The Method of Interpreting Scripture in the Conservative Evangelical Church Needs a Reboot
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Mat 23:23-24)
All the years I was in graduate school and then seminary, I was taught how to interpret the Bible. We took courses like Bible Study Methods, New Testament Greek and Old Testament Hebrew. We had classes in preaching in which we learned methods of outlining a passage of Scripture and then turning that outline into a “homiletical” one that would be the framework of the sermon, using more contemporary and memorable outline headings. That jump from exegetical outline to homiletical outline was, as I look back on it, a pretty dangerous one that often resulted in the real meaning of a passage being framed in some catchy phrase to make it “relevant.”
I have been preaching God’s Word in Christ’s church now for over three decades, and over these years I have seen my method of sermon preparation change. I didn’t sit down and decide one day to do it. It has just happened. In earlier years “exegesis” was my main focus. A close, careful examination of the passage I would preach on including careful word studies to determine their true meanings. These were the things of lexicons, Greek grammars and syntax, BDB (the classic Hebrew lexicon), and then intricate computer programs that searched all these tools at once and made the books I carefully collected over the years obsolete. I still use these tools some, but…
Things have changed.
Why? Because in dealing with evil in the church, in seeing firsthand the grievous experiences of abuse victims at the hands of their churches, I have been forced to face the fact that somehow our method of handling God’s Word has frequently gone sadly wrong. For all of our studies and training, we have misapplied and misconstrued the, shall I say it…spirit of the Word. And I suggest that this is precisely what Jesus confronted the Pharisees with. In the gnat-straining process of our Bible study methods, we have missed the biggies: justice, mercy, and faithfulness.
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. (Mat 23:1-4)
Do you see it? They apparently read the text of Scripture accurately as they read from the scrolls, but when it came to the application of the Scripture, they got it wrong. Why? Because they were arrogant, and that arrogance and their seeking of self-glory led them to entirely miss justice, mercy, and faithfulness which was to guide the interpretation and application of the Scripture, and instead applied the Scripture in a way that put a crushing weight on the poor souls of the people. By the way, and I hope that everyone catches the full import of what I am about to say: “In all my years of seminary, not one single professor, not one single class, not one single book I read EVER admonished us to be certain that our handling of Scripture affirmed God’s justice, mercy, and faithfulness. And yet these are the VERY things that Jesus identified as the BIGGIES”!! Chew on that for a bit.
Pastors, church members, elders, seminary professors, Christian authors, stop it! We have been doing the very same things ourselves. How? Well, come back to the abuse victim who comes to us for help. Tell me, are we regularly giving them the justice, mercy, and faithfulness that characterizes the very essence of the Lord Himself? I maintain that the answer is a resounding, “No!” What they are regularly receiving is heavy burdens, hard to bear, laid upon their shoulders. Burdens that the very people tying them on the poor souls would never lay upon themselves if they were in such a position of suffering.
Go ahead. Study Greek. Learn Hebrew. Carefully consider sound Bible study methods. BUT after doing all that, remember. If your method and your conclusions in handling God’s own Word are not consistent with the character of God as shown to us in the Person and works of the Lord Jesus Christ, then it matters not a mite how much intricate gnat straining you did in your study. Your conclusions are wrong. If you tell an abuse victim that she is forbidden by God to divorce her abuser, if you tell her God requires her to continue in that suffering, if you forbid her from remarrying if she does divorce the wicked husband, then your handling of Scripture is crooked. You are not “cutting it straight” as Paul exhorted Timothy to do:
Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2Tim 2:14-15)
I suspect there will be many, on that Day, who will have much need to be ashamed because they did not rightly handle the word of truth and those oppressed sheep who suffered as a result will be there as witnesses.