What does Biblical Interpretation have to do with the church? With your church?
I would say that in an ideal world, it would have a lot to do with it. But the reality is that it may not have much to do with it at all. It is rarely practiced, and even less rarely taught as a skill or a spiritual discipline.
Why do churches not value Biblical Interpretation? Why is it often considered a mere "intellectual exercise?" I can't read anybody's minds, but there are some evident things about churches that ought to be plainly stated and understood. In recognizing these things, it will be more clear why there is so little interest in good biblical interpretation.
Churches have an institutional presence. They are usually incorporated, employ many people, and they own real estate and other property (If they don't, chances are it is because they are relatively new and just haven't done any of that yet). They have many members and well-established routines for activities, services, programs and the like.
Churches endeavor to have a "place" in their community. At their best, they want to "be there" for those around them. They want to offer ministry services to their members and the community around them. They are concerned with matters that derive from these established activities and initiatives. These ranges from growth and name recognition, to maintaining organizational and financial stability, and preparing for future circumstances. Churches rely upon support-- particularly financial contributions-- from members and others, and efforts from ministry professionals to sustain themselves. They also rely upon the loyalty of their members.
Further, churches do not like change. Change disrupts the expectations of all who rely upon the church as "their" institution. For every change that might attract ten people, it might offend ten or twenty current members. Churches tend to have a "take it or leave it" approach. They do what they do, the way they want to do it. I'm not faulting them for this; I'm just saying this is the way it is.
New members are typically introduced to the church through a series of studies explaining the beliefs and practices of the church. These often use the Scriptures. But the point of these references isn't to accurately explain any of the passages as much as to support the beliefs and practices of the church. The church needs people to participate and support its programs and activities, and its attention is focused on taking prospective members and getting them to participate in those things.
Churches arise out of tradition. Some churches will readily admit this, others will not.
The earliest churches-- in the first century-- arose as a result of the apostles and others proclaiming the gospel. They were generally not well received in the Jewish synagogues, so they formed "Christian synagogues" of their own. The thing that made the earliest churches different from synagogues-- believing that Jesus was the Messiah-- was the essence of the gospel proclamation. This proclamation preceded any New Testament writings. The New Testament writings grew up with the church.
Basic teachings of morality and truth from the Jewish synagogue and Old Testament Scriptures were also a foundation of the the early churches. Other distinctive Christian practices were introduced by the apostles from the earliest days and these became part of the Christian tradition before the New Testament Scriptures were written and canonized.
Over the hundreds of years since the first century, there have been various movements, split-offs and the like with the Christian church. These have been driven by various factors- political, cultural, theological. They tend to have a "keep this, but not that, and add this new thing also" approach to their predecessors. But even then- these offshoots are rooted in tradition.
In our day, all churches have some path back to the first century church. Some paths are more direct than others, that's not the point here. The point is that churches have a history, a tradition that is at their root. Even the newest start-up church in your local elementary school is driven by tradition. Its leaders and founding members come from some religious tradition. In some cases, they seek to follow that tradition very rigorously. Others may only follow it loosely with variations according to their preferences. Even those preferences are driven by tradition-- hoping to re-create something positive they have experienced or seen elsewhere, or hoping to avoid something negative they have experienced or seen elsewhere.
Yet, non-Catholic churches generally seem to want to avoid their history and tradition. For example, churches routinely start new movements and significantly change their approaches. Protestant history goes from the time of the apostles to the time of the Reformers to the leaders of the current movement. Churches tend to pick and choose which aspects and events of greater Christian history they want to associate themselves with, and act as though the others never happened at all.
Individual congregations tend to mark their history from when the building was built or when the preacher was hired.
Churches often deliberately try to dissociate from their own pasts through various efforts. It might be through a "reconstruction," re-naming (often to mask denominational affiliation), moving, or some other "re-branding" effort. They may dismiss leader "A" and bring in leader "B" who will do pretty much the exact same things even while it is proclaimed as a "new era" in the history of that church.
I suppose there are some different reasons churches run from their history. It may be an attempt to attract those who were previously not attracted to the church. By distancing itself from its past, they attempt to make the church a new product for others to reconsider. Or, perhaps churches do this to avoid the past competing with the present. By discrediting the past, it leaves no option but to push ahead with the new plans and structures, regardless of what difficulties may arise. A present trend in some churches is to appear to be on the "cutting edge" of church developments and approaches. A church taking this approach has no use for history at all. But it doesn't mean it doesn't have a history.
All of these have something in common. They have the effect of making the church and its members somewhat contextless-- they don't have a "past," they just have a "present." History is disregarded in life, and it is likewise disregarded in Bible study.
