Everything seemed to be going fine as Paul shared the gospel with the people of Athens—until he brought up the resurrection of Jesus (see Acts 17:32). The debate was now on. Some ridiculed Paul, others asked for time to think about it, and some accepted the gospel. God’s truth has a way of bringing out the best and worst in people. We cannot teach the Bible avoiding divisive issues. The Bible is brutally honest and touches our deepest emotions, some of which we don’t want exposed. But that is how a two-edged sword works.
When a divisive issue comes to the surface in a Bible study group, how do we deal with it?
- Let Scripture speak. God has given us His Word so that we may know the truth. Too many times, we spend more time worrying what this person or that person says than we do about what the Bible says. The God of the Bible is capable of defending Himself and His Word….if we let Him.
- Make sure all of Scripture is given the opportunity to speak. Ignoring the whole of Scripture will get us in trouble. Too many causes have been justified by the misquoting of a Bible verse or passage. The Bible is not a collection of individual tidbits of wisdom and stories. Rather, it is a complete unit and must be treated as such.
- Set ground rules and use them. Discuss with the group some ground rules for discussion: being respectful of others, disagreeing without being disagreeable, attacking an idea without attacking the person, and other rules may need to be considered. I know some groups that set time limits for discussion. The issue is not so much about having rules as it is enforcing the rules. Displaying the rules of discussion for the group can be helpful.
- Plan your discussion. Many times heated discussions happen because we failed to craft meaningful and substantive questions that move the conversation to conclusions. Discussion as a Way of Teaching by Stephen D. Brookfield and Stephen Preskill and Engaging Ideas by John C. Bean are great resources for learning how to plan a discussion. A key is thinking in question sets, moving from the general to the specific so a final conclusion can be drawn.
- Anticipate the hot buttons. If you know your group, you can anticipate some of the potential divisive discussions. When planning the discussion, create contingency questions or responses that will help you keep the group on track. You may only use those contingency questions and remarks occasionally, but when you need them they become invaluable.
We can’t avoid all potentially divisive issues in a Bible study group, but these five practices help me when approaching these types of issues.
What other practices have you found helpful when dealing with potentially divisive issues?
G. Dwayne McCrary is a project team leader for ongoing adult Bible study resources at Lifeway, including the adult Explore the Bible resources. He also teaches an adult group and preschool group every Sunday in the church he attends.