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HISTORY OF THE CELL MOVEMENT

    By  

Joel Comiskey

 

A Ph.D. Tutorial

Presented to Dr. Paul Pierson

In Partial Fulfillment of the

Requirements for the Degree

Doctor of Philosophy In Intercultural Studies

The School of World Mission

FULLER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

 

 

 

 

 

August   1996


 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

TABLE OF CONTENTS...................................................................................................

LIST OF TABLES............................................................................................................

CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION..........................................................................................

How the Tutorial Fits into the Dissertation..........................................................................

Purpose.............................................................................................................................

Goals................................................................................................................................

Problem Statement............................................................................................................

Research Questions...........................................................................................................

Delimitations......................................................................................................................

Definitions.........................................................................................................................

Cell-Based Church........................................................................................................

House Church...............................................................................................................

Moravians.....................................................................................................................

Small Group..................................................................................................................

Broader Definition For This Paper..............................................................................

Larger Size For This Paper........................................................................................

Pietism........................................................................................................................

Assumptions....................................................................................................................

Overview Of This Tutorial................................................................................................

CHAPTER 2  SMALL GROUPS IN BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVE.....................................

Small Groups In The Old Testament.................................................................................

Small Group Concepts.................................................................................................

Jethro’s Advice To Moses...........................................................................................

Principle Utilized In The Cell Church Today.............................................................

Levels of Leadership Assures Pastoral Care.............................................................

Jethro Model Maximizes  Church Organization.........................................................

Small Groups In The New Testament...............................................................................

Christ And Small Groups.............................................................................................

The House Church  In The New Testament..................................................................

Biblical Examples.....................................................................................................

Archaeological Examples.........................................................................................

The Intimate Atmosphere Of The Home Gatherings..................................................

The Relationship  Among  The House Churches...........................................................

Biblical Examples.....................................................................................................

Scholarly Debate.....................................................................................................

The Emphasis On Cell And Celebration.......................................................................

Necessity Of Small Groups Due To Church Size......................................................

Necessity Of Small Groups Due To Persecution.......................................................

House Churches Today...............................................................................................

Restricted Area House Churches.............................................................................

Dangers Of Isolation And Lack of Accountability.....................................................

Loose Connection Among House Churches.............................................................

The Body Of Christ Motif............................................................................................

Exercise Of The Gifts...............................................................................................

Ministry To One Another.........................................................................................

The People Of God Motif............................................................................................

CHAPTER 3  SMALL GROUPS   BEFORE THE REFORMATION................................

The Demise Of The House Church...................................................................................

Distinction Between Clergy And Laity..........................................................................

The Need For Authority..........................................................................................

Apostolic Succession...............................................................................................

A Widening Gap......................................................................................................

Inadequate Ministry Structure..................................................................................

Centralized Ministry Versus Decentralized................................................................

Lessons  For Present Day Ministry...........................................................................

The Legalization Of Christianity....................................................................................

Ornate Structures Replace Simple Ones...................................................................

Laxity Leads Toward Secularism.............................................................................

Small Groups Among the Clergy......................................................................................

The Rise Of Monastic Orders..........................................................................................

From Isolation To Community......................................................................................

Evangelistic Emphasis..................................................................................................

Monastic Evangelism In Ireland................................................................................

Monastic Evangelism In England..............................................................................

Monastic Evangelism To The Rest Of The Continent................................................

Small Groups In The Middle Ages...................................................................................

Monastic Small Groups Continue.................................................................................

Sectarian Groups Emphasize Small Group Structure.....................................................

An Examination of Small Groups Before the Reformation..................................................

Small groups in Monasticism........................................................................................

Similarities Among Small Groups..............................................................................

Differences Among Small Groups.............................................................................

Small Groups Among Other Pre-Reformation Movements............................................

Summary of Examination..............................................................................................

CHAPTER 4  SMALL GROUPS DURING THE TIME OF THE REFORMATION.........

Pre-Reformation Protests.................................................................................................

Martin Luther’s Protests..................................................................................................

Luther And Small Groups................................................................................................

Earlier  Positive Attitude...............................................................................................

Later  Negative Doubts................................................................................................

Anabaptist Movement Influences His Thinking..........................................................

Reasons For  Change Of Mind................................................................................

Summary Of Luther’s Thinking.....................................................................................

Critique On Luther’s View Of Small Groups....................................................................

Limited View Of The Purpose Of Small Groups...........................................................

Lack Of Application Of The Priesthood Of All Believers..............................................

Overreaction Against Anabaptist Abuse.......................................................................

Martin Bucer...................................................................................................................

Ecclesiological Reform Through Small Groups..............................................................

Sanctification Through Small Groups........................................................................

