That Nutty Small Group Dialectic


Diane over at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet discusses one of my pet issues when she takes on the Hegelian dialectic. For those unfamiliar with this philosophical term, Diane explains:

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich HegelHegel basically created his philosophy to explain the process of history. First there is one view or event called the thesis. Then there is the opposing view or event called antithesis. Out of these two (many times a compromise of the two; other times simply the end process of the two clashing) is the synthesis.

Here is an example from Hegel’s writings:

THESIS: In Ancient Greece the stoics believed in a moral absolute that applied to everyone.

ANTITHESIS: During the Enlightenment period, Rousseau believed that the individual decided what was right and wrong for him.

SYNTHESIS: Society decides what is right and wrong for its citizens.

In the continuing process, the new synthesis then becomes the new truth or thesis. Then an antithesis is introduced which culminates into synthesis which becomes the new truth or thesis and so on—the process continues ad infinitum.

The obvious problem with the dialectic is that it can be used to come to a synthesis that is blatantly false. As a perfect example of this, consider

    Thesis: All men are sinners and doomed to hell unless their sin is dealt withAntithesis: Jesus took away the sins of the world

    Synthesis: Because Jesus broke the power of sin, now no one will go to hell.

If this kind of reasoning seems familiar to you, it’s because nearly all small group Bible studies are beholden to the Hegelian dialectic. After nearly thirty years of Christian small group experience, I can say without reservation that every small group I have been in (spanning ages, sexes, denominations, and maturity levels) has employed this kind of faulty reasoning at some time or other to make pronouncements on spiritual truth.

The crux of the problem is the group leaders. By and large most small group leaders are either too passive to rein in flawed group synthesis or they lack the command of the Bible they absolutely must have to counter a heretical synthesis with the actual truth of God. Fast-growing churches are bedeviled by this, assigning (or allowing) group leaders who have no business leading a group because they lack Christian maturity and the inner witness needed to stop mangled synthesis in its tracks.

Now here comes the controversial part.

Though I have studied under some of the best-known small group proponents in Christendom, I believe with all my heart that small groups are a disastrous place for people to learn the Scriptures. Let them be about fellowship, prayer, worship, service to others, or anything else, but not about studying the Bible in depth. The tendency for synthesis of ideas that contradict the Scriptures is rife within these groups. Time and again I’ve heard leaders assent to heretical ideas synthesized by a group trying to reach some consensus. The need for group leaders to maintain peace at all cost necessitates this, even if truth is sacrificed.

I have come to this sad pronouncement because too many churches are using small groups as their main means to teach the Scriptures. Seeker-sensitive churches where the preaching on Sundays is more chatting than teaching, where the sermons are not sermons on the Word but reflections from life on some topical idea that demographic studies say the people want to hear, suffer from this to an extraordinary extent. The outcome is that a person desiring sound biblical exposition and a knowledge of the Scriptures instead sits through a small group study where the conclusions reached by the group may contradict the word of God. That person never develops a comprehensive view of the unity of Scripture because the topical teaching doesn’t provide it, nor does his small group.

The naivety of church leaders is to blame for this. A couple hours of weekend trainings for a month doth not a small group leader make; it is silly for churches to believe that small groups can possibly provide the depth of Bible exposition that a trained and approved handler of the Scriptures—supposedly the pastoral leadership of the church—can provide. Yet too often the pastor in the church preaches topically on Sundays and believes that a small group meeting during the week led by someone with a passing comprehension of Scripture can make up for what he’s leaving out.

That’s just plain crazy, if you ask me.

The small group movement and its emphasis on moving Bible study to these groups to make it more accessible has instead compounded the very lack of understanding of the Scriptures that it sought alleviate. Preachers who abandoned expositional preaching and teaching made this worse because they gave no opportunity for their best seekers to hear the Bible in its complete context. Is it any wonder then that the people who fill our churches on Sunday have no holistic Christian worldview?

Unless we have small group leaders who know the Bible inside and out and can take firm control of a group striving for heretical synthesis and steer them back to real truth, I think we should stop studying the Bible in our small groups. Put Bible study and teaching back into the hands of workmen approved to handle the Scriptures. If that can’t happen in small groups or adult Sunday School classes, then put it back into the pulpit. As the word of God says,

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge….
—Hosea 4:6a ESV

Thanks to the Hegelian dialect and the loss of sound expositional preaching from the pulpits across America, the destruction continues unabated.

