What Safeguards Against Heresy in a Group?

| By Fran Goodrich

In a recent Q Place Coaching group, a participant raised a question that is both common and extremely important: “In Q Place groups, what safeguards against heresy? What protections are in place?”

It’s a common question because in Q Place groups we are inviting people to come and discover for themselves what the Bible says rather than inviting them just to sit and be told. And the process of self-discovery can sometimes be messy. As group members are processing they will occasionally make statements that don’t line up with Scriptural truth. 

The founders of this ministry knew how important this question was. In fact, at the last national conference that our co-founder Catherine (Kay) Schell attended, she made a point of emphasizing the one thing that we had to hold onto as a ministry.   

That one key thing, in a word, is Inductive

The reason Kay emphasized Inductive is because it is both the essential value that we provide for people and it’s also the key for guarding against heresy in our groups.

Kay used to say, “There isn’t another book in the world that’s been more misquoted, regardless of context or purpose or reference, than the Bible. That’s one reason inductive principles are so important.”

Safeguard: Approaching the Bible Inductively

An inductive approach requires careful reading, examination, and exploration of the context and understanding the original author’s purpose. Marilyn Kunz, the other co-founder of Neighborhood Bible Studies (now Q Place) said it this way:

“There are two ways to study anything—inductively and deductively. Deductive Bible study is to decide on a doctrine and then go to the Bible and find proofs for that.”

This is a valid approach for church leaders when they want to focus on specific topical truth, and the Scripture verses they use actually mean what they were intended in context.  

“This [deductive approach], however, is also the only method cults use. Every cult of Christianity uses the deductive method. They decide on their doctrines and then find verses to quote to prove them. So, if we use the deductive method, especially with non-Christians we are trying to win to Christ, we are on very dangerous ground because we are setting them up to be influenced by the next person who comes around with verses to prove something else. 

“We need to think very seriously about what danger we put our non-Christian friends in when we take verses from all over the Bible and say, ‘Look! This and this and this, you see?’–all out of context, because the next day some cult person will do exactly the same thing and maybe he is cleverer. A very dangerous approach!

“Inductive Bible study is basically honoring the Word of God.”

The inductive approach to Bible study involves actively exploring an entire book, paragraph, or complete unit of thought and asking questions that help you observe, make discoveries, and process the information in context of the whole.

Safeguard: Guidelines that Support the Inductive Approach

We encourage groups to use Q Place Guidelines to keep their discussions on track. In particular, the three Discussion Tips on our Group Guidelines cards protect groups from heresy. 

Here are the three Discussion Tips:

  1. Stick to the topic or passage under discussion. 
  2. Avoid tangents.
  3. When discussing the Bible, let it speak for itself.   

Sticking to the topic or passage under discussion prevents the group from roaming around the Bible and taking Scripture out of context. Jumping around the Bible during a discussion can lead to confusion and misinterpretation of a passage—not to mention making group members feel intimidated by “experts” in the group.

Avoiding tangents helps groups stay focused on the passage at hand as well, so the main point isn’t lost by a meandering discussion. 

And the third tip—letting the Bible speak for itself—helps the group see the Bible as the authority for its message. When people quote other books, religious leaders, or notes in the Bible, those quickly become the authority for the group and stifle thinking and discussion. (More about this below.)

Safeguard: Study Choices that Support the Inductive Approach

Studying an entire book of the Bible will give group members the best opportunity to understand what is being communicated. But even if your group chooses a topical study, reading sections of Scripture in context rather than jumping around to isolated verses will guard against taking them out of context.

Safeguard: Study Guides that Support the Inductive Approach

A high-quality inductive study guide points people to the Bible with questions that help them make careful observations, well-founded interpretations, and appropriate applications of the Scriptures. A great study guide does this in a reasonable, orderly manner so that people can see clearly what the Bible is saying. 

A guide helps a group look at a passage more authentically instead of picking out isolated thoughts that feel good, that any of us are particularly drawn to, or that connect with our bent or pet peeves. A great discussion guide draws us all to what God is saying in this passage and helps us take it as a whole. A discussion guide keeps a group grounded in God’s intent for a Scripture passage with ample opportunity for the Holy Spirit to speak to each member.

For much more about what to look for in a Bible discussion guide, see How to Find a Great Bible Study Guide.

Safeguard: Facilitators Who Support the Inductive Approach

In a talk called “The Philosophy of Neighborhood Bible Studies,” co-founder Marilyn Kunz gave this illustration:

“George has been invited to a Bible study. He’s never been to a Bible study in his life, but he wasn’t doing anything that evening, so he comes. The Bible study goes on, and George is listening and throughout the evening he keeps hearing one or another of the people in the group saying, “Is that right Sam?” “What do you think, Sam?” “Did we get it Sam?”

“Now, at the end of that, when he goes home, what does he understand is the authority for that group? Sam is the authority! That is a very subtle thing. You say, ‘Sam’s a good Christian guy. What’s wrong with that?’ Well, next week George may meet a fellow who is even more attractive, who happens to be from a cult, and then he’ll follow that person.”

