Tag Archives: Church

Ecclesiola in Ecclesia

 

I’ve been told before that it’s easy to see what is going on in my life by simply reading the titles or topics of posts on this blog.  I suppose that’s understandable, given the nature of a blog.  Additionally, this  blog has provided somewhat of a theological outlet for me to work through my own thoughts or to layout particular issues that I’m struggling with or passages that I’ve meditated on.

One recent issue that has churned over again in my mind for the past couple of years is the concept of Ecclesiola in Ecclesia, or “little churches within the church.”  I’m unsure who may have coined this precise phrase, though maybe its origin can be traced to sometime in the 18th century.  It shows up in Phillip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Vol.#1 (though that ecclesiola sought to live morally perfect), however Martyn Lloyd-Jones brought it to modern significance through his address at the Westminster Conference in 1965[1].  The conference title was “Approaches to the Reformation of the Church.”

In his address, Lloyd-Jones walks through the history of the Reformers, beginning notably with Luther, and details their oft-desired, yet ill-fated attempts to establish an “ecclesiola in ecclesia”.  Here is how he defines the movement, “the idea of those who formed these little churches was not to form a new church. That is basic. They were not concerned at all about separation; indeed they were bitterly and violently opposed to it. They were not out to change the doctrine of the church.”

He goes on, “What were they concerned about? Well, their position was that they were not so much dissatisfied with the nature as with the functioning of the church. They were not concerned about the church’s doctrine, but were very concerned about its spiritual life and condition. 

This is quite basic to our whole outlook upon this subject. The people who believed in the idea of the ‘ecclesiola’ were not out to change the whole church, but to form a church within a church which would form a nucleus of true believers inside the general church. Their object in the formation of this nucleus was that it might act as a leaven and influence the life of the whole church for the better. That is the definition. It was thought of in terms of the local church and local churches. It was not a movement, but something that was to happen in individual local churches.”

In essence, what they attempted to develop was a smaller group, made up of believers only, within the larger church or corporate gathering which was open to any and all and could have a large number of unbelievers present, not dissimilar from our worship services today.  Conversely, within these smaller groups they sought to have a pure meeting of believers.  How were these little churches structured and what did they do?  Lloyd-Jones continues

“But we must give some general indication as to how this idea was put into operation. There are certain things which were common to practically all of them. For instance, they were all animated by that same fundamental idea. They all likewise stressed the voluntary membership of these nuclei. People could either join this inner church, this little nucleus, or not; it was left entirely to their own volition. But the moment you did join you had to submit to a very strict discipline. They kept a list of members and observed their attendances very closely, and if a man or a woman failed to turn up with regularity he or she would be excluded, excommunicated. Sometimes indeed, a fine was imposed.

What did they do in these societies? Actually there was a good deal of variation about this, but the central idea in all of them was that the meetings should be an occasion for instruction which could not be given in the open preaching. Most of them held this kind of meeting of this select company, the true believers in the church, once a week. They met in a more informal manner, and there they could go over the sermons preached on the previous Sunday, and people would have opportunities for asking questions and discussion. Some gave opportunity for people to relate their experiences, others frowned upon that and did not believe in it at all. In the case of those that appeared in Germany there was a good deal of discussion of doctrine, and indeed at times of philosophy, and they almost became debating societies; whereas in others doctrinal discussions were completely banned and prohibited. So you see there was this considerable variation in the way in which meetings were conducted, but this does not affect the principle.

Another thing that is common to most of these meetings is that they gave opportunities to the laymen. This is where we touch on that question of the universal priesthood of all believers, referred to in an earlier paper. These people felt that the laymen had not been given sufficient opportunity, so in these gatherings the laymen were allowed to speak and put questions. That is an important principle for us to bear in mind. There was a good deal of difference with regard to the place of women. In most of them women were allowed. In the case of Spener, the German to whom I shall be referring, women were allowed to attend these meetings but they had to be behind a screen out of sight, and they were not allowed to speak! Others were very careful to divide even between married men and single men, and married women and single women, and particularly where the question of the giving of experiences was involved.”

At this point, I must comment on the similarities of these “little churches within the church” and our modern-day establishment of small groups.  The small groups or cell groups that exist in our churches today seek to do much of what these early reformers seem to have sought to accomplish.  A weekly meeting of believers only, voluntary attendance, opportunity given to the lay persons that had a variety of discussion topics such as going over previous sermons, question and answer, sharing or relating experiences, some had doctrinal discussions others did not, and some separated on the basis of gender or marital status.  Sounds quite familiar right?  Before we go patting ourselves on the back for carrying on the legacy of the Reformers, let us allow Lloyd-Jones to conclude.

