A Critique of BJS Reader James’ Defense of Small Groups, by Pr. Rossow

Over on the post about the end of the “missional mindset” BJS reader James defends the promulgation of small groups. People are really confused about what Scripture and the Confessions say about small groups so here is some clarity. (See comments #7 and #19.)

James does not like the style of “ministry” done by the likes of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren because their message is too much about the self and felt needs. James is right about that. So instead he makes sure that the studies used in his and his wife’s small group are from CPH. Good for him but not good enough. James is wrong to defend small groups and I hope to show why.

I have taken the time to summarize Jame’s case for small groups. (It is easy to set up straw men in a post like this so I have tried to use Jame’s own words and ideas. If I have misrepresented the case, James or other readers who support small groups can use the comment section below to replace any straw with meat and bones.)

Jame’s support of small groups consists of the following five points:

  1. Small groups are the right thing to do because they work.
  2. Small groups are the right thing to do because they create “fellowship.”
  3. There is no other way for Lutherans to create “fellowship.”
  4. Small groups are the right thing to do because it helps new members get to know other members.
  5. Small groups have become too big of a thing and the church is just helpless to make them go away, even if they are wrong.

James has a good feel for the harmful narcissism of Hybels and Warren but his rationale in support of small groups does not stand the test of reason nor Scripture. Here are some thoughts on his five points.

#1 – Small groups are the right thing to do because they work. James has experienced “success” in his small group. They have successfully created an environment of care and camaraderie. That’s good. But, we do not do things in the church because they work if they are contrary to God’s way. God’s way of studying Scripture is with God’s called teacher of Scripture. James has fallen prey in his logic to American pragmatism which judges truth based on “what works.” If it works, it is true. The Scriptures reject that logic. We do things in the Church that are taught in God’s Word or are consistent with God’s Word. Laymen teaching other laymen and having authority over them is not Scriptural. Who is the divinely ordained authority in the small group? James does not have authority over any of the other men in his small group. This brings to mind another principle at work here. Small groups are consistent with American individualism. There is some truth in this individualism but it is not the organizing principle of God for delivering His means of grace. We are all equal in Christ but we are not all teachers. The pastor is the teacher and the authority called by God to oversee the Word in the congregation. At work James is in authority over those who work for him. At the church men’s club, the officers of the group have authority. When the Word is being taught in the parish it is the pastor who has the God-given authority to supervise. Without a pastor present, it is simply a free for all.

#2 – Small groups are the right thing to do because they create “fellowship.” James is confused about what the Bible teaches on “fellowship.” He uses the Greek word ‘koinonia.” The word koinonia in its base meaning can refer to the sort of camaraderie that James finds in his small group but in the New Testament it is used in a much more profound way. It is used to describe the fellowship that we have with God through the forgiveness of sins and participation (fellowship) in the body and blood of Christ in His Supper. The camaraderie that James speaks of (people helping him when he is sick) is important but it is not what the Bible is referring to when it refers to the importance of “fellowship” in the parish. The sort of camaraderie James refers to is an outgrowth of the administration of Word and sacrament delivered by the stewards of the mysteries of God – the pastors (I Cor. 4:1). In the Small Catechism’s Table of Duties Luther reminds us that there are two main vocations in the church. There are preachers and hearers. The preachers owe it to their hearers to preach the pure Gospel. The hearers owe it to their preachers to obey them insofar as they preach this pure Gospel. This simple pair from the Table of Duties shows us the Biblical organizational principle for the parish and the alternative to small groups.

#3 – There is no other way for Lutherans to create “fellowship.” Here James is just simply overstating his case and setting up a false alternative. There are all sorts of ways to organize so that the parish takes care of its members. Our parish delivers meals to those in need. We provide rides to church. We visit the shut-ins. We provide housing for two different member families and more. James’ small group has helped him. I do not deny that but that does not mean that small groups are the only way we can care for each other and that we must have small groups if we are going to care for each other. I am also in favor of camaraderie. That happens in the divinely intended small group known as the family and secondarily with the family of God at church in various activities. I am looking forward to the camaraderie of enjoying the Super Bowl tomorrow with our Brothers of John the Steadfast chapter. I also enjoy camaraderie with the several neighborhood and civic activities that I participate in (tennis league, neighborhood dinner out night, etc.). Camaraderie is a sacrament (small “s”) of the left hand kingdom. Fellowship as spoken of in the Bible, is a Sacrament of the right hand kingdom and comes from the altar, pulpit and font. I encourage James and others to change their view of what the church provides. If you look to your church to provide the one thing needful, the mystery of unity with Christ through the preached and sacramental Word, you will be free to find camaraderie in other places. When camaraderie happens at church it is a good thing and it should be a part of our planning at church but it is secondary to the plans we make to administer Word and sacrament.

#4 – Small groups are the right thing to do because it helps new members get to know other members. (See #3 above.)

#5 – Small groups have become too big of a thing and the church is just helpless to make then go away, even if they are wrong. We began with American pragmatism and we end with it. James’ argumentation is really bad here and really scary. We just can’t get rid of these things so let’s just keep them. I will let you be the judge of that line of reasoning.

Let me add a few more thoughts. Small groups are not necessary. That is why we have church buildings. We build church buildings in order to bring a large group of people together to hear the Word and receive the sacraments via the called servants of God. Our church building is large enough that we can have hundreds of people studying the Word of God with their pastors teaching it, several times a day. There is no time nor space crunch keeping our members from learning the Word of God from their pastor. The only thing that seems to be limiting us is the unwilling spirits of sinful people. That will always be a challenge for the church. Setting up a faux means of administering the Word is not the solution. Here is a helpful question that gets to the heart of the notion that small groups are the unneccessary and often harmful “churches within the church.” Why don’t we administer Holy Communion in small groups? If laymen can teach the Word in small groups to great effect then we also ought to be able to administer Holy Communion in small groups. Yes?

Here is another thought. People claim that they get the Word more effectively in the informal and casual small group setting. Holy cow! That kind of thinking totally diminishes the power of the Word by submitting it to environmental affects not to mention how it diminishes the divinely ordained office of the ministry. If the church must have small groups then let us go all the way and emasculate ourselves by doing away with these expensive buildings and expensive pastors with their costly benefit plans. Here’s to small groups! They get the Word to us in a more effective manner and they solve all the cash problems of the church.

Above all, there is no mandate in Scripture for small group Bible study. The only place we see anything like it is in I Corinthians and there it is ridiculed, not encouraged. Everywhere Paul goes he appoints pastors to supervise and administer the Word and the sacraments. This is what God mandates in Scripture (Ephesians 4).

There are some good confessional theologians who get a little squeamish about abolishing small groups because they do not want to eliminate the duty and right of the laity to know and study Scripture. I don’t either. The laity need to be listening for the voice of Christ from the pastor nad if they do not hear it, they are to rebuke him and see to it that the pure Gospel is preached. But this is not the same as saying that the laity have the right to assemble around the word apart from the pastor. Rights never have a home in the church. Christians do not demand things based on their rights. They search the Scriptures and look for their duties and vocations. This is a question of vocation. If someone argues that they have a right as a layman to study the Scriptures in a small group apart from a called teacher of the Word (i.e. a pastor) then they have entered an arena of rights and demands that does not square with the Scriptural teaching of vocation and servanthood. That takes us right back to the post where we started. As Rev.Woodford points out, even the church growth gurus are figuring out that vocation is the issue and that small groups are not the way to go.

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