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Small Groups

by Tim O'Hearn

What appears to be a fad and is challenged by some soon becomes acceptable to almost all. There was a time when it was expected that Christian women would wear their hair long. When some women started wearing short styles, some preachers condemned the practice. It has been said that short hair on women only became acceptable when elders wives started wearing their hair that way. There is another practice that seems to be a fad, even though many will say it was practiced in the first century, which is gaining acceptance in the Churches of Christ even though the practice is inconsistent with what has long been one of the basic tenets of our faith. That is the practice of “small group” gatherings in place of some of the assemblies of a larger congregation.

The doctrine of congregational autonomy has been foundational in this fellowship. Some of the more conservative of the fellowship argue that individual congregations should not support various organizations out of their treasury because that would be cooperation with other congregations. This was one of the issues that split the Disciples of Christ into three distinct branches: Christian Churches, Disciples of Christ, and Churches of Christ. Some accepted Missionary Societies, and others argued they were a violation of congregational autonomy. Even though the Baptists generally claim that each congregation is independently governed, some say that their “Conventions” are a form of hierarchical government. These see little difference between decisions being made by a Convention and decisions made by Bishops, Cardinals, and a Pope.

Some people argue that the Bible seems to indicate that in the first century each town or city had only one congregation. Others say that the books to the Corinthians make it clear that the Christians in that city constituted several small “home churches.” Whichever is true, it doesn’t really seem to matter. If there were many congregations in Corinth, there is no indication that they were one congregation that occasionally split into smaller groups, but rather that each group met consistently and independently. In contrast, the modern small group model generally consists of a large congregation meeting once a week (Sunday morning, perhaps) and the members of that congregation meeting separately at other times during the week.

In a congregation without elders, it would be easy to argue that such a model might be acceptable. If the larger congregation has elders, and those elders also have authority over the small groups, this becomes an inconsistency of doctrine. When each small group meets independently, it makes up a new and separate congregation, at least for the time that they meet. If one body of elders claims authority over all the small groups that meet out of the larger congregation, then in practice they are saying that elders may have authority over more than one congregation.

One of the bedrock passages for congregational autonomy is Titus 1:5. “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.” Laying aside the argument that these elders were to be appointed by someone who didn’t even belong to their city, there are still two ways to go. If each city had only one congregation, then this does indeed argue for congregational autonomy. If, on the other hand, there were several small congregations in larger cities, then this passage allows one elder or set of elders over several congregations, as long as all those congregations are in the same city. This would then allow one group of elders to oversee several small group congregations, but would mean the same elders would be over all congregations, large or small, in their city. Either way, the modern practice becomes inconsistent with the Titus passage.

This is not to say that small congregations under the umbrella of a larger congregation are wrong. It is to say, however, that before we jump on that bandwagon we should do a little more studying to see if it, or any other doctrine, is right or wrong.