Threats to the Gospel
As a student of the Patristics, I am familiar with the theological debates and controversies surrounding the Trinity and the person of Christ. Theological novelties surrounding these fundamental Christian doctrines abounded as many new Christians sought to infuse their Gnostic influences—sometimes by force—into the gospel. The injection of such alien ideas threatened faithfulness to the gospel and required thoughtful confrontation. I wouldn’t say I like the idea of having to confront people. However, conflict is sometimes necessary when dealing with old traditional patterns of Bible reading devoid of cultural lenses. Discord arises at the intersection of need and passion. In the contemporary Church, the need for Christian thinkers has never been greater.
Older films often depict a serious emergency when someone in the scene shouts, “Is there a doctor in the house?” You knew the danger was imminent and demanded a quick response. Likewise, when I hear sermons lacking solid exegesis or misinterpreted passages, I want to cry out, “Is there a doctor in the Church? We need good Bible scholars, otherwise people will suffer from Bible malnutrition.
In all four gospels, we see Jesus interacting daily with the outcast of society in compassion and mercy. Conversely, religious leaders, lawyers, and powerful men were rejected by Christ because of their treatment of social outcasts and their use of scripture for their ends. Their approach had a strict monopoly on interpretation. The Gospel of Matthew highlights this tension when Jesus declares: “Blind guides! You strain a midge but swallow a camel (Matthew 23:24, NIV)!”
Growing up in the culture of the Southern Baptist tradition, I was drawn to the so-called simple verse-by-verse approach to interpreting Scripture. I started going to churches, attracted by this apparently purist return to the “ordinary meaning of the text”. Verse-by-verse teaching provided a simple but relevant way to understand the Bible and thus grow spiritually with God without the complexity of “man’s ideas” clouding the tracks. Over time, this narrow perspective of understanding the Bible has proven woefully insufficient to address cultural issues around the world. Well-meaning preachers have told me that the dilemma of a fallen world lies solely in the rebellion of sinful humanity. Total depravity, as I understood it, meant that we could do nothing, nothing good in this world with the minor footnote, except Jesus.
Somewhere along the way, we overlooked the beautiful creation story of Genesis 1 and 2. God created mankind in His fine image! Was the image ultimately spoiled or irretrievably destroyed? My curiosity led me to the seminary – to the cemetery, as I have often heard – to meet a vast world of Christian thought outside the history of my tradition born from the world of DL Moody and an overreaction to the liberal culture of the time. After the Scopes Trials of the mid-1920s, many evangelicals retreated to their fortresses of solitude, defended their doctrines of premillennial dispensationalism, and disengaged themselves from the world.
Unfortunately, as we waited for the rapture to take us suddenly and without warning into the clouds, we neglected to engage with the world. Many evangelical churches had abandoned preaching that engaged the rich history and traditions of the church and the contributions of great thinkers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Why waste time learning church history and sound exegesis when Jesus could return at any time?
Typically, when preaching goes straight from reading the text – observing to applying without skipping a beat, we fail to connect the dots. The church must engage with current issues with thought and tell stories with nuance; otherwise, we become guilty of preaching an overly simplistic message that fits our plan. Worse still, we import pagan ideas of patriarchy and racism into the text. Some of the most controversial issues include, but are not limited to, racism, gender equality in pastoral leadership, mental illness, and abortion. CRT is the new boogie man that many churches don’t want to touch, unnecessarily conflating Marxism with Christian theology to avoid crucial conversations about the church’s treatment of disenfranchised people.
A better way to teach the Bible
Over the past ten years, I’ve earned two master’s degrees in Christian Thought and Biblical Studies while working full-time at a large tech company. Over the next few years, I hope to continue my journey by pursuing a doctorate related to the intersection of church and broader culture to train future church leaders to be better, holistic thinkers and more engaged with the world around them. This journey means confronting those who want to read Scripture on a superficial level and leaving the door wide open for extra-biblical ideas to creep in. I am passionate about the church and want God’s work to continue to bring people to full and rich understanding. of Christ and participation in the work he has called us in the world.
Teaching the Bible involves understanding how the original languages of the Old and New Testaments convey meaning in the language of today. It also involves learning about the cultures and world of biblical writers and their audiences. We also need to know the literary forms of each book and the phrases, nuances, and patterns that convey meaning that our modern Bibles do not have. Studying to teach involves a lot of work, and those who do it professionally need the proper training.
Surgeons who operate on their patients with very little or no training put their patients’ lives at risk. There was a time when questionable practices in the medical field were commonplace. For example, practices such as bloodletting were thought to cure many diseases because you remove impure blood. At that time, the scientific community was unaware of the cause and proper treatment of many diseases because the technology was not in place to change current medical practices. Today, we can save more lives by developing drugs targeting specific diseases. However, intense study and practice of proper methods and procedures is a requirement.
If the medical field requires such intense training for the care of the physical and mental well-being of the patient, how much more does the church need well qualified and trained pastoral ministers and Bible teachers? Those of us who teach the Bible bear some responsibility for the care and spiritual well-being of others.
The church needs physicians who will preach the Bible from its historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts to equip the church to live out God’s call to be salt and light for the gospel. Not every pastor or Bible teacher can earn a Ph.D. The Great Awakenings witnessed an increase in the number of new converts and the need for large numbers of clergy. The need for Christian thinkers began to wane as the emphasis on teaching a simplified version of the gospel to convert more people took center stage before the rapture. However, we need to develop deep thinkers and scholars who provide better pastoral care to the church.
May we all dig deeper and appreciate the rich history and culture of the church and of great Christian thinkers past and present so that we may have eyes to see and ears to hear the cries of the hearts of those who are looking for more than just answers. But, more importantly, may the message of the good news transform our hearts so that we can shine as bearers of the image of God through Christ in the world.