Using study Bibles: Two dangers to avoid

MSC1401AI’m a big fan of study Bibles. I’ve written about them before and shared many of the benefits of using a study Bible. These resources are especially helpful for those just beginning to study the Bible for themselves. It’s like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand more of the background and the context for biblical books and passages. Study Bibles can be invaluable when beginning to more deeply understand the meaning of Scripture.

But, as with many other useful tools, there are potential dangers when using study Bibles. It’s good for people to know how to use study Bibles in a proper, healthy way—and how not to use them. Here are two danger we want to avoid:

Referring to the study notes every time we read the Bible.
The notes in study Bibles can be incredibly helpful. When we’re having trouble understanding what a certain passage is saying, we can turn to the corresponding note and get more insight into its meaning. But these notes are so helpful, we can begin to automatically stop after each verse and read its note. That’s not a bad thing if we’re studying a certain section in depth, but we need to remember that the Bible is meant to be read. We’re supposed to get a feel for the whole book, to follow the author’s flow of thought. This is really hard to do if we get bogged down reading each study note.

I was recently reading Don Quixote. This classic book was written in the early 17th century, and it refers to things that would have been meaningful to people living in the same time and place as the author, but didn’t mean anything to me now. The edition I was reading included a lot of footnotes. These footnotes were helpful in explaining the historical meaning and significance of these references. The problem was the more I checked the notes, the more I fell out of the rhythm of the story and language of the author. I began to lose the “forest” of the author’s story for the “trees” of the historical references.

So what do we do? Fortunately, this isn’t an either/or choice. We need to do both! Let’s say you’re going to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here’s one way to approach it: Read the introductory information in your study Bible so you have a good, basic understanding of who is writing, to whom they’re writing, the historical and spiritual context of the letter, etc. After that, read through the actual letter without stopping to read the study notes. There will probably be much you don’t understand, but you’ll begin to get a feel for the whole letter and how it fits together.

Dense-forestAfter this, go back and read the letter bit by bit, especially digging into the passages you don’t understand. The study notes can now help you clarify what these passages mean and what they don’t mean. Once you have a fairly solid comprehension of the shorter passages in the book, read the whole letter again in one sitting. You’ll then see even more clearly how it all flows togethers. But remember, we don’t learn everything about a passage of Scripture by studying it once (or a hundred times!). Studying the Bible is a lifelong process of gaining understanding and wisdom. The Scriptures continually draw us closer to God and help us grow more like him.

Using a study Bible as our authoritative standard for what is right and true.
[This builds on my previous post.] Have you ever been part of a Bible study, and every time a question was asked someone in the study simply read the note in their study Bible? (Or maybe you’ve been the person doing this!) Sometimes we assume that the notes in our study Bible should settle the discussion. After all, they were written by experts, right?

I said above that a study Bible was like having a teacher right there with you helping you understand the context and meaning of the Scriptures. And this is true. But remember, no human teacher is infallible and free from error. The Bible itself is divinely inspired and inerrant—but the study notes are not! They’re very helpful, but they’re not part of the inspired text of Scripture. We need to keep this distinction clear.

Once we know this, it won’t throw us for a loop when people have two different study Bibles with two different views on a particular passage! The study Bible notes are written by people, and sometimes people disagree about what a biblical passage means. Even more importantly, sometimes people can be wrong.  Study Bible notes are there to help us understand the meaning of Scripture; they’re not there to determine for us the meaning of Scripture. We shouldn’t arrogantly think we can study the Bible in isolation and just ignore what all other Christians have studied in the Scriptures for the last 2000 years. But we do still need to do some thinking for ourselves!

The more experienced we become in studying the Bible, the more we’ll be skilled in comparing and sorting out the different views on certain passages. We need to be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11:

And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.

Notice these people listened eagerly to the message, but then did the work of studying to confirm the truth of what they’d been taught. This is how we can find balance when we’re taught or when we read things like the notes in our study Bibles. We need to ‘listen eagerly,’ but then ‘search the Scriptures to see if what we’re taught is the truth.’ Study Bibles provide many wonderful resources, but be careful not to turn them into some kind of idol or absolute authority. A note in a study Bible is a helpful tool for studying the Word of God, but it’s not itself the Word of God.

