Here is the 12th and concluding part of Gary Deddo’s essay on the nature of the church and its ministry. For the other parts, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. To read the essay in one file, click here. To read the related essay, “Clarifying Our Theological Vision,” click here. Gary recently delivered two related lectures: click here to watch Reading and Interpreting Scripture with Trinitarian Eyes, and here to watch GCI Doctrines and How to Teach Them.
A Brief Theology of the Church
(with a view to equipping the saints for the work of ministry)
by Dr. Gary Deddo
Part 12 (conclusion):
The Church as a Fellowship in the Word of God
We come now to the final and concluding part of this essay, which has examined the nature and purpose of the church. Because this is a large topic, the essay has focused on several key issues, seeking throughout to build on Jesus, the Living Word of God who is the one foundation and cornerstone of the church (Eph. 2:20). In keeping with that focus, this last part of the essay provides a summary by urging us to stay focused on a particular, foundational truth, then act in accordance with six practical applications of that truth.
A FOUNDATIONAL TRUTH
The foundational truth I propose we stay focused on is one God has been showing GCI through the course of its renewal: The church is a unique creation of the Word of God (both Living and written) and is to be built upon that cornerstone and foundation. Let’s unpack this truth a bit. In doing so, I’ll summarize some of what we’ve addressed in this essay already.
First, recall that being a people who belong to God through our Lord Jesus Christ (the Living Word of God) is a unique thing. The Church is a distinctive, one-of-a-kind reality. It is not simply another human organization or social phenomenon like a club, fraternal organization, athletic team, business group, voluntary service organization, school, political organization or nation. As human creations, these institutions can serve the good of humanity to some degree, but the church is the direct creation of God’s redemptive work called into being and sustained, directed, corrected and renewed by the Living and written Word of God, illuminated by the direct ministry of the Holy Spirit.
On the basis of that Word (Jesus) and the living relationship it establishes and maintains, the church is given a particular vocation to pursue—one unique in all of history. The church has a divine purpose—a direction or calling from God, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit that it does not and cannot give itself. The church belongs entirely (body and soul) to God through Christ by the Spirit. It lives in the deepest communion possible with the Trinity in this evil age that is passing away. All that the church does is to be the fruit or overflow of that communion, participating with the Living God in his ongoing ministry and mission to the world. In communion and communication with the Word and Spirit, the church is supplied with “every spiritual blessing” (Eph. 1:3)—all it needs to fulfill its earthly vocation.
SIX PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS
With this foundational truth in mind, let’s now examine six practical applications—ways to live out this truth within the contexts in which we live and minister, both now and into the future.
The first application is that we must avoid confusing the church with other human organizations or institutions. The vocation (calling) God has given the church must not be compromised or diluted. The church’s focus must be kept clear, its aim never wavering or off-target. The church’s one source of its life is Jesus—it lives by his Word and Spirit, and its vocation comes from him and is directed by his voice as our Good Shepherd. The church has no other Lord and Savior, no other source of hope. We must have ears to hear him.
Belonging to Jesus, the church shares his mission and ministry. The nature and task of the church thus cannot be directly compared to any other human configuration, no matter how many forms of overlap there may be. The church has been configured and commissioned for its primary vocation, which is Christ-centered, gospel-focused worship and witness. The church thus does not exist primarily for governance, education, social welfare, marketing, institution building, economic gain, political advancement of society or civilization at large. The church will contribute in a positive way to these other things, but only indirectly, as a byproduct of its primary vocation, which is to know Christ and to make him known.
The church is like light in darkness and salt in a world needing preservation from the ravages of sin. It cannot serve God’s intended purposes by losing its saltiness in order to make itself more palatable to the surrounding culture with its worldly aims and goals. Therefore, in GCI we seek first (and primarily) the coming kingdom of God and the ways of its King as we live out our communion with God, by his abundant grace.
The second application is that we must not judge, control or analyze the church by historical, sociological, anthropological, psychological, economic or political criteria. Instead, we must approach the church and its ministry theologically—looking to our lived relationship with God, mediated by Jesus Christ and his Word as moved by the Spirit. A fundamental principle here is that the church answers to one Lord, one faith, one Spirit, one baptism (Eph. 4:4-6). It does not and cannot serve two masters (Luke 16:13). Its ministers must not be distracted by other goals and tasks, but rather make it their aim to satisfy “the one who enlisted them” (2 Tim. 2:3-6; 4:1-5). When other tools, methods or techniques are used to assist the church in its activities, they must be assessed and then used on a sound biblical and theological basis. Failure to do so results in a reductionist understanding of the nature and aim of the church and even of the nature of the obstacles the church faces.
