Q&A: Small Groups or the Church?

Small Groups or the Church?

Question

Why should church be set up with pastors as the leaders with their leadership as opposed to small groups where you can hold them to more accountability, and likewise they can know you personally and hold you accountable?

Answer

First, a small group differs from a church in that it is small and has limited, if any, leadership. On the other hand, a church may be of any size and has organization with a prescribed leadership (if biblical, at least deacons and elders, with all other members using their respective gifts in unity).

Second, the Bible does not dismiss the idea of "small." Initially the church met house to house (Acts 5:42; 20:20; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15; Phile. 2). The Bible also reveals that at times it met in larger areas such as the temple (Acts 2:46-47; 4:1; 5:17-21, 42) and Solomon's Colonnade (Acts 5:12). Later, as the church grew and had more converts and persecution increased, church history records they met in different locations. In Rome and some other cities Christians worshiped at the martyrs' tombs in the underground cemeteries or catacombs.

Third, while the Bible gives no specifications for church size or even what type of building to meet in, it does prescribe that there should be leaders and unity (Matt. 18:17; Acts 5:11; 8:1; 9:31; 11:22; 12:1; 14:23; 15:4, 22; 16:4; 20:17; 1 Tim 5:17, etc.). The Scriptures show us that Paul had elders appointed "in every town, as [he] directed" (Tit. 1:5). In James 5:14 people are told to call the elders for any who are sick so they may pray over them and anoint them with oil. How could a small group fulfill this if there is no church leadership (elders)? It was not to small group leaders, but to church leaders that the author of Hebrews writes, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you" (Heb. 13:17). How would those with the gift of pastoring (Eph. 4:11-16) fulfill their calling without the church? Paul leaves no doubt as to the existence of elders and deacons in 1 Timothy 3: "I am writing you these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth" (1 Tim 3:14-15). Just prior to these words, Paul calls for elders and deacons in the churches and even gives rules and regulations for their existence (1 Tim. 3:1-10; Tit. 1:5-9).

In addition to the above, it is doubtful that in a small group all the remaining gifts would be present and thus make it doubtful that it could fulfill other Scriptures pertaining to its members (1 Cor. 12:12-26, etc.).

Moreoever if we look at Old Testament Israel as an example of church - which indeed it was - then we see a unity of a rather large group of individuals at a service. God's Word supports the existence of the church, small and large alike, with leadership as designed by God's Word.

Although the church meets in a building, it is more than a building. It is also more than an organization of elders and deacons and those that serve (as well as those that unfortunately don't). It is also a living organism with Christ as its head (Eph. 5:23). We, his children, his servants, are "members of his body" (Eph. 5:22-33). It should also be noted that the visible church also contains unregenerate members.

Fourth, small groups may exist within the church. However, at times they can become cliquish and can destroy church unity and pose problems, therefore needing careful oversight. In the Corinthian church it was "I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ" (1 Cor. 1:12). Church history also records there were some small groups/churches that splintered off into heretical groups (for example Marcion, who taught that the God of the Old Testament was not the true God but rather the true and higher God had been revealed only with Jesus Christ). Though small groups are not mandated by Scripture, they can work well, but still must be monitored by those who are experienced and taught in the faith. Paul gives us instruction regarding this:

Eph 4:11-16 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Finally, God calls for church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; Gal 6:1-6). It has been my experience that the great majority of churches today neglect this part of God's teaching. Some do not entertain it as they fear they may lose members, failing to understand that, if God is indeed sovereign, their garden may actually produce more fruit if they got rid of some of the weeds (every garden needs weeding, even the initial one at creation). Additionally, nowhere does it say that a church needs to be large. Actually, in some instances, losing members is a sort of a revival as the peace of God may reside among the remaining membership. Additionally, since a small group does not have any "specific biblical authority" to enforce discipline (as the church does), it is doubtful, if one is following scripture, it could more effectively do what God has prescribed the church should do (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; Gal. 6:1-6). When the church takes its proper ownership of church discipline, it will begin to see revival within its own ranks.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).