Implementation Of Groups In The Face  Of Criticism...............................................

The Need For Cell And Celebration........................................................................

Focus  Of Groups....................................................................................................

Critique Of Bucer’s Small Groups................................................................................

Anabaptist Movement......................................................................................................

Cardinal Beliefs...........................................................................................................

Adult Baptism Rather Than Infant Baptism...............................................................

The Gathered Church Rather Than  State Church.....................................................

Diversity of Belief........................................................................................................

Commitment Of Anabaptists........................................................................................

Anabaptists And Small Groups....................................................................................

Pure Beginning.........................................................................................................

Initial  Separation.....................................................................................................

Total Separation......................................................................................................

Community Emphasis...............................................................................................

Circumstantial Necessity..........................................................................................

Critique Of Small Groups In Anabaptism......................................................................

The Sad History Of This Movement.........................................................................

Focus On Beliefs Rather Than Small Groups............................................................

Comparison To House Church Movement...............................................................

Warnings For Cell Group Ministry Today.................................................................

CHAPTER 5  SMALL GROUPS IN PIETISM..................................................................

Philip Jacob Spener.........................................................................................................

Background Of The Times...............................................................................................

Small Groups in Pietism...................................................................................................

Spiritual Reform  Achieved Through The Small Groups.................................................

Various Aspects Of The Groups..................................................................................

Focus Of The Group...............................................................................................

Leadership..............................................................................................................

Interaction...............................................................................................................

Priesthood Of All Believers......................................................................................

Times Of Meetings..................................................................................................

Material Used..........................................................................................................

Not To Replace Sunday Service..............................................................................

Criticisms Of Spener’s  Reforms..................................................................................

August Hermann Francke................................................................................................

The Spread Of Pietism.....................................................................................................

Critique Of Small Groups In Pietism.................................................................................

CHAPTER 6  SMALL GROUPS IN THE MORAVIAN AND THE METHODIST TRADITION       

The Moravians................................................................................................................

Early History...............................................................................................................

Zinzendorf...................................................................................................................

Moravian Church.........................................................................................................

Emphasis On Missions.............................................................................................

Emphasis On Prayer................................................................................................

Emphasis On Singing...............................................................................................

Small Groups In The Moravian Church............................................................................

Charateristics Of The Bands........................................................................................

Characteristics of the Choirs......................................................................................

Community Life.....................................................................................................

Separate Housing For The Choirs..........................................................................

Subordination of Nuclear Family............................................................................

Diaspora Societies.....................................................................................................

Critique Of Small Groups In Moravianism..................................................................

Methodism....................................................................................................................

Basic Facts  Of  Methodism.......................................................................................

The Wesleys..........................................................................................................

The American Experience......................................................................................

Conversion............................................................................................................

Small Groups In Methodism...........................................................................................

Wesley’s Orientation Toward Small Groups...............................................................

Wesley’s  Talents For Small Groups..........................................................................

Wesley’s Vision For Small Groups.............................................................................

Wesley’s Small Group Organization...........................................................................

Classes..................................................................................................................

Bands....................................................................................................................

Societies................................................................................................................

Wesley’s  Role..........................................................................................................

The Growth Of The Movement..................................................................................

Critique Of Small Groups In Methodism.........................................................................

CHAPTER 7  THE MODERN SMALL GROUP MOVEMENT......................................

The Small Group Movement..........................................................................................

The Covenant Model.....................................................................................................

The Serendipity Model..................................................................................................

Distinguishing Characteristics......................................................................................

Observations.............................................................................................................

The Meta Model...........................................................................................................

Original Version Of The Meta Model.........................................................................

Latest  Version Of The Meta Model..........................................................................

Meta Model In The U.S............................................................................................

The Pure Cell Model.....................................................................................................

Key Spokesperson—Ralph Neighbour......................................................................

Large Cell-Based Churches Today............................................................................

Korea...................................................................................................................

Singapore..............................................................................................................

Latin America........................................................................................................

CHAPTER 8  CONCLUSION.........................................................................................

REFERENCES CITED.....................................................................................................  

LIST OF TABLES  

Table 1  Teaching Of Waldensians,  Lollards, And Hussites                                                  

Table 2  Protests/Teaching Of Martin Luther                                                                        

Table 3  Major Streams In The Modern Cell Movement                                                     

Table 4  Churches Using The Meta Model Today                                                              

Table 5  Case Study Churches In Latin America                                                                 

 

 

 


CHAPTER 1:INTRODUCTION 

            This tutorial is about history—the history of small groups. And yes, small groups have made a significant impact in the life of the church. John Mallison writes,

      In the intervening history of the church, new spiritual life has been marked by the emergence of small groups. In the Middle Ages, amidst a church which had grown fat and short of breath through prosperity and muscle-bound by over-organization, dynamic Christians such as St Francis of Assisi gathered in small groups for prayer and study, and training and service. They kept a flame burning amidst the darkness of a decaying ecclesiasaticism. Various sections of the Anabaptist movement in Europe formed dynamic house-centered groups. The Hutterites in Moravia, Southern Germany, lived out a New Testament-style community life, which had a far-reaching impact….The Lutherans also used cells for nurturing (1989:6). 

