I was recently interviewed by Thom Schultz, the CEO of Group Publishing, for his “Holy Soup” podcast. We talked about whether or not biblical illiteracy is a problem in the church. Lots of people think it is, and bemoan the fact that most Christians don’t know their Bible very well. Some are calling this an epidemic or a crisis. But as I discussed with Thom Schultz, I don’t think it is that big of a problem. Listen to the podcast to learn why.
I am also doing a series of blog posts on the topic so that I can explain in more depth what I said in the podcast interview.
Here are the posts so far:
By the way, I am also writing about this in a book which I hope to publish in the next month or two. The book is actually about pastoral leadership, but since preaching is a function of pastors, I write about how pastors can transform their preaching to do a better job at making disciples. Make sure you have subscribed to my email newsletter to get news about this book when it comes out.
And just in case it needs to be said, I am all in favor of Bible study. I study Scripture for several hours almost every day. I study Scripture for pure enjoyment, but I also study it for my books, for my teaching and preaching, and for this blog. All I am saying below is that not everybody needs to study the Bible as much as I do. Most do not. Further still, most Christians already know enough about the Bible.
The problem is not a lack of biblical literacy; the problem is a lack of biblical living and loving, and to be honest, you don’t need to know much about the Bible in order to live and love like Jesus.
Anyway, here are the 15 reasons I believe that biblical illiteracy is not a problem in the church:
1. There is no end to the quest for biblical literacy.
If biblical literacy is the goal, how can we know when we have achieved it? How much Bible knowledge does a person need to have?
The answer is always “More than they have now.” It’s like riches: “How much money do you need?” Only one dollar more. The quest for biblical literacy is a quest with no end, and the problem with the Bible is that it has enough ideas to occupy our minds for eternity, which means that if we keep from stepping out to love and serve others until we feel like we know enough, we will never feel like we know enough.
So I would rather have people take what little they do know, and start living it. Then, as questions come up and issues arise, they can return to Scripture for more.
2. Pastoral sermons hinder biblical literacy.
Believe it or not, sermons are part of the problem. Pastors often talk about Greek and Hebrew in their sermons, mention the professional theology training they have received, and put seminary degree placards up on their office walls. This gives the impression to lots of people that if they don’t know Greek and Hebrew, and don’t have the time or money to attend seminary or read all the theology books, then they cannot actually know Scripture. So they don’t even try.
What we have given to the people with one hand, we took away with the other. People hear our sermons sprinkled with Greek, Hebrew, and quotations from theology books, and they realize they don’t have the time or training to do all this study, and when they try with the limited time and resources they do have, more often than not, they get scoffed at or ridiculed by someone with more training and knowledge for having a view that shows their ignorance. So people throw up their hands and say “Why bother?”
3. You can get the Bible to say anything you want.
This is one reason people have given upon learning the Bible. They study, study, study, learn, learn, learn, and then they discover that someone who studied 10,000 hours more than them came to an exact opposite conclusion. It’s disheartening. So some people throw in the towel on Bible study. When there is a such a wide array of opinions and beliefs on what a particular passage means, and there is very little chance for the average student of Scripture to gain clarity or certainty on which view is right, most people think “Why even try?”
4. There is a lack of love among the so-called “Biblically literate.”
The people in our society today who know the Bible best seem to be the same ones who live it least. There seems to be little correlation between Bible literacy and Jesus-like love. In fact, it sometimes seems that there is an inverse relationship between the two, so that as Bible knowledge goes up, the presence of love goes down.
Biblical literacy should no longer be defined as “how much you know about the Bible,” but should be defined instead by “How much you love like Jesus, who reveals to us that God is love.” People typically don’t need Bible knowledge to know how to love others. Quite the contrary, an emphasis on Bible knowledge often leads to a lack of love.
5. There is a difference between information and understanding.
When it comes to information, what is needed is not so much biblical literacy, as it is biblical understanding.
As I mentioned in the previous post on this topic, I would rather have someone understand one Bible verse than be able to quote 100 without understanding. Lots of people can quote Bible verses and get perfect scores on Bible trivia quizzes, but have very little understanding of most of the Bible verses they quote.
Bible explanation is always better than a Bible quotation.