17 thoughts on “That Nutty Small Group Dialectic

  1. Dan: ��the destruction continues unabated.�

    As I said before, the Great Evangelical Diaster has already come. We’re just crawling through the rubble now in a state of dazed confusion.

    There are several aspects to this problem, as I see it. I will briefly outline them:

    (1) Elderly and mature xtians with long experience in rightly handling the Scriptures are basically ignored because of the rampant ageism and the worship of youth and business-success.

    (2) There is also, in my view, a failure to recognize that the ability to teach the church properly is a spiritual gift bestowed by the Holy Ghost. Too many get stuck in this teaching position merely on the basis of intellectual talent. Some people who may have great intellectual abilities really have no business teaching the church. They lack the needed humility, are prone to ego, and are too interested in building intellectually appealing systems. These people are not solidly founded on XP. For XP himself absolutely has to be the focus of all teaching.

    (3) The church is now heavily influence by and has mostly merged into the surrounding ultra-Modernist culture. So it’s little wondering that Hegalian modes of thinking get into the mix a lot�along with heavy doses of stuff from Darwin, Marx, Freud, Kinsey, and Sagan, whom I like to call �the Five Lords of the Philistines�. Now if the church had somehow managed to maintain it identity, as opposed to the World, small group settings might have made some sense. The 1st Cent. church was primarily small groups, as I recall, and it managed fairly well. But now because the “walls of Jerusalem have been broken down”, so to speak, the problems you mention are bound to happen.

    Dan, if you think it’s bad now, just wait for when the movie �The Da Vinci Code� hits the movie theaters next year.

  2. �and of course, I mispelled the word �disaster� above. I blame my crazy flippy fingers.

    �and of course, Hegel, when he was lucid, ridiculously oversimplified things.

  3. Gaddabout

    I’ve been thinking about this all day. The only experience I’ve had with home groups or small groups (or house church, for the Irish) was in the Vineyard. I was surprised to learn we were pretty abnormal in insisting that home groups were not Bible studies. It was ironic, since we had six former pastors in our congregation, all of them graduates from respectable seminaries.

  4. Wayne

    To clarify: I assume you’re NOT saying leave the Bible totally out of small group meetings? Just not have discussions about what the Bible means? What about use of Scripture for times of prayer or praise? What about application of the Bible, perhaps as follow-up of Sunday sermons? Or encouragement of one another with Scriptures?

  5. AuthenticTruth


    I certainly agree with you about much of the small group philosophy today. I have expressed my concerns in some of my writing in one of my blogs �The Postmodern Journey To Apostasy�, in a post entitled �The Spiritual Decline�. I have been a small group leader for six years and I have discarded the vast majority of what church leaders have tried to brainwash me into accepting. The main thrust is placed on being merely a facilitator, encouraging a group consensus. I have resisted this approach at all cost, largely ignoring much of the training that was provided. I generally have taught expositional Bible studies, taking careful steps to determine what the Word of God meant within its context before making an application to a text of Scripture and opening up to group discussions. I know that this approach is not popular today, but I believe that this is the way that things should be done Biblically. In some ways, I feel like a rebel in the church, but I refuse to compromise the truth of God�s Word. There have been times that I have had to take an unpopular stand against what the �majority� may have thought. It is interesting that I have had many people thank me for the stand that I have taken. I have probably broken every �rule� concerning the popular small group philosophy, and have probably gotten quite �preachy� at times. Generally, I have covered many things that either are never covered from the pulpit, or are just touched on very lightly. I have gotten very frustrated lately because the leadership even at my own church does not train men to know and understand the Bible. I am hoping to be able to start some kind of training so that those leading Bible studies have a thorough understanding of Scripture and how to present biblical truth to others.

    Unfortunately, many pastors do not have a solid grasp of the Bible, so they are in no position to really teach others to know and understand the Bible. There really is little excuse for this. Tragically, a growing number of pastors do not labor in the word of God.

