meet our needs during the meeting?  When cells simply turn into fun, social gatherings, they cease to be  instruments of the kingdom of God. Speaking of the power of the kingdom of God in many newer apostolic congregations,  George Hunter says,

   “The apostolic congregations all feature small groups prominently. Some of them define themselves as churches of small groups; small groups are even more important in their identity as a church than the large worship service. Why? They have discovered a transformative power in the small group revolution that many other churches still need to discover” (1996:82).  

            Finally, the kingdom of God should give  the cell ministry a cause for great hope. As God’s present reign is manifested  in the group through glorious moments of fellowship and spiritual refreshment, the group should be  reminded of a much grander and majestic  future reign. It is this hope of the future reign that motivates the cell ministry to press on.


            In the previous sections I have tried to establish a theological foundation for cell-based ministry by reviewing the meaning of the  Church of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God. I have sought to relate both of those concepts to cell group ministry. In this chapter, I hope to examine  the role of ’cells’  in the early church. I believe that such an examination  can give us a helpful base for comparing the modern cell movement today.  

The Function Of The House Church In The Early Church  

            It has  already been mentioned that the early church did not have  their  own buildings. The record of the book of Acts mentions that from earliest times the believers met  both in the homes and in the temple (Acts 2:46). Paul substantiates this point in Acts 20: 20 when he recalls  his ministry among the Ephesians,       “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” John Mallison, who has been actively involved in small group ministry for over twenty years, testifies to this truth,  “It is almost certain that every mention of a local church or meeting, whether for worship or fellowship, is in actual fact a reference to a church meeting in a house” (1989:5). Hadaway, Wright and DuBose add, “From the beginning, homes appeared to be the place for the most enduring dimensions of early church life” (1987:40).

            In Acts 12:5 we observe that the church was meeting and praying for Peter in the home of Mary, the mother of John. It appears that primarily because of the persecution that the early church confronted, the role of the house church became normative (Barclay 1955:228).  Bruce supports this fact by stating,

  “Household churches are frequently referred to in the NT epistles. Sometimes the whole church in one city might be small enough to be accommodated in the home of one of its members; but in other places the local church was quite large, and there was no building in which all the members could conveniently congregate. This was certainly true of the early Jerusalem church; there we find one group meeting in the house of Mary, the mother of Mark (Acts 12:12); and although Luke does not specifically call that group the church in her house, it might very well have been described thus. Priscilla and Aquila were accustomed to extend the hospitality of their home to such groups in the successive cities where they lived--e.g. in Ephesus (I Cor. 16:19) and Rome (16:5). At Colossae itself Philemon´s house was used for this purpose (Philem. 2) (1957:309,310).  

            Murray  adds,

  “It was necessary and appropriate in apostolic times,.. to make their homes available for the congregations of the saints....In a city like Rome or Ephesus (I Cor. 16:19) there would be more than one such congregation. Hence there would be other churches and it would be proper to speak of the churches of Rome (1957:228,229).  

The Relationship  Among  The House Churches  

            The evidence suggests that these  house churches were not independent of each other. For example, in his letter to the Corinthians, Paul both addresses the individual ecclesia which met in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (I Cor. 16:19), but he also greets  the ecclesia as a whole ( I Corinthians 1:2 and  II Corinthians 1:1). This  seems to indicate that a  general relationship  existed (Neighbour 1990:44).  Banks confirms that point of view (1994:32).

The same can be said about the church in Thessolonica and in Rome (I Thess. 1:1; II Thess. 1:1; Rm. 16:23). It might also be  suggested that on occasion the house groups gathered for special celebration events. The Love Feast of I Corinthians 11 and Paul´s visit to Troas in Acts 20:6-12 could be examples  of  this type of joint celebration. Bruce comments,  “Such house churches appear to have been smaller circles of fellowship within the larger fellowship of the city ecclesia” (1957:310). George Hunter agrees,

      “The early church experienced two structures as necessary and normative for the Messianic movement. They met as cells (or small groups) in ‘house churches’; and the Christians of a city also met together in a common celebration or congregation (except for periods when persecution prohibited public celebrations and drove the movement underground, meeting in homes only) (1996:82).  

Banks debates the  view that the house churches were connected to a common celebration structure—at least in Paul’s later usage of ecclesia. He insists that the house churches were independent entities with no organizational framework to bind them together. Banks does  acknowledge that Paul did seek to link the various house churches together, but this was not through a common celebration model (1994:42,43). Banks believes that Paul intentionally planted these independent house churches, so that true Christian fellowship and community would be experienced (1994: 26).   

