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A Critique of the Cell Church Ideology
As presented in "THE ROADBLOCK: THE 'P.B.D.' CHURCH" in Ralph Neighbour's book
"WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? – A GUIDEBOOK FOR CELL GROUP CHURCHES
"
[by Ralph W Neighbour 1990, pages 38-58, Touch Pub., Houston, USA]
Preamble:
It should be born in mind that this one chapter of Neighbour's book cannot fully carry the view of its author. Therefore this critique is not intended as an adequate response to the concept of cell-structure churches. 
I also
do not call the integrity of the Ralph Neighbour into question, and his complaints against the targeted churches in this chapter are also the heart-groans of many, many pastors of these same churches, but I do question the writer's
serious lack of – 
spiritual wisdom;
 & 
 comprehension of Holy Scripture;
 historical knowledge;
his view of the Christian Church.
 
 
The errors in these areas sadly undo much of the real good in his teaching.
 
 
With appreciation for the great good his influence has had in making structure to be the servant of God's people rather than the other way around, there nevertheless remains a very serious error of perspective in Cell Church ideology.

 
    Description  
Neighbour's
diagnosis of the Church commences by describing this present time as –
a "transitional period"; a "period of unrest"; the "beginning of the Second Reformation"; and,
a "contemporary search for spirituality among the people of God".
 
 
It then diagnoses the basic problem obstructing this spiritual development in all parts of the Christian Church, as "'large group' structures". 
 
 
Yet, at the same time the writer insists that the use of cell groups (as in house churches, or home groups) to compensate for a lack in church life is "theologically evil" (p.39). In other words, nothing less than a total restructuring of church life according to his model is demanded.
 
 
The cause of this obstruction problem is that, allegedly, "nearly one hundred percent" of non-cell group churches have been infected with the "deadly virus" of program-based method or "design", which has "insidiously" crept into "all of today's church life" and will eventually decimate the structures of these churches.  (This is viewed as the real root of the 'large group' structures of church life). This contaminating condition is described as a "horror" that "utterly annihilates what makes the church authentic" (p.39).
 
 
Neighbour uses various Scripture references to create the idea that a home-grown structure dominated the church life of earliest Christianity. Even the special ministries of apostle, prophet, etc., are said to have arisen out of home-groups by a process of spiritual growth (p.44). This supposed New Testament church "structure" is thus presented as a model for us to emulate.
 
 
Problems that are characteristic of church life today are then described as being caused by today's program-based method of church life, in contrast to the healing effect of a small or house group "New Testament model". Certain large high-growth congregations using small group structures are enlisted as proofs of the success of a cell-church structure.
 
 
Various ministry emphases today, enjoying focus as needed therapies in church life, are attacked as hopelessly inadequate. Cell group structure is presented as the all inclusive answer to church life. The writer declares that,
"The cell group is the channel of power. It is the gateway to enter into the supernatural, the entrance to every believer discovering the power of God to heal, to deliver, and to provide growth" (p.57).

 
    Analysis
 
Neighbour's
approach to the problems of church life is structural.
 
 
He uses generalized derision of the methods of non-cell-group churches to discredit and lay the blame for problems on structure itself. All types of non-cell churches are so caricatured.
 
 
His concept of the cell-group is based on the human family model with the father as the head of the home. The cell-group church lifestyle is his inclusive solution, but he believes it cannot simply be incorporated into a non-cell church. The whole local church must be totally re-structured, based on a cell-group structure, for the cell-group concept to function properly.
 
 
The office bearers of the early church are seen as arising by a process of spiritual evolution from the individual home/cell groups of the church.
 
 
This theory is used prescriptively as the model for today.

 
    Evaluation
 
There
is much truth in many of the statements made by Neighbour in this chapter of his book. But unfortunately, the problems of the Christian church today are approached within a pre-set conceptual framework of interpretation. As a consequence, both the blame and the answer to problems are found in ONE thing – the structural design of church life!  In spite of his great zeal and godly ideals for church life, this simplistic perspective so dominates Neighbour's thinking that he seriously –
misinterprets Holy Scripture;
misrepresents church history; and
misleads his readers;
concerning the state and direction of the Christian Church world wide.
 
 
He ignores Scriptural evidences that contradict his view.
 
 
For instance, the only evidence in Scripture of a regular venue of the Jerusalem church was of Solomon's Porch, the East colonnade of the outer court of the Temple –
 
  "many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon's portico.
But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem."
Acts 5:12,13;
see also 3:11.
 
Here the whole church met.
 
 
Certainly, ministry was practiced and fellowship was enjoyed "from house to house" (Ac.2:46), but this does not even begin to imply the subdivision of the Jerusalem church into a set of home groups.
 