Even when unintended, practices uncritically adopted risk secularizing the church, giving it a merely human center, goal and aim leading to the church being dragged off its foundation and away from its Cornerstone. In order to avoid this risk, a biblically-grounded theology must be kept at the center of the church’s beliefs and practices, with no other discipline allowed to take that privileged position, with the church’s plans, programs, tools, methods and techniques aligned accordingly. By maintaining this biblical-theological center, the church will be equipped to critically adopt the resources offered by other disciplines, programs, tools, methods, and techniques (including our own!). We will be able to bring them into alignment with our unique vocation as the church called into being by the Word of God and living under his faithful lordship.
The third application is that we must practice Bible study as a spiritual discipline that nurtures community. This application will resonate with many of us because it was in-depth Bible study that was key to GCI’s renewal over the years. Through intensive and prayerful Bible study, GCI leaders and members learned a lot, not just about its mistaken doctrines, but about improper approaches to Scripture, including things like proof texting, starting with mistaken theological assumptions, forcing the Bible to answer questions it was never designed or intended to answer, coming to theological conclusions on the basis of long logical (though false) chains of reasons, etc. This new understanding of and appreciation of Scripture, which resulted in a new biblically-informed, Christ-centered and Trinitarian theological synthesis, was augmented by the judicious use of input from reliable teachers in other denominations and seminaries.
Given this history of Bible study in GCI’s renewal, it makes sense that our continuing renewal as a denomination (including the renewal of individual congregations and members) will depend no less on drinking from the same fountain of God’s Word. We want, therefore, to place a renewed emphasis in GCI on Bible study as a key spiritual discipline. This means having congregations and denominational programs/publications place high priority on encouraging, equipping and enabling GCI members (as they are able) to read and study Scripture both on their own and in groups. This spiritual discipline is for all, no matter what level of education and/or spiritual maturity they may have.
To help us assess the need for a more comprehensive approach to Bible study within our congregations, here are some questions for pastors and other leaders to ask:
- Is the foundation of my congregation (along with its life and practices) centered on and thus continually fed by the Word of God?
- Do our members (individually and together) have opportunity to listen carefully to the Word of God and to respond appropriately to what they have heard?
- To what extent is biblical illiteracy a problem for our members?
Answering these questions may point to deficiencies and therefore the need to establish Bible study as a core spiritual discipline within the congregation. I call this approach to Bible study a spiritual discipline in order to distinguish it from other approaches to Bible study that fail to integrate head and heart, and thus do not yield the freedom of joyful obedience to Christ and formative fellowship with him. Unfortunately, a lot of what passes for Bible study in many churches in our day is speculative, undisciplined, subjective, sentimental, moralistic and even magical. Such approaches do not follow good habits of biblical interpretation, typically taking verses out of context and concluding things without consideration for the genre of the writing, the historical-cultural background to events, and the meaning of words, images and phrases.
In contrast, the approach to Bible study we want to practice is one where members and guests are given opportunity (and training) to listen carefully to the Word of God in its written form and to expect it to contribute to their relationship with the Living Word of God. This type of Bible study arises out of relationship with God and is sustained by God’s grace. It is a form of Bible study that involves careful, disciplined listening to the Word of God in order that we hear in it (not so much apart from it) the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Through this approach, we recognize the voice of our Great Shepherd in what we are reading and studying both individually and corporately. We come to find that this Word, through the Spirit, works deeply in us to free us, transform us, and shed light on our lives, congregations and even on God’s grand purposes for all of history (not speculative “prophecy”!). Through this approach we find growing within us our Lord’s own peace, joy and love along with hunger for his good and right ways. We find our hearts resonating with Christ’s—what grieves him grieves us, what delights him delights us. We come to know him even in his sorrows, ones borne by our brothers and sisters within the body of Christ and by our non-believing neighbors. But along with those sorrows and the grief they bring, we find the strength of hope—we come to recognize Christ’s presence in our midst and we find ourselves being drawn together around the Living Word, finding him at work in each person and in our relationships with each other. We desire more and more to build one another up and not tear one another down. We find that even church discipline, when and if needed, can be given (and received!) with gentleness, firmness and wisdom. Love and truth begin to work together under our Lord’s gracious Word.
