THE IDEAL BIBLE CLASS
The main factor that makes for a meaningful Bible class is an inspired teacher. All teachers should have been called by God and gifted for their important task. Like good salesmen, teachers must believe in the product they are selling and be skilled in its presentation before they can convince others to want to own it for themselves. Enthusiasm is contagious. So, teachers should be eager and excited about imparting the divine message - and then the presence of the Holy Spirit will be so evident in the class that everyone feels caught up in an aura of enlightenment.
A Bible study session or a religious seminar should never be boring. After all, the great God of the universe has spoken in Scriptures and through prophets and sages, and whatever He says should be gripping, exciting, awesome, eye-opening, and life-changing. Since that is true, to waste peoples’ time with pablum and platitudes, repetition and redundancy, must be accounted a sin and a shame. The advice of Paul was to get beyond the milk diet of a baby and take on the meaty fare of a mature adult. The teacher must gather more material than can be given in one session and not be afraid to talk over the heads of his class. Bible study is in competition with the professional offerings on television and in movies and magazines. so a variety of high quality lessons needs to be presented in order to maintain the students’ attention. A church member should not be forced to look for religious materials outside his church in order to find God and answer life’s questions. In fact there is some danger in doing so, for all too often an unwary seeker may be snared by the heretical products of some cult group.
Sadly much boredom in classrooms is the result of sticking too close to published literature and to worn-out subjects. Lesson materials are not always adequate, being written at a sixth-grade comprehension level, repeated on seven-year cycles, and generally skipping over difficult passages in the Bible. Harping on the same subjects year after year, even on great truths and profound principles, can prove monotonous and tiresome after a while - like the anesthetized repetition of the Lord’s Prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance that goes on in public meetings. Oft repeated lessons will just go in one ear and out the other and penetrate no more than water on a duck’s back.
Sydney Harris, the intellectual journalist, observed that “what one learns as a child becomes a comfortable incantation in later life, and we need never think it afresh or feel it anew.” Children learn their memory verses, couched in adult vocabulary and medieval English terms, often without a full knowledge of what they are saying. They memorize “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” never knowing the true meaning of “thy neighbor” or “as thyself.” Thus, they may grow to adulthood without really grasping their religion. This means that the responsibility of the Bible teacher is to make “the old, old story” new, fresh, alive, clear, and relevant.
Familiarity breeds contempt, so teaching the whole Bible would be better than quoting John 3:16 over and over again. Also concentration on the same “important” areas of the Bible to the neglect of other passages is not consistent with the principle that the entire Scripture is God’s written Word, to be dealt with and mastered. The Bible has 1,189 chapters, and at one chapter a week this would require 23 years of study.
When faced with trite commentaries in lesson materials, the teacher should not hesitate to depart from the canned curriculum and find something worth discussing in its place. In order to deviate from lesson materials into more productive areas of inquiry, a teacher must have the reference books to support alternate study topics. These will include as a minimum: a set of encyclopćdias, a concordance, an atlas, a Bible dictionary, scholarly commentaries, a harmony of the Gospels, numerous Bible versions including a polyglot Bible, and Greek and Hebrew lexicons. In order to remain true to Baptist doctrines and practices, there should be statements of faith and Baptist/Anabaptist histories and biographies. The historical accounts of Josephus and Eusebius, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, and The Pilgrim’s Progress are great resources that should also be available.
Topics that can be introduced are many. Bible backgrounds should be the subject of study, including ancient Near Eastern peoples and cultures, ancient religions, ancient scriptures and writings, geography, history, archćology, mythology, and cosmology. Topics related to the Bible canon would include intertestamental history, extra-canonical scriptures, patristic writings, sources of Scripture, criteria for canonicity, and translations. Critical biblical analysis would discuss inspiration, exegetical terms, and the inerrancy/infallibility controversy. These are all heavy subjects for study, but they can be made palatable by a teacher who is saturated with information and gifted with intuition.
