Is the Small-Group Bible Study Helpful?


The goal of Protestant biblical interpretation is truth; the goal of the small group biblical interpretation is participation… There will be many gains in the area of mutual encouragement and social development, but few gains in the area of apprehending properly the biblical revelation. ~ T. David Gordon

I was recently invited to conduct a small-group Bible study at another church. They probably didn’t like it that much, because I “dominated” it by explaining boring details such as the grammatical-historical context, the writer’s original intent, and who the original readers were. And I didn’t ask the usual “What do you think this verse means?” around the table.

My kind of Bible study is frowned upon by most evangelicals who go to their “small groups.” The most popular kind is that one wherein the members of the group rotate “facilitating” the study. The group “leader” does not teach, but facilitates an exchange of opinions. Participation in this exchange, with much sharing of experiences, is a given. The result is that there’s really not much Bible study done.

These small-group Bible studies that are of no substance have combined with shallow, non-expository preaching in Christ-less worship services and fun-and-games youth meetings to produce Biblically-illiterate churchgoers. 1

This summer, a Baptist megachurch in Houston was able to rally 10,500 children to its Vacation Bible School, “an over-the-top amalgam of Christian rock, humorous skits, Broadway-style musicals and, lest we forget, strobe lights and fog machines.” Daniel Radosh, author of Rapture Ready!, a book about evangelical Christian pop culture, commented:

Evangelicals have become very sophisticated about repackaging actual church services and religious instruction with the trappings of entertainment—the proverbial spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. It’s helped that the technological barriers to mimicking professional entertainment have gotten so easy and affordable that any well-funded church can produce a fairly slick program. What this V.B.S. camp is doing is very much in line with contemporary notions of religious education and even worship services in evangelical churches.

Said one happy 9-year-old camper, “When I wake up, I just want to be at church. Here at Second is like being in heaven.” One can only hope that 5 or 6 or 7 years hence, she and even a handful of these thousands of campers would still think of church as heaven. 2

In his short paper, “The Hidden Assumptions of Small Group Bible Study,” Prof. T. David Gordon of Grove City College perfectly defines the goal of such a small group as “to foster participation by each member, intimacy, sharing, and self-expression within a non-judgmental arena.” His list of five assumptions of a small-group Bible study is very accurate and real.

First: Participation is as important as precision. This involves what I have been calling as the “What do you think” Bible study method. Prof. Gordon writes:

The very purpose of studying the Bible in small groups is to provide a non-judgmental context that encourages (or even requires) the participation of each individual…. In a small group, each individual is an involved participant. The standard prompt of the small group leader is, “What do you think about this verse?”

This is evidence of what Nathan O. Hatch calls The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale, 1991). If participation of each attendant is more important than accurate interpretation, then there is no point to the study. In fact, it is not even a Bible study.

Second: Every interpretation or insight has some value. Because participation is very important, it is assumed that all comments and questions are of value to the study. So humor, inconsequential comments, even errors are treated equally. Pluralism rules. The members “agree to disagree,” because “everyone is entitled to his own opinion.” At times, I have pointed out in small group settings that what someone said about the Trinity is the ancient heresy of modalism. And I’m sure that some of them thought I was uncharitable and judgmental. What if I as a Bible study teacher quoted Paul,“If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:9), if someone is a follower of Joel Osteen or Benny Hinn? Or if I called televangelists heretics?

Third: The Holy Spirit does not give differing abilities. This assumption contradicts Paul’s teaching that each believer has a gift to be used for the edification of the whole church (1 Cor 12). Thus, there are some who have been given the gift of teaching. One of the qualifications of an elder is the ability to teach (1 Tim 3:2). However, because Rick Warren has declared, “Every member a minister,” most evangelicals have an aberrant view about the Reformation’s “priesthood of all believers.” Anyone can teach, lead a “puppet ministry,” or even preach. (In some churches, even young teens are asked to preach on Youth Sundays!)

Fourth: The Bible can be interpreted well without special aids. This is the most disturbing assumption. A few years ago, I volunteered to teach a small-group Bible study of about 8-10 people. A pastor of a megachurch started this group, and after a few months, turned the group over to one of the members. The pastor gave him a booklet on how to lead a small-group, and off he went. Was the appointed leader trained in basic Bible interpretation? Does he have resources other than his Serendipity Study Bible, such as a concordance, a Bible dictionary, or a Bible background book, so he does not pluck words, phrases and verses out of context?

If you’re using The Message for your Bible study, get The Message Concordance, and look for the phrases “junk food” and “cotton candy.” This will be a brand-new insight and discovery! Isaiah didn’t like junk food and cotton candy!

In addition to the lack of these interpretive skills and tools, most small groups use paraphrases such as the NIV, Today’s English Version, or much worse, Eugene Peterson’s The Message. If everyone in the small group was using The Message, they would never know what the Word of God says, for example in Mark 5:38:

The Message: They entered the leader’s house and pushed their way through the gossips looking for a story and neighbors bringing in casseroles.

ESV: They came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and Jesus saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.

Or Isaiah 55:2 a:

The Message: Why do you spend your money on junk food, your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?

ESV: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Fifth, The Bible does not “interpret itself.” When the pastor delegated the small-group to one of its members, his recommendation to the leader was to stick only to the passage at hand and not to look at other related texts. Unknown to most evangelicals, one of the most important hermeneutical principles is that Scripture interprets Scripture, the New Testament interprets the Old Testament, and clear passages interpret unclear passages. How would this small group understand, “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (1Cor 10:2-4) if they don’t read the Passover and wilderness narratives in Exodus 12-13,16-17?

Prof. Gordon then concludes that the small-group setting “can be an especially fruitful arena for the discussion of the application of common truths or for encouraging such application.” In other words, it is profitable for social reasons. But for real Bible study and interpretation, small-groups are not helpful.

The goal of Protestant biblical interpretation is truth; the goal of the small group biblical interpretation is participation. Those who participate in small group Bible study should be very aware of the limitations of such an activity. There will be many gains in the area of mutual encouragement and social development, but few gains in the area of apprehending properly the biblical revelation.

In other words, if all these five assumptions are true in a small-group setting, proper Biblical interpretation cannot be attained. But If the small-group is taught—not “facilitated”—by a pastor or elder who is equipped with skills, resources and tools necessary for a proper interpretation of Scripture, then these assumptions will be eliminated, and the small group will profit greatly from the Bible study.



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