Mastery vs. Equality
James tells us, “My brethren, be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation (Js. 3:1)”. The word masters is the greek word (διδάσκαλος / didaskalos), which is one who is appointed to teach; and in the New Testament it usually refers to one who is fitted to teach the things of God. It is the title which was commonly used to address Jesus (e.g. Mat. 9:11 & 19:16). James’ concern here seems to be that the weight of responsibility which rests upon a teacher should not be shouldered by most believers.
In our egalitarian society, heavily influenced by 18th century enlightenment thinking, we like to think of the supremacy of the Individual. This thinking has most effected the Church, I believe, in what is commonly termed “small groups” (although there is a nauseatingly long list of variations of what churches call these: cell group, family group, discipleship group, etc. et. al)! In my experience, the common mindset is that in small groups, we are all equals; we treat it, all too often, as if the meaning of the scripture being discussed is democratically decided! I take this to be a serious error.
The Early Church’s Example
We see that the early church seems to have had a larger gathering and then smaller household gatherings: “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:46-47).” House to house indicates a sort of smaller group fellowship to augment a beta version of what has become our large congregational worship service.
So, 2000 years later, how ought we to approach these “house to house” meetings of Christians. Here are a few cautions and then a few guiding principles that I’ve found helpful in leading and facilitating small group Bible study.
Cautions & Principles
- All too often “sharing” leads either to quasi-heretical rabbit trails (which leaves the leader with the awkward duty of pulling out the shotgun of rebuke), or else it heads into the thorny terrain that would better be dealt with by pastoral counsel in private.
- Contrary to 21st century American thinking, though we are equal in justification, not everyone is at the same place in sanctification or maturity. This means that we ought to follow the encouragement of James and give difference to the appointed teacher, and this should follow the apostles’ exhortations for older men and women to teach and instruct younger men and women.
- Peer defined groups can all too often become lopsided and not represent the diversity which the Church is marked by. Where possible, the age range of a small group should be from the wee ones to the hoary-hairs! I’ve noticed a tendency in for especially singles groups to become a hotbed for hot messes of a Christianized hook-up culture; this surely is to be avoided.
- The teacher’s role is to, you know, teach. Which means he needs to ensure that the entire group sticks to the text and what it is teaching. One of the most common questions, that is simultaneously one of the worst questions that can be asked in this context, is “What does this mean to you?” It matters not what it means to me; what matters is what God intends it to mean! Furthermore, this means the teacher is responsible to have his hand firmly on the “ship’s wheel”; he ought to be, in some sense, a helmsman who is ruthlessly committed to steering the group in the direction which the Scriptures lead to. This might offend those who prefer a more effeminate environment of “sharing”; but, though testimony and confessing personal struggles have their place, certainly it is not the place of mangling the Biblical meaning.
- Everyone can come prepared to share, but should show deference to the one given the role of teaching, entrusting themselves to his guidance. This obviously means that the church leadership ought to be involved in installing trustworthy & proven teachers in such roles. However, every Christian husband should be striving to competently teach his family, and should families be fellowshipping together and studying the Scriptures, the head of household should be shown deference as he leads.
- Womens and mens, as well as age-specific small groups, have some cautions (which I mentioned above); however, there are also some great strengths that can come from peers exhorting each other towards righteousness and godly living.
This should be the guiding principle for any sort of small group, conformity to what the Scriptures teach us about Christ. The “come away” at the end of such studies ought to be: “how should I then change my lifestyle to conform to the nature and character of Christ, which the text we just studied teaches?”
As with all things, we must submit to God’s Word as the standard for how we live in community. We ought not to be guided by “feel-good sentimentality” but by what the Bible teaches! Sounds obvious, but by the look of things, ’tain’t so!
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