Everything I Needed to Know about Small Groups I Learned at Seminary from the Historical, Exegetical and Systematics Departments, by Pr. Rossow

What seems like just yesterday, although it has actually been nearly 25 years now, I sat at the feet of scholars that many still honor and revere in the LCMS and from them I learned how to be a pastor. I studied under exegetes Dale Meyer (now the president of the seminary), Erich Kiehl, and Horace Hummel to name a few. I also studied under historians David Daniel (who long ago left for Eastern Europe and now I think I know why) and Quentin Wesselschmidt. I also studied under Systematicians Norman Nagel, Ronald Feuerhahn, Richard Klann, and John Johnson. I listened to their teachings against Pietism and small groups, compared it to Scripture, accepted it, confessed it and am now passing it on to others.

Now I hear that this same institution, less than one generation later is not only adding small groups to seminary training but that they are even replacing chapel to do so. That does not square.

Here is a summary of what I learned about small groups from the theologians of our father’s church and of my seminary:

The Historical Department: Philipp Jacob Spener founded the movement called pietism which sought to highlight individual piety often over and against the traditional, ritualistic and liturgical piety of the church. The ecclesiai in ecclesia (little congregations within the congregation, i.e. small groups) were the chief tool of the movement. Not surprisingly Pietism influenced John Wesley who founded Methodism, a similarly reactionary movement rooted in methods of sanctification and a more emotional piety than is typically wrought by the liturgy. The LCMS has a curious tie to Pietism. Martin Stephan, the ousted Bishop of the Saxon immigration (which would become the LCMS) attracted many young seminarians, students, pastors and laity to his emotional nighttime, pietistic prayer services, a young C. F. W. Walther (the ultimate founder of the LCMS) included. Young Walther would eventually see the error of his ways and became a staunch opponent of things pietistic and Methodist.

The Exegetical Department: Among other insights I remember learning from the exegetes that the so called “house church” phenomenon used to support the notion of small groups is a myth. The argument goes like this. All through the New Testament we see the disciples meeting in small “house churches” therefore this is the model for the church today. I learned there are at least two problems with this notion. Actually, these “house churches” were not small. They were hosted by the likes of wealthy people like Lydia who would have large outdoor areas (possibly covered by a roof) where their slaves would have dined and gathered. As many as 100 people could meet in these courtyards all in the comfort of the mild Mediterranean climate. Keep in mind there was no middle class like we have today. There were the poor and the wealthy. There were no middle class suburban homes that could house a group of 10-20 people where so many small groups meet today. Instead, the so called house churches were large gatherings. Secondly, as soon as Christianity was legalized the church bought large, open and public buildings for the liturgy. The gatherings in the courtyard house churches were not by design but by necessity.

The Systematics Department: From these scholars I learned respect for the means of grace and the office of the ministry. I learned of the poor translation of Ephesians 4 that makes it sound like the pastor is the equipper of the laity for the work of ministry when actually the better translation makes the “work of the ministry” one of the three things the pastor does. It matters where the commas go which is something that no small group would ever discern as they sit around seeking to learn what the text “means to them.” I also learned from them it is given to the pastor to teach the word. The Confessions are clear that no ought not to teach without being properly called.

One of the things I would later learn on my own while doing research for my dissertation is that Walther openly and clearly spoke against small groups. In his “The Proper Form of the Christian Congregation” paragraph 25 he states:

In order that the Word of God may have full scope in a congregation, the congregation should lastly tolerate no divisions by way of conventicles, that is, of meetings for instruction and prayer aside from the divinely ordained public ministry, 1 Cor. 11:18; Jas. 3:1; 1 Cor. 12:29; 14:28; Acts 6:4; Rom. 10:15: “How shall they preach except they be sent?”

Given the fact that the seminary is now promoting small groups and replacing Tuesday chapels with small groups four times a quarter, it begs the question: Was I taught wrongly?