Addressing three myths (and other objections) about Bible study
There will, no doubt, be some objections to implementing a comprehensive program of Bible study as a spiritual discipline within our congregations (via worship, preaching and individual and small group study). Some of these objections will likely be based in three long-standing myths regarding Bible study. Let me address (and hopefully dispel) each one:
Myth #1: Bible study only addresses the mind and thus results only in ideas. This is false, for the whole of Scripture, taken together and approached by faith in its author and trust in the ministry of the Holy Spirit, addresses the whole person and the whole body of Christ. In a biblical view of things, the head and heart are vitally linked and are meant to work together. We are called to love God not only with our hearts, but also with our minds (Matt. 22:37). We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-3). Love and knowledge, heart and head, go together in biblical understanding—what feeds one nourishes the other; what fuels one fires the other. If there is a breach between head and heart, God’s speaking to us in his Word heals that breach and makes us whole.
Myth #2: Bible study does not contribute to community or fellowship, and can be an impediment to it—fellowship is better achieved in other ways. In answer to this assertion, note that the Word of God, when heard out of real relationship and communion with its Living Center, draws God’s people together and nourishes their community and fellowship—their sense of belonging together. Bible study as a spiritual discipline directs and coordinates the working, serving and worshipping of the members of the church together. It binds their hearts in Christ’s own love and moves them in love to reach out to others and draw them in. Irenaeus described the Word and the Spirit as the two hands of God graciously and redemptively at work in and among his people. We have seen this happen many times in our fellowship over the years, often to the surprise of those who skeptically joined in. Listening carefully (in a disciplined way) to the Word of God fosters true fellowship—fellowship in the Word.
Myth #3: Bible study is mainly for those who are healthy, not for those with real problems or who are facing debilitating challenges, especially relational or emotional ones. This, too, is false. The Word of God, when studied and heard, in faith, brings healing. That healing, though most often spiritual (involving our personal relationship with God) also involves the healing of our emotions (from trauma, depression, anxiety, fear, anger, resentment, unforgiveness and hopelessness, although skilled counseling will often be needed to address these issues fully). Bible study, when approached in the right way as a spiritual discipline, is not just for brainy people (intellectuals), or left-brained people, or emotionally healthy people. It is not just for the specially gifted, successful or able-bodied. The Word of God is for all! That’s exactly what the Reformation, which began 500 years ago, recognized, resulting in Scripture being made more widely available than ever and in the language of the people (with the invention of the printing press giving this initiative a huge boost!). Because God’s Word never stands alone, but is graciously accompanied by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, transformation, including spiritual healing, can come about simply from listening (with a mustard seed of faith) to the Word of God in fellowship with others of like faith (a faith the Holy Spirit provides). Indeed, hearing the Word of God can awaken sleepy minds, invigorate depressed hearts, sooth angry nerves and raise hopeless spirits. But mostly it reveals the heart, mind, will, purpose and true character of God, bringing forth a growing faith, hope and love in the hearers of that Word. Bible study (as a spiritual discipline) thus leads to worship. One’s whole life changes when inaccuracies, falsehoods, misrepresentations, and even lies about the nature, character, heart, mind and purpose of God are exposed in the light of God’s revelation according to the authority of Scripture. Perhaps all of us at some time have experienced just that! God’s Word heals the human spirit and draws us into a safe and secure relationship with the God of the universe, our Lord and Savior. God, who created by speaking his Word, now recreates and redeems by speaking his Word into our lives through Scripture and by his Holy Spirit.
