Book Review: Where Do We Go From Here?, by Ralph Neighbour

Review
03.03.2010

It would take a superhuman effort to read Ralph Neighbour’s Where Do We Go From Here? without feeling some excitement about the idea he describes in it.  Neighbour is one of the main advocates of the idea of “cell churches,” one of the offspring of the drive in the 1960s and 1970s to return the ministry to the laity.  (For an informative history and evaluation of this “every-member-ministry” idea, see Mark Dever’s article “The Priesthood of All Believers:  Reconsidering Every-Member Ministry” in John Armstrong ed., The Compromised Church.)  “Cell churches” are an organizational masterpiece, cut from the same mold as the get-rich-quick pyramid schemes that are so adept at capturing the human mind again and again.  It’s an enchanting vision—one small group of people growing and multiplying into two, which multiply again into four, then eight, then sixteen, and finally into hundreds and hundreds of cells, rapidly multiplying and spreading across a city to reach thousands and thousands of people with the gospel!  One need only look at Dr. Yonggi Cho’s Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea to see the potential this structure has for absolutely mind-numbing growth.  Dr. Cho’s church grew from a group of five people meeting together into a church with now well over a million members!  Ralph Neighbour’s book is a manual of how these kinds of “cell churches” are to work.  Just as an aside, the book is too long at 400 pages.  There are systematic theologies that are not 400 pages long.  There is simply not that much to say about cell groups, and by the end of the book, the repetition of ideas begins to try one’s patience.  But enough on that.  As I think about its usefulness to pastors, Neighbour’s book seems somewhat ironic.  Much of what Neighbour says is sound and needed advice for churches today.  Nevertheless, I am convinced that the structure he presents is seriously flawed.  So if you take the time to read the book, read it not for the main idea of the cells, but to take what Neighbour says should be going on in those cells and apply that to your church.

It would help here, I think, to describe exactly what Neighbour has in mind.  A cell church is one that is made up of a number of small groups of believers.  When a cell reaches a certain size (Neighbour puts the number dogmatically at 15), it divides.  A group of cells (five, here) is overseen by a “zone supervisor.”  Five “zone supervisors” (that makes twenty-five cells) are overseen by a “zone pastor,” and on up the chain of command to the senior pastor of the church.  Each of the cells is charged with doing the work of caring for and edifying its members.  As Neighbour writes, “The cell group is not just a portion of church life, to [be] included along with a dozen other organizations.  It is church life; it is the place of family and connection; and when it properly exists, all other competing structures are neither needed nor valid,” (131).  The chapters of the book describe various aspects of the ministry of these cell groups to their members.  From spiritual gifts to prayer to children to evangelism, the cells are to carry on the work of the church.  Every once in a while, whether every week or once a month, the entire network of cells will meet together to hear the senior pastor teach from the Bible.  The driving force in the cells is growth and eventual multiplication driven by evangelism.  If a cell isn’t dividing, the leadership of the church assumes a problem in the life of the cell.  “In Houston,” Neighbour writes, “the cells should multiply in 22 weeks.  In Abidjan, the time for multiplication is closer to 12 weeks,” (220).  It will be interesting to note here in passing that the vision of many international missions organizations, including the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, is heavily influenced by this philosophy of church growth.  (See, for example, the review on this site of David Garrison’s Church Planting Movements.)

I am fully in agreement with Neighbour’s determination to see community reestablished in the church.  So far as the “Program Based” church has replaced its sense of community with a buffet of programs in which one enlists, it is definitely in the wrong.  To the end of returning those churches to a genuine love for one another like we see in the New Testament, then, the emphases of the “cell church” and “every-member ministry” movements have been healthy ones.  The New Testament is clear that one of the primary tasks of the church in the world is to build a community that will commend the gospel to outsiders.  Non-believers should certainly sense among our people a love that makes them say indeed, “Surely God is among you!”  Ralph Neighbour’s book, like so many others from the pens of men like Lawrence Richards, Robert Coleman, Bill Hull, Howard Snyder, and Ray Stedman, is a call for the church to recover that love and care for one another.

My concern about Neighbour’s book, and more broadly about the movement it speaks from, is the structure that Neighbour calls for to reintroduce these good practices.  It does seem intuitive at first glance that the cell structure would more readily facilitate the kind of love that the New Testament talks about.  But not only am I not convinced that that is necessarily true (I think it is possible to have a church of scores of people who love one another just as the New Testament teaches), I believe that a cell structure is simply incapable of carrying out some other functions of a church as they are laid out in the Bible.  Before I turn to those concerns, I should mention that Neighbour often does exegetical work that would give pause to any cautious student of the Bible.  For example, he writes on page 60:

The early church did exactly that [met in cell groups]!  Recognizing there cannot be total participation by every member when the gatherings are only made up of large, impersonal groups, the people of God moved from house to house in small groups. . . .  Meeting in small cells—without seasoned leaders—these groups built up one another through mutual ministries. . . .  These house churches functioned from their inception as the nucleus of the Christian community.  The Lord of the church intended it to be that way; if He had desired it to be otherwise, He could have shaped its lifestyle differently.

