Is the Bible Class Arrangement Scriptural?
“Is it in harmony with New Testament teaching for churches to separate into Bible classes that accommodate various groups according to each aggregation’s special needs?”
Some years ago a conscientious group of Christian people developed the idea that when the church comes together for the purpose of worshiping God, there must be no dividing of that body for the purpose of teaching the Bible in individual classes. These misguided folks separated themselves from the larger framework of Christians and refused fellowship with those who, on stated occasions, taught the scriptures via the “class” method.
Their insistence upon an undivided assembly fractured the body of Christ and created a genuine division. Such a schism was (and is) worthy of a kindly, though appropriate, rebuke.
No one, to this writer’s knowledge, has ever contended that the church absolutely must teach by means of the class arrangement. To advocate such would involve the construction of a binding law where there is none.
On the other hand, to forbid others to utilize the class method of teaching is likewise a transgression, for it similarly fabricates a false prohibition. Moreover, for reasons to be subsequently introduced, it reflects a lack of understanding of some important biblical principles.
At the base of this divisive error is the failure to delineate the difference between specific and generic law. Specific law is a divinely imposed obligation, with the manner of its implementation dictated by the command itself.
The command “preach the gospel” (Mark 16:15) not only sets forth the obligation to “preach,” it also defines the content of the message — the message of redemption through Christ along with the various components connected therewith.
To mention another example, the Lord instituted his memorial supper that consisted of “bread” and “fruit of the vine.” He further commanded, “this do” (Luke 22:19; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:24). In issuing the command as he did, he limited the communion elements to the items specified.
On the other hand, a command that is specific in one way may well be generic in another. For instance, one may not add the “doctrines of men” to the “gospel” as a hybrid mixture. It is optional, however, as to whether one proclaims the gospel in a face-to-face encounter, by means of literature, or in our modern world, through radio, television, or the worldwide web.
To follow up on a previous illustration, one must not substitute for, or add to, the “bread” and “fruit of the vine” as elements of the communion supper. That does not mean, though, that the church may not use utensils in the distribution of those components. Such items are matters of expediency.
The negative command, “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25) implies a place for assembling. But the scriptures leave the type of place to the judgment of Christians — whether, as in the first century, in some area of the temple (Acts 2:46), in a private home (1 Corinthians 16:19), or even in a public school building (Acts 19:9).
Similarly, there are numerous New Testament contexts in which the obligations of the church to teach and to be taught by competent teachers are set forth, either explicitly or implicitly (Acts 20:28,31-32; Ephesians 4:11ff; 2 Timothy 2:2; 4:1f; 2 Peter 3:18; etc.).
The generic responsibility to teach does not contain an explicit pattern that regulates every instructional environment. A failure to recognize this has led to the fragmentation mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article. Some folks assume that because there is a general worship assembly on the Lord’s day, all church teaching must be done within the confines of that specific assembly. That assumption cannot be established biblically.
Before leaving the matter of “expediency,” perhaps this notation is appropriate (for the benefit of any who may not really comprehend the nature of “expediency”). Expediency is not to be equated with the disposition that disdains Bible authority and advocates that one may autocratically encroach upon the “silence of the scriptures” by fabricating a personal, theological agenda. There can be no expediency without authority. Generic authority, as illustrated above, provides the basis of expediency. Innovators, i.e., advocates of the “will-worship” philosophy (Colossians 2:23), would compliment themselves by learning this principle.
Advocates of the “no class” dogma generally hang their case on two passages — 1 Corinthians 11:20 and 14:23, in which the expression “in one place” is found, presumably with reference to the common Lord’s day assembly of the church. While these texts reference occasions when the entire congregation was assembled, it by no means demands that on every occasion when the church meets it must assemble in one room.
Not long after the Jerusalem church was organized, the number of saints in that city numbered possibly 10,000 (see Acts 4:4, which calculates males only). It is highly unlikely that they had an accommodation that facilitated an assembly of perhaps 10,000 believers (not to mention children) in one room!
Since the two “one place” proof-texts (cited above) pertain to the Corinthian church, and as that congregation had “many” members (Acts 18:8; cf. v. 10), and further, since Paul labored in the city for eighteen months after the initial conversion surge (v. 11), must one assume that they were required either to segment into smaller congregations (though the term “church,” in the singular, is used exclusively of God’s people in this city — 1 Corinthians 1:2), or else contend that these folks could not assemble unless they had a facility with a room large enough in which the “whole” church could come together?
In these two Corinthian texts, the issues addressed dealt with congregational procedure (such as the atmosphere of nondiscrimination, peace, and orderliness), not the size of the worship facility. As a matter of fact, Paul’s use of “if” (ean) in 1 Corinthians 14:23, implies that there might well have been occasions when the church was not assembled as a “whole” body in one place. Professor Gordon Fee argues that the expression here employed may well suggest a “single gathering” in contrast to the Corinthian Christians meeting at other times in various homes (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, p. 683).
One manner by which the scriptures teach is by the recognition and application of principles — principles grounded in common sense and timeless truth.
Any serious student is aware that the Bible acknowledges what may be characterized as the “gradation” principle. Exactly what is meant by this expression? It is a concept that recognizes that people come with varying abilities and experiences, at different ages, etc., hence, may need to be taught differently, depending upon those variants. Reflect upon the following.
- In both the parable of the “talents,” and that of the “pounds” (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27), recognition is given to the well-known reality that people have divergent abilities. It is folly to think, therefore, that each of these categories may be taught effectively (in a long-range, broad program of instruction) in precisely the same way. A classification of abilities at the very least suggests a gradation of accelerated levels of teaching.
- The scriptures make a distinction between the “weak” and the “strong” (Romans 14), and between “meat” and “milk” (Hebrews 5:12ff). Surely a clear-reasoning person can see that a “class” arrangement, designed to accommodate different levels of education, spiritual longevity, and other similar variables is but a reflection of the sacred wisdom set forth in these principles.
- The New Testament recognizes the need for different sorts of topical themes, grounded, for example, in social differences. Note, for instance, how Paul, in several of his epistles, addresses distinctive classes of individuals, depending upon their particular needs, e.g., husbands and wives, servants and masters, elders/deacons and “non-official” Christians, teachers and students, the needy (e.g. widows) and those responsible for their welfare, the aged versus the younger, the responsibilities of men as distinguished from women, etc. If an inspired apostle recognized the principle of gradation, even in his brief epistles, how much more should a prudent leadership acknowledge the wisdom of such in the general configuration of congregational education?
What the anti-class faction cannot show is that there is a binding pattern that requires the assembled church to stay in one room with a solitary teacher on every occasion it comes together. This is an unfounded position that makes law, rather than respecting the liberty of expediency and congregational autonomy.
The fact that Paul gave specific instructions to a church that regulated how the congregation was to conduct itself in certain situations (as in the Corinthian case) no more binds this as an exclusive pattern, than does the fact that the practice of the church in Ephesus, that met in a private home (1 Corinthians 16:19), demands such as an exclusive facility in which to assemble.
Finally, to suggest that the “class” arrangement is somehow in violation of the numerous passages prohibiting church “division” is one of the most incredible misappropriations of scripture imaginable. One might as well contend that the assembly auditorium must be undivided by a center isle, or that the people must all sit on a single pew in the interest of “unity.” With all due respect, the Lord did not intend for his people to abandon common sense in their approach to the New Testament.
If some Christians do not wish to utilize the “class” arrangement for teaching the Bible, that is their affair. Brethren should love them nonetheless. If factious spirits make laws that divide the larger body of Christ, such is a sin that deserves the strongest censure.
About the Author
Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.