            John Mallison is by no means exhaustive. Rather, I include this quote simply to set the stage for the rest of this tutorial. Small groups have had a significant impact upon the history of the Christian church, and therefore, I undertake this study with a great deal of excitement with what I might find.

In the history of the Christian church, small groups have been use both as an evangelistic (e.g., Monastic Movement, Moravians) as well as for discipleship (e.g., Bucer, Pietism). Small groups have also been used very effectively as an organizational tool (e.g., modern small group movement). The Historian Herbert Butterfield  strong believes this by saying, 

     The strongest organizational unit in the world’s history would appear to be that which we call a cell because it is a remorseless self-multiplier; is exceptionally difficult to destroy; can preserve its intensity of local life while vast organizations quickly wither when they are weakened at the center; can defy the power of governments; is the appropriate lever of prising open any status quo. Whether we take early Christianity or sixteenth—century Calvinism or modern communism, this seems the appointed way by which a mere handful of people may open up a new chapter in the history of civilization” (Herbert Butterfield, ‘The Role of the Individual in History’, Writings on Christianity and History ed. C.T. McIntire (New York: UOP, 1979) p. 24. Quoted by Bill Beckham in The Two Winged Church Will Fly (Houston, TX: Touch Outreach Ministries, 1993), p. 119). 

 

How the Tutorial Fits into the Dissertation

            This tutorial will play a very important part in my overall dissertation. In fact, an edited, and very limited version of this tutorial will comprise chapter three of the  dissertation which will simply  be entitled,   “A History of Cell-Based Ministry.”

 For the most part, my  actual Ph.D. research focuses primarily on the modern cell movement and more specifically, cell-based ministry in Latin America today. However,   this tutorial will supply the needed background information in order to successfully complete the rest of my Ph.D. research.  The truth of the  well-worn phrase, ‘Those who do not learn from history, usually end up repeating it’ is very applicable to this study.  The lessons that others have learned form the use of small groups will be invaluable for the future of the movement.  

Purpose  

            The purpose of this study is to trace the historical foundations for  small group ministry in order to learn important lessons  from history.  My hope is that these lessons will  both inform and warn  the small group movement  today. In a positive sense, the information gathered from a historical analysis of  small groups can help guide those who would seek to implement cell ministry today.

At the same time,  there  are various warnings that must be heeded. For example, throughout the history of small groups,  there have been times when small groups developed into factions and sects that became divisive elements in the church. Reasons for such factions and ways to avoid them will be helpful information for future small group leaders. On the other hand, the history of small groups is replete with examples of those who seemed to exercise too much  fear and caution. Their hesitancy, choked and stagnated,  a bold, confident approach to small group ministry (e.g., Luther, Zwingli).       

Goals  

            I have identified at least three goals for this study: 

1.     To trace the history of small group involvement in a broad, sweeping format, from the early Biblical times to the  present day  small group movement.

2.     To provide as much information possible about the small group strategy from each time period, as time and space allows. 

3.     To evaluate each small group model from the vantage point of the current small group movement (i.e., with the modern day knowledge of small group effectiveness)

4.     To set forth principles  that will offer  correctives and affirmations for  cell-based ministry today.  

Problem Statement  

The central research issue of this dissertation is an analysis of the contribution of cell-based ministry as a positive factor  for church growth in selected growing churches in Latin America.

Research Questions  

1.     What have been  the patterns of church growth that these churches have experienced before and after the implementation of a cell-based ministry?

2.     How have  these churches utilized  their  cell-based methodology  as a tool for church growth?

3.     What have been  the patterns that characterize effective cell leadership in these churches?

4.     How have the cultural distinctives of these churches affected their cell-based ministry?

Delimitations  

            This tutorial has several limitations:

1.     I will not be covering all of the small group movement throughout history. For example, I will not be covering the Puritan small group movement, small initial bands in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and other such movements.

2.     I will be using  broad brush strokes in contrast to detailed ones. Each section  will attempt to cover  in a general sense how  the church of Jesus Christ has used small groups throughout history. With 2000 years to deal with, it is obvious that I cannot expand and explore these movements in great detail. I will therefore  only describe in a general sense various patterns of small group involvement throughout the history of the church. 

