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By Bruce Hindmarsh — 2 years ago
ABSTRACT: The small group has not always been a feature of Christian church life, even for Protestants. Among evangelicals, the small group traces its origins to two parallel lines of development in the sixteenth century. In Germany, the Lutheran Pietist Philipp Jakob Spener used small groups to revive experiential faith in Christ. In England, the Anglican Anthony Horneck employed them to channel the zeal of earnest young men. The small group later became a vital means in the movements of the Moravians and Methodists and, partly because of them, throughout the churches of the First Great Awakening. Alongside its role in fostering awakening, the small group realized the Reformation ideal of the priesthood of all believers, inviting ordinary Christians to meet, sing, pray, and mutually encourage each other’s faith.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Bruce Hindmarsh, professor of spiritual theology at Regent College, to trace the origins of the evangelical small group.
One warm Sunday morning in July 1669, a 34-year-old minister mounted the pulpit in the principal church in the city of Frankfurt and looked out over a congregation that seemed to have the form but not the power of godliness. Young as he was, he was the senior Lutheran pastor in this important city of fifteen thousand people, and he supervised a number of congregations and at least eleven other ministers. As he stood in the pulpit that morning, though, he longed for a deeper spiritual renewal of the people gathered there. They seemed sermon-proof.
The glory days of Martin Luther and the German Reformation were long past, and for a whole generation now there had been bitter religious strife between Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics. The strife led to a war in Europe that had lasted most of his life and had only recently ended with an uneasy détente. It left Frankfurt a divided city with a merely superficial Christian faith. The old strategy of enforced uniformity and top-down reform, imposed by civic rulers and ministers, was clearly not going to work. One could no longer hope to achieve conformity to high religious standards through law, custom, and sermon-scolding. And in any case, doctrinal rectitude and moral propriety were not the essence of religion. A second Reformation was needed, one that would reach the heart.
So, instead of using the old ways, this young minister reached out on this particular Sunday morning with a daring proposal. In his student days, he had been part of a small group that met for Bible study and hymn-singing, and he knew about various house groups common in other places. How about if here in Frankfurt, then, after Sunday service, a group of friends might meet for convivial conversation, but instead of drinking and playing cards, they might read devotional books together or discuss the sermon? They could “speak with one another about the divine mysteries, and the one who received most from God would try to instruct his weaker brethren.”1
By the following year, these weekly private meetings were established and began to attract women and men from all classes of society in growing numbers. It was the beginning of small-group ministry within the church.
‘Ancient and Apostolic Church Meetings’
The pastor’s proposal sounds so humdrum today, when most of us take small groups for granted. But as implausible as it seems, this moment was a watershed. Until then, small groups or private house meetings tended to be regarded as schismatic, and they were looked upon as the sectarian resort of mystics and radicals. Now it was suggested that these groups could serve as little renewal cells within the church itself. It would take some discipline to make sure they didn’t sheer off into separatist conventicles, but why not keep the fire in the fireplace?
The proposal offered to the Frankfurt congregation that morning marked the start of a practice of incorporating voluntary small groups into the ongoing life of the church as a means of spiritual vitality. These were sometimes described in Latin as ecclesiola in ecclesia, or “a small church within the church.” They were also described as collegia pietatis, or “gatherings for religious devotion.” Those small groups among university students were later called collegia philobiblicum, or “gatherings for the love of all things biblical.” It is perhaps ironic that a practice that would become so popular among ordinary believers began with so many academic-sounding titles. Essentially, these were seventeenth-century home groups.
The minister who rose to preach that July morning in 1669 was Philipp Jakob Spener (1645–1705), and he had been raised and trained as an impeccably orthodox Lutheran. His concern for renewal within the church by such means as these small groups channeled a general “movement for piety” into the more formal Pietist movement in Lutheran Germany. The manifesto was a little book that Spener produced in 1675, six years after the sermon. It expanded on his program. Entitled Pia Desideria (Heartfelt Longings), it presented his hope for “a more extensive use of the word of God among us.”2 In other words, he wanted to see Scripture used in ways beyond the Sunday sermon. How could the power of God’s word be truly released through the priesthood of all believers in a way more extensive and personal? How might the word of God stimulate spiritual renewal?
