Educating Your Church for Biblical Literacy

Forthcoming in ChristianTrends Magazine

ONE must be careful before making any blanket statement about the state of teaching ministry in the church;for certainly there are churches that emphasize on teaching and there are churches that emphasize other things such as evangelism, worship, holiness, or social service. So, let me take a more general approach and leave it to the reader to consider if the necessary emphasis on teaching exists in his context or not; and, if not, what he or she can do to bring it to the front.

The Ministry of the Word in Historical Retrospective

For the Apostles, the ministry of the Word had no substitute. When the early church fell into a controversy related to food-serving, the Apostles drew a very clear line of definition around their calling. They were marked off by God not to serve tables but to the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:2); not that they were not willing to serve tables when needed (John 13:14), but because they were not supposed to let go off the priority of the ministry of the Word for anything else in the Body of Christ. One of the most important reasons for this was that doctrine and discipleship belonged together. The Great Commission was about discipleship and teaching (Matt.28:18-20). So, it is not a surprise that ability to teach was an important qualification for someone aspiring to be a leader in the church (1Tim.3:2; Tit.1:9).

As history progressed, or digressed, the Word began to lose its prominence in the church and gradually was secluded to new structures called the monasteries. Also, undue importance was being given to non-revelatory influences such as Aristotelianism in the line of Scholasticism. Martin Luther (1483-1546) didn’t favor such emphases and wished for the purity of theological education. During the Reformation, training of the clergy became an important issue as Protestant clergymen were required to be experts in the languages, especially the biblical ones, and possess tools and keen abilities for interpretation of texts, for reasoning, and for countering the opposition of the Catholics. Consequently, a Protestant clergyman was considered to be the most educated person in the village during those times. The Catholics saw the threat and responded with the Council of Trent establishing the innovation of theological seminaries dedicated solely to theological training (See George Marsden, The Soul of the American University).

But, soon the spirit of liberty and protest fell prostrate before the skeptic influences of modernism and liberalism. The Enlightenment did infuse a hope of utopia, but it was a very humanist one, so much that the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) predicted that this utopia could only be obtained through the murder of God and freedom from the Christian doctrine of moral absolutes. In his Parable of the Madman, he pronounced that God was dead and was being buried in the churches. It was not a matter of surprise that churches in Europe began to get empty.

But, that was not the story everywhere. In England and in America, revivalism was breaking out with stronger emphasis on faith and scripture. Men like John Wesley (1703-1791), Charles Finney (1792-1875), and Evan Roberts (1878-1951) spearheaded movements emphasizing deep experiences with God. The Missionary Era also began with William Carey (1761-1834) sailing towards India and setting up a base from where began a prolific movement of Bible translation into the vernacular languages. Missionaries gave themselves to inventing scripts for languages that had no script so that the locals could read God’s Word in their own languages. Also, a few seminaries were set up for the training of church workers. But, not even these were immune to the attraction of the secular powers (universities) that had already begun to renounce theology as the queen of the sciences and had turned to scientism instead. Some began to jokingly talk about seminaries as cemeteries.

Again, it is not proper to make a blanket statement about the global Church. The early part of the 20th century already witnessed the Pentecostal outpouring and revivals in Azusa Street. Movements began to separate from the mainline denominations and newer training centers, though little ones, began to emerge with strong emphasis on faith, grace, and scripture. Indigenous movements also sprung up with rigorous emphasis on Bible study in the church. It is not right to say that the church was devoid of teaching material. The turn of the 21st century witnessed a surge of teaching ministries all over the world that produced incredible amount of media and literature on understanding scriptures. What might not have been met by resources at the local church level was being met by ministries serving globally. It also became the age of radio and television. One key instrument encouraged at the local church level was the institution of the Sunday School. Of course, the temptation could be for parents to forego to the church their responsibility of spiritually nurturing their children; but, the Sunday School (wherever it could be possible) did serve in the area of teaching.

Modern Church Education

In modern times, we are flooded with teaching material all around. There is an abundance of magazines, journals, books, television programs, CDs, VCDs, and an almost infinite resource of information on the internet that inundates the globe. Of course, there is one drawback that a larger amount of the material is in the English language. However, one cannot deny the fact that there are people from almost every major linguistic group who can access these materials and pass it on to others in their group through various means of communication. Another drawback could be the abundance of heresies also prevailing. This is where the two-edged training of church leaders as well as training of congregations to follow the Berean model of evaluating teaching must come into place (Acts 17:11). In some countries (especially the non-secular or extreme-secular ones), training of leaders is not very feasible. However, training of congregations is not impossible. In fact, in modern times there is a great need for emphasis upon the education of the lay with theological tools necessary for the interpretation and application of scripture. In response, there are also a number of faithful attempts by reputed theological institutions offering courses by distance (or modular) mode to meet this growing need. Again, it is not a thing unseen that trained leaders also sometimes fall to the trap of cheap degrees offered by fake institutions and lead their church members into the same error. The lure for the easy doctorate and the dilution of education principles is a huge problem. The lure is severe when prominent leaders fall into the snare. At the couple of colleges where I serve, we make it a serious priority to sift the chaff from the grain, to standardize education, and to set up a model for others to follow.

