“Paul didn’t know what he was talking about!” My friend Anthony was frustrated by one of the more difficult portions of Romans 8 that I had just read during a small group Bible study I was leading at my house. This comment left me in a unique predicament. I wanted to ignore this comment and move on. Anthony was a lot older than me. He was also my friend and a respected member of the church, but his comment called into question one of the key tenants of the Christian faith—the inspiration of Scripture.
In my short time leading small groups, I have witnessed group members deny the Trinity, articulate works-based gospels, and undermine the inspiration of Scripture. In most of these instances, I don’t think those articulating such things were intentionally contradicting core tenants of the faith. As a result, and because I was leading small groups in the South, where people place a high value on being polite, I faced a tremendous temptation to ignore these comments and just hope no one was paying attention. When I read the New Testament, however, I just can’t justify a strategy of avoidance when it comes to false teaching.
Paul commanded Titus, when teaching God’s Word, to “say the things that are consistent with sound teaching” (Titus 2:1). Further, Paul challenged Timothy to “persist” in teaching God’s Word “whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 4:2). Paul went on to warn that if teachers fail to utilize God’s Word to patiently correct false doctrine, people will seek out teachers “according to their desires” and “will turn away from hearing the truth” (2 Tim. 4:3-4). So when Anthony claimed that Paul didn’t know what he was talking about, I couldn’t just ignore my friend. In that moment, I realized that if I really loved Anthony and the rest of the members of my group, I owed them the courtesy of offering patient, loving correction.
If you are like me, the thought of correcting someone in your small group, particularly someone older and more established in the church, is uncomfortable at best and daunting at worst. The thought of telling someone like Anthony that by claiming he knows better than Paul, he is, in effect, denying the inspiration and authority of Scripture, seems rude and potentially condescending. So how do we cultivate a culture of loving, patient correction in our small groups? Here are three suggestions:
Teach the “one another” commands of Scripture.
The Bible calls us to “speak the truth in love” to one another (Eph. 4:15), warn one another (2 Thess. 3:15), pray for one another (Jas. 5:13-15), confess our sins to one another (Jas. 5:16), and even rebuke one another (2 Tim. 3:16-17). If you will faithfully draw attention, in your small group, to these “one another” commands, your group members will begin to see that the goal of biblical correction is not to embarrass but to encourage. When we practice the “one anothers,” we cultivate vulnerability and point people to Christ. As your group members grow to understand the immense value of biblical, gospel-focused community, they will be more likely not only to correct others in a loving manner but also to humbly accept the loving correction of others.
Model loving correction.
It is critical that you, as a small group leader, speak and teach the truth to your group. It is equally critical, however, that you do so “in love.” This is, in part, why Paul challenged Timothy to “rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience” (2 Tim. 4:2). It is important to note that much of the correction you offer others should happen in private. For instance, Priscilla and Acquila, when they heard Apollos preach, took him aside and “explained the way of God to him more accurately” (Acts 18:26). We need to learn to differentiate between correction that should be immediate (i.e. when the gospel is directly contradicted) and that which should be private and more deliberate (i.e. secondary matters). In the situation with Anthony, he called the inspiration of Scripture into question in front of the entire group, so I led the group through several passages of Scriptures that demonstrate the Bible’s claim to divine inspiration—whatever Paul is getting at in Romans 8, it is not merely him with whom we have to deal.
I once attended a small group meeting in which the leader, using Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts in Ephesians 4, told the group that not everyone is called by God to share the gospel. Uncomfortable though it was, I felt compelled to point out that the Great Commission is addressed to all of Jesus’ disciples (Matt. 28:18-20) and that Peter challenged all the Christians in the churches of Asia Minor to be prepared to articulate their hope in the gospel (1 Pet. 3:15). As one charged with leading discussion of God’s Word with a small group of people, it is essential that you constantly familiarize yourself with the gospel and the essential Christian doctrines and practices. As a small group leader, you should not be expected to have the answer to every question or to be equipped to correct all forms of false doctrine. You should, however, as one charged with teaching God’s Word, be “nourished by the words of the faith and the good teaching that you have followed” (1 Tim. 4:6). This might mean seeking someone older and more mature in the faith to disciple and train you to lead others (Titus 2:1-8). A good small group leader is first a disciple of Christ and a student of God’s Word. The more you know and teach sound doctrine, the more readily you will be able to offer loving correction.
Given how often Jesus (Matt. 7:15) and the apostles (Gal. 1:6-9; Phil. 3:1-2) spoke about the reality of false teaching and the dangers it poses, as small group leaders, we must not shrink away from our responsibility to speak God’s Word but also to utilize it to offer loving, Christlike correction. If you take the “one another” commands of Scripture seriously, loving correction will become a healthy part of your small group culture and a tremendous means of God’s grace in the life your church.
Drew Dixon is Discipleship Strategist for LifeWay Christian Resources and the Editor-in-Chief of GameChurch.com. He also writes for WORLD Magazine, Paste Magazine, Christ and Pop Culture, and Think Christian. Follow him on Twitter: @drewdixon82.