3.     I will be critiquing historic small group movements with the present  small group knowledge. I understand that this can be very dangerous. Times, cultures, and circumstances often provide the reasons why  certain structures and methodologies were used as opposed to others. For example, the circumstances that gave rise to the  monastic movement are totally distinct and foreign to our present culture. The same could be said about the state church concept found at the time of the reformation. In other words, I simply want to acknowledge the danger of projecting current circumstances and knowledge upon historical realities of yesteryear.

4.     I will not be able to provide a lot of contextual back ground and   information about each  particular era. This is a weakness in that it could lead to misinformation by the reader. However, for the sake of space and focus, I felt that I must use this approach.

5.     I will  be emphasizing certain historical eras of church history more than others.  For example, William Dean wrote 563 pages about cell groups in British Methodism for his Ph.D. thesis (1985).  In keeping with my focus of painting broad strokes in this tutorial, I will try to cover each era in a balanced way without spending too much time on any one movement. [1]  

Definitions  

            It might be helpful to introduce a few reoccurring terms that will appear  throughout this tutorial.  

Cell-Based Church  

Those churches will be considered cell-based if at least 60%  of the regular adult attendees  are also involved in a church related small group. These cell groups should   regularly meets  for the purpose of edification and evangelism.  The cell group ministry is  not considered to be just another program in the church but are viewed  to be the very heart of the church.

Since this concept forms the heart of my Ph.D. research, I will spend more time describing what a cell-based church might look like.  Although not all of the following characteristics will be present in a cell-based church, yet the vast majority will be present:

1.     Cells Form  Part Of The Local Church Structure (commitment to cell and celebration)

2.     Emphasis Is On The Components Of The Cell (as opposed to labeling all small groups cells)

3.     Similarity Among the Cell Groups (with regard to teaching material, format, etc.)

4.     Partnership In Evangelism (the group sees themselves as an evangelizing unit)

5.     Groups Must Multiply In A Certain Time Period (or be dissolved)

6.     Uniformity Of Lesson Material (as opposed to each leader deciding what they will do)

7.     Strong Administrative Control (required reports, strict Jethro model)

8.     Ongoing Cell Leader Training (not optional)

9.     Rapid Releasing Of Leadership (due to rapid multiplication, many new leaders must be raised up)

10.  Very Few Programs Apart From Cells (other programs are discouraged or cut out)

11.  Cells Take Care of Basic Church Duties (cells replace volunteer help)

12.  Commitment Of Head Pastor To Cell Ministry (or the cell ministry will not succeed)

13.  Cells form Basis for Pastoral Team (each pastor has a major role in the cell system)

14.  Goal Of 100% Participation Of Members In Cell Groups (normally between 70-90%)  

House Church  

            A house church is a fully functioning, complete church that is meeting in the home. Although there might be interrelationships between various house churches, each one is a self-sustaining, self-propagating entity.  Neighbour describes the difference between a cell group and a house church this way,

“There is a distinct difference between the house church and the cell group movements. House Churches tend to collect a community of 15-25 people who meet together on a weekly basis. Usually, each House Church stands alone. While they may be in touch with nearby House Churches, they usually do not recognize any further structure beyond themselves (Neighbour 1990:193).  

Moravians 

            The Moravian movement began in 1722 when  a few refugees from the persecutions of Protestants in Bohemia and Moravia settled on the estate of Nicolas Ludwig, Count of Zinzendorf (1700-1760). Zinzendorf formed this group of refugees into a missionary minded church that sent missionaries all over the world. Like the Monastic Missionary bands, the Moravians used small group structures to spread the gospel.  

Small Group  

My definition of a small group will be more general in this tutorial due to the historical nature of the subject matter.  

Broader Definition For This Paper  

The way that I have described small groups in my Ph.D. research thus far  is:

     Cell groups  are small  groups of people  which are intimately linked to the life of the church (Acts 2:46). These groups meet for the purpose of spiritual edification and   evangelistic outreach. Those in the cell groups are committed to participate in the functions of the local church and when new people outside the church are added to the group, they too are  encouraged to become responsible, baptized  members of  Christ’s body. The cell group is never seen as an isolated gathering of believers who have replaced the role of the local church.  

            However, for this paper, I will need to expand this definition. The small groups that I will be studying in this paper cannot be neatly categorized in the framework of the cell church today. There are simply too many contextual and historical factors at work. For example, due to persecution in the early church, the house church movement was a different phenomenon than the small group movement today. Although,  it can be argued that the house churches  formed linked with the church at large in celebration events,  those events were irregular due to the intense persecution.

The issue of small groups in the Monastic Movement also presents a different picture from the modern cell movement today. The same can be said of  the Anabaptist small groups  and those in the Pietistic movement. Another  factor concerns groups size.  

