Chapter 2: History of the Cell Movement

Joel Comiskey’s Ph.D. Dissertation

This chapter will trace the historical foundations for small group ministry. I will trace small group ministry from early Biblical times to the Methodist small group movement. Some sections will provide more information than others as I focus on those which are more applicable today. Although in the introductory section I presented my working definition of a cell group, in this chapter I will look at small group movements which do not fit into modern day categories. Perhaps this quote by the historian Herbert Butterfield best captures the historical importance of the small group,

The strongest organizational unit in the world’s history would appear to be that which we call a cell because it is a remorseless self-multiplier; is exceptionally difficult to destroy; can preserve its intensity of local life while vast organizations quickly wither when they are weakened at the center; can defy the power of governments; is the appropriate lever of prising open any status quo. Whether we take early Christianity or sixteenth century Calvinism or modern communism, this seems the appointed way by which a mere handful of people may open up a new chapter in the history of civilization (quoted in Beckham 1993:119).

Small Groups in Biblical Perspective

Small groups have played an important role in Biblical history. Here, I will try to focus on clear references to small groups in the Old and New Testaments, rather than implicit principles.

Small Groups in the Old Testament

There are many general concepts from the Old Testament that establish the core values of small group ministry. Various authors have picked up on Old Testament themes such as community (Gorman 1993:34), relationship (Icenogle 1994:22), and communion (Watson 1978: 67-74), and have applied them to small groups today.

Actually, the Old Testament says very little about small group ministry. However, one Old Testament story is applied widely in the modern cell movement (George 1991:125; Hurtson 1995:68; Neighbour 1990:195). I am referring to the organizational principle that Jethro first introduced in Exodus 18 when he gave timely counsel to Moses,

When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, What is this you are doing for the people? Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening? . . . What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear themselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. . . . You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them the decrees and laws, and show them the way to live and the duties they are to perform. But select capable men from all the people . . . and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you. If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied (Ex. 18:14-23).

Although God chose Moses to lead the nation of Israel out of Egypt, he lacked the delegation skills. This counsel lays out an organizational structure that extends down from leaders over thousands to those over tens. It enabled Moses to delegate and share leadership.

Small Groups in the New Testament

The New Testament, in comparison with the Old Testament, has numerous examples of small group ministry. Christ Himself gathered a small group of disciples and the early church primarily met in homes.

Christ and Small Groups

The first New Testament example of a small group is the one that Christ chose. Many have expounded on the way Christ discipled His small group (Hull 1988:225-250). Others have noted the special sense of community that Christ developed with them (Beckham 1995:118). Certainly a powerful transformation took place as Christ’s followers interacted with their Master in this small group environment. Garth Icenogle comments, “Jesus modeled God’s way of transforming the world. He called out a small group of people to experience their own exodus journey together, . . .” (1994:118).

The House Church in the New Testament

It is worth noting that the early church did not have its own buildings. From earliest times the believers met both in homes and in the temple. This structure of cell and celebration is first seen in the Jerusalem Church after Pentecost. Acts 2:46 states, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, . . .” The concept of meeting in the home and in public is substantiated by Paul when he says in Acts 20:20, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” Banks points out that Paul addresses both the citywide church in Corinth (celebration) as well as small groups (cells) (1994:32).

Necessity of Small Groups Due to Persecution

In the early part of the 1 st century, the celebration/cell experience took place on a daily basis. However, due to persecution, as the history of Acts progresses, the celebration ceased to be a daily experience. William Barclay makes the point that primarily due to the early church persecution, the role of the house church became normative (1955:228). John Mallison writes, “It is almost certain that every mention of a local church or meeting, whether for worship or fellowship, is in actual fact a reference to a church meeting in a house” (1989:5). Hadaway, S. Wright and DuBose add, “From the beginning, homes appeared to be the place for the most enduring dimensions of early church life” (1987:40). This quote from F. F. Bruce describes the New Testament house church,

Household churches are frequently referred to in the NT epistles. Sometimes the whole church in one city might be small enough to be accommodated in the home of one of its members; but in other places the local church was quite large, and there was no building in which all the members could conveniently congregate. This was certainly true of the early Jerusalem church; there we find one group meeting in the house of Mary, the mother of Mark (Ac. 12:12); and although Luke does not specifically call that group the church in her house, it might very well have been described thus. Priscilla and Aquila were accustomed to extend the hospitality of their home to such groups in the successive cities where they lived–e.g. in Ephesus (1 Co. 16:19) and Rome (1 Co. 16:5). At Colossae itself Philemon’s house was used for this purpose (Phl. 2) (1957:309-310).

The Relationship among the House Churches

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul addresses the individual ecclesia which met in the home of Aquila and Priscilla (1 Co. 16:19), but he also greets the ecclesia as a whole (1 Co. 1:2; 2 Co. 1:1). The same can be said about the church in Thessolonica and in Rome (1 Th. 1:1; 2 Th. 1:1; Rom. 16:23). This seems to indicate that a general relationship existed (Neighbour 1990:44).

It has also been suggested that on occasion the house groups gathered for special celebration events. The Love Feast of 1 Corinthians 11 and Paul’s visit to Troas in Acts 20:6-12 could be examples of joint celebration. Bruce comments, “Such house churches appear to have been smaller circles of fellowship within the larger fellowship of the city ecclesia” (1957:310). Banks also acknowledges that Paul often linked the house churches together, although not through any type of ecclesiastical polity (1994:42-43).

Small Groups in Early Christian History

In this section, I will discuss the eventual demise of the house church in early church history. I will also highlight various contextual factors that gave rise to the monastic movements.