Instead of becoming the “answer man,” a group facilitator who supports the inductive approach will point people back to Scripture. For example, Sam could say, “What do the rest of you think? What do you notice in verse ____? Or, “When you put all of our observations together, what conclusion do you come up with about this?” or even, “You don’t need me to tell you if that answer is right. Does it line up with what we have all noticed?”

Safeguard: Pointing to Scripture, Not Another Authority 

Marilyn Kunz gave another illustration of George in a group: 

“The group is studying along, and George is sitting there and kind of listening. As the group progresses, every question or so, someone reads the answer, the ‘real’ answer from the study material” (or from the commentary notes at the bottom of the page in a study Bible). 

“So, what’s the authority there? The authority is the curriculum writer of the study material” (or the person who wrote the commentary notes). 

The message George may take from this is that it’s not possible to read and understand the Bible unless you are Bible scholar with special training.

“As we actually do a Bible study, what is the authority? Do we allow the Scripture itself to be the authority? Or do we either have persons or material, which in the end is the authority for the group?”

If someone is inclined to read commentary notes when you are going through a challenging section of Scripture, you can say, “Let’s see if we can get this ourselves. If we’re still stuck, then we can see if that note will help the group.”

Tips to Handle Statements that Could Lead the Group to Error

As we noted earlier, the self-discovery process can be messy. 

So how can we handle crazy conclusions or heretical statements that people sometimes make on their way to full discovery? 

Here are some practical ideas that could be options for those moments:

  • Receive all answers warmly. When discussing the Bible, ask, “In which verse did you find that?” “How does that fit with verse __?”
  • Restate what you heard them say and ask if you understood them correctly. 
  • Say that’s an interesting idea and then ask how he/she came to that conclusion.
  • Always show courtesy and respect toward others, even if they don’t agree with your position. Do not judge others. Agree to disagree and move on when there seems to be an impasse.
  • Ask, “Can you tell me more about your understanding?” Often people have never articulated their ideas but need to have a good “listening to” before they realize they might not agree with their stated position either.
  • Be willing to leave the “crazy conclusions” on the table and not resolve them with correct theology. People need time to process. If they stay in your group, you will give them that unique opportunity as they discuss and look at the Bible! (And this will take time!) But if you correct their statements, chances are they will leave. Plus, they will think you think you are an expert when you said there are no experts in this group.
  • Express appreciation for the comment or question. Note that the chapter at hand may not give enough information on that topic to address it fully. Suggest writing down the question or comment in the back of your discussion guide to see if anything later in the study will contribute to the group’s understanding of the issue. 

Be sure to pray as you come into your group each week, ready to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit as your group discusses Scripture together.

A Story—Real Life Inductive Impact, Safeguarding the Truth

One Sunday morning, Rich walked into my church’s office, located down the street from his house, asking if there was a Bible class he could attend. The secretary directed Rich to the only Bible study offered—our Q Place group. We welcomed him with open arms and then were puzzled each week thereafter as Rich faithfully came, his study guide filled with notes, but he never told us what he thought. He just wanted to listen to our discussion.

About three months later Rich’s story spilled out. Rich had grown up a Jehovah’s Witness. In fact, he had risen to become a JW leader in our California Bay Area county. As a scholar, he was commissioned to be on a team at the New York Jehovah’s Witness headquarters to work on a new translation of their Bible. While studying the book of Romans in original languages, Rich realized that the teaching he grew up believing was contrary to what Romans actually says. So, he took his findings to the JW leadership, who promptly removed Rich from the project, sent him back to the Bay Area and excommunicated him from the church.

People Rich had known from childhood wouldn’t speak to him when he met them in a store. He was an outcast, hurt and very confused. What Rich wanted more than anything was to understand truth, specifically the truth of the Bible. What did it really say? Were Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teachings incorrect? If so, then what was correct?

As Rich faithfully attended our Q Place group, he slowly opened up. He told us what he desperately needed was to hear our discussion around the Word as we discovered together what it says, what it means, and what it means to us in context of the whole book we were studying. 

Rich had grown up with the Jehovah Witnesses’ deductive approach to Scripture, with isolated verses assembled to prove ideas that aren’t supported from a careful reading of Scripture. But as Rich attended our Q Place group, the careless, destructive teaching fed to him all his life became obvious. As we read and discussed Scripture inductively, a book at a time, Rich’s understanding of Scripture—and of Jesus—was steadily purified!

Over time, Rich became grounded in what the Bible says and grew in loving and following Jesus. In fact, he decided to attend seminary. And now Rich is a pastor!

Again and again, I have seen the power of the inductive approach to Scripture. I have seen small groups in churches welcome people who are new to the Bible and watched them grow strong in Scripture. And I have seen groups outside of church circles that provided just what people needed to help others come to know Jesus and have a thriving relationship with Him . . . all through giving them a chance to read and discuss the Bible inductively. 

That’s why I am eager to equip many more Christians to provide this opportunity for people they know! 

Fran Goodrich
Q Place National Field Leader   

Click on the links if you are interested in learning more about Q Place Coaching (to start a group for seekers) or our Thriving Groups Workshop (to help church small groups grow in the inductive approach).

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