And by the way, understanding a passage does not simply require you to know what YOU think it means, but also requires you to know what OTHERS think it means. Pick almost any verse in the Bible, and there will probably be half a dozen views on what that verse means. Some passages, like Hebrews 6:4-6, have about 2o (or more) possible views. I do not believe a person has understood a text until they have understood many of the views about that text. After all, how can someone believe their understanding of a text is correct if they do not know what other people say about text?
Most people who just quote Bible verses at you think that those Bible verses have a “straightforward and plain meaning.” Typically, the “straightforward meaning” of the text which seems so clear to them, seems to be the exact opposite of the “straightforward and plain meaning” of the text to others. Once a person begins to understand this, they see that “the plain meaning of the text” is a myth. So having lots of Bible information is not the same as having good Bible understanding.
6. Biblical literacy is championed by those who have related spiritual gifts.
One reason we hear about biblical illiteracy so much is because the people who champion it are the ones who have the spiritual gifts of teaching, preaching, and knowledge.
The greatest danger of all spiritual gifts is that some people think their gift is a gift everyone should have. God has laid upon the hearts and minds of pastors and teachers to study the Scripture and teach it to others. And they should fulfill their God-given task and do this. I am a pastor-teacher, which is why I study, preach, teach, and write. But we who have this spiritual giftedness must not fall into the trap of thinking that because such things are important to us, all other Christians must do the same things.
Just because we have these gifts, and God wants us to use these gifts, this does not mean that everyone has this same gifts or desires.
If you hire a pastor who has the spiritual gifts of mercy, or service, his sermons will probably not be full of Bible knowledge and theology facts, nor will he place a heavy emphasis on biblical literacy. Instead, he will place an emphasis on acts of love in the community, and getting out to our friends and neighbors to serve them. He will likely teach about the epidemic of the lack of love and service in our communities rather than the lack of biblical literacy.
Everybody tends to emphasize their own spiritual gifts, and everybody tends to think that everybody else should have the same interests and ministry priorities that they themselves have. But this is just not how spiritual gifts are supposed to work. God gives gifts to each one of us so that each of us can do what God wants us to do for the edification and encouragement of the Body. But if I tell you to stop practicing your gift and start practicing mine because if you don’t, you are not a good Christian, you will only end up frustrated. God wants me to study and teach Scripture. He may not want you to do the same thing.
My wife and I are a perfect example. I am the scholar, she is the server. For years, she felt guilty because she didn’t study more, and I felt guilty because I didn’t serve more. But we have now come to realize that I study and she serves, and we both need each other. I teach her what I learn, and she invites me along when she serves. When we go out to love and serve others, I tend to not know what I’m doing, so I follow her lead and do okay. Serving others is out of my comfort zone, and it’s awkward, but it is perfectly natural and normal for her, and so she helps me learn to love and serve others. This is how spiritual gifts are to work.
7. Biblical literacy is championed by pastors and teachers.
This point is nearly identical to the previous one, but with a focus on those whose salaries depend on people studying and learning Scripture.
Have you ever noticed that those who talk most about the lack of biblical literacy in the church today are those who get paid to raise the level of biblical literacy in the church today? That should raise some red flags.
The need for biblical literacy is championed by those who have the time and training to study it, and by those whose income requires people being dependent upon them for learning the Bible. Notice that those who decry the lack of biblical literacy in the church often say that the solution to this problem is to come listen to their sermons, buy their books, and attend their schools.
Look, along with teaching and writing about Scripture and theology, I also design websites and publish books for other authors, and I get paid a little bit of money to do so. What if I came out tomorrow and started telling people that everybody needs to have their own website and write their own books, and I can help you accomplish this? And if you don’t have your own website or your won book, well, you are not a very good Christian.
If I got enough people to believe that, I would then have more people coming to me to help them design and run their websites and write and publish their books. My income would vastly increase. It is to my financial benefit to get more people to believe that they need a website and must publish a book.
I think sometimes this is what happens when certain pastors and teachers say that Christians must increase the level of their biblical literacy. I wonder if subconsciously, they are simply trying to protect their salaries.
Note that it is not wrong for pastors and teachers to get paid. I get paid for some of what I teach and write, and I greatly appreciate the people who purchase what I produce. So does my family. But I hope that you never feel like I am pressuring you to buy what I publish or teach, or make you feel guilty or like you are less of a Christian if you do not. I believe that what I teach is of great help to people, which is why I make a large chunk of it available for free through this website and my podcast, and so I hope that when you buy one of my books or teaching courses, it is not because you were pressured, but because you simply wanted to learn more.
