Tuesday, February 08, 2011

“Bible Study Fellowship” And The Problem of Modern Protestant Evangelical Christianity

I went to Bible Study Fellowship (BSF ) last night, as I do every Monday night so I can participate in an organized Bible study. I have been doing this for six years now and we have gone through Acts, Matthew, Romans, John, The Life of Moses, Genesis and now, Isaiah. The notes that come with the questions that one takes home and answers are somewhat insightful and bring in some aspects of history and culture along with good, sound theology. The questions, on the other hand, are often one-dimensional, asking the participant to simply regurgitate the verses verbatim or provide short answers to the questions without deviating from the text. In some instances, the questions can lead to new insights and can be thought-provoking. Very often, however, they are not.

In some ways, BSF follows the model of the “inductive Bible study” that was so popular in the eighties and nineties and which was the bread and butter of groups like InterVarsity, Campus Crusade and Navigators. This constructs the Bible study such that one reads the text and only the text to glean from it scriptural and spiritual insights. Probably, if one used that method in concert with other kinds of study, it would provide a fruitful avenue of spiritual growth.

But that is the problem.

Most protestant evangelical Christians that I know do not do that. They rely on the inductive study alone for spiritual growth, eschewing any commentaries by those that have studied the text in its original language and who have paid attention to word usage, cultural norms, literature type and the range of possible textual interpretations based on those variables. This can, and often does, result in a flat view of scripture that is lacking in symbolic richness and depth. Worse, it can lead to a skewed interpretation of scripture that derives only from the flat text.

One of the by-products of this practice is the tendency toward distrusting and rejecting any possible scientific conclusions that do not appear to comport with the face-value reading of the text. Enter young earth creationism, a reading of scripture that, two hundred years ago, would have seemed very strange to the average Christian.

Twice, my BSF leader used the term “evolutionist” when he really meant “atheist.” During discussion, another man, who is well-meaning, pleasant and very intelligent, referred to the “evolution religion” as though it were fact. I am quite convinced neither one of them would be able to spot evolution on a map but it sure sounds good to take a swipe at those mean, evil atheists.

Coming away from BSF last night, I had two main thoughts:

  • That, for all of its energy and exuberance, the modern protestant fundamentalist evangelical mindset can be very draining and wearing in its simplicity and one-dimensionality.
  • If the leaders of BSF ever found this blog, they wouldn't even pay my bus fare out of there.
I know that I have painted a large brush stroke here and part of this is just disillusionment and frustration talking. I know that there is much good and right in this mindset. But, as Mark Noll found, there is also much that is wrong.
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via FoxyTunes

41 comments:

  1. You are sadly right in so many ways. Thankfully, I know many evangelicals who are throwing aside this superficiality and are wrestling with context and finding life-changing teachings. Sadly, few of these are church leaders.

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  2. BIble studies are difficult for me. Particularly those geared towards women. I briefly attended an inductive bible study, but it just seemed so wrong to me. I'm not a Bible scholar and have no knowledge of the ancient languages, but being a native Spanish speaker, inductive studies seemed inherently flawed when focusing on a translated text.

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  3. Thanks for the comment, Matthew. I didn't experience this growing up but discovered this viewpoint when I got here to the United States (I grew up in Japan). I pray that those who do honestly engage the data will do so with great amounts of prayer and willingness to rethink their interpretations of scripture.

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  4. Like a Child, I have heard some very peculiar interpretations come out during inductive Bible studies and one of the guys in my discussion group last night seemed to think that the congregations that handle snakes during the worship after Numbers 21:6 were not so far off the mark. He said “there is really no other way to read that verse.” I was speechless.

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  5. Jim, thinking is hard. Teaching thinking is hard. Rote learning is easy and leave one with the impression of knowing something. The trouble is that don't learn what it is they don't know.

