Today, the preacher at our church used Matthew 13 as a base text to talk about the importance of Bible teaching. This is the chapter of the Bible that tells one of the versions of the Parable of the Sower.
His main point was that Bible teaching is still an effective technique for the church. I don’t disagree with that, but I do wonder if it might be helpful to distinguish between Bible teaching and Biblical teaching.
Bible teaching is the type of teaching that sticks entirely to the words of the Bible, often insisting on taking them literally and believing that nothing needs to be added to these words for modern listeners. As an evangelical, at first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a problem with this.
But I think there is.
Biblical teaching, on the other hand, attempts to discern the intent of a Bible text and follows the patterns and approaches laid out and practiced in the Bible while modernising and applying them to current contexts.
Matthew 13 is a fantastic example. Jesus uses a number of farming based parables to make some points. If we simply retell these stories as is, we risk the danger of making Christianity sound like a rural, farming religion. The image of Jesus as a rural shepherd holding a lamb in flowing robes dominates our mind. But Jesus used the analogy of a farmer because this was the dominant reality of the world he was in.
At that moment in Matthew 13, Jesus was standing in a boat in lake Galilee. I’ve stood at a very similar spot on that lake’s shore myself. Even today, the farms (kibbutzes) dominate the horizon on the hills that rise up around you. Jesus was not randomly pulling an illustration from nowhere, he was rooting his message deeply in the reality of the current world of his listeners.
To ensure that the Bible’s message is fully understood today, this passage can quite rightly be updated/replaced with a more modern, urban parable that makes the same point. Maybe, instead of talking about a farmer sowing seed, it could be about an investment banker making investments. Or an entrepreneur building different kinds of businesses.
The task of the Bible preacher is not just to retell the Bible words, but rather to take the Biblical message and package it in ways that connect with the current listeners.
And that, I believe is precisely why Jesus actually insisted on telling stories (as opposed to propositional statements). In fact, the whole Bible is bent in this direction. Much more than half the Bible is written in narrative format. And many of the teaching sections are written in story format. And even the most propositional parts of the Bible – the letters of the NT – are actually letters written into specific contexts, rather than missives, textbooks or reference books.
To go even further, in the parallel passage to Matthew 13, Mark explains Jesus’ method like this:
“With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.” (Mark 4:33-34 NIV)
The model here is clear: always, only tell stories/parables. I doubt there is a “Bible teaching church” that would be happy with that as a model.
Bible teaching churches tend to be led by preachers and leaders with backgrounds in rational, logical professions (like lawyers, accountants and engineers), and their style tends to minimise the emotional and accentuate the rational, minimising the ‘story’ elements and ratcheting up explanation, exposition and didactics. For many of them, Bible teaching is totally about such explanation, rational study and thinking. The Bible is often reduced to a textbook or encyclopaedia.
But Jesus models a different style of engaging with God’s word. It’s often playful; it’s often intriguing, and leaves people with more questions than answers; it unsettles; it’s emotive; it’s evocative. And above all it’s attractive.
Our preacher today indicated that many people will reject the Bible. He encouraged us to keep going in our teaching/sharing even when no-one else is attracted to it. And, of course, he’s right. But there is a danger of developing a little bit of a martyr complex if we follow this picture to its logical conclusion – or even worse that we feel that other people rejecting the Bible is a sign that we’re teaching it faithfully (because Bible teachers often teach that accepting the Gospel of the Good News is inherently hard and only a few people are predestined to do so anyway).
Actually, in the Bible, we really do see a much different picture – throughout! People flocked to hear the Biblical preachers speak. Hundreds and thousands were attracted to the preaching. Not everyone agreed, and some opposed. But there were crowds.
Today, a trickle of visitors is not a sign that we’re being faithful to the Bible, and therefore sinners are not attracted. It’s a sign that we haven’t fully understood the mandate of Biblical teaching that preaches in a way that pulls in the crowds. Not everyone will respond in the same way, but everyone needs to hear. And stories – rooted in Biblical understanding and adapted for the current day – are the best way to achieve this. At least, that’s what the Bible says.
Biblical teaching is what the Bible promotes, not Bible teaching.