The Emphasis On Cell And Celebration  

The early church is an example of both the celebration and the cell structure. In Acts 2:46 we see the Jerusalem church meeting in the large area in the temple (Solomon’s Colonnade) and in homes. Acts 5:42 indicates that church continued to meet both in the temple courts and from house to house. Finally, in Acts 20:20 Paul tells us that he taught in Ephesus both publicly and from house to house (Malphurs 1992:212).     Elmer Towns goes is quite insistent about this type of structure when he says,  “To be a whole church, it must have the cell as well as the celebration. I conclude that the norm of the New Testament church included both small cell groups and larger celebration group” (Towns quoted in Geroge  1993.136)

 We have seen  that the celebration (large gathering of the church) and the cell (gathering of a small group) were normative in the early church. The early church benefited both from the larger church (celebration) and from the small group (cells in homes). This was necessary because conservative estimates tell us that the size of the Jerusalem church along was probably around 20,000-25,000 people (Malphurs 1992:212). With such a large congregation, it seems impossible that the  Jerusalem church was able to care for such a large group of  people. However,   Acts 2:46 seems to give us the  clue. This verse  tells us that In addition to the huge gatherings in the temple, the believers were treated to the closely knit intimacy of the cell.

In the early part of the first century A.D.  the celebration/cell experience took place on a daily basis. However, due to persecution,  as the history of Acts progresses,   the celebration ceased to be a daily experience. Although they were forced to emphasize home meeting more than the gathered celebration (persecution would have made this impossible), it does appear that there were periodic celebration events. One can find from church history an abundance of evidence that the church has always met in both homes and large celebrations (Beckham 1995:108).

What about house churches today?  There is no doubt that they follow the pattern of  meeting in homes, as the New Testament lays out. Yet, what about the larger celebration context? As we have seen, it appears from the Biblical evidence that there was a dual function of both the  general assembly of believers and the individual house churches. Therefore, if a house church does not recognize any authority beyond themselves, it is doubtful that they are following the New Testament pattern,  Speaking of  house churches in general, Neighbour asserts,

             “Usually, each House Church stands alone....Often they may not grow larger than their original number for years, having no aggressive evangelistic activity. They do not become a true movement of church expansion....In contrast, the cell group church recognizes a larger structure for church life. It is composed of many cells, but no one cell would ever consider existing apart from the rest”  (Neighbour 1990:203) 

In my opinion, one of the great dangers in the house church movement is their independence. If the shepherd exercises control without important outside accountability, it seems that false doctrine and other problems could develop. On the other hand, the cell movement rarely has that problem due to the close connection with the church. Hadaway explains,

    “Deviations of any major sort are unlikely in home cell groups, however, because, unlike house churches, they are closely tied to a host church. Leaders are trained and supervised by church leaders, and potential problems can be quickly spotted and resolved” (1987:248).  

This is not to say that all house churches are independent entities. Many do have accountability structures among themselves. At least one group of  house churches has even constructed a separate headquarters to meet the needs of the various house churches (Hadaway, Wright, Dubose 1987: 242). Some house churches  seek a relationship with other house churches.  Del Birkey writes as a representative of the house church movement and as a house church pastor,  “…single-cell house churches can grow by forming an interdependent nexus with one another. In this way each comes under an umbrella of fellowship while remaining dynamically single-celled” (1988:79).

Yet, even when house churches exists under an ‘umbrella of fellowship’ between themselves, I have to wonder if this type of informal relationship does justice to the cell/celebration practice of the New Testament.  Especially, under normal conditions, the primitive church clearly favored the approach that included both cell and celebration.       

New Testament Patterns Utilized Today  

Churches today that have returned to this New Testament pattern of cell/celebration have tended to follow one of two patterns. One of these models is used in much of Latin America today. It is a satellite  church model.  There are various mega- churches in Latin America (and around the world) who have given birth to daughter  churches (whether house churches or actual  congregations), who maintain an intimate connection with the mother church. In other words, the daughter church is only ‘semi-independent’. The mother church  expects the  daughter congregations   to meet with them for a   monthly or bi-monthly celebration service. Concerning one such church,  Peter Wagner writes,

  “Pastor Javier Vasquez of the Jotabeche Methodist Pentecostal Church in Santiago, Chile, allows his 80 thousand members to come to the main sanctuary only one Sunday night per month because it seats only 16 thousand persons. The other Sundays they are ministering in forty satellite churches around the city,...” (1976:104).