8. Bible knowledge works very much like an addiction.
The people who do best at Bible knowledge are generally those who have addiction-prone personalities, and the behaviors and practices they engage in to study and learn Scripture exhibit many signs of addiction. They need their daily and weekly fix of biblical insights and Bible studies.
Are there worse thing to be addicted to? Sure. But addictions are never healthy for the relationship of the people in the addiction, and this is true of Bible addicts as well. Bible addicts often have trouble with the relationships in their life, which means that while they may be learning a lot, they are not learning to live it out.
Also, in light of the previous point, this sort of makes pastors and preachers the dealers in this transaction, which is why you will very often find the most Bible addicts in a church where the pastor and preacher places an heavy and constant emphasis on attending church, listening to sermons, daily Bible reading, and going to Bible studies. But very little that is truly relational tends to go on in these churches. If you are in a church like this and don’t believe me, try not attending the church for three months, and see what happens. If people call you and tell you that you have been missed (and that’s a big IF), tell them that you are just taking a break from church. See what they say. Then see how long it takes for the calls to stop.
Many people who are addicted to Bible knowledge are not very good at meaningful relationships, just like most other addicts. And like addicts, they often try to pressure others into becoming addicts also. They tell you that you need your daily Bible fix, and the good stuff is being offered over at the church on Main street. If you turn them down and just say “No,” they will typically not have time for you any longer.
If you think you may have a Bible addiction, try going “cold turkey” for a while. You will have withdrawal symptoms of guilt and fear about what God is going to do to you now that you are not having your “Quiet Time.” You will get pressure from your “dealer” (aka, Pastor) about how your life is going to fall apart now that you don’t listen to his sermons.
I work with a lot of former drug addicts in my job, and I am always amazed at how quickly they turn from drugs to the Bible, which is still a much better trade, but then quickly becomes almost as destructive on their life, their job, and their relationships as drugs were before.
9. Knowing the Bible is not at all the same things as knowing God.
When God wanted to reveal Himself fully; He didn’t give us a book; He gave us a person. He gave us Jesus.
Yes, we learn about Jesus through the Bible, but I have found that most Christians know more than enough about Jesus in order to live like Jesus in their lives.
Let us no longer be people of a book; instead let us be followers of Jesus.
And if Jesus invites us to put our Bibles down so you can better follow Him, who are we to disagree?
10. We don’t need more biblical literacy; we need more biblical love.
We don’t need more knowing; we need more doing. Personally, I don’t see the lack of biblical literacy as a bad thing; I see it as a clear sign that the Spirit is moving the churches. I see God leading people always from the pews and the Bible studies, and out into the real world where we can love, and serve, and laugh, and cry with the people who are out here.
Should we know the Bible? Yes. But it should never be our goal to know the Bible. The solution to biblical illiteracy is not to bemoan the fact of biblical illiteracy and then seek to make people more biblically literate. We don’t need people to know more about the Bible; we need to love more in accordance with the Bible.
How can they do this if they don’t know the Bible? Truthfully, you don’t need to know much about the Bible to learn to live with love toward others. Some of the most loving and caring people I know don’t know much about the Bible.
11. Many of the Biblically “Literate” are Biblically Illiterate
This sort of gets back to the question of what biblical illiteracy actually is, but when I listen to the pastors and professors who are decrying the lack of biblical literacy in the church, I am often amazed to hear what comes out of their very own mouths, and it makes me wonder how biblically literate they themselves are.
One example: Is God on the side of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? With either choice, you can find seminary-trained pastors and Bibles scholars who support one candidate or the other and use the Bible to do so, while accusing the other side of being biblically illiterate. I saw a post on Facebook the other day from a popular Northeastern Pastor who basically said, “How can any evangelical Christian support the racist, bigoted Donald Trump? Don’t you know what the Bible says?” And then he went on to quote some Bible verses which he thought should sway people to vote for Hillary.
Not ten minutes later, I saw a Facebook post come through from a popular Southern Pastor who said almost the exact same thing, but this time about Hillary Clinton. I don’t think he was responding to the first post by the other pastor, but the similarities were shocking. “How can any Christian who truly follows Jesus ever support Hillary Clinton?” he asked. “Don’t you know what the Bible says?” And then he went on to quote some Bible verses which he thought would influence people to vote for Trump.
