5 Ways to handle difficult or controversial subject matter

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  Essential Strategies for Bible Study Leaders

When it comes to certain doctrines or controversial verses, Christians don’t always see eye to eye. Employ these strategies for keeping disputes from demolishing your Bible discussions.

1.      Anticipate participants’ questions. In advance, identify lesson concepts or passage elements that may arouse or confuse them. This principle of anticipation amounts to a “head-them-off-at-the-pass” approach to preparation. Trying to figure out in advance what verses or points are likely to trip them spurs you to do extra spade work on the subject matter. In a session on Mark 3, expecting the inevitable question on verses 28-29 – the unpardonable sin of blaspheming the Holy Spirit – ensured my readiness to handle it.

2.      Employ lecture to set the stage for discussion. Even in a highly interactive, informal setting, several minutes of historical or background information may be necessary. For instance, in First Corinthians 5:5 Paul “delivers over to Satan” a church member involved in sexual immorality. Don’t ask, “What do you think this means?” Instead, delve into a commentary and be ready to tell them what it probably means. Such an approach protects your group from the snare of speculation and fruitless verbal exchanges.

3.      Agree to disagree. On subjects spawning divergent opinions among believers, offer an up-front admission of the issue’s complexity. Use remarks similar to the following: “Over the years, sincere Bible scholars have viewed this doctrine differently. So we aren’t going to resolve this controversy to everyone’s satisfaction today. Perhaps it’s wise to ‘agree to disagree’ rather than to get hot under the collar.” (If your church has a particular stance on a peripheral doctrine, explain that position and its rationale.)

4.      Set strict time limit for group coverage of the subject matter. Don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on one area of controversy and neglect to cover practical material in the text that isn’t up for debate.  I’ve seen a Bible discussion of Ephesians 1:1-14 degenerate into a 60-minute forum in which half the class members gave their opinion on predestination.  Yet meaningful doctrines covered in the passage weren’t even mentioned by the teacher: salvation; forgiveness; redemption; adoption, and the Holy Spirit.

5.      Recommend resources. For motivated group members whose curiosity is piqued, recommend a couple books that dig deeper on the controversial subject matter. If you aren’t sure what to recommend, ask your pastor for some suggestions. If you have a good church library, bring a couple books to the group meeting and permit an on-the-spot check out.

What tip would you add to the issue of “controlling controversies”?

In my next post, I’ll cover a common problem in discussion groups: tangents.


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