    I know that you said that �small groups are a disastrous place for people to learn the Scriptures�. But it does not have to be that way. Is it not true that the early church generally met in smaller groups often in peoples� homes? I think the big difference was the attitude toward the Bible and biblical leadership and the importance of leadership to be grounded in Scriptural truth. What needs to take place is an emphasis on the importance of Biblical training. I do believe that the Bible can be studied in depth in small group settings, but it takes the right attitude and approach to be biblically focused. It should be required by the leadership of the church. Unfortunately, many pastors do not take a strong stand for the truth themselves. Furthermore, it is unfortunate that many of the proponents of small groups are not biblically sound themselves.

  6. Oengus,

    I think The Da Vinci Code movie will simply play to the choir that already wanted to hear it. Their lack of willingness to accept the truth of Christ has not changed.


    I am not saying leave the Bible out of meetings, just the dialectical “let’s reach some consensus about what this passage says” portion of it.


    I believe that the Bible can be taught in small groups if the leader has a very firm grasp of the Scriptures. Even if he/she does not formally direct the group in the study, he/she should at least be able to step in to correct error.

    My problem is that too many people who are leading do not have this simple qualification, nor are they instructed by their churches on how to do anything but look at the sum of “opinions” on a passage and facilitate a synthesis. That’s disturbing. It is the norm rather than the exception—and that bugs me even more.

  7. At the risk of offending my female readers, I felt it important to include here what I wrote over at the Thinklings in response to their trackback of my post:

    “I’m going to add something here that will sound sexist, but it’s true: Coed Bible studies fall prey more easily to the dialectic because women are far more offended by someone “winning” and another “losing” when a biblical contention is argued, especially if a man is on the “winning” side and a woman is on the “losing.” The least dialectic groups I’ve been a part of were three male-only Bible studies. Almost every coed Bible study I’ve been in over the last twenty-eight years has had as its unwritten rule that no one can ever be wrong in what they say about their interpretation of the Bible, and it’s usually the women in the group who support that assertion.

    Again, I am not trying to label anyone an accessory to heresy. This is just my experience over my many years in small groups. Still, I’ve had some knock-down, drag-out fights in some men’s Bible studies I’ve been to and not only were there no hard feelings at the end, but the guys who were on the “losing” side of a contention often came around to the “winning” position in the long run. But I have rarely witnessed this happen in a coed study. If there is a strong contention that divides the group, it remains divided or else the women try to assuage everyone’s feelings through a dialectic approach so no one goes home burned.

    I think the reasons for this are obvious, but for this reason I usually don’t like to attend coed studies since something is lost in the process.

    And yes, I expect to be severely flamed for this. Trust me, I’m sorry in advance.”

  8. Scott

    We face the same danger, I think, in blogs that attempt biblical exposition, and the discussions and compromises that ensue.

    Perhaps one way to avoid the problem is for small-group Bible study to organize itself as BSF does (not a BSF fan, but I think they do this right) – after the small groups meet, they then come together to hear the explication of the passage from a qualified individual. Specific questions that arose in the small group that aren’t addressed by the leader can be fielded by him or her afterward.

  9. Brian Colmery

    Dan, you’re blowing my mind. Thanks for letting me know that my general aversion to small-group “consensus” actually has roots in intellectual history. And the name “Hegel” doesn’t only make me sound smart, it’s really fun to say. I linked to you over at Sycamore.

  10. I’ve been following this at thinklings… I finally came and read your whole post! Good stuff! I’ve been in a church that did it “right” -with strong Scriptural preaching and wise and Scripturally sound Sunday school leaders… and now am in a church that is…not as right. Still good preaching – but less strong in the small groups. Now I understand why I’m frequently loath to go to Sunday School!
    ps – I’m a woman and I don’t have a problem with what you said about women.

  11. Brian,

    Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out.


    Thanks for coming over! I hope you find the conversation here as stimulating as it is at The Thinklings.

  12. Brendt

    Late to the fray — came here from Challies.

    Wow. I never realized that the small group that I used to be involved in was so out-of-step with the way a small group is “supposed to be” run. (Thank God that we were.)

    We didn’t pursue concensus. Disagreements were discussed and sometimes unresolved. A few people even left the group, never to return again, because they couldn’t handle a lack of concensus. To pursue concensus is to not be a Berean (and “see if these things are so”).

    I would definitely agree that a small-group leader should be well-qualified and examination of the Word should occur in the church at large, and not simply relegated to the small group. But if both of these criteria are met, I found small group study to be invaluable in my walk. I guess we were just too dumb to do it “right”. 😉

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