Larger Size For This Paper  

In this tutorial, I will also need to adjust my concept of group size. For example, many  small group experts today believe that the perfect size for a small group lies  between  eight and  twelve people. Mallison, who is a veteran  small group practitioner 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). 

On the other hand, George sets  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, I will not strictly stick to my definition for the purpose of this  historical study. We know that an early house church have had between 25 to 40 individuals (Mayer 1976:295). The Monastic Movement  seems to be more ‘congregational’  in size than ‘cell’.

Rather than focusing on size and some kind of a precise definition, in this paper, I will define the term small group as a Christian group which is limited in size and that meets regularly  for the purpose of edification and/or evangelistic outreach. 

Pietism 

            In a narrow sense, it signifies the movement for spiritual renewal that sprang out of the Lutheran and Reformed churches in continental Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Bloesch 1973:103).   

Assumptions 

            I hold to several assumption that might affect my interpretation in this tutorial:  

1.     That the small group methodology is highly effective as a church growth paradigm and should be studied in order to better equip Christian leadership today

2.     That an effective small group will manifest both discipleship qualities as well as evangelistic qualities with the goal of eventually giving birth to a daughter group

3.     That it is God’s will that His Church grows.  

Overview Of This Tutorial  

            This tutorial will cover a number of historical small group movements:  

1.     The Biblical small group movement

a.      Small Group Teaching  in the Old Testament

b.     Small Group Teaching  in the New Testament

2.     The Early Church House Movement

3.     The Development of Small Groups Throughout the Middle Ages

a.      Small Groups in the Monastic Movement

b.     Small Groups in Among the Early Church Fathers

c.      Small Groups Among Early Sectarian Movements

4.     Martin Luther and Small Groups

5.     Martin Bucer and Small Groups

6.     Small Groups in Anabaptism

7.     Small Groups in Pietism

8.     Small Groups in Moravianism

9.     Small Groups in Methodism

10. The Modern Small Group Movement

CHAPTER 2: Small Groups in Biblical Perspective

Small groups have played an important place in Biblical history. The book of Exodus gives us principles for the organization of a small group ministry (Exodus 18). Jesus demonstrated the power of small groups by personally organizing one and then dedicating His time and energy to that small group. The early church is also an excellent example of the power in a  small group ministry. Yes, the Bible is complete with illustrations and instructions  concerning small group ministry.  

Small Groups In The Old Testament  

History  is often called His story.  From the creation of the world, to God’s dealing with the  nation of Israel, the Old Testament traces God’s handiwork. Many theologians have suggested overriding themes that best describe the Old Testament. The Kingdom of God motif has been chosen by many. Others prefer to see the concept of covenant as a unifying theme.  There might even be those who would choose to look at the O.T. from the lenses of  small group ministry. [2]   Although I will not try to force a small group paradigm  upon the Old Testament, there does seem to be some noteworthy small group concepts.  

Small Group Concepts  

            There are many general concepts from the Old Testament that establish the core values of  small group ministry. One of those concepts is the community of God’s people. This perspective of God creating a people for the purpose of relationship is a common thread.  G. Ernest Wright observes that community was God’s central act in the Old Testament (quoted in Gorman 1994:34).

Community and communion can first be seen  in the Trinity. The first small group was between the Godhead. The relationship that existed from the beginning between the three in One is the perfect model of  unity and harmony. Garth Icenogle suggests, “…from the beginning, God existed in community as group being in creative action. From a historically classic Trinitarian view of God, the divine group existed as three persons in conversation and mission” (1994:22).

After the pattern of this relationship between the members of the Trinity, it can be argued that God originally created man for relationship  with Himself.  Although it’s fruitless to argue that God needs man’s company, the Bible seems to indicate that God finds great pleasure in relating to  mankind. Julie Gorman writes “God is not a force or a principle or an impersonal dynamic. God is a person enjoying and pursuing relationships. The entire account of Scripture is a record of His commitment to developing encounters with others” (1993:24).  This  theme of community and communion that is so evident throughout O.T. history is also a key small group theme (Watson 1978: 67-74).

In a general sense,  the entire Bible can be linked to one of the focal points of small group ministry—the development of close relationships. However, it seems to me that one should be careful not to read small group themes into the Bible that might not exist. [3] With this caution in mind, I will not attempt to  extract small group themes from the Old Testament that are not specifically stated or that are not already commonly used among small group advocates. I will try to be as specific as possible.

One of those specific themes that is used widely in the cell church today is the organizational principle that Jethro first introduced in Exodus 18 when he gave timely counsel to  Moses.  

