I grew up in church.
From my earliest memories, my family went to Sunday School, Sunday morning worship service, Sunday night worship service, Wednesday night Bible study at the church, and sometimes another Bible study in somebody’s home. I attended Christian schools from third through twelfth grades. I went to youth groups and Christian summer camps, youth retreats, prayer meetings, and conventions.
I learned all the theologies and the clubhouse jargon of our church’s denomination and some others besides: substitutionary atonement, the Bride of Christ, pre-trib eschatology, and other fun phrases that would be completely meaningless to anyone not already in the know. I had even read the Bible–parts of it many times–and memorized a bunch of verses.
But then, one day, I discovered that, despite all of my time spent immersed in Christian culture, I didn’t actually know the Bible. Sure, I knew lots of Bible stories. I could recite the names of all the books in order and find them in my Bible faster than anyone, but I didn’t understand very much of what they had to say.
Along came the Internet.
Throughout the 1990s, I spent a lot of time on the Internet talking to people around the world about God and the Bible. I discovered that much of what I believed to be self-evident, was really just stuff that someone told me one time or a hundred times, and that I had accepted uncritically.
In itself, that’s not necessarily a problem. Most people learn most of what they know by absorbing it from their families, friends, and environments, and that’s fine. It’s how we learn language, good manners, and personal safety. It’s a good thing to teach our children what we believe about life and God.
On the other hand, the existence of thousands of Christian and Jewish sects is clear evidence that much of what most people teach their children about God from the Bible is wrong. Trinitarians and Unitarians can’t both be right about the Trinity. Arminians and Calvinists can’t both be right about predestination. At some point, every serious believer needs to begin evaluating the doctrines they’ve been taught, weighing them against Scripture and deciding for themselves if they are true or not.
That doesn’t mean you have to learn Hebrew and Greek or enroll in seminary. Fortunately, most of the Bible isn’t that hard to understand. Certainly there are obscure passages, hints and shadows and mysteries that can be very difficult to tease apart, but none of those things are vital to our faith. Most of Scripture, including everything we need to know to judge major doctrines, obtain eternal salvation, and have a good relationship with God, is pretty straightforward as long as we never allow the ambiguous to overshadow the obvious.
The Internet has given us access to Bible study tools that were beyond the grasp of even the wealthiest universities of the past. We have entire libraries of searchable dictionaries, commentaries, encyclopedias, and concordances available anytime, anywhere. These are amazing tools that have opened the Scriptures for believers like never before, enabling us to “test the spirits, whether they are of God” or not. (See 1 John 4:1.)
Unfortunately, once we conclude that we have inherited one theological lie or another (see Jeremiah 16:19), in our zeal, it’s tempting to start seeing lies everywhere. The tools that ought to help us zero in on the truth, serve instead to magnify misconceptions and faulty reasoning with the tragic result that many people spend years chasing fantasies and irrelevant tangents. I see people fall into the same traps over and over, most of them easy to avoid. Worse yet, they drag others into the weeds with them, getting lost together.
I hate seeing good people sucked into vortices of nonsense and “foolish controversies” (see Titus 3:9) when they could be putting their energy into building positive relationships with God and their communities! Effective Bible study takes discipline and purpose, but it doesn’t have to be endless confusion and frustration.
It really doesn’t have to be that hard. Bible study ought to be a source of joy, and it can be!
Over the next few weeks (months?), I’m going to be giving you some tools to help you stay focused and productive in your Bible study, to help keep you from getting dragged into the weeds or becoming the instrument through which Satan causes someone else to fall. These will be simple, common-sense rules for Bible study. Some you will, no doubt, be familiar with already. Others might be new to you. In any case, I hope and pray that they will be helpful.
In particular, I believe this series will be most helpful for three kinds of people:
- People who are ready to get serious about Bible study, but aren’t sure where to start.
- People who are dismayed by the crazy variety of teachings about the Bible and aren’t confident in their ability to sort through them all.
- People who are wondering about a new teaching they heard or read and aren’t sure what to think about it.
If any of those describe you, then I really hope you stick around. Give me your name and email address below so I can let you know when the next installment is posted. There should be a new article in this series every week and you won’t want to miss one!
Every step is important. Sign up above to get access to parts of the series that are marked “email only”!
- The Ground Rules – Who is this series for and what will you get out of it.
- 3 Steps to Prepare for Bible Study – Basic preparation for effective study.
- 3 false trails that can get you lost in the theological weeds
- Distractions (Email only) – Rabbit trails, tangents, and pretty flowers.
- Secret Clubs (Email only) – What do you do when you discover something that nobody else knows?
- Sentimentality (Email only) – Eventually you’re going to read something in the Bible that just doesn’t feel right.