(Volume 23, Issue 2, March/April 2017)
I concluded my article titled “Biblical Illiteracy” with these words: “Biblical illiteracy is well recognized today. There are many reasons why not only the general population but also the evangelical church has little understanding and knowledge of Scripture, and I have tried to identify some of these in the body of this article. With all of the attacks on the trustworthiness of Scripture, coupled with general lack of biblical knowledge and apathy toward what it proclaims, it would be easy to despair for the future of the Scriptures. But God’s Word always accomplishes that which it is sent forth by the Lord to accomplish (Isa 55:1) which is to teach, reprove, correct and train His people in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). We have the promise of Jesus that His Word will never pass away (Matt 24:35). Rather than despair we should make every effort to pass along the Lord’s truth to the next generation (Deut 6:4-9; Psalm 145:4). At this point we need to consider some means to do so. What can we personally, and corporately as the church, do to address the issue of biblical illiteracy?”
It is to this subject we now turn. We first need to establish the importance of biblical literacy. To many believers today it seems to be optional: one of those things that is nice if you have it, but hardly necessary for vibrant Christian living. But that is not the position expressed in the Bible itself. We could turn to many texts in Scripture to demonstrate this but let’s focus our attention on the Pastoral Epistles: 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus.
The Biblical Mandate
The centrality and importance of scriptural knowledge and understanding, as well as the directive to teach it clearly and consistently, permeate the Pastoral Epistles. One of the most important things we can do when determining where the Lord wants us to place our emphasis is to study carefully where He places His. Many extremes could be avoided if we would lay aside our own ideas and the popular fads of the moment and simply look at what God did and taught. With that in mind I have found the Pastoral Epistles to be very instructive. Here we are given the final inspired written words of the apostle Paul, a man who had dedicated his life to spreading the gospel, establishing churches and giving instruction to the disciples of Christ. As he neared the end of his earthly life what did he think, as inspired by the Holy Spirit, was most important for those he had mentored to emphasize after he was gone? I believe these letters give us the answer.
Paul said that the Lord had entrusted him with a message and a mission (2 Tim 2:2) and he repeatedly proclaimed he was entrusting the same thing to Timothy and Titus (1 Tim 1:11, 18; 6:20; 2 Tim 1:12, 14; 2:2; Titus 1:3). What was he entrusting to them? While there were a number of items he discussed in these three epistles, such as church leadership and finances, the theme he returned to time after time was that of theology. Approximately sixty times in these three little books, through the use of four synonyms, he emphasized the importance of sound doctrine. Without solid theology, drawn directly from the Word of God, the church has no reason for existence. The four synonyms demonstrate this well:
Paul had left Timothy in Ephesus, while he moved on to Macedonia, for the express purpose of having Timothy provide instruction to the church (1 Tim 1:3). Paul begins with the negative, writing “That you may instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines” (1:3). The word for “strange” is an unusual word in the New Testament, found only here and in 1 Timothy 6:3. It means “different, or of another kind.” Some at the church were engaged in teaching things that did not come from Christ or the apostles. Worse yet, they were claiming their teachings were as authoritative as those of the inspired apostles’. Timothy was instructed to refute and expose these teachings for what they were: myths and false pronouncements (v. 4). Titus was given similar instructions in his selection of elders. Elders were to be men who could “refute those who contradict” sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). On the positive side, both men were charged to preach the Word (2 Tim 4:2), and exhort in sound doctrine (Titus 1:9). At the close of 1 Timothy, Paul writes, “O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you” (6:20). And what had been entrusted to Timothy that he was to guard? Sound doctrine. What happens when instructions concerning guarding and teaching biblical theology are neglected? We have a people who claim to be Christians yet have no idea what they believe. And because they do not know what they believe they ultimately do not know how to live. As Paul wrote, “The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim 1:5). Doctrinally sound instruction leads to biblical living.
