Sam O’Neal is the author of Field Guide for Small Group Leaders: Setting the Tone, Accommodating Learning Styles, and More. Check out his thoughts on small groups, literature, theology, and more at SamONealWrites.com.

I’m a believer in small groups and small-group ministry. Having led groups for more than a decade, I’ve seen firsthand the good that can be accomplished for God’s kingdom—individually and corporately—through community ministry.

At the same time, for as long as I’ve been associated with small groups, I’ve heard whispers about their potential connection with heresy and false teaching. I haven’t seen those whispers come to fruition firsthand, but I can understand where they come from. Even the best small groups involve a level of detachment from their host church that isn’t present in Sunday School and other ministries. And anytime a lay person is expected to lead others in exploring God’s Word, mistakes and misconceptions can happen.

With that in mind, here are four steps churches and group leaders can take to prevent the spread of heresy and false teaching in small groups.

Value Truth

The first step is rather obvious, but it still needs to be said: If a church wants individual small groups to place a high priority on doctrinal integrity and the prevention of false teaching, those values must first be present in the church as a whole. More specifically, those values must be present in and communicated through the church’s primary leaders.

That means right doctrine needs to be regularly proclaimed from the pulpit in a way that is both clear and memorable. That also means doctrinal awareness should be a key prerequisite when it comes to choosing small-group leaders—which isn’t always the case. Indeed, sometimes churches are so desperate for group leaders that they’ll recruit anyone with a big living room and free time on Thursday nights.

Finally, valuing the truths of Scripture means those truths should be part of the training group leaders receive on a regular basis.

Dust Off Your Doctrinal Statement

I remember one particular group meeting years ago when several participants got into a doctrinal dust-up over predestination. It wasn’t the first time those particular people had argued about that particular topic, so I decided to bring their questions to our pastor and see if he’d be willing to drop a little wisdom into the discussion.

After I explained the situation, he said, “I’m in full agreement with our church’s Doctrinal Statement on that topic.” I was floored. Doctrinal statement? I had no idea such a thing even existed!

Most churches have created a Doctrinal Statement or Statement of Beliefs that outlines the church’s stance on a number of theological issues—but I’d be surprised if many group leaders are aware of such statements. And I’d be downright flabbergasted if many group leaders have a copy of those statements at hand and easily accessible during group meetings.

They should.

As a group leader, having a copy of your church’s Doctrinal Statement allows you to say, “This is what our church leadership has to say on that issue.” The same can be true for denominational Statements of Belief, such as The Baptist Faith and Message.

Use the Magic Words

When most people hear the phrase “magic words,” they think of please and thank you. And those certainly are good, useful terms. But for small-group leaders, the real magic lies in the ability to say, “I don’t know.”

I believe that much of the false teaching that happens within the church—and certainly within small groups—is unintentional. People often have a skewed or incomplete view on a theological topic, and they can pass on that view without any intended malice. And in my experience, the chances of something like that happening increase dramatically when group leaders attempt to “wing it” when answering theological questions.

It’s common for group leaders to feel a certain amount of pressure within the group. They’re often viewed as the “authority” among the other participants, and so they’re usually called upon to explain a doctrine or bring the final word during a theological debate.

In those situations, the worst thing a group leader can do is attempt to give an answer without really understanding the concepts or doctrines at stake. Sometimes the best thing a group leader can do is say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” This allows the leader to do some research, consult the church’s Doctrinal Statement, seek out educated opinions, and then re-open the discussion the following week on a firmer foundation.

Invest in Curriculum

It’s a common practice for churches to purchase or produce Sunday School curriculum year in and year out. But even with the tremendous growth in the small-group movement in recent decades, it’s still relatively rare to see churches make a similar investment in small-group curriculum—especially in medium-sized and smaller churches that don’t have a staff person (or budget lines) dedicated to groups.

Consequently, many small-group leaders decide to develop their own curriculum plans—or download something free from the Internet—rather than attempting to purchase material themselves and go through the hassle of trying to get group members to reimburse the expense.

Unfortunately, many people who attempt to write their own curriculum aren’t qualified to do so, or they don’t have enough time available to give their best effort. Such situations create a breeding ground for poor group experiences and poor doctrinal integrity. It’s a simple equation, really: bad curriculum equals bad doctrine.

Full disclosure: I work for a curriculum publisher, which does give me a bit of a bias on this topic. But my day job also allows me to see the hard work and expertise required to regularly develop excellent material. So consider investing some resources—time, money, or otherwise—into ensuring that your church’s small groups can dig into curriculum that is edifying, enriching, and Scripturally sound.