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  6. I am not sure there is anything "wrong" with studying "only the text" as a first reading and allowing the Holy Spirit to teach you, then discuss this with others who have allowed the same. It seems it keeps this on a level playing field. In my experience with BSF it seems that after the class meeting and the lecture you have the opportunity to go deeper into the passage with other commentaries. You also seem to have gotten stuck on "evolution" and decided what the BSF leader meant. I would say it takes a lot of faith to believe evolution, such as it takes faith to believe creation. I would pay your bus fare to the class:)

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  7. M Pruitt, Thanks for the busfare. I might need it. I tried (and failed) to state that I think the notes do a good job of going into the background of passages. The problem is that there is no discussion of the notes and then the lecture is somewhat flat. I agree that studying only the text is fine as a first step but more needs to be done.

    Evolution is a biological process, just like birth or death or the movement of the continents, earthquakes and volcanoes. It is not a religious perspective.

    Some might say (on both sides) that evolution takes one away from God. I would argue that is only true is you have a one-dimensional view of God. Any God that can be disproved by evolution is not much of a God and any theology that cannot stand up in the face of evolution isn't much of a theology.

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    1. Anonymous8:19 PM

      Mr. Pruitt isn't referring to the notes. You are asked in BSF to not use commentaries, etc before you do the lesson. After that, you are indeed encouraged to read commentaries, concordances, Greek and Hebrew translations, etc.

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    2. Agree! I've been doing BSF for the past 7 years and I also benefit from reading torahclass.com. No teaching is flawed. This is life. I appreciate these tools available for our growth. At the end of the day, knowledge puffs up but love builds up.

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    3. bettie12:32 PM

      I was introduced to BSF in the 1970's in Tucson, Arizona. I was teaching Sunday school at the time . We only had five years of study at the time. I was a member for ten years. I am not bothered by the evolutionist viewpoint. I am an amateur astronomer. It thrilled to find so many passages and verses in the Bible that foretold scientific discoveries long before modern science. One of my favorite verses is Job 25: 7 , "He hangeth the earth upon NOTHING". Now that my children have grown up and my invalid husband is with the Lord, my favorite hobby is writing Christian devotionals. No, I am not published, but they are freely enjoyed by members of my church.

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    4. I am glad that you are not bothered by it. I wish there were more Christians out there like you. I hope your devotionals are enjoyed by many.

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  8. I enjoyed your post, and would have to agree with your assessment of BSF. If people actually went in later and dug around for more information, that would be great, but BSF doesn't openly encourage it, as far as I've seen. I've started counting the times the men in my group refer to "the government" "isms (environmentalism, socialism, etc), nature, and several other things as idols so I don't choke the life out of someone. This past week was a new high, though, with a fairly blatant anti-catholic statement (people worshipping Mary is bad). I admittedly live in a conservative area, though.

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  9. Robert, you are correct. It is true that every so often, there is a “challenge” question that suggests you go to other places in scripture for additional information but never to a commentary. Now, as my wife has pointed out, the notes do try to add some insight into the proceedings but I generally find them to have one particular viewpoint that they are pushing and I have, at times, been annoyed that there is an attempt to “convince” me think a particular way about something rather than give me different viewpoints.

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  10. Anonymous9:46 AM

    ...not sure how I got on this particular blog as I searched on Bible studies. I am fascinated by your dissapointment with your experience of this organized study, and wondering if you stuck with it and became part of a solution to improve the study? Seems like you really wanted more out of it but couldn't both contribute and learn on a productive basis with the group. What became of it?
    Robin

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  11. Robin,
    Still in it. I do get quite a bit out of the discussion groups because it focuses on the lessons of scripture. I just find that, outside of that, there is not much emphasis on trying to understand why some of the scripture says what it does. There are some absolutely fascinating passages in John where Jesus is speaking symbolically and obviously there are reasons for why He did so and yet, when we studied it, the text was handled rather flatly. If Christ spoke like this, it is part of God's personality and how He expresses Himself. So why do we take everything else that He says so flatly?

