At the conclusion of the women's Bible study last year, I was deluged with cards and emails from participants expressing their gratitude, reflecting on what they had learned, and, almost uniformly, uttering a confession I have heard so often that it no longer surprises. I still waver between joy and discouragement as I read that confession on card after beautiful thank-you card. I still vacillate between celebration and grief each time it turns up in my inbox. I still hesitate between thankfulness and frustration every time it is spoken to me over coffee. Their confession is this:
I've been in church for years, but no one has taught me to study my Bible until now.
I remember confessing the same thing myself almost twenty years ago. It is gratifying to know that our efforts to help women know the Bible are changing the way they understand their God and their faith. But it is terrifying to me that so many log years in the church and remain unlearned in the Scriptures. This is not their fault, and it is not acceptable.
Leaders, I fear we have made a costly and erroneous assumption about those we lead. I fear that in our enthusiasm to teach about finances, gender roles, healthy relationships, purity, culture wars, and even theology, we have neglected to build foundational understanding of the Scriptures among our people. We have assumed that the time they spend in personal interaction with their Bible is accumulating for them a basic firsthand knowledge of what it says, what it means, and how it should change them. Or perhaps we have assumed that kind of knowledge isn't really that important.
So we continue to tell people this is what you should believe about marriage and this is what you need to know about doctrine and this is what your idolatry looks like, but because we never train them in the Scriptures, they have no framework to attach these exhortations to beyond their church membership or their pastor's personality or their group leader's opinion. More importantly, they have no plumb line to measure these exhortations against. It never occurs to them to disagree with what they are being taught because they cannot distinguish between our interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself, having little to no firsthand knowledge of what it says.
And they've been in church for years.
When we offer topical help—even if the topic is doctrine—without first offering Bible literacy, we attempt to furnish a house we have neglected to construct. As a friend and seminarian said to me this week, "There is a reason that seminaries offer hermeneutics before systematic theology." He is right. But it would seem many who have enjoyed the rare privilege of seminary have forgotten to pass on this basic principle to the women they now lead.
We must teach the Bible. Please hear me. We must teach the Bible, and we must do so in such a way that those sitting under our teaching learn to feed themselves rather than rely solely on us to feed them. We cannot assume that our people know the first thing about where to start or how to proceed. It is not sufficient to send them a link to a reading plan or a study method. It is our job to give them good tools and to model how to use them. There is a reason many love a devotional book on Jesus more than they love the Gospel of John. If we equip them with the greater thing, they will lose their desire for the lesser thing.
I wish you could see how the women in our studies come alive like well-watered plants after a drought. I wish you could hear their excitement over finally, finally being given some tools to build Bible literacy.
I can't believe how much I've grown since I started studying . . . I had only done topical studies . . . I didn't know you could study like this . . . I was so tired of navel-gazing . . . I've never been asked to love God with my mind . . . My husband teases me about how excited I am to tell him what we're learning . . . I've never studied a book of the Bible from start to finish.
They are so humble in admitting what they don't know. We must be humble in admitting what we have left undone.
As I read their notes, joy always trumps discouragement. Celebration overturns grief. Thankfulness overrides frustration. And because the need is great, I commit myself to wade through another stack of commentaries, to write another curriculum on another book of the Bible, to give another year to building the house of Bible literacy in which the furnishings of doctrine and other worthy topics can take their rightful places. We owe our people more than assertions of what is biblical and what is not. We owe them the Bible and the tools necessary to soberly and reverently "take up and read." The task requires resolve, but the reward is great. Will you join me?
Editor’s Note: Watch Jen Wilkin’s plenary sessions on teaching God’s Word at the Revive ’15 conference.