Changes that Affected the Small Group Movement Negatively

There were at least two historical developments that hindered small group activity before the reformation. First, a growing distinction between clergy and laity hindered lay participation and second, the legalization of Christianity took away the need for home meetings.

Distinction between Clergy and Laity

Various factors were working behind the scene to widen the gap between clergy and laity. The spontaneity that was once so present in the local house church began to come under stricter control of the elected bishops.

This distinction became increasingly important due to the need to point to the true church of Jesus Christ in the face of an increasing number of alternative religions (e.g., Gnosticism). Since the body of Scripture was still emerging, many voices were clamoring for authority. Apostolic succession became the way to distinguish between those who had God’s authority and those who did not. Kenneth Scott Latourette explains,

He [Irenaeus] . . . was emphatic that the apostles had appointed as successors bishops to whom they had committed the churches. . . . These bishops had been followed by others in unbroken line who were also guardians and guarantors of the apostolic teaching. He hints that he could, if there were space, give the lists of the bishops of all the churches, but he singles out that of the Church of Rome, . . . (1975:131).

A number of other early church fathers went beyond Irenaeus and actually attempted to establish such a link between the original apostles and the current leadership (note 1).

By the 3 rd century, this line of succession along with the distinct church offices had become quite developed. In major cities, bishops began to grow in power. Their word was respected and for the most part, obeyed. William Brown writes about that time period,

. . . the reversion to an “official” priesthood or ministry . . . cast the laity chiefly into the role of hearers of the Law and spectators of the mysterious tableau of the sacrifices. This passive role in worship became once more the normal experience of the people of God as the church developed (1992:37).

By the time of Cyprian, one notices the distinct shift from the bishop as a servant-shepherd of God’s flock to an administrative ruler (Mayer 1976:296).

Legalization of Christianity

When Christianity became the state religion during the days of Constantine, large, sacred buildings became more esteemed than intimate home fellowships (Plueddemann 1990:4). Because of the incredible “conversion” of the emperor, a new chapter in the history of Christianity was opened for the persecuted church (Latourette 1975:91). Christianity was suddenly acknowledged and accepted as the state religion. Christians could now worship in public places. Clearly this change affected the house church in a negative way. David Tan writes, “The house or community church remained the normative form of church life up until the time of Constantine. . . . From that time on church buildings (e.g., basilicas, chapels) began to replace the community church” (1994:43).

Small Groups among the Clergy

There are hints that small groups were implemented within the official church structure. For example, Ambrose, the bishop of Milan (339-397 AD) was involved with small groups–but only among other clergy. Mayer writes, “Ambrose and his clergy associates continued to draw much of their own Christian strength from small group associations. Assistant clergy gathered around Ambrose and this group ministered the gospel of Jesus Christ to each other” (1976:298).

Apparently, several early church fathers found a tremendous amount of strength in small community interaction. Herbert T. Mayer writes, “This was the common pattern for centuries: the real strength and vitality of the church lay in the small groups of clergy gathered around a cathedral and the bishop or in the small group of monks gathered around a strong and influential leader” (1976:298). According to Mayer, St. Augustine of Hippo was significantly influenced by these small groups under Ambrose (1976:298). However, it must be noted that these small groups were only among the clergy. Lay participation was not part of this small group structure.

Small Groups and Monasticism

Many believers, after the legalization of Christianity, felt that the church had lost its vision and succumbed to the worldliness of the age. Latourette explains,

It was partially as a reaction against this laxity and partly because of the dissatisfaction which the teachings of Jesus and the apostles aroused with anything short of perfection that monasticism arose. . . . To some degree it was a rebellion of the individual against the organization of the Catholic Church, regimented as that was under the bishops and clergy (1975:223).

Unlike Ambrose and his colleagues who applied small group principles among the clergy within the visible church, the early monastics, while using many of the same small group structures, were primarily lay persons who separated themselves from the official church structure in order to pursue purity. At first this movement was looked down upon by those in authority. Yet, by the end of the 5 th century, monasticism had become so extensive that it became a major force in the Catholic Church (Latourette 1975:222).

From Isolation to Community

Many of these lay monks were drawn to a life of isolationism in order to pursue their own salvation. Scores of monasteries rose up over the dessert of Palestine. In the beginning, many of these zealous reformers were hermits. They kept entirely to themselves. However, this began to change. Brown writes,

. . . gradually some of these hermits discovered that if they grouped together in small communities they experienced spiritual as well as practical benefits. In time many of the features of the Christian community in Acts 2 were reincorporated into monastic life, and yet there was still a separation from the people (1992:37).

However, it must be remembered that these small monastic communities did not bridge the gap between the laity and the clergy. The clergy continued to have their own small groups, while the monastic lay movement met separately.

Evangelistic Bands in Monasticism

In Ireland, it appears that the entire church was organized around the monastery. One of the outstanding features of the monastic emphasis in Ireland was that as the monks migrated to other countries, they zealously spread the Christian faith by effectively utilizing small groups called bands as evangelistic teams (Pierson 1989:10). Many of these small bands were well-disciplined and closely bound to their particular order for the purpose of receiving prayer and physical support.

Celtic Christianity flourished and grew through the efforts of the great Celtic evangelists and missionaries. The Celtic missionary movement probably began with Columba in 563 when he went to Iona with twelve helpers. Speaking of the inner drive that motivated these Celtic missionaries Hardinge writes, “Individual response to a divinely placed inner drive to spread their faith, singly or in groups, impelled Celtic missionaries to go forth” (Hardinge quoted in Pierson 1989:10).