Doctrinal teaching and instruction has fallen on hard times in the modern church. But according to the New Testament a church which neglects biblical exegesis and theology is not fulfilling the function that the Lord has given it. The elders of a local church must be able to teach the Word (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9). This is the only qualification for elders that concerns giftedness. All the others are character requirements (see Titus 1:1-9 and 1 Tim 3:1-7). Timothy is specifically commanded to prescribe and teach doctrine (1 Tim 4:11), to devote himself to reading, exhortation and teaching (1 Tim 4:13), and to pay close attention to himself and his teaching (1 Tim 4:16). He is to preach the Word even when it is not popular or desired (2 Tim 4:2-4). In addition, it should be observed that doctrinal teaching deals not only with systematic theology but with everyday issues such as finances, family and work (1 Tim 6). Found on the pages of Scripture is instruction addressing every issue imaginable, all based upon a biblical worldview. What happens when a biblical worldview that relates to our everyday lives is not taught? It becomes a free-for-all concerning how we live and what we expect out of life.
- The Truth
Many people in our world reject the idea that universal, absolute truth actually exists. Even some biblical scholars will say that, if it does exist, it is knowable only to God and not accessible to humans. But the Scriptures do not agree with this view. Below are some examples drawn from the Pastoral Epistles:
- To be saved we must come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). Salvation is not possible where the knowledge of the truth of the gospel is not understood. As Paul writes in Romans 10:17, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ.” One of the most important mandates for the church is the proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth, but we have no gospel to proclaim if we do not know the contents of the good news – its saving truth.
- Repentance is necessary if we are to know truth (2 Tim 2:25). Closely aligned with the previous example, Paul calls on the Lord’s servants to gently correct those who oppose the Lord with the hope that He will “grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth.” The roadblock to the knowledge of the truth is sin and sin is removed through repentance. When that happens those held in the bondage of sin will come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil who has held them captive to do his will. Such freedom is not possible without the knowledge of truth.
- The church is the pillar and the support of the truth (1 Tim 3:15). While the local church can do many things it has been specifically designed to be the “pillar and support of the truth.” Many fine organizations can fight for justice, work toward good government, provide for the needy and focus on any number of social issues, but only the church has been commanded and equipped by God to undergird and showcase God’s truth. It is fulfilling this design that should be front and center for the church.
- We are called to accurately handle the Word of truth (2 Tim 2:15), for if we don’t we will be led astray from the truth (2:18). The haphazard and sloppy way many, including pastors, handle the Word of God today is a travesty. Without serious study, Scriptures are routinely ripped from their context and presented to unsuspecting sheep as messages from God. Rather than a message from God, too often it is a message from a preacher who has failed to do diligent study. Paul made certain to Timothy and all of us by extension, that such careless teaching is not an option. We must be serious students of Scripture so that we present what the Word of God teaches. We must “accurately handle the word of truth” (v.15).
- “The Faith” (1 Tim 1:2, 19; 3:9, 13; 4:1; 5:8; 6:10, 21; 2 Tim 2:18; 3:8; 4:7; Titus 1:1, 13; 3:15).
“The faith” is a term often used in the NT denoting the body of New Testament truth. It is a synonym for doctrine. The Lord warns us that in the latter times some will fall away from “the faith” and will instead turn to demonic doctrines (1 Tim 4:1). Practically speaking, striving after riches can be a cause for the believer to wander from “the faith” (1 Tim 6:10), as can involvement in nonsensical philosophical discussions (1 Tim 6:21). As one of the stated purposes of Scripture is to reprove us when we are headed in a wrong direction, so the servant of Christ will have cause at times to use the Word to reprove others (Titus 1:13). Personally Paul was thrilled to confirm that at the end of his life he had kept “the faith” (2 Tim 4:7).
The central purpose of the church is to exalt Christ. We do that through evangelism, worship, fellowship, prayer and in general, making disciples (Acts 2:42-43). The primary means by which disciples are made is through the transforming power of the Scriptures as the Holy Spirit uses the inspired Word to change lives (Rom 12:1-2). Therefore, it is vital that the local church provide a variety of means by which the life-changing truth of God’s Word is taught and applied to God’s people.
