Question:

Hello. I appreciate your work and respect your knowledge of the Word. I have a question concerning the small group phenomenon in the Lord's church. Is there a scriptural basis for the small group to not assemble at the appointed times (mostly Sunday evening worship and Wednesday Bible study) though the elders approved it?


Answer:

First, please understand that elders are not law-givers. They do not decide what is right and wrong. Their job is to help members of the church stay within the bounds of the Scriptures. "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you" (Hebrews 13:17). That the elders at your congregation have approved the use of small groups only means that the elders don't see anything wrong with them. But that doesn't make it right. Elders can be mistaken.

The church's primary meeting is for worship. The distinguishing point of those meetings is that the entire congregation is called to assemble:

  • "when you come together as a church" (I Corinthians 11:17).
  • "when you come together in one place" (I Corinthians 11:20).
  • "when you come together to eat, wait for one another" (I Corinthians 11:33) -- speaking of eating the Lord's Supper.
  • "the whole church comes together in one place" (I Corinthians 14:23).
  • "Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification" (I Corinthians 14:26).

Acts of worship is done by the congregation that expresses the unity of the congregation:

  • Partaking of the Lord's Supper (I Corinthians 10:16-17; Acts 2:42).
  • Singing (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; I Corinthians 14:23).
  • Prayer (Acts 2:42; James 5:16).
  • Giving (I Corinthians 16:1-2).
  • Instruction (Acts 2:42).

A congregation cannot break itself down into small groups and still be worshiping as a congregation. The best that can be said is that each small group is really an independent congregation in such cases. You then run into the problem of one (large) congregation operating and controlling several small congregations which is not according to the biblical pattern.

It isn't that small groups of Christians can't gather and in that gather do some of the acts of worship. "So, when he had considered this, he came to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying" (Acts 12:12). But these cannot be called an assembly of the church.

Churches are also involved in teaching. "And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-12). While teaching is done when the church assembles as a whole, all teaching by the church does not have to be done as a unit. For example, while Paul was in Ephesus, he taught in a school. "But when some were hardened and did not believe, but spoke evil of the Way before the multitude, he departed from them and withdrew the disciples, reasoning daily in the school of Tyrannus. And this continued for two years, so that all who dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks" (Acts 19:9-10). Churches support the effort of teaching, but these sessions were not the church.

While traditionally churches in the United States tend to have two worship times on Sunday and Bible classes on Sunday and Wednesday, there isn't a requirement for this particular configuration. All churches must meet on Sunday for worship. All churches must see that the Bible is taught. But how that is accomplished is up to each congregation and is determined by what works well in that particular area.

The only matter that I particularly object to in small groups is the serving of the Lord's Supper. God is clear that the Lord's supper is to be done by the congregation as a whole, together, and in one place; that is what the second half of I Corinthians 11 is about. Small groups partaking of the Lord's Supper violates those teachings. And a small group gather used in substitution for the gathering of the church as a whole is also a violation of the principles God laid down. But if a congregation has a unified gathering where the Lord's Supper is served and then chooses to hold smaller gathers in different places and at different times for studies, prayers, or singings, then I find nothing in the Bible that indicates that it would be wrong.