Spener reminded his readers that this was Luther’s chief concern and the reason he translated the Bible into German in the first place. Luther did not want people reading even his own writings to the neglect of Scripture. So, Spener proposed that families regularly read Scripture together in the home, and he thought it would be good to read book by book through the Bible in church services too. But then listen to how he describes what today we might just call a home Bible study: “It would perhaps not be inexpedient (and I set this down for further and more mature reflection) to reintroduce the ancient and apostolic kind of church meetings.” He must have been thinking of passages such as Colossians 4:14, where the apostle Paul sends greetings to “Nympha and the church in her house,” together with 1 Corinthians 14:26–40, where Paul instructs believers to speak one at a time when exercising their gifts. Spener suggested, accordingly, that
one person would not rise to preach (although this practice would be continued at other times), but others who have been blessed with gifts and knowledge would also speak and present their pious opinions on the proposed subject to the judgment of the rest, doing all this in such a way as to avoid disorder and strife.
This was clearly not the place for a theological brawl: there had been enough of that in the past. Here, instead, laypeople and minsters would together “take up the Holy Scriptures, read aloud from them, and fraternally discuss each verse in order to discover its simple meaning and whatever may be useful for the edification of all.” As Spener said, “Not a little benefit is to be hoped for from such an arrangement.”3 So it proved.
Small groups have been a part of Protestant evangelical religious life ever since. When I was a young person involved in high school and college ministry in the late 1970s and 1980s, I was trained to lead small-group inductive Bible studies by a leader from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. I still have a little book from those years, Leading Bible Discussions, that I just pulled off my shelf. It was originally published in 1967, but as I leaf through it now, the continuity with Spener’s program is remarkable. Group Bible study and prayer would, it says, open up the group “to a deeper work of the Holy Spirit in promoting obedience to Jesus Christ.” I did not know I was part of a collegia philobiblicum. Evidently, three hundred years after Spener’s original proposal to his Frankfurt congregation, there was still the expectation among evangelicals in my generation that “not a little benefit is to be hoped for from such an arrangement.”
Wesley’s Fetter Lane Society
Spener’s program soon expanded. Sixty years later, on the evening on January 25, 1736, an earnest 32-year-old Anglican minister named John Wesley was on board a ship in the North Atlantic, bound for Georgia along with a group of mission-minded, German-speaking believers. He was intrigued and was teaching himself German to be able to converse more with them. On this evening, however, the third in a series of violent storms descended upon them all with such fury that the sea broke over the deck, covering the ship from stem to stern, and splitting the mainsail. People screamed, cried out, and trembled, and even Wesley later confided to his diary, “storm very high . . . a little afraid.”4 Yet, he noticed that throughout the panic the German believers maintained their calm and continued singing hymns and praying together. There was something about the quality of their shared life and simplicity of their faith that was different. It was deeply attractive to Wesley.
The believers Wesley encountered were the Renewed Moravian Brethren, a group of erstwhile central European exiles who had come together under the guidance of Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf on his estate in Saxony nine years earlier, near where today the borders of Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic meet. The godson of Spener, Zinzendorf shared many Pietist ideals, but what emerged under his leadership was new. The Renewed Moravian Brethren, as a distinct movement, came out of a revival in 1727 among these refugees. A church service on August 13 turned into a kind of Protestant Pentecost, where the many became one.
“Across the North Atlantic, small-group devotion was at the heart of the awakening.”
Spiritually, this dynamic drove the Moravian Brethren in two directions: inward, in an intensity of community life together; and outward, in missionary enterprise to places like Georgia and the American frontier. Although they differed with their Pietist forebears over various theological issues and were more ecumenically minded, they carried forward the ideal of small-group fellowship and heartfelt, personal devotion to Christ. At the core of their common life were small bands of perhaps eight to ten believers, meeting together for fellowship. When Wesley encountered them, he thought maybe he had discovered a kind of pure remnant of the early church. He would in turn carry forward their devotional ideals in English Methodism.