 
CELL-CHURCHES?
 
To
say that "Jesus shaped the church to meet in homes" (p.42) is also to misrepresent history in addition to holy Scripture. If the Last Supper being held in a home means that the church was ordained to be home-based (as Neighbour asserts) then by the same logic prayer meetings were ordained to be outdoors because all of Jesus' known prayer times (with or without the disciples) were out of doors (in the Wilderness, on mountains, and in the garden of Gethsemane).
 
 
Christ and the apostles' constant use of synagogues and Paul's use of the school of Tyrannus for two years in Ephesus (Ac.19:9,10) is completely ignored. It is commonly understood by competent historians that the Synagogue's regular meetings were the cultural format that helped shape the earliest Christian meetings.
 
 
That the earliest preachers stayed in the homes of Christians on their travels in no way implies a consecration of the house or home as the appointed meeting place for Christian worship, as the writer asserts (p.42). It was simply the most convenient place to sleep and eat.
 
 
Our brother Neighbour's perspective is so skewed by his exaggeration of the cell-church concept that he views each of the churches that Paul founded as merely a federation of networked home-groups in the city (p.44).
 
 
He also presumptuously assumes that these supposed home-groups in the Jerusalem church were "without seasoned leaders" (p.41). He does this in order to reinforce his evolutionary model of ministry origins. This completely ignores the extensive teaching, practical training and experience that Christ gave to His full-time trainee leaders, such as the Seventy (Lk.10:1-24), among the many hundreds of His disciples (remember, Jesus baptized more converts than John the Baptist, Jn.4:1).
 
 
Christ sent the Seventy (as He had done with the Twelve) on a training mission without Him as part of their spiritual training for what was to come (Lk.10). He thus ensured that the quality of leadership at the beginning of the Church would set standards for the life and the ministry of Christianity before it began to spread out from the Jerusalem mother-church to the rest of the world. 
 
 
It is true that sadly church life today is often more focused on maintaining ministry rather than maintaining people, but this lack, although it provides Neighbour's motivation, is not the error which he addresses. 
 
 
LEADERSHIP?
 
Neighbour's
view of so-called "equippers" (apostles, prophets, teachers, pastors, evangelists), being given by God by a process arising from within home-groups, is not what is reflected in Scripture. Paul is particularly emphatic that his ministry had not arisen by a recognition process from any human source.
 
 
In addition, Paul was himself imported to his leadership position in the Antioch church directly by the invitation of Barnabas, rather than by local recognition.
 
 
But Neighbour speculates that it takes two years experience for a potential elder/bishop to develop, and of course he then proceeds to interpret Timothy's appointment of elders in the light of this personal speculation (p.46).
 
 
The Bible is instructively clear that Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in the newly formed churches no more than a few weeks after they had been converted to Christ (Ac.14:21-23).
 
 
Nevertheless the writer still insists on assuming (as his theory requires) that there were no elders in these churches for the first two years (p.46/7). Yes, it is true that Paul later instructs Timothy that an elder must not be a novice, but this is in relation to the congregation over which the elder must exercise leadership.
 
 
Neighbour's whole approach to special offices in the Christian church is shot through with assumptions based upon the cell-church theory, which are then used to make Scripture seem to mean what it does not!
 
 
DEACONS?
 
His
view of the deacon ministry is particularly strange. The New Testament word diakonos simply means 'servant', but he makes it mean "one who waits on tables" and then makes the "table" the Lord's Table of Holy Communion, the Eucharist, as though serving at this was a special function with a specially responsible office bearer in the early church (p.45).
 
 
When the first apostles refused this responsibility they were certainly not refusing to carry plates or dish up food, and even less were they refusing to serve at the Lord's Supper. They insisted on the appointment of a committee of seven persons of good character, full of the Spirit and equipped with wisdom for a task that had arisen from a special need. This is more than being waiters or meal-servers. Neighbour's speculation with biblical history is irresponsible. The biblical picture of deacon ministry is one of management – management of the welfare program of the church (Ac.6:1-6; Phil.1:1).
 
 
As Neighbour believes that the critical threat to church life that he is opposing, and which "utterly annihilates what makes the church authentic", began a century ago (p.39), one may then legitimately ask, 'Was the church healthier before this so-called "virus" infected it?'. The answer is a resounding NO!
 
The last hundred years of this 'infection' has seen the greatest growth, spiritually and numerically, in the whole history of the Christianity! This time period includes awesome revivals among the American churches under Charles Finney, the famous Welsh Revival, the Pentecostal revival, the Charismatic renewal, and so on. And, it has been the period of the greatest growth in world missions that the Church has ever known.