I am sure the professors at the seminary may be able to craft some sort of statement that tries to distance what they are doing from the small groups of Methobapticostalism but I will never be convinced that this new development in St. Louis did not grow out of the Methobapticostal influence on these men. This move to replace Tuesday chapels with small groups would have never arisen were it not for the small group theory that has arisen in the Pietism of our post 1960’s romantico-narcissistic age. That is the influence at work here along with a healthy desire to bring pastoral formation into the seminary experience.

A student has told me that each of these small groups has a pastor in attendance. That is a good thing and sets them apart from the run of the mill parish small group but this is still a disturbing development. These pastors are not the shepherds of these students. Also, these pastors would be better served mentoring the students rather than leading small group Bible studies.

Here is part of the description from the daily announcements on Monday:

Everyone is encouraged to participate in a small group which will use the devotional tool SOAP: Scripture-Observation-Application-Prayer. The intention is to provide opportunity for life together and community formation flowing from a different practice of piety. The Word of God and prayer will serve as the primary avenue for reflection and encouraging one another in Christ.

It clearly says these are small groups. If there was not “small group” influence behind this then one would think they would be called something other than “small groups.” They are also intended to provide formation “flowing from a different practice of piety.” That different practice of piety is clearly the piety of small groups. The seminary should be distancing itself from this terminology and practice, not embracing it.

This is not the only new and unnecessary innovation the St. Louis faculty has experimented with. There is also the new chapel band (similar to a praise band complete with a trap set), the two kinds of righteousness teaching intended to replace the traditional justification/sanctification dichotomy alongside this innovation with small groups. I learned otherwise at the seminary. I wish the current faculty would curtail their innovations and cancel the new small group program.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.

Comments

Everything I Needed to Know about Small Groups I Learned at Seminary from the Historical, Exegetical and Systematics Departments, by Pr. Rossow — 26 Comments

  1. This highlights the importance of understanding church history, that errors not be repeated.

    In earlier comments, the small group fans loudly denied that this had any connection to Spener’s pietism, which Walther clearly rejected. They would like to think that this is a new tactic, and that it is content neutral which is to say that good Lutheran teaching can be delivered using these means.

    There is nothing new under the sun, especially when it comes to errors in the church. Seminary faculty who have presumably trained in church history have no excuse.

  2. Pastor Rossow, you and I have had our differences from time to time here on BJS. However, your concern for this aberration at CSL is well-founded, and you are doing a great service in calling our attention to it, and bird-dogging it. I have repeatedly said here that at the very least, the seminary is treading on dangerous territory. It appears we don’t know a whole lot more about what is going on and why–I find that very significant and troubling. I have to wonder what the faculty thinks about this, and also if the Board of Regents is aware of what is going on. If I were on that BOR, I’d be very concerned, and asking a lot of questions, and expecting specific substantive answers. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of 50 years ago, and put ourselves thru that again.

    Thank you for your concern–I hope you are able to get answers.

    Johannes

  3. @James Schroeder #1
    “Seminary faculty who have presumably trained in church history have no excuse.”

    From my experience, when men have great knowledge about a thing, they think they can control it and prevent the dangers that come with it. They think they can handle the tiger without getting bit. Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work out that way.

  4. Did sunday school come from Lutheran churches? How about VBS? Bible study groups? Taize worship? Youth groups? Those things all grew from other, non-Lutheran bodies and may either be used properly or improperly by Christians.

    There’s no scriputal or confessional basis, especially if you use any of those other practices, to argue against small groups by ad hominem arguments against the bodies that most use small groups. That’s all I’m hearing.

    There are very good arguments against small groups as used by megachurches, but it doesn’t sound like that’s what is going on here. The concept of meeting in smaller groups is an effective teaching tool used by every school teacher in this country.I don’t see why a seminary would drop chapel services though.

  5. There is a time and place for theological discussion of these matters. Sadly, this is happening more on blogs and facebook pages rather than between the faculties of our seminaries, the Board of Regents, the Board for Pastoral Education, the council of Presidents, the Presidium, and the Synodical President. Theological conversation between these entities would at least allow those involved and those exercising ecclesiastical supervision to see things in light of the Word of God. Blogs and internet discussion should continue to happen . . . but I fear this will affect little change at the Seminary. Those making these kinds of decisions have no accountability to blogs and internet discussions. They do not have to listen.

