Disclaimer: This article will be the first in a small series that addresses the concept of the local church. It reflects my opinion based on Scripture, meditation, and discussion.
I met with a friend who admitted that he struggled with the corporate church as he has experienced it. Recently, he and his wife have been meeting with another couple over the Internet, spurred on by the covid-19 virus. He told me, for him, this feels much more like church than the organized meetings available, whether live or over the Internet.
I happen to know that this friend has been influenced by a group that focuses on small group meetings in homes. Those involved in this “movement” freely call each small group a “church.” A number of the leaders of this movement will point to Matthew 18:20 as a “proof text” for this idea. In the NIV, it reads: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
I will acknowledge that this verse lies within the context of Jesus’ teaching on dealing with the sin of another person. However, the term “church” is never used by Jesus here. Yet, that isn’t the focus of my point in this case.
I have been studying the book of Acts chapter by chapter for several months. Most recently, I have moved from chapter 18 to chapter 19. The two chapters are connected by the introduction of Apollos, an eloquent traveling speaker. At the end of chapter 18, it’s pointed out that he was accurately teaching things about Jesus. Yet, Aquila and Priscilla took him aside to teach him certain things more accurately. He then went to Corinth, which is where Priscilla and Aquila had met the Apostle Paul.
Chapter 19 opens with the return of Paul to Ephesus on his third missionary trip. When he arrives, he finds a group of disciples who he (for some reason) asked if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. They replied that they didn’t know anything about the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Two things to note: 1.), Luke, the writer of Acts, calls these people “disciples.” That’s a term that is only used for Christians. And 2.), Paul is quoted as acknowledging that they had “believed.” We shouldn’t miss that these were Christians who apparently gathered together for some type of worship in a place where Paul could find them. After Paul explains the baptism of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit, they “began speaking with tongues and prophesying (v. 6, NASB).
Because this story is part of the larger story of Apollos visiting Ephesus, I believe these disciples came to faith through him. It’s possible they were his “first fruits.” But what is clear is that, like Apollos, they didn’t have all the details needed for a full faith. That may be why some commentators refer to these as “disciples of John the Baptist.” (I think it would be strange that someone who heard John the Baptist teach a baptism of repentance could go about 20 years without hearing about the Holy Spirit as Jesus taught. John’s disciples would have heard that the Spirit would be poured out on men [Luke 3:16]. Besides, Acts 18:25 says that even Apollos only knew about the baptism of John – so he’s mostly like reproduced himself.)
That’s where this gets complicated. While Priscilla and Aquila were in Ephesus and had spent time with Apollos to help him be “more accurate” in his teaching (Acts 18:26), no one made sure those first fruit believers understood the Holy Spirit’s coming. Neither Apollos nor Aquila and Priscilla.
It’s fair enough to guess that Apollos left for Corinth before having a chance to teach his new believers what he may have learned from Priscilla and Aquila. But where were Aquila and Priscilla during this time? When Paul left them, he traveled by ship to Palestine, then up to Antioch, traveled on foot across Asia Minor until he reached Ephesus. Most biblical commentators think Paul was gone for a full year.
In a full year, Aquila and Priscilla either never came across this small band of believers or, doubtfully, never asked the same crucial question that Paul did in Acts 19:2. My guess, because the story is silent on this detail, is that this small group of disciples was meeting in another location away from any other believers produced by the initial work of Paul (Acts 18:19-21), or by Priscilla and Aquila who lived in Ephesus for a year before Paul’s return.
I assume that there were at least two “churches” in Ephesus. One attended by the disciples who only understood John’s baptism, and the other that may have been established by Paul and that Aquila and Priscilla fellowshipped in. While Ephesus at this time had about 200,000 inhabitants, those with a Judeo-Christian leaning should have easily found each other through the local synagogue.
And there’s my point about a small group being a “church” disconnected from the larger body of believers. A small group that exists outside of a larger body of believers will be missing something. They can also be easily swayed toward a focus preferred by the group leader, or in the case above, not know what the leader doesn’t know.
While we can easily point out things that are wrong with the corporate church, avoiding that large group only leads to other problems. (Wasn’t the rise of non-denominational churches supposed to bring us closer to the First Century church? And look, we’re still in the same predicament!)
While an entire church, including its elders, can sit under the teaching of a pastor and learn universalist thinking (shades of Rob Bell here), it’s even easier for a small group to go off the theological grid.
There are positives to small groups, especially the intimacy that we can find there and is usually absent from a mega-church. We can have potluck meals and meet anywhere we happen to be. Because of these benefits, we’ve seen a substantial rise in small groups (a.k.a., cell, life, community, etc.) across the Western world.
However, we should not be so naïve as to think that our small group is the “end all, be all.” We need to be a part of a larger body of believers, especially to see all the gifts of the Spirit function among us. (No small group should be so gullible as to think they have all the spiritual gifts covered among six-to-eight people!)
We need to the local church. And the local church needs us!