Do Small Group Bible Studies Help Us Understand the Bible?

Ages ago, while a young Christian in college, I attended quite a few Bible studies over the course of four years. Some were better than others.

The studies invariably fell into one of two categories. In the first type, one guy did a bunch of preparation; the rest of us, at most, read the passage and jotted down some thoughts or questions. There was always some discussion when we met, but the guy who’d prepared beforehand basically taught the rest of us. In the other type, the participants took turns leading, so that no one ever had to do much work. Usually, the leader would do some slapdash preparation on the day of the study; the rest of us, on a good day, would glance at the passage a few minutes before showing up. Since the leader had often only spent an hour or so preparing, he’d just lead a discussion with a bunch of guys who’d made little or no prior effort to interpret the text.

The one-leader studies were consistently more profitable than the “egalitarian” ones, which – though they were more participatory – tended to leave us with much less actual insight into the meaning of the Bible. It’s not that I didn’t learn anything in them, I just didn’t learn much. Mostly, we shared whatever popped into our heads on the spot.

A couple of years ago I heard a recording of a talk given by D. A. Carson on post-modernism in which he gave examples of ways in which post-modern thought has subtly invaded the Church. He made an interesting comment about how Bible studies have changed in the last fifty years.

When Carson was learning how to lead inductive Bible studies while a student at McGill University, he was taught that “the person leading the Bible study was supposed to prepare in advance and know what the text really did say, and do his or her homework in the commentaries, and then if some crazy interpretation was advanced from the floor…you would say, ‘where do you find that in the text?’….The whole idea was to get the discussion going and to find out what the text actually says….But nowadays, even in many evangelical churches, when [someone] comes up with some really stupid, right-off-the-wall interpretation, the chair is much more likely to say something like, ‘well, that’s a very interesting insight. Does anybody else have anything to say?’ Because, you see, the one thing that you’re not allowed to say anymore is that somebody’s wrong. But what that means is that Scripture gets domesticated – Scripture can no longer be the norming norm; you can’t correct anybody by Scripture.”

There does seem to be a weakening of the principle that Scripture has a single meaning and is self-interpreting. In a Bible study with a dozen participants, if two or three variant opinions on the meaning of a text arise, people rarely feel a need to keep struggling with the text until they’re down to a single interpretation. Even if there’s no agreement on the meaning by the end of the study, the group just moves on to the next chapter. But how can that be, when we believe that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate author of the Scriptures, and that there is only one meaning?

Unexamined postmodern assumptions explain some of this phenomenon, but I think that’s only part of the story. Recently I ran across an article that sheds further light on the variable quality of small group Bible studies. T. David Gordon, Professor of Religion and Greek at Grove City College, has written an essay called, “The Hidden Assumptions of Small Group Bible Study.” One of Gordon’s professional interests is media ecology, a discipline that examines how different media influence culture. His argument is theological, but it draws on the insight that specific forms of communication have distinct qualities that shape the messages they convey.

In the article Gordon asks: what are the assumptions implicit in the typical small group Bible study (in America, at least), and how do these assumptions affect our study of the Bible? He notes that although not every small group study adopts these assumptions consciously, they are at least implied by the medium. In practice, if you carried out a study in a way that consciously denied the assumptions, to some extent you’d be working against the traditional small group concept.

He argues that the small group Bible study format makes five assumptions:

(1) participation is as important as precision, (2) every interpretation or insight has some value, (3) the Holy Spirit does not give differing abilities, (4) the Bible can be interpreted well without special aids. and (5) the Bible does not interpret itself. He expands on the difficulties inherent in each assumption.

Assumption #1: Participation is as important as precision

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?’”

One of the reasons small groups are “small” is that there must be sufficient time for each person to participate. If you don’t speak up, someone will prompt you for your opinion (if you don’t believe it, try sitting through one without speaking!). What each person thinks is what matters; the goal of most small groups is to promote participation and interaction. But to make this work, critical evaluation is often discouraged. Too many negative remarks, and someone might quit participating.

Assumption #2: Every interpretation or insight has some value

“The very dynamic of the small group, which encourages active participation by each member, suggests that there is some value in any comment that might potentially be made. This cultivates an uncritical acceptance of virtually anything that might be said. Insightful comments, erroneous comments, and inconsequential comments are treated by the group dynamic in the same way. Each is listened to politely, and with a polite minimum of critical eval­uation.”