    Thus for the church at large to be heard she must get their attention through her stewardship choices. Bring up your donation to the seminary and you’ll get a quick response from the seminary president. I know firsthand, having had discussions with President Meyer regarding the blessing of chapel bands for worship. I think that is what saddens me the most.

  6. I will never be convinced that this new development in St. Louis did not grow out of the Methobapticostal influence on these men.

    Well, there you have it. The time for putting the best construction on everything and for reasoned and charitable discussion is over. God forbid the laity (much less seminarians) actually get together and read and study the Bible.

  7. @Boaz #4 – CSL does have small groups, and has had for all of it’s history, they’re called “classes” and these are held in “classrooms” which are a very effective method of discussing information and sharing views. It’s worked well for some time now, and is a very effective teaching tool.

  8. @boaz #4
    I don’t see why a seminary would drop chapel services though.

    That is the heart of the objection, boaz!

    Seminarians should be learning all the varieties of LUTHERAN worship experience during their chapel hour. It should be done well enough to inspire attendance, (but if not it should be attended anyway and pressure exerted to improve it).
    They can (and do) discuss religion at other times.

    BTW, I’ve been informed that the “small groups” at CTS (at least, as they were four years ago) were scheduled, registered for and conducted by a professor. The discussion was the week’s pericopes using Greek and Hebrew texts.
    “..not a touchy-feely emoting session” and not replacing chapel either.

  9. I have no problem with the seminary students meeting with the faculty for instruction in small groups…but I would call those meetings “classes.” The daily offices are something different.
    Why would a seminary, a place where these people spend so much time in class, find even MORE class time a salutary substitute for worship: meeting together to rest in God’s Word, to put that Word upon one’s lips, to offer up prayers for the church and the world, and to give thanks?

  10. I always thought using the Word of God and prayer was the Liturgy itself in the first place.

    A different kind of piety fostered by meeting in small groups using a SOAP paradigm that comes from what theological tradition? and substituting this style of worship instead of Tuesday chapel using the Liturgy and or daily offices is taking a direction inconsistent with historic Lutheran Piety.

  11. there is a serious rift in the synod when adiaphora is the main concern. God Bless you and your ministry. It’s nice to see an attack on our next generation of leaders and not the continuing neglect for orthodox teaching. I can’t believe that this is a major concern. I would rather spread the gospel than hate on those looking to further my own mission. The church was founded on household ministry in a time of persecution. We are there now with the attack on orthodoxy and can’t seem to stop squabbling with in our own ranks. The purpose of the church is expansion and not adiaphora. If I can discuss the Gospel with my peers I feel I am better for it.

  12. Really? I mean really?

    On your “No Pietists” page, you write: “A pietist is someone who takes all of the fun out of life in the name of religion. They believe that they are pleasing to God because they do not smoke, drink, gamble, play cards, dance, (and if they really thought about it they would probably outlaw golf – did I tell you about the time I spent $300 on a round of golf?).”

    The change in schedule to include small groups at Concordia Seminary – SL does NOT fit into your description… Furthermore, there is only encouragement, no pressure – at least no more pressure to attend the small group than chapel itself (pressure not to bring righteousness but increased learning and understanding)! It’s not about piety but exposure to the different types of study and exploring a different way to learn the Word of God. Classes are different than small groups – if you think otherwise then you haven’t been in both classroom and small group settings. Perhaps you think we should do away with Bible studies, Sunday School, confirmation, private devotion, classes, too! I mean, why would we EVER try to learn God’s Word through any other means than worship?!? That’s where the logic against small groups leads…

    I understand you (Rossow) have sensitivities because of your background, but I assure those brilliant minds you listed who lead CSL are not crumbling the foundation or leading future pastors astray. They feed the minds of and direct students to be theologians of the cross, proficient in how to read, apply, and proclaim God’s Word as future pastors and Christians. Stop creating problems BEFORE you even understand what’s going on! In doing so you become much worse than the pietists you despise – or do you hope that your ramblings will instead destroy the goodness of that which you claim to protect?!?