By contrast, in Bible times the present was always tied to the past and the great truths, promises, concerns and the very being of the Lord Almighty. The present built upon the past and was the foundation for the future. The whole history-- context-- is what made everything significant. Jesus was significant because of the prophets and Moses. Moses was significant because of Abraham. Abraham was significant because of Adam and Noah.
Many churches value action. They define themselves by what they do, often in contrast to other churches and what others may not do. This can be represented in a slogan or motto that churches use to market themselves, or in distinctive teachings that are frequently repeated. Most churches feature these things on printed materials, on websites, on posters in the building. For example (from some actual church websites):
These things usually talk about what people do and how the church wants others to view them. They don't normally talk about biblical interpretation and faithfulness to truthful doctrine; supposedly such things don't appeal to the "un-churched" demographic that so many churches are pursuing.
Further, some Christians speak with disdain about "intellectual-only" Christians who "don't do anything." To them, a "real Christian" is somebody who "does things," not someone who thinks about things or questions things. Those who think or question are sometimes put down as weak in faith, unspiritual. They are sometimes attacked by being compared to the faithless or sinful naysayers in certain biblical narratives, and the like.
Anti-thinking bias creates a church culture where the idea that understanding what God has said is somehow not a worthy spiritual endeavor. Those who engage in it are somehow "less Christian" than those who are "doing something." Or perhaps it is said that they use "biblical interpretation" as an excuse not to do some good thing. Of course, understanding what God has said is very much a worthy spiritual endeavor, providing a solid foundation of truth for faith and action.
Often, what is said to define a "faithful life" is driven by matters outside of the Bible or biblical misunderstandings. For example, churches may value helping those in need but this often derives from traditional, cultural or societal expectations rather than a solid Biblical understanding on the topic. Or churches may encourage people to get involved in their church program, but the church program itself may have little basis from the Scriptures.
Long ago, God's people were taught:
It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, nor to be hasty and miss the way.
Prov 19:2 (NIV)
Action is not a bad thing. But it must be accompanied with knowledge, and knowledge is acquired through patient learning. Understanding and using the Scriptures correctly is not just some intellectual exercise. Clearly, it gives true and solid meaning to passages that otherwise could be interpreted or distorted in any untold number of incorrect ways. It prevents us from engaging in misguided actions.
When we consider the elements that define a church in our day- its practices, organization, events, worship styles, outreach programs, etc. it is clear to a Bible reader that the Bible just doesn't address many of those things very much, if it all. It is evident that churches have a large degree of freedom to do the things they choose to do- neither Scriptural command to do them nor Scriptural prohibition against them.
To one degree or another, church thinkers today attempt to justify church practices from the Scriptures, or from Scriptural ideas. But the fact that the things being justified "from the Scriptures" did not exist in the historical times when the Scriptures were being written demonstrates that these ideas are not really "from the Scriptures."
In fairness to churches today, there are some significant differences between churches in the Bible times and today. The first century churches were fledgling groups fighting for survival in the face of persecution even while experiencing the miraculous presence of God and occasional rapid growth. They struggled with a developing belief system as they became separate from Judaism. In contrast, modern churches are institutionalized, tradition-guided organizations seeking to leverage their freedom, opportunities and resources to somehow meet the needs of members and to have some interaction or ministry to the world around it.
In many ways, the church of today is playing a different game than the church we read about in the Bible. For better or worse, the modern church is in somewhat uncharted territory and has left the Bible behind.
When you put all of these factors together-- the institutional and traditional nature of the church, and the fact that the Bible does not concern itself much (if at all) with topics of functional importance to churches today, it is no wonder that Biblical Interpretation is not important in churches today.
Churches use the Bible to teach people various things, but the Bible is generally not used to guide the church. Churches already have their programs and their structures, they just need people to participate in them.
Yes, churches don't need the Bible. If that sounds stark or harsh... consider if it is true or not.
As if all of this wasn't bad enough, churches do many things that de-emphasize the Bible in general, and attempts to properly interpret it in particular. Some of these things are deliberate, some are just incidental. But the end result is the same-- churchgoers are largely on their own when it comes to Biblical Interpretation. See how many of these things you recognize from your church experiences:
I'm a little hesitant to call out church leaders. Many serve sacrificially and wonderfully. I've learned some good things about biblical interpretation from church leaders, too. The church-- both the universal and local-- needs good leaders. Leaders are an easy target to criticize. So I want to be careful to temper my comments below with these considerations.
Even if many are guilty of perpetuating some of the things mentioned in this article, it does not mean they are evil or incompetent. Leaders may just be following tradition and their training, doing their best, not realizing the implications of all they do. Yet these things need to be said because a lot is at stake.
Leaders often expect members to trust them. They may have difficulty handling questions about their teachings or practices, perceiving these as a lack of support, respect or love towards them.
