by Joel Comiskey
This chapter is taken from Comiskey’s book “2000 Years of Small Groups.”
Writing in 1539, John Calvin described Martin Bucer as a man “who on account of his profound scholarship, his bounteous knowledge about a wide range of subjects, his keen mind, his wide reading, and many other different virtues, remains unsurpassed today by anyone, can be compared with only a few, and excels the vast majority.”1 Calvin wrote these words during his three year stay in Strasbourg (1538–1541), where Bucer was a prominent reformer.
In 1538, Bucer invited John Calvin to lead a French refugee congregation in Strasbourg. Bucer and Calvin had much in common theologically and maintained a long friendship. The extent to which Bucer influenced Calvin is an open question among modern scholars, but many of the reforms that Calvin later implemented in Geneva were originally developed in Strasbourg. After his arrival in the city, Calvin lived for a time in Bucer’s house before moving into a house with a backyard that adjoined Bucer’s backyard. During this time the two reformers became close, and Bucer greatly influenced his younger colleague. Yet in spite of the close connection between Bucer and Calvin, Bucer remains relatively unknown by many Reformed Christians.
Strasbourg: A Hotbed of the Reformation
Bucer converted to Protestant Christianity in 1521 after reading the works of Luther. Excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church in 1522, he moved to Strasbourg where he became a Protestant leader. Strasbourg, France in the 1500s was strongly anti-clerical. The people could see how clergymen and monks lived free of the constraints and obligations of civic laws and didn’t have to earn their own living, like everyone else. Clerics led a life of luxury and comfort, paying no taxes other than a symbolic fee for the city’s protection.2 As the reformation rolled along and the people were able to read their Bibles, they began to question the role and practices of the clergy.
Government officials in Strasbourg translated some sixteen publications of Martin Luther, and the people gladly followed Luther’s teachings.3 Bucer drew heavily from Luther’s theology but emphasized more of a practical, pastoral theology, as opposed to Luther’s theological leanings. Bucer was not so concerned about staking a unique doctrinal claim among the reformers. Rather, he is chiefly remembered for his promotion of doctrinal unity and his lifelong struggle to create an inclusive church, rather than winning doctrinal arguments. He envisioned the ideal society to be one that was led by an enlightened, God-centered government with all the people united under Christian fellowship.
Ecclesiological Reform through Small Groups
Bucer became increasingly drawn to the model of the primitive church which emphasized both large and small groups. He felt that small groups would make the church at Strasbourg “. . . more faithful to the primitive and ancient churches.”4 D. F. Wright comments,
In specifying how the small communities would function, the Reformer sought ever closer conformity to the pattern of the organization and life of the apostolic communities, as described in the New Testament Acts and Epistles. . . . Not only confession of the same doctrine, but also demonstration of the same practice must attest to this apostolic faithfulness—hence, for example, the insistence on the sharing of goods on the model of the communities described in Acts 2 and 4.5
He believed that the primitive church should be the normative model, and he often lamented the deficiencies of the Strasbourg church when compared with the early church communities.6 Although he believed strongly in justification by faith, he also knew that justification needed to be lived out through sanctification, and he didn’t want one to be excluded from the other. Small groups were a practical way to work out sanctification.
When he implemented his small group model, he only allowed serious believers to join. In fact a potential member had to be interviewed by the pastor and the elders of that particular group. The interview dealt with members’ beliefs concerning doctrine, the sacraments, Christian behavior, and repentance. In early 1547 he developed his small group strategy, which included:
- Those who wanted a deeper commitment were invited to join a small group community.
- A leadership team was developed to guide the groups.
- The purpose was to help members grow in holiness, confess sin, and be held accountable to each other.
- The goal was to restore primitive Christianity in the church.
- The groups were connected to each other.
- The leaders met each week.
- All the groups would come together for a larger meeting once every two months
Implementation of Groups in the Face of Criticism
Bucer faced continual pressure and criticism for his small group model. As the leading reformer of Strasbourg, he found himself at the heart of the Anabaptist debate.7 On one hand, there were many Anabaptists living in Strasbourg who promoted a separate, voluntary church. Yet, Bucer was heavily influenced by Luther’s larger reform in Germany and had to walk a fine line because he also depended on the protection of the political elite.
