Recently, in one of our Wednesday night Bible studies at church, one of our regularly attending high schoolers made a comment that I think illustrates something wrong with the way we do church/spirituality as American Christians. We were studying a passage of Scripture, and I always encourage the students to have a copy of the Bible (we have extras provided for guests and the forgetful) to help them follow along and to check if I’m making stuff up or not. Well, apparently this student had decided that they were done engaging with the group and had shut their Bible before proceeding to do their darnedest to disengage the people sitting next to them as well. One of our adult leaders asked this person to stop talking and encouraged them to pay attention to what the rest of the group was discussing, and the leader insinuated that it might be helpful for them to open their Bible back up since that was the focus of our discussion. Which leads to the quote that spawned this blog and its title:
“I only read the Bible by myself,” the student replied in a matter-of-fact tone. The student may have said “I only like to read the Bible by myself,” but Snopes.com has yet to inquire as to which was the original source of this quote. Either way, I think the same underlying problem comes screaming out.
We have individualized the Christian life to a soul-destroying level.
Ok, so that’s not exactly a shocker for those who read my blog. I doubt there’s many people who would outright disagree completely with that. There might be some caveats and clarifications, but I don’t think there’s a lot of pastors, teachers, authors, etc. out there blatantly saying, “All that matters is your personal walk with Jesus, you don’t need to be a part of other people’s lives or care about them or help/be helped by them, etc.” Especially not since those all important categories of giving and volunteering stem heavily from appeals for the betterment of people around us.
But it doesn’t take intentional sabotaging of the corporate dimensions of the Christian life to produce the narcissistic Christian culture we find in the West. Mere neglect will perform adequately in sabotage’s stead. For the sake of focus and brevity, let’s stick with this issue of Bible reading.
The student says, “I only read the Bible by myself” as an acceptable Christian attitude to Scripture. There’s a couple reasons one might say this: first, if you only read the Bible alone, then no one knows if you’re actually reading the Bible. So it’s a pretty much non-falsifiable statement that tries to give one positive spiritual reputation. But dealing with a hypocritical slant on this is beyond my goal in writing this.
The second reason, however, is more at the heart of our problem of individualistic thinking. “I only (like to) read the Bible by myself” attitude didn’t appear out of nowhere. The thinking behind this probably follows from year and year of being drilled the importance of “personal” Bible reading. Evangelicals love “personal” (by that we mean, “individual”) anything. “Personal quiet time”, “personal prayer life”, “personal identity”, “personal holiness”, and of course, the big kahuna of the “personal” phrases, a “personal relationship with Jesus.” Now, none of these things are necessarily wrong. We would be wrong to discount “personal” implications of the teaching of Jesus, the guy who challenged people to “hate” their families and pursue Him above all. You can’t simply follow Jesus in a “corporate” sense only. The problem isn’t that the “personal”/individual dimensions of the Christian life are fasle; the problem is that the personal is all that many pastors and teachers ever get to.
By neglecting the role of corporate dimensions of our life in Christ, all those “us” and “we” and “our” passages, or the plethora of “one another” commands, we’ve individualized the Christian life in a way that Jesus never meant for his followers to. Our individual Bible reading is preferred over corporate interaction with Scripture. Note how most evangelical churches have resigned Paul’s instructions of “give attention to public reading, exhortation, and teaching” to merely the Pastor’s reading of that days’ particular sermon text at some point. (I think we could learn something from the older liturgical traditions here who emphasize the public reading of several sections of Scripture together.) Paul says “public reading.” He doesn’t tell Timothy to have a really good quiet time, or even to tell the church to do so. (Granted, the lack of individual Bible ownership made public reading of Scripture even more vital.)
Emphasizing our individual reading of Scripture to our corporate experience of God’s Word reeks of pride. My “personal” reading is more beneficial to me. Why? Perhaps because I am better at picking texts to read than my church is, or I am better at reading the Word and figuring out its meanings without other people’s ideas and objections slowing me down. I’m not going to go full postmodern and say we need each other because everyone’s opinions about a particular interpretation of the text provide a valid perspective (teach 8-9 grade Sunday School sometime if you’ve bought into that; some ideas are clearly wrong, misinformed, and very unhelpful!), but we need each other precisely because all of our own opinions aren’t correct. As CS Lewis wrote arguing for the importance of reading old books, we all go wrong at some point, but in a group, we’re all unlikely to error in the same place. It provides a helpful humility for us as we read Scripture to do so corporately and provoke each other to love and good deeds, often ourselves being the ones in need of correction. That’s something you won’t get just having your “personal” Bible reading.
Even if you’re only reading the Bible for yourself, there is much of Scripture that emphasizes the corporate dimensions. Which means that if you continue your whole life reading the Bible only by yourself, you’re not reading it very well.