Sometimes leaders may have an awful lot going on and feel like they just can't handle questioning everything. In the day-to-day world they live in, here's how it works: leaders give direction, members follow that direction. And in a world where leaders help people wrestling with major life issues, it's hard to fault a leader for not being concerned about Biblical Interpretation. (But in rebuttal, I would suggest that there might be fewer "major life issues" to minister to if better Biblical Interpretation skills were taught and practiced.)
Some church leaders may view themselves in some way as intermediaries between those they lead and God. They view it as their role to know what God wants the people to do, and then to tell them to do it. In Bible times, before the Bible was compiled, at various times the spiritual leader was the one God spoke to, and this was an important part of his spiritual leadership.
Now that we have the Bible and the gospel is known, that "exclusive source of the word of God" aspect of leadership really isn't needed anymore. Jesus is now the mediator between God and men, as Paul told Timothy (1 Tim 2:3-5). We have access to Jesus directly, and we have the Bible to enable us all to know what God has said. Now, leadership needs to serve a different role. Leaders ought to learn and then teach the Bible, and perform other leadership functions (administrating various elements of the church, helping others to mature, setting an example, inspiring others in their faith, etc.) using their leadership gifts to serve the body. Sadly, some leaders may not see a role for themselves if they aren't in some mediator-like role.
Many leaders today speak of being "visionaries" or the like. This seems to be an attempt to reintroduce this somewhat mystic role back into church leadership today. Thus-- we might all have the Bible, but supposedly we still need the mystic guidance of the "visionary." Given this slightly skewed view of their role as leaders-- it's not that many church leaders don't want you to read or learn the Bible-- it's just that they consider it much more important that you follow their leadership, their "vision." In some cases, they may view the Bible as their tool to get you to conform to the vision they believe God has for their church.
However, there are some real problems with this type of leadership. First, there is no indication that such a role exists in the church today. Some leaders may be gifted speakers or administrators, and God may work through some people to do good things, but the times of infallible, certain "visionary leaders" guided by God as in Bible times has passed.
Second, if that direction is askew for any reason (out of balance, flat-out wrong, leads to unintended negative consequences), the only way the church is going to find it out is the hard way-- by seeing damage done. Questioning teachings and practices in light of the Scripture serves to protect the church, and it's not just the job of the leaders to do this.
Third, when the leaders make mistakes as "visionaries," members' faith in God himself will be damaged. If God guided the visionary and it turned out badly, what does that say about God?
Fourth, this type of leadership guarantees that the hearers will not fully mature in their faith, learn on their own, or have the personal, deep conviction that comes from their own study of the Scriptures. They will be dependent upon leaders telling them what to do (and leaders will feel so burdened, "Why don't these members just grow up in their faith?"). They will never be able to recognize damaging or false teaching. When something goes awry in their own faith or in the church, they will simply be unequipped to handle it. Church leaders who do not equip their members to read, interpret and understand the Bible, and to challenge their own beliefs and practices, set their members up for bad things.
Just a thought here-- but do the Scriptures ever tell members to trust the leaders over the Scriptures? On the other hand, aren't there quite a few examples in the Bible of people being expected to question and challenge what the whole group thinks?
An article as short as this cannot fully delve into all of the reasons behind the obstacles to good Biblical Interpretation skills being practiced in the church. It can only raise the issue on a few different points. But even this short discussion shows a host of obstacles that Christians are going to have to deal with to interpret the Scriptures well.
And given all of these factors, the problems with Biblical Interpretation in churches are a significant reason a lot of people choose to remove themselves from active involvement in local churches. The church experience is just too disconnected from the Bible for them.
We can hope that some of the church and church leadership factors behind the neglect of good Biblical Interpretation could be changed through awareness and a sincere desire to get back on track.
People devoted to a religion with many devout and godly practices can still miss the hand of God, and the results can have absolutely devastating consequences. At various times in its history, ancient Israel was well-established in an institutional religion with strong traditions. Yet it still managed to fall away from that faithfulness. At the time of the coming of Jesus, the institutional structure and traditional teachings led the people to miss recognizing Jesus as the Christ. The Jews in Jesus' time had no problem defending their beliefs and practices from either Scripture or tradition, yet they were exactly wrong on the most important issue in their lifetimes- the appearance of the Messiah. This should give all Christians for all time sobriety about re-examining their beliefs and practices lest we make a similar mistake in our time.
Leaders can look for ways to change things that are obstacles to good interpretation. And if you are a church member who perceives these things in your leaders, do not be harsh or unkind in your assessment. We're all in this together, and we need to resolve these things together too.
And remember, once you know better, no church leader can stop you from practicing good Biblical Interpretation anyway.