And, once again, this ‘listening eagerly and searching the Scriptures’ is an ongoing, lifelong process for the believer. Learning how to use a study Bible is really just the beginning. Welcome to the adventure!

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No Christian gurus: Let’s not turn good teachers and resources into idols

bhagwan-shree-rajneeshI’ve had the privilege of helping train young leaders and teachers. It can be a little dizzying for these new leaders as they begin to access all the myriad books and resources we have available to us today. I’m often asked who is my “go-to” writer. Who is the one source on whom I can always rely? Or which is the one commentary series that is unfailingly solid and reliable? What they’re looking for—even if they haven’t really thought this through—is a recommendation for an authoritative standard. They want the simplicity of having one source for accurate biblical interpretation, and the ability to measure everything else by this one flawlessly reliable standard.

It’s not hard to find examples of believers who make one pastor or leader their primary teacher and subtly (or not so subtly!) evaluate everything else based on this leader’s views. It might be “Piper cubs” who view John Piper as the obvious standard for right doctrine and practice in the church today, or those who look to John MacArthur, or Jack Hayford, Wayne Grudem, Charles Stanley, RC Sproul, NT Wright, Mark Driscoll (until recently), etc., etc. Or it might be those who favor a teacher with the sheen of a century or two (or at least decades) of being quoted and referenced, like John Calvin, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, AW Tozer, Charles Spurgeon, CS Lewis, etc. But regardless of the specific writer/teacher to whom they look, the pattern is strangely similar. Whenever theology or ministry is discussed, this person invariably appeals to the views of their teacher. They look to him (or her) as a standard of what is right and healthy for the church.

Now, I’m not at all accusing these teachers and leaders of seeking this kind of devotee. I’m not blaming the leaders themselves for this phenomenon. But, sadly, this often happens to those who strive to be faithful teachers and leaders. What they intend to be helpful thoughts and insights for the church, others misuse to place these teachers and their works on a pedestal. I can almost see these overly revered teachers responding as Paul and Barnabas did in Acts 14, pleading with the people not to do this.

The Christians doing this aren’t intending to misuse or misappropriate anyone’s ministry; they’re usually seeking to be conscientious, faithful disciples of Jesus. So, just to be clear: What exactly is wrong with looking exclusively or primarily to one human teacher? There are two big problems I see:

Human teachers are not infallible.

Of course, Christ is an exception to this because he isn’t merely human but also divine. And his specially-appointed apostles were able, under divine inspiration, to speak and write the teaching of Christ with his authority. But we don’t accord teachers today this same level of authority (or at least we shouldn’t).

UnknownEven the apostle Paul didn’t expect the people to automatically accept anything he taught simply because he was an apostle. He strongly warned the Galatian churches against receiving any other gospel, even if it was proclaimed to them by Paul and his associates or even an angel from heaven (Galatians 1:8). The Bereans didn’t automatically accept Paul’s teachings, but first checked them out to make sure they were scriptural. And they were commended for this (Acts 17:11). The people were given the responsibility to scripturally evaluate what they were taught.

The fist time it happens can shock and disturb us. We’re reading or listening to the teaching of a parent, a pastor or favorite teacher and we suddenly realize, ‘. . . I just can’t agree with that!’ Of course, we shouldn’t arrogantly look for details to pick apart, but it shouldn’t surprise us if we occasionally, humbly disagree with even a noted writer (that is, unless we expect them to be completely without error). I think God mercifully allows these infrequently different viewpoints so we won’t rely exclusively on one lone teacher. This kind of over-reliance can be dangerous.

