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April 13, 2010

Just a Few Thoughts on Heresy

My initial reactions and questions to some great points raised by Neil Cole.

I recently finished up a resource called "Starting a House Church" (which will be available next week, if that piques your interest). One of the articles I edited for that download is written by Neil Cole, and the title is: "Addressing the Threat of Heresy in House Churches and Small Groups."

For as long as I have been aware of small groups and their potential for good in the Kingdom of God, I have also heard whispers about their connection to heresy. For some, it seems like a near guarantee that non-seminary trained laypeople will lead others into dubious and dangerous doctrinal distinctions. For others, the threat of heresy trails behind a positive view of small groups like a long shadow on a sunny day.

That's why I was excited to hear Neil Cole's thoughts on the issue of heresy, and I was not disappointed. Some of what he had to say made me excited, and other parts of the article made me scratch my head a bit. But it all made me think through an issue that has loomed over my head for years now. Maybe it's the same for you?

Here are a couple of Neil's points that I found to be most interesting:

Who Are the Gatekeepers of Truth?
Cole's article has a lot to say about the gatekeepers of truth and doctrine within a church family—including this paragraph:

The best solution to heresy in the church is not to have better-trained leaders in the pulpits, but better-trained people in the pews. While many will say that the key to better-trained people are leaders who equip them, this unfortunately is most often not the reality. It is true that we need better leaders who empower and equip common Christians to know the truth, spread the Word, and do the work of ministry (Eph 4:11 ff.), but that is very different than the sort of leaders who screen all beliefs and are the gatekeepers of God's Word.

As long as our leaders are considered the gatekeepers of truth we leave the majority of God's people in the dark, and they are susceptible to leaders who do the thinking for them—because that is what they have been trained to do. It is ironic that the very thing we think will prevent heresy actually feeds the problem.

I agree with that assessment wholeheartedly. I'm aware of some pastors who view the Word of God as a sliver of weapons-grade plutonium—they fear that if they let the Bible get into the hands of "ordinary people," all sorts of chaos and destruction will inevitably follow. But I have not found that to be the case.

Quite the opposite. When regular men and women are encouraged and equipped to explore the Bible for themselves, the most immediate results are insight, understanding, and spiritual growth. The words of Colossians 3 were written to all of "God's chosen people," not just to seminary-trained gatekeepers who can handle the truth: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God" (v. 16).

Room to Grow
Here's another thought from Neil's article (one that I both agree with and disagree with):

People will ask me, "Then are not the disciples going to misunderstand Scripture?" Yes, of course they are. And so did I when I was a young disciple. Maybe we need to realize that we will spend the rest of our lives trying to understand an infinite book that has no end to its depth of understanding. Perhaps we should allow people the freedom to make a few mistakes, leave with a few questions, and learn as they grow. I remember my first Bible study that I ever taught—it was heresy! And I managed to utter a four-letter word in it as well. I am glad someone gave me a chance to do better the next time.

On the one hand, yes, we certainly need to give people room to grow. That includes room to grow as disciples and room to grow as leaders and teachers.

On the other hand, it seems to me that churches could set up some kind of screening system or process that prevents (or at least limits) new group leaders from advocating heresy in their first months as teachers. Right? Or would that just be instituting another kind of gatekeeper?

This is getting a bit long, so I'll wrap things up. But I would love to hear thoughts from all of you on the topic of heresy within small groups. Have you found it to be a big danger in your groups? In your church? Is there a way to limit the spread of heresy without attempting to take the Word of God out of the hands of those it was intended for?

posted by Sam O'Neal on April 13, 2010 10:52 AM

Related Tags: Heresy, Neil Cole


Of course, heretical teaching exists. It can live & grow in the smallest of groups (2) to the largest of congregations. One safeguard a small-group leader has available is the disclaimer before each session (but definitely at the beginning of the study) that ideas expressed within the group are not necessarily "gospel." That frees some folks to contribute and interact with others without the standard of truth being lowered. On the other hand, there should be time allotted in each session to identify what the Word of God says, not what we might wish it said.