At this point, Lloyd-Jones begins his historical survey in the 16th century with Luther and turns to Franz Lambert, Martin Bucer, the 17th century advocates of ecclesiola in Philip Jacob Spener, August Hermann Francke, Count Zinzendorf, Dr. Anthony Horneck (Savoy Chapel), Josiah Woodward, and George Whitefield.  As he entered into the 18th century overview, he highlights two proponents of these little churches, William Grimshaw, and Samuel Walker.  While some of these names may not be familiar to us, Lloyd-Jones’ survey is significant because he shows that these ideas were not localized geographically, nor were they limited in time or denomination, but instead can be found throughout church history.

Next he answers perhaps the question that’s lingering in our minds, “What happened to these little church experiments?”  They all failed.  “All this is a sheer matter of history; one of two things happened to them all. They either failed in the way I have been describing, or, secondly, they ended definitely in separation and the formation of a new church. That happened, as I have shown, in the case of Methodism in England. It happened in exactly the same way with Calvinistic Methodism in Wales, which became a separate denomination in Wales in 1811.”

Before we get to Lloyd-Jones’ general observation of these little churches, let me first bring us to the modern day experiment of small groups, a relatively new phenomenon within the church.  These small groups as we have come to know them today originated in the church growth movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, but they have at their heart a desire not unlike that given in the address above.  They sometimes find their biblical basis in the “small groups” of Jesus’ disciples, i.e. that He had a larger group of disciples, then the 12, and then an inner group of Peter, James, and John.  Seeing this as a model for ministry, many have developed the small group concept.  Largely, they have as their motivation and goal the relational aspect of the church, something which is nearly impossible during the hustle and bustle of the larger, corporate Sunday gathering.  Here within these smaller groups, more attention to doctrinal detail or experiences can be given within a more intimate setting and fellowship.  Many churches have come to find that the small group is an essential ingredient to church membership.  As to Lloyd-Jones’ point, many churches have likely been birthed out of geographical small groups.

But we must ask, why is it that our Lord’s Day gathering has become insufficient such that an appendix to it needs to be made.  What, if anything, does the New Testament have to offer on this subject?  We’ve seen that oftentimes Jesus’ own ministry has been the foundation for these small groups, but can that argument really be sustained biblically?  And is it observable in the life and ministry of the Apostle’s in establishing the early church?

After raising many critical questions as to the validity of these ecclesiola’s in ecclesia’s Lloyd-Jones summarizes with the following statement

“So I come to the last question which seems to me to be raised, and I think it is the most acute question of all. God forbid that this last question should ever cause a division amongst us who are evangelical, but it does seem to me that this story of the ‘ecclesiola in ecclesia’ raises this great question. It was there at the beginning with Luther; it is still here. Should we start with the situation and the position as it is and try to reform it, or should we start with the New Testament and apply it? It comes to that! The Reformers began with the situation as they found it, and as we have been reminded several times in the conference, their policy was to reform it. If their premise was right I think their procedure can be justified. You must then be patient and diplomatic and so on.

But the great question I am raising is this — were they right in that original question? Where do you start? Do you start with the existing situation and try by adjustment and accommodation and meetings and fellowship and readiness to give and take for the sake of the body that is already there, to get the best modifications you can? Is it that? History seems to show that, if you do start with that, you will soon be having to think of starting an ‘ecclesiola in ecclesia’ because of the dead wood in the church. That seems to me to be the argument of history. Do you start with that then?

Or do you rather start by asking ‘What is the New Testament teaching?’ Let us start with that. Our one object and endeavor should be to put that into practice, cost what it may, believing that as we are trying to conform to the New Testament pattern we shall be blessed of God. It is a difficult, it is a perplexing, it is a vexing question. As I have tried to remind you, in all fairness, the Reformers were concerned to bring back the New Testament idea; but they failed. There was this kind of polarity in their thinking and they kept on swinging between two basic ideas. That is why I am raising this as the ultimate and fundamental question.”