Waves of these small bands of missionaries were sent out all over the continent. A community of monks ( ten to twelve) would settle in a non-Christian area in Europe and establish a Christian church. They would preach until a number were converted, and then they would teach the new converts. Once they had established the church they would leave to go to another part of Europe, since the purpose of those evangelistic teams was to establish the monastic community throughout the land.

Small Groups of the Pre-Reformation Period

The Protestant Reformation was not an isolated event. There were many underlying factors that helped lay the foundation for reform.

Yearning for Change

Before the Protestant Reformation, an underlying yearning for change began to spread among groups such as the Lollards (followers of Wycliffe), the Hussites (followers of John Huss), the Waldensians (followers of Peter Waldo), the Friendship Band, various womens’ groups, and the Brethren of the Common Life. Although in varying degrees, these groups expressed longing to return to the priesthood of all believers, the authority of Scripture, and holy living. J. Edwin Orr comments,

Just before the fifteenth century something started to change the church. It resulted in a progression of spiritual awakenings in which small groups either spearheaded, became strong catalysts or followed as nurturing environments to revivals (quoted in Plueddemann 1990:6).

Brethren of the Common Life

One such reform movement, which focused on small groups, was the Brethren of the Common Life. This movement originated in the Netherlands under the leadership of Gerard Groote (1340-1384). After two years in a monastery, Groote left to preach the gospel. In his preaching, he pinpointed the sins of the clergy and the need for reformation among them (Neale 1970:76). Sometime around 1380, Groote chose twelve disciples who met regularly with him in the house of Forentius Radewijns (Strand 1960:22). After his death in 1384, Forentius Radewijns became the new leader and by the year 1475, the movement had expanded to some 100 houses for women and over thirty men’s homes (Strand 1960:22).

Although a branch of the Brethren of the Common Life eventually became part of the monastic order, this movement was primarily a reform movement for priests and lay people who were willing to live together for the promotion of holiness. Albert Hyma describes this movement as a “. . . protest against the formalism of the Church in the fourteenth century” (1950:7).

In fact, the movement was persecuted because it refused to become part of the monastic orders (Hyma 1930:25). In order to defend themselves from these attacks, one of the Brethren, Zerbolt, wrote The Treatise on the Common Life. In it he points out that the Brethren of the Common Life were just pious men who chose to meet together in private homes, to share all things in common, and to exhort one another (Hyma 1950:73). Hyma writes, “Groote advised some of them to live together in one house, where they could . . . serve God with greater chance of success (1950:52).

Each house consisted of four or more priests, about eight clerics, and a few laymen (Neale 1970:96). None of the brothers were bound by a vow and the gathering was completely voluntary. Those living in these houses devoted themselves to sharing property, copying books, praying, and meditating on Scripture (Neale 1970:97).

Thomas a Kempis, who wrote The Imitation of Christ, was both educated by the Brethren of the Common Life and later joined their community (Plantinga 1994:1). It appears that Martin Luther was instructed by them when he was at Magdeburg around 1497 (Crouch 1987:1).

Small Groups during the Time of the Reformation

The greatest accomplishment of Martin Luther was the rediscovery of the truth of justification by faith alone and the authority of Scripture. His discovery shattered the medieval church and opened up new possibilities for the church, especially for the laity. Luther liberated the church from its Babylonian Captivity (Latourette 1975:712).

Yet, for the purpose of this study, we will look at Luther’s philosophy of small groups and how it underwent a radical change. To do this, however, we must first understand the Anabaptist movement which came out of the reformation and significantly shaped Luther’s ideas about small groups.

Anabaptist Movement

There are a number of streams that form this movement, and therefore it is not easy to define. There were also many groups during the time of the reformation that manifested some Anabaptist characteristics. However, there were certain beliefs that set this movement apart.

Cardinal Beliefs

For the most part, the Anabaptists embraced Luther’s teaching on justification by faith, the authority of Scripture, and the priesthood of all believers. However, the Anabaptists believed that Luther and the Reformers did not go far enough. They believed that only believer’s baptism counted and that only baptized believers should belong to the local church (note 2). Latourette states, “They believed in ‘gathered’ churches, not identical with the community at large, but composed of those who had had the experience of the new birth” (1975:779). It is important to remember that the church for both Luther and Calvin consisted of the entire community. It was through infant baptism that one entered into the state church (Latourette 1975:778) (note 3).

It was the state church idea that the Anabaptist movement attacked most energetically, and it was for that reason that were so vigorously persecuted. In that day, to separate from the state church was akin to separating from society. Such actions were believed to threaten the very moral fabric of society. As Latourette states, “. . . they seemed to be dangerous revolutionaries, upsetting the established order” (1975:779), and the state church reacted by persecuting them severely. Latourette notes, “Late in the 1520s and early in the 1530s hundreds of Anabaptists were killed, some by drowning, some by beheading, and others by burning” (1975:782).

Anabaptists and Small Groups

It was in 1522 that those with Anabaptist tendencies gathered in homes for small, private meetings. These meetings expanded into a wave of lay reading groups, which met mainly in Zurich and the surrounding area (Latham 1993:13). These small group meetings were directed toward strengthening the faith and expanding the knowledge of eager Christians. In fact, some of these small home studies were so effective in and around Zurich that Zwingli, the most prominent Reformation leader in Zurich, commented that as a result of these meetings the lay people were better acquainted with the Scriptures than some priests (Latham 1993:15).

Small Groups as a Means of Separation

An important reason that the Anabaptists met in private in homes was to confirm their belief that the church of Jesus Christ was a gathered church of committed believers. Jane Holly Latham comments,

The Brethren came together because they felt that the limits of the Zwinglian reforms were suppressing the truth. Meeting together in private, the Brethren hoped to discover the truth and obtain scriptural guidance for church reforms . . . (1993:17).