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Comments:


27 thoughts on “Preventing Heresy in Your Small Group”

  1. Phil Brown says:

    “anytime a lay person is expected to lead others in exploring God’s Word, mistakes and misconceptions can happen.” I am sure this wasn’t intentional, but I couldn’t ignore this. The premise of this sentence concerns me. I know several non-laypersons who convey mistakes and misconceptions in small groups and elsewhere. This is one reason why Tyndale and others wanted a Bible in the hand of “the plow boy.” So the “experts” could be held accountable. As you know, the experts in Tyndale’s day had gotten out of control. I know many have a great deal of faith in formal education, but I have seen great errors in the institutions that promote “true doctrine.” I mean, look at Yale and Cambridge! John Bunyan was a layperson, or at least he would be by today’s standard. I am not against formal education or more specifically institutional learning, but I do not have the faith in it that many do. I have an undergraduate degree and spent a year in seminary classes for the educational benefit. I am thankful for what I have learned there. However, I think we need to chose our words carefully so that we do not prop up an expectation of infallibility when we speak of those who have been “formally educated” up and against the “lay-persons” who do not have any formal teaching, but may have some informal learning like Bunyan did. I know many so called “lay-persons” who are excellent teachers and probably many “experts” do not hold a candle to them in ability and knowledge.

  2. Phil Brown says:

    BTW. I think the rest of the post is spot on. I do appreciate this blog and the great information you share.

  3. Steve Martin says:

    “I know many so called “lay-persons” who are excellent teachers and probably many “experts” do not hold a candle to them in ability and knowledge.”

    Good point.

  4. Sam O'Neal says:

    Hey Phil and Steve — you are both correct to point out that there’s no reason to assume or suggest that a layperson is less qualified doctrinally or as a leader than someone who’s had formal training. I am a layperson myself, and I think I do OK when it comes to leading groups. :)

    At the same time, I’ve had the privilege of interacting with hundreds of group leaders through my former role as editor of SmallGroups.com, and there are a lot of people out there who feel uncomfortable when it comes to doctrine — they wish they had more training.

    Perhaps what I should have said is that small-group leaders have less inherent accountability than pastors (or even Sunday School teachers) when it comes to doctrine. There are less “plow boys” ready to keep them in check.

    1. Rodrigo says:

      Hi Phil.

      I agree with your sentiments in part. There are the exceptions to the rule (educated w/o formal education), like John Bunyan, A.W. Tozer, Charles Spurgeon etc., but that is partly the point, they are generally exceptions to the rule. I do think there should be some sort of testing for orthodoxy or training in doctrine before a layperson can lead a small group. It seems like if you are still breathing and want to lead (usually more like facilitate) a small group, take two classes on how to do it and voila!…you have a group!

      This may come down to personal preference. Personally, I prefer the larger group settings where a trained leader is teaching. I know some prefer a less formal atmosphere, and like small groups. Perhaps this all a preference thing and one format is not necessarily better than the other. Peace in Jesus! :)

    2. Rodrigo says:

      By the way, my comment above was a reply to Phil Brown’s post. Why/how it ended up under Sam O’Neal’s, I don’t have a clue!

    3. Phil Brown says:

      This is true. Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t think you meant it that way. I do know some out there who do sometimes follow the premise of Matthew 23. They love to be heralded as a great teacher and marvel more at themselves teaching than what they are actually teaching. I appreciate the post. I posted it on our small group page on Facebook. Thanks.

  5. This is great! But I would say the number one way of preventing heresy in a small group is with the Bible. Direct all questions to the Bible, use the Bible to study the Bible (cross references, etc.), and the ONLY curriculum should be…the Bible! After this, all the rest of the points fall into place.

    1. Sam O'Neal says:

      I like the idea of what you’re saying, Jessica. But when the light of the Bible is filtered through the bent prism of sinful human beings, problems can arise — especially when people are isolated. We get the best results when we study the Bible in concert with the Holy Spirit and other Christians who have a variety of giftings.

      That’s why I love small groups. That’s also why I still believe “outside” curriculum has value.

  6. Ryan says:

    Wonderful article with a lot of pointers for small-group studies.

    A point of pushback, though, if I may:

    Is heresy in small groups really all that much of a problem?

    On a large scale, absolutely. Pastors should be aware of what is being taught, and if things like Gnosticism are starting to rear their ugly heads, that is certainly a problem.

    The issue is, though, that “heresy” is often used to describe “any theological position I don’t like,” and as such, monitoring small groups too heavily can result in the suffocation of opposing ideas, bringing about spiritual stagnation.