Here is the summary of the point I’m attempting to make by quoting Lloyd-Jones so extensively.  From the time of Luther onward (though we could certainly go back well before him to the Donatists, Waldensians, and so on) there has been a recognition and dissatisfaction with what we modernly call the corporate church, also known as the state church previous eras.  This dissatisfaction has arisen for various reasons and perhaps we see it most clearly today as an insufficiency, such that addendums and additions need to be made.  As a remedy, there has been the experiment, if you will, of these churches within the church, or our modern-day equivalent small groups, that have attempted to remedy any of these unsaid deficiencies.  Yet herein lies the problem and Lloyd-Jones has really put his finger on it, as I’ve highlighted from the last two paragraphs in bold above.  Every example in church history of the failed ecclesiola in ecclesia has begun out of an attempt to influence the larger group with the smaller, or we might say strengthen and mature the larger group by strengthening and maturing the smaller group first.  However, as Lloyd-Jones highlights, perhaps this smaller group IS the New Testament teaching.  Perhaps instead of attempting to reform the larger, more visible group by introducing a smaller group, we begin with the smaller group, or the ecclesiola and stay there.

The great temptation of every church plant, even and perhaps especially those, that have begun out of a small group or Bible study, is to grow larger and expand.  This is often seen as a sign of God’s hand of blessing and a reward of diligent effort and hard work to “build the church”.  But what if it’s not.  What if numerical growth is not the equivalent of blessing?  What if outward numerical growth is actually a hindrance to spiritual growth of the local body of believers?  Within every single church I’ve ever been in the necessity of the small group has arisen.  Why?  Because the of the lack of relationships in the corporate gathering, the lack of dialogue over the Scriptures, the lack of in-depth teaching and learning, the lack of accountability and the ease with which one can hide and mentally drift off in many of our large corporate gatherings.

So here is the proposition: Maybe we should begin with an ecclesiola and stay there.  As the little church begins to grow, split it and multiply.  Perhaps a return to this model would be an appropriate first step to genuine reformation, or better, restoration.  Perhaps this more intimate gathering lends itself more to relationships with built in accountability and intensity in the Word.  Perhaps this is what it means to have “all things in common”.

In closing, Luther identified three worship services, the first was the Latin Mass, which he abhorred, the second was the German Mass open to all, and the third was a smaller more intimate gathering of true believers.  A gathering that he admittedly would have pursued wholeheartedly had he found enough interested parties.  May that not be the case with us.  Search the Scriptures.  Examine them to see if these things are true.

[1] http://www.the-highway.com/ecclesia_Lloyd-Jones.html

The Necessity of Bold Men

The Church at this moment needs men, the right kind of men, bold men… We languish for men who feel themselves expendable in the warfare of the soul, who cannot be frightened by threats of death because they have already died to the allurements of this world.

Such men will be free from the compulsions that control weaker men. They will not be forced to do things by the squeeze of circumstances; their only compulsion will come from within–or from above.

This kind of freedom is necessary if we are to have prophets in our pulpits again instead of mascots. These free men will serve God and mankind from motives too high to be understood by the rank and file of religious retainers who today shuttle in and out of the sanctuary.

They will make no decisions out of fear, take no course out of a desire to please, accept no service for financial considerations, perform no religious act out of mere custom; nor will they allow themselves to be influenced by the love of publicity or the desire for reputation.

A.W. Tozer

One Body, One Church

Ephesians 2:11-22 11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

In the late 1800s to early 1900s a unique system of theological thought emerged on the scene primary birthed by John Darby, Louis Sperry Chafer, and C.I. Scofield and was brought into the mainstream by Charles Ryrie and others.  This “dispensational” system of biblical interpretation is summarized by Ryrie in 3 main points:

  1. A clear distinction between Israel and the Church
  2. A literal interpretation of Scripture
  3. The glory of God as the primary goal of history

