Sunday Meditations: Discovery Bible Studies

Discovery Bible Studies are a Thing that has become popular recently in various evangelistic and church-planting movements.  Depending on the organization, the particulars of how to conduct a Discovery Bible Study may vary a little bit, but the basic upshot is that you take a group of people who are interested in spiritual things, give them Bibles, take a curated list of texts, and have them go through the texts answering a short series of questions that are variations of, “What do I think this text means?”  The most popular questions seem to be:

  • What does this passage tell me about God?
  • What does it tell me about people?
  • What will I personally do in my own life in response to this passage?

The idea is that the Holy Spirit works through this process to create faith, conversions, obedience, and core groups used as the seed to plant churches.  Apparently, this has been very successful numerically, although field research has demonstrated that it is very difficult to find many of these churches a few years afterward.

Not that anybody cares or should care, but I have some real Kingdom of God concerns about this practice.  I do not think the practice is evil, nor do I think that every DBS should disband.  But I do have concerns, and I have been thinking about them insofar as my own church is getting involved in starting these sorts of bible studies.

They’re Not Biblical

I want to say this is not actually a concern of mine.  I don’t care if there’s a biblical basis for a particular church activity or not.  Truth is truth whether it is present in general or special revelation.  Further, the Bible does not provide blueprints for a wide variety of worthwhile human activities.  In fact, the one activity for which it cannot provide instructions is how to do a Bible study since the Bible did not exist at the time of any of the biblical writings.  Churches can do good and effective things without a particular passage in the Bible defining those things.

The reason I bring this up is because this practice is typically at the center of Disciple-Making Movements which self-consciously proclaim Luke 10:1-16 as the biblical model for evangelism and church planting.  This episode where Jesus sends people into villages to prepare them for his in-person arrival is used as a blueprint for all church planting efforts everywhere for all time, even though the apostolic model seems to vary much more widely.

It is just interesting to me that an organization can, on the one hand, make so much out of their basic approach to church planting being “biblical” while tacking onto it a methodology (Discovery Bible Studies) that are nowhere in the Bible.

In fact, when we see someone sharing a biblical text in the New Testament, they also explain it.  Jesus does this.  The apostles do this.  There are no instances where someone quotes the Old Testament and says, “So, what do you guys think about this passage?”

If there is a biblical model for communicating biblical knowledge, it is surely the teacher-student or preacher-audience model.  There aren’t any others presented.  Even Philip explains the Bible to the Ethiopian eunuch; he doesn’t ask the eunuch to record his own thoughts.  In fact, it appears the Holy Spirit specifically sends Philip to the Ethiopian for this very purpose, which seems odd if the “model” is that the Spirit teaches Scripture-readers directly.

Someone could say, “Just because all of our examples are of a knowledgeable person explaining the Scriptures to less knowledgeable people, that doesn’t mean we are constrained by those examples to only do it that way.”  I would agree, and I would promptly add this also applies to evangelism and church planting.

The Role of the Spirit

The idea behind the DBS is that the Spirit is a better teacher of the meaning of the Scriptures than a person.  I would agree with that in the abstract, even though, once again, there is no example in the New Testament where someone was left to just themselves and the Holy Spirit to understand the Scriptures.

However, the DBS’ do not sit down with Bibles and have at it.  They are given a curated list of texts.  So, the meaning is left to the activity of the Spirit, but the choice of texts is definitely not.  Why not?  Is it because a person is a better selector of texts than the Spirit?  Or is it perhaps that the architects of the DBS movement understand that people new to the Bible need guidance?  Perhaps they recognize at their core that this Spirit-teaching: Good / Man-teaching: Bad is an artificial dichotomy when we are talking about Spirit-filled people explaining the Scriptures, but they still maintain that dichotomy as a justification for their method.

If this dichotomy were real, then the Spiritual gifts of teaching and preaching that Paul says have been given to the Church are not only pointless, but counterproductive.  It would be far better on Sunday, for instance, if we all just heard the biblical text and sat quietly for a while, coming up with our own interpretations and applications, and then just left (granted, I have heard some sermons that would have been greatly improved by being replaced with people just coming up with their own stuff).  The preaching and teaching of a person would just get in the way of the direct communication and instruction we should receive from the Spirit, if that’s how this worked.