At this point I want to discuss specific means by which the Word of God can be taught in the church setting and conclude with some comments about personal study. I have to say that as a pastor of the same church for over four decades there is nothing that is on my mind more frequently than how to communicate God’s Word to His people in such a way that it transforms lives. I often wake up at night thinking of a family or individual who is not doing well spiritually, praying for ways that they might be reached with the truth of God’s Word. Over the years our local assembly has incorporated many approaches to accomplishing this end with the goal of making more and better equipped disciples (Eph 4:11-12). Many methods have been short-lived, some on purpose, others because they have proven unproductive. Other means have been woven into the fabric of our church life. Below are some of the ways our church is attempting to communicate the Word at this time. This is not an exhaustive list, nor would every church want to duplicate what we are doing. As a matter of fact, many churches are doing a better job than we are and have developed approaches that work well for them. What I list below is simply what we are doing, and hopefully some value will be gleaned from detailing them.
I would say one more thing. We take a “many nets” approach. That is, we are throwing out many nets (means or opportunities) with the hope that, while a great number of our people may fall through some of the nets (that is, not take advantage of or express interest in many of the opportunities), hopefully one or more of the nets will “catch” them and they will become engaged in the study and application of Scripture. Below are some of our nets:
- Leadership model
We begin with leadership. If the leadership of the local church (in our case, elders) is not modeling Christian living (1 Tim 3:1-7), prayer (1 Tim 2:8), and the importance of the instruction of the Word (1 Tim 4:12-16) before the congregation, then we cannot expect the church body to recognize the importance of these things. Our public prayers, reading of Scripture and exposition (2 Tim 2:15) lay out a pattern for the congregation to follow.
- Preaching of expository messages
Expository preaching not only teaches the Word in context, it demonstrates how the Word should be approached, interpreted and applied. Almost all of our sermons are verse-by-verse expositions of the Word. Even though the majority of church goers today apparently have little appetite for sound doctrine, we nevertheless are instructed in the New Testament to “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:1-5). To aid in this we offer:
- Sermon manuscripts – which are about eight pages long and are the documents from which I preach (about 70 individuals/families receive these during the week prior to the sermon). Some read these manuscripts during the week, looking up Scripture and preparing themselves for the preaching of the Word on Sunday. Others read, or re-read, the manuscript after the message has been preached, studying details or checking out portions they may have missed, misunderstood or want to research.
- Sermon note outlines – placed in each bulletin. We encourage note taking by providing a skeleton outline of the message with space to write whatever stands out to the listener. Our outlines are not “fill in the blanks.”
- Children sermon notes – we also offer notes for children not in junior church, which at times are “fill in the blanks” and other times are more general in nature. Two women in our church receive the sermon manuscript early in the week and construct these notes for children. Interestingly, one leader of the local chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletics uses the children’s notes in his Bible studies for high school and college students.
- Sunday school classes
We have classes for all ages which are centralized around Scripture. When I travel to other countries I notice that Sunday school classes, or their equivalent, are often not offered. Increasingly in America the same is true. The popular church paradigm at present is sometimes called the “simple church” in which there is a weekend “celebration” that is geared toward the unchurched and the dechurched. For more in-depth Bible study small groups are organized. These groups are often uneven in their study of Scripture, depending on the leadership of the group. Suffice it to say, in the majority of simple churches the study of Scripture is not paramount. I believe many opportunities throughout the week must be offered if a good diet of biblical truth is on the menu. Sunday school remains an important part of that diet at least for us. Our structure is as such:
- Children – The 18 month to 3 year old children are being taught select Bible stories. Three year olds are using our own adaptation of Generations of Grace which covers Genesis to Revelation in three years. Generations of Grace material is taught from preschool through 4thgrade in a three year cycle. Thus students complete the series twice. The Generation of Grace material emphasizes the relevancy of Christ in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation focusing on the plan of salvation and our need of personal redemption. Fifth and sixth grades (11-12 yrs.) are taught apologetics/hermeneutics/world views /inductive Bible study using Answers in Genesis material as a guide. Additional topics covered are: the Young Peace Maker, Fear of Man, and an inductive Bible study of two books from the New Testament. Junior church is a two year cycle covering the attributes of God, the names of God, the fruit of the Spirit and apologetics from the first 11 chapters of Genesis. Ages 12-13 are taught Bible college level courses on systematic theology. High school age is taught biblical exposition, apologetics, and doctrinal topics with emphasis on biblical discernment. At this level many of them begin to teach children as well as their peers. We believe it is important that our youth contribute to the body life of the church through ministry and service.
