Private Bible Study is a Bad Idea

1. Small Group Bible Study is a Bad Idea.

What are the assumptions behind this being a good idea?
First, that we all “learn” better if we do not have that darn pastor with theological knowledge breathing down our necks. Second, that if we all pool our ignorance, surely we can come up with something that applies to our lives. Third, that it is unnecessary to have someone with the right answers (or at least the right foundation to think about the right answers) in the room when we get together as a group.

2. Individual Bible Study is a Bad Idea.

What are the assumptions behind this being a good idea?
First, that any individual can come to the Biblical text and come away from it with the correct understanding, if only one thinks long and hard about it. Second, that the Holy Spirit will automatically guide the person into the right understanding, if only he or she prays hard enough. (Of course, this begs the question why sincere and well-meaning–perhaps those two adjectives are the immediate problem–Christians can come to contradictory understandings of a text. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was having an off-day.) Third, that my interpretation is just as valid as your interpretation. Okay, perhaps this isn’t a direct assumption, but it surely follows from the way Americans tend to do things.

[If you want to know what I think are actual good ideas, keep reading. If you do not read below the break, save the commenting space for someone else.]

1a. Small Group Bible Study is a Bad Idea…Unless it is led by someone with actual theological training.

This means that it does not have to be the pastor.
Okay, you’re all itching to give me an example of how it really worked well when you did it. (My parents are at this moment recoiling in horror from the screen.) You don’t have to; I can think of a couple examples myself. There is something to be said for those leaders who have a lot of years in the Church–but that’s exactly the point, they have a lot of years being formed by the Church into the right kind of reader of the Scriptures. (I’ll return to that in a minute.) They have the ability to rightly distinguish Law from Gospel, without which ability no one can be a true theologian, and to run everything through the lens of Christ, without whom the Scriptures are a closed book.

On the other hand, I have a shiver of doubt that my description of the ideal Bible study leader is exactly that: an ideal. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong (I’m sure you feel more than free!), but do we not, instead of training B.S. (that’s “Bible Study”) leaders to think theologically, train them to be mere facilitators of essentially a “sharing” free-for-all where any and all opinions are equally valid? The problem with this is the same problem we have when we lie to children when they are young because it’s easier: we have to wean them from the lie when they grow up. See, if people get the wrong–even the heretical–idea from a small group where no one has the right answer, eventually they will run into someone who does have the right answer, and their wrong answer will not be wrested easily from them.

2a. Individual Bible Study is a Bad Idea…Unless it is on the model of the Ethiopian eunuch.

He did not assume that he knew what the text was about. He couldn’t even be sure whether Isaiah was talking about himself or someone else. He knew that he had to speak to someone who had been formed into the right kind of reader.

What is the right kind of reader? Someone with a basic understanding of hermeneutics. At the very least, someone who knows that all people come to the text with their own presuppositions. Not realizing that you have presuppositions which you bring with you when you read anything (including the Bible) is far more dangerous than knowing what yours are. But that’s really only a basic prerequisite. Far more necessary is someone who has been brought into the Church through Baptism and formed by Christ through His Word and the Sacrament of the Altar to read the Bible according to God’s story. God is the primary player; we are not. We have been made to be woven into God’s story, and most assuredly not the other way around. This highlights another problem with individual Bible study: that we often place ourselves in the role of master with the text as our servant. The very fact that we seek to apply it to our lives exposes this tendency in us. Far better that God’s Spirit apply us to it.

It used to be that people looked at the world and wondered how it fit into God’s plan (His oikonomia); after the Enlightenment, we wonder how God’s creation, Word, story fit into our lives, our story. This has been called the “reversal of fit” and it has been incredibly detrimental to the way Christians act and see things, especially if it goes unrecognized and undisturbed.