But these are Spiritual gifts given by the Spirit to the Church through which the Spirit operates.  The Spirit doesn’t primarily teach us all through some kind of supernatural, mystical, private revelation; the Spirit teaches us through Spirit-gifted preachers and teachers who are full of the Spirit.  A Spirit-filled teacher exercising their gifts in community in accordance with the Word is the primary means by which the Spirit teaches.  There is no difference.  Certainly, teachers are fallible, but is the activity of my own private reading and understanding somehow less fallible?  Is it somehow “more spiritual” if it’s my own brain instead of someone else’s?

Why does the Holy Spirit send Philip to the Ethiopian?

This is leaving aside the fact that the DBS is really geared toward spiritually-interested people who are not yet Christians.  They don’t even have the Spirit, themselves.  Yet, somehow, they are supposed to be more in tune with the Spirit and the spiritual understanding of the Bible than an actual teacher.

This is a concern of mine, not just because it seems wrong to me, but because we are perpetuating the Westernized ideal of a spirituality that is primarily private, individual, and mystical where my own thoughts get top billing over the counsel of pastors, elders, or really anything anyone else might say.  This is not what the Kingdom of God looks like in the Bible.  It’s a Western concept of ascetic spirituality that has thoroughly hamstrung the Church in America, and now we’re baptizing the rest of the world into it as well.

The Dominance of Culture

A hundred years ago, my theological forefathers were maintaining that the Bible advocated and promoted the slavery practiced in the antebellum South.  Today, American Christians have a Jesus who opposed gun control, opposed immigration, defended States’ rights, defended private property, and wants you to be rich just so long as you don’t get too carried away with it.  These effects, and many others, come from reading the Bible from the standpoint of American culture in your time period.

DBS people realize this as a danger, and as a result, want to keep Western culture from influencing the message of the Bible in other cultures.  Their solution, however, is to have people read the Bible from the standpoint of their culture.

But this doesn’t solve the problem.  It just replaces American cultural issues and biases with the issues and biases of another culture.  Anyone who is reading the Bible primarily from a standpoint besides first-century Judea is bound to be making the Bible say all kinds of interesting things completely unintended by the authors.

There is nothing inherently better in a naive modern Indian reading of the Bible than a naive modern American reading of the Bible.  Both of them are going to appropriate the Scriptures into their own worldviews, confirm their own prejudices, and produce a result crafted in their own image.  Even if the results challenge them, they are results that are generated from their own modern cultural standpoint.  This is why we can have “convicting” sermons about the dangers of teaching evolution in public schools.

One might object that it is impossible to read the Bible outside of our own cultural assumptions.  This is correct, but the remedy for that is to get closer to the Bible’s own cultural assumptions, not just throw our hands up in desperation or, worse yet, neuter the Bible by trying (and failing uproariously) to make it trans-cultural and trans-historical.  Even worse is to take the DBS approach which simply surrenders the biblical text to the cultural assumptions of the modern reader.

The main reason people have a hard time understanding the Bible is because there is a great historical and cultural distance between them and the writings.  The solution to this is to labor with the people of God to close that gap, not just capitulate and say, “Hey, however you guys want to read this is cool,” and feel good that we haven’t imposed a Western reading.

The Bible Answering Questions

In 2 Timothy 4:13, we read:

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.  (NRSV)

What does this passage tell you about God?  What does it tell you about people?  What are you going to do in response to this text?

I hope that even the most pious and allegorical of us can recognize that 2 Timothy 4:13 is a portion of a personal letter where the writer asks the recipient to bring him his cloak and books and papers that he’s left behind.  And that’s pretty much it.  The passage does not reveal any particular truths about God or human nature (except our tendency to lose track of our belongings), and this is certainly not an imperative for all believers everywhere to fetch cloaks or books from Troas.

Now, imagine someone trying to make this passage answer those questions.

“This tells me that God is sovereign, providing a way for Paul to get his cloak back despite Paul’s own negligence.  It tells me that people need the Scriptures, because it was through the Scriptures that Paul was able to ask Timothy to get his cloak.  I will now go out and help people recover their lost objects as well.”

