Sarah: Hello, Dave. Thanks for doing this interview for Theology for Life! We’re excited about the new book you’ve just had published—The Word Explored. As I already know, but our readers may not yet, this book is about the problem of biblical illiteracy. This is a much-needed topic of discussion in the Church today and something that is in desperate need of change for Christians world-wide—from the Preacher in the pulpit to the average lay-person. Can you tell our audience a little bit about the reason behind writing this book and why you feel this is an important subject?
Dave: Great question, thank you. Over the years I’ve been in the fortunate position to lead many Bible studies, with both new and seasoned Christians. What I’ve observed, in particular among seasoned Christians, is that they know the how, meaning the basics of Bible study, but they don’t know the why. Before I started on this book, I thought long and hard about that and came to the conclusion that it wasn’t so much a “how” question, but more of a “why” when it comes to Bible study.
When I refer to “why” and “how”, I’m speaking about this: the why is the indicative (what Christ has done) and the imperative (what Christ has commanded) is the how. We see this pattern throughout Paul’s epistles; for example, in Ephesians 1-3 he tells us about what Christ has done (why) then moves to explain the how (what Christ commands).
To your question, I’m aiming to help Christians be properly motivated, whether they are reading, studying, meditating, or memorizing Scripture. All of this has a goal, which is to help Christians grow in Christ and to be an effective servant of God in their church and communities for His glory! Therefore, I wrote the book to address the growing problem of biblical illiteracy, but I’m also hoping that Christians will learn to love what God loves—His Word, His people, and His Church—and enjoy all three by delighting in engaging in each to grow to be like His Son, Jesus.
Sarah: As I read through this book, I was confronted with some very startling statistics on biblical illiteracy. Could you share some of those statistics here and explain why these numbers are having such a negative impact on the Church Body?
Dave: Another great question! The statistics from George Barna of most concern and shockingly prevalent among people today are as follows:
- Eighty-two percent (82%) of Americans believe that “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.
- Even among “born again Christians”, eighty-one percent (81%) believe that the Bible teaches the primary purpose in life is to take care of one’s family.
- Twelve percent (12%) of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.
What these statistics tell us is that we have a big problem, not only with how people view salvation, but with how people view the Bible itself. Our presuppositions about the Bible affect how we approach the Bible. The Bible is the final standard for the faith and practice of God’s people, so what we believe about the Bible truly matters.
If we come to God’s Word thinking it’s only a book of fairytales, myths, and “moral stories”, then we will have a problem. We will come to Genesis to question the beginning of the Bible. If we think, for example, that the primary purpose of life is to take care of one’s family (as listed in the statistic above), then we have a flawed understanding of family. While taking care of one’s family is good and right, the primary purpose for humanity is to know, love, and serve the Lord.
You asked what the statics reveal, and that’s a very good question. The statistics reveal that we have a discipleship problem in the Church. It’s important to not only know how to answer the question, but also why you came upon that answer. They also may be getting fed good theology, but they don’t know how to take that theology and apply it to their lives.
I say that we have a discipleship problem because a disciple of Jesus is a student. As students of Jesus, we are to grow to be like Him. We come to know Jesus in the pages of the Scriptures, for in the sixty-six books that constitute the Bible, God has fully revealed Himself. If we don’t know the Scriptures then we have a discipleship problem, because to be a disciple is to be one who learns from God’s Word, from which Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, and the Apostles taught.
There can be a danger in saying what I did, because it could give the impression that we are to “master” the Scriptures. When people ask me where I went to school and what degree I earned, I tell them I have a Masters degree in the Bible. I get some interesting looks from them, but then I clarify, “Please don’t worry, I don’t think I’ve mastered the Bible!” It’s said a little jokingly, but it’s the truth. I’m far from it! If anyone thinks they’ve mastered the Bible—an inexhaustive treasure of God’s Word—then he/she has a pride problem. I have a lot to learn from God’s Word and need to continue to study it. The Word continues to master us, but we must be in God’s Word, for that is where the Holy Spirit aims to teach us, to point us to Jesus, and to send Christians out on mission from our local churches.
Sarah: Wow, those are some alarming statistics that reveal a lot about how far we’ve fallen as the Body. A lot of people would point the finger at the preacher/pastor of a church as a reason for this illiteracy epidemic. And certainly, there are many church leaders at fault for not providing biblically literate teachings on a regular basis. But I get the feeling from what you’ve said so far (as well as within your book, specifically) that this isn’t just a problem with our current pastors/preachers. Can you tell us why it’s a problem with the average pew-sitting Christian as well?
Dave: The Holy Spirit not only teaches the Christian biblical truth by pointing them to Jesus from the Word, and sending them out on mission, but gives the Church pastors/teachers (Ephesians 4:11). This is a “both/and”, and not an “either/or”. Some suggest that all we need is the Holy Spirit to teach us, but that’s a mistake. The same Holy Spirit who inspired Scripture teaches us that we need teachers in our local churches to teach us the truth of Scripture and that He appoints and equips them. So, you can see there’s a balance.
