Democracy in Small Group Bible Studies

You’ve probably thought about this before, but you’ve never paid it any mind. Perhaps it didn’t bother you much and only appeared as a fleeting thought in your mind. A thought not worth pursuing. Well, I am here to provoke you to pursue this thought today.

Disclaimer: these diagnoses do not apply to all fellowships, but to the majority, especially those which are facilitated and constituted by young people. This is has been my personal and experiential observation.

Have you noticed how “communal” our various Bible Study fellowships tend to get? I am not talking about community in our application of the truths, but community in our interpretation of the passages. Have you noticed how considerate they are? Every reading of a passage of scripture will often be followed by the following prompt by the leader, “What do you think this verse means?” “What does this verse mean to you?” Oftentimes, when the answers given so far seem unsatisfactory to the leader, he would ask something like, “Anyone else with a different opinion/observation?” and the conclusion will often be the most reasonable interpretation… or the one that sounds deep.

I bet you have noticed this. And it has probably never struck you as strange. Unless, maybe, on those rare occasions when the leader suggests that every person in the group must contribute a point. That’s when you really get uncomfortable, mainly because now you have to say something and you were only coming to listen. Is this a practice you are familiar with? It is for me. It is the practice I have practically been raised up with. I have been both a member and a facilitator of such “democratic” Bible Study groups. Perhaps you are too, and you love the system. Well, perhaps it is the only system you’ve ever known.

It seems better than having a bible know-it-all interpreting all the passages for the rest of you guys, right? The contribution of the person who has just read the passage for the first time during the study is just as valid as that of a Bible Scholar in the room, who has studied it for months, right? The Spirit is perfectly capable of speaking through the newest believer as He is capable of speaking through the most mature Christian in the group, right? If your Bible Study group is interdenominational, these background factors don’t really matter to the contributions made, right?

And what happens when you come across controversial passages? Oftentimes, you tend to get really democratic. You would probably do a head-count of opinions (not explicitly of course). There are those guys among you who really have a way with words. They are quite eloquent in their bible talk. These are the guys that will often provide the final viewpoint on the passage in question. After all, who would value a contribution beginning with, “Well, I am not so sure, but I think this passage, when read in its immediate context…” over a contribution beginning with, “in this present dispensation of grace, this passage reveals to us the manifestation of a new move of God…”? We all know which contribution will receive the most “amens” in the room. Irrespective of how many people are still not sure that that is the right interpretation of the passage.

There’s a word that best describes such an approach to Bible Study fellowship. Democracy.

Is democracy good? The answer to this question is, yes and no. The goodness or badness in a democratic system depends on whether or not it is being used to lead to the glorification of God and the good of mankind. While the approach may appeal to our sense of fairness, justice and equality, it must first appeal to God’s order in worship. It is ultimately a question of the goodness or badness of its members/proponents. For example, a monarchy that is ruled by a good King (with good advisers) is of course preferable to a democracy in which decisions are made by corrupt members of parliament. Our focus should not be to find sufficiency and stability in the systems devoid of the influence and supremacy of God in those systems.

The point is not that democracy in itself is a bad thing. Of course not. But as far as the advancement of the gospel and the exposition of biblical truth is concerned, it is simply irrelevant.

Now, what does this have to do with Bible Study fellowships? Well, this is not the rule in every church or denominational context, but the predominant practice in many Bible Study fellowships always reveals an almost idolatrous reverence for democracy. The problem is further magnified in the fact that this adherence to democracy often goes undetected. The three main factors that I believe have played a greater role in propagating this approach to bible study are namely; individualism, egalitarianism and the fear of man.

  1. Individualism refers to the tendency to promote the exercise of one’s “personal” goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance while opposing external interference upon one’s own interests by society or institutions such as the government. The problem arises when the same principle is translated into the church; and yet the church is essentially interpreted as a body and a community in the Bible. As a system, the church is a monarchy, under God, not a democracy. It is a disturbing oxymoron to see individualism express itself under the guise of “fellowship” in our Bible studies.
  2. Egalitarianism is the teaching that all human beings are equal in fundamental worth and moral or social status. In the Christian context, this is translated into the teaching that all people are equal before God and in Christ; have equal responsibility to use their gifts and obey their calling to the glory of God; and are called to roles and ministries without regard to class, gender, or race. This often tends to ignore the fact that God seems to have assigned a given set of requirements for teachers of the Word and even different roles in the church fellowship for men and women. Difference in roles does not necessarily imply difference in gifting or ability. The trinity is our best exemplification of this.
  3. Thirdly, I am persuaded that the fear of man has played a significant role in the “democratization” of Bible study fellowships. We are living in a society and age where the true meaning of tolerance has been substituted for the fear of man. There seems to be an increasing utter disdain and disregard for the church offices clearly demarcated and commanded in the scriptures. We also seem to have forgotten that what we have for Bible Study fellowships and Cell Group meetings today are what the early Christians had for churches. The rules and offices of the church (and conduct in worship)  apply to our Bible Study fellowships just as much as in our “formal” church congregation.

I am aware that I have not explicitly given any recommendations of what a truly biblical Bible Study fellowship ought to look like. This is mainly because this is fundamentally a question of BEING rather than LOOKING LIKE (see note below). Therefore, a comprehensive answer will involve writing a whole book. But I believe that I have created enough awareness to lead us to re-evaluate our approach to Bible Study fellowships. My main concern in writing this post was to target many of us who may be ignorant of the folly in how we may be conducting such aspects of fellowship.

Please note that, not all Bible Study fellowships that “appear” democratic are actually democratic, there are other factors to be considered before one makes such a conclusion; including whether or not there are any Bible Study guides or materials (e.g BSF) and what the facilitator understands a biblical Bible Study fellowship ought to look like and BE.

Each of the three issues raised above (individualism, egalitarianism, fear of man) has been greatly debated over the centuries. But I believe that it is only when we dare to wrestle with such concerns can we ever have any hope of worshiping our God in Spirit and Truth, as He desires to be worshiped.

“Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” [James 3:1]

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In His service and for His glory,

Cornell

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