 
    Conclusion
 
One
most distressingly absent truth, from Ralph Neighbour's presentation of the need and nature of a new structure for the life of the church, is the vital importance of what may be called –
a developmental synchronicity between life and structure.
 
 
Spiritual life and structural design must match each other – at each stage!
 
 
As the human development of body and mind are matched to each other, so (yes, even more so) is this true in church life, specifically in the relation between –
spiritual / relational life,
 on the one hand
and organizational / ministry structure,
 on the other.
 
 
But it is presumed by Neighbour that cell-groups are God's way for every church, everywhere, all the time. This is not so!
 
 
The Church of Jesus is a living thing, whose Midwife is the Holy Spirit Himself. There never can be any prescribed form or organizational structure that is right for all time.
 
 
With the goodness of the writer's motives accepted, his prescribed method for the church is still meeting-based, even though it is now a small cell-group meeting.
 
 
His emphasis on the need for warm, godly relationships among God's people and the value of small groups as an instrument toward achieving this is good, but his insistence on a specific organizational system as the answer is misleading.
 
 
Christianity has long been sick with a preoccupation with ministry, in various forms and structures, when it has actually desperately needed a reorientation to people – people of all kinds, saved and unsaved, PEOPLE.
 
 
Jesus did not die for truth of any kind – He died for people! The writer creates a promise of this at times and then spoils it with unbiblical theories.
 
 
The Holy Spirit Himself is the life, healing, guidance, unity, and authenticity of the Christian Church! He has the right to break down Christian churches (Rev.2:5) that squander the time He gives them for growth in obedience and life, just as He also has the right to build them up (1Cor.3:6).
 
 
It has pleased Him at different times to use different methods to build His Church, but whatever outward structure He has used it has always been subservient and secondary to the spiritual life of the churches.
 
 
Structural problems in church method are not the cause but the symptoms of spiritual malady.
 
 
It is spiritual renewal itself that produces renewed thinking on structures of ministry for each particular time. This is the consistent pattern of the Holy Spirit's behaviour through the centuries of the Church's history. It is the Holy Spirit's faithfulness to the people of Christ.
 
 
Our time is certainly not a "Second Reformation" (as p.38 of Neighbour's book says). The 16th century Reformation has already been exaggerated enough by the dominant Protestant churches to their advantage.
 
 
Our time is exciting, because it is another among the many that the Holy Spirit has used to correct, caution, enliven, encourage, and equip Christ's Church for the completion of its approaching glorious purpose. In other words – the best is yet to be!
 
 
The attraction of Neighbour's concept is most appealing to those who care, who really care about the people of God, and yearn over them, as a parent, for their protection and growth in righteousness. God is faithful, and the Holy Spirit Himself is master of the situation if we have a heart to hear His heart and not be pressed by the pressures of the need into doing what 'seems right';  that which hangs together so logically, and yet is not the living voice of God to HIS people at that particular time.
 
 
God's way for His people can never be reduced to a system, a structure, or anything else of which we could take ownership.
He is a jealous God over His own.
 
  Addendum  
Yet
the basic need remains – for a congregation that enjoys a spiritual intimacy and mutual loyalty with each other as the family of God.
 
 
The lack of this spiritual-family-character is precisely what Christ rebuked in His letter through John to the church in Ephesus –
 
  "But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.
Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.
If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent."
Revelation 2:4-5 ESV.
  In the context, the removal of the 'lampstand' means the termination of the congregation (see: Rev.1:20).  
  No more serious warning could Christ give to His beloved people.  
  This warning is at the level of the Holy Spirit's warning, through the Apostle Paul to the leadership of the church in Corinth, to not build a congregation of spiritually un-renewed lives (the 'wood, hay, straw') –  

The Warning:
"Do you not know that you [plural/the congregation] are God's temple [singular] and that God's Spirit dwells in you?
If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him.
For God's temple is holy, and you
[plural] are that temple [singular]. Let no one deceive himself.
If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age
[by style/method/program],
let him become a fool that he may become wise."
1 Corinthians 3:16-18 ESV.
What more then 
could be said – than that which has been said!
 
 
The Word of the Holy Spirit through John –
 
"We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.
...By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.
But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?
Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.
By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before Him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and He knows everything.
Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from Him,
because we keep His commandments and do what pleases Him.
And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as He has commanded us.
Whoever keeps His commandments abides in God, and God in him.
And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.
...Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.
Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.
...So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.
By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as He is so also are we in this world.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
We love because He first loved us."
1 John 3:14-4:19.         

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