- Adults – we offer several electives at a time, each course lasting two to three months. They are divided into three categories: Bible (normally a study of individual books of the Bible as well as surveys), theology (including church history), and Christian living topics. Offering multiple adult classes not only provides rich biblical instruction on a variety of subjects, it also gives numerous individuals the opportunity to grow through teaching.
- Bible studies
We have Bible studies scattered throughout the week in various places at various times. While some of our studies will be based on a book handling a specific theme or topic, most center around the direct study of the Bible. Some of our groups include Iron Sharpening Iron (for men ranging in size from 4 to 7), and various women’s Bible studies.
- Women’s ministries
In reference to the women of our church, we have two programs geared directly toward them. Our Titus 2 ministry includes any women who wants to be involved. Part of Titus 2 is our “Friendship Circles” in which four to six women meet once a month for fellowship, prayer and Bible study. We also have a ministry we call “Moms in Christ” which is aimed at mothers of younger children. Among other things they sponsor two small group Bible studies, one during the day and one on Wednesday nights.
- Small groups
One Sunday night per month we have small groups. The majority of our church body participates in these groups which usually meet in homes, have a meal together, discuss that Sunday morning sermon and make application.
- Wednesday evening service
Our Wednesday mid-week service is one of the highlights of our church life. We offer a light, inexpensive supper followed by our children’s club, teen Bible study and adult Bible studies and prayer. For adults, Wednesday study is a time to go even deeper into the things of God. The focus is on systematic theology, hermeneutics, and biblical themes.
- Men’s Theological Study Forum
Our most in-depth exploration of Scripture comes at 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings as about 20 men gather for a men’s theological study forum. No stone is left unturned in our attempt to understand the doctrines the Lord has given us. At this point the MTSF has replaced our Springfield Center for Biblical Studies which is an academic, class room form of instruction. We will probably resurrect the SCBS in time, but at this moment we are finding the MTSF more profitable.
- Springfield Center of Biblical Counseling
As a unique means of developing disciples we now offer the Springfield Center for Biblical Counseling to address specialized behavioral and spiritual issues through the use of Scripture. The focus of the SCBC is an outreach to the community, but also provides counseling for some church members. In addition to our pastors we presently have 2 male and 3 female counselors certified by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC). Our SCBC is now a training center for others who desire to pursue certification as a biblical counselor.
- Bible conferences
Conferences are held annually to promote good Bible teaching from outside sources. It is important that our people know that there are many other good ministries and individuals scattered throughout the conservative evangelical community which hold to our understanding of the sufficiency and importance of Scripture.
- Think on These Things
TOTT is devoted to literature designed to equip the saints and develop discernment. TOTT writings began in 1994 when a missionary organization asked me to write a short monthly paper to be distributed to their missionaries which would keep them up-to-date on theological and current issues facing evangelical believers. Other ministries and individuals discovered these papers and requested to be added to our mailing list. Through direct mailing and emails, in addition to our website and other ministries promoting these articles, many thousands of believers worldwide have made use of this material. In addition to the articles, book reviews, mostly written by myself, have been added to our website: www.tottministries.org. To date over 200 articles on contemporary theological matters and current issues are on our website, and approximately 650 book reviews as well as numerous teaching resources. The focus of this ministry continues to be biblical discernment, as we seek to keep in balance the exhortation of Scripture and the defense of it (Titus 1:9).
- Young adult Bible study (for single young adults)
Young adults often find it difficult to know where they fit into the local church – too old to be in the high school programs but too young to see themselves running with older adults and not yet ready to establish a family. We believe it important to provide a net for this special group. For over 20 years we have offered a Bible study every other week in a home environment. We serve a meal, study the Scriptures and enjoy helpful fellowship. This is obviously a fluid group as life changes are common with young adults, but throughout the years it has proven to be a valuable tool.
