April 13, 2010
My initial reactions and questions to some great points raised by Neil Cole.
I recently finished up a SmallGroups.com 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