In my last article I looked at the issue of asking questions, having discussions about what you hear from the pulpit on Sundays and how rarely this seems to happen.
I mentioned how theologies are being preached, without the congregation necessarily being aware, and certainly not being made aware from the preacher. I want to look at things to watch out for as a sign that this might be happening and what to do about it.
Things to watch out for
There are certain phrases and actions that trigger red flags for me. For example, when someone is reading through a text and they say something like, ‘Well we KNOW it CAN’T mean that’, which basically means it can’t because it doesn’t fit their theological perspective.
Or when leadership shut people down for having a different view on something, but at the same time are unable to offer a reasonable defence for why they hold a particular perspective.
Or selecting one lone verse to make a case while conveniently ignoring all the verses that make the opposite case.
Or preaching on a passage, but literally ignoring any verses that don’t support the theology being promoted.
It’s almost like they don’t believe the congregation are capable of thinking for themselves and coming to their own conclusions about the Bible. In fact, it makes me think it’s not so different to the past when the priests were the only ones who could interpret the meaning of Scripture, when the Bible was only available in Latin.
And this leads me to another point: what does ‘studying’ the bible actually mean? No one ever really told me. It can’t only be for the few believers who decide to embark on an academic course, surely?
If I wanted to ‘study’ Shakespeare, I’m pretty sure I’d want to look at sources other than the texts themselves, yet when it comes to the Bible, ‘study’ often could be translated as just read it, or listen to someone else preaching about it.
In 2 Timothy 2:15 when Paul wrote (albeit to Timothy, not a congregation) ‘study to show yourself approved’, what did he mean? What does to ‘rightly handle the Word of Truth’ mean? Does it mean just reading the passage, doing some cross referencing and perhaps consulting a commentary?
Are we all called to study the bible, or just those that preach? We all know passages that we find difficult to understand without the help of other resources.
And what does it mean to ‘equip the saints for the work of the ministry’ (Ephesians 4:12)?
What is discipleship? A disciple is a learner. Jesus told His disciples in Matthew 24 to make disciples by teaching them all that I have commanded. I know there are tools out there that mean we can study, but how many of our pastors and teachers are leading their flocks to do so?
Ask yourself: How aware am I of the various theologies, their history and interpretations of Scripture? Does my church provide a basic course on church history, the main theological perspectives, and hermeneutics?
We are told to add knowledge to our faith, and in increasing measure to be effective and productive (2 Peter 2:5-9). Am I doing that? How do I do that? Is anyone at my church helping me to do this? Am I actually learning anything at church?
Is your pastor qualified?
So, your average Christian might not have been trained in some of these things, but what about the teachers and pastors in your church? In what other field of life would we be happy to let someone who hasn’t been trained operate? Would you trust your health to an unqualified doctor? And, if you were a teacher in a church, wouldn’t you WANT to get trained? Going back to Shakespeare, would we expect our teacher to be an expert, or would we be happy to let them say what they thought the text meant, without any background or training?
Another thing that annoys me is pastors who have had some training but don’t pass that knowledge on to their congregation. Why is that? Do they think we don’t need it, or worse, can’t handle such lofty heights? They will have to answer to God for their negligence…
Preachers should be engaged in ongoing study, just like any other profession. The world of biblical academic scholarship did not end at The Reformation like some people seem to think. We should ALL be life-long learners, studying to show ourselves approved. Studying, not just reading and not just reading our favourite theologies either. We should be directed to and exposed to the world of scholarship, to the people who have given their time to truly study.
‘Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.’ 2 Timothy 2:15
Maybe some of the courses on offer at bible colleges today are not sufficiently equipping future preachers and pastors; hence our problem.
I also get annoyed (sorry!) when preachers so confidently preach ‘biblical truth’, but if you popped down the road the following Sunday to a different denomination, the preacher there might have the exact same confidence, yet be preaching an entirely different view. Whose view is the ‘biblical’ one? Surely, it would be far more honest to tell the congregation that this is one perspective and is the one they hold to (for reasons they explain), but that there are other interpretations.
‘And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.’ Ephesians 4:12-16
Does it matter?
I read a very interesting, but sad book ‘Recipe for Disaster’ by John Marriott, which explores some of the reasons people give for no longer considering themselves to be Christians. Some say that they just couldn’t go along with everything their church taught as being ‘biblical’ and therefore rejected their faith completely. Here’s a quote from John Marriott:
‘The first (reason) is mistaking a particular take or interpretation of Christianity for Christianity itself. This becomes problematic when the take or interpretation that is assumed to be Christianity elevates an excessive number of doctrines and practices to the level of the non-negotiable. This produces a house of cards faith. If an individual comes to reject any one of those doctrines or practices, the entire edifice will collapse.’
It’s a serious issue that needs addressing.
What to do?
The temptation for some might be to give up on church, or complain every week about what they hear on a Sunday. Neither of these things are going to help, so maybe we can try to change the culture of our churches to encourage discussion and questioning?
Maybe we can reach out to individuals who are hungry for more, and form a discussion group?
Maybe we can recommend teachers, scholars, podcasts, books, journals and other resources we have found to be useful? I mention here that I am very grateful to Dr Michael Heiser who has endeavoured to make scholarly input available through his website and podcast. He has recognised the need to help those of us who do want more than ‘eternal Sunday School’ from our pulpits.
Let’s see if we can help stop the rot…