But when we, in our opinion, have found an error, this isn’t necessarily cause for us to reject a teacher or commentary either. We can’t expect inerrancy anywhere but in God’s Word itself. We must all endeavor to accurately interpret and teach the Bible, but we must also be patient with each other when we don’t do this perfectly every time. Some of us are far too eager to put someone on a pedestal, and then when they show any imperfection we gleefully knock them back down! This leads to our second problem:

We can put a teacher or leader in the place of God in our lives.

Now, this might sound too strongly worded. Sure, maybe we’re sometimes guilty of relying too much on a particular pastor or teacher, but is this really idolatry?! ‘I mean, I may be listening to only one guy, but he is teaching the Bible after all.’ But let’s think about this. If I evaluate everything by one pastor’s teaching of Scripture, am I really trusting the Bible or am I trusting this one individual’s interpretation of the Bible? Am I seeking God’s instructions in Scripture, or Charles Stanley’s (or John MacArthur’s, etc.) instructions about God’s instructions? Am I committed to the historic, biblical Christian faith or to the historic, biblical Christian faith as explained and clarified by NT Wright?

It’s not hard to see how this can become idolatrous. It can also be quite divisive, as I pit my favored teacher against that of another. And, if these merely human teachers really are fallible, the implication of relying on only one teacher is alarming. I would be binding myself to one teacher’s errors, and blinding myself to anything this teacher hasn’t seen.

So how do we avoid this? Let’s resist the false security of an authoritative standard other than Scripture itself. And let’s fight the inclination in ourselves toward hero-worship and exalting certain leaders. Let’s not identify ourselves with a particular teacher or group in opposition to other teachers or groups. Let’s be willing to learn from any mature Christian leader or teacher, even if we disagree with them on some issues. And when you encounter a teacher or leader who refuses criticism or evaluation, but seeks to draw disciples after themselves (Acts 20:30)—run!

studygroupOne final reminder to those who are teachers and leaders: Don’t be surprised when people want to look to you as their authoritative standard. We need to be vigilant, ready to put a quick and decisive stop to this. Years ago in a Bible study, the discussion turned to a controversial issue. A young man looked to me and asked, “What do we believe about that, Curt?” I smiled and responded, “I know what I believe about that, but I don’t have a clue what you believe about it!” I went on to explain that he needed to know what he believed and why. We don’t want to make the people dependent on us, but on Christ. We need to take every opportunity to point them back to the Scriptures, to not just give them answers but teach them how to find the answers in God’s Word for themselves. Let’s not make any teacher or leader into some little tin god, and let’s not allow anyone to make us into one. Let’s be, and make, disciples of Christ and Christ alone.

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Open church meetings?: Misapplying 1 Corinthians 14:26

jriordan26z-eDoes the Bible teach that we should have completely open, spontaneously Spirit-led church meetings where everyone contributes? Many would say “Yes!” and point to one specific passage to support this teaching:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up [1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV].

Now, we face a bit of a challenge with this verse because—by itself—it’s a little ambiguous (both in English and the original Greek). It could mean that, for the church to be built up, there needs to be freedom for all of these various ministry gifts to be shared with the body when we all come together. If this is our understanding, we would tend to read the last sentence as: “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up [emphasis added].” This is the way many do read the text (and the way I once read it). They then go on to discuss a number of serious implications for church ministry: e.g. the way church meetings are structured, the way they’re led, what size church gatherings should be for everyone to participate, etc.

But if this is what the verse means, we have an immediate problem. Because right after this verse, Paul begins to limit the involvement of people using their gifts during the church gathering. If the people were going to speak in tongues during the meeting, there could be only two or at the most three. If there was no interpreter, they must not speak in tongues. If anyone was going to prophesy during the gathering, again only two or at the most three could share with the rest of the body what was revealed to them.

At best, this is awkward. What of the fourth person who wanted to pray in tongues or share a prophecy? Was their gifting not part of the “everything [that] must be done so that the church may be built up”? What happened to the “each of you” that is apparently supposed to participate? This seems to be oddly contradicting what Paul just wrote. We need to take a closer look at verse 26 to make sure we’re interpreting it in context.