As a result of this separation, the reformed church in Zurich actively sought out the Anabaptists in order to put them to death. Mantz was the first Anabaptist martyr, who was put to death by drowning on the charge of conducting illegal re-baptisms (Latham 1993:27).

Circumstantial Necessity for Small Groups

Small groups played a vital part of the Anabaptist movement throughout the 16 th century. However, it is hard to say whether or not the Anabaptists met in homes due to their theological convictions or because of circumstantial necessity. Most likely, it was a combination of both factors. According to Jim and Carol Plueddemann, the Anabaptists experienced persecution from Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics combined, which may be part of the reason they met in homes (1990:7). Latham concludes her dissertation on the Anabaptist movement by saying,

As well as being used as an effective means of evangelism and cultivation of the Anabaptist faith, the small group was also employed out of necessity. . . . The Anabaptists sometimes met in small, scattered groups for the sole reason that there was little interest in the movement. Another reason why Anabaptists met in small groups was because all Anabaptist activity was illegal. . . . The factors of little interest, persecution, and the Anabaptist concept of the church as a gathered community combined together to produce the small group meeting as the movement’s main mode of existence (1994:110-111)

Luther and Small Groups

Luther’s attitude towards small group ministry underwent a radical change due to the Anabaptist movement. Initially he was concerned about a practical application of the concept of the priesthood of all believers and entertained the idea of using small groups as part of the church’s reformation. However, later in the light of contextual circumstances he changed his mind.

Earlier Positive Attitude

In a number of his tracts, Luther expressed his concern about the Mass and Liturgy, and even hinted at the need for house gatherings. In his Preface to the German Mass and Order of Service, he spoke of the need for the gathering of all people in a celebration service. He then added,

The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works. . . . Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer and love . . . (1965:63-64).

Tan notes, “Luther saw the potential of the house church and had a vision of meeting in homes for deeper expression of faith which was absent in the institutional church” (1994:45).

Later Change of Mind

It may seem strange that Luther spoke of the importance of small groups, yet never implemented them. The answer to this dilemma is found in one of his letters, discovered in 1982, that he wrote on April 14, 1529 to a fellow priest named Karl Weiss. He had taken Luther’s advice seriously about forming small groups of “earnest Christians” and had begun to involve his parish in a small group ministry.

In his letter, Luther confessed that he had “changed his mind” about the formation of small groups (quoted in White 1983:274), stating that he no longer believed that “earnest Christians” should meet together in the home in order “to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works . . .” (quoted in White 1983:274). It seems that many of the historical events surrounding the Anabaptist movement and the church’s violent reaction to it had seriously altered Luther’s thinking.

Here are the reasons given in the letter for Luther’s change of mind. First, Luther believed that people would fool themselves about who is an earnest Christian. Here, Luther’s doctrine of justification clearly comes into play. Luther came to realize that if one thinks that he or she is an “earnest Christian” there is the danger of pride and a lack of understanding of grace. He writes, “He [Satan] would be able to get us to isolate all the strongest Christians, and keep them from the weak. Then the strong would grow proud, the weak would give up, and all would go to hell in a handbasket” (quoted in White 1983:278).

Second, Luther believed “. . . that such self-styled ‘earnest Christians’ will start to think of themselves as the one, pure church” (quoted in White 1983:275). Luther warned, “If we allow small groups of Christians to separate from the rest, to read the Word, to baptize, and to receive sacraments, we will have established a new church” (quoted in White 1983:275). With the Anabaptist movement fresh on his mind, Luther feared the potential divisiveness of small groups. He wrote,

All the elements [of the true church] would be there in these small groups and, as sure as Satan seeks to destroy our souls, some Pharisaical spirit will conclude that his little group is the church, and that everyone outside is damned. Indeed, it has already happened, if I am to believe the rumor I hear. Certain false brethren rebaptize themselves and then sneak away from God’s church to meet with other misled fools in various holes and corners. They claim that they are the only true Christians, and teach that they must separate from all iniquity (quoted in White 1983:275).

Luther arrived at the conclusion that a small group atmosphere would engender more divisiveness than unity.

Third, Luther did not believe that it was Scriptural to separate from the church to set up a pure group of earnest Christians. By 1529, Luther came to the conclusion that there was no Scriptural warrant for such small groups. Rather, he quotes passages to indicate that the true church always maintained a mixture of both the pure and the impure (quoted in White 1983:276-277).

Martin Bucer

We have noted that Luther’s retreat from the use of small groups was largely due to the abuses and dangers that he imagined in the Anabaptist movement. However, Luther’s disciple, Martin Bucer sensed the compelling need to reform the church by the creation of small home based communities (Latourette 1975:709).

Ecclesiological Reform through Small Groups

Bucer clearly saw the carnality and superficiality in his church at Strasbourg. He stressed reform upon arriving in Strasbourg, but the apparent futility of his labors almost shattered his patience (D. Wright 1994:137). Bucer became increasingly drawn to the model of the primitive church which emphasized both cell and celebration. He felt that small groups would make the church at Strasbourg “. . . more faithful to the primitive and ancient churches” (D. Wright 1994:142). 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 (1994:142-143).

When Bucer 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 the particular group. The interview dealt with members’ beliefs concerning doctrine, the sacraments, Christian behavior, and repentance.

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 because there were many Anabaptists in the city (D. Wright 1994:134). In the mid-1540s, Anabaptism rapidly increased in numbers and influence, and Anabaptist small groups met all around Strasbourg (D. Wright 1994:135). 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. . . (1994:135).

