Imagine with me an elderly widow of a Christian congregation. Every morning, she meets with other widows for a cup of tea and prayer over the sufferings of the people they know and shared by others in the world. She volunteers on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to help take care of children at an orphanage. Although she lives in a small apartment, she invites students over on holidays who have nowhere else to go and cooks a meal for them. She has a small sofa that folds out into a bed that she frequently offers to people who need a place to stay due to some traumatic experience, and that bed has held everyone from foster children needing short-term care to visiting preachers to families evicted from their apartments.
She has never gotten any awards for any of this. Her name has never been announced from the pulpit, nor does it appear as the head of any committees or in the bulletin or newsletter, anywhere. She just quietly serves with what she has.
Now, imagine that same woman being lectured in Sunday School by a young man about how grossly she has misinterpreted a Bible verse about “humility.”
As ironic as such a thing sounds, that scene and scenes very much like it play out in churches all over America. I have no doubt that, especially in my youth, I have taken center stage in such scenes.
The irony is, of course, that this woman understands humility. She literally embodies it. She gives humility skin and bones. She is a walking sermon in humility and her life is a program of instruction – an intensive series of courses on walking humbly. The young man who “knows the Bible” needs to learn from her what humility means. Whatever skill or knowledge he might possess in exegesis or the context of texts has done nothing but make him proud and blind to the fact that, for all the hours he spent on the Greek morphology of the text, he might have invested in a friendship with this widow and learned more of godliness than he ever could have in his own reading – godliness that is etched on that lady’s bones.
One of the more uncomfortable realizations I have had over the last few years is how little value “Bible knowledge” has both to me as an individual and in the consistent life and witness of the Church. That is not to say such knowledge is not valuable, but rather that its actual value is often far out of proportion to the value we place on it in the American church.
This realization is very uncomfortable for me because it’s one of the few aspects of faith that I’m any good at and largely defines what I have to offer a body of believers. It’s very uncomfortable to sign up for the pot luck with grand thoughts of dishes that will make everyone “ooh” and “aah” and then realize that you’re the one bringing the bags of ice. Yes, everyone can use the ice, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the centerpiece you thought it was. And, funny thing, if you failed to bring the ice, somehow people would still benefit from the host who was providing the water.
On the way to worship this morning, it occurred to me that I may possess the least of all spiritual gifts – the spiritual gift of knowing stuff. If you read the New Testament for any length of time, you will discover that the spiritual gift of knowing stuff is not held in very high regard – at least the type of knowing stuff that comes from study and intellectual rigor.
The New Testament is not against study or intellectual rigor and, in fact, illustrates the place for this among the Church. We might think of Paul, for instance, and his knowledge of the Old Testament, the Greek classics, plays, politics, and philosophy – and how his ability to be conversant in those topics helped him address different audiences, be conversant with various groups, and open up the Old Testament for those who were struggling to reconcile it with what was happening in those first decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But however useful these things were to Paul, they were not why God called him to be an apostle.
I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
1 Timothy 1:12-17 (NRSV)
Paul wasn’t called to service because of his education (although God used that); he was called to service because he was initially a terrible person. The terriblest, to hear him tell it. The fact that he received mercy and not judgement from the Christ he persecuted was intended to be an example to everyone.
And when you think about Paul’s persuasive power in the early church, or even to this day, what do you think of – some particularly clever argument or insight into an Old Testament passage? Or the fact that someone who thought they were on a mission from God when he imprisoned and killed those early Christians ultimately poured out his life so that Christianity might grow and flourish? Which one of those things indicates that Paul had an encounter with the risen Lord? Which one of those things testifies most powerfully that Jesus is alive and is the Lord? Paul’s insightful teachings or his life?
Paul, well-educated rhetorician that he is, also offers us this little gem in the midst of a practical and theological controversy about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols:
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.
1 Corinthians 8:1b-3 (NRSV)
And this is easily the most intellectual of Jesus’ followers we read about in the New Testament. Apollos is probably in there, too, and he almost managed to cause a church split because he was so brilliant. Maybe bringing up the end of the “educated” pack is Matthew, a tax collector, who was making money off the oppression of his own people. Most of Jesus’ disciples were uneducated peasants who couldn’t read the Old Testament if you glued it to their faces.