Without question, any Christian holding strongly to a biblical worldview would agree wholeheartedly with point #3.  The glory of God is the supreme chief end of all that God does and as is stated in 1 Corinthians 10:31 should be the primary goal of all that we Christians do as well.  Point #2, while on the surface would get a rousing ‘Amen’, should be analyzed more closely as to what exactly is meant and then understood that the context of a passage dictates the interpretation and not vice versa.  For instance, in Psalm 50:10 the Lord says, “For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.”  If read “literally” apart from context, then we are left with the cattle on hill 1001 belonging to someone else.  That’s not the case here, as this reference was to simply prove a point that the magnitude of God’s “ownership” over His creation is immense.  Similarly, much of the prophetic passages in the Bible use imagery, visions, and other language to describe future events.  An example would be Revelation 13:1-3 “And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, with ten diadems on its horns and blasphemous names on its heads.  And the beast that I saw was like a leopard; its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth.  And to it the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority.”  Taken in a strict literal sense apart from context, the end times would be marked by a beast that resembles something out of a science fiction movie, rather than having prophetic meaning behind the imagery that is used here which lends itself to a better understanding of who this individual Antichrist might be.  The classic dispensationalist, ala Ryrie, is then forced to decide, are they to stick with a wooden literal interpretation from Genesis to Revelation and force a meaning into Scripture, or are they to let context and the author’s original intent, i.e. literary genre, determine how the passage of Scripture is to be read.  This of course is not to deny that the Bible is the literal Word of God, nor does it mean that when Jonah describes being in the belly of a fish he actually is using imagery.  No, it was a literal fish and again, context must reign.  Allegorizing God’s Word is a dangerous error and as has been pointed out even though multiple writing styles (poetry, prophesy, parables, etc.) are utilized it must be understood that the Bible is to be interpreted literally within its context.  For a discussion on dispensational use of “literal interpretation” see the article by Vern Poythress, “What is Literal Interpretation?” found here: Monergism – Dispensationalism.

This aside, the classic dispensational system has its greatest challenge in their first point, “a clear distinction between Israel and the Church”.  It  is this point that forces a division to be read into Scripture rather than understanding biblical theology from Genesis to Revelation maintains a central thread of the redemption of God’s people from all times through His Son Jesus Christ leading to the consummation of Christ and His bride for the very purpose of the glory of God.  To this system of dispensational theology, Charles Spurgeon wrote the following admonition:

“Distinctions have been drawn by certain exceedingly wise men (measured by their own estimate of themselves), between the people of God who lived before the coming of Christ, and those who lived afterwards. We have even heard it asserted that those who lived before the coming of Christ so not belong to the church of God! We never know what we shall hear next, and perhaps it is a mercy that these absurdities are revealed at one time, in order that we may be able to endure their stupidity without dying of amazement. Why, every child of God in every place stands on the same footing; the Lord has not some children best beloved, some second-rate offspring, and others whom he hardly cares about. These who saw Christ’s day before it came, had a great difference as to what they knew, and perhaps in the same measure a difference as to what they enjoyed while on earth meditating upon Christ; but they were all washed in the same blood, all redeemed with the same ransom price, and made members of the same body. Israel in the covenant of grace is not natural Israel, but all believers in all ages. Before the first advent, all the types and shadows all pointed one way—they pointed to Christ, and to him all the saints looked with hope. Those who lived before Christ were not saved with a different salvation to that which shall come to us. They exercised faith as we must; that faith struggled as ours struggles, and that faith obtained its reward as ours shall.” (From his sermon “Jesus Christ Immuntable” [emphasis from here http://www.spurgeon.org/misc/eschat2.htm ].

For a system that so greatly relies on a supposed literal interpretation, great damage is done not only to biblical theology, but to innumerable passages that highlight the uniting of Jews and Gentiles in Christ.  The passage above from Ephesians is one such passage.

Just prior to it, in Ephesians 1:1 – 2:10, the Apostle Paul had just outlined God’s plan of redemption “before the foundation of the world” which includes both Jew and Gentile, as Paul, being a Jew, is writing to a Church of Christians, which was likely comprised of both Jew and Gentile.  Therefore, his use of “we” and “us” is inclusive of all believers in Christ.  However, in Ephesians 2:11 he makes a new distinction and now shifts his focus specifically to the Gentiles.  His purpose for doing so seems to be what is missed in the classic dispensational system, primarily a lack of understanding that although national Israel, meaning those born of the flesh of Abraham, were a people chosen by God (Deut. 7:6-7), through whom Christ would come (Galatians 3:16), salvation is not inclusive of them, nor is it exclusive of non-Jews, but rather it is “children of the promise” (Romans 9:8), namely God’s elect, who will be saved.

The Apostle Paul wrote of God’s plan of redemption in great detail in his Roman epistle and Romans 9-11 specifically addresses the misconception that somehow race or ethnicity was a determining factor of salvation.  Let us not be guilty of this same error, but let us realize that God’s purpose of election throughout history is through His sovereign grace alone and that it is He that chooses to show mercy to whom He wills.  Without the fulfillment of His plan in this manner, through predestination and election, salvation would have never come to the Gentiles.  All those who repent and bow the knee to Jesus in faith and declare Him as their Lord and Savior will be saved joining the saints of old, the saints of present, and those soon to come into the fold as one body in Christ Jesus, His Bride – The Church.