In fact, four years after that terrible storm at sea, Wesley was back in central London and working with the Moravian Brethren to establish a religious society at 33 Fetter Lane (near the Chancery Lane Tube station). Spener would easily have recognized their program. Several years ago, I looked at a manuscript record of the original rules of this society, kept in the Moravian records in Germany. The front cover says, “Rules & Orders of a Religious Society meeting in Fetter Lane, 1738, May 1. Brethren and Methodists.” A 25-year-old Moravian minister named Peter Boehler was the guiding spirit, but the initial members listed, in addition to Wesley, eight working men: a brasier, a poultry-seller, a clog-maker, a bookseller, a wine dealer, a barber, and an attorney — all members of the Church of England. This was a typical size for a Moravian-inspired band, or small group. They soon expanded to form multiple bands, including some for women.
It was quite moving for me to read the first few rules this group set for itself, and to see how earnest they were. “That they will meet together once a week, to confess their faults to one another, & pray for one another, that they may be healed.” It appears they met in the evening for about two hours. The rule was, “That each person in order speak freely, plainly, & concisely as he can, the state of his heart, with his several temptations and deliverances, since the last time of meeting.” Corresponding to this level of sharing was a commitment to confidentiality: “That nothing which is said in this conference be by any means mentioned out of it.” All this was bookended or contained by prayer: “That every meeting be begun & ended with singing & prayer.”5
Moravians and Methodists
Parallel lines of development converged in this Fetter Lane Society. There was the line that can be traced from Spener through Zinzendorf to the Moravian Brethren. But there was another remarkably similar line of development in England itself. Here we must pause and go back again to the seventeenth century, before returning to Wesley and the story of Fetter Lane.
Only four years older than Spener, Anthony Horneck (1641–1697) was born about twenty miles from Frankfurt. He was raised Reformed, rather than Lutheran, but he shared many of Spener’s ideals and carried these in his luggage, as it were, when he moved to England in 1661 and became an ordained Anglican minister. About the time that Spener’s Pia Desideria was having an impact in Germany, Horneck’s heart-searching sermons in London caused a spiritual awakening among a large number of earnest young men who were “touch’d with a very affecting sense of their sins.”6 Horneck knew exactly what to do. He organized them into small groups and gave them rules to order their common life together. This was to do for the Anglican church what Spener did for Lutheran church. If anything, though, it was more tightly mortised to a high Anglican ethos, and the focus was upon the quest for holiness. We would not go too far wrong to describe it as a kind of high-church Anglican pietism.
These were not separatist Puritan conventicles; they were renewal cells or ecclesiolae subject to the authority and sacramental life of the church. But they became popular. A contemporary wrote, “Many, in and about London, began to meet often together, both for devotion and for their further instruction: things of that kind had formerly practiced only among the puritans and dissenters; but these were of the Church, and came to their ministers to be assisted with forms of prayer and other directions.”7 The heightened moral concern of these small groups is reflected in their first rule, “that all . . . should resolve upon an holy and serious life.”8 Another clue to the ethos of these groups can be inferred from a popular spiritual handbook written by Horneck during these years with the splendid title The Happy Ascetick (1681). The so-called “holy club” that Wesley formed at Oxford in 1729 was in continuity with these disciplined Anglican religious societies that go back to the ministry of Horneck. Since at least 1725, Wesley had himself been one of these young men on an earnest quest for “an holy and serious life.”
However, the Fetter Lane Society, with its small groups, was formed later, at a critical period in early May 1738. It owed something to both the Pietist¬ and Anglican ideals for small-group devotion, and it outwardly looked a lot like the bands organized by Horneck. But this was the very month that John Wesley and his brother Charles would each experience a crisis that led to a profound evangelical conversion. They came to realize that no amount of moral earnestness would be enough to bring them peace with God. John Wesley went along to a religious society meeting in London on May 24 and “felt his heart strangely warmed” as someone read from Luther on the meaning of faith in Christ. Wesley said, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins.”9 His brother had a similar spiritual breakthrough three days earlier.