But Paul’s education and sharp mind were used in the Church, as were Apollos’ and Matthew’s (probably)! As you say, but it was not these things that brought the living presence and power of Christ to the Church:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
1 Corinthians 1:20-25 (NRSV)
But Paul, you might respond, is talking about worldly wisdom and philosophies. Surely he doesn’t mean the truths found in the Bible.
Well, the thing is, understanding the Bible in a way that makes a difference doesn’t really come from fancy book learnin’, neither.
In Jesus’ day, the scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the priests – these people all knew the Scriptures better than any of Jesus’ disciples. Easily. They could out-Hebrew, out-Greek, out-commentary, out-original-context, out-historical-studies, out-exegete any of Jesus’ disciples with one hand tied behind their back. There were no teachers of the Bible greater than these people.
But what did that gain them, in the end?
In a passage where a group of people at a Jewish festival refuse to help a sick man because it was the Sabbath, Jesus issues diatribe against them including:
You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you.
John 5:39-41 (NRSV)
All that Bible knowledge did was provide them a nice buffer between themselves and the actual Jesus, not to mention the things that God actually wanted them to be doing. The fisherman who helped carry an injured Israelite to where he needed to go was so much closer to “understanding the Bible” than the people who actually understood the Bible, because God was in him and not simply an object of study.
The picture we get in the New Testament is that God has to open our eyes to the Scriptures to see in them the mysteries of the kingdom, and this is not something that comes from greater study but an actual encounter – an etching of God’s truth on pages of the heart that leads to a life of humble and faithful obedience.
Study, I can tell you both from the Bible and from personal experience, has a devastating tendency to create pride and self-satisfaction and turn you from the very path of lived-out suffering and redemption that you need to walk to have God’s words written on your heart.
You will never learn to fish until you fish. You can read every book about fishing. You can learn the history of fishing. You can learn everything about the equipment. You can learn about great fishermen through history. All of that could possibly help you in fishing or increase your enjoyment of it. You might even glean a helpful thing or two from it. And that knowledge would certainly be useful if someone were going around teaching about those topics and was full of crap and needed correction.
But none of that – NONE OF THAT – is fishing, and you will never be a good or even passable fisherman unless you are fishing. And the funny bit is someone who doesn’t know the first academic fact about fishing can be an awesome fisherman. There is no correlation between how much you know about fishing, and how much you know fishing.
When I look at the history of the Church in the world, it’s hard to come away from that believing that God’s primary concern is that everyone understand the Bible thoroughly and in the same way. And if you believe there was a time when everyone did understand the Bible thoroughly and in the same way and we’ve gradually drifted from that, or if you believe we’re getting closer and closer to that ideal – well, you’re both wrong.
It may very well be that God’s desire is not increased knowledge of a book, but that He is known and His people look like Him and the world look like He intended – one that runs off the engine of love because God is love. Insofar as biblical knowledge helps that project, that knowledge is good and useful. But the life of the ages is not found in the Scriptures; that life is found in Jesus and the Scriptures testify to him.
None of this should be taken as a rant against the intellect or a greater understanding of the Bible. Like I said, this is kind of a lot of what I’ve got and I don’t want to waste it, and I regularly think about how I could help bring God’s great vision for the world to pass by using it.
But, people of God, we were not called out of the world to increase Bible study. “Biblical teaching” is not what your congregation was designed to produce in your community. You were designed to produce embodied acts of love and forgiveness, examples that Christ can save sinners and is still saving them, calling them from one world into another one that exists in its very midst in the here and now. Calling them with your voice. Healing them with your hands and prayers. Alleviating their poverty with your money and your time. Setting them free from self-destructive lives with your example and, yes, your teaching – pointing them to the one who will ultimately set all things to rights and is setting them to rights as we speak.
Maybe the answer to being the people we need to be has more to do with emulating the people who are those things and less to do with reading more books about those things.