Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Combating Biblical Illiteracy 2

There are no quick and easy answers to the state of ignorance rampant in American churches. Nor will the answers to this ignorance come in “one-size-fits-all” formulae. I am giving an open invitation for bibliobloggers and others to join me suggesting practices for churches struggling to reverse these trends. What follows are my tentative suggestions:

  • Mandatory new members classes for new Christians, either before baptism in a revival of the ancient catechumenate, or following baptism or both. Adult members who transfer from other congregations of “like faith and order” can no longer be presumed to have had much instruction, however, so (diplomatically and with pastoral sensitivity so as not to scare members away) these transferring members should be tested for knowledge of basic Christian beliefs and basic biblical knowledge.
  • The idea behind such a catechumenate, from my Free Church perspective, is not indoctrination in a creed, nor encouraging legalism nor blind acceptance of pastoral authority. Rather, the classes should stress basic biblical knowledge, basic Christian concepts (broadly construed) and basic behavioral expectations of Christians. All churches must assume that they are in a new missionary context: the surrounding culture, while still very religious and vaguely “Christian,” no longer gives much, if any, biblical literacy. Yet, students in these questions should be encouraged to question and explore. Especially from a Free Church perspective, one does not want docile laity who blindly accept the theological authority of so-called clerical “experts.”
  • Although it is no substitute for deeper study of individual biblical books, there is also no substitute for reading the entire Bible several times to get a “sense of the whole.” There are several good programs promoting reading the Bible through in a year’s time. See here and here for examples. There are also 3-year read-through programs structured around the Common Lectionary. Each of these has its strengths and weaknesses, but the important thing is to encourage such regular devotional reading of large sections of Scripture. There is no substitute in getting a sense of the overarching narrative structure, the major themes and concepts, etc.

September 10, 2006 - Posted by | Bible


  1. I’m liberal enough (or is it conservative-enough) to shudder at the word “mandatory…”

    Comment by Dan Trabue | September 10, 2006

  2. Me, too. It’s just that the “optional” new members classes is one of the ways that we got into this mess in the first place.

    If we reject “mandatory” here how do we correct the problem? Far too many people in today’s churches aren’t really interested in learning what needs to be learned.

    The early church had 2 kinds of services: seekers services for interested pagans and the inner services for committed believers–where the Lord’s Supper was taken. To move from the one to the other, a baptismal candidate (catechumen) underwent THREE YEARS of instruction culminating in baptism (usually around Easter).

    I think we make church membership too easy. The average Kiwanis Club (never mind Freemasons or Shriners) have more stringent entrance requirements–and people line up to join.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 10, 2006

  3. I think you have made some good suggestions here Michael. Early Baptists very often had some sort of membership requirements, such as regular meetings with the pastor, a membership interview with the pastor or elders/deacons (Charles Spurgeon’s church was known for this). Also, there was an understood committment level that was emphasized mainly via “group think” or the herd mentality. Baptists have become so “free” that mainly have adopted a laisez faire Christianity that promotes self interests above the commandments of God, and over the authority of the local body (which exists in one aspect to glorify God by sanctifying and educating those in Christ under its care).

    So, having said that I am all for mandatory church membership classes for all new members. I also agree with expository preaching, as opposed to topical preaching. You are dead on when you say that many preachers pick their favorite passages/topics and pound them like a hammer until there is nothing left for them to teach (then of course, when they’ve exausted all their sermons in a can, they seem to “unmistakedly” and supernaturally feel a call to go to another larger, higher-paying church). W.A. Criswell when he first began at FBC Dallas declared he would preach through the entire Bible during his tenure as pastor. And he did! How rarely we see that today.

    Finally, we must truly place the blame on ourselves and realize that many of us have failed to educate the next generation properly. Whether it be our own children or those under our care as pastors, youth ministers, or nursery workers, we have not taken seriously the call in the OT to raise children with the knowledge of the Lord — to teach them about the Lord and to educate them on the ways of the Lord. And thus we end up with a second, more lazy generation than we ourselves are. My own youth minister preached John 3:16 more times than I can count, but I never heard one message on what the atonement was or what Jesus meant when He said that one must hate their mother, father, etc. in order to follow Him.

    You are right in the last paragraph of the previous comment when you say that we have made church membership too easy. But the bigger problem is that we have made Christianity too easy (much easier than Jesus made it, or Paul, or Peter, or James, or John). It has become commercialized and politicized and culturalized to the point where it is no longer relevent because it is no longer unique and counter-cultural. And so now men are not challenged, women are not educated, and children are bored to tears. And all the while we are doing just what Neil Postman predicted – we are amusing ourselves to death.

    Comment by D.R. | September 11, 2006

  4. I wouldn’t call Spurgeon’s church (late 19th C.) EARLY Baptist, but other than that we are mainly in agreement.

    My home pastor never preached topical sermons, just expository ones.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 11, 2006

  5. I guess when I said early, I should have qualified that as “earlier”. I think the majority of modern Baptists have more in common with Spurgeon-esque Baptists than Anabaptists.

    Comment by D.R. | September 11, 2006

  6. Well, I think we would be better off if we did have more in common with the 16th C. Anabaptists or even with the early 17th C. Baptists like Helwys or Overton or Thomas Grantham or John Clarke, M.D. Or, to draw now from the Particular rather than General Baptists, I think we would be better off if we had more in common today with Bunyan or Hanserd Knollys or John Spilsbury.

    Not that I am “anti-Spurgeon.” He had his good points and his bad. Like James P. Boyce, he was a huge glutton and incredibly obese–and then smoked cigars on top of that! Not the best role model for taking care of the body as God’s temple.

    I also blame Spurgeon much for the Downgrade Controversy, for his attempt to force a Calvinist creed on the Baptist Union when he KNEW that the Union was a merger of Particular and General Baptists. (Many of the folks Spurgeon accused of liberalism, like his fellow London pastor, John Clifford, were simply Arminian like all General Baptists.) Then, after not getting his way, Spurgeon was willing to split the Union–no wonder he’s a hero to folk like Lewis Drummond or Paige Patterson, etc.

    On the other hand, Spurgeon had far more of a social conscience than many contemporary rightwing Baptists. And he was very impressed by the Quaker peace witness and came close, if not quite all the way, to embracing pacifism. He opposed the U.S. Civil War (although, like Abraham Lincoln, he saw the war itself as God’s judgment on both North and South for slavery), Britain’s war with Russia in the Crimea, and Britain’s war with the Boers in South Africa.

    And, at least Spurgeon was an expositor.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | September 12, 2006

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