Jethro’s Advice To Moses  

Moses was God’s man. It was he who had led the nation of Israel out of Egypt. The entire nation of Israel looked to Moses for advice and direction. Yet, Moses lacked the skills of delegation. He  seems to have taken upon himself too much responsibility. Jethro’s advice to Moses is straightforward,

When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?…,’ ‘What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear themselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone….You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people…and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied” (Exodus 18:14-23).  

            From this passage, it is clear that Moses was trying to do all the work himself. He felt that since he was God’s  anointed leader, all of the work rested upon his shoulders. The counsel of Jethro not only liberated Moses to concentrate only on the ‘difficult cases’, but it also provided a better system of care for the people. George writes,

     No one can listen to a hundred voices at once. Most leaders have a hard enough time keeping track of ten without the flock starting to feel uncared for. Further, just as Jethro’s judges were unsalaried locals who did their work when they could, out of their shepherding time so church lay workers can handle only so much span of care before they themselves burn out. For these reasons, small groups that grow beyond ten need to divide” (1991:125).  

Principle Utilized In The Cell Church Today  

This concept of ‘span of care’ and pastors over pastors is a major theme in the cell church today.  Everyone is monitored, pastored, and accountable—from the high level pastor of pastors to the cell intern.  Paul Cho is an example of someone who has done that. Even in a church of 750,000, Cho has been able to maintain an average of one lay leader to every ten to sixteen church members (Hurston 1995:68). For example, in 1988 alone, 10,000 new lay leaders were appointed for ministry (Hurston 1995:194).

Describing this phenomenon, Logan states,

     “Every one of the half million members of the church interacts each week in a cell-group body life. Whereas the typical church grows to a point where it stretches to the limit its pastors’ ability to minister to each member, a cell group church has no limit as long as you are effectively mobilizing laity to minister through cell groups” (1989:120).  

It seems that the cell group is uniquely  furnished to provide  ample opportunity for lay involvement.   The cell leaders pastor, visit, evangelize, counsel, administrate, and generally care for their cell members. For example in pastor Cho’s church, it would be impossible to effectively minister to the 650,000 people  apart from the cell groups. However, with 55,000 trained cell leaders in  22,000 cell groups, the church is fully  able to disciple its members.  

Levels of Leadership Assures Pastoral Care  

The two major models in the cell church today (Meta Model and Pure Cell Model) both pattern their stratified leadership after  Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus 18. [4]    For example, the pure cell church is organized into groups of tens, fifties, five hundred, and several thousand. The fundamental unit is the cell leader over ten.  Then there are the section leaders which are over  five cell groups, for a total of fifty people.  Next are the  zone leaders who oversee five section leaders for a total of 250. [5] It is my understanding that the district pastor will oversee up to five zone pastors  which make him responsible for a total of 2500 people  (Neighbour 1990:195). [6]

            Each leader of leaders is expected to visit, counsel, teach, exhort, evangelize and help the leaders or members under their care. The difference between the zone and district pastors is that they also perform marriages, funerals, preach, offer communion, baptize, and generally  carry out the  professional work of the pastor. [7] In the pure cell church, the cells are categorized geographically into districts according to zip codes. These geographical districts will often act as congregations (Neighbour 1990:356). [8]    

Jethro Model Maximizes  Church Organization  

After Dr. McGavran had visited Cho’s church in 1976, he called it ‘the best organized church in the world’ (Hurston 1995:192). I heard Cho say in 1984 that even when he is in the United States., he can locate every  person in his  500,000  member church  (now much larger) through the cell system. [9] Cho could say this because every leader is accountable to another leader who is also accountable to someone else.

Weekly statistical, prayer reports are handed in each week. These reports  provide the administrative strength to the cell church.  It is through these reports that the powerful Jethro  organization takes place. A normal cell group report includes the weekly attendance in the cell group, the location of the next meeting, those who were saved, and other important details. [10]  

Small Groups In The New Testament  

The small group movement today does not see itself as an isolated unit. All of the small group literature that I have read finds an intimate link between present day involvement and early  New Testament history.  

Christ And Small Groups  

            The first New Testament example of a small group is the small group that Christ chose. Many have expounded upon Christ’s small group,  and the fact that he spend so much  intimate time with them. (Hull 1988:225-250).  Icenogle comments,

Jesus modeled God’s way of transforming the world. He called out a small group of people to experience their own exodus journey together, to move from the enslavement of controlling social, political, and religious patterns to enter into the freedom of ‘pouring new wine into new wineskins’ (1994:118).  

 Beckham also notes that, “For three and a half years, He lived with twelve leaders who were His special community” (1995:135).  Mark’s gospel tells us the first priority for this called out community,  “He appointed twelve—designating them apostles---that they might be with him…(3:14). For three years, this small group spent time with Jesus.

