Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Army Without Swords

"Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:17)

"For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12)

Describing Jesus, "In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword... These are the words of him who has the sharp, double-edged sword" (Revelation 1:16, 2:12)

Michael Spencer was a radical. If he was a member of your church, your leadership might consider him a trouble-maker. He had unconventional thoughts and did unexpected things. Like giving a young disciple of Christ a Bible to read on her own.

This is the context Michael uses in Chapter 10 of Mere Churchianity, "Jesus, the Bible, and the Free-Range Believer" to describe the Biblical illiteracy that is present in the American Church (TM). This is a subject I am passionate about and have written on before. I'm going to try and restrain myself from going off on another rant. Instead I want to try and dig at the heart of the problem.

Why don't we read our Bibles? I forget the survey numbers, but something like 90% of households own a Bible but only 10% (I'm guessing on that one) actually read it. You see the traditional, large, "family" Bibles on coffee tables with baptisms, confirmations, and weddings scribbled in the front. But those occasions are the only times those Bibles are ever opened.

Michael notes that Bible reading is actually discouraged in many congregations. I wouldn't go that far, just that it's not explicitly encouraged. But why?

"Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true." (Acts 17:11)
In the Middle Ages, reading the Bible yourself, or even owning one after the printing press was invented, was considered in many places a crime that could cost you your life. Then, the church operated much like any dictatorship- control the information and keep the populace ignorant. A lay-person reading the Bible could lead to them having their own convictions. Let that spread and you lose your grip on power.

I don't think that's the case today. At least in terms of consolidating power. However, I do think churches do not encourage personal Bible study to protect their long-standing traditions. You'd be surprised all the things your church does that isn't in the Bible. Transubstantiation? Not in the Bible. The Sinner's Prayer? Not in the Bible. Infant Baptism? Not in the Bible. Of course you could take this too far. The Churches of Christ split in the early 20th Century over whether worship music should be a capella or with instruments. Why the debate? Worship with instruments isn't explicit in the New Testament. (But then again, neither are church buildings, Sunday School, parachurch organizations, and on and on) And you'll find things in the Bible that are missing in our churches today such as Love Feasts and evangelism that is more than just handing out tracts or knocking on doors. But there's a danger in making the Bible your standard instead of Jesus.

We're not going to find the perfect church that does everything right according to the Bible. But I do believe that personal Bible Study will lead you to what's close. It did me. It did Glynn Young. This is how I approach my evangelism, in fact. I sincerely believe that if a person is truly obeying the Greatest Commandment, even if they are in another church, they will come around to seeing errors shortcomings in their church's traditions and structure. They will then be on a quest for what Michael describes as Jesus Shaped Spirituality. I know I cannot make anyone come to my church and I know I cannot make anyone think my church isn't just as wacky with our ways of doing things than another church down the street. But I do know that my church encourages each of us to study the Bible and come to our own convictions. We are encouraged to follow Christ, not traditions. (Though I will admit that historically we have had "leadership shaped spirituality", cults of personality if you will. I want to believe that has changed. I know it hasn't everywhere, but it has where I worship.) I believe we encourage Jesus Shaped Spirituality.

I'll never forget reading in a book this take on the following scripture: we need to come to our own convictions on who Christ is; we cannot rely on anyone else's conclusion to reach our own. That was radical to me in just the same way as Michael handing the newly converted a Bible to read. It changed my walk with Christ and still challenges me today.

"Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, 'Are you the king of the Jews?'

'Is that your own idea,' Jesus asked, 'or did others talk to you about me?'" (John 18:33-34, emphasis added)

Nancy Rosback, Glynn Young and I are discussing Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer. Check out Nancy's blog, Bend the Page, for links to other discussions.


Anonymous said...

thanks frank. ya know, going through this book again, i am getting more out of it.

i know that a chapter at a time takes up space every week on a blog, as well as the responsibility to take the time to do it. and i want you to know that i appreciate the support.

as for reading the word, the bible, i find that i am given something each time that speaks to me. and still there are times that i don't pick it up.

i don't know why i let it go, or why i come back to it.

words can be used in such a powerful way, depending on what is behind the words as to how they are used and abused.

and... the kind of power that is behind and within the word is such a mystery as to how it works in us.

i can go to the word and read something that i have read before, and i receive a different message.
and i know that is not strange to many folk. i am not saying anything new here.

i am also thinking of how most believers i have met in the churches in my area, do not want to be involved with anyone outside of their comfort zone.

meaning, that they want to feel that they know just exactly what they can expect a person to say, and how they will act, or react to something. they would not want them to say anything that would rock any boats.

i find this pretty much the same on line as well. folks that agree and think the same way all group together. and if a person goes outside of that zone, they get put on another list, into another category.

but, faith doesn't work that way.
we have a lot to learn, and it is going to be
outside of our desire to have things all set
in place and under control.

outside of it being centered on us.

why a person reads the bible, and how a person
reads the bible, and what power is communicating
within the words. how do we explain something that can't be explained?

i think that God speaks to us in ways beyond these words written in these books. and i am thankful for that.

but, i think that the words in the bible are probably best approached in a certain frame of mind and heart. but, i suppose that is part of the battle, our frame of mind and heart, no matter what we are doing.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

sorry about the double publish..
something went wacky.

herbhalstead said...