Nerve Center of Spiritual Awakening
It was this Wesleyan and Moravian dynamic of evangelical conversion that turned Fetter Lane into the nerve center of spiritual awakening across London and beyond in the late 1730s and the 1740s. As the fires of evangelical revival spread, the fervor of small-group religion branched out too. As one historian observed, “Certainly the cell, the koinonia, the society, was at the heart of the Revival.”10 And in the newly expanding social space of a democratizing world, these voluntary groups had great appeal. In 1745, Wesley reminded his Methodist followers that a distinguishing feature of their societies is that they were freely gathered together and they “do still subsist without Power.”11
“As the fires of evangelical revival spread, the fervor of small-group religion branched out too.”
From this point forward, the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening in the North Atlantic, as in the earlier Anglo-German context, would have a local cellular structure. Whether in the Methodist band meetings, or the Moravian Singstunde or quarter-hour meetings, or the lay prayer meetings in the parishes of Congregationalists in New England, the ideal of the ecclesiola spread far and wide. It was a vital expression of evangelical devotion. As the single mother Margaret Austin wrote to Charles Wesley in 1740 after evangelical preaching touched her conscience, “I had a strong Desire to get into the Bands: I went to the Reverend Mr John Wesley and he admitted me. And the first night we met, hearing the others tell the State of their Souls — it was of much strength to me to speak of the State of mine.” Almost immediately after Sarah Osborn’s conversion in Newport, Rhode Island, across the Atlantic, she began to meet with a number of young women who were spiritually awakened to a concern for their souls, and, as she later put it, they would “converse on vital and experimental religion.” John Newton described the believers in his Anglican parish in the English Midlands in Pietist terms as “Ecclesia intra Ecclesium [sic],” adding, “and it is much the same in all the parishes where the Lord has placed awakened ministers.”12 Across the North Atlantic, small-group devotion was at the heart of the awakening.
Newton wrote a hymn to dedicate a new meeting place for his religious society, and its first stanza communicates something of the hopes for these small groups. It was a prayer for a deep experience of peace with God and spiritual communion with other believers:
Within these walls let holy peace,And love, and concord dwell;Here give the troubled conscience ease,The wounded spirit heal.13
It is a lovely picture of the small group as a place for the healing of wounds and for mutual concord. His friend the poet William Cowper wrote a hymn likewise for opening a new place for prayer, and he recognized that women and men genuinely encountered God here, outside of the church building:
Jesus, where’er thy people meet, There they behold thy mercy-seat;Where’er they seek thee thou art found, And every place is hallowed ground.14
We could continue to trace the history of small groups and voluntary societies down the centuries into the era of home and foreign missions and the expansion of evangelical faith across the globe, up to the Chinese house churches in the East and the Alpha course in the West. But this is enough to get a sense of the origin of the “small church within the church” and the critical role these groups played in the rise of evangelicalism.
Leaders such as Spener knew that the dynamism of lay voluntarism released in these small groups could overspill the container. The fire could break out of the fireplace. Small groups could become dangerous or schismatic. As William Cowper once put it, “Instrumentality is generally taken up with some reluctance, and laid down with a great deal more.”15 In other words, it might be hard to get lay people going, but it can be even harder to get them to stop. Still, Spener and Wesley and all these others thought it was worth it. The water of the Spirit could be kept flowing within the high banks of the church. And the possibilities for spiritual vitality were endless.
Realizing Luther’s Ideal
In conclusion, we might ask what some of the qualities were that marked these groups distinctively and made them a spiritual powerhouse for the reviving of vital faith in Christ. We can identify several features just in outline. Probably most importantly, these groups were clear in their aims to foster a real, lived experience of the Christian faith. These were not book clubs, lifestyle enclaves, or discussion groups. These were places for those who were serious about the life application of the teaching of Scripture. To this end, these groups invited honest sharing of personal successes and failures in the Christian life. Absolute confidentiality was the corollary of this honest sharing and essential to building trust in one another. The freedom of the individual was contained within a structure of accountability and discipline, with high expectations of one another. Thus, almost all of these groups set out their own ground rules in one form or another. Still, the experience of a shared spiritual life meant that these groups were not simply an adjunct to real church, but the deep bonds of spiritual kinship that were forged made these groups a profound manifestation of the church.