Wright continues,

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 (1994:140).

Yet, in spite of all of the criticism, Bucer’s convictions compelled him to continue.

The Need for Cell and Celebration

For Bucer, it was not a matter of deciding to support the inclusive state church or the gathered church (Anabaptist). 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 Bucer’s plans for small communities” (1994:134). Bucer felt that he would have actually been “unfaithful” to Scripture if he did not promote the gathering of believers in small groups (D. Wright 1994:137).

Bucer explained to his critics that instead of creating divisiveness, the small groups aimed specifically at promoting unity among all Christians. 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 (D. Wright 1994:141).

Small Groups after the Reformation

There are several significant small group movements that arose after the reformation. Due to the limited focus of this chapter, I will concentrate on small group ministry within Pietism, Moravianism, and Methodism. However, I recommend further research of small group ministry among the Puritans, Quakers, and Baptists.


Robert Moylan, in his dissertation “Lutheran Pietism: Paradox or Paradigm,” sums up the goal of Pietism in this way,

It was the intention of classic Pietism to recapture, as far as possible, the essence and power of the “primitive Church”–the church of the first and second centuries . . . . The Pietists seem to have concluded that it could best be achieved through what has become recognized as the theme of the Pietistic renewal movement: Change the Church by changing the individual (1992:156).

Donald Bloesch adds, “Among the salient features of Pietism is the emphasis upon the religion of the heart. . . . In the Pietist movement there is an existential emphasis, a call for personal involvement in the truth of the faith” (1973:106).

Background of the Times

Pietism was a renewal movement which took place in the wake of the tragic thirty- year war in which much of Germany was devastated. It was a time when many were searching for answers. For the most part, they were not finding those answers in the Lutheran church. Latham writes, “. . . the Lutheran Church in seventeenth century Germany consisted largely of nominal Christians who attended church services that were dull and boring. Ministers preached theological legalism that no one could, or wanted to, understand” (1993:58). There was also drunkenness and immorality among the clergy. The spiritual condition of Germany was very low (Latourette 1975:895). The church services were formal and sterile. Pietism must be understood in this context.

Philip Jacob Spener

In this dry, sterile, and immoral context, Philip Spener was born (1635). In 1666, as a Lutheran pastor in Frankfort, he sensed the need to nourish and promote a deeper life among the church members (Latourette 1975:895). Latourette notes, “. . . he gathered in his own home a group for the cultivation of the Christian life through the discussion of the Sunday sermons, prayer, and the study of the Bible” (1975:895). This movement spread and the groups became known as collegia pietatis.

Small Groups in Pietism

Spener believed that change could only take place as believers met in small groups for Bible study, prayer, worship, and fellowship. The goal of these groups was discipleship and holiness. Consequently, Spener wanted only serious believers to attend (Latham 1993:63). Doyle Young writes,

The purpose of the groups was to renew the greater ecclesia, Church. If the entire Church was to be renewed, a start must be made with those serious Christians in each congregation. These . . . little churches within the Church were not intended, however, to replace the institutional church (1989:108)

Damien Sangwoong Sohn describes the importance of the small group in Pietism when he says, “The small group meeting was the internal dynamic of Pietism for the actual practical renewal and expansion of Christian ministry beyond the clergy” (1990:102).

Various Aspects of the Groups

The following are only some of the chief characteristics that were present in Spener’s small groups:

Leadership.–It was necessary for a qualified leader to be present in these meetings in order to avoid false doctrine. It appears that this person normally was a pastor or a professor who was willing to take responsibility for the group (Latham 1993:67). However, the leader was not to dominate the discussion. Rather, he was to stir up participation among those who were present. Phillip Jacob Spener writes,

The professor, as the leader, should reinforce good observations. If he sees, however, that students are departing from the end in view, he should proceed in clear and friendly fashion to set them right on the basis of the text and show them what opportunity they have to put this or that rule of conduct into practice (1964: 113).

Participation.–As was mentioned, although the leader was always present, opportunity was given for each to participate. The Sunday sermon might be the starting point for the discussion, but then each person was to contribute according to his or her own understanding. Referring to the lesson part of the study Spener writes, “This [the study] should be done in such fashion that each student may be permitted to say what he thinks about each verse and how he finds that it applies to his own and to other’s benefit” (1964:113).

Spener’s emphasis on participation was the result of his theological conviction concerning the priesthood of all believers. Bloesch writes, “The priesthood of believers, though having a prominent place in the theology of the Reformers, was given concrete embodiment in Pietism” (1973:118). Spener adds,

No damage will be done to the ministry by a proper use of this priesthood. In fact, one of the principal reasons why the ministry cannot accomplish all that it ought is that it is too weak without the help of the universal priesthood. One man is incapable of doing all that is necessary for the edification of the many persons who are generally entrusted in pastoral care (1964:95).

Balance between Cell and Celebration.–Spener was very careful to include his small group emphasis within Lutheran ecclesiology and thus avoid Anabaptism. Like Luther, Spener was part of the state church. His goal was to make the state church more holy and Christlike through the ministry of small groups. These meetings served only to supplement the Sunday morning worship service–not to replace it. He did not even allow the people to call the groups “the true church,” so as to avoid doctrinal conflict (Young 1989:109). Nor did Spener allow the celebration of the sacraments at these meetings. Communion was reserved for the entire congregation only (Young 1989:108).

