By Nathan Pickup
In my previous article, I emphasized that to be an honest student of God’s word means that as we examine the Bible and reach conclusions we must also recognize that our human limitations can cause us to be wrong. My aim was to help promote more humility in allowing brethren to question established conclusions of Scripture as we all attempt to study God’s word for ourselves. But as we challenge the interpretations we’ve been taught, do we have free rein to exercise that freedom with no thought given to our motives or methods for doing so? Not at all! The same virtue of humility must guide our critiques of currently held viewpoints so that we can remain honest in our desire to learn from God’s word.
Being an honest Bible student means ensuring our questions and challenges are motivated by a desire to please God, not arrogance. The point of questioning is not to show how intelligent we are. It’s to show that we have a desire to be obedient to our Creator. Just because we are asking questions and challenging traditional views doesn’t necessarily mean we’re practicing the Bereans’ “noble” character of searching the Scriptures (Acts 17:11). A desire to challenge can sometimes be born from conceit, not curiosity; and a flippant dismissal of an interpretation held by our brethren can betray a conceited view of our own interpretive skills. Questioning is not the final step in one’s Bible study. Questioning is simply the means to an end—to come to a better understanding of God’s will. Our belief in the Word as the source of life should undergird our challenges and inquiries, not a desire to win arguments with brethren.
Being honest Bible students means testing traditional interpretations against Scripture while recognizing that not all issues are worth pressing into the local assembly. In other words, just because we’ve come to a different conclusion on a biblical teaching doesn’t necessarily mean we need to push that new interpretation to be publicly taught in our local churches. We must remember that while our goal is to be true to God’s word, we must also respect the consciences of our brethren and promote harmony. For example, if a brother comes to believe from his study that it would be okay for female Christians to help pass out the trays of the Lord’s Supper, does he need to force this conviction into his local church and stir people’s emotions over an issue that won’t add anything to the work of God’s kingdom? If he did, could he claim to be applying Paul’s words to “look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 3:4)? We need to be discerning in choosing what new interpretations we push into the public mindset and which ones we keep for our own private discussions. This type of humility and desire for harmony is the sign of a true student rather than one who sows discord under the guise of being a “free thinker.”
Being an honest Bible student also means recognizing that traditional interpretations and practices aren’t wrong simply because they’re traditional. Likewise, new practices and interpretations aren’t right simply because they’re new and fresh. In fact, once new practices have been practiced for any length of time, they cease to be “new” and they become our “traditional” way of doing things. When we alter the order of worship, meet in homes rather than in a church building, or decide to practice things differently in an effort to keep church from being dull and trite, we can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that our “new” way of doing things is more spiritual or authentic compared to a more “traditional” approach. This breeds a haughty attitude which displays itself in a condescending way of speaking about our brethren who still worship in pews, sing three songs before taking the Lord’s Supper, and end each sermon with an invitation. Such vain mindsets are not born from a humble study of God’s word, nor a recognition that there are different ways (within the parameters of Scriptural authority) to worship our Creator. Interpretations and practices should be judged solely on whether they match the teachings, examples, and patterns set by Christ and his apostles (2 Thes. 2:15), not on whether they can be labeled “new” or “traditional.”
Being honest in our study of the Bible means remaining submissive towards the elders of our local congregation while we study the Word for ourselves. The elders of our local churches are charged with shepherding the flock of God and will answer to the Chief Shepherd for their work (1 Pet. 5:2). This responsibility and commitment demands our respect. While elders are not above God’s word and do not hold a monopoly over how to interpret Scripture, we must have a submissive attitude when challenging an interpretation of Scripture that they feel strongly about (1 Pet. 5:5). In addition, we need to remember that elders consider the multiple opinions among their members when deciding what is publicly taught at their congregations. Thus, while the elders may make a choice to hold to a more traditional interpretation than we think necessary, they do so because they know that the more traditional approach will be something all can agree upon. To “rock the boat” on issues that don’t add anything to God’s kingdom would only cause strife and consternation among their members. While none of this means that we as students are not free to test and challenge the biblical interpretations our elders are making, we need to ensure we are doing so while respecting their leadership, the years of service they have given to the Lord, and their desire to do what’s best for the entire local assembly rather than acknowledging every individual’s personal conclusion.
Finally, being honest students of the Bible means being willing to discern the difference between poor delivery of a conclusion as opposed to an erroneous conclusion. Too often an interpretation from Scripture is disregarded not because it was based on poor exegesis but because it was taught in a disagreeable, offensive manner. If we honestly cling to the notion that we are solely responsible to God’s word then we must be ready to perceive the distinction between the merits of a biblical interpretation itself from the individual who holds and teaches the interpretation. I don’t see anything in Scripture that leads me to conclude that God will excuse us for treating His word irresponsibly because we happened to experience His word through poor human agents. We don’t have the luxury of using our brethren’s fallibility as the means by which to test conclusions from God’s word. If we did, then we’d have to dismiss every existing biblical conclusion since every interpretation has no doubt been taught distastefully at one time or another. If we are to be honest students of the Bible, we need to be willing to judge all interpretations by their own scriptural merits rather than how they’re expressed by imperfect human beings.
Questioning the biblical interpretations we’ve been taught in an effort to form our own conclusions is a responsibility we all share as God’s people who live under the sole authority of His word. But this responsibility must be exercised with humility if we are to live our claim of being honest students and not detractors. Our love of God’s word and our love for our brethren must always be at the forefront of our Bible study. We must remember that the God we claim to be serving is “he who searches hearts” (Rom. 8:27) so that he knows whether our effort to challenge biblical conclusions is born from honorable or dishonorable motives. May we foster a spirit of inquiry and study among the brotherhood while also employing the honesty and humility that must sustain that inquiry. Let us all strive “to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16).