The Pietist small groups in particular witnessed to the power of reading Scripture with others, sharing insight mutually together, as something spiritually enlarging and “for the edification of all.” With the Moravians and Methodists, these groups were also harnessed for mission and service, looking outward and not just inward. And even though these groups were typically small in number, it seems that they almost always sang hymns together, incorporating worship and prayer into their common life. In sum, these groups were a realization of Luther’s ideal of the priesthood of all believers. We can minister God’s grace to one another.
“These groups were a realization of Luther’s ideal of the priesthood of all believers.”
Finally, it is good to remember that there may come a day when the small group is all we have. In the period between the beginning of Spener’s reform and Wesley’s, there is an important story about small groups sustaining the faith of a repressed people. Silesia is a region that today overlaps the Czech Republic and the area bordering it in Poland. This area was at one time ruled by Protestants, and the Pietists had a huge influence there. When their rulers were replaced by a harsh Catholic regime, the Protestants lost almost all their churches overnight.
All of a sudden, the small home groups that were meant to help keep church life vital were all you had. Your Bible study was your underground church. Itinerant leaders connected these home groups, and out of this hard-pressed community of beleaguered Protestants came a revival in 1718 that spread down the Oder River valley. It began with small groups of children of about middle-school age, gathering at intervals during the day to pray and sing. The parents would form a ring on the outside and watch on in tears as the children prayed. It was families and individuals connected to this revival who ultimately would end up on Zinzendorf’s estate as exiles. This was in fact one of the taproots of the evangelical revival across the whole North Atlantic. As in time past, small groups may yet prove to be more important than we ever imagined.
By Marshall Segal — 2 years ago
Men professing faith in Christ have been walking away from him since the church began.
“Some have made shipwreck of their faith,” the apostle Paul reports in his first letter to Timothy. In fact, the language of leaving is all over 1–2 Timothy: men were wandering away from the faith, departing from the faith, swerving from the faith, being disqualified from the faith (1 Timothy 1:19; 4:1; 5:12; 6:10, 20–21; 2 Timothy 3:8). There seemed to be something of a small exodus already happening in the first century, perhaps not unlike the wave of deconversions we’re seeing online today.
We shouldn’t be surprised; Jesus told us it would be so: “As for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14). Those same thorns are still sharp and threatening to faith in our day. In fact, with the ways we use technology, we’re now breeding thorns in our pockets, drawing them even closer than before.
This context gives the charge in 1 Timothy 6:11–12 all the more meaning and power, both for Timothy’s day and for ours:
As for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
“Men professing faith in Christ have been walking away from him since the church began.”
Who are the men who will fight the good fight of faith? Who will stay and battle while others fall away? In the words of 1 Timothy 4:12, which young men will step up and set an example for the believers in faith?
Fight of Faith
That faith is a fight means believing will not be easy. It won’t always feel natural, organic, or effortless. We could never earn the love of Christ, but following him will often be harder than we expect or want.
“If anyone would come after me,” Jesus says in Luke 9:23, “let him deny himself and take up his cross” — and not the light and charming crosses some wear around their necks, but the pain and heartache of following a crucified King in the world that killed him. If we declare our love for Jesus, God tells us, suffering will expose and refine us (1 Peter 4:12), people will despise, slander, and disown us (John 15:18), Satan and his demons will assault us (John 10:10), and our own sin will seek to ruin us from within (1 Peter 2:11). If we refuse to fight, we won’t last. The ships of our souls will inevitably drift, and then crash, take on water, and sink.
The verses before 1 Timothy 6:12 give us examples of specific threats we will face in the fight of faith, and each still threatens men today.
