(Note to reader: The next series of letters will be addressed to the “Members of the congregation at Philadelphia,” a congregation which once, in fact, existed (see Rev. 3:7-13), but which is now an imaginary congregation which includes all the people of God in every place).
To the Members of the Congregation at Philadelphia:
It has recently come to my attention that a small group of people has left your congregation and has established a group which meets from Sabbath to Sabbath to study the Word of God together outside of its former affiliation with the established Church. The news has come to me that this group has been joined by a few members from other congregations and has come to the conclusion that, rather than forming a new congregation, it would be more spiritually advantageous for them to remain as an unorganized band of “believers” whose purpose it will be to study together the Word of God, to pray together, and to edify one another as they apply the Word of God more directly to the problems of life. I have also heard that some members of this group have talked with members of your congregation and have spoken in glowing terms about how spiritually uplifting these meetings are, so that you yourselves are sometimes tempted to join them and participate in their Sunday Bible-study exercises.
I want to write about this to you because, on the one hand, it may indeed be a temptation to you to join yourselves to them; and, on the other hand, because this practice is rather widespread in our day. One will find such groups in many different places. The group which has left your congregation is by no means an isolated phenomenon. In fact, one gets the impression that the idea is increasingly popular and that there is a sort of “movement” in this direction.
These groups take on many different forms. Sometimes they are groups from one or more congregations who, without withdrawing their membership from their own congregations, nevertheless want to supplement the preaching which they receive with personal Bible-study and group devotions. Their purpose is to study the Word of God in small groups in which believers together will feel free to contribute their own ideas about that Word, and where there can be a more intimate discussion of how that Word applies to the particular problems of life which the saints face. They point out the fact that one of the principles of the Reformation is the priesthood of all believers, and on this principle they defend their actions because, they maintain, and correctly so, that God’s people need not that any should teach them, for they are all, from the least of them to the greatest, prophets.
Sometimes these groups are composed of a small number of people who have actually left their congregation or congregations for one reason or another and have decided that their souls can better be fed in small, intimate groups where God’s Word is studied, than by the preaching in the congregations where they were once members. They have become disillusioned with the preaching and with their former church. Sometimes their disillusionment is unwarranted, for they are merely looking for something more exciting than the worship services. But sometimes one must admit, in all honesty, that their disillusionment is indeed justified. The minister in their congregation has abandoned the pure preaching of the Word and has substituted for the preaching discussions on various social issues. The preacher has perhaps decided not to preach at all on a given occasion, and has turned the worship services over to the young people or to some guest speaker with an axe to grind or an experience to tell concerning some far-off mission field. Or perhaps the minister has forsaken the traditional approach to the worship service, where the preaching has occupied a central place, and has introduced an elaborate liturgy which appeals to the senses particularly. Or again, perhaps a movie is shown instead of the worship service, or a musical group is brought in to entertain the audience with the latest in gospel music.
Sometimes these groups which separate from their church have justified their conduct by pointing out that the denomination to which their congregation belonged has drifted further and further away from the truth, and this apostasy has become apparent in the pulpit. But whatever the reason, they have lost their interest in the Church and have found a haven in a small group of like-minded people who gather to study the Word. Sometimes these groups come together only to study the Word as they mutually contribute ideas as to what a particular passage means. But sometimes they even appoint an individual from the group to give some short edifying message as some kind of substitute for the preaching. Sometimes they are concerned about the fact that the sacraments are not celebrated, and so they make an effort to have communion together and perhaps even to administer the sacrament of baptism. But mostly the idea is to edify one another and to encourage one another in the faith.
The people who attend such groups speak very movingly of their experiences in such a group. They will tell you that they are greatly blessed—far more blessed in fact than when they attended Church. They will tell you that they are members of the body of Christ and that they have clear and unmistakable joy in fellowship experiences with other members of that body. They will tell you that the Word of God has come to mean much more to them since they have been attending such a group; that they have learned more and more what it means to live a Christian life; that their own devotional life has been enormously enriched; that the experience of the communion of the saints has never been greater; that they have come to share the joys of their faith with like-minded people of God from other congregations and denominations to learn what it truly means to be a member of Christ’s body.