Criticisms of Spener’s Reforms

Spener’s reforms set off a wave of protests. Many accused him of being untrue to Lutheran doctrine. Latourette notes, “In this his opponents were not altogether incorrect. While he did not attack Lutheran orthodoxy, Spener held that if one had been truly converted and had a right heart, doctrinal differences were relatively unimportant” (1975:895). Some of the opposition arose at Frankfurt because there were those who went to the home meetings, but then did not attend the public worship services and did not partake in the Lord’s supper (Latourette 1975:895). There were also those who used the small group fellowship as an opportunity to interpret doctrine narrowly and create a legalistic wedge between those they considered truly converted and those who were not (Mackintosh quoted in Moylan 1992:159).

The Spread of Pietism

Although the constant opposition hindered Spener’s reforms, the movement spread far beyond Spener’s own ministry. Many Lutheran churches began to practice his principles. Through the teaching of Francke at the university of Pietistic doctrine was spread throughout the world. Nicholas von Zinzendorf, the founder of the Moravian Church, was strongly influenced by Pietism while at Halle. John Wesley was in turn touched through the Moravians. As Sohn declares, “Missiologically speaking, it [Pietism] formed part of the launching pad of Protestant World Mission” (1990:50).

Pietism has also greatly influenced the small group movement today. The covenant groups that Roberta Hestenes and others have championed are really an offshoot of the small groups in Pietism (Moylan 1992:160-175). It can also be argued that the Bible study movement in general can be traced back to Pietism.

The Moravians

The Moravian movement began in 1722 when a few refugees from the persecutions of Protestants in Bohemia and Moravia settled on the estate of Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf (1700-1760). As was stated earlier, it strongly influenced by the Pietistic tradition.

Early History

In 1457, a group established a colony in Lititz, on the Border of Bohemia, where they followed the teachings of John Hus. In 1467, sixty years before the Protestant Reformation, they founded their own independent ministry known as the Unitas Fratrum, Unity of Brethren. During the Thirty Years’ War, in 1620, the Brethren were forced to go underground. Their leader, Bishop John Amos Comenius fled to Poland with a small band of refugees. This group spread into Bohemia and neighboring Moravia, and eventually some went to the Zinzendorf estate where they were allowed to settle.

Nicholas von Zinzendorf

Zinzendorf had been educated at Halle, was a devout Pietist, and the godson of Spener (McCallum 1996:4). F. Ernest Stoeffler notes, “During his time at Halle the special gifts of Zinzendorf, his linguistic ability, his leadership qualities, his ability to conceive novel schemes, had become abundantly apparent. . .” (1973:134). His ardent desire for Jesus and vision to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth were fulfilled through those refugees who came to his estate. Latourette writes, “In the handful of persecuted refugees he saw the means of fulfilling that vision” (1975:897).

The Moravian Church

Zinzendorf perceived the entire world as his parish. Yet, he was not interested in establishing a denomination (Stoeffler 1973:160). Rather, his passion was to send missionaries out to the uttermost parts of the world. When it became impossible to do so without a more organized church structure, he consented and became the first bishop. It was through this new church structure that many missionaries were sent around the world (Latourette 1975:897).

Small Groups in the Moravian Church

Young writes, “Like Spener’s Pietist groups, the Moravian communities were to be ecclesiolae in ecclesia (little churches within the Church) whose purpose was to renew the whole church” (1989:110). The Moravians offered to the church-renewal movement the techniques of society, class, and band” (Young 1989:110). In his doctoral dissertation on small group renewal, William Brown states,

Perhaps one of the most deliberate and successful uses of the small group principle in Church history is the band system of Count Zinzendorf in the middle of the eighteenth century. The micro communities of Herrnhut combined the aspects of fellowship and sharing, mutual correction and confession, prayer and an urgent sense of mission to send the gospel to the world and bring renewal to Christians. They made use of lay leadership and literally followed the kind of meeting advised in James 5:13-16 (1992:38).

The Bands

Even before the Moravian Church was fully operational, personal bands were formed for those refugees and people who had come to live at Herrnhut (Hamilton 1967:32). Their purpose was to promote personal growth in grace and fellowship between kindred spirits and free and informal associations of those who felt drawn to each other. They met in frequent conferences for prayer and intimate discussion of personal experiences. Each member of the congregation could join the band most congenial to him or one in whose leader he had special confidence. There were also specific groups for women that Lady Zinzendorf promoted.

The Choirs

Later in the development of the Moravian Church, the congregations were divided into choirs or groups according to age, sex and marital status (note 4). Each group had its own meetings and the adult groups had their own houses where members lived and carried out their usual activities (Hamilton 1967:37). Jacob Sessler gives a clear picture of these groups,

From the earliest years children were taught that they belonged more to the Church than to their parents. They became the property of the Church, and it was expected that when they grew up they should serve the institution which had nurtured and cared for them in their childhood and adolescence. The basis for the wide-spread mission work of the Moravians is found chiefly in their firm belief that the Church had first claim on their lives. . . . When later they were called upon to go into distant mission fields, their past training made it easier for them, since they had very few parental and home ties to break (1933: 98-99).

It appears that in time the mandatory, age-divided choirs became more important than the family. F. Taylor and K. Hamilton note, “In time the voluntary associations cultivated in the band were supplanted by compulsory membership in the choir with the subordination of family life which this institution produced in its heyday” (1967:37).

The Methodists and Small Groups

The Methodist movement was greatly influenced by the Moravians. John Wesley was led to the assurance of salvation and a deep personal relationship with God as a result of his contact with Moravians; he derived many of his small group concepts from them as well. Brown states,

Zinzendorf’s band system was adapted by John Wesley as the basis for his band meetings. Wesley introduced them to give opportunity for mutual confession (according to James 5:16) and offering encouragement and support in overcoming temptation and developing a Christian lifestyle (1992:38).

