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Heresy in Small Groups

By Joel Comiskey

Summer 2011

by Joel Comiskey

In 1976, I was living in downtown Long Beach, California and attending a Foursquare Church pastored by Billy Adams.

Some friends invited me to attend their small group that met close to the church, and I remember the leader teaching on a new gnostic way of looking at Jesus. He didn't believe in the deity of Christ, as far as I can remember. The next Sunday , however, I went to the Foursquare Church and heard pastor Adams warn against this particular group and their false doctrine. I was a new believer at the time, and I remember feeling so grateful that a mature man of God, like Pastor Adams, had protected me from the heresy expounded by this errant small group leader. Suffice it to say, I never returned to this particular small group.

Paul said to the elders in Ephesus, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them (Acts 20:28-31).

Elders, pastors, and coaches are called to protect the sheep from what Paul calls "savage wolves. " Paul's descriptive language highlights how dangerous false doctrine is. For Christianity and its followers, the distortion of truth is a matter of life and death. A person can go to heaven or hell depending on his or her belief system. Correct doctrine, therefore, has eternal consequences.

Small group leaders within a local church have been given permission by the senior leadership to handle God's inerrant Word. They are mini-pastors, under authority. As a coach, perhaps you've heard some rumors swirling around about heretical teaching. What should you do?

Determine the gravity of the error

The word heresy originally meant "choice." It referred to a controversial or novel change of ideas or beliefs that contradicted the established dogma or teaching.

On a positive side, it's good and right to challenge tradition, the status quo, and legalism. Yet, there's a fine line. When a person starts contradicting Scripture it can have eternal consequences.

It's important for the coach to determine whether the leader is simply challenging the status quo or promoting poisonous doctrines. The small group leader, for example, might have only tried to explain the Trinity and failed miserably. Perhaps he attempted to answer a question about works versus faith but made it seem like good works save us. Or maybe he mentioned a new book that questions the existence of hell without really believing what it teaches. A member of the group became paranoid and spread a false rumor about the leader's teaching.

On the other hand, the leader might proactively be teaching that Jesus isn't God, that the Holy Spirit is just a force, that hell doesn't exist, or that unless a person speaks in tongues, he or she can't be saved.

Go to the Person

You as the coach need to discover the facts. Go to leader to find out what the leader actually taught and what he or she believes.

In Matthew 18: 15-17, Jesus instructs a person to first go to the one who has sinned against him or her. If a small group member, believes the leader is teaching heresy, it's a great idea to go directly to the teacher. However, since heretical teaching is also a public sin and involves the church of Jesus Christ, the small group member might first go to the coach or pastor because others have already been negatively affected.

Act Quickly and Decisively

After talking to the leader, you might determine that he or she acted innocently, made a simple mistake and is fully willing to repent of the damage caused. You might ask the leader to apologize to the group and then to clarify his or her mistake. In such cases, the coach might also require the leader to follow the church sponsored small group lesson (rather than his own), finish the required church training, and receive more rigorous coaching.

If the coach determines, however, that the leader believes and is proactively teaching errant doctrine, more concise action will be necessary.

First, the coach should speak to the lead pastor about the situation and a team decision should be reached. It's likely that Satan has planted the small group leader to destroy and divide God's flock. You will have a better chance of victory against demonic forces, if you stand against the false teaching with a team.

Second, the leader should step down from his or her leadership position. Not only would I ask him to step down from leading the small group, I would ask the person not to bring up the topic again. Protection of the flock is paramount.

Can the person continue attending?

If the person repents and renounces the false doctrine, you might allow him to continue attending church on Sunday and even attend a different small group (with a commitment never to bring up the teaching again). I don't think it's wise for the leader to attend the same small group that he was leading.

If you have to warn the person more than twice, it's best to ask him to leave the church. Paul says in Titus 3:10, " Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him." There is a place for warning, repentance, and restoration. Yet, the coach needs to be very watchful that the teaching doesn't spread.

Preventing Heresy

Heresy can be avoided. Coaching and training are key preventatives. Here are some things you can do to prevent it:

  • Prayer: Scripture is clear that we don't wrestle against flesh and blood but against spiritual wickedness (Ephesians 6:12). The root of heresy is demonic. Churches that dedicate themselves to prayer will place around themselves a wall of protection against heresy.
  • Connect the group lesson with the sermon: many small group based churches around the world connect the pastoral sermon with the lesson during the week. One of the key reasons is to avoid heresy and to maintain solid doctrine.
  • Teach the material that each leader uses: some small group churches ask the coaches to go over the lesson with the leaders before they teach it. This is a great way to clarify doctrinal points and how to apply them.
  • Receive reports: holding small group leaders accountable through regular reporting is a great idea. Reports help the leadership team know what material the leader has covered each week.
  • Required training: most small group based churches ask potential leaders to first complete specific training before becoming leaders. This training might last 4 months to one year. During this training process, the potential leader is under the watchful eye of the trainer and is also attending a small group. Thus, not only is the potential leader receiving biblically based knowledge, but he or she is under the watchful eyes of a small group leader. This process helps churches to raise up leaders who are walking in holiness and believe sound doctrine.
  • Pro-active coaching network: coaching is the key to protecting the flock. Coaches should keep their ears open to member feedback. Rotating among the groups is a proven way for coaches to keep their ears open to the possibility of heresy. Rotation is like preventative medicine. A coach will probably pick up the seeds of error much sooner if he or she is regularly rotating among the groups.

I'm grateful that Pastor Billy Adams of the Long Beach Foursquare Church helped me avoid the errant teaching of a small group leader in 1975. At that time I was a young believer and vulnerable to wolves.

Pastors and coaches have the responsibility of protecting the sheep. Through preventative prayer, coaching, and training, heresy can be avoided altogether. When and if it does occur, God will give you, the coach, the ability to effectively deal with it.