In evaluating these myths (and others) about Bible study, it’s important to remember that the God of the Bible is a speaking God. From day one of Creation, through Redemption by the incarnate Word of God, through to the Last Day, God, as Thomas Torrance noted, is an eloquent God. The Son of God is the Word of God. The Word of God is the Son. The Son is the communication, the speaking of God in Person to us and the Holy Spirit gives breath and life to that Word. “Faith comes by hearing,” wrote the apostle Paul (Rom. 10:17). Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy that every human life is nourished, not by bread alone, but by the word of God (Matt. 4:4). God’s command to Israel was to “hear” him (Deut. 6:4). The New Testament tells Christians to be “quick to hear” (James 1:19). On several occasions, Jesus said, “Let the one who has ears to hear, hear” (Matt. 11:15). Mary, the mother of Jesus, was one who heard well, responding in faith to God’s word through the archangel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-55). Jesus promises that his sheep will hear his voice and recognize it (John 10:27). In that regard, the early church devoted itself to the apostle’s teaching, which taught the Word of God accurately (Acts 2:42).
The importance of knowing God according to his Word, both written and Living, cannot be over-emphasized. If our congregations are going to truly be centered on and grounded in that Word, we likely will have to overcome some bad habits of Bible study along with dispelling the misconceptions of these three and other myths concerning Bible study. The best way to do that is not to argue or attempt to convince, but to have people come together around the Word of God and experience what God might do through the spiritual discipline of Bible study that promotes a true listening to the Word of God. The proof, as it were, will be in the pudding.
Note: for assistance in conducting Bible studies, see the appendix at the end of this article.
The fourth application of the foundational truth that the church is a unique creation of the Word of God is that we must give priority to the Word of God so that it moves and disciplines all our deeds. Within the church at large, there is an unfortunate tug-of-war between those who want to emphasize words over deeds, or vice versa. This is a mistake, for words and deeds work together. However, it should be understood that the Word (the revelation and instruction of Scripture) is prior to (foundational to) our deeds—our actions are responses to the Word of God spoken and heard; they do not arise in a vacuum. The declarations and promises (indicatives of grace) and commandments (imperatives of grace) of the Word of God not only direct our responses and actions, they free us to act by the power of the Holy Spirit, who is at work in us. By hearing the Word of God illuminated by the Spirit, we are transformed from the inside out. A word not heard or heard superficially, if it leads to any action, will lead to a response made under an external burden at best—it becomes a law that kills. In Scripture, every act or deed called for, including believing in the Gospel, is based on or has its source in who God is and what God has done for us as declared in his Word. And that word of Jesus Christ is what gives birthin us to our response of faith in him and his Word—a faith that produces the obedience of faith, not legalism.
Therefore, the Word of God needs to be our daily food. As Jesus regarded it, God’s Word (which conveys God’s will) was his “meat” (John 4:34, KJV), his sustenance. Jesus did nothing apart from the word of his Father. The Hebrew word for hearing also means obeying. One who truly hears acts on what they hear. That is what Jesus experienced perfectly every day, and that is what he wants to pass on to us, so that we enjoy being the adopted children of God, sharing in his trusting and obedient fellowship with the Father in the Holy Spirit. As the apostle Paul put it, the only kind of response God wants is “the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom. 1:5; 16:26). As we know, faith is generated by the word of Jesus Christ illuminated by the Holy Spirit.
Some may object here, noting that Scripture tells us not to be hearers of the word only, but doers also (James 1:22, KJV). True enough, James’ emphasis is on doing instead of mere hearing. However, note that James assumes his readers are already hearers. He knew that his audience would hear his letter (and those from other apostles) read aloud in church and that they would then discuss what they heard. He knows that most grew up hearing Scripture read and discussed in the synagogue. Thus, James rightly assumes that these Christians have the hearing part well in hand. Apparently, what they lacked, was the follow-through in their actions, and thus his emphasis on their deeds.
Within our congregations, we may have deficits related both to a lack of hearing and a lack of doing. On the hearing side, it may be that some of our members are biblically and theologically illiterate. This is true in many of the churches of the body of Christ in our world. Though many of our members have grown up in a church that emphasizes the Bible and theology, we cannot assume that this knowledge has trickled down to everyone. Legalistic or self-righteous obedience (doing) does not require a deep hearing of the Word of God, but the obedience of faith does. This Word-centered obedience is the only kind of doing that God is interested in for it is the only kind of obedience that is a true response to the grace of God, the mediation of Jesus, and the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Some (many?) of our members (and many people in communities surrounding our churches) have yet to hear deeply, profoundly and comprehensively the Word of God centered in the Living Word, Jesus Christ. Many studies have shown that younger generations do not know the Bible well. Some have shown that the single most repeated request from members of their pastors is to explain the Bible to them. That many who have been related to the church are now abandoning parts of Scripture, with some leaving the church and the Word of God altogether, attest to the problem and the challenge before us.
