When Bible Study Becomes Idolatry

By Allen White

Over the years, I’ve encountered a few folks who are thrilled with Bible study, but less than thrilled by fellow believers. These folks have a great handle on the Word, but fall short in the deeds department. They don’t want to be bothered by going back to “elementary” teachings. They are Scriptural carnivores looking for the meat.

A while back, a church member complained he was bored with the basic, “seeker” nature of the questions in a study guide. “After all,” he told me as Hebrews 5:13-14 says, “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (NIV). I told him that’s not what the verse was talking about.

The book of Hebrews was written to Jewish Christians who were contemplating abandoning Christianity and returning to Judaism. The “elementary teachings” and “milk” refers to the Old Covenant. The “solid food” refers to the New Covenant and life in Christ.

He told me he enjoyed this discussion. It was deep. Oh brother…

Most of us Bible scholars understand that an idol is anything we turn to instead of God. The confusion comes when the idol is studying God’s Word rather than turning to God. That seems a bit like splitting a hair. Maybe the correct issue is our pride regarding our Bible knowledge. We must remember that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). So, how do you know when Bible study has become idolatry for you?

1.       You’re more interested in the study guide than your fellow group members.

A small group is community built around a Bible study. If you’re going to err in one direction or the other, then choose community over Bible study. But, if you always neglect Bible study, then that’s a problem too.

But, if you care more about the lesson and less about group life, you just might be missing the point. Sure, you can memorize Ephesians 4:32, but are you practicing it? If you leave your group meeting irritated because someone shared so much about their life crisis and the group couldn’t complete the Bible study, you just might be elevating Bible study a little too high.

2.       You can’t tolerate “easy” questions.

Most Bible studies are designed with a opening question that anyone can answer. Then, there are discovery questions which are answered directly from the Scripture passages. Later in the study are interpretation questions and application questions. If you find yourself irritated by icebreakers and bored with discovery questions, then you may be focused on the wrong things. If what you have to say about God’s Word is more important than what God’s Word actually says, you have made an idol out of the study.

I am amazed at the number of “mature” believers who will pitch a fit over questions they already know the answers to. They have no patience for helping new believers understand the Scripture. Their focus is on their own intellectual curiosity. The study needs to cater to their interests. My question is this: How mature are these folks really?

3.       You feel prayer requests and sharing life wastes precious Bible study time.

If you love Bible study, but you can’t stand people, you are missing the point. Our knowledge of Scripture should deepen our love for God and our love for each other. If you’d rather parse Greek verbs than persist in prayer for your fellow group members, then take a hermeneutics class and parse away…on your own…by yourself.

Please understand, in no way am I encouraging any group to toss out their Bible study. But, if studying the Bible doesn’t increase our compassion for others, something’s broken. After all, knowledge without grace leads us to legalism.

4.       You can recite passages you never intend to obey.

Francis Chan asks this question, “If I asked my children to clean their rooms, and they only memorized my words, would that be enough?” We all must admit that it’s far easier to know the Word than to do the Word. Yet, the Bible tells us that faith without works is dead.

In the church, we have gone far too long substituting knowledge for faith. Often our excuse for not acting is that we don’t know enough. “I can’t witness to my neighbor. I don’t know enough of the answers.” Yet, we know Jesus. Isn’t He the answer? Our apologetic arguments aren’t going to win anyone to God’s Kingdom. Salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), right?

If we stopped our Bible study until we lived out the commands we already know, do you think we’d ever pick up our Bibles again? Now, we all need the encouragement of Scripture. But, as Howard Hendricks said, “Most Christians are already educated beyond their level of obedience.”

5.       Bible study has become an escape from your real life.

I love God’s Word. I might even love God’s Word more than I love other people. After all, I’m going to do what God’s Word says rather than what others tell me to do. But, there’s a line we can cross when it comes to loving God’s Word – Can we love God’s Word more than we actually love God? We can learn His commands, yet not obey them. We can recite obscure nuances of Scripture from memory, yet do we go to those lengths to help other people?

Yes, we should turn to God’s Word for comfort. But, more importantly, we should turn to God. We should delight in helping others discover the truth of God’s Word. We should be challenged by the deeper meaning of Scripture – not secretive, hidden meanings – but truths applied and lived out in our daily lives. The Word of God is active, not passive. Our worship belongs to God, not to His Word.

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  1. #1 by Allen White on October 17, 2012 - 4:36 pm

    One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

    “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

    32 “Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Mark 12:28-31 (NIV)

  2. #2 by Jason on October 25, 2015 - 8:31 am

    This is so, so, good! So many times I’ve seen those who should be helping guide and mentor younger believers in the Word check out in frustration and resentment because this or that particular study wasn’t “feeding them”. Thanks for articulating this so clearly!

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