Tuesday, July 2, 2013

What do Christians know, and when do they know it?

I've led a lot of Bible studies and small groups, in both mainline and evangelical churches, and I continue to be astonished about my fellow Christians' lack of understanding of the Bible.

I've found it's the people who grew up in the church who have been the hardest to get into an adult study group. This seems to be because they think they already know what the Bible is about: what it teaches, what it tells us about God, and what its instructions are for living our lives. They learned these things as children and it's hard to convince them they would benefit from reading the Bible as an adult.

What do Christians know, and when do they know it? If you grew up in church, your understanding of Scripture probably started in Sunday School, where you learned Bible stories. So you believe you know the Bible. But really, you don't. Sunday School teaches kids sanitized versions of selected stories with action and memorable characters and miracles and children in them.

Children's Sunday School is a start to learning about what we believe. It's where you get the basics in child-sized, discrete portions. Sunday School is where you learn that Jesus loves you and you learn "what God wants from you."

But it's not where you learn that the whole of Scripture weaves certain themes about God and people, about what our problem is, and what God's solution is. It's not where you realize that the timeless issues plaguing the human race—issues we suffer through today just as people did in biblical times—require God's equally timeless response and our repentance.

It's not where you learn the Bible is not sanitized for your protection. Those perfect characters you learned about as a child are not perfect at all—a real eye-opener for adults who re-read their stories. They seem to be more like us, filled with flaws, making mistakes, and sometimes acting very badly.

It's not where you have to wrestle with the hard parts—the system of sacrifices, the genocides, the treatment of women and children, the slavery. In Sunday School you don't have to ponder how a Bible that was written a long time ago for people living in a very different world than ours still has relevance for us today.

A lot of Christians operate at the same level of understanding they gained as a child. But when we never progress past the Sunday School Bible story view and grow into an adult faith, we do both ourselves and God a disservice.

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The other place Christians tend to learn about the Bible is through Christian authorities, whether a pastor's sermons or the things that Christian celebrities tell us to think as we watch them on TV, listen to them on the radio, go to their rallies and read their books.

Unless you are reading, on your own, the passages these folks interpret for you, you are stuck with  their views on what's important, why it's important, and what you should think about it. Sometimes authorities get it right, but sometimes they're way off base. How will you know unless you are reading the Bible for yourself?

A friend of mine is searching for a new church. She went to one recently where in his sermon the pastor came to some conclusions about faith and the work of Christ that were patently wrong. The pastor had a point he wanted to make, and he was going to make it even though he had to twist Scripture to get there. And so he said that some verses meant something they did not mean at all.

Alarms went off in her head. Had my friend not known her Bible, if she had not read and wrestled with and understood the Bible as an adult, she would not have blinked an eye at the pastor's dangerous interpretation. But because she had, she knew that was not going to be the church for her.

Even if you've spent your life in the church, it's vital to open your mind and read the Bible as an adult. It's important to read big sweeps of the Bible, to see how passages connect, and what messages God repeats to us. It's crucial to experience words that make you uncomfortable or cause you to scratch your head. It's important to read the parts that seem grounded in ancient ways of thinking, and to wrestle with what they could mean for us today. And it's critical to see how the context of a passage helps us to better interpret what it says.


Some people come from specific upbringings where they memorized Bible verses key to their church tradition's worldview. They believe they know the Bible because they have quotes for many different occasions. Bible memorization is helpful, both for ourselves and for others, but only when the individual verses are grounded in their surrounded passages and not left to stand alone out of context—either the context of the Bible or the context of the occasion for which they are used.

I once knew a woman who sprinkled all her conversations with Bible verses. No matter the topic, she had a number of verses to share that she thought settled matters. The problem was, most of them did not actually apply to the situation, and she was totally unaware that was the case. She had been raised in the "prooftexting" tradition and saw the Bible as a collection of regulations to live by, do's and don'ts, and promises that God was obligated to fulfill. Over the years, she harmed quite a few people by dispensing "biblical advice" in an authoritative tone that was both inappropriate and guilt inducing. But because of her upbringing, she thought she had a handle on what the Bible says, and that she was doing people a lot of good. She had learned things as a child and just carried that system with her into adulthood, never realizing the Bible isn't a recipe book.

We owe it to ourselves and to God not to sell the Bible and our faith short, but to give them the attention and thought they deserve. The rewards are rich, both for ourselves and the people in our lives. But when we are content with the faith we inherited as a child, and what we were taught when we were young, we rob ourselves of an adult understanding. Reading the Bible as an adult is one of the keys to developing a mature faith that is ours, not someone else's, and to helping, not harming people with what it says.

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