Church Or Conventicle? (Updated)


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  1. One thing I don’t understand is why a church calls a church-wide prayer meeting and then almost immediately breaks up into small groups. I presume it’s to allow more people to lead in prayer (as if they wouldn’t really be praying is someone led the whole group in prayer?). It seems to me that some folks, especially ministers, elders and deacons may have a real gift for leading in public prayer; why should they be confined to a small group instead of using their gifts to bless the whole church gathering? However, I do think weekly small groups can be beneficial when they’re re-shuffled yearly, so you get to meet others in the congregation you might not normally come to know otherwise.

  2. Wow! So because I have three jobs (one is maintenance at my church) and rarely have time to attend a smaller group I am a second class Christian?

  3. I would love to see some interaction with WCF 26 on the communion of saints without over correction. It calls for both “public and private” communion. It doesn’t have to be either/or. The question seems to be whether this private activity should be organic or organized. Yes a call for small groups as the only valid expression of private communion is too prescriptive. But is it not one valid expression? The problem with conventicles historically as I understand is primarily two tendencies: subversion of church authority and replacement of corporate worship. Are these problems more likely with informal organic meetings or with elder organized and regulated small groups?

    • Hi Jordan,

      The history of coventicles (small groups) is mixed. The sixteenth-century Reformed did not use or advocate them. Indeed, one mostly finds condemnations of them. They were associated with the Anabaptists and, later, the Pietists. Herman Witsius reflects the traditional rejection of “conventicles” as gatherings of schismatics (Dissertation on the Apostles’ Creed). The Nadere Reformatie theologians (e.g., Voetius) were more sympathetic to them. It is also true that under Charles II (e.g., 1670 1st conventicles act) meetings of dissenters were made illegal and fined. The Presbyterian theologian Samuel Rutherford condemned the conventicles of the radical congregationalists (e.g., Brownists).

      I was conscious of this history and the potential problem inherent in the either/or structure of the headline but I went with it because Rainer’s language reflects a widely held modern evangelical belief, one that I was taught as a young evangelical many years ago: real piety occurs or is fostered in small groups. Church is for others, for the ordinary Christian but small groups are for the truly pious or the truly mature.

      Given that choice, I choose the visible, institutional church, of course. I’m sure you agree. The point of the post is to challenge the easy, widely shared assumption of the priority of the coventicle over the institutional church and the ordinary means of grace.

      I doubt that WCF 26 has much to do with small groups/conventicles. The Westminster Divines (e.g., Rutherford) were not very sympathetic to small groups. To be sure, the communion extends beyond the public worship service but the center of the Christian’s communion with other believers is the public worship service. There were pastor-led Bible studies and catechesis. People did meet for prayer under the auspices of the church. None of those things is quite like what Rainer means by “small groups.” I note that divines chose to discuss the communio sanctorum occurs between the chapter on the church and the chapter on the sacraments. That is telling.

      To be sure, I am not opposed to ecclesiastically sanctioned, organized, supervised small groups but they must only be an augment to the Lord’s Day ministry of the church and not a substitute (as they threaten to become in many evangelical settings).

  4. Dr. Clark,

    I have heard some people say that the Sunday preaching is insufficient for the growth of the church and needs to be supplemented with Bible studies. What would be your take on that?

    • Hi Venkatesh,

      As I indicated to Jordan, I disagree with such a claim. Our Savior instituted the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and discipline. He did not institute small group Bible studies. If qualified people are teaching Scripture in small group settings, that’s fine. Calvin taught a Friday night Bible study to the congregation—not exactly a small group but a smaller group—but it’s a mistake to say that the divinely ordained means of grace are insufficient. It’s a wonderful thing if God’s people hunger for the Word. Why not institute a brief mid-week service (maybe 30 minutes) of prayer and a brief meditation on Scripture? If the minister can lead a study or if three are elders or qualified laity to lead a study, that’s a good thing. I want to avoid situations where Bible study is reduced to subjectivism: “what does this passage mean to you?” I also want to avoid the sort of situation where unqualified people lead God’s people astray. This has happened countless times. One notorious example would be Harold Camping’s Sunday School class. He taught his errors for years before he split the congregation and formed his own and finally spread his date-calculating errors on the radio to his great shame and to the hurt of the church. All of God’s people are qualified to read Scripture but they are not all qualified to teach Scripture to others.

      It’s fine to gather in groups to pray and to bear one another’s burdens. We do that at school but I would not agree that the means of grace are insufficient just as I do not agree that what Reformed theology needs is a dose of Pietism (note that I did not write piety!) or a dose of Pentecostalism or the like. Those who say such things, in my view, have underestimated Reformed piety and practice. I tried to argue this case in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

      • Thank you Dr. Clark for your response. Very helpful.

        I have studied your book for the last one month and it has been a tremendous blessing. Thank you for your ministry.


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