    So you get the DAs… That makes you all-knowing? Learn what’s actually going on before you react. Your present method is like opening the Bible, landing on Matthew 7:7-11, and determining that if you ask God for $1 trillion dollars more than exist in the world and a fleet of military fighter jets (including and Iron Man flight suit) by tomorrow, you will receive it; then tomorrow comes and goes, you have none of it, and so you determine God doesn’t exist or he is just a bold-faced liar. Illogical conclusion reached by misunderstanding, right? Yep, and so is your understanding of the DA…

    As for “replacing” a day of worship… Chapel still happens 4 days a week (plus the one small group), plus we attend local congregations and assist in their teaching and activities. Exchanging one chapel service for a Bible study hardly qualifies as detrimental unless you think nothing can be learned outside of worship. If that’s the case, then we should ignore missions unless someone walks himself into our church and hears our Divine Service. Saying or implying pastors MUST attend more services is PIETISTIC!

    Unless you attend CSL or actually dialogue in length with those presently here, you don’t know what happens. Stop acting like you do. CSL has many opportunities to grow, including small groups led by professors – in which the original language is utilized for exegesis of lectionary readings; these are both in class form and un-registered attendance (i.e. small groups). CSL has not fallen ill like too many here assume!

    Get over yourself “pastor” and all those seeking to stir up problems at our seminary. Actually seek to educate yourselves on how those at CSL truly bring glory to God, instead of assuming the worst from a single Daily Announcement. If repenting is due on any one side, it is on yours. Our seminary in STL is well!

  13. Our personal evolution in small group ministry led us from the book of the month club variety to now focusing on books of the Bible. We are now tossing around studying the Book of Concord for the 2011 version of our small group.

    Yes we mix fellowship and study and sometimes it is more social than learning but it is always draped in prayer.

    I really do think this is a matter of semantics. You call it Bible Study. We call it small group. You have it at church. We have it at home. You study the Bible. We study the Bible. You have snacks. We have snacks and wine/beer.

    ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda

    Tim

  14. You are aware that only about half the student body even attends chapel? You are aware that they are trying to engage more students to get them into other chapel services? There are practical reasons behind what they are doing. I respect your concern for what impression the seminaries are giving but don’t pretend like the early church was using 5 and 15. There are helpful and confessional ways of doing the liturgy other than straight out of the hymnal.

    You act as if they said, “we are forming small groups because we are more holy than the rest of the church and the hymnal isn’t good enough for us. By the way, you are saved through works.”

    They were clear in stating that the students were gathering around the Word of God with pastors present, not Joel Osteen’s newest book.

    The bigger fish are that way —->

  15. The problem with these “small groups” is not about who’s meeting (and how many) where. The chief problem is that this is happening in place of the corporate worship of the chapel service. No one is saying that a group of students can’t or even shouldn’t get together and study God’s Word. Heaven forbid! But when this replaces corporate worship, when this is equated with corporate worship, there is something much more going on than just a few guys studying the bible together.

  16. The reason, I suspect, that many Sem students do not attend the liturgical offerings available is because they have been taught that it’s not important. All of the other things in “ministry” are more valuable. This teaching most likely came from the local congregations who have for perhaps 80 years neglected teaching the importance of liturgics. Instead, we’ve gone the way of the Radical Reformers and the Methodists, what I call “American Evangellical Christianity” which is not very evangellical or Christian in the true sense of the words. Most often this is built on feelings, personal decision, personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ and so on. Big emphasis is on the Bible, but not much on the history of the Church or the historic doctrines. The “Home church” and “small groups” are the key to health, because that is what the early Church did. They seem to forget, or not know, the reality of those home congregations. This is not an issue of adiaphora, there is substantial doctrine behind it.

    The answer to more Sem students in Chapel is to make historic, liturgical worship an important foundation in the local congregations and in the homes. Good luck with that when most of the Synod has bought into the false adiaphora argument and the excitement of the “what’s happening now” ideology. There has been problems at CSL for many years now, and we’re only just beginning to see the effects of it.

