Years ago, a few of us younger preachers participated in a lectureship along side Ed Harrell, Dee Bowman, Paul Earnhart, and Sewell Hall. Obviously, those of us who were younger were quite intimidated to be preaching with these accomplished speakers. We were given a strict 30-minute slot, which most of us failed miserably as we tried to cram everything we knew about our subject in the allotted time. After one such failure, Ed Harrell stood up to give his lecture. He looked at us younger preachers and said, “The problem with you fellows is, you just study too much.”
As usual, Ed used a humorous approach to expose our weakness. We were so intent on communicating all we had learned that we overwhelmed our audience and communicated nearly nothing. With all good intentions, we missed our goal of edifying our listeners. This same mistake can be made by Bible class teachers. Imparting a lot of well-studied information may sound right, but has the goal been reached?
Consider the following text in light of God’s goals for Bible classes:
“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are 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” (Ephesians 4:11–16 ESV).
First, notice the word “equip.” This carries the idea of training. Training is to be done for works of service and for building up the body. The goal is to bring the whole body to “mature manhood.” Please notice the whole body is to be equipped to maturity. But how is maturity defined? What makes a Christian mature? The overall measurement is attaining to “the stature of the fullness of Christ,” and “growing up in every way into Christ.” Paul also details three key measures of growth: (1) no longer children tossed by every wind of doctrine, (2) able to speak the truth in love, and (3) the whole body joined together with each part working properly.
In relation to Bible classes, let’s specifically notice the first two goals. What kind of Bible class would bring Christians to “the unity of the faith” and “no longer tossed by every wind of doctrine?” I would suggest two requirements:
- Each member will need to come to class having studied the text and drawn conclusions about its meaning and application. I know that is obvious, but individual Christians often do not see the importance because they are not reminded of the goal and the nature of the class format does not motivate them to prepare.
- The class will need to be such that members are encouraged to share their findings and work out differences without quarreling or debating. In other words, Christians are learning to have productive conversations. These discussions not only have the goal of unity on the scriptures, but also engender love as disciples sharpen each other’s knowledge.
In contrast to being “children” in the faith, Paul’s second goal is the ability to “speak the truth in love.” Please notice, Paul does not say, “think the truth” or “know the truth.” Paul emphasizes the ability to speak the truth in a loving way. That takes practice, and a Bible class is the most obvious format to accomplish the goal. Just as a baseball player needs daily batting practice, if we are to be prepared to share the gospel message, we need practice sessions. Therefore, Bible classes accomplish the goal when they are arranged so that Christians can practice speaking and explaining the scriptures.
Here is where we need a strong caution. We do not want a class where Christians are simply sharing their “think so’s.” In other words, the goal is not class participation. Speaking in a class has a specific equipping goal. Speaking must be directed toward explaining the text in such a way that an unbeliever or novice Bible student would understand. We Christians have a tendency of speaking to each other in “short-hand” language and “insider” language that would be completely misunderstood by an outsider. For example, if I asked the question, “Explain the phrase, ‘one body’ in Ephesians 4:4,” a member of the class might answer, “That means there is one church.” Such an answer is shorthand, insider language that would be misunderstood by a visitor, and if repeated in a conversation with a friend, would likely destroy any opportunity of further Bible study.
Therefore, to equip Christians to meet the goals of Ephesians 4:11-16, a teacher would direct members to follow four steps both in their personal study and in the class. A “textual worksheet” (a paper copy of the text that can be marked with colored pencils and notations) is an excellent preparatory tool for discovery. Four questions should be answered:
- What do you see in the text? Let’s gather the facts or key ingredients of the text so that we are ready to discover the meaning.
- What does the text mean? Not, what does the text mean to you, but what was the meaning of the text by the inspired author and to the original audience?
- How does the text apply? Only after the first two steps are we allowed to make present-day applications.
- How would I communicate the text to a friend? In others words, how can I “speak the truth in love” to those who are lost?
Class Goals that Miss the Mark
Obviously, not every Bible class needs to meet all the above goals, but most classes should fulfill some aspect Paul’s design. The local church is not a “school” with a curriculum; it is created by God to equip Christians to God’s work. Teachers, even with all good intentions, can forget the goals of Ephesians 4. The following class formats will not help Christians grow to unity, love, and preparation to share the gospel message:
- Impart knowledge through lecture. (We may come away knowing more, but we will forget most of what was said and are not prepared to share.)
- Allow three of four class members to do all the talking. (Same result as a lecture.)
- Generate class discussion (get everyone’s “think so”).
- Have a rousing debate. (This may be fun for some, but it is hardly conducive for inviting outsiders or building up the less mature.)
- Ask a lot of questions that have nothing to do with equipping goals. (Just regurgitating facts from scripture and rehearsing “our creed,” does not move us to see the Holy Spirit’s message nor bring us to maturity.)
None of the above approaches meet the goals of Ephesians 4:11-16. In fact, though these approaches can require many hours of preparation, it does not translate into a Bible class that, “makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16).