Enemy of Pride
When Paul describes the men who had walked away from Jesus, specifically those who had been teaching faithfully but had now embraced false teaching, he points first to their pride. These men, he says, were “puffed up with conceit” (1 Timothy 6:4). Instead of being laid low by the grace and mercy of God, they used the gospel to feel better about themselves. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they seized on the love of God to try to make themselves God. Many of us do not last in faith because we simply cannot submit to any god but ourselves, because we do not see pride — our instinct to put ourselves above others, even God — as an enemy of our souls.
Enemy of Distraction
Pride was not the only enemy these men faced, however. Paul says they also had “an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people” (1 Timothy 6:4–5). It’s almost hard to believe the apostle wasn’t writing about the twenty-first century. Were these distractions really problems thousands of years before Twitter, before the Internet, before even the printing press? Apparently so. And yet the temptation explains so much of our dysfunction today.
In our sin, we often nurture an unhealthy craving for controversy. Faithfulness doesn’t sell ads; friction does. As you scroll through your feeds or watch the evening news or even monitor your casual conversation, ask how much of what you’re allowing into your soul falls into 1 Timothy 6:4–5. How much of our attention has been intentionally, even relentlessly, steered into passing controversies and vain debates? How much have we been fed suspicion, envy, and slander as “news,” not realizing how poisonous this kind of diet is to our faith?
Enemy of More
Greed is a threat we know exists, and often see in others, but rarely see in ourselves — especially in a greed-driven society like ours in America. The insatiable craving for more, however, can leave us spiritually dull and penniless.
Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:9–10)
When you read “those who desire to be rich,” don’t think elaborate mansions in tropical places with pools beside the ocean; think “those who crave more than they need.” In other words, this isn’t a rare temptation, but a pervasive one, especially in wealthier nations. The temptation may be subtle, but the consequences are not. These cravings, the apostle warns, “plunge people into ruin and destruction.” Their life is choked out not by pain or sorrow or fear, but by the pleasures of life (Luke 8:14) — things to buy, shows to watch, meals to eat, places to visit.
“The more we see how much threatens our walk with Jesus, the less surprising it is that so many walk away.”
Do we still wonder why Paul would call faith a fight? The more we see how much threatens our walk with Jesus, the less surprising it is that so many walk away. What’s more surprising is that some men learn to fight well and then keep fighting while others bow out of the war.
How to Win the War
If we see our enemies for what they are, how do we wage war against them? In 1 Timothy 6:11–12, Paul gives us four clear charges for the battlefield: Flee. Pursue. Fight. Seize.
First, we flee. Some have been puffed up by pride, others have been distracted by controversy, and still others have fallen in love with this world — “but as for you, O man of God, flee these things” (1 Timothy 6:11). Spiritual warfare is not fight or flight; it is fight and flight. We prepare to battle temptation, but we also do our best to avoid temptation altogether. As far as it depends on us, we “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14). If necessary, we cut off our hand or gouge out our eye (Matthew 5:29–30), meaning we go to extraordinary lengths to flee the sin we know would ruin us.
Spiritual warfare, however, is not only fight and flight, but also pursuit. “Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11). We could linger over each of the six qualities Paul exhorts us to pursue here, but for now let’s focus briefly on faith. Are you pursuing faith in Jesus — not just keeping faith, but pursuing faith? Are you making time each day to be alone with God through his word? Are you weaving prayer into the unique rhythms of your life? Are you committed to a local church, and intentionally looking for ways to grow and serve there? Are you asking God to show you other creative ways you might deepen your spiritual strength and joy?
Third, we fight. “Fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). We avoid temptation as much as we can, but we cannot avoid temptation completely. Whatever wise boundaries and tools we put in place, we still carry our remaining sin, which means we bring the war with us wherever we go. And too many of us go to war unarmed. Without the armor of God — the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit — we will be helpless against the spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:11–12). But having taken our enemies seriously and strapping on our weapons daily, “we wage the good warfare” (1 Timothy 1:18).