  17. The Historical Department: Philipp Jacob Spener founded the movement called pietism which sought to highlight individual piety often over and against the traditional, ritualistic and liturgical piety of the church. The ecclesiai in ecclesia (little congregations within the congregation, i.e. small groups) were the chief tool of the movement. Not surprisingly Pietism influenced John Wesley who founded Methodism, a similarly reactionary movement rooted in methods of sanctification and a more emotional piety than is typically wrought by the liturgy.

    You know what else influenced John Wesley? The Bible. I think that should be enough.

    Not having attended the Small Groups (you forget that they are, after all, optional) or spoken to Dr. Burreson about them, I can’t speak one way or another about the doctrinal purity or otherwise of the practice. However, I would like to quote your old Seminary classmate, Dr. Utech, in saying, “I’m sorry. I’m just a lowly Seminarian, and I don’t know about that yet. You’ll have to talk to Pastor about that” and not blast it on a blog.

  18. Hmm, looks like St. Louis sem is using small groups like methobapticostals, as it appears SOAP is just talking about subjective feelings about Bible verses. Pathetic. That’s not teaching; its crass enthusiasim.

    Can the students wise enough to reject this SOAP nonsense find a pastor to lead an independant chapel service during SOAP time?

  19. Hmm, looks like St.Louid sem is using small groups like methobapticostals, as it appears SOAP is just talking about subjective feelings about Bible verses. Check the http://gottesdienstonline.blogspot.com

    Pick a verse, interpret it subjectively, and apply it how you want. Don’t bother checking if you got it right at all!

    Pathetic. That’s not teaching; its crass enthusiasim.

    Can the students wise enough to reject this SOAP nonsense find a pastor to lead an independant chapel service during SOAP time?

    Again, meeting in a small group is a neutral teaching method, but promoting SOAP is false doctrine.

  20. Hmm, looks like St.Louid sem is using small groups like methobapticostals, as it appears SOAP is just talking about subjective feelings about Bible verses. Check the gottesdienstonline.blogspot.com
    Pick a verse, interpret it subjectively, and apply it how ou want. Don’t bother checking if you got it right at all!

    Pathetic. That’s not teaching; its crass enthusiasim.

    Can the students wise enough to reject this SOAP nonsense find a pastor to lead an independant chapel service during SOAP time?

    Again, meeting in a small group is a neutral teaching method, but promoting SOAP is false doctrine.

  21. I think you all are forgetting something very important. The seminary is not a church, it is a seminary (which is a very important distinction). Also, worship style IS adiaphora, learn your confessions then come back and talk.

    Also, if you have a problem with what is going on at the sem (or anywhere) there is a way to deal with it. You go to your Circuit Counselor who goes to the District President, who goes to the Board of Regents, who go to the sem and ask what’s up. This is a violation of the 8th Commandment if I ever saw one. You guys are pastors and your getting online and acting in an unchristian way by blasting things that you know nothing about. Have any of you actually attended one of these small groups? And yet you are accusing the seminary (it’s professors, faculty, and students) of false doctrine and heresy. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

  22. hi ho,

    I attended and led small group Bible studies for years, have studied small group theory and have read dozens of books by pastors who promote small groups. I know of what I speak, unlike you given your erroneous view of the Lutheran Confessions supporting what we today call “contemporary worship” – the Lutheran Confessions teach that we follow the historic liturgy of the mass.

    TR

  23. Rev. Rossow, Here’s what the Augsburg Confession says about the traditional liturgy:

    Our side also retains many ceremonies and traditions, such as the order of the Mass and other singing, festivals, and the like, which serve to preserve order in the church. At the same time, however, the peole are taught that such external worship of God does not make them righteous before God and that it is to be observed wthout burdening consciences, that is, no one sins by omitting it without causing offense.… Furthermore, concerning such diversity in human ordinances [date of Easter, etc.], dist. 12 also states that they are not in conflict with the unity of Christendom.