In the mid-1540s, Anabaptism rapidly increased in numbers and influence, and Anabaptist small groups met all around Strasbourg. In light of this, it was risky for Bucer to advocate further reform and suggest the possibility of forming small groups for discipleship and spiritual growth. Wright notes,
The more Bucer pressed the magistracy to devote all its energies to the introduction of a “true” ecclesiastical discipline, the more the Strasbourg church seemed doomed to degeneration and criticism. Nasty tongues spread scandal about the town and its Reformers . . .8
He understood the strong points in the Anabaptist movement, but he had to make sure there was enough support for his reforms to succeed. He had to manage the reformation in Strasbourg, make sure the state church was following him, and reform the church in the process. Wright says,
The creation of groups and other gatherings which . . . could easily be likened to the separatist ventures of the Anabaptists and other sectarians, exposed him to insidious criticism charging him with a share of responsibility for the fragmentation of Strasbourg’s church community.9
Yet, in spite of all of the criticism, Bucer was compelled to press ahead. He realized that a house church structure was not an Anabaptist phenomenon but rather a New Testament imperative. He understood that primitive Christianity challenged the reformation to take steps toward change.
The Large and Small Gathering
For Bucer, it was not a matter of deciding to support the inclusive state church or the church gathered in homes. Rather, he felt the need for both. Wright concludes, “This motif of twofold ecclesiology, at once both majority-based and confessing, played an important role in the slow maturation of his plans for small communities.”10 He felt that he would have actually been “unfaithful” to Scripture if he did not promote the gathering of believers in small groups. He was the first true forerunner of cell-based ministry because he desired to connect the gathered church with the scattered church.
Bucer explained to his critics that instead of creating divisiveness, the small groups aimed specifically at promoting unity among the believers. The Sunday morning worship service would bring them all together. In fact, Bucer felt that the communion table on Sunday morning was the perfect time for the “true” Christian community to meet.
The Anabaptists wanting to separate from the gathered church by promoting independent meetings. Yet Bucer felt the need to maintain the gathered church but also to promote small groups of Christians, much like the early church.11 Peter Burton writes,
His position, however, was not that of the Anabaptists, who held to the notion of the believer’s church. It was, in essence, a kind of synthesis between two different concepts of church, namely the majority church and the confession church; it seems he wanted both combined.”12
As the resistance to his ideas became stronger, Bucer became increasingly despondent.
The criticisms intensified as many felt that Bucer was promoting two classes of Christians: those who were in the small groups and those who were just part of the normal church. The state felt that he was giving too much power to the lay people. He yielded to their criticism and stopped the groups in 1548, after having implemented them for only about 1.5 years.13 Later Bucer moved to England and taught at Cambridge. Perhaps his greatest contribution was the writings he left behind, which later had a powerful influence on Spener and then later Wesley. After his death, his writings continued to be translated, reprinted, and disseminated throughout Europe.
- Although fully committed to reformation teachings, Bucer also wanted to practice those teachings through the implementation of small groups.
- He continued to emphasize small groups in the face of major criticisms because he believed in the scriptural basis for house-to-house ministry as coming from Acts and the early church.
- Bucer’s reforms through small groups were short lived. We don’t hear much about his small group reforms because he was not able to stay with it long enough to maintain the changes.
- The philosophy and lifestyle of small group ministry requires a long period of transitional change to become part of the church and culture. There is often resistance in the process, as was the case with Martin Bucer’s small group reforms
- As quoted by Keith Anderson, blog on Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times (Ligonier Ministries, August 24, 2010). Accessed at http://www.ligonier.org/blog/martin-bucer-reformer-and-his-times.
- Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 50.
- Ibid., p. 54.
- D.F. Wright, Martin Bucer: Reforming Church and Community (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 142.
- Ibid., pp. 142–143.
- Ibid., pp. 136,137.
- Wright, p. 134.
- Ibid., p. 135.
- Ibid., p. 140.
- Wright, p. 134.
- Peter Bunton, Cell Groups and House Churches (Ephrata, PA: House to House Publications, 2001), p. 11.
- Ibid., p. 11.
- Ibid., pp. 13–14