- Website and app
Teaching materials, including sermons and Bible studies are made available through our website and app. More recently, we now have a TOTT website – www.tottministries.org. This site is making available curriculum, Bible studies, children materials, and PowerPoints for other ministries and individuals not directly connected with our local ministry.
- Elder Care Groups
These are groups in which an elder shepherds a subsection of our church body. We have found it valuable to break our church body into smaller sections and place an elder over individuals and families to provide special attention to their physical and spiritual needs. The elders pray regularly for members of their group, visit them when sick, and assist our deaconesses in organizing meals for them when needed, for example illness or the birth of a baby, and give general spiritual oversite for them.
The church alone cannot develop disciples. Individual believers must take responsibility for their own spiritual growth. We can and should provide as many “nets” as possible to aid in our people’s maturity but the believer must step up and take advantage of these nets, as well as develop and work a plan for personal Bible reading and study. I have found over the years that most people who really know Christ want to spend time in the Word, but many lack a structure to adequately help them be successful. Nagging and making people feel guilty are not good motivators so we seek to be more constructive in helping them desire to be students of the Scriptures. Toward that end we:
- Encourage and aid in personal Bible study by providing a reading schedule which, if followed, would guide the users through the Bible every three years. The reading schedule is placed in the bulletin and on the church app weekly.
- Encourage projects such as reading certain sections of Scripture, perhaps in tandem with a Bible class they are attending. In a recent Bible survey class, I taught on the Pentateuch and asked the class to read these books as we studied them. I was thrilled to read on Facebook that two of our members were highly impressed and blessed by the holiness of God as found in Leviticus. That was an unexpected surprise.
- Encourage our people to develop a simple Bible reading program. We ask them to first determine the best time of day for them to spend time reading. And, if they have never done this before, we ask them to carve out just 15 minutes per day because far too many people begin with an hour on Monday and give up by Thursday. In addition to the time commitment we request that they find the best place in their world for reading. This needs to be a quiet, out-of-the way location, free from the distractions of children, cell phones, and other hindrances. This may be a nook in the basement, an isolated room at work, an outdoor building or even the bathroom. At this location it is best to keep your Bible, notebooks, pens and other study aids handy. Committing to just 15 minutes a day alone with the Lord can be life-changing.
- Encourage finding an accountability buddy. Not everyone does but many need accountability. If two or three people would meet weekly over coffee and share what they have read it would be most helpful on many levels.
- Encourage listening to good sermons. Via internet and apps, as well as radio and CDs (for those yet to transition to electronic forms) there are ample choices to hear good exposition throughout the week.
- Encourage use of audio Bibles. Some men, in particular, struggle with reading and comprehension, but have found listening to the Scriptures helpful. Many Bible apps, such as YouVersion, offer audio Bibles in many translations. What a great use of time especially as we travel in our cars or exercise. Rather than spending all that time listening to music or talk radio, use some of it to listen to Scripture.
The Bible clearly calls on us to study the inspired Word of God personally (2 Tim 2:15), as well as be taught the Word of God by others (Eph 4:11-12). Both are essential and the church of Christ in the 21st century needs to take the importance of this far more seriously than it sometimes does. Only the Word of God is designed to transform us by the renewing of our minds.
I have found an amazing thing: when believers feed on a steady diet of biblical truth they have little craving for cotton candy fads. Why would anyone trade in the fountain of life for cisterns that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13)? Of course many have and do, but the solution is not to crawl into the cistern, it is to showcase the fountain. Church growth gurus tell us today that people have little interest in the Word of God and we will never build a “great” church if teaching truth is the focus of our ministries. They have a point. In most cases big churches have grown due to church growth techniques, marketing, excellent music, exciting programs, and mirroring the culture by telling people what they want to hear. But no matter the size, whether 20 or 20,000, a great church must be defined by God, not culture. It must never be forgotten that it was the richest and most prosperous church of Asia that the Lord said He would spit out of His mouth (Rev 3:16), while those churches which seem to be insignificant received the Lord’s commendation (Rev 2:8-11;3:7-13). Let us strive to please our Savior by obeying His instructions to proclaim the Word and making disciples.