He was so impacted by the Moravians that he went to Germany, met with Zinzendorf, and spent several days at Herrnhut. Although he was critical of some aspects of the movement, he adopted several of their methods in his own ministry (Latourette 1975:1025).

Many believe that it was because of small groups that Methodism was so successful. T.A. Hegre writes,

I believe that the success of Wesley was due to his habit of establishing small groups. His converts would meet regularly in groups of about a dozen people. If the group became too large, it would divide, and it might continue to divide again and again (1993:8).

Wesley’s Orientation toward Small Groups

From an early age, God in His sovereignty prepared Wesley for small group ministry. Plueddeman writes,

His own mother, Susannah, had initiated home meetings in the parsonage years before. These began with devotional times which Susannah led for her children. A few neighbors asked to attend, and eventually the group grew to over 200 people, . . . the vision for home groups would become an important dynamic in the ministry of her sons, John and Charles (1990:8).

Wesley’s Talents for Small Groups

Not only did Wesley have a small group background, but he was also an excellent administrator. In fact, he felt that his primary talent lay in his ability to organize people (Latourette 1975:1026). Wesley was also very good at adapting the methodology of other people to suit his own ends. Latourette notes that he had “. . . . an unusual capacity to accept suggestions and to adopt and adapt methods from various quarters” (1975:1026). Hunter says,

He learned from exposure to the home groups (the ecclesiolae in ecclesia) that the Lutheran Pietist leader Philip Jacob Spener developed to fuel renewal and outreach, and Wesley learned particularly from the Moravians. Wesley also learned from Anabaptist groups and from the occasional “societies” with the church of England, so his group movement was ecletic Protestant (1996:84).

Wesley’s Vision for Small Groups

Like Bucer and Spener, Wesley wanted God’s people to experience the community of the King. Therefore, he became a student of the book of Acts and the New Testament model of the church. Hunter explains,

He sensed that if he drew people together in cells to challenge and encourage each other to live daily as Christians, through their protracted experiences, the contagion and power of the Apostolic church would move in human history once again (1996:84).

Wesley’s Small Group Organization

Wesley believed that small groups were God’s instrument to implement change. He realized that long term change required an effective organizational structure, and thus he worked hard to build an extensive small group network.


Classes were the cornerstone of the Methodist organization. Without them, the movement would not have experienced such success.

Early History.–There were at least two reasons behind the creation of the classes. First, the classes were originally organized to raise money for the Methodist work. Each member was required to give one penny each week. Second, in 1742, Wesley realized that too many Christians were falling away (Young 1989:112). For this reason the classes took on new significance as a means of correcting this problem.

Leadership.–A large part of the success of the classes was the system of leadership. These are the key principles that Wesley established.

  • The leaders were appointed (as opposed to the bands where the leaders were elected) (Pallil 1991:110).
  • Women were permitted to be lay leaders (they became a majority) (Brown 1992:39).
  • Selection of leadership was based on moral and spiritual character, as well as common sense (Brown 1992:39).
  • Leadership was “plural,” that is, there was more than one leader, so that spiritual leadership was shared (Young 1989:113).
  • Groups were not started unless adequate leadership was available. Hunter notes, “He [Wesley] saw no virtue in starting new ministry or group life that dies soon after birth, or is stunted in growth” (1989:119).
  • The class leaders were in fact pastors. Snyder writes, “This was the normal system, based in part on Wesley’s conviction that spiritual oversight had to be intimate and personal and that plural leadership was the norm in a congregation (1980:58).
  • The class leadership met weekly with the upper society leadership. They practiced the Jethro model (note 5). David Lowes Watson says, “They met weekly with the preacher appointed by Wesley as minister of their society, both to report on their members and themselves and to receive advice and instruction” (1986:38).

Activity in Group.–The class meeting was not a highly organized event. It normally lasted for one hour, and the main event was “reporting on your soul” (Snyder 1980:55). The class would begin with an opening song. Then the leader would share a personal, religious experience. Afterwards, he would inquire about the spiritual life of those in the group. Each member would give a testimony about his or her spiritual condition. Before closing in prayer, there would be an offering to support the ministry.

David Lowes Watson, in Accountable Discipleship, writes, “It was a weekly gathering, a sub-division of the society, at which members were required to give an account to one another of their discipleship, and thereby to sustain each other in their witness” (1986:13). The meeting was built upon the sharing of personal experience of the past week (Pallil 1991:107). Mallison writes,

The class meeting was the basis of every Methodist society; every member was expected to belong, to speak freely and plainly about every subject from their own temptations to plans for establishing a new cottage meeting or visiting the distressed (1989:127-28).

From early on, Wesley learned the importance of allowing each member of the body to use his or her gift. In the early days, various members from the classes began to preach the gospel. Wesley was concerned, yet his mother, Susannah, encouraged him to permit such preaching. Wesley yielded, and lay preachers became an outstanding feature of Methodism (Latourette 1975:1027).

Discipline.–The class meetings contributed to the overall objectives of the Methodist society primarily by keeping the Methodist societies under tight control. Snyder comments, “The class meetings were not designed merely as Christian growth groups, however, or primarily as cells for koinonia, although in fact they did serve that function. Their primary purpose was discipline” (1980:38).

Wesley did not hesitate to expel someone from the society if he or she was not following the Lord wholeheartedly. He knew the condition of each member through the class accountability structures. Cell reports were regularly received (Snyder 1980:57). Before a person could join the Methodist society, he or she had to actively participate in a class. One was not allowed to join the large group, the society, before joining the small group or class (Young 1989:113). Hunter notes, “. . . every Methodist belonged to a class. Indeed, the class was Methodism’s main point of entry for “awakened” seekers who had not yet experienced justification and new life but who desired such experience” (1996:85).

