Small group metaphors: A suggestive approach to bible study

Theologian Gareth Weldon Icenogle describes four metaphoric associations given to the new covenant community or small group: the body of Christ, the new family of God, a Royal Priesthood, and stone-building. This article will describe and analyze these metaphors concerning small group ministry and the Church. We will also provide a suggestive Bible study based on two of these images and their relevance to our community with others in the kingdom of Heaven. 

One of the images is known as the body of Christ; in which Icenogle writes: “the called gathering of Jesus became the new body of Christ who continued to live in the world. The ecclesia was the local and finite expression of the body of Christ.”[1] The global Christina community who believe that Jesus Christ is our savior and died on the cross for our sins became the body of Christ. This metaphor is signified with the last supper when Jesus broke bread and shared it with the disciples explaining to them the signification of the bread being the body, and the wine is the blood. “Jesus demonstrated that his life was to continue as community life and that his Spirit would be shared among the many.[2]” Where two or three are gathered, as the body, Jesus would be among them (Matthew 18:20). The nature of this body is to learn of Christ, walk in his likeness, and fellowship with others, together as one unit. Like individual parts makeup one body, we, and individuals move together in community with others to make up the one body of Christ spreading his message of faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). “The definition of koinōnia embodies themes of commonness, sharing, togetherness, and unity in diversity.[3]” The body of Christ is the community, the Church, not the building. The church is a community, not a brick-and-mortar structure.

The next metaphor is the New Family of God. Here Jesus intended us to live in “families of adult brothers and sisters with Jesus the elder brother and God as the parent (Abba).[4]” The father/son relationship Jesus showed humanity with God was to be carried on by our communities with one another. In many ways, it brought us into fellowship and love with one another outside the constructs of our bloodline tradition of family and into the kingdom of heaven on earth, where we are all brothers and sisters of Christ. “The emphasis in recognition of the ecclesia as family members was on being with one another as a reconstituted household[5]” Our new family of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood is to be lived in love, with Christ at the head of our daily lives as he was originally head of the original twelve. This is a powerful metaphor and is the easiest way to explain to others who are suffering and in despair. If we view ourselves, and our family, with God as the father and head of the household, we can start to understand love, suffering, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Most families (even the dysfunctional sorts) are rooted in love, albeit a corrupt sense of love. When you consider this type of love and transfer it towards others in the community based on agape love, people start to understand that unconditional love of one to another is possible in the constructs of our own families. We love our brothers who betray us, we love our children who disobey us, likewise, we can transfer that type of love as we are taught to thrive in small groups or church communities with this type of love and forgiveness.

Another metaphor Icenogle puts forth is the Royal Priesthood. This is a difficult concept that most evangelicalism misconstrues. It represents us all in a royal priesthood of love, respect, and leadership of others who are called upon discipleship inherent in Christ. We no longer need a mediator between man and God to reconcile us to Him. Christ paved a new relational covenant. “The Christian small group is a spiritual house of priests who offer themselves individually and as a group to be living sacrifices for the healing and reconciling of persons and society. Their priesthood is essentially their redeemed humanity and their restored community together.”[6] This reinforces the importance of sacrifice, labor, and reconciliation that we read throughout the Old Testament. Notice how the royal priesthood nullifies the necessity of structure and sacred space that we now see as such a large part of our Church services. The New Testament cancels most of this out. “Today Christian small groups are called by their high priest Jesus to be courts of ‘royal priests.’ Living together in the presence of the King, who is also the high priest, empowers a small group to enter into the nobility and royalty of a shared priestly ministry.”[7] The small group is the perfect setting to emphasize the importance of our royal priesthood.  

Stone Building is the last metaphor that we are going to suggest. “The Christian small group is the ecclesia built up together by the chief cornerstone, Jesus Christ, to minister together as living stones between the rock of God and the hard place of sterile political, social, religious, familial and corporate systems.”[8] This relates heavily to principles of pain, suffering, conflict, and strength. The Church, and subsequent small groups, should be founded in heavy biblical doctrine and built together in strength to weather the storm of adversity that life and society will come in our direction. The concept of the stone building is the bedrock (no pun intended) of discipleship. This is the most pragmatic metaphor.

There is great value in constructing small groups who conduct biblical studies with these metaphors to help engender the community into the functionality and practicality of truth derivatives outlined in scripture.  “This system for personal inductive Bible study helps you find the central truth in a passage and build that truth into your life.” [9] This truth sought after in biblical study will have life long effects applicable to our community of unification in Christ. “Application is integral to our study of Scripture.”[10] Inductive discovery is mutual learning by the power of the Spirit who calls small group ministry and church bodies into shared revelation.

We have set up two Bible study outlines that accentuate two of the four metaphors addressed in the paper; they include the Body of Christ metaphor and the New Family of God model. We pray this helps:

woman holding book
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Body of Christ: 1 Corinthians 11:28-29; “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” (KJV)

Observation:

  • What are the conditions of the passage, who is speaking, and who are they speaking to?
  • What are the historical context and sociological conditions of the members involved in this passage?

Interpretation:

  • What does this mean to us as a small group ministry or members of the congregation?
  • Is this establishing self -worth or addressing confidence within our understanding as members of the body of Christ.

Application:

  • How can we use this passage to strengthen our group or constituency?
  • How does this make us better disciples of Christ?

Hermeneutics: “Every member of the ecclesia needs to become a self-disciplined person with clear “body” thinking to prove, judge and discern the complete life and action of the body.”[11]

family reading story book
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The New Family of God: Matthew 1:23; “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” (KJV)

Observation:

  • Who is speaking in this passage, and to whom?
  • What are the surrounding conditions of all those involved in this passage? Does the family have contextual meaning here?

Interpretation:

  • What is the ancient Hebrew meaning of the name Emmanuel, and what are its derivatives?
  • What are other passages that speak of God with us in the Old Testament?

Application:

  • What are the indications of God with us mean in the constructs of his kingdom rule?
  • How is God, and therefore Jesus, with us delineate how we should live out our daily lives?

Hermeneutics: “The Christian family is to be “with” one another in love. Just as Jesus came as Emmanuel (God with us; Mt 1:23), so the new family was called to be with Jesus and with one another.”[12]

 

Bibliography

 Bunch, Cindy. 1996. Small-Group Idea Book: Resources to Enrich Community, Worship, Prayer, Nurture, Outreach. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Gleason, Michael. 1996. Building on Living Stones: New Testament Patterns and Principles of Renewal. Grand Rapid, MI: Kregel Publications.

Icenogle, Gareth Weldon. 1994. Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry: An Integrational Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Connect.

Pell, Petty. 1995. Small-Group Leaders’ Handbook: the Next Generation. Developing Disciples. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Willard, Dallas. 2014. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. London: William Collins.

Footnotes:

[1] Gareth Weldon Icenogle, Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry: An Integrational Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Connect, 1994).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cindy Bunch, Small Group Idea Book: Resources to Enrich Community, Worship, Prayer, Nurture, Outreach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

[10] Petty Pell, Small Group Leaders’ Handbook: The next Generation, Developing Disciples (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995). I also used this source as the foundation for my two bible study outlines.

[11] Gareth Weldon Icenogle, Biblical Foundations for Small Group Ministry: An Integrational Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Connect, 1994).

[12] Ibid. 

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