I had a conversation recently with a brother in the Lord who was excited about the “bible study” that he had been attending. I am always encouraged to hear about good bible studies so I began talking with him about the class. As it turned out the group was working through a book about developing Christian character. I have no reason to assume that it is not a good book and it probably includes many worthwhile observations but the fact is that it is not the bible. I thought it was curious that this kind of class would be referred to by those attending as a “bible study”. It also bothered me to learn that this was the only class offered at the moment since the entire church was going through the material together. It occurred to me that we have so many bible study resources available to us today that in some ways they can distract us from actually spending time in the Word of God itself.
I am certainly not opposed to reading or even studying Christian literature. Book reviews and reading recommendations are an important part of what we provide on this site, however, reading books about the bible is not the same as studying the scriptures themselves. It is important that we never confuse reading or studying those resources with “doing bible study”. Christian books or topical teachings may be perfectly appropriate at times in our churches but they should always be understood as supplementary to the primary ministry of the Word. Bible study should be one of the primary functions in any church and there are a few things that must be included in order for it to truly be a bible study.
The first is direct interaction with the text of scripture. This means that the students are working to understand the words of God directly. While commentaries, study bible notes, and other tools can be valuable they should be used to support the primary work in the text. Those resources should not be relied upon to provide the interpretation of the passage but rather to provide observational information related to grammar, word use, historical references, etc. as the student works through the interpretive process. Like commentaries and study bible notes, class lectures from the teacher should be seen as a tool to support the student’s engagement with the text. If a teacher has studied the text and simply comes and tells a group of students what he or she learned that is not a bible study from the student’s perspective. There is a difference between preaching or declaring the Word and teaching a bible study. Bible study should involve the class directly engaging the living Word of God through at least an observation of the purpose, structure, and context of the text leading to the development of an interpretation that can be defended from the text.
Secondly, in addition to direct engagement with the Word a bible study should include a consideration of how the teaching in the text applies to the student. We should move from the details in the text to an interpretation that includes timeless truths which we can then apply directly in our own lives. Scripture is clear that one of the main purposes of God’s revelation is to renew our mind so that we might be changed, maturing into the likeness of Christ Himself. Bible study isn’t about simply imparting knowledge of certain facts. It is about the Holy Spirit working through that knowledge to grow us and equip us for every good work. A lesson that is understood but not applied is of no value.
Sadly, there are a great many Christians today that have never experienced the growth and joy that can only come from wrestling with God’s word through real bible study. There is a confidence and depth to convictions that are formed by working with the text that simply cannot be matched by reading someone else’s work. I am not suggesting that everyone needs to be a theological expert but I do believe that God gives teachers to the church precisely so that they may help others to understand His Word. Teachers should be helping students gain skill and confidence through spending time in the Word rather than separating the student from the Word. Unfortunately there are a great many Christian students that think that they are getting something that they are not getting. There is no substitute for the power of God’s word wrought upon the life of the believer by the Holy Spirit. To have a bible study is a tremendous privilege and a great blessing and we should be very clear about its unique value. If there were more churches leading their people directly into the study of the Word corporately and teaching people how to study it on their own individually I think we would see a reformation of our churches that would rival that of the 16th century.