There is certainly no substitute for a theologically educated church. A church that boasts of highly educated laity but cannot boast of a theologically educated laity makes a very poor show of performance. To be useful to the world and be highly in demand of the world is one thing; the more significant thing is to be useful in the hands of the Master. A church that is biblically illiterate is an example of poor church government. Modern secular governments emphasize on the right to education of all citizens and make provisions for the same. How much more shouldn’t the church emphasize on the right to education of all Christians and also make provision for the same? We must not forget Christ’s injunction that loving Him implies feeding His sheep (John 21:17).

Steps To Emphasize Upon Church Education

While a number of possible methods can be employed, a few are suggested below:
    1.        The 2 Timothy 2:2 Model: In 2Timothy 2:2, Paul instructs Timothy to pass on what he has learnt from Paul to faithful men who would be able to pass it on to others. This a four generational model of impartational learning: (a) Paul to (b) Timothy to (c) Faithful Men to (d) Others. Church elders must become mentors of young people in their congregation (Tit.2:2-8). In fact, there is nothing more illustrious than faith that is passed from one generation to the other (2Tim.1:5).
    2.        Doctrine and Good Works: In his pastoral epistles, Paul again and again emphasizes on the connection between sound doctrine and good works. In fact, the absence of good works is equal to a denial of faith and blasphemy of doctrine (1Tim.6:1; Tit.1:16; 1Tim.5:8). One must not forget that the one act of the Good Samaritan had more lessons to teach about the principle of love than a hundred hours of teaching delivered in the temple by the priest who passed by the injured man that day.
    3.        Connecting with Seminary: There is nothing more helpful in this regard than connecting one’s church with a seminary for mutual benefit. A church can support theological education in a seminary as well as benefit from the services of the seminary. Some possible areas of connection could be hosting students for practical ministry in the church, sponsoring candidates, sponsoring seminary development, promoting theological learning at the church by encouraging lay to take up courses at the seminary, forwarding theological disputes to seminary panels for solutions (Acts 15:2), attending seminars at the seminary, etc.
    4.        Promoting Good Christian Literature and Media: Though it may not be helpful for every church to have a book stall or a library (but, if it’s possible, it is highly recommended), subscription to certain teaching magazines can be promoted in the church. Also, it will be highly good to encourage gift subscriptions and the passing on of read materials to others. Again, the Berean model is highly recommended here for evaluation of soundness in biblical teaching.
    5.        Regular Bible Study Hours: Usually, these in-week hours cannot be attended by everyone in the church, which should not be lamentable seeing that variety of jobs cannot always agree on a common time. However, it is strongly advisable to maintain a weekly Bible Study Class in the church or in a house (life, cell) group gathering of believers in an area. It is recommended that each Bible Study include the study of biblical doctrines, biblical characters, life principles, and times of meditation and discussion. No godless chatter or disputes must be allowed in such classes (1Tim.1:3,4; 6:3-5; 20; Tit.2:1; Eph.5:3,4,19,20).
    6.        Homilies: The pastor must not just focus on the emotional needs of the congregation; he must also focus on the spiritual and the intellectual needs of them. A sermon charged with emotion will evoke applause, laughter, and tears; but, these responses will die away like a flame devoid of fuel. However, a wholesome sermon (message) will be intellectually understandable (1Cor.14:19), spiritually empowered (Acts 1:8; 1Cor.2:4), and practically compelling (Acts 2:37).
    7.        Children’s and Youth Clubs: A host of literature and media programs are available, particularly designed for the young ones. Modern missiologists have understood the importance of kids who fall in the 4-14 Age Window. The advertisers target them, the secular forces target them; but, the church often remains indifferent. We will lose them if we don’t reach out to them. It is important that churches have faith-empowering programs and ministry opportunities for the young ones. The areas of monthly involvement could be as varied as Christian arts, worship, graphic designing, community development, social outreach and charity, construction programs, drama, prayer events, and a whole array of possible involvement areas.

Of course, the list above is minimal. But, it is hoped that it will provide enough impetus for any church to grow organically “into Him who is the head-- Christ-- from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Eph. 4:15-16).