To the members of the church at Philadelphia,
In my last letter to you, written about a month ago, we began a discussion of this rather common tendency among some members of the Church to form small groups of Bible-studying Christians who meet together in the homes of the members for personal edification and spiritual strengthening. I mentioned to you the fact that this movement, increasingly popular, has in some instances become a substitute for church attendance, and has even become a substitute for membership in the church. In fact, sometimes groups of believers have withdrawn from the established Church and have been content to be “members” of such an informal group without joining another Church or without organizing a congregation of their own.
They have, for one reason or another, become dissatisfied with the established Church; they are disillusioned with a Church which has apostatized; they have concluded that the Church as institute has outlived its usefulness. They are content to go their independent and informal way. They find, that the spiritual edification which they need is better found in such small groups of believers meeting together for personal Bible study and devotions than in the formal worship services of the established Church.
Last time I wrote that we were going to take a closer look at this whole tendency, to evaluate it from an historical point of view and from the point of view of Scripture.
Let us then get on with the matter.
I said in my last letter that this phenomenon was not new in the Church. This is true. Especially at times when the Church sank deeply into dead orthodoxy and when heresy was rampant in the Church, believers would come together in the homes to study the Scriptures, to read the writings of pious men of God from former years, to pray together, and to build one another up in the faith. You must remember that, in the years prior to the early part of the 19th Century, most of the Churches of the Reformation in Europe were State Churches. Earlier than this, of course, had been the Separatist Movement in Dec. 1, 1976 England; but even before that movement, the Church in England was an Established Church under the control and direction of the State. In many cases this State control was, at least in part, responsible for the decline in doctrine and life which characterized the “main-line” Churches. And, indeed, in England, when the Separatists left the Church, there were many believers who did not, for one reason or another, go along with this Separatist Movement and who, in the State Church, formed such “home-study groups.”
But in the early part of the 19th Century, in almost all the countries on the continent, there were movements such as this. Groups of dissatisfied believers, unhappy with the state of affairs within their denominations, formed informal groups which met within homes to gain for themselves what they could no longer get from dead and heretical preaching within their denominations. In many instances these groups were directly related to movements of secession—not only in the Netherlands, but also in such countries as Germany and Switzerland. Yet, when new denominations were formed by secession movements, not all those who were dissatisfied with their denominations went along. In many instances people felt a certain obligation to stay with their mother Church. They refused to separate and go along with those who departed from their mother Church. They stayed where they were. But they chose to satisfy that which was lacking in their spiritual life by means of such “Gezelschappen” or fellowship groups.
Now, you must clearly understand that there is nothing wrong in itself in groups of believers getting together to turn to God’s Word, study its truths, mutually seek to understand better the Scriptures and edify one another in the faith. In fact, this is indeed part of the functioning of the office of believers. Far better it is for God’s people, when they come together for a social visit, to talk about spiritual things than to discuss things of little or no value, to engage in unseemly hilarity or, worse, to spend the time in gossiping. And indeed, insofar as these “Gezelschappen” in the early part of the 19th Century led to the Secession Movement (under De Cock, Brummelkamp, Van Raalte, et. al., in the Netherlands) these groups served a good purpose.
But the fact is that these same groups assumed a different form in subsequent years. In some instances, for example, groups of people would come together because they considered themselves the “kernel” within the Church. This was often found in those Churches which emphasized a wrong conception of conversion. The majority of the congregation were unconverted because as yet they had had no definite “conversion experience.” But there were some who did consider themselves “converted” and who could point to some usually dramatic incident in their life which was considered an experience sealing their conversion. These “converted” would consider themselves the “kernel” in the Church and, would meet together as a kind of a church within a church. They were the true elect within the Church, the truly converted within the outward structure of the Church.
When such groups came together, one of the chief purposes of such meetings was to discuss and perhaps evaluate their conversion experiences and to tell one another what “great things God had done for them.” These groups became highly mystical and subjective; and the whole concept fostered pride—as anyone can readily see.
In development of another sort, and this especially in recent years, small groups of believers, totally unhappy with the situation in their mother Church, and sometimes not knowing where else to turn, withdrew from their mother church and formed small and relatively informal groups which never became an instituted Church but remained unorganized groups which met on the Lord’s Day to read old writers and to study and pray together. I recall the time I talked with such a group. They assured me that they received the preaching of the Word through the old writers who spoke to them more powerfully than any minister they had ever heard. They said that their experience of the communion of saints, while somewhat restricted here on earth because of the smallness of their group, was nevertheless primarily with the saints in heaven. They admitted that it was difficult to have a celebration of the sacraments, but that they could themselves administer these sacraments when the need arose. There are many such groups around today. They seem to have become so disillusioned with the organized Church that they are frightened at the very thought of becoming a part of such a group again.
I said in my last letter to you that the various forms of Pentecostalism are other manifestations of this same general tendency. Those who depart from their denominations and join themselves to various Pentecostal groups express that their reasons for doing this are mainly that there is a serious lack in the organized Church. Perhaps this lack is apostasy from the truth. Perhaps the Church they left is characterized by worldly-mindedness. Perhaps the Church of their birth is fallen into dead orthodoxy. Perhaps a sort of hierarchy of ecclesiastical assemblies had choked the spiritual life of the saints and had made effective protest against wrongs impossible. Perhaps a certain “spirituality” is lacking for which their souls thirst. Perhaps the Church which was once their home is too much devoted to the intellectual, to doctrine, and not sufficiently devoted to the emotional, to experience. Or perhaps there are combinations of the above which form the reasons for their leaving.
In any case, they find life among “Pentecostals” much more worthwhile because there free rein is given to the spirit, experience is emphasized, Godly life is stressed, fellowship is rich and full; in short, there is no stifling institutional structure which makes the spiritual life of the saints difficult at best and impossible in many cases.
We must examine these trends of our day and test the spirits to see whether they be of God. But we must do this in the light of God’s Word.
Before we go into this in any kind of detail, I want to assure you that in these letters I do not intend to give a lengthy critique of modern day Pentecostalism. Enough has been written about this so that you can discover easily the evils and dangers of this movement without my writing about it. Nor do I want to criticize in detail the whole idea of “Gezelschappen.” At least, I do not intend to criticize these movements in detail from the viewpoint of their dangers and. evils. I am particularly interested in the question of the importance of the Church as institute in the life of the child of God. That is the main purpose of my writing., I do not want to see you tempted to look askance at the church institute and abandon that institute as a hopeless structure which is incapable of meeting your spiritual needs. This is the real danger, and this needs our emphasis.
Nor do I intend to defend the institute of the Church at all costs. There are some who define patriotism as being, “My country, right or wrong.” I am not going to defend loyalty to an ecclesiastical institute on the grounds of: “My Church, right or wrong.” The question is not whether there are things wrong with the instituted Church or whether all is well. It simply is a fact that cannot be contradicted that the movement towards fellowship groups is often born in a frustration with the Church institute which is completely justified. But the question is whether to leave the church institute and establish such an independent, unorganized, “informal” group is the solution to the problem.
Our discussion will therefore be somewhat narrow; but this is because I am primarily interested in being positive. We shall have to see that the institution of the Church is ordained by Scripture; and, seeing this, we shall have to see that the Church institute is a necessary part of the life of the believer; that, in fact, he cannot get along without it.
But we will wait with this until our next letter. In the meantime, think on these things, and let me know your reaction to them.
With fraternal greetings,