Doctrinal Impurity in Small Groups

Today: Proverbs 14

As a “small groups guy,” people often try to suck me into a debate about doctrinal impurity that may come about in a small group discussion. In a recent discussion on a Facebook forum, one leader said, “Without the right leadership you end up with far too much ‘I think’ or ‘what this means to me’ and not enough solid truth.”

The guy is right; the “right leadership” is vitally important. But what is meant by “right leadership”? Others on the forum pointed to a need for high control by the church over what is taught in groups and by whom. Some believe that to be a small group leader you must first become a Bible expert so that you don’t unintentionally teach doctrinal error. And yet, doctrinal error has been taught by some of the most Bible-literate people in the world, like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, for instance.  Others believe that church leaders must select what curriculum every group will use and figuratively look over leaders’ shoulders in an attempt to guard what is taught. This high-control form of leadership leads to low trust in the leaders who have been called to shepherd the flocks entrusted to their care.

As I think about this issue, I have a few questions that I think are worth considering:

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  • Who is the “right leader” for a small group? What skills, knowledge, personality traits, and heart attitudes does this person need?
  • How can church leaders equip and empower leaders to lead, and then entrust them to lead? How does good coaching help to equip, empower, and entrust?
  • Is the Bible to be read more for head knowledge or for wisdom and understanding? Do these two necessarily go together or can the latter be found without a comprehensive amount of the former?
  • Do the fears that people have about small groups fostering doctrinal impurity also apply to individuals reading the Bible themselves? (The same issue has been applied to individuals as to groups; some–entire religious bodies, in fact–have said that a person should not read the Bible without a religious expert in the room so that this expert can interpret what the Scriptures mean.)
  • What is the role of the Holy Spirit in groups and for individuals? (Jesus called the Holy Spirit the “Counselor” and the “Spirit of truth” [John 14:16-17] who would “teach you all things” [v. 26] and “guide you into all truth” [16:13].)
  • Have we come to a point where we trust Bible scholars more than the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our groups?

I am not against gaining knowledge of the Scriptures. If you are a leader, you should know how to correctly handle the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). But remember that knowledge is not your aim, love is (1 Corinthians 8:1; 13:2). Knowledge is a means to the end of getting understanding. As I am reading through Proverbs, it’s obvious that what God wants for us is wisdom and understanding:

Wisdom is enshrined in an understanding heart; wisdom is not found among fools (Proverbs 14:33, NLT).

 I believe God gave us his Word as a guidebook for how to live life the best way — his way — not merely as a book of doctrine (although it does contain the right doctrine). When we sit to read God’s Word, we come into a time of communion with God where we can hear from him, where we can get a glimpse into his heart and how he cares for us and how he wants us to live. As we read God’s Word, we allow his Spirit to work within us to show us things we would not see, to change us in ways we could not otherwise be changed, to give us wisdom for life that we would not otherwise have, to empower us with his love so that we may overflow into the lives of others around us.

As I begin reading God’s Word each day, I like to pray something like this: God, here I am, I’m listening. Through your Holy Spirit, guide me into your truth today. Show me what you want me to see today. Use your Word to transform me — to mold me into what you want me to be.

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If you lead a small group, you can start out your group meetings in a similar way. Jesus is present with you when you meet in his name (Matthew 18:20). His Spirit will guide you if you let him.

Look at the bulleted questions above. How would you answer those?


6 Thoughts to “Doctrinal Impurity in Small Groups”

  1. Rick Howerton

    Okay, Mack… Let me oversimplify an opinion that is beginning to get traction is some churches.

    We need to ask the question… Have we seminarians who have such a high regard for doctrine come close to making doctrine an idol and, in so doing, have elevated knowledge over the name of, power of, and pursuit of Jesus? For sure, we don't want false teaching in groups and we should do everything necessary to keep that from happening. And, while the early church certainly struggled in this area, Acts 2 points out that new believers were "grouping" (obviously they weren't well versed in the doctrines the contemporary church tends to hold so very high) and growth of the church was phenomenal. I don't think they were spending their time discussing doctrine. I believe the were telling the stories of Jesus and His love, power to heal and save, talking about His sacrificial death on the cross and His resurrection.

    Maybe church leaders are too busy protecting their doctrine and not focused enough on speaking the Gospel through the stories that are the gospel.

  2. Good stuff, Mike! I really like where you're going. And Rick's right as well. I believe the reason for the 1st century explosion was that friends told friends what they knew. Nothing more.


  3. Thanbks guys! I think the answer is simply to equip, empower, entrust, and then encourage through coaching and other support. Healthy group systems seem to have that process in place; unhealthy ones don't.

  4. As a small groups pastor I allow my leaders to create their own content. I provide training for all new small group leaders 3 times a year on how to prepare an interactive study for their group (I teach the 4 W's). I believe this encourages each leader to dive into the Word and deepen their own study. We do ask each leader to communicate with us about what their main topic or theme will be for each Small Group term. We also have small group coaches that visit each small group so we know what is actually taking place in each group. Remember, in the 1st century church people (and lay leaders) didn't have their own copies of the Bible. Acts says they devoted themselves to the "Apostles' teaching." I believe most small group leaders will be influenced by the strength of the doctrine that is taught from the pulpit on Sunday. A church with strong accurate teaching on Sunday will encourage the same approach by the lay leadership.

  5. That's interesting. I guess I never thought about this that seriously. I know what the Bible actually says is more important that how I feel about it, but I also know my probably is usually that I don't care enough about what other people think than that I care too much. Anyhow, my church has a very laissez-faire approach to small groups. If you have a vision for it, attend the training and meet with your leadership coach and go for it! So people start small groups for everything from intense Bible study to sermon discussions to book studies to outreach to hobbies, even "Milkshake Mondays." We have a core value "everything is an experiment" which really helps. It gives permission to try and fail. Small groups compete with people's time. They could be sitting at home watching TV. I'd rather have someone go for it and lead a small group even if they didn't have all the answers (esp. if it's something God put on your heart) than to be paralyzed with whether or not your are doctrinally 100% sound (as important as that is). Incidentally, here are some tips I posted:

  6. Nathan, thanks for the comment! I don't know if it's been your experience or not, but I've seen the paralysis you speak of keep many people who could be good leaders sit on the sidelines. Like you, I believe in giving people the opportunity to step out with God to start a group. I can train them and give them coaches to help them along the way. God's in control!

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