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.