Most small groups feel a need to say something positive about every insight. Even if someone says something totally wrong, it’s considered bad form to say so. Most groups will instead try to find something in the insight worthy of praise, and ignore the rest. The problem is, there are many wrong interpretations of a Bible text, but only one right one. If several are expressed, some of them must be wrong – but the small group environment discourages us from identifying and rejecting them.

Assumption #3: The Holy Spirit does not give differing abilities

Since participation is so important, in an ideal small group everyone takes part. If everyone is to share his or her opinion about, roughly equal time should given to every person. But what if some of the participants are relatively ignorant of the meaning of the text? They aren’t going to be able to add much to everyone else’s understanding, but full participation demands that they take a shot anyway.

In Gordon’s words, “As a medium, … the small group approach to Bible study does not easily accommo­date the expression of spiritual gifts that differ. Paul teaches that God gives different gifts to different individuals, and that among these is the gift of teaching. Further, Paul teaches that the health of the entire Church depends in part upon the proper exercise of such gifts [Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:1-16; 1 Corinthians 12]. At the very least, this must mean that some are better teachers than others, and that their ability to teach contributes best to the Church’s growth when given opportunity to express itself. The small group, encouraging a parity of participation, is not a place for gifted teachers to express those gifts.”

Moreover, we have the Holy Spirit’s counsel concerning teaching in James 3:1: “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” Requiring everyone to teach flies in the face of this warning about the responsibility taken on by those who seek to teach others.

I suspect that this assumption (and the one that follows) reflects the phenomenon described by historian Nathan Hatch as the “democratization” of American Christianity. For the last couple of hundred years, American Christians have tended to distort the Reformation principle “every man his own priest” into an assertion that since all Christians possess the Holy Spirit, giftedness must be an egalitarian phenomenon. All Christians are therefore presumed to be equally capable of interpreting and teaching the Bible. In some circles, training in theology is viewed with suspicion, as an impediment to Spirit-led understanding of the Scriptures. One sometimes even hears contemporary echoes of nineteenth-century populist Elias Smith’s contention that seminaries are merely “Religious Factories…established for explaining that which is plain, and for the purpose of making easy things hard.” [ 1 ]

Assumption #4: The Bible can be interpreted well without special aids

In studies like the egalitarian ones I attended in college, participants rarely consult commentaries or study the text carefully and prayerfully. As Gordon puts it, “Since the only resource that can be easily consulted in a small group study is the resource of other members, the very nature of the small group suggests that lexicographical, theological, and historical aids are not especially useful in understanding the Bible.” The approach implies that such study is unnecessary.

Part of this assumption reflects a misunderstanding of the doctrine of perspicuity, the Reformation principle that the Scriptures are clear. Perspicuity does not mean that all parts of Scripture are equally clear, or that the Scriptures can be understood without effort. Rather, the main point of perspicuity is that the Gospel – the way of salvation, the principal teaching of Scripture – can be understood by the unlearned. All anyone needs in order to learn how to be saved is the Bible in a known language and the help of the Holy Spirit. Reformation theologians always acknowledged that some things in Scripture are more difficult to interpret correctly than others.

This concept is summarized in the Westminster Confession, Chapter 1, which states that “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them (italics are mine).” Peter the apostle noted that in Paul’s letters, there were “ some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16) Scripture itself teaches us that some parts of Scripture cannot be understood without diligent care and effort.

In contrast, the typical small-group study assumes that everything in the Scriptures is plain and can be interpreted accurately, in real-time.  In reality, of course, participants tend to draw insights from sermons they’ve heard, but the quality of these will still vary. If everyone has avoided the work needed to understand a difficult passage, the chances are slim that the group will arrive at a single, sound interpretation.

Assumption #5: The Bible does not interpret itself

As Gordon observes, “The Reformers taught that the Bible, being inspired by God, has a unity that reflects its divine origin. As a consequence, their most foundational interpretive principle was that the Bible ‘interprets itself,’ by which they meant that any given statement in the Bible is somewhat open-ended, and that the interpretive possibilities are reduced by comparing a particular pas­sage to other passages.”