  24. @Concerned Seminarian #23

    we’re not worrying about the date of Easter, concerned seminarian
    altho you might observe from the date of Easter that every congregation does NOT do as it pleases; the whole synod is together
    [you might profitably extrapolate that]

    when lcms visitors could go to another lcms church and recognize the DS, we had fewer problems of other sorts [including ‘shrinkage’ and financial problems]

    as i was told flat out by a lib, those expecting ‘entertainment’ also expect a ‘free show’
    they expect the ‘good givers’ [traditional] to pay for it!

    Well, face this fact : we’ve raised a generation of freeloaders and the ‘payers’ are dying off
    who is going to butter your bread [if you have bread] concerned seminarian?

  25. @Helen #24

    Helen :
    @Concerned Seminarian #23
    we’re not worrying about the date of Easter, concerned seminarian
    altho you might observe from the date of Easter that every congregation does NOT do as it pleases; the whole synod is together
    [you might profitably extrapolate that]
    when lcms visitors could go to another lcms church and recognize the DS, we had fewer problems of other sorts [including ‘shrinkage’ and financial problems]
    as i was told flat out by a lib, those expecting ‘entertainment’ also expect a ‘free show’
    they expect the ‘good givers’ [traditional] to pay for it!
    Well, face this fact : we’ve raised a generation of freeloaders and the ‘payers’ are dying off
    who is going to butter your bread [if you have bread] concerned seminarian?

    Sigh…
    The “date of Easter” controversy was the example which the Confessions used, not one that I extrapolated from the Confessions. You see, we don’t all observe Easter on the same day (just ask the Eastern Orthodox churches). The reason we and the Catholics celebrate Easter on the same day (the Sunday after the full moon that occurs after the spring equinox; see LSB) is because of a historical tradition going back to the second century, at which time the western Christians calculated Easter the same way we do; the eastern Christians followed the Jewish calendar for Passover (which meant Easter didn’t have to be a Sunday or even in the same month). The eastern and western Christians made numerous attempts over the years (Polycarp in the 150s, the Council of Nicaea in 324, all the way down to the Great Schism in the eleventh century), without any success. Melanchthon and the other theologians referenced this extremely divisive historical controversy to shed light on the controversy over other adiaphora such as the divine service. If celebrating Easter (the most important Christian festival) on different days is “not in conflict with the unity of Christendom,” then not using the divine service certainly is “not in conflict with the unity of Christendom,” either!
    [you might profitably extrapolate that]

    As to your other points, the Confessions address them also. I love going to churches that use the liturgy: It is familiar, it is comfortable, and it connects me to countless other Christians who have worshiped in roughly the same way for centuries. I love visiting other churches and knowing instinctively what is coming next (which even holds true at Catholic services for the most part). If a church does the liturgy properly, it is providing its people with an incredible blessing; if a church does it improperly, however, it is doing them a disservice by not using it to train the people in their faith and tradition. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that well-done contemporary worship is at least as beneficial for a congregation as poorly-done traditional worship.

    The flaw in your “free show” argument is the assumption that “contemporary worship= entertainment.” While this can become the case if the pastor does not teach the congregation better, it can just as easily become the case that a “traditional congregation” equates worship with entertainment. Nothing in the liturgy inherently requires parishioners to “butter my bread” (to use your phrase). It’s just as easy for Joe Traditional to sing “What Shall I Render to the Lord” after dropping $2 in the offering plate as it is for Joe Contemporary to sing the Contemporary equivalent after dropping $2 in the offering plate.

  26. @Concerned Seminarian #25
    You see, we don’t all observe Easter on the same day (just ask the Eastern Orthodox churches).
    i did say ‘the synod’ [altho i could have said Western Christendom]
    it’s a long way from the major divisions cited by Melanchthon to ‘as many “orders” as there are churches’ in a given city. i believe superintendents were invented to create consistency in a given region, were they not?

    “it can just as easily become the case that a “traditional congregation” equates worship with entertainment.”

    you really think so? you are the first person to suggest it
    the notion that ‘traditionalists’ should pay for the ‘experiments’ was not mine; i was quoting one of the ‘experiment’ fans

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