The primary responsibility of a pastor is to preach the Word of God and to rightly handle it. Pastors are to be models of rightly handling the Scriptures for their people. If they aren’t, then that is a big problem. Pastors are to be shaped by the Word themselves so that, as they preach their sermons, they teach and live lives that are models of godly character and conduct. Our character matters to the Lord just as much as our witness.
There’s often a duality in our thinking as lay-people. We often think that it’s the pastor’s job to “be in the Word”, but it isn’t our job. As I mentioned in my previous answer about myself, I need to be mastered by the Word, but I’ll never master the Word. As a Christian leader, I need to continue to grow in God’s Word and to place myself humbly under the Word, to be instructed by it. The same is true for every Pastor and Christian leader—in fact, every Christian, period. If we fail to spend time in God’s Word, we are depriving ourselves of the nourishment and sustenance that only God can provide, and thereby cutting ourselves off from the fuel that God has appointed for us to grow in Christ. The Pastor needs the Word just as much as any other Christian because they are supposed to be examples to the flock in word and in deed for God’s glory.
It’s not just pastors that need the Bible, I don’t want to give that impression. In my book I talk about a delightful duty. Earlier I mentioned there are three things God loves: His Word, His Church, and His people. If I say “I love you”, for example, but if I don’t put that into action, then you would be right to question my “love”. The same is true with our reading and studying of God’s Word. If we give lip service to our Bible reading, it is right for God to question our love of Him. God loves His Word, His people, and the Church. We don’t just “check off” our Bible reading (or any other activity), rather we delight in it, because we have come to understand that this is God’s Word and His Word is a light unto our path, bread of life for the daily hunger, and living water for our souls. Whether we are pastors, lay Christians, seminary students, mothers, fathers, or some other station/stage in life, we need God’s Word like we need food, water, and sleep.
Sarah: So, if the average Christian is finding Bible study difficult, what helps can be provided by their church leaders to get them headed in the right direction?
Dave: One thing that I think is helpful is for church leaders in encouraging people within their churches to read their Bibles is to exhort them to read along with the series being preached at church on Sundays. It doesn’t have to be a long reflection—maybe just five to ten minutes a day—thinking over the passages that have been (or perhaps will be) preached for that series. Sometimes life gets busy, but by reading God’s Word for five to ten minutes a day, we are spending time with the Lord. The Holy Spirit wants to take God’s Word and plant it deep in our hearts and lives, so we grow to be like Jesus.
Another thing that is helpful is to listen to the Bible. Each morning I start my day listening to the Bible on the YouVersion app. I find that this opens new vistas of biblical understanding for me. I may miss something in my Bible reading, but I’m not as likely to miss it while listening to it. This can be accomplished throughout the day easily: listening to it while you cook a meal, after the kids start school (maybe on your drive home from dropping them off), or on the way home from work. Focus on being intentional in your Bible reading and find times to spend with the Lord in His Word.
Sarah: Alright, now here’s a tricky question…[cringing slightly]…say that I’m an avid reader/studier of the Bible, but my pastor isn’t…how can I encourage him to grow in his Biblical understanding and knowledge? And is there anything else I can/should do to help him or other leaders in the local church with this issue?
Dave: No Christian is above another; all are to be subject to the Word of God. That said, God does appoint pastors and elders to be overseers in the Church and of God’s people in our local churches. They are to be biblically qualified male elders. A biblically qualified elder must be able to teach, which means they have to know the Bible. Many denominations require theology tests to see if future pastors or elders are theologically ready for the office to teach God’s people.
As I mentioned earlier in this interview, Christians will never master the Word, but they should be mastered by the Word. And that most definitely applies to pastors. A pastor who can’t teach at all shouldn’t be in the office. However, it also needs to be said that teaching doesn’t have to be only from the pulpit. Some of the best shepherding pastors I know aren’t very good in the pulpit, but they are excellent in the office settings, doing one-on-one counseling or training in a small group setting. But, a Pastor who can’t teach at all from the pulpit, or in a small group setting shouldn’t be an elder. A pastor who doesn’t know the Bible (or is greatly lacking in theological knowledge) cannot possibly be a pastor or an elder, nor does he meet the biblical requirement to teach.
I think it’s very dangerous if there is a pastor who isn’t an avid reader and studier of Scripture. Scripture is to not only ground our ministries, but it is to ground our very lives. If a Pastor isn’t reading God’s Word, I think the elders should be involved and find out what’s going on. The elders are there to care for the pastor, to help him grow, and to hold him accountable.
I think one big way lay people can encourage pastors is by giving him good theology books from publishers like Crossway. Or, even better, find out who his favorite authors are and get him more of those books. Find some Puritan-authored books as well, and give him some good historical theology. And last, but not least, encourage him to have time off.
Sarah: Well, thank you again for your excellent advice and thoughtful perspective on this subject, Dave. I hope we get a chance to talk to you again in the near future!