The disciple of Jesus understands the importance of scripture. Jesus made it clear that He not only taught it, He followed it–even obeyed it–albeit from the perspective of the author who infallibly understood the spirit of the letter.
As we have visited various churches over the last six months, one of the things that has stood out to me the most is how each congregation treats scripture. To be clear: all of these congregations state that they believe in the inspiration of scripture. All say that they teach the Bible and follow the Bible as their authority for belief and life.
But do they?
The answer has been mixed, and has emphasized for me one of the biggest threats to the Church today. In all of these churches, scripture is held up as God’s Word and taught. However, in most of these churches, there is a deplorable lack of actual Bible study. In many, there are numerous errors made by preachers and teachers as they expose the scripture. In some, scripture was simply used as a springboard for whatever the preacher/teacher wanted to say. If it truly supported their point, good. If not, teaching something that is false is easy because their people don’t check it out. They believe whatever is taught to them–and pass it on as though it is God’s word.
Before some of you jump to the “everyone has their own view” objection, let me make a few points regarding the Bible and Bible study.
- The Bible is not a subjective work. What it says and what it means is easily discovered. I have spent the majority of the last 45 years studying the Bible–often with people from very different backgrounds from right to left within the Church, and even with people who are not believers. I have found that there is virtually universal agreement both on what it says and what it means.
- The arguments and divisions in the Church come when people either disagree about whether the Bible is authoritative in our lives (“that’s just what a bunch of old men thought thousands of years ago”), when people simply don’t bother to study the Bible (meaning reading, looking up words in the original language, checking context, comparing with other passages, etc.), or when people disagree about the questions that are not addressed in the Bible and want their opinions to be treated on a par with scriptural teaching.
- Every Christian is capable of studying the Bible in depth. I would argue (and have taught for years) that every Christian is responsible to study the Bible in depth for themselves rather than simply rely on whatever they are “fed”. Every parent teaches their child to feed him/herself. If my child is still reliant on me to feed her when she’s 20, people will rightfully question my parenting.
- Christian leaders–preachers, teachers, small group leaders, etc.–all have a responsibility to study the Word and teach it faithfully (James 3:1 actually says we are judged more strictly). Sloppy study and sloppy teaching such as quoting scripture inaccurately or without being able to cite the quotation, not knowing the actual meaning of words or understanding background and context, trying to use scripture to support their own theological systems are simply not acceptable.
Why make such a big deal over these things? In the last six months I have heard preachers who have the ear of hundreds or thousands of Christians teach that:
–if we aren’t emotionally excited and physically expressive of that excitement, we aren’t really worshiping God
–love is the highest responsibility of a Christian, and love is feeling good about others.
–we don’t know whether the Bible is wrong about things it teaches.
–Christians need to trust their “pastor” (the New Testament never presents “pastor” as an individual functioning apart from others with equal authority) for what the Bible says.
Add to these frequent quotes “from the Greek” of things the Greek text simply doesn’t say (yes, I had the Greek text open while they were teaching), and numerous cases of statements being made citing scripture as “proof-texting” (citing a scripture to support your teaching when it doesn’t actually say what you are asserting it says).
And all of this from people who should and often do know better.
So, why is this happening, and what can the average disciple do about it?
1. Preachers and teachers continue to say what they think people want to hear. The reason is simple: we have come to value attendance figures above discipleship. To put it another way, we would rather have 1000 goats than 100 sheep. Disciples need to encourage their leaders to resist this temptation. Churches need to reward disciple making rather than goat herding in their leadership. Preachers and teachers must teach the truth in love, valuing “truth” and “love” equally.
2. The Church needs to emphasize Bible study, and expect it from all leaders and all disciples. People tend to rise to the level of the bar we set. When we set the bar very low, people come to believe that’s as high as they can go.
3. To this end, churches need to systematically provide teaching and training in Bible study for everyone in their congregation. Junior high school students can study scripture at what we tend to think of as “college level”, but they aren’t asked to. More importantly, they aren’t shown how to. This isn’t difficult. I can teach anyone how to study the Bible in two hours. Of course, they have to practice this study after learning how. But are we giving them the chance? If not, why aren’t we? Why aren’t disciples insisting their leaders provide this training to them. Why are we not insisting that Bible studies actually include “study” rather than primarily Bible discussion based on “what do you think…?” or “what do you feel…?”.
4. For any of this to happen, churches need to reverse the current trend denigrating education and study. Ministers, preachers, teachers and other leadership should be required to have educational credentials (formal or informal), and should be tested to insure those credentials produced true study ability BEFORE THEY ARE PLACED IN LEADERSHIP ROLES. It is true that Paul said “knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). But Paul was speaking of knowledge without love (read the next sentences). He himself was educated to the extreme, and emphasized the value of Bible study (2 Timothy 2:15; 3:16-17).
Ignorance isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
NOTE: The Essential Faith Project (www.essentialfaithproject.org) is a new non profit organization whose purpose is to assist churches in making, assessing and strengthening disciples. Part of this is insuring these disciples are capable Bible students. If I can be of any assistance to you or your congregation in developing the kind of training I am speaking of, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.