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  12. I very much appreciate this post. I have been frustrated with BSF as well, after hearing so many people gush about it for years. Not only do they not encourage the use of commentaries or other sources for digging deeper, the forbid it, at least in my group. I recently brought in some historical context for a passage in the notes (regarding women's head coverings, and the way the translation in the notes seemed to conflict with the way certain words were generally translated in the rest of the text), and was called by my leader at home and reprimanded, told that I must never ever refer to outside sources again, and told that I had stood in the way of people hearing from the Holy Spirit by doing so. I find this incredibly disturbing, not least of all because the lecturer obviously uses commentaries to prepare (unless she was born knowing the historical background of ancient Israel), but then discourages others from doing so, so that no authentic discussion can truly be had, and people will just tout the BSF party line. I'm pretty sure knowing the original audience and intent of the writer can only help our understanding of its meaning.

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  13. Anonymous9:46 PM

    Looks like I missed this discussion by about a year. I spent a year with one of the BSF studies and came away with similar concerns.
    While it is difficult to bring critique to an organization that promotes people reading the Bible, this organization has several questionable practices that raise questions regarding it's authenticity as anything more than a mid 20th century cultural group more interested in preserving it's own ministry than the truth of God as revealed in Jesus.

    Granted, I happened to land on a the year of the minor prophets, which may not be enough to constitute a fair evaluation. In practice, BSF has some rules and practices, that are not found in the bible or in the lives of Jesus and the apostles. How this stands up under the self defined scrutiny of their study of scripture was often perplexing. In summation, their own practices would likely exclude Jesus and Paul from ever having any authority within their meetings. Aside from significant theological discussions, how does one reconcile their posture with biblical authenticity?

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  14. Robin, Thanks for the comments. I am truly sorry that you had that experience. Do you think it would be worth it to raise this issue with the leadership after the year concludes?

    My experience with BSF is that the individual leaders can vary wildly in their understanding of how the discussion should go. My current leader is pretty good about letting people bring in outside information but even so, there is a bit of a reticence to doing so. On the other hand, we had a substitute teacher for a few weeks that was as rigid as they come and I had a hard time with that.

    I have yet to find one in the local BSF chapter that even gives off hints of EC and I would not be surprised if there was some kind of agreement that they have to abide by to be a leader that precludes something like that. That may not be the case but I've a mind to ask my current leader if it is.

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  15. Sorry, Jen. Got my posts confused.

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  16. Anonymous writes: "this organization has several questionable practices that raise questions regarding it's authenticity as anything more than a mid 20th century cultural group more interested in preserving it's own ministry than the truth of God as revealed in Jesus."

    Can you elaborate on that, if necessary in a private email. I am more than a tad curious what you mean. Thanks.

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  17. Anonymous1:36 PM

    Just finished Acts @ studied Isaiah last year. In the beginning I was gently reprimanded for bringing in outside sources (commentaries, translations other than NIV, other bible studies, etc.). BSF is restrictive but I quietly used other sources for MY edification - afterall, I'm there because of MY hunger for knowledge of the Word. It was disappointing not to be able to share or discuss scripture further with the ladies in my group. I've been in a Torah study group for almost two years and at BSF I could not share the beliefs, culture or traditions of the Israelites or Jews to explain the why of some of their actions. I may be in disagreement with their type of study, but they've been a springboard for me in searching out other sources. Many of their questions are very pointed, and I think we should be allowed some latitude in the challange questions. This year's discussion leader was much more structured than last. A friend even had her leader call on Sunday nights to see how far along she was in her study! A little too intrusive. BSF may pose the questions and ideas, but I pray for help and understanding in my studies.

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  18. After eight years, we are finished with the curriculum at BSF and are going to try a church-based Bible study small group. One of the reasons for this is that the kids were not really taking in the teaching. They could regurgitate with the best of them but we couldn't see growth in their lives. We are hoping that with a small group we can achieve that.