Yet, was there another, more far-reaching purpose behind the formation of this initial small group? According to Beckham, Christ’s example of spending time with twelve disciples  is the  perfect model for starting a cell church. He writes, “

The Leadership Core Stage provides a group to own and oversee the vision….Jesus called out a core group to model His ecclesia or ‘called out ones’….They formed His basic community through which He would prepare future leaders” (1995:153).   

In this study New Testament, I must focus my attention on the small group paradigm that is most relevant for he small group movement today—the early church.  

The House Church  In The New Testament  

It’s worth noting 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 a day when home meetings are foreign and church meetings are a way of life, it’s important to remember the home context of the early church.  

Biblical Examples 

            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 due to the  early church persecution, the role of the house church became normative (Barclay 1955:228). Murray  notes, 

   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).  

Bruce also 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).

 

Bruce’s comment about Priscilla and Aquila are quite interesting. He mentions their home ministry in  Ephesus and Rome, but it is also likely  that Priscilla and Aquilla opened their home in Corinth as well. It was in Corinth  where they first teamed up with Paul  (Beckham 1995:106).  Writing about these two, Beckham says, “They were leaders, and yet leaders who functioned at the most basic level of ministry. Aquila and Priscilla were home church leaders, the basic working unit of the early church” (1995:106). 

Archaeological Examples 

Along with the Biblical evidence for the existence of house churches in the early church, there is also a plethora of archeological evidence. Mayer points out,

Students of archeological ruins point out that the Christians had no place for larger assemblies. If a community had a wealthy member who had a larger house, his largest room could hardly have accommodated more than this small group” (1976:295).  

More specifically, archeological discoveries in the city of Capernaum in Galilee indicate that a house church met in what appeared to be the house of Peter the apostle (Tan 1994:43). In Clementine Recognitions (10:17), Theophilus of Antioch used his home as a meeting place. From the descriptions of Clement of Alexandria  in  Egypt, it appears that a house church met in the home of a wealthy member of the congregation (Tan 1994:43). The list of such findings could go on. Suffice it to say, the house became the church in those early days. Although oftentimes forced to do so, it seems that God in His sovereignty permitted such a situation to exist. He knew that the His Church would best function in a intimate home atmosphere.  

The Intimate Atmosphere Of The Home Gatherings  

Many believe that  the size and atmosphere of those early house church meetings greatly added to the effectiveness of the ministry of the early church. Thankfully, the impersonal atmosphere of a large gathering in a gothic like cathedral were not possible in those early days. Rather, the structure was simple and warm. Mayer describes the home meeting best when he says,  

     It is important to note that the Christians of Justin’s day, like those of Jesus’ and Paul’s time, usually came together in small groups. Most of these groups probably did not number much more than 25 to 40 individuals….In these small groups, Christians knew each other intimately, they loved and cared for each other, and the Gospel did its work with maximum effectiveness (1976:295).  

Those of us who are Bible students know that one of the first principles of Biblical Inspiration is that inspiration  only extends to the intent of the  Biblical author when He was writing the Scripture. Application is an entirely different subject. Therefore, it’s essential to understand the context from which the New Testament authors wrote their inspired epistles. 

In many cases, that context is the home. When reading the New Testament, it’s important to remember that the exhortations to love one another, to use the gifts of the Spirit, and to participate in the Lord’s Supper  all have their roots in the family atmosphere of a home (Goetzman 1976:250). 

A whole different set of dynamics and images exist in a larger building structure. It’s fair to say that Paul might have laid down a different methodology had he been writing to a church meeting in a huge cathedral or building. Because our church structure today is so often based upon the church building, it’s hard to place ourselves in the New Testament context when we read the Scriptures. Take,  for example, the practice of communion.  We practice communion in a much different atmosphere today than those early Christians experienced. Barclay writes,

     There can be no two things more different than the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in a Christian home in the first century and in a cathedral in the twentieth century. The things are so different that it is almost possible to say that they bear no relationship to each other whatsoever” (Barclay quoted in Beckham 1995:111).  

The Relationship  Among  The House Churches  

            It has already been suggested that the early house churches were not independent entities. Rather, they seemed to meet together both in the confines of the local house church as well as celebration events.  

Biblical Examples  

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).  At this point, Banks agrees (1994:32).

The same can be said about the church in Thessalonica 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.  

Scholarly Debate 

The Biblical evidence has its support among scholars who have studied the New Testament texts. For example, F.F. 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 writes,

      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).  

However, in Paul’s later usage of ecclesia, Banks debates the  view that the house churches were connected to a common celebration structure.  He insists that the house churches were independent entities with no organizational framework to bind them together. However, it’s important to note that Banks does  acknowledge that Paul did seek to link the various house churches together, although  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). 