Lastly, men of God learn to seize the new life God has given them. “Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Timothy 6:12). This is the opposite of the spiritual passivity and complacency so common among young men — men who want out of hell, but have little interest in God. Those men, however, who see reality and eternity more clearly, know that the greater treasure is in heaven, so they live to have him (Matthew 13:43–44). Their driving desire is to see more of Christ, and to become more like Christ. They may look like fools now, but they will soon be kings. They wake up on another normal Wednesday, and seize the grace that God has laid before them.
Some men will lay down their weapons before the war is over, even some you know and love. But make no mistake: this is a war worth fighting to the end. As you watch others flag and fail and leave the church, let their withdrawal renew your vigilance and fuel your advance. Learn to fight the good fight of faith.
By David Mathis — 2 years ago
Aspiring missionaries are often the kind of Christians who ask questions like “How do I humble myself?” They have read their Bibles, and have sat under faithful preaching, and have noticed that, from beginning to end, God commends humility and condemns pride. For instance,
“Seek humility” (Zephaniah 2:3).
“Put on . . . humility” (Colossians 3:12).
“Have . . . a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8).
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5).
“Humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God” (1 Peter 5:6; James 4:10).
And so the kinds of Christians who tend to make good missionaries genuinely want to be more humble, and they ask questions like, “How do I humble myself?” And when we turn to the places in Scripture that talk about self-humbling, what we find is that the answer itself is humbling.
Let’s look at what may be the two most instructive passages in the Bible about self-humbling. The first is in Exodus; the second, in Philippians.
Will You Refuse to Humble Yourself?
The first mention of humbling in the Bible is in Exodus 10, with Moses standing before Pharoah. Let’s set the scene with Exodus 5:1–2 as Moses first approaches him and speaks on God’s behalf:
Moses says, “Thus says the Lord [Yahweh], the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go. . . .” To which Pharaoh replies, mark this: “Who is [Yahweh], that I should obey his voice and let Israel go? I do not know [Yahweh] . . .”
Okay, Pharaoh. You may not yet know Yahweh. But just you wait. You will know him, and perhaps all too well. Note here, as Pharaoh rightly perceives it, this is about obedience: He says, “Who is [Yahweh], that I should obey his voice and let Israel go?”
Then, as you know, ten terrible plagues follow as Yahweh makes himself known as judge to Pharaoh, and as savior to his own people, as he rescues them from Egyptian oppression.
Now, fast forward from Exodus 5 to Exodus 9:17, just before plague number seven. God says to Pharoah, “You are still exalting yourself against my people and will not let them go.” In refusing to obey God’s voice, Pharoah is “exalting self” — which is the opposite of “humbling self.” God then makes that explicit in the next chapter, before the eighth plague. He says again to Pharaoh in Exodus 10:3,
How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?
And this is the first mention of humbling self in the Bible. So, let’s pull together what we’ve seen in Exodus. Though Pharaoh pretends to be divine, the true God and Creator speaks to him as a creature. “Obey my voice. Let my people go.” And God refers to Pharaoh’s refusal as “exalting yourself” and instructs him to “humble yourself” in response to these painful, humbling plagues. That is, obey God. Acknowledge, Pharoah, that you are not God. He is God.
We might say that the basic confession of humility is “You are God, and I am not.” First, God acted; he humbled Pharaoh through plague after plague. Then, the question comes to Pharaoh, Will you humble yourself? Will you pretend that you are God and challenge or ignore Yahweh, or will you admit, “He is God, and I am not,” and obey?
God Acts First
This is the paradigm that then echoes throughout the Scriptures (especially in 2 Chronicles, and in the teaching of Jesus, Matthew 18:4; 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14), and is true for us today. God may not confront us with a knock at the door from a prophet like Moses, but God does confront us. He takes the initiative. His humbling hand descends. A family member, or brother or sister in Christ, confronts us. Or sickness in ourselves or in a loved one. Or death. Or the loss of a job. Or a breakup. Or whatever obstacles you will encounter on the mission field, or on your way to the mission field — and you will encounter them.