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  19. Anonymous8:37 PM

    I have read with interest your blog on BSF...I have for years been very discouraged with local Bible studiesin my area and church.. since attending BSF for 3 years, I have found it to be very enriching for me.. However this fall we will be studying Genesis, and I am somewhat concerned how they will be addressing the "creation issue".. You have stated that you took the Genesis study.... I am wondering, do they allow room for theistic evolutionists, or are they too conservative for this??

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  20. I took the Genesis course three years ago and there was absolutely no room for anything but the YEC model. In fact, one night I almost walked out in disgust after the BSF leader spent a large chunk of the lecture railing against evolution, despite the fact that he knew nothing of it. It just "had to be wrong." One of my friends sitting next to me said "find a happy place, find a happy place," because I was seething.

    I am sorry, but if the BSF leader had a strong background in science, I might have listened but he is an investment banker, for cryin' out loud!

    Very disappointing.

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  21. Maria4:26 PM

    (I apologize for my writting skill as I have never study english grammar)However...I can not believe what I'm reading, (its my 10th year in BSF)...criticism and disappointment...with BSF. I can give you so many testemonies of lives that were changed JUST by the fact of being in the WORD of God!!! we are so concern with knowledge...digging in...know more..commentaries and on and on and on...and forget the amazing POWER of God's Word - Alive and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we go throu the questions, discussions, lecture and notes. God is powerful and able to do so much more and its not up to my methods of teaching or studying that will get the transforming TRUTH in my heart!!! The efford and time alone dedicated to the preparation of the lecture and the relationship building between the leaders and the class members...wow...you guys are missing out...I love what the Lord has done in my life through this amazing opportunity to be in the Word daily in a very organized manner! I don't have many degrees, or an amazing study skill...but I have lived and experienced great fruits in my personal and family life as result of my dedication to these studies!!! I have seen lives being transformed over the years, marriages healed and people restoured... SORRY cant agree with you guys!!!

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    1. Anonymous8:30 PM

      These are people who are their own god, and their ego is never going to let them just be quiet and listen to that "still, small voice."

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    2. Anonymous9:26 PM

      Bravo, Maria.

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  22. Maria, I did not mean to imply that there was not good at BSF, merely that they wield a somewhat heavy hand and that they do not allow for much discussion about interpretations of passages. This came across again and again to the point where it seemed that all we were doing was taking open-book tests. There were times in which I had profound disagreements with the way that BSF had interpreted the text and there was either no opportunity to discuss this or it was clear that there would be no disagreement. As good as they are about having you read the Bible and having that accountability, it became more of an issue as time went on. The key was when it became clear that my kids were treating it as a means to see some of their friends rather than read the Bible. It was time for a change.

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    1. Anonymous8:44 AM

      It's not BSF that is teaching you, but His Word. They are only guiding you as to how to think and study. You need to let God speak and you need to listen. No Bible study is perfect, we are just humans trying to study His Word. It's up to God to change us. About the teaching leader - remember he is human, too and not perfect. The reason BSF doesn't want other sources used besides the Bible is that if you read other commentaries you get that person's view and not God's. Let Him speak to you for understanding. The more you read and study the Bible the more is revealed to you. Sorry you are not happy with BSF. It is the best organized Bible study I have ever had.

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    2. I recognize the need to study the Bible and that BSF generally is a very good Bible study, but even if you go to BSF and they don't want other sources involved, YOU ARE STILL GETTING THEIR INTERPRETATION, so you don't really just study God's word. The problem I was having was that in the process of reading God's word and understanding it in the context of the Christian tradition, history and worship, I was coming into disagreement with how BSF interpreted the scriptures.

      Given that there is little to no discussion in the "discussion groups" about how slightly different interpretations of passages might be of value to the process, I was finding that their take on things sometimes was not mine. If you agree with their take on things, that is fine but they take a "my way or the highway" approach to things.

      BSF got me reading the Bible regularly, which was good and most of the questions were good (although many were leading) so I benefited from that.