No doubt someone is currently thinking that I would like to return the Church to a pre-Reformation mode of thinking where the laity cannot read or understand the Bible and must have it interpreted to them by an elite priestly class. For one thing, the assumption back of this is that Luther gave the Bible to the laity. He did, but not in the way you’re thinking. He did not put the Bible in the hands of every lay person. First, most couldn’t read. Second, even if they could read, they likely couldn’t afford to own a copy. Third, even if they could read and owned a copy, they were not going home and reading it in a dark corner without anyone else interfering with their personal pet-interpretation. Luther wanted them to hear it in their own language. He was far more concerned that they hear the Gospel and the preaching of it in their own tongue than that they actually read and study it in their autonomous little self-interpreting closets.

I wrote above that an assumption of small group Bible study is that we don’t think we need someone with the right answers in the room. That’s not quite right. What we need is not to make sure that we bring the right answers to the Bible’s questions, but that the Word of God (which encompasses the Bible but cannot be confined to it) brings the right answers to the great big question of our lives outside Christ. In other words, we need to be read by the Bible into the story of God through Christ, and not to read the Bible into our stories.

What am I really saying? There is much more to reading the Bible than just reading it.


11 thoughts on “Private Bible Study is a Bad Idea

  1. WOW! You’ve stirred up some emotions here, but I guess you knew you would when writing this.

    My question is, why do you think that the Holy Spirit is incapable of revealing the truth to those who are reading the Bible?

    Just coming from our “horrid” small group Bible Study last night (about 8 mid-twenties people, 1/2 of our group being Lutheran teachers, the other half other professionals who are all involved in an area LCMS church), I would completely disagree with you. No, we do not claim to know all of the answers, which is why we read God’s word: to learn. We read God’s word, sometimes use a book to guide us along, and also check our subnotes in our Concordia Self-Study Bibles. But, then again, that Bible should probably be banned because it is a “Self-Study Bible” and we are not supposed to study the Bible by ourselves. Well, I guess I have an excuse to not be reading my Bible now. Ludicrous!

  2. I think I understand the spirit behind what you are saying. I agree that just anyone starting a group and telling people what the Bible says is not good. We have demoninations that started that way.

    My question is: How much Bible training does someone need before they are qualified to lead a Bible study?

    You wrote the line about being Baptized and all, but I have meet trained Theologians that do all of these observations of the Church and do not have a personal relationship with God. They have never died to themselves. It is all head knowledge. I am not saying it is not good to have an Theological Education. I wish the Church trained the beleivers in the chruch more. Why is that? Why do the Church leaders not train the workers? We wonder why nothing ever gets done for the Kingdom, but we do not train our people to do the work.

    I agree, a group that is not lead by a person with a certain level of Bible knowledge is not great, but atleast they want to know more about the Bible.

    Thanks for the article this is very challenging.


  3. I’m tempted to ignore, or better yet, delete KC’s comment since he so clearly ignored my suggestion to read below the break before commenting. But I’m no censor. On this blog, everyone is invited to pawn off his or her reactionary emotionalism as considered argument.

    On the other hand, Sean actually asks some good questions. He wrote, “You wrote the line about being Baptized and all, but I have meet trained Theologians that do all of these observations of the Church and do not have a personal relationship with God. They have never died to themselves. It is all head knowledge. I am not saying it is not good to have an Theological Education. I wish the Church trained the beleivers in the chruch more.”

    I agree, of course. Having a theological education does not automatically make one into the right kind of interpreter of Scripture. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. (Notice, KC, I did not say that the Holy Spirit is incapable of revealing the truth; only that we can very easily presume that our particular interpretation is right because the Holy Spirit “showed us the way.” Instead, that burning in your belly might just be a bad burrito.)

    Part of my argument, although implicit, is that we are doing a bad job of training people. They don’t know how to read the Bible or think according to God’s story.


  4. Tim,

    I agree with your final conclusion: there is more to reading the Bible than just reading it.

    The Bible studies produced by Concordia Publishing House draw participants into the text of the Scriptures, whether the leader of the study is clergy or lay. Most of our studies have a leader guide in the back, which provides the correct “answers” to the questions that are asked in the study. Concordia’s Bible studies pass a rigorous doctrinal review before being released to the public.