Both of these pastors, I think, would agree that people are more biblically illiterate than ever before. One pastor, of course, would say that Christians who support Trump are illiterate while the other would say that Christians who support Hillary are illiterate.
Of course, my view is that both are illiterate. My view is that anybody who tries to use the Bible to pick a political candidate doesn’t really know the first thing about the Bible.
I listen to pastors condemn the lack of biblical literacy in the church today and then turn around and say the most outlandish things about God or Jesus, and even crazier things about people of other religions, political persuasion, or sexual orientation. Many people hear this and think, “If studying the Bible leads to those conclusions, I don’t want to study the Bible.” This is tragic, because in my view, studying the Bible leads to the exact opposite views about God, Jesus, and other people.
(This is the overall purpose of everything I write and teach, by the way, to rescue Scripture, theology, and the church from these twisted ways of thinking, and to show people that God looks just like Jesus, and Scripture, when properly understood, leads us to love.)
12. The phrase “biblically illiterate” is just a nice way of calling someone a heretic.
Christians often resort to name-calling tactics when they don’t want to have a substantive argument about the views of someone who disagrees. In the past, we called people heretics. We don’t do that much anymore. Well, some do. But most people realize that it is not quite as accepted as it once was to simply accuse someone of being a heretic. So they call them “biblically illiterate” instead.
When someone teaches something that is contrary to your view, rather than take the time to understand their perspective and then deal with it logically and Scripturally, and maybe even correct your own view in the process, it is much easier to just call them “biblically illiterate” and move on.
I get this all the time in my own writing. I occasionally write some challenging things on my blog, and it often seems that when I do, one of the first ten comments is from someone who says, “If you would just read the Bible, you would know how wrong you are. You are clearly ignorant of the Bible.” And then they quote a verse or ten which they believe disproves the point of my post. I sometimes comment back saying, “I have read the Bible and am quite aware of those verses you quoted. I just understand them a bit differently than you do.”
So the accusation of being “biblically illiterate” is often nothing more than a way to ignore or write off those people with whom you disagree so that you don’t have to consider their arguments or seek to understand their position.
The issue of homosexuality is a great example. It is not uncommon to hear the pastors who decry the lack of biblical literacy in the church today to also preach against LGBTQ people. Somewhere along the way they will likely make mention of the many Christians who do not condemn LGBTQ people, and rather than consider and respond to the arguments and beliefs of these other Christians, these pastors will just dismiss them with a wave of the hand and scornful comment about such views being “biblically illiterate.”
You see? The term is often little more than a way to dismiss the ideas and arguments of others so that you don’t have to consider their ideas and have a conversation with them.
13. The Biblical Literacy Tests Don’t really Test Biblical Literacy
Have you ever taken one of these Biblical literacy tests? I have taken quite a few. They often include questions like “How many people were on Noah’s ark? How many plagues were there? How many disciples did Jesus have? Matthew 5-7 is known as what? What is the longest Psalm in the Bible?”
Those questions are somewhat of a caricature of the real biblical literacy tests, but they’re not too far off.
But look at those. Such questions don’t really test biblical literacy at all. What they test is biblical trivia. And is that really what it means to be a disciple or follower of Jesus? That we can score 9 out of 10 on a Bible trivia test?
I think what we should be asking people about is not biblical literacy or biblical trivia, but biblical love, or better yet, love literacy. The true sign of a disciple is that we will be known by our love for one another. What good is knowledge of all things if we have not love?
I have some friends who would probably be classified as biblically illiterate by certain Christians today. They would likely get a 1 out of 10 on that Bible trivia test, and if you asked them anything about sound theology or central Christian teachings, they probably wouldn’t even get one point right. But they are some of the most loving people I have ever met in my life. They are more like Jesus than I ever hope to be. It ticks me off that someone might look at them one day and say that because they would not score well on a Bible Literacy exam, they are not really followers of Jesus. To me, those who say such things simply reveal that they themselves don’t know the first thing about Jesus.
I have another friend who is literally illiterate. He is in his late 70’s and he never learned to read. Furthermore, because his wife has a certain illness, he has not attended church since his mother took him when he was 6. He hasn’t been to church in 70 years. And because his wife is so sensitive to noise, he cannot listen to Christian radio.
So here is a guy who cannot read his Bible, cannot attend church, and cannot listen to sermons or preaching on the radio. I have had many conversations with him, and about the only thing he knows about the Bible is what he remembers from Sunday school when his mother took him as a child. He remembers the basic story about Jesus. That’s it.