      I do not think that scriptural interpretation is one-way, from God to us, through the Bible. That is the general mindset that I have come to associate with modern, fundamentalist evangelicalism and I think it is mistaken. I think that is where many of their problems emanate from. There is obvious value in reading the scripture, but not in a vacuum.

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    3. Anonymous9:59 AM

      Right on spot. BSF taught me how to study the Bible beginning in 1994...and for that I am very grateful. I have also seen its evolution over time that conforms to a one-way of interpretation of scripture thus limiting the continually growth of the Holy Spirit to advance that beginner's interpretation. This year I learned that I had out-grown the elementary mold and it was time to let go of the study. Ms. Johnson, the creator of BSF, gave a lot of insight into how she formed BSF through being taught by the Holy Spirit in her missionary journey in her book "Created for Commitment." She never wanted people to be spoon-fed and insisted people pick up the spoon and feed themselves. BSF was established for the beginner....and though I miss my total amazement of discovery that I walked into BSF with back in 1994...I thoroughly enjoy my growth in the Holy Spirit that has outgrown BSF's simplicity. Ms. Johnson knew that to study God at any level would bring opportunity to open one's self to the Holy Spirit...and that is the purpose of the Bible...to discern whether what one learns is from God or another spirit (human or non-human). 1 John 4:1. And the nature of man to make himself a god leading other people in a group is a temptation that becomes recognized as one learns discernment. The biggest problem that I see with BSF and what caused me to say "enough" in the year 2014 was that BSF leadership is recognized as an authority of scripture rather than as what we truly are--just beginners being trained--not with any skills other than the time and desire to learn--not authority or professionals of Bible Study in any sense of the Word. The commentary writers are as diverse in their opinions as a group of BSF'ers. Over time I've been able to discern how they try to make the BSF notes flow as a united group without the reader aware that commentary isn't one person writing and neither is it a collection of commentary for how the Holy Spirit gives to each of us as individuals unique in Christ. So I see 2 problems in addition to what has been mentioned--Leadership that is not leadership, but people selected to be trained for leadership--Commentary that is packed full of different voices presenting itself as one rather than acknowledging the Holy Spirit talks to all of us as Christians while talking to us each personally as unique in Christ.

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  23. Anonymous1:59 PM

    I just started studying Genesis and our discussion involved several theories on creation. Our notes this year included 4-5 models of the "creation issue". The Big Bang theory was even addressed as more of a "proof" of creation. Something had to cause the explosion.... We were also told that they're updating notes in the future and Revelation will be incorporated in the study. Something BSF has shyed away from for years. I, too, had some concerns about BSF coming across as to legalistic! Really, where's the grace? I also understand and support their concerns about the Gospel being watered down by post-modernism. The truth and theology doesn't change according to times or society's choices in how it believes. Our teaching leader even used the example of Nelson Fluke whom states that there is no contradiction in science and the Bible based on archeological finds.... So express your concerns, they are listening at Headquarters and being lead by the Holy Spirit, not their rules.

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  24. Anonymous12:02 PM

    I love BSF. It has changed my life. This is my 9th year.

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    1. Anonymous8:52 AM

      You continue to say that they don't want other sources involved. That is misleading. I think they just don't want the discussion to be filled with someone else's answers, that were copied down "to get a right answer". They want to encourage prayerful reading, and study of God's Word itself. I am 100% for the need to study commentaries, theologians, and sources that challenge and disagree with my own view. But BSF cannot accomodate that type of study with the numbers of people that they minister to -- it is simply not designed for that type work.

      Question: Can God's word teach you how to love God, love your neighbor without the use of commentaries? Can it speak to you about your own heart and life? Can you learn from what the Holy Spirit has taught your fellow discussion group member? If we can't start there, and grow from His word, then I'm not sure that other sources will do much more than give mere "academic" knowledge.

