During my time in the Philippines, the Navigators military singles' ministry I was involved with suffered through a very tough period. A new church sprang up in the area, with a very aggressive pastor who preached a highly legalistic message. Several of our singles were soon hooked by his charasmatic style and firey sermons. Excited to be part of exciting, and eager to spread the new "knowledge" they were picking up, they soon became a real problem for our ministry team. We recognized this church's teachings as being false, divisive and destructive to the cause of the gospel.
I vividly remember a conversation with Sandy, one of our flock, who extolled her new pastor's virtues: "He quotes Scripture and speaks with authority!"
Most small-group leaders who've been at it for any length of time have experiences like this, where members of the group come in contact with false or controversial doctrine. During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned of false prophets, whom he characterized as "ferocious wolves" who will come in "sheep's clothing." Defending the sheep under your care against the wolves takes wisdom, watchfulness, and some patience.
1. Watch and pray. An important part of your job as leader is to keep your eyes open for false doctrine and heresy, and to bathe your group in prayer at all times.
2. Grow in grace and knowlege. Only by understanding true doctrine can you hope to recongnize what is heresy, what is controversial, and what is merely a difference of opinion about a debatable matter. Spend time in the Word and put yourself under good, challenging teaching, and learn where you can turn when you're faced with a stumper.
3. Don't shoot the sheep! Sandy wasn't a wolf herself--she was the wolf's prey. She followed him out of ignorance, not malice, and eventually escaped and made her way back to the flock. How would it have served her (or the gospel) to have made her out to be the enemy? Instead, "We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak ..."
4. Embrace diversity. Face it, some matters are disputable. Casting yourself as the group's only and final authority on all doctrine is tedious, even dangerous. You'll stifle conversation, start unnecessary arguments, and lose track of what's really important. Oh, and sometimes you might even be wrong! Often the best course is to let the conversation flow and provide gentle nudges by introducing Scriputure that better informs the discussion.
5. Some infections have to be cut out. When truly heretical doctrine comes up that undermines the central doctrines of the faith, you'll need to correct it gently but directly. Moreover, there will occasionally be wolves among the sheep, or sheep who appear to grow fangs. In those cases, you may need to ask certain people not to discuss certain matters, or in extreme cases to stop coming altogether.
Sandy's church ran wild in our community for a time, but soon its zeal for converts, hostility toward any "competing" church, and general obnoxiousness began to wear thin. The church began to lose members almost as fast as it had grown, and the pastor was soon embroiled in scandals of various kinds. Some of our group's former members, including Sandy, made their way back to us, and we received them back with tears of joy.