    The three issues that are most likely going to come up in this vein are likely gender roles, creationism, and predestination. I think each of these areas are wide open to discussion, and that for the pastor to come down and say “You’ve all got to believe in complementarianism, young-earth creationism, and/or Calvinism” would be completely inappropriate (as would a pastor attempting to enforce other such views, as well). None of those views are heretical (unless it is a Calvinism that embraces double-predestination, which is, lest we forget, a classical heresy), nor are they issues of core doctrine (i.e. impacting the status of an individual as a Kingdom citizen). Therefore I think to allow congregants to explore those issues more fully is beneficial – it will push them deeper into God’s Word, and whatever stance they end up taking, it will enable them to understand the opposing sides and love them despite their differences.

    In other words, heresy is a danger, yes, but so is the expulsion of any foreign thought.

    Don’t mistake these questions as an attack, though. Great article with some helpful tips.

    1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

      “The three issues that are most likely going to come up in this vein are likely gender roles, creationism, and predestination.”

      Another divisive issue is charismaticism.

    2. Stephen says:

      I think a definition of double predestination would be helpful if we are going to label it heretical. Regular 5 point Calvinism teaches double predestination, and as one who subscribes to such a belief I certainly would not consider it heretical. Of course, it is all in what you mean by predestination; active/passive, who’s the one doing the sending in the immediate sense, etc. is what I suppose you are getting at.

      1. Ryan says:

        Sorry, Stephen, I worded my original post a bit poorly perhaps. What I was trying to get at is that double-predestination has been decried by the church of the past as a heresy. This leaves us with a couple of questions.

        First, if it is indeed heretical, there are still those today who hold to it who nonetheless are largely helpful in their theology. This would suggest that a heresy, while potentially damaging, is not enough yeast to damage the whole loaf. To put it differently, if double-predestination were indeed a heresy, would that stop you from having John Piper teach at your church? (N.B. I realize that this is a bit of a misrepresentation of Piper’s position but I’m trying to make a point, rather than assess and critique his theology). Indeed, since God is transcendent and therefore inherently greater than our theology, logic dictates that we are ALL heretics to some degree or another. So the presence of heresy to some degree doesn’t necessarily imply that the teacher is a false prophet.

        On the other hand, if double-predestination isn’t a heresy, then that means that there are doctrines that at one point were considered anathema by the historic church, yet ended up being viable teachings (and certainly we as Protestants are no stranger to that!). This would suggest that similarly, there are those things which we today might consider heresy that through the long light of history may turn out to be biblically tenable. A much more recent example might be the fracas over eschatology a couple decades back. There once was a time where anyone who wasn’t a dispensationalist or a premillenialist or what-have-you was labelled a heretic. Now? The issue seems to be largely considered to be wide open, with many churches accepting all stripes of eschatological perspectives.

        All of this is to say that heresy is a much more multi-faceted issue than simply drawing a dividing line between “good” and “bad” doctrine or theology. Too often, to simplify things, we ascribe “heresy” to any position that runs contrary to our own interpretation of Scripture (an accusation that, mark well, I am not levelling at Sam, who doesn’t appear to have a trace of this in his article). Unfortunately, the issue is much more complex than that.

        This is why, in my opinion (and surely many others here), it is the responsibility of every pastor, elder, deacon and layperson to dig into doctrine, understand what they believe, why they hold to that position instead of other positions, and what the ramifications are. If they were wrong, what would that mean? If someone from the church were to believe in a different position, is that a problem? If not, suppose they were to start teaching it. Would that be a problem?

        Difficult questions, sometimes, but then, the tenacious pursuit of Truth within the context of community was never painted as being easy.

  7. Rodrigo says:

    Great post. I suppose there are pros and cons to any method used. It is great that everyone can have access to a Bible. It does help prevent heresy in leadership, but can also help bring heresy by untrained laypeople. I myself am a layperson who loves to learn more of the Word of God. I am not formally trained in the original languages. I do wonder sometimes how I can interpret something correctly w/o having any formal training in the original languages. At the end of the day, I am then at the mercy of the translation I use and my level of reading in the English language. It seems to me that the most successful lay leaders are lifetime learners. Whether one was formally, informally or self-trained should not matter so long as one properly and correctly handles the Word of Truth. Peace!

  8. Sam O'Neal says:

    “In other words, heresy is a danger, yes, but so is the expulsion of any foreign thought.”

    I think that’s an excellent way to summarize what you’re saying, Ryan, and I agree. Part of fighting against heresy is understanding that some things are merely disagreements.

    Here’s my quick list of primary doctrines that are often twisted into heresy specifically in small-group settings: Salvation, the nature of Jesus (fully human and fully divine), the trinity, heaven, hell, and hell.

    Those are all big deals. What else?

