Teaching is a difficult and risky business.
Of course there is great joy involved in exposing students to new facts, interesting discoveries, and life-altering truths. But when all is said and done, when students leave your class armed with knowledge that may fuel their actions and guide their thoughts for years to come, the scary question lingers, “Was my teaching true?”
James is quite aware of the difficult nature of teaching when he warns in James 3:1-2:
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.
I imagine that James could have been thinking about his own position of leadership in the Jerusalem church, aware that he had made mistakes in his teaching and his example. Despite the wisdom he showed during the Jerusalem Council in recognizing God’s work among the Gentiles (Acts 15), he also realized his example (both the good and bad parts) affected many early Christ-followers. If he struggled with the practical acceptance of Gentiles in the church, his brothers and sisters in Jerusalem would see that and be affected.
James’ warning about the dangers of teaching is especially appropriate for those of us who teach biblical truths–the pastor in the pulpit, the Bible study leader, the Christian blogger, the Scriptures professor, or any teacher who integrates faith and biblical teaching into her discipline.
Because it is so easy for us to misread and mislead.
It happens to the best of us. All you have to do is follow the blog posts on Facebook to realize that well-meaning and well-respected teachers of the Bible regularly misrepresent what the Bible actually teaches. Dave Ramsey, the financial guru who helps Christians manage their finances, has recently been criticized because his “biblical principles” of money management contradict the biblical message about wealth and poverty.
Infamous Famous pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church has ignited so many blog and article wars with his controversial teaching (especially regarding the subject of women in the Bible and the Church) that a Google search for “Mark Driscoll AND wrong” turns up over a million hits. Even teachers and pastors who have some important, helpful things to say sometimes fall into the trap of irresponsibly interpreting Scripture. And for some reason, it is the bad readings of Scripture that always seem to spread faster and farther than the accurate ones.
So we must be careful teachers of Scripture. It is difficult to interpret the Bible responsibly and faithfully but we who teach the Bible must take that task seriously and try to minimize misreading and misleading as best we can. In my ongoing quest to become a responsible interpreter and teacher of the Bible, I have learned some important lessons (mostly the hard way!) about reading, interpreting, and teaching the Bible.
Here are my top ten ways to avoid misreading the Bible and misleading others:
1) Know yourself. It is important to be aware of your own biases and preconceived ideas when you interpret Scripture. Everyone comes to the Bible with prejudices, formed by nationality, economic status, ethnicity, families of origin, church tradition, experiences, etc. Being aware of these biases helps to curb assumptions and forces an interpreter to consider that his or her view may be pre-formed rather than based on Scripture.
2) Read a passage in its literary context. When someone studies a verse or a passage it is important to read the verses and paragraphs before and after that passage to understand what is going on. The best practice is to also be aware of the message of an entire book so that it is easier to understand the purpose of an individual passage in the overarching story or letter. [as a side note it is also helpful to know the genres of the Bible and read according to genre]
2) Know the history. Interpreting a passage well requires knowledge of the social and historical context in which that text was written. For example, it is important to know that Revelation was written in a first-century Greco-Roman context and that the first readers of the book were experiencing persecution and were being tempted to worship the emperor rather than God. Such information helps us make better sense of the emphasis on worshiping God, the images of judgment for persecutors, and the firm warnings to repent.
3) Be aware that all translation involves interpretation. Most words in the original Hebrew and Greek of the Scriptures do not have exact counterparts in English. For this reason, many translations of words and concepts are close but not perfect interpretations. It is dangerous to base a belief or teaching on one word (say the word “head” in Ephesians 5:23) when our word for head in English has many connotations that the Greek did not have.
4) Recognize the distance between the world of the Bible and our world. When reading ancient literature like the Bible it is important to ask, “What did this mean to them?” and then gauge what differences exist between the world of the Bible and our world. This one of the most foundational skills required in biblical interpretation. A great resource that focuses on finding the meaning of a biblical text in “their” world before interpreting it in “our” world is Grasping God’s Word by J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays. All biblical interpreters should read a book (or books!) on practical hermeneutics (biblical interpretation) before attempting to teach the Bible in a formal setting.
5) Know the whole story. Reading the Bible should not be like eating at a buffet. We don’t get to choose what to accept and what not to accept. The Bible is like a many-course meal, with each part served in preparation for the next. We have to read the whole story, know the whole message, in order to fully appreciate and understand the individual parts.
6) Be open to being wrong. Given that every interpreter has preconceived ideas about the Bible, and given that there is always more to learn about the history and literature of the ancient world, it is vital that we resist becoming dogmatic about our interpretations. Even the most brilliant of theologians and most devoted of pastors change their minds about Scripture as they study more and live more.
7) Read the opinions of Christians who disagree with you. There is great value in listening to and reading interpreters who differ from you. If you are an evangelical conservative, make it a practice to read the works of liberal theologians or Catholic scholars. If you are a Baptist preacher, listen to sermons from Pentecostal pastors and Episcopalian priests. If you are an egalitarian, read complementarians (no matter how angry they may make you!). If you are a Calvinist, read Arminians. Willingness to learn from others has no down side. Such practice can show you new ways to look at a passage, help you strengthen your own views, or open your mind to a new perspective or a new truth.
8) Use words like “probably” and “likely” instead of “definitely” and “without a doubt.” In light of #6 and #7, it is a good idea for teachers to keep their language open to possibility. First, it lets students know that interpreting the Bible well is a process, one that will not end until we no longer see through a glass darkly. Second, in the age of blogs and podcasts, what you teach may be on record for ever; it is always better to leave room for growth and change rather than creating a situation in which you may have to blatantly contradict yourself in ten years.
9) Read other literature. Read ancient literature and Victorian novels and contemporary fiction and poetry and essays and biographies. Read other literature because it makes you a better reader and interpreter of the Bible, which contains some of the most complex and beautiful literature in history.
10) Pray daily and ask the Holy Spirit to lead you to truth. Jesus tells his disciples in John 14:26, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” If the apostles, who witnessed Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, who were immersed in his teaching and love and truth, if even these were going to need the Holy Spirit to teach and remind them, don’t you think we lowly teachers of Scripture need it too?