Sub-Biblical Churches and Small Groups

Randy Frazee, in “The Connecting Church,” quotes an Ant (“Z’) from the movie Antz:

All my life I have lived and worked in the big city, which, now that I think of it, is a problem. Since I always feel uncomfortable around crowds– i mean I have this fear of enclosed space. Everything makes me feel trapped all the time. I always tell myself that there has to be something better out there, but maybe I think too much. I think everything must go back to the thought that I had a very anxious childhood, you know; my mother had time for me. You know, when you’re the middle child of five million you don’t get any attention. I mean how is it possible? And I have always had this abandonment issue, which plagues me. My father was basically a drone, like I’ve said. And, you know, he flew away when I was just a larva. And my job– don’t  get me started because it really annoys me. I was not cut out to be a worker– I’ll tell you that right now. I feel physically inadequate. My whole life I have never been able to lift more than ten times my own body weight. And when you get down to it, handling dirt, you know; is not my idea of a rewarding career. It is the whole gung-ho super organization I can’t get– I have tried but I can’t get it. What is it? I am supposed to be doing everything for the colony.  And what about my needs? What about me? I gotta believe there is someplace out there that’s better than this. Otherwise I will just curl up in a larva position and weep. The whole system makes me feel insignificant.


“Z” is challenged in his understanding of himself in terms of the team he is in. He is part of an anthill… a large group of enmeshed insects who have lost their individual uniqueness due to the drive to conform to corporate standards. Z feels disconnected and insignificant.   Now you might think that his problems are unique because he does not fit in, but that is not true. In enmeshed organizations, the pressure to conform to corporate standards crushes the spirit and puts a strain on all its members— even those who conform well (except the authoritarian leaders, who typically avoid the pressure by not applying the standards to themselves). Within the church, the problem is often exacerbated. In cultural anthropology we learn that the most authoritarian groups are commonly those where the role of chief (political leader) and shaman (religious leader) are in the hands of the same person. Enmeshed religious groups often have this problem. Spiritual and political authority are in the hands of the same person.

This is a sub-biblical position although many don’t see it that way. Some argue for a high view of submission to authority. However, in the Bible, submission (except to God) always have caveats. It is always nuanced, and mutual. Leadership in the Bible commonly separates ecclesiastical authority from political authority. In the sodality band of Jesus, Jesus appears to have leadership both organizationally and spiritually, but He seems to have sought to minimize many aspects of organizational control. He refused to act as a judge in a civil case. He apparently allowed Judas to act as treasurer with minimal oversight. He challenged the ethics and values of religious leaders, but did not question their actual right to lead. He did not challenge those with common purpose who served independently from His group. Moses passed responsibility for religious affairs to Aaron and his descendents. The prophets and judges provided spiritual authority in ancient Israel but apparently did not try to take over the roles of Tribal leaders, kings, or priests. In the New Testament… there were separate roles in the church for spiritual leadership and ministerial leadership, and appeared to minimize power centralization (Diotrephes is an unpleasant cautionary exception in III John). The church is composed of its members– each one a living stone in the spiritual edifice of the church… each unique and each important. An enmeshment where uniqueness of individuals is squelched is sub-biblical.

Enmeshments are common… especially in church because of Christian’s misunderstanding of Biblical submission, authority, and power. However, even more common are Aggregates. One could argue that aggregates are the norm. They are a gathering of people without common function (or at least of minimal common function or purpose). Churches have commonly become gatherings of people for one or two hours a week with little social interaction and impact on each other. Many churches realized this and so formed small groups… but in fact, they simply created small aggregates. People gather together without accountability, common beliefs, common standards, rituals, and so forth. There is no implicit understanding of responsibility or mutuality between each other. It is Individuality enthroned in a religious gathering. It is hardly surprising that small groups worldwide have failed in living up their promises in discipleship.

Both gatherings, in fact,  fail in discipleship. Aggregates fail to have “iron sharpening iron.” Lily Tomlin’s quote tends to apply… “We are all in this, alone.” Small group aggregates tend to focus on cognitive training… here are some teaching to learn… a few memory verses to think about. With no accountability, there is minimal support. Enmeshed religious groups often market themselves as being strong in discipleship. In fact, one of the biggest enmeshment movements in recent times was often called the “Discipleship Movement.” However, being a disciple is to grow to one’s God-given potential (one’s SHAPE) within a structure, rather than having the individuality minimized or castigated. They tend to create Dependence rather than Discipleship. While Enmeshments have the potential, at least, to be strong in holistic growth of members, they, like Aggregates, tend to be cognitively focused… memorizing teaching after teaching after teaching. This seems to be  lingering tradition from the old “Modern” viewpoint that gives unwarranted supremacy to knowledge.

People grow and find meaning as they interact positively, both as individuals and as a corporate entity. People need a corporate identity and support structure beyond themselves, but one that does not crush the God-given uniqueness of each individual. The figure of a spectrum above with an Enmeshment on one side (creating insignificant individuals in a potentially abusive gathering) to an Aggregate on the other (creating disconnected individuals in a potentially insignificant gathering) identifies what churches tend to gravity to— the extremes rather than the balance.

The goal is to find the countercultural balance between these two unhealthy extremes:

Dehumanizing Submission                                                           Disconnected Individuality

      Dependent Members                                                                      Independent Members

Group dynamics gives insight somewhat in where the balance lies… and I believe that balance is Biblical, rather than sub-Biblical.

In this sense a group is defined as “two or more Interdependent individuals who Influence one another through Social Interaction.”   Pulling a bit from Randy Frazee again, groups within a religious setting should have:

  • Recognized Authority. This is not shutting down one’s mind and blindly submitting to one who is unaccountable for his or her actions (Enmeshment). Neither is it going along with the group or leaders, but only if it is convenient (Aggregate). With small groups, the authority is often mutual… the group guiding the individuals… rather than one autocratically guiding the rest. The point is that there is accountability. Members have the right, and responsibility, to challenge each other, in love, for their own benefit, and the benefit of the group. This is the essence of interdependence. We need each other.
  • Common Creed. There is a certain common set of beliefs that provide the foundation for the group’s establishment and providing guidance for the purpose of the group.
  • Common Traditions. The group needs to have common set of customs, traditions, and symbols. Some of these may predate the group, and be tied to the faith tradition of the members. Other ones may be specific to the group as the group develops its own unique sub-culture.
  • Common Standards. This is also called group norms. The group needs to establish how it will function, what behavior is supported and what is not. How are conflicts resolved? How are moral or ethical violations dealt with? How are group course directions worked out. These norms or standards are empowered by the accountability structure (that comes from recognized authority), as well as common creed and traditions.
  • Common Mission. Each group is different and can, and should, have different functions. Many religious structures focus on one type or another. Some focus on “Cells” or “Discipleship Groups” or “Evangelistic Bible Studies.” Some focus on open groups or closed groups. Some aim for mission-oriented groups while other as fellowship groups. However, every real group has an understood mission that is mutually agreed upon (preferably coming from the group, and not simply imposed from outside). This buy-in of mission or purpose, drives the group to interact interdependently… leading to both individual and corporate growth.

This seems like a good place to stop for now. Finding the balance is tough… it is countercultural, and we find it much easier to be cultural. It is tough, but it is worth it. Christ is always countercultural. Countercultural to the world and countercultural to the church.

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; “ -John Donne

“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity”   -Psalm 133:1

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