My experience has been that when people are "hungry" for the truth, they won't be satisfied with the musings & opinions of their peers....that is, the Bible stories they perhaps learned in childhood (and are often repeated with embellishments in small group study) will no longer feed them. They will begin to look for "substance".....and that's a good thing.

I am in a house church and have heard the heresy accusation before. It baffles me, but then our house church is part of a larger congregation of multiple house churches led by a group of elders, including my husband. Prior to this we led various small groups in a conventional church setting. In over ten years of small group experience, I have never encountered heresy. But then, my husband has been studying the bible from birth (no seminary training, however) and I, as a convert, have been studying it for the last 30 years, including reading it cover to cover on a regular basis. When misunderstandings come up, we address them, and also try to educate our people on how to study the bible and find answers for themselves. (Like the Bereans who weighed Paul's preaching in Acts 17.) I agree that having every person equipped with bible knowledge is the answer to avoiding heresy--wasn't that one of the benefits of the Reformation? That all of us could study for ourselves and receive illumination and insight from the Holy Spirit without the "mediation" of a third party clergy member? If the average Christian has a good grasp of scripture, they can recognize false teaching whether it is coming from a seminary-trained pastor or a "lay" person or the cult member at their front door. I have actually found that people are *less* likely to drift into error in a small group because there is so much more transparency and accountability. I have found there to be much more sin and wrong belief in people who simply attend a conventional church once a week, than in people who are committed to a small group. However, I would be more wary in a large church that is cranking out small groups and new leaders quickly without an extended vetting time.

These are great thoughts, Renee. And they mesh with my feelings in a lot of areas.

Still, I'm a big believer in the phrase, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." So I'm still trying to get a handle on where the big hoopla over small groups and heresy started, and why it has perpetuated for so long.

Any ideas anyone?

Sam, I personally think there is a need for some "gate keeping". I do agree with the statement "As long as our leaders are considered the gatekeepers of truth we leave the majority of God's people in the dark, and they are susceptible to leaders who do the thinking for them—because that is what they have been trained to do. It is ironic that the very thing we think will prevent heresy actually feeds the problem." I am against keeping the flock dumbed down in order to maintain strong unquestionable leadership. That's not the way of the Bereans.

However, I don't think unquestioning leadership is what Paul had in mind when he said, "By now you should be eating meat." This implied that believers should be growing in their depth of understanding and developing more leaders. Accountability was still in place as suggested all throughout the letters to Timothy. Charismatic leaders produce followers, but followers are not a proof test for truth. Big churches are not necessarily right churches. Wolves prey upon unsuspecting ignorant sheep.

I also think subjective Bible study manifests an attitude that truth is how you feel about a passage and there is no right or wrong answers. Relativism keeps everyone respectful of all views. The flock stays blissfully ignorant.

My question is does it matter if error is taught? And with hundreds of small groups, how do you know if it is...especially if leadership is not held to any standard? Sure its nice that someone gave you another chance, but that implies that someone was in authority over you.

Why even bother to have a pastor at all if correct teaching doesn't matter and no one should be held accountable for what he teaches?

Good questions, i brow, and good points. It certainly does matter if errors are taught -- at least to me. I'm an editor! :)

But seriously, I think one very simple and very necessary element of precaution against heresy in small groups is for churches to create a Doctrinal Statement, or some kind of Statement of Beliefs. Actually, most churches have already created these statements, but they need to take the necessary step of getting them into the hands of small-group leaders.

That would provide some boundaries and guidelines for group leaders to operate in without totally shutting them down.

One more thought. I am personally acquainted with a number of missionaries doing work in East Asia in a country where Christianity is illegal. The western missionaries cannot form house churches and meet with new believers. Instead, they introduce several new believers to each other and send them off to form a house church. And no one accuses the house churches of heresy. They multiply and grow. I'm sure it's not as simple as it sounds, and the missionaries try to continue discipling the new believers, but it's not always possible. This approach is not ideal, but why do we applaud house churches overseas and not here? Why do we trust the Holy Spirit to guide believers into truth overseas, but not here?

Renee, the cynical answer to your question would probably be, "Because we have seminaries that need financing over here," or something like that. Whether or not that's the real answer, I can't say.

But good points.

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