Over the last two days you’ve gained valuable insights from small group pastor, Matt Svoboda, about small groups and theology. Not only has Matt’s answers to important questions been driven by principles, he has also given we pragmatists some real handles to hold onto.
But today Matt is giving us wisdom that cannot be overlooked. He’s climbing right into the places where small group pastors find themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Matt’s wise counsel today is vital. So…
Rick: Matt, we live in a world where very few people, even many small group leaders hold to a biblical worldview. This leads to a few important questions. I’ll be asking questions along those lines today. How should a small group pastor respond when they find out a small group leader has purposefully or accidentally allowed false teaching to take root during a small group meeting?
Matt: I always start that conversation by asking questions. What was said? How did the conversation get there? What was wrong with what was said? (that question helps me know there understanding and if it was accidental or purposeful) How should we address this moving forward? Was there something that held you back from correction the false teaching on the spot?
Not until I have those answers can I really move forward. If a leader accidentally taught or allowed false teaching to take place on a major issue, like justification by faith alone, I would open Scripture with them. I would show the leader exactly what Paul is saying in Romans 4 and Ephesians 2 so in the future he can take his group to the same passages. Typically, I will also buy a resource for the leader if it is an area he needs to grow in.
Small Group pastors should have the leaders revisit the topic at their next meeting. Again, this is only for major doctrinal issues. I dont want any leaders policing everyone on secondary doctrines like, spiritual gifts, eschatology, etc. When there is room for disagreement, don’t police.
Even in my own small group, if a person says something about a pretribulation, premillennial(which I dont hold to) understanding of the End Times when that isn't the real topic I will simply nod my head and move on. If we are talking about perseverance of the saints I dont want people to spend the next hour hammering out the rapture. When we do a study on the End Times we will discuss different beliefs at the appropriate time.
Rick: What are the foundational theological issues every small group leader needs understandings of?
Matt: Typically, everything in their churches statement of faith. We require all of our leaders to be members, therefore, they have to hold to our statement of faith. Beyond that I allow there to be some freedom and diversity on secondary issues.
In most churches the foundational theological issues are the ones that make up the statement of faith. If that is true for your church, use it.
I don't ask leaders where they stand on secondary issues. All I say to them is that one of the quickest ways to stop being a Small Group leader is to allow their "pet doctrine" to become divisive. For instance, I dont care if they are a calvinist or not. I just care if they allow calvinism to become divisive, whether or not they agree with my stance.
Rick: Should every small group leader be made aware of the theological perspectives of the church that sponsors the group? If so, why?
Matt: Yes. Absolutely, yes. The quickest way to cause theological disunity is to speak while in ignorance. Small Groups leaders ought to ask questions and make sure they arent going to be speaking directly against their church leadership in an unhealthy way.
For example, we are a complementarian church. I will let a person be a House Group leader if they are egalitarian as long as they don't make it a divisive issue. If they don't know our stance on gender roles they could say things that strongly contradict the church. This can cause confusion and disunity.
Another example, we are Elder-ruled. Our leaders should know how our church functions. If they don't they could answer very important, practical questions very wrongly.
To be honest though, this is primarily the responsibility of the church leadership, not the small group leader. If a small group leader loves the church, wants to be a small group leader and yet doesn't know where the church stands on major and/or controversial issues that is a failure on the church leadership.
Rick: What is the best way to make them aware of these?
Matt: Great question. Have a membership process that values doctrine. We have an "Intro To The Bridge" class. We do a lot in this 2 and 1/2 hour class. One of those things we do is deal with how we approach doctrine, what our statement of faith is, and what other doctrinal distinctives make us unique. For instance, you don't have to believe in a plurality of elders, believers baptism, or complementarianism to be a member at our church. Yet, it is made abundantly clear that is what church leadership believes.
We use that as an opportunity to tell them they are welcome to be a member even if they disagree on those three issues and a couple others, but that we wouldnt allow them to be divisive over those issues.
It is unfair for a church to scold a person for being divisive when it was never made clear what church leadership believes. We make it clear.
Rick: What should a small group pastor do if someone wants to lead a group but is not on the same page as the church concerning a non- negotiable theological issue?
Matt: I know this sounds harsh to some, but you must refuse them to be a small group leader. This is a major reason why we require membership for small group leaders, we never have that problem.
If they simply don't hold to a central, non-negotiable doctrine it is best to encourage them to go elsewhere. Pastors, telling people your church might not be the one for them isn't the worst thing that can happen. Letting that person in only for them to split your church in half a few years later is much worse.
Have a process in place that guards you from that. If you never ask any theological questions before you make someone a small group leader you are asking for a wolf to come devour some sheep.
Rick: What is the senior pastor's role in the theological training of small group leaders? How does a small group pastor go about enlisting the senior pastor to help with this?
Matt: His role ought to be the same with small group leaders as it is with everyone else. I don't enlist my Lead Pastor to do anything unique with my small group leaders for theological training. I see that as a crucial part of my role so I give significant time to it. This goes back to one of the earlier questions of doctrine not being for Senior Pastors only.
The most important word in Small Group Pastor is PASTOR. If we can't equip people theologically we need to either address that ASAP or find a new vocation. Pastors, all of them, ought to be about to lead and equip leaders in the foundational doctrines of our faith. If you can't do that you can't make a disciple. If you can't make a disciple you certainly can't pastor.
The Senior Pastor obviously has a role in the theological training of his church, but I dont seek for him to do anything unique with Small Group leaders. At most, if needed, I would recommend Small Group pastors to go to their Senior Pastor only to ask for advice about how to better theologically train his small group leaders. I would not enlist him to do it for me.