Let’s step back a little and get some more perspective. To whom is Paul writing this? To the church in Corinth. And what do we learn about these people in this letter? In the first few chapters, we see the Corinthians didn’t lack any spiritual gift, but they were very immature spiritually, fighting and quarreling with each other and causing division in the church. They seem proud of their giftedness, their wisdom and eloquence, but they’re really behaving like spoiled children. They’re fighting with each other over a number of different issues, and writing to Paul to settle these debates. Paul addresses each of their issues, every time correcting wrong thinking on both sides.

One of the issues they’re quarreling about is spiritual gifts. They’re eager to use their own spiritual gifts but suspicious of what others want to contribute. Paul responds to this problem in chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians. In chapter 12, he carefully explains to them that they are each part of the body, but they are each only one part of the body. They are all needed, and they all need each other. No part of the body is irrelevant, and no part of the body can function by itself.

Right in the middle of his response to this issue (in chapter 13), he interrupts his discourse on spiritual gifts to movingly insist on the preeminence of love—especially as it relates to using one’s spiritual gift in the church. The Corinthians were rich in giftedness but were decidedly lacking in love for each other. This is the heart of their problem.

This emphasis on love flows naturally into chapter 14. Paul shows here, over and over again, our criterion for what is done in the church gathering must be what most edifies the whole body. Why? Because of love! We love each other, and so we’re not seeking to gratify ourselves spiritually when we’re gathered with the rest of the church but to do only what will lovingly edify the whole body.

UnknownYes, we see in verses 1-25, this gift is good and that gift is good—but the most important thing is to edify the body, to lovingly build up each other. For the use of a gift to be edifying, it must be clear; it must be discernible and meaningful to those for whom it’s intended; the use of the gift must be orderly and not chaotic; it must be in harmony with the rest of the body; etc.

Now we come to verse 26. Paul tells them:

When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.

Notice he doesn’t say ‘when you come together, you must each have . . .’ This isn’t an instruction, it’s an observation; it’s not prescriptive, it’s descriptive. Remember who he’s writing this to. These are people who are eager to show their gifting, but not so good at loving each other and edifying each other. Of course these people are all going to come with something they want to share!

He continues:

Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

Now, again, the way this is worded can be understood in a couple of different ways. We can understand this to be saying: ‘You must do all of these things so that the church may be built up.’ Or it can mean: ‘You have all these things you want to share in the church gatherings. Whatever you do must be done so that the church may be built up.’ The emphasis would be on “so that the church may be built up” rather than on the “everything.” Which better fits the context of 1 Corinthians and especially chapters 12-14?

In the following verses Paul immediately begins limiting the gifting that will be shared during the church assembly. Paul’s main point in verses 27-40 is the same as it has been throughout the rest of the chapter. He’s not saying: ‘Here are a couple of restrictions, but otherwise everyone go for it!’ The emphasis he has come back to again and again throughout this chapter is: ‘Do what is most edifying for the body.’

Why should only two or three speak in tongues or prophecy? Because any more wouldn’t be edifying to the whole church. Why shouldn’t someone speak in tongues if there wasn’t an interpreter? Because it would only edify the speaker and not the whole body. Why must prophecies be evaluated? To make sure the content is true and edifying. So is Paul only restricting the use of these two gifts? No, the Corinthians were fighting specifically about tongues and prophecy. So, throughout chapter 14, Paul continually uses these particular gifts to illustrate his repeated point: The edification of the whole church is more important than everyone expressing their Spirit-gifting in the public gathering.

I appreciate the way the NLT translates this verse, making it very clear:

Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you [NLT, emphasis added].

I’m not endorsing everything done in traditional church services. (That’s a different post.) But we need to see how Paul concludes this whole section. He affirms for the Corinthians the great value of both tongues and prophecy. (Does he affirm these gifts for us today? That’s another post!) And then ends by instructing “be sure that everything is done properly and in order [14:40].” This is a clear command. But, as we’ve seen, to use verse 26 as some kind of command for open, spontaneous church meetings is to take the verse out of its context and misinterpret and misapply it. (And there is no other scriptural passage that teaches completely open church meetings.)