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  25. I'm going into my third year at BSF. I use various translations instead of the NIV, Strong's, a Bible dictionary, and various commentaries. I've been blogging my answers to the study questions for the past two years and plan to continue. When I find the study questions biased in any way, I say so in my answers. The BSF notes writers use their own unnamed resources. I DO name mine. (I don't mention any of this in the group sessions.) I'm learning so much more by putting in the extra hours of personal study I do each week. Sadly, what you said about BSF's reaction if they found your blog is likely true of mine as well: "If the leaders of BSF ever found this blog, they wouldn't even pay my bus fare out of there." ;-)

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  26. Anonymous3:12 AM

    I do not understand why so many have missed the main purpose of BSF. To equipment it's member to go into the world to spare the gospel with others. BSF needed to have a basic foundation for members to build on. If BSF were the deep thinking, serious study that most are expecting it to be then new believers would run away so sacred and confessions. BSF is intended to get it's members studying God Word and then going deeper into the understand of it. It members are truly seeking to grow in their relationship with God then they should at some point "out grow" the study. BSF does a great job of getting it's members into God's Word regularly and wanting to know more about God and His Word. If BSF started with an in-depth study of Revelation then many would left out of frustration and confusion. If you have grown beyond BSF then thank a leader and God that you hunger and thirst for more knowledge.

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  27. Anonymous8:41 AM

    Just had a similar discussion with my son. I attend BSF, he doesn't but attends seminary. He, too, thought that the "rule" to not allow the use of commentary while answering the questions was too restrictive.

    However, I was raised going to church and Sunday Schools that had "quarterlies" that we studied. Included were a few scripture passages to refer to, but 99 percent of the teaching came from that quarterly, i. e. what someone else had gleaned, digested, and spit out for our comsumption. I never doubted those writers sincerity or scholarship, but we didn't learn HOW TO STUDY SCRIPTURE. BSF taught me how to search the scripture, and to rely on it as authoritative. Of course, MUCH more study can be done than what is provided in our weekly BSF lesson. It is not designed to give time for deeper archaeological studies, ancient history lessons. One of the beautiful things about scripture is that it communicates God's message of hope, love, and redemption to scholar and uneducated alike.

    My discussion groups have been made up of brand new studiers and seasoned handlers of God's Word.

    In a discussion group of various backgrounds, denominations, and personalities, we learn to put aside our own particular bent to analyzing, question-raising, debate-type discussion (all of which I personally love) for the sake of others who may get overwhelmed or scared away because they don't know as much or just don't process that way.

    God's word is so deep we will never uncover its riches and beauty in this life, but it is also simple and profound and can bring hope, mercy, and grace to lost, hurting people without diving in to the more complex theological aspects.

    I suggest that if you desire to study in a different way that is more satisfying to you, then find a study, class, or book that takes you as far as you'd like to go -- teach one, in fact, but don't disparage an organization that is designed differently.

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  28. Anonymous8:58 AM

    Just read your description of yourself and noticed "all-consuming interest in apologetics and controversies in science and religion." I love this bent as I, too, love apologetics and I do not shy away from disagreements and controversial subjects. But I have learned that BSF is not the place for that, and I am learning to be gracious with folks who aren't as zealous for controversy as I am. I'm 59 years old and this has been and still is a growing understanding, and BSF is a place that allows me to be gentle and gracious with others.

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    1. Was about to write something similar. Also, if you have a desire for advanced understanding, ask God. He will bring you to a place that satisfies your thirst.

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    2. You all must live in places where you are satiated with the scriptures. I am not. I am thankful and feel blessed to have a BSF where I live 1.5 hours from a major city. If you need more in the way of apologetics, ask God. He will surely give you above and beyond to fulfill your desire and interest.

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  29. Jim, I hope that you do not stop going to BSF. From my perspective, it is the diversity of views that gives BSF it's richness. There are closed minded people everywhere and--if we are honest--we are all closed-minded sometimes. Those folks who refuse to accept other viewpoints as possibly valid will never get past that in an insulated environment in which they never encounter other folks with a different point of view. I teach science and I have never had anyone at BSF--in the south no less--call me evil or atheist because I am willing to leave the door open to evolution or other scientific theories.

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