When one reads the reasons laypersons and even trained pastors and academics give for dismissing all or part of Scripture, it becomes clear that they have a superficial or fragmented view of the written word of God. The arguments they use to justify their rejection indicate a fragmented interpretation of the Bible. In their approach, there is typically no living Center, no interpretive Cornerstone shedding light on the whole. Jesus is disconnected from their understanding of Scripture with the result being that it is misinterpreted and even dismissed. Perhaps Jesus is retained (along with some of his teachings), but that teaching is misinterpreted and held onto apart from the teaching of the apostles Jesus appointed. Some thus split Jesus from his appointed apostles.
This pattern of divide and conquer resembles what so many (most?) cults and false teachers have done since the days of the New Testament. In these cases, assumptions that are alien to a biblical understanding or worldview have colored what little of Scripture is read or assumed to mean. Consider how many misinterpret Jesus’ statement that no one should judge anyone and that he didn’t (Jesus did not condemn, though he often warned in no uncertain terms!). Or, consider the commonly held misunderstanding that the God of the Old Testament is completely different from the God of the New, or more recently that God the Father was a child abuser who abused his Son, or the misinformed view that Christianity itself makes men (male persons) into gods, justifying their emotional and sexual abuse of women. A misunderstanding of Scripture, as we know, can have terrible consequences!
The only corrective to such wrong ideas is not to avoid the Bible, but to study it properly so that it is understood more accurately. The Word of God, both Living and written, must be the center and foundation of the church corporately and thus of the individual Christian’s life. For that to happen, the Word must be the foundation of our preaching, teaching and pastoral counseling. It must also serve as the foundation for our fellowship as a community. Indeed, it should be our goal that our congregations be fellowships under the Word. Being drawn to that Word is what draws us together and keeps us together. It feeds our unity and coordinates our diversity, as the Spirit works through, not apart from or uninformed by, that Word.
For our congregations to truly be fellowships under the Word, our preaching must always proclaim the Word of God, assisting our members in understanding the Word leading them to put their faith, hope and love in the God proclaimed by that Word. Also, a good part (the central part, really) of our fellowship must be devoted to the study of Scripture as a spiritual discipline. That study will most likely work out of the center of the four Gospels. As we emphasize the Word in preaching and through Bible study, we will find that God continues to minister to everyone through his Word, bringing to his beloved children light and life, healing and hope.
The fifth application is that we must deliberately develop good habits of Bible study as a spiritual discipline of communion and communication with God and each other. If Bible study is to result in fellowship around the Word of God (both Living and written), we will need to develop some new habits and approaches related to Bible study as a spiritual discipline. In that regard, note these points:
- Bible study as a spiritual discipline is essential to a personal relationship with God through his Word. Our congregations will need to learn how, together, to listen carefully and in a disciplined way to the Word of God in order to enter more deeply into relationship and communion with the One to whom the Word belongs. A real relationship involves continual personal interaction and exchange: hearing, then responding. A relationship without this ongoing communication is not a relationship. We must learn to listen to our heavenly Father in a deeply personal way. Learning to do so is foundational—there are no shortcuts. There will come no time when we will be finished listening to and interacting with the living and speaking God to whom we are united in the Son by the Spirit.
- Bible study as a spiritual discipline involves the whole church and those with special gifts. God has called and directed the church to listen carefully and in a right way to the Word of God. The unity of the Living God prompts us to see the parts of his Word in the light of the whole of his Word, and the peripheral elements in terms of the central fact and act of God’s revelation in Christ, crucified and resurrected. Bible study, as a spiritual discipline and the fruit of relationship with God, is a group project in which we help each other stay centered on Christ (who is the Center)—hearing the Word of God aright, and taking it to heart. As the church listens carefully, in a disciplined way, to the Word of God, it comes to know God according to his revelation more deeply and securely. It also comes to know others in the fellowship as they see others wrestle with the Word of God and respond to it with their lives. Lives are made whole in God, under his Word. Those listening to the Word of God together will want to listen carefully with the expectation that God is a speaking God who can gently but faithfully lead and guide us as we listen together. Those listening will want to benefit from those who live in daily communion with God and who over the years have become familiar with the whole of the Bible, understood in the light of its Living Center. There will be a growing openness to learn from those specially called to serve the body with particular gifts of understanding and communicating to others how the parts of Scripture fit together around that Living Center. It may be that we will identify some old Bible study habits that need to be left behind and discover new ones that need to be formed—ones that align with the central purpose of Scripture, which is to reveal who God is.