    1. Ryan says:

      Great questions, especially since they break down to deeper questions. If someone, for example, believes in salvation by grace but not substitutionary atonement, is that an issue? I would never for a heartbeat suggest that SA is the only way of understanding the cross, but there are those who would disagree with me.

      It really comes down, I think, to the broader issue of: How to be open-minded and welcoming towards our brothers and sisters who interpret Scripture differently than we do without sacrificing our own integrity and convictions? Now THERE’s a difficult question!

      I’ve interacted lately with a lot of liberal theologians recently, some of whom say the cross was not real but is intended as a metaphor. Do I agree with their interpretation? Absolutely not. Will I argue against it? Likely until the day I die. Would I say that they are not a part of the Kingdom of Heaven? Heh, now that’s a very different question indeed.

      The body of saints is much larger and more diverse than any of us would like, I think, but that is part of what makes the church so beautiful. I praise God for people whose theology differs from mine, as they push me to seek a deeper understanding of Truth.

      None of this answers, unfortunately, the question at hand, which is: What doctrine is appropriate to be questioned within formal Bible studies in the church? Unfortunately, I think it might come down to context – the answer differing on a church-by-church basis. Any thoughts at all on this?

      1. dwk says:

        “I’ve interacted lately with a lot of liberal theologians recently, some of whom say the cross was not real but is intended as a metaphor…Would I say that they are not a part of the Kingdom of Heaven? Heh, now that’s a very different question indeed.”

        I think it’s quite easy, Ryan. Romans 10:9 should clear up any confusion there. If you deny the reality of the cross, you deny the reality of Christ’s death. It’s a very small step from there to ask, was Jesus himself just a metaphor? I can genuinely fellowship with *believers* who hold different theology. When it comes to denying the core components of Christianity, I think you need to ask the question “believer in what?”, because it’s certainly not the Gospel presented in Scripture.

        As for your ultimate conclusion about where to draw the line, I think you’re right to suggest that the decision needs to be made at the church level. I don’t think it’s possible to do it any other way.

  9. Bruce says:

    Could part of the problem be that we now have so many teachers in the church? Just yesterday, I came across a 2009 survey by Barna in which he found 28% of evangelicals think they have the spiritual gift of teaching. James warned believers about the responsibilities of being a teacher, and now our churches are filled with teachers.

    Lifeway suggests that a Bible study have somewhere around 10 people. And Lifeway also suggests that every teacher have an apprentice teacher. So, we’re already at 20% of the church being in a teacher role. Add Sunday evening and Wednesday classes, and the number of teachers goes even higher.

    Further, I once attended a training workshop by someone at Lifeway in which the trainer asked what qualities were necessary to be a Sunday School teacher. Someone in the workshop suggested teaching, and the Lifeway expert said that would be nice, but it wasn’t necessary. She went on to explain that Lifeway has designed the curricula so that it’s not really necessary to have the gift of teaching. Rather, it’s more important that the teacher fit the real role of Sunday School “leader.”

  10. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    What if your church has a pretty expansive “What We Believe” statement that says Scripture is their highest authority, but no more refined theological statements after that?

    1. Bill says:

      Then you will be stuck with many heated discussions, all with participants having open Bibles on their lap. I commend the strive towards simplicity that many non-denominational churches want by “stripping away” old doctrine. But these “old churches” have been around the block a few times before and don’t come up with a statement of doctrine just for the sake of practicing some authority.

  11. Bill says:

    I understand the sentiment behind most of the comments, but I believe the author is dead on.
    Regarding the Bible as authority and truth – Yes, that is true. But rarely is there a small group where most of the people show up without a Bible time after time. Two people can have the Bible open and argue both sides of predestination, right from the same book of John (3:16, 15:16). Both of the reading the Bible, both from the same chapter, both claiming authority as they see in the text.
    Regarding the qualification of lay people – Yes, there are some scholarly lay people. But as many of you have experienced, the average church simply does not have enough people to serve in all the positions needed that have that level of training/wisdom/knowledge. I have served a few times in this position, and a leader, I grew more than those I led. It’s just part of discipleship.
    If a Bible-preaching Gospel-minded church decides to have no statement on theology and doctrine, or decides to keep it simple, then yes, they will likely attract and allow membership more than those that do. They just need to be prepared more for these situations, especially since many of their members came from churches that do.

  12. Ian says:

    I still don’t know how to handle this whole topic. I feel very uncomfortable about making any Christian into a theological outcast. Mark Dever almost certainly thinks Tim Keller’s views on baptism are heresy (and vice versa). One man’s heresy is another’s sound doctrine. As I said once before, I think we should be trying to build local churches where Christians of all convictions can worship, grow, and serve together.

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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