Ironically, some have forcefully insisted on this wrong understanding in ways that are Holding-Handsunedifying and divisive. By seeking to live out this passage without first making sure we correctly understand it, we can actually end up opposing the very message of this Scripture! Let’s make love our primary motivation in everything we do as a church. Let’s be ready and eager to use our spiritual gifting to bless and love others, but let’s make what is most edifying to the whole, gathered church body our standard for how we participate in and how we order our church meetings.

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Arguments against inerrancy that don’t work: “But we don’t have the original manuscripts”

woman-shrugging-shoulders-oMost evangelical Christians believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. By this we mean the Bible is completely without error in everything it affirms as true, including details of history or science. It’s not uncommon to hear some of us stipulate that it’s the original manuscripts (or what we call the ‘autographs’) that are inerrant. And it’s just as common to hear the challenge of those who reject inerrancy: “Yeah, but we no longer have these supposedly inerrant original manuscripts. So what good does that do us now?” Is this as devastating a problem for inerrancy as they seem to think? Let’s take a closer look at this challenge.

(I should first point out that we don’t have the original manuscript of any piece of literature from antiquity. All we have are copies. I don’t want anyone to think that the manuscript evidence for the Bible is somehow deficient. Actually the New Testament is the most well-attested literature we have from antiquity. For more on this, see here.)

Underlying this challenge is a bit of confusion that is actually quite easy to clarify. Is it the physical materials constituting the original manuscripts (which we no longer have) that are inerrant? No, of course not. It’s not as if we’re seeking to venerate the physical manuscripts as some kind of holy relics. So, what are we claiming is inerrant? The text of the original manuscripts. It’s what was written on these autographs that is inerrant, not the manuscripts themselves. Do we still have the text that was written on the original manuscripts?

Before answering that, let’s make sure we understand the implications. This is another case where the evangelical critics of inerrancy are arguing too much. According to their view, Scripture does not need to be inerrant, but it is divinely inspired and theologically infallible. But what exactly are they claiming is inspired and infallible? The written Scriptures. (Note that I’m referring to evangelical critics of inerrancy, who would still hold to an authoritative text of Scripture.) And what do we need today if we are to read the inspired, infallible Scriptures? We need translations that faithfully relay the inspired and infallible message of Scripture as originally written.

Do you see the problem here? If, as these critics claim, we no longer have the original inerrant text—because we don’t have the autographs—then we also no longer have the original inspired text or the original infallible text! You can’t have it both ways. Both sides are just as dependent on a faithfully preserved text that conveys the original reading of Scripture. I don’t know any evangelical critic of inerrancy who would accept the idea of an unreliable Bible that isn’t divinely inspired or infallible. Once again, we see them trying to saw off the branch on which we both sit—even if they don’t realize it.

Thankfully, we can be very secure in our reading of Scripture. For instance, less than 1% of the New Testament is in any doubt as to its original reading. And most of these uncertain passages involve very minor differences in wording. There are no Christian teachings that rely on this minuscule group of passages.

Then why do inerrantists make this caveat? This is simply to remind all of us: It is the original text that is inspired, infallible and inerrant. This keeps us from designating one translation (such as the Latin Vulgate or the King James Version) as the standard. It keeps us doing the hard work of faithfully translating the original text so that we can read the inspired, infallible and inerrant Scriptures.

So is the lack of original manuscripts a problem for an inerrant text? No more so than it’s a problem for an inspired or infallible text. To the extent our Bibles faithfully translate the original text of Scripture, to that same extent we confidently read today the inspired, infallible and inerrant message that was written down by the biblical authors.

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A biblical case for senior pastors?: Two questions

Most evangelical churches today have a senior or lead pastor. Can we make a solid, biblical case to establish this practice? For those who are part of a church that has both elders and a senior/lead pastor, here are two questions I invite you to answer:

Why do you have elders?