Evangelism.–One of the most exciting aspects of the class system was its evangelistic emphasis. Brown says,

The groups also had a clear evangelistic function as people were converted during the meetings and lapsed members were enabled to renew their commitment to Christ. Wesley knew that the beginnings of faith in a person’s life could be incubated into saving faith more effectively in a warm Christian environment than it could in the chill of the world (1992:39).

Hunter states, “To Wesley, evangelism . . . took place primarily in the class meetings and in people’s hearts in the hours following the class meetings (1987:58).

Wesley was clearly more interested in discipleship than decision. He was not convinced that a person had made a decision for Christ until he was involved in a small group. Young writes, “The classes served as an evangelistic tool (most conversions occurred in this context) and as a discipling agent” (1989:113).

Multiplication.–According to George Hunter, Wesley was a church growth strategist. Hunter writes, “He was driven to multiplying ‘classes’ for these served best as recruiting groups, as ports of entry for new people, and for involving awakened people with the gospel and power” (1987:56). Wesley would preach and then invite the people to join a class. His first objective in his preaching was the starting of classes (1987:57) (note 6). Wesley would not start a class, if he could not effectively manage it, and he would not preach where he could not enroll people into classes (1987:56).


Bands represented another level in Methodist organization. The bands were started in 1738, before the classes, and followed the Moravian pattern of promoting the spiritual renewal of each member (Latourette 1975: 1026). At one time, there were several types of bands, but eventually they were dissolved and the classes took their place (Pallil 1991:105) (note 7). The bands were organized according to sex, age, and marital status and usually had about six people (Brown 1992:38). Unlike the classes, attendance was not required and only about twenty percent ever joined a band (Young 1989:112). In each band meeting, the members asked each other about the sins that they had committed since the last meeting, the temptations that they had to deal with, and how they were delivered from those temptations.


The society was the congregational level, as we know it. People who remained committed in their pursuit of a new life, and attended the class meeting regularly, were automatically made part of the society after three months (Hunter 1996:85). Hunter makes an important comparison,

A Methodist Society was composed of the sum total of classes attached to it. As one’s membership in early Christianity was primarily to a house church and somewhat secondarily to the whole Church within the city, so in early Methodism one’s primary membership was in the class and somewhat secondarily in the society (1996:85).

Wesley’s Role

Wesley kept stepping back and delegating others to higher levels of leadership. Latourette says,

For a time Wesley himself visited each of the societies to supervise them and enforce discipline. As they increased this became impossible and he assembled his preachers in annual conferences. . . . As societies and preachers further grew in numbers, he established “circuits” with traveling preachers and soon, as an assistant to himself, a superintendent was placed in charge of each circuit. He himself kept an autocratic control of the whole (1975:1027).

The Growth of the Movement

We are told that eventually hundreds of thousands of people participated in the small group system (Brown 1992:39). Snyder reports, “By the time Methodism had reached 100,000 members at the end of the century, the movement must have had over 10,000 class and band leaders with perhaps an equal or larger total of other leaders” (1980:63). This system of bands and classes continued for over a century (1980:62) (note 8).


Many important lessons can be learned from the historical study of small groups. In the Old Testament, leadership care is given new significance through an organizational structure. In the New Testament church, we learn about the cell/celebration model that so many have followed in succeeding generations. Largely, through a negative example, the separation between clergy and laity in early church history reinforces the necessity of emphasizing the priesthood of all believers.

The early Reformers (especially Martin Bucer) teach us how small group structures can be used to call the church back to vital Christianity. The small group structure among the Anabaptists helps us to learn more about the nature of the true church–the gathered community. In Pietism, we catch a glimpse of how small groups were used in a complimentary role within the state church. From the Moravian and Methodist small group structures we observe how small groups contribute to church growth by emphasizing both evangelism and discipleship.

It is important to understand that the history of Christianity has helped develop many concepts utilized in the cell group movement today. As always, we must glean principles from the past which will in turn make us more effective in future ministry


  1. Many of the early church fathers (e.g., Cyprian) made extensive lists that supposedly connected the bishops at that time to Peter himself.
  2. The name Anabaptist means “rebaptized.” This name was given by their critics, since they rejected infant baptism as contrary to the Scriptures and regarded as valid only that baptism which was administered to conscious believers (Latourette 1975:779).
  3. Latourette notes that Luther was not entirely in accord with the state church set up because it conflicted with his teaching on salvation through faith (1975:775). Calvin avoided it somewhat by teaching that only the elect would ultimately be saved and not because one was baptized as an infant (1975:778). Perhaps the state church paradigm was as much cultural as religious. In other words, the practice of the state church was not only a carry over from the Catholic tradition, but served as an instrument for order and cultural transmission.
  4. There were groups for widowers, widows, married people, single men, single women, older boys, older girls, younger boys, and younger girls.
  5. I am using the term Jethro model to refer to the counsel of Jethro to Moses in Exodus 18. In this system, each cell leader has someone to whom he or she is accountable.
  6. Apparently, the multiplication of classes were primarily the result of planting new classes from scratch. William Walter Dean, in his dissertation on the Wesley class system writes, “Cell division was much less common than might have been expected. The formation of new classes was by far the most frequent approach to growth” ( Dean 1985:266).
  7. For example, one type of band was called, “The Penitent Band”. These bands were provided for people who had fallen away and were now seeking restoration (Hunter 1996:85) .
  8. From 1738 to 1798 the movement grew from zero to 149 circuits with 101,712 members.