3 Steps to Teaching the Bible Responsibly
Let’s do a fun little experiment together on teaching the Bible. Watch this quick video and see if you can answer the questions below. It won’t take long, I promise. It will open in another window, so watch it, then come back.
Now, without looking back in the video, tell me what you saw by answering the following questions:
- What color was the Kodak sign on the building?
- What did the first interviewee say was the problem Kodak faced before going out of business?
- What city in New York was the second interviewee’s church in?
- What was the name of that church?
- Was the pastor in the church sitting in a pew or a chair?
- What color was the shirt under his beige cardigan? It was sticking out from under his sleeve.
How did you do? Are you ready to assist Sherlock Holmes and solve murders, or did you “see but not observe?” Answers are at the bottom, but come back here when you’re done. By the way, isn’t that video hard to watch all on it’s own? Yeesh…
Teaching the Bible
When we are responsible for teaching the Bible, we must do so with care. Get it right, and you bless someone’s life; get it wrong, and you mislead and hurt others.
The three-step process for proper Biblical study and understanding is best explained as Observation, Interpretation, and Application. They have to be done in this order. Get the steps out of order and you’re asking for heresy.
Let me explain what these steps are, and then let’s talk about where we are most often tripping up.
This step is the boring one, but the most crucial. This is where you simply read the text, right? Well, yes and no. You obviously must read the text, but you also must understand that you are limited to what the text actually says.
It is tempting to take Scripture from elsewhere as we understand it and add it to the observation of the text in question, but we can’t do that. Not yet. That’s an Interpretation step. We want to focus just on the text we have in front of us in the Observation step.
The Observation step is the right place to ask who the text was:
when it was written,
and maybe go into the history that was happening around it.
These facts can open up an understanding of the Scripture that is absolutely necessary for the second step of Interpretation.
Take all of the observed information including the basic text itself and decide what it could mean. Remember, you are trying to find what THIS text says and means, not what other places in Scripture might have to say about it. That comes later.
What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? It could help to know how the Jews Jesus was talking to defined “neighbor.” When we take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ, what would Paul’s audience immediately think of?
Finally, test your interpretations against the rest of Scripture. If you find something that seems contradictory, you must sort it out with more study, a mentor, or fall into a vat of toxic chemicals with your Bible hoping to unlock super Bible-powers.
This process helps color in the depth of Scripture. Only when we have a rich understanding of what Scripture means can we then know what we should do.
If all of it checks out, then ask “what must I do because I have read and understood this passage?” If you’re teaching, you can ask what you must instruct others to do.
It’s also a good idea to ask yourself if the application was specific to the people to which the passage was written, or if it is also applicable to all Christians everywhere. Just because the Bible describes it doesn’t mean the Bible prescribes it.
Where is teaching the Bible often derailed?
I see teachers and leaders (myself included) tripping up more often over the Observation step of teaching the Bible.
Wait, Seth, that’s step 1! Exactly my point.
How many times have pastors, teachers, or lay leaders plucked a verse out of a book and immediately interpreted it based on their limited experience and knowledge, then delivered an application point to you? Or chosen a topic and then searched Scriptures that support your already-held theologies so you can make your points later? Observation prevents this, which is why it is so unattractive. You might actually have to change something in your own life.
The first exercise we did above was an exercise in observation. We did something very similar on day 1 of my seminary hermeneutics class (kinda proud I spelled that word right the first time). Most of us failed to answer the simple questions after the video because we had not learned how to observe. Learning to observe can teach you to see the truth within the Scriptures.
If you are going to teach the Bible, you have a responsibility to study it well and teach it correctly. Otherwise, heresy creeps in and eventually forms it’s own denomination at the worst, or at best makes you feel alienated from all these “idiots who don’t know the Bible as well as you do.” Sayonara happiness in any church ever again!
When we skip the observation step of Biblical interpretation and jump straight into interpreting it, then we can honestly make the Bible say whatever we want it to say.
We can baptize dogs and cats (like it would make a difference for cats) or marry 5 wives. We can justify slavery or prove that science is our enemy. We can even prove why Harry Potter is dangerous (yeah, I’m going there).
But when we take care to observe, we can no longer accept these interpretations because Scripture doesn’t allow it.
When we observe first, we place ourselves at the mercy of the text; when we interpret first, the text is at the mercy of our individual circumstances.
I keep all of my old messages from when I was a youth pastor, because let’s face it, one day I’m going to forget I’m supposed to teach somewhere and I’ll need the plan B. Not long ago, I was looking back through some of them and reading my thoughts on certain passages before I knew about Observation, Interpretation, and Application. It was bad.
I actually taught heresies to youth about the Trinity! Why? It was because I was using an illustration to enlighten the text rather than the other way around.
Take care that you are teaching the Bible accurately, powerfully, and responsibly. Have there been times that you know you taught something that was way off?
Answers to Video Questions:
- They didn’t know what kind of company they were.
- Park Church