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Sunday, April 13, 2014

the assumption we cannot afford

We ended another year of women’s Bible study last Tuesday: eleven weeks in the epistles of John and eleven weeks in James. Fifty-four different churches were represented in our enrollment this year. A couple thousand more women podcast from around the country. At the conclusion I was deluged with cards and emails from participants expressing their gratitude, reflecting on what they had learned, and, almost uniformly, uttering a confession I have heard so often that it no longer surprises. I still waver between joy and discouragement as I read that confession on card after beautiful thank you card. I still vacillate between celebration and grief each time it turns up in my inbox. I still hesitate between thankfulness and frustration every time it is spoken to me over coffee. Their confession is this:

I’ve been in church for years, but no one has taught me to study my Bible until now.
I remember confessing the same thing myself almost twenty years ago. It is gratifying to know that our efforts at FMWBS to help women know the Bible are changing the way they understand their God and their faith. But it is terrifying to me that so many log years in the church and remain unlearned in the Scriptures. This is not their fault, and it is not acceptable.

Church leaders, I fear we have made a costly and erroneous assumption about those we lead. I fear that in our enthusiasm to teach about finances, gender roles, healthy relationships, purity, culture wars, and even theology we have neglected to build foundational understanding of the Scriptures among our people. We have assumed that the time they spend in personal interaction with their Bible is accumulating for them a basic firsthand knowledge of what it says, what it means and how it should change them. Or perhaps we have assumed that kind of knowledge isn’t really that important.

So we continue to tell people this is what you should believe about marriage and this is what you need to know about doctrine and this is what your idolatry looks like, but because we never train them in the Scriptures, they have no framework to attach these exhortations to beyond their church membership or their pastor’s personality or their group leader’s opinion. More importantly, they have no plumb line to measure these exhortations against. It never occurs to them to disagree with what they are being taught because they cannot distinguish between our interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself, having little to no firsthand knowledge of what it says.

And they’ve been in church for years.

When we offer topical help – even if the topic is doctrine – without first offering Bible literacy, we attempt to furnish a house we have neglected to construct. As a friend and seminarian said to me this week, “There is a reason that seminaries offer hermeneutics before systematic theology.” He is right. But it would seem many who have enjoyed the rare privilege of seminary have forgotten to pass on this basic principle to the churches they now lead.

We must teach the Bible. Please hear me. We must teach the Bible, and we must do so in such a way that those sitting under our teaching learn to feed themselves rather than rely solely on us to feed them. We cannot assume that our people know the first thing about where to start or how to proceed. It is not sufficient to send them a link to a reading plan or a study method. It is our job to give them good tools and to model how to use them. There is a reason many love “Jesus Calling” more than they love the Gospel of John. If we equip them with the greater thing, they will lose their desire for the lesser thing.

I wish you could see how the women in our studies come alive like well-watered plants after a drought. I wish you could hear their excitement over finally, finally being given some tools to build Bible literacy.

"I can’t believe how much I’ve grown since I started studying. ..I had only done topical studies… I didn’t know you could study like this… I was so tired of navel-gazing... I’ve never been asked to love God with my mind… My husband teases me about how excited I am to tell him what we’re learning… I’ve never studied a book of the Bible from start to finish…"

They are so humble in admitting what they don’t know. We must be humble in admitting what we have left undone.

As I read their notes joy always trumps discouragement. Celebration overturns grief. Thankfulness overrides frustration. And because the need is great, I commit myself to wade through another stack of commentaries, to write another curriculum on another book of the Bible, to give another year to building the house of Bible literacy in which the furnishings of doctrine and other worthy topics can take their rightful places. We owe our people more than assertions of what is biblical and what is not. We owe them the Bible, and the tools necessary to soberly and reverently "take up and read". The task requires resolve, but the reward is great. Will you join me? 


  1. Jen, this is spectacular in so many ways. Thank you for writing it.

  2. That'll preach, Jen. LOVE it. Entering week 8 w/my RPC ladies...I can echo the same sentiments. "This is the best study I've ever done...I'm digging in w/o someone telling me how...the discussion we are having is helping me learn more about what James needed to teach us...I didnt realize how much I needed to study His Word, right now." Honored to serve with u...

  3. Jen, for those of us who have read through the entire bible for years and feel called to teach but don't know where to start, can you share what methods you use (i.e. do you use Logos, or are you partial to physical books)? Or could you possibly hold a session on "Teaching the Teacher" for those of us who are local and desire to fulfill this need in our church? That would be greatly appreciated!

    1. Tammy, I am actually thinking through doing a seminar. I devoted a chapter in my book to discussing teaching - that will be out this summer. Stay tuned...

    2. Oh, excellent question. Glad you asked, and glad to hear it may soon be answered :)

  4. You have put into words that which has been on my heart for years. I see a desire in the women I teach to love the Word, but many times they don't know where to start, how to study, or how to handle the confusing parts. I try to help but I look forward to any resources you provide in the future!

  5. Yes.. please share how you do this .. Im in a group now where we are reading thru the Bible start to finish but I want to " distinguish between our interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself ".

    1. Melissa, my book that comes out in July will cover this extensively.
      For the "short version" now, you can read the foreword to the James study:
      Or listen to the first half of the introduction:
      Or try this book:

    2. Thank you!! Really love the part in the intro to James where you talk about the Bible being about God discovery and making Himself known to us... the focus on God Himself. I saw a picture of your book posted by Tara Leigh Cobble so looking forward to it! Thanks!! :)

  6. Let's shout this from the rooftops! I've been leading Bible studies for many years, some years even nursing babies while leading! I've been told by many that with homeschooling, adopting four kids internationally, and raising eight kids (right now five of them are five and under) they thought for sure I would quit. I have said many a time that if the Lord wills, and as long as I have breath in me, I will lead women through the study of God's word. What else would I do. :)

  7. I absolutely love this article! I have just started blogging, and hope to also focus on the area of Bible study. I work with college students at my church, and have so often seen the young women coming in craving the word with no one teaching them how to study it for themselves. I'm also eagerly looking forward to any posts regarding "teaching the teacher."


  8. Jen, I happened to stumble upon you over at The Gospel Coalition Website. So glad you are teaching the Word and encouraging women to really "get into" their bibles. Sadly, at my church they have given up Bible instruction on Sunday mornings. Sunday School is now for children only. We used to have classes for young adults, young marrieds and even new believers. All those are gone now and it saddens me so much. Keep on, keeping on sister! God Bless you!