    Having taught an adult Bible study class in the parish for 5 years, I can tell you that Bible study participants sometimes arrive at wrong answers to questions proposed either by the pastor, adult Bible study leader, or by a resource such as what we publish. Part of the “learning process” is to ask questions, and sometimes folks arrive at the wrong answers. Instruction, group interaction, and appropriate resources go far in leading the Bible study participant to the right answers, however.

    In those instances where the Bible study group is lay-led, a leader guide can be of great help. An additional resource, of course, is the director of Christian education and, ultimately, the pastor himself.

    In a few weeks we will release a new adult Bible study series called “Lutheran Spirituality.” The first two studies were written by John Kleinig and John T. Pless. I encourage you to check out this resource–it’s timely, biblical, sacramental, and practical. There are 8 components to this series. Two studies will be released every six months. “Lutheran Spirituality” attempts to inculcate a truly Lutheran approach to spirituality and considers the Bible, Luther’s Small Catechism, and the Lutheran hymnal as integral resources for that task.

    God’s blessings,
    Rev. Robert C. Baker
    Senior Editor, Adult Bible Studies
    Concordia Publishing House

  5. Thank you, Rev. Baker, for your comments. Those new Bible studies look great.

    I am not against wrong answers. I have them all the time!


  6. Actually, I should say that I’m against wrong answers, even when I have them; on the other hand, wrong answers are not necessarily bad, except when one decides to be “open minded” rather than attempting to think, which might in turn lead to a conviction.


  7. I’m not against private Bible study, but I also know the importance of including small group and large group study.

    I know many people of various denominations who rely primarily, if not solely, on private individual Bible study.

    Or think they do.

    But when I converse with them they usually have at least one other base of reference from which they judge and develop their ideas about what the Bible is saying.

    And usually a number of their beliefs about what the Bible is saying are just plain wrong.

    What happens is people (including Christians) approach Bible study with preconceived notions about any number of issues. Kind of hard to do proper exegesis when elements of one’s frame of reference are wrong to begin with. Especially when that person refuses to at least listen to the teachings of trained Biblical scholars.

    These people really do put themselves on a steep up-hill obstacle-lined path.

    Group study makes in much easier to negotiate the obstacles when helping each other along the way.

  8. I have been a leader for adult bibles studies within our parish over the last year. We have used the Concordia study guides and I am always careful to not deviate from the material’s teachings. I also try to incorporate the Book of Concord into the teachings. Any study that I do personally I check against the Confessions to insure fidelity to the Scriptures and if any ambiguity remains to consult my Pastor.

    I have tried to find where more concentrated classes on Systematic Theology could be taken but I have found nothing but reading our Confessions and Christian Dogmatics. Any thoughts.

  9. Tim,

    Bravo. Well said. This is clearly a correct understanding of scripture study. Bible studies are not supposed to be a conventicle of sqishy-feel-good-fest of emotions and opinions. The “Bible Study” for Lutherans is maily to help the laity better understnad doctrine and practice.
    Too many pietists want it to be a book of magic incantations to make them feel happy for a while (an ecclesiastical “FIX” if you will). For the rest of us, it is God’s Holy and inspired Written Word and like everything from God, He gives it to the masses via His servants.

    Take care!

  10. Frank,
    I don’t know where you might get a good Systematics class, other than one of the seminaries. But there are lots of good books. My favorite Systematics books are Regin Prenter’s Spiritus Creator; Adolf Koeberle’s Quest for Holiness; Gustav Wingren’s Luther on Vocation; Martin Chemnitz’ The Two Natures in Christ. I’d read anything by Chemnitz for a good perspective. Of course, if you know someone who has them, read Luther’s Works. I’m sure other people have some good suggestions as well.


  11. Thanks Tim for your comments. I did read the rest by the way. I think I understand were you are coming from. I guess as I read all of these comments I just see programs and religion. I understand the frustration of people just saying what ever they want to about the bible and “christianity”. I think our problem is larger than trained people only leading bible studies. I think all churches that are serious about the bible and getting the right message out needs to take a look at themselves and society and make a difference. We are to much like the world and it is gettin out of control. What can we do about it? I just read a book called Colossians Remixed I think you would really like it. Have a great night.

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