The Bible is a book, and non-readers have trouble with books. Accordingly, a good teacher will be a reader. And a great teacher will be a voracious reader. Every volume that a Bible expositor puts into his head or his library becomes another source of subject matter.
A person only has one lifetime to make some sense out of his existence, and so there is no time for wasteful frittering when he should be tackling the big issues that challenge the limited capacity of the human brain. Nobody should be content to wade forever in the kiddie pool, when he may know the thrill of diving into the deep end. With so much at stake, nobody should be smug, self satisfied, secure, and self righteous when confronted with the daunting task of “working out his salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
There is a special beatitude for Bible students, and it is the blessing promised to “the poor in spirit,” that is, those who recognize that they are spiritually ignorant and who remain teachable and open to new truth. It should be a comfort to such as these to know that the Master assured success in the quest for a deeper faith with His words, “Seek and you will find.”
Sadly, some people take the position that the Bible is an arcane book not meant to be understood. In fact, they prefer a mysterious faith based on a high-sounding text in Shakespearean English that is like a foreign language to their ears. What an insult to God, that His followers could imagine the Bible, the Heavenly Father’s Love Letter to mankind, was never intended to be comprehended. As a matter of fact, on the contrary, the only difficult passages are those that use archaic language, employ forgotten symbols, reflect primitive culture and pre-scientific concepts, or exhibit inconsistencies between older and newer writings. When scholarship sorts these things out, the essential message comes through loud and clear. Therefore, no teacher worth his salt will take the pessimistic attitude that the Scriptures are a closed book. If so, they might as well shut down all Bible classes.
One main difficulty is that many church-goers are simply lazy - content with elementary programs and a feel-good religion that lets them coast sleepily through the Sunday services. Being stuck in the rut of complacency, they prefer to switch off their brains and let them rest on the Sabbath. So, the last thing they are looking for is a lively discussion about anything. Ignorance is bliss, so they may resent anyone who rocks the boat, asking probing questions and not being satisfied with stereotyped, glib answers. Unfortunately, an inquisitive seeker after truth can make the average class uncomfortable, and so the earnest inquirer may start getting a chilly reception and may then stop attending church.
Some teachers are so ill prepared that they try to get the class to teach the lesson for them by asking simple rhetorical questions with obvious answers, like “Who was the Son of God?” Answer, “Jesus.” “Who died on the Cross?” Answer, “Jesus.” Pointless questions that are common knowledge, that are childish, and that require no thought add to nobody’s enlightenment and insult everybody’s intelligence.
Another way to have the class teach the lesson is in a so-called “sharing” session, where the teacher asks questions and spends the whole time drawing responses out of the class. The main problem with this approach is that without adequate initial instruction that guides and informs the thinking, such a class amounts to no more than pooled ignorance.
Every Bible lesson should begin as a lecture, in which the teacher imparts quantities of interesting information, facts, and findings that have resulted from his extensive investigation and preparation. The religious viewpoint of the Bible’s authors, along with ancient ideas and interpretations, should be taught first and then followed by more modern thinking and applications. These will all be presented in such an interesting fashion that the dam of spontaneous questions will finally burst, and class members will be compelled at some point to interrupt the teacher with questions and comments of their own. In the discussion that ensues, no comment will be deemed inappropriate, and all opinions will be respected. There should be no restrictions on questions or subject matter, no prohibitions on speculation. This should be the general rule, that any question on any subject is permitted and welcomed. After all, the class is for the people who come - with all of their uncertainties and problems, to which the Christian faith must give clarification and guidance through open-minded discussions. Also, unrestricted discussion has to do with basic democratic ideals of individual dignity, equality, and responsibility in religious matters. William Barclay, put it this way: “In Bible study a very mixed group, with widely varying points of view, is much better than a holy huddle of like-minded people.” In open discussions it will be up to the teacher to steer the flow of ideas toward more mature, enlightened, and doctrinally correct points of view. If a class member who is a believer differs with the teacher, that is his privilege. The doctrine of “the priesthood of the believer” says that every believer is a priest and must decide for himself what to believe.