All this talk sounds very pious and it is difficult to refute such argumentation. When a person tells you he has been extraordinarily blessed in such a group, it is difficult to deny such an allegation and to say to him that he is deceiving himself if he thinks he has been blessed. He will merely look at you and tell you that he knows how blessed he has been, and who are you to deny what he has truly experienced?
And it is just possible I suppose that such a person, glowing with spiritual ardor, talks with you on a Monday morning after you have not, for one reason or another, received very much of a blessing the day before in the Lord’s house. Your own life by comparison looks rather sterile and barren; your own participation in your congregation looks like a desert place in which no waters be when you compare it with the description of the man who has just attended his Bible-study group. And you conclude that he has found something in life which you lack.
I thought it best to write to you about this modem phenomenon because we must not only be warned of the danger of this movement, but also be shown that there is a very great sin involved in this sort of thing.
This is not, however, a new phenomenon in the history of the Church. It has, as a matter of fact, a rather long tradition. In a certain sense, the tradition goes way back to the early Montanist movement in the second and third centuries and which was made famous when the well-known church father Tertullian joined the group. It also has some points of similarity with various mystical movements which arose in the Church during the Middle Ages prior to the Reformation and which were also protests against the deadness of the Roman Catholic institute. But more closely connected to the present day phenomenon were the Conventicles which arose in the Netherlands in the Eighteenth Century. They were called “Gezelschappen” and were very similar to what, we find so common today. These Conventicles were also groups of believers who met together for, common edification because of a deep dissatisfaction with the State Church which had become increasingly dead and apostate. These Conventicles appeared on the scene prior to the separation under De Cock, Brummelkamp, Van Raalte, and others.
There is some tendency also among some of the leaders of the A.A.C.S. (Association for the Advancement of Christian Scholarship) to go in this direction. As you know, this organization has promoted a sort of conservative “social gospel” which is intended to involve the Christian in all sorts of social activity to subject all areas of life to Christ. This organization also takes the view that the chief, if not only, purpose of the church institute is to promote and support such Christian activity. Hendrik Hart, in his book “The Challenge of the Age”, writes:
Learning to live biblically in a secular world means learning to give full and active support to Christian education, Christian political action, Christian labor activity, Christian everything; and learning to understand the church-institute as the organization which is called upon to promote such support concretely and authoritatively in the name of Christ. (The italics are mine.)
If this is the role of the church institute, then it is no wonder that the church institute does not have a very important place in the Christian’s life. What the church institute is supposed to do can very well be done by other organizations. It is not surprising therefore, to: discover that the same author, in the same book, writes in another place:
The exercise of the faith in the home is of extreme importance and perhaps the only means of recovering a life, close to the Scriptures.
In many areas, therefore, where the A.A.C.S. has had influence, there is a tendency in this direction. There is a certain lack of respect for the institute of the Church among some of the leaders, and there is a certain desire to emphasize the importance of small groups of believers gathering together to find out what Scripture means to them in their lives.
The rise of Neo-Pentecostalism has also given considerable impetus to this movement. There are groups of people under the influence of Pentecostalism who are stressing strongly this idea. There are places where these Bible-study groups, sometimes composed only of women, are so popular that they have almost defeated their own purpose. Hundreds flock to these sessions, and the group becomes so large that part of the purpose of having small intimate groups meet together is lost in the rush of clacking heels.
And so I would like to discuss some of these things with you. Perhaps in a few letters we can examine this movement a little more closely from a historical perspective; but especially from the viewpoint of the Scriptures and the importance of the church as institute in the light of the Scriptures.
But we must close for now.
Fraternally in Christ,