We would say that, not only has this person produced something completely artificial and unintended, but that they have also missed the actual meaning of the passage.  By making a weird spiritual construct out of it, we are no longer interpreting the text as intended – as a personal part of a letter.

This is probably a big reason why DBS’ work off a curated list instead of being a Bible study where the participants go through a cohesive book; we recognize that, when we bring a set of our own questions to a text, the text may not answer them.  And in trying to force the text to answer them, we may end up not only constructing things that are foreign to the text, we may very well miss the actual meaning in our effort to make it answer our questions.

This, to me, can be a very crippling way to introduce someone to reading the Bible and virtually guarantees they will have a very hard time with it as they read more.

We do not come to the Bible with our questions and concerns.  We listen for what it has to say.  The Bible has its own world, its own issues, and its own concerns that may or may not overlap with our own.  To understand it, we need to receive it on its own terms, not bring our terms to it.

I remember, years ago, the late Charlie Dennison telling me a story about a man in a congregation who heard a sermon out of Philippians and promptly told the pastor that the sermon was wrong because it didn’t mention joy.  Philippians, according to this man, is the epistle of joy, and therefore, any passage you explain out of Philippians should tell you something about joy.

Now, we all can agree that joy is an important theme in the Bible, and perhaps it is especially prominent in Philippians, though I’m not terribly sure about that.  But I also hope we can agree that doesn’t mean every single passage in Philippians must tell you something about joy.  If you force every passage to do this, not only will you inevitably say things the author did not intend, but you have a very high risk of missing the passage’s actual meaning, because you have to make it about joy, not whatever the passage might actually be telling you.

One of the biggest barriers between a believer and their Bible is their own damn selves, and this is one of the ways it happens.  We do not know how to listen to the Bible, because it sounds like an alien to us.  So, instead, we make its sounds fit our language.  Romans is no longer addressing the problems of a church torn apart by an influx of Gentile believers into a predominantly Jewish community; it is now about whether we are saved by faith or works.  Jesus is no longer warning his listeners of an upcoming destruction of Jerusalem; he is now talking about the end of time, probably in our generation.  Genesis 1 no longer establishes El as the true creator of the heavens and the earth who is superior to Baal because He simply commands chaos to be ordered instead of having to battle it; it is now an apologetic against Charles Darwin.  Because we bring our own questions to the text, we have made them something useful for our purposes and have become deafened to the voice of the text.

“But nobody is going to know those things when they come to the text for the first time,” you object.  “We don’t know those issues or that culture.  We don’t think that way.  It would take a lot of study and explanation to understand what these texts have to say in their own context.”

Yes, exactly.  Exactly.  I could not have said it better, myself.  Although I will say this – we have largely created this situation for ourselves.  If the Church had stuck with handing down the biblical narrative and context from generation to generation as Israel used to instead of forcing it to answer our own questions and concerns, then reading the Bible that way would be second nature to us.  Instead, because of practices like making the text answer our questions, we have all but buried any meaning the text might have in its own world.  Now reading that way is hard and takes lots of study, but its our own fault that’s the case, and it sure isn’t going to get any better by reading an ancient text from the Levant and asking a room full of vaguely spiritual South Africans, “What does this tell you about people?”

Wow, You Really Hate These Things

I don’t.  I hate the things that have happened in the relationship between the Church and her Scriptures that make things like Discovery Bible Studies sound like the greatest thing ever.

I think the people behind DBS’ recognize the excesses that the West has had when imposing their culturally-conditioned interpretations of Scripture on newcomers.  They recognize this is bad.  They are genuinely trying to help people have a spiritual encounter with God through the Scriptures unfettered by American evangelicalism telling you what’s what.  I can’t hate that.  I love them for that.

But I think it’s misguided.  I think, in the long run, this way of introducing the future Church to her Scriptures is just going to make the whole mess much, much worse.  I am afraid of the Church losing whatever tenuous connections she has with her original identity, and I think efforts like this will speed us down the way to becoming wholly alienated from the Bible.

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