No officer or leader in a Baptist church should be a new convert (1 Tim. 3:6) or newly come from another denomination. Training and experience are qualities of a teacher that only come with time, and so giving a position of authority to a neophyte has the potential for much damage to the life and health of any church.
A conscientious teacher will also be concerned with the appearance of the classroom. The meeting place should be pleasant and clean. Displays should include pictures, maps, and a blackboard, all showing the teacher’s interest toward ensuring that real learning will take place. Handouts should be given to enhance the learning process and so that notes can be taken during the lesson.
Now notwithstanding all the above, it must be recognized that the “ideal Bible class” will not be suitable for some people - those who do not enjoy a lively discussion, those whose faith is threatened by questioning, those whose main objective is socializing, and those whose little world is constricted and shut off to outside influences - who feel intimidated by new ideas. There should be some classes for people like these, because there should be ministry to all types of people.
Age-grading of classes should be the primary basis of organization, but there should be leeway for grading by aptitude and personal preference. Thus, there should be beginner classes, regular classes, and advanced classes. Every church should have a class for intellectuals - those who enjoy reading and have an inquisitive nature and a yearning for truth. Such a class would deal with scholarly studies in theology, Bible criticism, linguistics, comparative religion, philosophy, archćology, and current thinking in all related realms.
Baptists claim to believe in the doctrine of “the priesthood of the believer,” and so, in order to undergird the idea that every believer is his own priest, there should be training for the priesthood, i.e., classes taught at seminary level. With such training, every believer should be made confident and become committed to his calling. He should also be able to give a good account of himself when defending his beliefs in the presence of scoffers and radical religionists. Lessons on science, philosophy, religion, history, and ethics would be a basic course of study and should be provided in a church.
As a rule, it would be better to have finer teachers and fewer classes than to have a multitude of mediocre meetings where people are not being provided with spiritual nourishment.
And finally, it must be understood that a teacher will set the example for his class by faithful attendance. If he is not committed to being in his place for the Bible study hour, how can he expect others to be there? Strong will power and dependability are the minimum standard for a teacher. Certainly there are modern-day cases of idolatry, and these would include being tied to a bed, a boat, a car, a beach house, a fishing pole, a newspaper, or a television set on Sunday morning.
Richard L. Atkins
A SELF-TEST FOR BIBLE TEACHERS
1. Am I regular on Sunday mornings for Bible study?
2. Do I provide for a substitute ahead of time when I will be absent?
3. Do I arrive fifteen minutes before time for the class to begin?
4. Do I make the classroom an attractive and comfortable place to study?
5. Do I prepare well during the week for the class on Sunday morning?
6. Do I read my Bible and pray every day?
7. Am I training myself to be a better teacher?
8. Do I help the class to work through difficult passages in the Bible?
9. Do I allow opportunities for discussion in the class?
10. Do I recognize and commend good responses in the classroom?
11. Do I make each student feel free to ask questions and voice opinions?
12. Do I provide for interesting use of the Bible?
13. Do I elevate the value of an open Bible and an open mind?
14. Am I suggesting outside learning and memory work?
15. Do I encourage reading and suggest good books aimed at spiritual growth?
16. Is my teaching in essential agreement with the Baptist Faith & Message (1963)?
17. Is my teaching in essential agreement with the Church Covenant?
18. Am I helping students to use God’s standards in their daily conduct?
19. Do I provide variety in the learning activities in the classroom?
20. Do I make good use of handouts and visual aids?
21. Do I determine the interests of students and modify the lesson accordingly?
22. Do I encourage students to share their personal problems and difficulties?
23. Do I contact students who are absent?
24. Do I visit in the homes of the students?
25. Do I promote class meetings and socials?
26. Am I leading the students to attend the worship services?
27. Am I promoting the giving of tithes and offerings?
28. Do I encourage support of all the programs of the church?
29. Am I sharing with the students what Jesus means to me?
30. Am I seeking to win each student to faith in Christ?