In my experience, many respond to this question with a robust, thoroughly biblical explanation of the role of elders in the local church. Our churches must have elders because of the clear teaching of Scripture, they insist. They frequently describe the normative need for elders in each church, the plurality of elders, the pastoral nature of the ministry of elders, etc.—drawing directly from clear New Testament passages—in ways that might cheer the hearts of the strongest proponents of biblical eldership. But then we ask the follow-up question:

Why do you have a senior/lead pastor?

scratching-head. . . ummm . . . . . . There can be a long pause at this point. We sense the need for a similarly robust, equally biblical explanation for this (presumably) key role . . . but it seems surprisingly difficult to find. One can rely on a pragmatic response: ‘There has to be one key leader, you know.’ Or we could resort to conjecture or speculation: ‘Well, the New Testament church had strong, prominent leaders, so . . .’  Or we can just blindly follow tradition. But I can’t seem to find anyone presenting a strong, clear, biblical case for the normative senior/lead pastor. Any takers?

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Core commitment 4: focused on making disciples

As a gathering, local church, we will remain focused on our purpose of helping people become and continually grow as disciples of Jesus Christ:

  • We must live as missionaries in our communities, workplaces, schools, etc. We must be real, seeking to live authentic, Christ-like lives that will be witnesses of God’s love and truth. We must strive to truly understand the culture around us, so that we can more effectively communicate and live out the gospel in the context where God has placed us.
  • While we want everything we do to be well-organized and done with excellence, our priority must be what is most edifying spiritually, rather than what is entertaining or impressive.
  • We must follow and apply the consistent New Testament emphasis on teaching in the church. Our criterion for all ministries must be what best facilitates real learning and spiritual growth, rather than what is entertaining or impressive.
  • We must provide opportunities for genuine learning and spiritual growth for every age and level of spiritual maturity—from young children or non-Christian seekers to experienced believers who are biblically knowledgeable, and everything in between. Everyone in the church should be part of a process of growing as a disciple of Christ.
  • Every believer is spiritually gifted and has an important part to play in this transforming, multiplying life of the church. We must help the people understand their gifting, provide training in how to develop their gifting and opportunities to use their gifts to love and edify others.
  • The whole body does the work of ministry, not just the leaders. We must maintain a joyous expectation that every Christian be part of ministry. We must ensure they are not merely filling a needed ministry slot, but serving according to their gifting and passion. This is an integral part of the discipleship process.
  • We must be faithful to provide substantive, effective, ongoing training and equipping for leaders and teachers in the church. This too is an integral part of the church’s discipleship process.
  • We must intentionally foster a culture of discipleship (including evangelism) in the church. This should be a natural, organic part of everything we do, whether through structured classes or more relationally through informal fellowship.
  • We must design our church gatherings and ministries in ways that most effectively produce real learning, real spiritual growth and real disciples of Christ. We must be willing to reevaluate and change anything we do to make us more effective at fulfilling this vital, biblical purpose.
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Core commitment 3: team-led and team-taught

From the beginning, we will have a plurality of pastoral leaders and teachers:

  • The New Testament model of church leadership is one of local churches being led by teams of pastoral elders (with no mention of a senior or lead pastor). These elders serve in differing capacities depending on their gifting and available time, but they all share in the shepherding of the church.
  • While accepting that some elders may seem more prominent because of their gifting, we must guard against the unhealthy perception that any particular elder is the pastor of the church. (For example, we won’t begin a weekly study as a new church plant until we have at least two strong pastor/teachers.)
  • We will only appoint as elders men who are ministering pastorally by leading, teaching or tending. The elders must be the pastors of the church, not just in name but in actual ministry.
  • The New Testament doesn’t show the church to be a dictatorship of the elders or a democracy of the people. The elders must truly lead—gently, humbly and in a Christ-like way—but at times they must lead the people in reaching true, biblically-informed, spiritually-mature consensus on major issues.
  • We must strive to apply this New Testament principle of plural leadership consistently throughout the church. The plurality of the elders in pastoring the whole church should be an example to the teams of leaders overseeing all other ministries within the church.
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