            The other contemporary model, which I have been promoting in this paper,  highlights the  Sunday morning service as  the   celebration event while providing  small home groups  for the people to attend  throughout the week. Paul Yonggi Cho’s church in South Korea, the largest church in the history of Christianity, has made this approach popular . Cho has managed to provide the thrill of the large gathering with the intimacy of the small gathering. Each gathering has a distinct purpose  (1984:101-106).   The strength of this paradigm consists in the fact that the groups are small enough for intimate fellowship and the celebration is large enough for exuberant worship

            From a practical, experiential standpoint, it seems that this model is to be preferred. I’m speaking purely from a practical, experiential standpoint. From my research, there is common agreement   that a cell group must be small enough so that all the members can freely contribute and share personal needs. Many scientific studies have been conducted concerning  small group dynamics. Most experts agree that a group of eight to twelve people is ideal for maximum sharing and communication. Mallison  states,   “Twelve not only sets the upper limit for meaningful relationships, but provides a non—threatening situation for those who are new to small group experiences…It is significant that Jesus chose twelve men to be in his group” (1989:25). 

Some, like George set the number at ten. He  is more emphatic  by insisting that the perfect size for a cell group is ten  since it is “...the time-tested, scientifically validated size that allows for optimal communication” (1993:136). Although perhaps a bit  dogmatic, George’s  point is well worth hearing. He feels that  in order for a leader to give quality  pastoral care,  the group must be kept small (1990:125-127).

Although I personally (along with others)  believe that fifteen is a healthy limit, the point is that a cell group must remain small enough in order to maximize personal sharing.  Therefore, I wonder if a house church of 30-50 members can experience a constant   face to face intimacy? Except for the warmth of the home atmosphere, it might not be much different from a small local congregation.  This  question should also be raised about the  satellite church model.

In conclusion, it is not possible to emphatically state  that the  cell/celebration model is the only Biblical way to structure the church. However, I would argue that the New Testament does offer strong  support for this model. And from a purely pragmatic basis, I would argue that a structure which supports  small cell groups (6-15)  and a large celebration service provides both the intimacy needed for sharing as well as the largeness that is very important for worship and celebration. 


            This tutorial has attempted to  define the nature of the true church and the nature of the kingdom of God. More importantly, I have sought to reflect on the cell-based movement in light of these two theological concepts.

I have not intended to infer that  cell groups  are necessary  for the existence of Christ’s Church. Christ has built His church, and it will stand on Him alone. I have tried to make it clear that I’m dealing with what it means to experience the true Church of Jesus Christ not the ‘positional aspect’ of whether one is truly part of Christ’s church. Positionally, we are members of His church at conversion. However, many are not experiencing the reality of Christ’s body.  Therefore, I’ve argued that  cell groups are  a vital part of experiencing the  fullness of Christ’s  Church.  

Cell ministry brings God’s people together in a way that no other ministry can. It allows the people of God to exercise their gifts, minister to one another, participate in the body of Christ and truly be the living organism that Christ has intended for His Church.

I have also tried to emphasize throughout this tutorial that cell group ministry empowers  the Church to fulfill the Great Commission. We’ve discussed the various level of discipleship, and I have concluded that we can most effectively accomplish His commission through intentional, evangelizing communities within the local church.     Since the Church must glorify God by being a missionary church, we have seen the  effectiveness of small groups in reaching the lost.  Non-Christians oftentimes feel more comfortable in a home environment before integrating into the local church, and therefore the cell group ministry does serve as a vital evangelistic tool.

I’ve tried to show relate  social concern to small group ministry. Although the local church still has a role to play, it oftentimes does not  knows the intimate needs and wants of the members. Small groups uniquely meet this need by providing a close, intimate time of sharing and reflection.

Finally, I have wrestled with the  kingdom of God, as both an encouragement to small group ministries, as well as a critique of the cell movement. We have analyzed the Kingdom of God as  His rule both in this present world as well as the entire universe. Healing, Miracles, power encounters, and  outreach to the poor are present day signs that the Kingdom of God is present and reigning. The Kingdom of God paradigm reminds us that God’s ultimate rule will be perfect and just. It is His rule that we seek to follow in the cell group ministry today.



Comiskey Home Page

Cell Research 



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[1] Sider mentions these two churches in his book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.  Both churches have  home cell groups which  have a strong social outreach while maintaining the discipleship priority





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