But again, he is one of the most kind-hearted, loving people I have ever met.
Is he biblically illiterate? Of course! No matter which definition you use, he knows next to nothing about the Bible.
But he loves.
And when I talk to him, I see Jesus. He has hardly any money, but he cuts and delivers firewood to a friend of his who has less. He hands out pears from his pear tree to people who are hungry. He has faithfully stayed in a difficult marriage for more than 50 years. Talk about a picture of Jesus!
He doesn’t need to read the Bible. He doesn’t need to gain Bible facts and Bible knowledge. He can’t recite the 66 books of the Bible, nor can he list the 10 Commandments, or name the 12 Apostles.
He knows what he learned about Jesus in kindergarten, and that has been more than enough for him in the 70 years since.
14. I am more concerned with people developing a biblical worldview than biblical literacy.
I almost didn’t put this item in the list because I am about as uneasy with the concept of a “biblical worldview” as I am with the concept of “biblical literacy.”
Pretty much everything I have said above about biblical literacy can also be said about gaining a biblical worldview. No one can actually define it, and among those who try, they tend to use the concept of a biblical worldview to ignore or condemn those with whom they disagree. “Oh, well, you just believe that because you don’t have a biblical worldview. But I do.”
One big question I’ve been mulling over for the past five years or so is this “Is there such a thing as a SINGLE biblical world view, and even if so, is it a worldview that everyone should adopt? Is it the RIGHT worldview?” I am not sure the answer is “Yes” to either question.
Take the values of Honor and Shame. I did my Master’s Thesis on this topic. It is the dominant cultural value that permeates all of Scripture. The ancient world of the Israelites, and the world of the Greco-Roman culture, was guided and controlled by the values of honor and shame. It’s a value system based on community rather than the individual, and holds that the honor of the community is more important than the life, health, or well-being of any one person or family in the community. Modern western culture is guided by the opposite. We have radical individualism, and our goals are not honor, but materialistic wealth and individual happiness.
We might be tempted to say that the values of honor and shame are better, but are they? In today’s world, the Middle East is mostly governed by the values of honor and shame. Is there anyone in the Western world who thinks that Middle Eastern values are better? Not many. And yet, the values of the Middle Eastern world more closely resemble the values of the Bible, and therefore, the worldview of the Bible.
Look, worldviews are important. I think that understanding worldviews is more important than understanding Bible trivia and facts. That is why this item is on this list. But I want to be careful to say that just because we seek to understand our own worldview and the worldview of the people in biblical times, this does not mean that we are supposed to adopt the worldview of the people in biblical times. Their worldview was not necessarily better than ours.
15. Even Jesus and Paul argued against Biblical literacy
It’s sort of ironic that I am going to use Scripture to defend the idea that biblical illiteracy is not a problem…
The most biblically literate people in Israel were the Pharisees and Sadducees. Yet notice that Jesus tells them over and over in the Gospels that even though they are Bible experts, they know nothing about God, loving others, obeying the law, or the true meaning of the Scriptures themselves. He says, “You search the Scriptures daily, because in them you think you have eternal life, but these Scriptures speak of me” (John 5:39). If our reading, studying, and teaching of Scripture is not leading us to look, act, and love more like Jesus, then we are not properly understanding or reading the Scriptures and should probably just put them away for a while until we learn to love others more like Jesus.
Paul says that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1) and later that even if we have all knowledge, and understand all mysteries, and can speak in other languages, but have not love, all that knowledge is nothing (1 Cor 13:1-3). Maybe we could add quoting Bible verses, knowing Bible facts, and scoring 100% on a Bible trivia test. These things are nothing without love.
It is not that Bible knowledge and facts are wrong. Paul is saying that when it comes to knowledge and love, start with love every time.
As a side note: it must be pointed out that Paul doesn’t just want “acts of love” but actual love. He says that even giving away your money and feeding the poor is pointless if not done with love (1 Cor 13:3).
Do you have anything to add about Biblical Illiteracy?
Yikes! I just looked at the word count, and this post is the length of a small book. It’s over 5000 words long! So I will end right here, and pass the pen over to you.
What do you have to say about biblical illiteracy? Is it a problem in the church today? Is it something we should work to correct? What are the dangers, errors, or problems involved? Weigh in below!