Monday, November 05, 2007

The free-for-all Bible study

I'm pretty frustrated with a certain form of Bible study or small group which I will designate the "free-for-all" Bible study (I've heard it less charitably referred to as the "share your ignorance" Bible study). And essentially the mode of this study is that a passage is selected and everyone shows up and says whatever they want about it. Most of what is said is a long way from good interpretation of Scripture, but the point is that it's very democratic--everyone gets their say.

I'm tired of this because I feel nobody gets anything from it except for the chance to voice their opinions and see if they can't make them sound biblical, but, since it's such a prevalent model, I thought I'd put it out there to see if other people can articulate the value of this kind of Bible study.


-Dave said...

To a point, it has some value. At least, in contrast to another method - the lecture.

I think it has some value for encouraging looking at a text from various angles. The value in this is that there is the world has plenty of people who claim to have the right interpretation of many passages, and their claims don't always intersect. We need to learn how to look critically at a passage, and we need to be able to present and challenege different views to do so.

Another value is in raising someone's views that may be totally out of whack. If a person believes something very off-the-wall about a passage, but never gets a chance to air it, they may be silently disagreeing with the leader, but not be able to air their foolishness and so have it corrected.

Value #1: Learning critical analysis by doing.

Value #2: Being able to air poor interpretations, so that they may be corrected.

Both of these, however, presuppose a competent leader that is able to correct poor doctrine and demonstrate good critical analysis, and this may not be in your mind when you pose the question.

A further value is in getting people in the Word. If the alternative is a share-your-ignorance study or none at all, I'd prefer people get in the habit of doing something positive.

kennyching said...

I agree with all your points, Dave. I guess my follow-up question is whether the two values you outlined are actually advanced. I'm not sure how to measure this because I haven't been in the same Bible study with someone for a long enough time to see if 1) their interpretative capabilities improved, 2) their doctrinal fuzziness cleared up.

And your final point "something is better than nothing" I definitely agree with, but if that's all some people are getting, I'd be pretty concerned about their spiritual health.

Another thing this brings up for me is our cultural fear of strong leaders, that is, the Bible study leader you alluded to who could be there to correct and reprove wrong doctrine. I think Americans have a powerful attachment to a democratic ethic that I think is less appropriate at church than it is in government.

Ρωμανός ~ Romanós said...

Bible study as a group activity will differ widely, I think, based on denomination. I haven't been in Bible studies except in the Episcopal Church (in its moderately orthodox days) and in the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Episcopal version (in those days) was more lecture-style with only a few people adding their input (I was one of them, but often too literal for the priest leading it).

In the Greek church, Bible studies were pretty good because the priests leading it were strong on the traditional/literal interpretation but humble enough to make room for comments and discussion led by the people. Often, as in the case of Aretí Vlahakis, an old woman and lover of God's Word, the priest, Fr Elías Stephanopoulos (both now of blessed memory), welcomed her further teaching, especially on the meaning of the Greek original (we always study the English text with the Greek at hand). I will always remember the keen and spiritual insights gained at such Bible studies, where the Word Himself was present in an active way in the teaching and testimony of His faithful witnesses.

With Fr Jim Retelas also, the same strong leadership with humility was evident, and our study of the New Testament proceeded book by book. Fr Jim knew (but not only he) the Church fathers by heart, and we all could comment and compare our experiential knowledge of the Word of God in an environment of spiritual community. When there were inexperienced people, they asked questions or presented what they thought a verse meant, and the priest or other brethren would respond carefully and humbly, correcting if necessary, but always leading each other to the Truth of the Word. When Fr Jim went away on vacation or was absent for a good reason, the Bible study proceeded with his blessing, because he knew we were all grounded in the essential Truth. In this kind of environment there was a lot of sharing, but everything was done with order and love. Sometimes someone would come who was "just full of themselves" and had to talk and give an opinion on everything. This type didn't last long, because they noticed they weren't getting the attention they thought they deserved, and so moved on.

The two Bible study experiences I've just described are typical of the way the Bible is studied among the Orthodox. I'm not sure if this contributes anything to your post, but I hope it does.

Now, one last thing. At Agia Triás, the church I belong to, we now have a convert priest. He has tried to have Bible study, but people went for awhile and then dwindled, so it was discontinued. Why? I can't say for sure, but this man can't keep his mouth shut. His attitude about his priesthood is something like "by divine right", a concept more at home in some Western traditions. He pretended to welcome the people's participation, and even called the Bible study a "learning comminity" as a way to encourage participation. But when it actually came, he imposed his righteous views on the people, quoting Church fathers selectively to awe us, while pushing what in fact we all sensed was an "agenda," not the faith of the fathers, ours or anyone's. This is really a sad situation, but the infiltration of Greek Orthodoxy by religious professionals has begun. God save us from it!

But to study the Word of God together like the Orthodox do, when possible, is a blessing that can't be taken for granted. Everything in order, with wisdom, humility and love.

jose said...

Paul to the Corinthians wrote: When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. ... Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others pass judgment. ... For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all may be exhorted; and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets."

This is primarily about keeping things orderly, but there seems to be this sense of communal teaching. Maybe it was limited to prophets and teachers.

Also, isn't reading and interpreting the Scripture in community one of the ways heresy is avoided?

smlwoman said...

I think part of the problem is that we were very fortunate to be in a church with excellent teachers. In the Bible studies we were in, our teachers got us to read the scripture, speak up, challenged our thoughts, do the homework, and they asked the right questions. It wasn't a lecture, but it wasn't just a lets see what we think and then just say, that's an interesting point. I have yet to find a bible study that is as enriching as the ones we all were exposed to through the efree church. And yes, it is very frustrating. Good luck out there. Maybe it would be beneficial to both you and others if you started a bible study, and became the teacher.

smlwoman said...

We also cross referenced our scriptures. I don't see a lot of that happening either.

kennyching said...

Good point, Sml: Dave P and Glenn B were definitely above average study leaders.