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. 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.