"But there's a danger in making the Bible your standard instead of Jesus."

I agree - we see rampant biblical-illiteracy in The Bride. But, we also have something else: rampant biblio-dolatry - an idolization of the Bible in The Bride.

The Bible reveals God - it is not God. The Bible is the Word of God, it is not God. It is the primary tool for understanding God, but it is not God.

There's a lot of bad theology about the Bible that serves more to lessen people's relationship with the Creator than strengthen.

mo said...

That's an interesting assertion about emulating Jesus, and not the "Bible," which is kind of scandalous to say. But I think I get the point...that not all the early churches in the Bible should be emulated. Some were lukewarm, after all.

Is that what you're saying?

Fatha Frank said...

@Nancy, thanks for your post(s). I actually believe it the Holy Spirit that speaks directly to us wehn we read God's word. That's why different things hit us at different times. As for our comfort zone, that's human nature, church or not, and that's something to challenge. When it comes to personal Bible study, you will likely fall in line with like-minded people and/or your thoughts will line up with your "crowd". So you need to pray first in order that you can see His word with fresh eyes.

@Herb, thanks for posting. I've been appreciating your input on this series. I like your term, biblio-idolatry. And it is dangerous. That's why the community and context of a church is so important. Ideally, the extreme views get balanced out and discerning voices rise above. Of course, it doesn't always work like that.

@Moe, welcome! I think I can best answer this looking at 1 Tim 4:16, "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers." Think of "life" as lifestyle. We are supposed to reflect Jesus and live Christ-like lives. But the source of our doctrine is His word. So there's a balance between the two. We cannot diminish the importance of the Bible because it is the Word that will judge. From John 12:47-48, "
"As for the person who hears my words but does not keep them, I do not judge him. For I did not come to judge the world, but to save it. There is a judge for the one who rejects me and does not accept my words; that very word which I spoke will condemn him at the last day." But we also cannot worship the Bible and that is the danger I was addressing. We need to remain Christ-focused. Afterall, Jesus is the "author and perfecter of our faith." -Heb 12:2

Fatha Frank said...

I also received this comment from Mercedes. You can check out her blog at

I have had followers of my blog accuse me of expressing thoughts which I think God has led me to which they deemed not to be scriptural, thoughts which are very much along the lines of Michael Spencer's, and I know that there are thousands of Christians like me out there.

It is tragic that Christians have made the Bible their sole standard and focus of worship, instead of Christ Himself, the God at the center of the Bible. This is a thought which you have expressed in your post and which I think hits the nail on the head.

I too felt an indescribable sense of freedom and revelation as I embarked on the wonderful journey of reading, meditating and praying over the word of God by myself. For anyone who feels confused about where The Church stands today, I would strongly recommend they undertake this journey too. It will give you the freedom that Christ died to provide you with.

Fatha Frank said...

@Mercedes, the danger is when we place our interpretation of the Bible and our traditions above Jesus himself. And I strongly believe that is what many churches are guilty of doing today. Thank you for reading!

Fatha Frank said...

I think an important balance to what we're reading in Mere Churchianity is Stephen Lamb's guest-post over at Jesus Needs New PR:

I encourage everyone to stop by and read (and honestly read the whole series, it hits hard but true).

Bill (cycleguy) said...

Loved this Frank. As a pastor I know I struggle with the biblical illiteracy in the "pew" (we have chairs). It is disheartening. I wonder how much Scripture to use in sermons. I wonder if putting the Scripture on the Power Point has diminished the power of using the written Word. I made a commitment at my last church (one I have tried to keep here) to stop putting so much Scripture on PP and have people look it up. Since I use the ESV and we make copies available I will give page numbers. Anyway, I once had someone tell me thanks. She considered having the Scripture on the PP like eating off someone else's plate. There is a definite lack of knowledge. Not sure if I even addressed Spencer's thoughts but those are mine. LOL

Anonymous said...

i like how bill,cycleguy, is allowing time for hands-on teaching of how to look-up scripture in the bible. there is something about actually doing something that makes it stick.

like the difference between driving and being a passenger.
it is easier to remember how to get somewhere if you have driven there rather than having been taken there.

Fatha Frank said...

@Bill, thanks again for stopping by. I appreciate your struggle. Our pastor started putting up his verses on PP and I'm not necessarily a fan. It speeds things up by not having to wait on everyone, but there's an advantage to having the word open in front of us. I think he recognizes that, so doesn't use PP on every verse. But to address the point, we need to tackle Biblical illiteracy once we step outside of our church walls. Relating this back to you, I thought of Larry Osborne's book, Sticky Church. What he does is he emphasises personal Bible study by gearing small groups around the message and scriptures from his sermon. Every week, he gives out handouts that include the scriptures from his lesson and scripture for "futher reading". Then there are discussion questions to be followed up on in the small group based on those verses. So basically you have to do your homework! It's a nifty idea and I would think pretty effective.