3 Reasons Why Your Small Group Is Not a Church

What Small Groups Lack

Some Christians might value their small group more than their local church. In fact, some Christians think their small group is a church. A church is, after all, a people not a place, and small groups do many of the same things that churches do. At a small group, Christians gather to pray, read the Bible, and encourage one another to obey its commands. They might also sing together and exhort one another to participate in evangelism. Some small groups even share the Lord’s Supper together. Is there much difference between a church and a small group other than the size and location of their respective meetings, or are they basically the same thing?

A small group is not a church. Small groups lack an essential ingredient in the recipe of a church: heaven’s authority. To put it another way, a local church is an earthly embassy of Christ’s heavenly kingdom; a small group is not. In what follows, I will explain three reasons why your small group is not a church, but keep in mind that all three reasons (not just the first) are simply clarifying and unpacking this fundamental point: churches wield heaven’s authority, small groups do not.

What Is a Church?

Matthew Emadi

This addition to the Church Questions series offers a clear, compelling definition of the local church and its importance in every Christian’s life.

1. Your small group is not a church because it does not possess heaven’s authority.

A local church wields the authority of the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:18–19; cf. Matt. 18:15–20). Jesus authorized local churches—two or three gathered in Christ’s name—to make binding declarations about the truth of the gospel and a person’s confession of faith in that gospel. Churches are like earthly embassies of a heavenly kingdom. An embassy is an institution that represents the governmental authority of another country (or kingdom) on foreign soil. Local churches represent the authority Christ’s heavenly kingdom on earth; they wield heaven’s keys. The keys give local churches the ability to render verdicts and make official judgments. In other words, churches speak with heaven’s authority to proclaim and protect true gospel doctrine and to affirm or disaffirm someone’s citizenship in Christ’s heavenly kingdom. Put even more practically, churches oversee their doctrinal statements and define their membership. Like a judge speaking with the authority of the state, a church speaks with the authority of Christ and his kingdom: “The gospel you confess is the true gospel, and based on your gospel confession, we affirm you as a citizen of Christ’s kingdom.”

Small groups do not possess heaven’s authority. They do not wield the keys of the kingdom of heaven because they are a subset of the church, not the church itself. The small group is under the jurisdiction of its local church. It belongs to the embassy; it is not the embassy. Just as a subcommittee of the US Senate does not wield the power of the Senate, your small group does not wield the authority of the whole church. If your church decided that your small group should become a church plant, then your small group could become a church. The believers in the small group would need to agree together (make a covenant) to uphold sound doctrine (statement of faith) and oversee each other’s membership in the kingdom, admitting new members and disciplining false converts. But without that kind of institutional, heavenly authority, your small group is not a church.

A local church is an earthly embassy of Christ’s heavenly kingdom; a small group is not.

2. Your small group is not a church because it does not administer the ordinances (or at least it shouldn’t).

Jesus gave the church two ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are like the passports of Christ’s heavenly kingdom. They mark out citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Baptism is how a church receives new believers. Baptism happens at the beginning of the Christian life because it represents an individual’s conversion—death and resurrection in Christ (Rom. 6:1–4). Like the covenant made in a marriage ceremony that binds a man and woman together as one, baptism formally identifies an individual with Christ and his church. The baptized person becomes part of the one body. Admittedly, a missionary to an unreached people group will baptize new converts independent of a local church because no local church exists yet in the unreached area. However, the missionary and the newly baptized disciples can agree to gather in Christ’s name to administer the ordinances and form a local church. Under normal circumstances, however, baptism is a church act. Through baptism, the whole church, not a small group, affirms the credibility of a person’s profession of faith and welcomes him or her into the membership of the church.

Baptism is a one-time act, but the Lord’s Supper is reoccurring. If baptism is the ordinance that brings a new convert into the church, the Lord’s Supper is the ordinance that binds the whole church together as one body. “We who are many are one body,” wrote the apostle Paul, “for we all partake of the one bread (1 Cor. 10:17). The Lord’s Supper constitutes a church as a church and should only be administered when the whole church assembles (1 Cor. 11:17–18, 20, 29, 33). We celebrate the Lord’s Supper when we “come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18). The Lord’s Supper gives a local church its shape and its boundaries. A church consists of the people that eat together at the Lord’s table.

If a small group celebrates the Lord’s Supper together, they have begun to function as an earthly embassy of Christ’s heavenly kingdom. They inadvertently and unlawfully commandeer the power of heaven’s keys without the proper jurisdiction to do so. They assume the responsibility to admit or deny someone from the table, a prerogative that belongs to the whole church. An embassy can issue a passport, a group of expatriates cannot.

3. Your small group is not a church because it has not been authorized to administer church discipline.

In Matthew 18:15–20, Jesus taught us how to care for a brother in unrepentant sin. After warning him individually, and then with two or three witnesses, we are to “tell it to the church” (Matt. 18:17). If the unrepentant brother refuses to listen to the church, then the church is to excommunicate him. Every church has a responsibility to distinguish insiders from outsiders in order to protect the purity of their gospel witness (1 Cor. 5:1–11).

Your small group probably cares about sound doctrine. Your small group would probably correct a brother ensnared by a false teacher. But what would your small group do with a member that promoted a false gospel and refused correction? Your small group would have to take his case to the church. Your small group does not wield any mechanism to enforce its commands; it lacks the proper jurisdiction. The state wields the sword to protect its citizens; parents wield the rod to protect their children from destructive behaviors; churches, not small groups, wield the keys to protect the purity of the church. Your small group is more like the two or three witnesses in step two of the church discipline process. Your small group can admonish, warn, rebuke, encourage, and exhort, but it cannot exclude someone from the Lord’s table. It cannot revoke a passport.


Small groups have their benefits. They can help church members cultivate relationships and practice hospitality. But without heaven’s authority, small groups lack the structure that best fosters discipleship. Jesus has given local churches the responsibility to protect sound doctrine and promote godly living. Our participation in the life of the church under the oversight of qualified elders will best foster our spiritual growth (Eph. 4:11–16). Jesus did not promise to build small groups. He promised to build his church, and the gates of hell will not stand against it (Matt. 16:18–19).

Matthew Emadi is the author of What Is a Church?.

Related Articles

5 Myths about Discipleship

Jonathan K. Dodson

There is not an uninfluenced day, hour, or minute in our lives. We are constantly discipled by the cultural, relational, and spiritual forces around us. Which discipling forces influence you the most?

Related Resources

Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.