God takes the initiative in humbling us, and then the question comes: Now, will you humble yourself and receive what God is doing in your discomfort and pain, or will you push back?
Humility says, “He is God, and I am not.” Uncomfortable and painful as my circumstances are, I receive them as his humbling hand. That doesn’t mean I don’t pray for rescue. In fact, praying for rescue can be precisely the kind of self-humbling we’re taking about.
“The kinds of Christians who tend to make good missionaries genuinely want to be more humble.”
So, How do I humble myself? is a good question for aspiring missionaries to ask. And it has a humbling answer. We don’t just up and humble ourselves when we’re good and ready. We don’t take the initiative. Self-humbling is not an achievement. Rather, our self-humbling begins with God’s initiative. He takes the first step and humbles us. Then the question comes, Will you receive his humbling and humble yourself?
Jesus Humbled Himself
Now, let’s go to Philippians 2 and see it play out, in three great steps, in the greatest missionary who ever lived.
He Became Man
First, before he humbled himself as man, he first had to become man. Which is said to be an emptying of himself.
[being] in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6–7)
His emptying of himself was not an emptying of divine attributes, as if that were possible. It was an emptying of privilege or comfort — the privilege of not becoming man and not being subjected to the finitude and pain of human life, and the difficulties of living in our fallen world. And Jesus’s emptying here, Paul says, was not a losing but a taking: “taking the form of a servant.”
So, first, God the Son becomes man.
Obedient to Death
Then, second, once human, Jesus fulfilled the human calling before God: “he humbled himself.”
being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)
What did Jesus’s self-humbling involve? He humbled himself (1) by becoming obedient. We saw with Pharaoh the issue of human obedience to God’s will. Jesus, as man, obeyed God. As much as his humanity wanted to avoid death, and avoid bearing our sin (having none of his own), and feeling forsaken by his Father, he prayed in the garden, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). And he was obedient, Paul says, (2) “to the point of death.” He endured. He didn’t hit eject when obedience got hard. He obeyed all the way through. And this self-humbling obedience to death went so far as (3) “even death on a cross.”
Exalted for Humility
Now, third and finally,
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name . . . (Philippians 2:9)
As man, Jesus humbled himself in obedience to the divine will, and went to the cross — and God, in his perfect timing, three days later, raised him, and, forty days later, exalted him at his right hand.
Welcome God’s Humbling Hand
Let me close with two final words to you as 18–25 year olds at the CROSS conference:
First, your process from CROSS, to actually getting there — on the ground, into the cross-cultural ministry you aspire to — likely will take longer and be a more trying and patience-testing process than you imagined. God means to humble you along the way. And he means, as you seek to become a missionary — high a calling as it is! — that you learn obedience and humility, that you do not, in pride, jettison the call of Philippians 2:3–4, which verses 6¬–9 uphold, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Finally, my prayer for you is that you prepare ahead of time, daily and weekly, for God’s many humblings, for your good, before they come:
Humble yourself daily by sitting under (not over) his word and bowing before him in prayer;
And humble yourself weekly by sitting under faithful preaching and submitting yourself in covenant/committed fellowship in a faithful local church.
“Ask God to work a posture in your soul that is ready to receive, even welcome, God’s humbling hand.”
Ask God to work a posture in your soul — through his word, prayer, and covenant fellowship to his people — that is ready to receive, even welcome God’s humbling hand, painful as it may be when it descends.
Answering his call to invest your life directly in the Great Commission work of crossing oceans and borders and languages and cultures with the gospel won’t mean you avoid his humbling hand. It might mean, in his great mercy, his humbling hand descends in your life all the more. Read missionary biographies. Were they kept from his humbling hand? No, they were not.
Rather, his humbling hand kept them from vanity, from shallowness, from being ineffective, from laboring in vain, from walking away from Jesus, from being choked out by the cares of this life. God’s humbling hand was a painful and merciful means of his grace in sustaining and strengthening the souls of his missionaries, and in working through them to do his humbling and rescuing work in the lives of those they were sent to reach.