- Bible study as a spiritual discipline is a process that a group learns together. Over time, such groups learn how to study and listen to the Word of God together. This learning is a process—part of learning to be a fellowship under the Word. This process begins in our worship that includes biblical preaching that is theologically informed. It then extends into our individual and small group times of study. Those who come together should prayerfully give it time. Its leaders will be best served if they are well-prepared and supported in this foundational ministry of the body of Christ.
- The central question of Bible study as a spiritual discipline is this: “Who are you, Lord?” Our central prayer in approaching Bible study should be this: Show us, Lord, who you really are. The answer to that prayer should be experienced by all the members together, with each one taking personal responsibility for what they hear and for their responses. Each member of the body of Christ has a personal relationship with the same Lord and Savior whose word we all attend to. We meet both together and individually at the foot of his cross.
- Bible study as a spiritual discipline leads to prayer and caring for others. Further prayers, of course, will flow out of our listening together to the Word as it is heard and taken to heart. There will be a sense of being drawn together with those who are also carefully listening and eager to respond as the Word sets them free. There will arise a growing desire to pray for, serve and care for one another. The result will be a community of fellowship around the Word of God, both Living and written.
- Bible study as a spiritual discipline leads to the obedience of faith. The commands of Scripture, rather than being burdensome obligations externally imposed, will be experienced as light and freeing, having purpose and direction. The obedience of those who are studying together under the Word will flow out of a growing relationship with our Lord, a relationship of faith, hope and love, not of guilt, fear and anxiety. This obedience will be the overflow of our shared fellowship with the Lord and our belonging one to another in him.
- Bible study as a spiritual discipline leads to witness, outreach and service. The Word we hear and respond to together in prayer and worship will overflow in these ways. It cannot be contained any more than joy and thanksgiving can be contained. As we feed together on the Word of God, we will be encouraged, strengthened and moved to share with others not only in the community of faith, but also beyond. New habits of Bible study as a spiritual discipline of communion with God and each other, definitely lead to witness. This witness takes the forms of invigorated evangelism (finding opportunities to share the good news with pre-believers) and missional outreach and service. Disciplined listening will continually remind us of the faithfulness and goodness of God revealed absolutely in Jesus Christ—this good news can’t stay bottled up! It wants to overflow, inviting others to join in the celebration. Those who know the goodness and faithfulness of God as presented in Scripture will be better prepared to introduce others to him, that they too might enter into loving and trusting relationship with God under his Word. A notable example of this dynamic is the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well in Sychar (John 4:1-30). In response to the grace of God in Christ, she told the story of her encounter with Jesus to her fellow villagers and then directed them to Jesus, saying, “Come, see a man….” (John 4:29). Many of those who heard her words did just that and believed for themselves. She simply introduced them to Jesus and he took it from there!
The sixth application is that we must train Bible study leaders who, having overcome bad habits by gaining good habits, will then help others do the same. GCI and the body of Christ at large are in need of well-trained leaders capable of leading Bible study as a spiritual discipline in the way we’ve addressed here. Bad habits are often hard to get rid of, and they usually do not disappear automatically. If GCI is to successfully “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Eph. 4:12, KJV), it must continue to train key leaders who will then train others to lead people in studying the Bible as a spiritual discipline. This skill is best caught rather than taught—learned by seeing it modeled; experiencing it in small group settings over a good many hours. Such training cannot be done merely on paper or in a short amount of time. It will perhaps take a full weekend or two for key leaders to get started with follow-up provided (perhaps on-line) with a qualified trainer, for multiple sessions which can serve as preparation for leading a study on a particular passage.
The church has the privilege of being involved in the most important ongoing event in all history by being God’s ambassadors, announcing that God has reconciled the world to himself in Christ. Based in his Word, God can use our witness (in words and deeds) as a way for people to live into that reconciliation, thus entering a deep and personal daily relationship with him, by the Spirit. In short, the church becomes a community under the Word and Spirit whose aim, as we say it in GCI, is “living and sharing the Gospel.”