Although the evidence can be debated,  it does appear that  the celebration/cell model was normative in the New Testament, especially when persecution was limited. 

The Emphasis On Cell And Celebration  

This structure of  both the celebration and the cell structure is first seen in the first meetings of the church after Pentecost.  In Acts 2:46 states, “Every  day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and at together with glad and sincere hearts,…”  It’s clear that the Jerusalem church both met in the large area in the temple (Solomon’s Colonnade) and in homes.  

Acts 5:42 tells us that there were meetings both  in the temple courts and from house to house. Finally, in Acts 20:20 Paul mentions that fact  that he taught in Ephesus both publicly and from house to house (Malphurs 1992:212). There can be no doubt that both structure were used in the New Testament.     Elmer Towns  is quite insistent about the two pronged 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 George  1993.136)

Necessity Of Small Groups Due To Church Size  

 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. Much like the earlier counsel of Jethro, it was essential for the apostles to delegate their ministry into smaller units. As we’ve already seen from Acts 2:46,  the huge church was broken down into manageable units through the home gatherings. 

Necessity Of Small Groups Due To Persecution

In the early part of the first century AD  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. We aren’t sure about the regularity of the celebration event because eventually the  early church was forced to emphasize the home meetings more than the gathered celebration. Yet, even if the midst of persecution, it does appear that there were periodic celebration events. Beckham believes that  one can find from church history an abundance of evidence that the church has always met in both homes and large celebrations (1995:108).

House Churches Today  

The house church movement today has done a great service to the church by reminding us of our New Testament roots . This  movement  rightly points to the New Testament as the basis for their practice.  

Restricted Area House Churches  

Those house movement which are meetings in restricted areas to the gospel are probably even closer to the New Testament model. China is an excellent example. The house church model in China is working very effectively in an land where persecution to the gospel is a fact of life.

Yet, when there is liberty to meet openly and without restrictions, it appears that the celebration/cell paradigm is more Biblical.  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.  Beckham wisely states,

   The problem today is not in proving the church existed in both large congregations and small cells during the first century. That is evident in the New Testament. Our problem today is that the traditional church ignores the New Testament pattern and lives without New Testament community. In light of the overwhelming evidence, how can that continue? (1995:109)  

Dangers Of Isolation And Lack of Accountability  

Yet,  many house churches today do not recognize any authority beyond them-selves and do not follow the cell/celebration paradigm. 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).  

It is my opinion that  if a  house church does not recognize any authority beyond themselves, there are various dangers that can  occur. One of those dangers is the issue of independence and isolation.  When a small group leader   exercises control without  outside accountability,   false doctrine and other problems can develop. The small group movement today which is intimately connected with the local church structure can  usually  avoid that problem. 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).

Loose Connection Among House Churches 

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.

            Along with the house  church paradigm, so pervasive in the background of the New Testament, are several common apostolic teachings that tie in so beautifully the value of small group ministry.

 

CONTINUE TO PART 2 OF CELL CHURCH HISTORY

[1] The justification for a the broad, historical  approach to small group ministry is to depict general patterns and similarities that were utilized throughout history. For my current Ph.D. research, it seems more important for me  to understand the interconnectedness of small group ministry  since Biblical times, rather than become an expert on just one movement. 

[2] In Gareth Icenogle’s book, Biblical Foundations For Small Group Ministry, he seems to imply that the key Biblical theme in the Bible is small groups. Personally, I could not agree.

[3] Gareth Icenogle spends 105 pages describing the Old Testament foundations for Small Group Ministry. From my perspective, Gareth tries to see the Old Testament from ‘small group eyes’, and he comes dangerously close to ‘eisagesis’ (reading into the text)  instead of ‘exagesis’ (taking out of the text what it really says).  I would therefore be hesitant to read small group implications into general O.T. concepts.

[4] I did case studies of five Meta Model churches and three Pure Cell churches. All of them, without exception referred to Jethro’s advice to Moses as the basis for their cell leader care. In fact, I would even be so bold to say that it is the one common element that unites both systems.

[5] In Larry Stockstill’s church  (Bethany World Prayer Center) the zone leaders are on staff.

[6] In practically all pure cell churches, the district pastor is on staff. In Cho’s church there are pastors of district pastors and the Jethro model continues to reach up to the very top.

[7] It should be noted that  in some cell churches, the cell leader baptizes and serves communion to those under his or her care.

[8] At Bethany World Prayer Center, the district pastors would  hold congregational Sunday p.m. services once per month. One of the district pastors would preach.

[9] Cho said this during the Church Growth Lectures at Fuller Seminary in 1984

[10] Some cell reports go into great detail. The reports at Bethany World Prayer Center include the activities of the cell leader during the week—number of visits, time spent in preparation, etc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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