Since Scripture interprets Scripture, sound interpretation involves familiarity with the whole Bible coupled with good judgments about which other texts are relevant. But in many small group Bible studies, no one has taken the time to search out and study those Scriptures. As Gordon points out, if no effort is made to discern relevant passages, the group “is forced to reduce Bible study to what a particular text might mean apart from what the rest of the Bible says. This assumes either that the Reformers were wrong, or that there is value in studying the Bible wrongly.”

The situation is different if your group is top-heavy with people who have a deep and extensive knowledge of the Bible. If several participants know the Bible well, there is a chance that relevant Scriptures will be brought to bear. But – since small groups usually seek full participation, irrelevant or tangentially-relevant passages will also be brought forward by others. The group may be forced to hurt the feelings of a participant whose insight misses the mark.

—————

Although I don’t always agree with Professor Gordon, his observations on this topic are insightful. Many small group studies do assume that everyone should teach everyone else, and that all Scriptures can be interpreted without careful study. These assumptions fly in the face of what Evangelical and Reformed Christians believe – on paper, at least – about the principles of Scripture interpretation. The desire for the bonding that (hopefully) comes from participation in a small group sometimes overrules basic principles.

But, as I observed at the start, not all small-group studies embody these assumptions, so I disagree with Gordon on that point. Studies do exist in which participants are willing to be taught by gifted teachers of the Bible. I’ve seen them conducted in a way that gives freedom to ask questions and offer insights without validating every comment.

I still recall a study led one evening by my pastor several years ago. One of the regular participants invited a couple of Mormon missionaries, two teenage guys dressed in stereotypical tie-and-white-shirt outfits on a hot summer evening. At some point, one of them tried to inject a distinctively Mormon interpretation into the discussion. Our pastor kindly but firmly said, “No, that’s not what the passage means,” and proceeded to explain why. Assumption #2 wasn’t part of that study’s culture; we were happy to have a teacher who was competent to “exhort and convict those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).

Often, we try to accomplish too much with small-group studies: we want them to promote intimacy, deepen our knowledge of the Scriptures, facilitate evangelism, and fix whatever else we think is broken. Perhaps, with thoughtful effort, these things can be accomplished by a small-group study – but not all of them simultaneously. Different goals may need different emphases and approaches. For example, a gathering where everyone is expected to contribute to interpreting the Bible will have trouble if there are non-Christians present who don’t know the Bible at all.

Moreover, surely there is an important role for one-on-one and other kinds of interactions in pursuing these goals. For example, Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside and privately helped him to understand the truth more accurately (Acts 18:26). They wisely decided that he could be helped more effectively in a setting that did not include others.

The small group study is only one tool for edification; it’s not the whole toolbox. Like any tool, it’s most effective when used appropriately. Bible study approaches which imply that the Holy Spirit conveys widely different meanings through the same text undermine the way we think about Scripture. Denying that some are gifted teachers of Scripture (and others are not) tempts us to treat ill-informed interpretations like sound ones.

To be sure, all Christians must learn to “be Berean” (Acts 17:10-11) in discerning whether the things they are taught are consistent with God’s Word. But being Berean requires effort. We must cultivate ready minds and a willingness to study the Scriptures – instead of assuming that the first thought that enters our minds when we read a text must be from the Holy Spirit.

Having a clear understanding of the goals of a small group study will influence the way we conduct them. As Gordon notes:

“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.”

Can a small group study improve one’s understanding of the Bible? Sometimes. When I recall the “ignorance-sharing” college Bible studies I took part in, I know I learned relatively little in them. They were not a waste of time, because several of the participants have been my friends for more than three decades. But I share T. David Gordon’s concern that the assumptions implicit in that approach do undermine some essential principles. As it happened, those studies weren’t my only means of learning the meaning of the Bible. But for many Christians, that type of study is the primary place where they study the text of Scripture.

It therefore seems to me that small-group Bible studies do the best job of helping Christians understand the meaning of the Bible when they are taught by those who are suitably gifted and diligent in their studies, to participants who are willing to be taught and willing to make the effort needed to compare Scripture with Scripture in a thoughtful, disciplined manner, in the spirit of the Bereans.

If any one of these elements is absent, we should not expect a small-group study to significantly improve our ability to understand the Bible.

FOOTNOTES
1 Quoted in Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, 1989), 174

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