One of my favorite confessional Lutheran blogs, The Brothers of John the Steadfast, has in recent weeks criticized the decision of Concordia Seminary-St. Louis to replace weekday chapel with Small Group Bible study once per quarter. The criticism is due in part to the cancellation of chapel. What is one of our seminaries doing cancelling chapel for any reason? But it also arises out of concerns about the nature of Small Group Bible study. I capitalize the letters "Small" and "Group" because they are not mere adjectives: rather, they signify a certain approach to Bible study with which most confessional Lutherans are decidedly uncomfortable. Small Group Bible study is in practice centered not as much on the Word as it is on the people in the group. One of its primary emphases is the social component: building relationships and encouraging personal sharing and accountability. Often Small Groups are instituted in an attempt to break a large organization into smaller cells so that everyone feels "connected." It's a laudable goal. But the introduction of Bible study into the Small Group structure (instead of just focusing the groups purely on fellowship) means that more often than not the Bible study is led by a lay person rather than a pastor. That is a dangerous path to trod. In addition, the Small Group approach to Bible study is to read a passage and then ask for input from the group with questions such as "What does this mean to you?" and "How can you apply this passage to your own life?" Those questions may seem innocuous enough. After all, what is the Bible if not God's Word for me? Shouldn't I be not just reading but thinking about how that Word is significant in my own life?
I'm gonna go out on a limb here and say no. And here's why. I don't have to think about how God's Word speaks to me because I already know. It speaks to me exactly what it speaks to every other sinner. It either kills me with the Law or it saves me by the Gospel. When I start thinking that it means anything more than one of those things--that maybe it speaks to me a little differently in this verse than it speaks to someone else--then I am getting into very treacherous territory. Because in my experience, the more human beings try to overthink God's Word the more likely they are to get it all mixed up. I don't know if this is his own expression or one he borrowed from someone else, but my Pastor likes to say that we Christians are highly prone to either "legalize the Gospel" or "Gospelize the Law." We like to take the Gospel and turn it into some sort of guide for living ("What Would Jesus Do?) and conversely we like to take the Law and use it to make ourselves feel better ("I'm not as bad as that guy over there"). Neither is proper. Both are pitfalls that lead us into all sorts of trouble. And both are highly likely outcomes of Small Group Bible study.
Now some might say, "But in the case you cite, the people in question are not laity but seminarians--pastors in training." Yes. And in this case Small Groups appear to have professors assigned to lead them. But I can't help wondering, what is the point? Aren't these seminarians in classrooms with those very same professors for hours each week? Aren't classes small groups? Why, then, the need to create another sort of Small Group structure?
I think the answer is two-fold. I think there is probably a sincere desire to offer an opportunity for the seminarians to support and encourage one another in the challenges of their various vocations. But I think this is the wrong way. It is a great example of the sort of legalism my pastor talks about. Something that should happen naturally--the mutual conversation and conversation of the brethren--is being prescribed. My guess is that there is already plenty of that conversation and consolation going on: between classes, in the library, in private homes, in local pubs, on the phone, or online. Why the need to systematize it? If there is concern that someone is being left out, why not just take steps to include that person and help him to feel more assimilated? The observant professor might invite the lonely seminarian over for a meal or perhaps encourage several of his students to invite him out for a beer. Why must there be an entirely new and sweeping structure put in place to achieve what a few caring souls could do on their own?
I think the answer brings us to the second likely purpose of Small Groups at the seminary. I think the second and perhaps primary goal has to do with pastoral formation. The desire is to give these pastors in training some Small Group experience in the hope that when they have their own parishes they will institute Small Groups. And therein lies the problem. If anyone can execute the Small Group model successfully, it is probably seminarians and their teachers. But when those seminarians become pastors who promote Small Groups in their parishes, I don't think there is any way they can possibly ward off the undesirable effects of the Small Group model. So why go there at all?
I think those who promote Small Groups probably have the best of intentions in most cases. They value Bible study and know that it is something that is sorely lacking in the lives of many Christians. They value people and long to bring God's comfort to hurting souls. Small Group Bible study seems a way to accomplish both. But if the outcome of Small Group Bible study is the tolerance of incorrect understandings of Scripture in the interest of not hurting feelings, or a harmful emphasis on subjective feelings rather than objective truth, or the turning of Gospel into Law through an emphasis on taking the day's learning and going out and doing something with it, or the establishment of small cells within a congregation in a way that may cause people to identify more strongly with their small groups than they do with their whole parish family, then there is a problem. And I think it is more likely than not that one or more of those problems is going to occur.
So what of the title of this post? I think when it comes to God's Word we might do well to focus less on what it means than what it says. Asking ourselves what that Word means rather than what it says seems to me an invitation to go down that familiar old path of "Did God really say . . . ?" And we all know where that leads. Don't we?