By the Word of God (both Living and written), we come to know and trust God with our whole lives. By that Word we are formed into God’s particular people who have been called to make him known. By his Word we become a people of worship and witness, united yet properly diverse. We become more and more a harmonized body, knit together, building itself up in God’s kind of love. We can be involved in offering others the greatest gift that there is—God’s gift of himself to us in Jesus Christ, who is God’s own Word to us. As God’s adopted children, there is no greater privilege than to participate by the Spirit in the “family business” of worship and witness. This is what we were created and redeemed to be and to do. That is what it means to be the church that belongs to Jesus Christ. There is nothing that can make more of a difference in anyone’s life than to introduce them to Jesus, the Son and Word of God to us. He alone has the words of life. He alone is the Triune God’s Word of Life to us.
How to Lead Bible Study as a Spiritual Discipline
Leading Bible study as a spiritual discipline (as addressed above) involves using approaches and tools that help us listen carefully to the Word of God, then respond appropriately. Careful listening is a vital key. Here are some guidelines:
- Begin with prayer, which helps place us in a position of open hearts and ears, ready to hear what God has for us individually and as a group.
- Read the passage, then ask this: What does this passage tell us about the nature, character, purpose, heart and mind of God? The Bible is meant primarily to answer this question: “Who is God?” The answer is finally revealed in Jesus, who made this question central when he asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” All other questions we may put to the Bible must be secondary (questions like, What?, Why?, How?, Where?, When?). Answers to these secondary questions can be found and properly understood only in the light of who God is and who he has revealed himself to be, ultimately, in Jesus Christ.
- Discovering the answer to this primary question requires carefully listening to what the author of a particular passage is saying to the original audience and how the author is saying it (see more detail below).
- Critical evaluation of what is being studied then comes only after the process of careful listening has been completed.
With these points about careful listening in mind, here are additional details to consider:
- We read Scripture with the underlying assumption that its author was deliberate in what he wrote and said, enough for his readers to understand what he intends to convey.
- Our purpose in studying the passage is not to critique or judge what the author says, or to stand over and against him, apart from him. Rather, by means of study, we come alongside the author and let him show us what he sees, knows and believes. We want to see and understand what he grasps and knows and wants to share with us. We stand with him and share with him (as best we can) in his frame of mind, ready to respond as he did to what he came to know and believe.
- It is thus vital that we pay close attention to what the author says and how he says it. As we then move through the passage (better yet, the whole book), it is important to keep in mind all that we have studied before—to see each new passage in light of the preceding passages in the book. We want to understand everything in context, for the context contributes greatly to accurately hearing what the author has to say.
- We must observe and consider the text to see what questions arise from it, rather than bringing questions with us to the text. We want to interpret what the author says based on our observations of the text before us. We want to understand, as much as possible, the passage being studied on its own before comparing it to other passages.
- Careful listening requires paying attention to how the passage fits into the whole literary unity (paragraph, chapter, book, etc.) and the line of argument or order of presentation. It then pays attention to how the author presents the material (words used, rhetorical devices, verbal tone, etc.), taking into consideration the literary genre the author used to convey the message (parable, letter, gospel, psalm, history, wisdom, apocalyptic, etc.).
- Careful listening takes into consideration the linguistic, social, cultural and historical background of the writing. It will not assume that it was identical to our own, even though we are all equally human and in need of grace. Judicious use of resources created for that purpose will be consulted (Bible background commentaries, Bible dictionaries, Bible atlases, carefully selected commentaries, etc.).
- Careful listening involves seeking to understand the author’s intent, aim or purpose in relating to the reader what they have written. What outcome were they looking for? Why did they write what they did?
- The central question to be asked is this: What does this passage tell us about who God is? Also, how does what we see in this passage contribute to the whole portrait of the nature, character, mind, heart and purposes of God, as finally revealed in Jesus Christ? We then (and only then) ask and answer questions that relate the passage to our own lives (i.e. application): What difference would it make if we lived as if what we have heard here is true and real? What can we believe about or trust God for? What can we thank God for? What might we need to repent of? What might we be set free to do? What can we hope for? What have we heard that is good news to share?