Don’t Teach What You’ll Have to Unteach

April 27th, 2011
This article is featured in the The Living Word (May/June/July 2011) issue of Circuit Rider

When it comes to teaching the Bible, you might think it would be easy for us as teachers, preachers, and writers simply to stick to the script. However, we are human. We sometimes find ourselves in situations where we fall into the temptation to teach something not quite faithful to the biblical text. Something someone will have to later unteach, and worse yet, that our student will have to unlearn.

I believe there are two major reasons we in the church have historically taught the Word in ways that later have to be untaught.

1. Our Personal Perspective

The first reason comes from our desire to see life from the perspective of self. Instead of approaching the Living Word as a text originally written for one audience thousands of years ago, we sometimes act as if it was written solely for us in this place and time.

Now, please do not misunderstand me. As a believer in the Living Word, I am in awe of how God’s Word can speak to me with exactly the right message I need in the midst of what I am facing in my life. The Word is alive and vibrant because of the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us toward the parts of God’s Word that may help us the most. As our comforter in time of need, the Holy Spirit can use all God has given us to help us, including the Bible’s amazing stories of the relationships between God and God’s people.

However, when the words of the Bible were penned and each word was chosen or not chosen, the writers inspired by God to write were not thinking of how we in twenty-first century North America, or Europe, or South Africa, would hear what they were writing. Instead, they were thinking about the message of truth God had placed on their hearts and how best to communicate it to the audience of their time based on their culture and customs. As a result, we have a savior who is our shepherd, a kingdom that is like yeast, and a need to explain to women who were never allowed out of their houses in Corinth to not chitchat during the middle of the worship service.

We see the world and the Word from our individual perspectives. We really want to believe the Bible is a message for us that we should completely and easily understand. We want the Bible to be a guide of dos and don’ts that will help us be the best followers of Jesus we can be.

Having to first learn about others and what their culture and customs were to discover what the message was for them, and then to use that discovery to try to understand how that message applies to us can just seem like a lot of work.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just take random words and stick them on posters to show the world what God wants, especially if it also justifies something we want to do?

One of my favorite books is The Bible Tells Me So: Uses and Abuses of Holy Scripture, by Jim Hill and Rand Cheadle. Hill and Cheadle trace times throughout human history where groups used the Bible to inspire and justify their inclinations to do both great and horrific things toward their fellow human beings. In our desire to be the ones on God’s side, we sometimes teach, preach, and write about Scripture in ways that bolster our cause of the moment but may not teach the original meaning or intent. When we use the Word for self promotion, we damage the cause of Jesus. The result is people first have to unlearn the message we have used in order to be free to hear the message God is trying to send.

2. Our Need to Have an Answer

A second reason we sometimes teach the Bible in ways that later have to be untaught comes from our desire not to seem dumb. Having trained volunteers for years, I can tell you that a skill leaders often struggle with is being comfortable admitting they don’t have an answer. Children (and even adults) can ask very deep, probing questions of faith to which we simply cannot know the answer. Add to this the reality that in our educational system knowing the answer is what we are trained to do, and it is no surprise that many adults, including some pastors, are uncomfortable answering questions with, “I don’t know.”

The desire to make up easy answers to questions can result in teaching things to our children and adults that simply don’t hold up on deeper examination. This becomes an obstacle for many people as they grow in their faith and ask deeper and deeper questions. The person begins to wonder: if this simple answer I was given to this small question isn’t true, how do I know that the answers I have been taught to the big questions are true? So, the made up reason a child was taught as to why someone chose to do something or not do something in a random story in Leviticus, can call into doubt all of the great truths the child has learned about God along the way too.

Personally, I believe the irony in this is that asking questions to which we do not have the answers is the beginning of every great journey of growth that we take as human beings. Whether it is in the realm of faith, art, music, science or ingenuity, asking, “I wonder why” or “I wonder why not” is the very beginning of the journey. Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” So, if a scientist, a man of facts, can find comfort living with questions without answers and seeing where that takes us as a people, why do we as people of faith sometimes struggle to do the same?

Perhaps we are hesitant to step out in faith and follow without understanding because we do not want to appear foolish. When God called Moses, Moses, not wanting to look silly in front of people when he told them a bush had told him to go to Egypt, asked God, “Who exactly should I say is sending me to do this?” I think Moses wanted to get a name from God that he could tell people that would make them say, “Wow, we understand. ‘That God’ sent you. This makes perfect sense!”

As Moses discovered, God does not work that way. Instead of giving Moses a name that would cause people to respond with fear, awe, and obedience, God said, “I AM.” Many have translated this to mean I Am Who I Am, or more literally, I Will Be Who I Will Be. In my mind, God could have easily added on the end, “Good luck figuring out what that means!”

One great gift of the Word is that it forces us to learn about others different from ourselves to understand it. Another great gift is that once we begin to understand it, we are still left with questions we may never really understand fully. These gifts push us to learn more and to seek more as we grow in our faith. 

So, next time you find yourself tempted to offer an easy or uninformed answer to a question about the Word, don’t teach something that will later have to be untaught. Instead, look at your fellow traveler in the faith who has asked the question and say, “I don’t know, what do you think? Let’s see what we can discover together.” With that, yet another great journey of faith can begin.

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