I am not sure where Neighbour is getting his information there (perhaps Robert Banks), but verses in Acts like 2:46, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts,” and 5:12, “All the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade” would seem to suggest a different pattern.  At the very least, it is irresponsible to assert from Scripture as much as Neighbour does in favor of his position.  In another example of questionable exegesis (p.63), Neighbour says that “In Acts 20:6-12, Paul’s visit to Troas occasioned a gathering of all the house groups to break bread and hear the Apostle teach them.”  But Acts doesn’t say anything here about house groups!  Luke simply writes that “On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.”  What would make Neighbour feel free to read “house groups” into that story?  That is a striking example of assuming what one is trying to prove.  On the previous page, he writes, “Apart from the teaching of the apostles, leadership was not emphasized to any great extent.”  That is patently not true.  Any reading of the book of Acts or especially the pastoral epistles will show that the apostles were extremely interested in making sure that elders and other leaders were duly appointed in every church.  In another example, Neighbour tries to prove his point that cell groups should (and did) move from house to house by citing Acts 5:42.  That verse, though, is about the apostles.  They were dragged before the Sanhedrin, and Luke concludes by saying, “Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.”  Most likely those houses were owned by pagans and Jews to whom the apostles were preaching for the first time.  The verse certainly says nothing about cell groups moving from house to house.

Errors such as those would make the thesis of any book suspect in my mind.  When a case for an idea must be manufactured from Scriptures, and that not even very well, it is a good indication that the Lord didn’t have it in mind after all.  There are instructions in the Bible—many of them—for how we as Christians are to structure our lives together as churches.  But the pattern does not seem to be a conglomeration of cells, but one unified local body that has all authority to conduct its own affairs, guard its own doctrines and teaching, and care for and discipline its members.  Cell groups are a fine addition to a church.  There is much good they can do in the way of accountability and encouragement, but a Christian’s corporate identity needs to be found first and most profoundly in the church as a whole.  Why is that?  Because in the New Testament, all of the functions of a church—edification of the body, teaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, discipline, maintenance of sound doctrine—all of these are given to the same group, the congregation.  From the New Testament, it simply will not do for encouragement and love to be found primarily in the cell group, but for authority to teach and to discipline to be found in a larger hierarchy teetering on top of the whole mass.  All of the functions of a church are interwoven together.  The same group that loves and cares for its members should also be the group that has authority to discipline those same members.  And those who teach the church ought to have loving relationships with the ones they are teaching.  Nowhere in the New Testament do we see these functions separated.

The reason for this is that God intends for the church to present one unified and unanimous voice about what it really means to be a Christian.  God intends for there to be a bright line drawn around the church, a line that clearly says, “These are the visible people of God, and those are not.”  In a cell church structure, that line is necessarily blurred.  Here’s how.  The church is not tasked with only bringing people into its fold; another charge of the church is to remove people from its fold.  I Corinthians 5 and Matthew 18 are the classic texts that address this issue of church discipline.  When someone is disciplined, a strong statement is made to both church members and the world that “This is not the way a Christian lives, and we will not continue to allow this person to take the Name of Christ with our consent!”  The power of that statement is that it is the entire church that is making it.  It is not the session of elders, or one section of the church, or a group of friends, or antagonists of the one disciplined, or even one leader of the church making the decision.  It is the entire church saying together that such behavior is not worthy of the name “Christian.”  So the bright line between the world and the church (at least as far as we may discern) is maintained.

Where is that line in a cell church?  It is interesting that the entire discussion of cell churches has omitted the question of discipline.  Neighbour doesn’t mention it.  Neither does Randy Frazee in his book, The Connecting Church (also reviewed on this site).  The drive behind the cell church, and the allure of it, is explosive growth.  The assumption seems to be that the need for removing someone from the church will never arise.  Or at the very least, it is never assumed that that need will arise.  Yet the Bible makes that assumption everywhere.  Human nature is such that the church, until the last day, will be filled with false professors who claim to be converted but really are not at all repentant, and it is the church’s charge to remove its corporate approval from one of these unrepentant people.  In a structure where the church as a whole has authority to do that, it is a solemn moment of declaring the meaning of the gospel.  (Some Baptist pastors in the 19th century underscored the solemnity of this action by having their congregations vote to remove someone from the church by remaining silent.)

But where is this in the cell church?  Who has the authority to discipline members who become members of a cell?  Is it the cell itself?  Perhaps each cell could take on the duty of disciplining its members.  Besides the fact that Jesus in Matthew 18 tells us to “Take it to the church,” there is another problem.  The unanimity of the statement is shattered.  Now it is just six or seven members of a 120,000 member church making that statement.  And the possibility is great that another different cell of the church would have reached an entirely different decision.  The bright line is blurred.  What if the leaders of the church take on the responsibility of disciplining members?  Again, that is in violation of Jesus’s command, and of Paul’s in 2 Corinthians 2 that it is the “majority” who inflict punishment.  Moreover, there is no relationship between the leader and the one who is being disciplined.  No loving relationship exists there.  How much better is it when a group of people who know one another are able to lovingly say to an unrepentant member, “You cannot with our blessing continue to call yourself a Christian.”

Fundamentally, I do not have any question about small groups of Christians meeting together in a house and performing all the duties of a church.  But such house churches (for that is what they are) should in fact perform all the duties of a church that are laid out in the New Testament.  They should be responsible for choosing their own leaders, accepting and disciplining their own members, and maintaining their own soundness of doctrine.  There is no indication in the New Testament that either Jesus or the apostles recognized the kind of episcopal hierarchy that Neighbour writes about.  I am glad to agree with Neighbour that the church needs to move away from its “Program Based” design and toward a life that more closely conforms to the model presented in the New Testament.  The structure of cell churches he proposes, though, seems to me to surrender far too much of what it means to be a church.  In centuries past, Christians spent years of their lives laboring over the Scriptures to see how God intends our churches to be structured. (See, for example, Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life, edited by Mark Dever and available from the Center for Church Reform.)  They did not approach the Bible with their own conclusions looking for ways to justify them; they simply listened.  And they learned.

By:
Greg Gilbert

Greg Gilbert is the Senior Pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. You can find him on Twitter at @greggilbert.