A Ham-Handed Walk through Church History

Sometimes when someone makes such an outlandish, obviously inflammatory statement you have to step back and look at what’s really going on. Take this headline from Churchleaders:

“The Ridiculous Emphasis Christians Place on the Bible”

I’m mean seriously. To be fair, Churchleaders.com (hereafter CL) gives this caveat:

We at ChurchLeaders believe in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture as the inspired word of God. In fulfilling our purpose of helping church leaders lead better every day, we found this article to be helpful in addressing a topic that perhaps we haven’t adequately considered inside the walls of our churches.

Good for them. I’m sure some people got all ragey at the thought that CL would post such an article. Christians gotta get over that kind of knee-jerk reaction. This is the age of the internet and we would do well to not be conformed to that world. But I digress.

Most Christians assume that immediately after Jesus died, rose from the dead and went back to heaven, that a leather-bound copy of the Bible descended from the sky.

So let’s start with this bit of hyperbole. I know of no Christians that think this, literally. I’m not sure what he means figuratively. However it poisons the well for anything that comes after it. The implication is that most Christians are ignorant, stupid, and foolish. And this from a Christian pastor who should know better.

The reality is we didn’t have the New Testament in its complete form until 367 A.D., when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed all 27 books of the New Testament for the first time.

Now it’s my turn. Just because Athanasius lists the books of the New Testament in 367 doesn’t mean that’s when we had the new testament. It didn’t, after all, descend from the sky into Athanasius’ hands. This statement is ignorant and foolish. Oh and condescending.  As is his analogy:

…that’s like Jesus showing up in the Jamestown colony when it had only 75 people in it, teaching, dying, raising from the dead, and then the Bible coming together in its final form this Thursday right before we head out to Applebee’s for lunch.

Ha,ha. Let’s all laugh at the poor benighted Christians who think a book that came together  3 centuries later is one to get all ridiculous about. The fools. Never mind that Christians had been studying, reciting, and revering the books for those three centuries. Never mind that they had hid scrolls from bloody minded men for two of those centuries. Never mind that they read those precious pages by candlelight in cramped houses. Never mind that Christian were the first religion to take reading scripture so seriously. As New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado points out, one of the most distinctive things about Christianity among the religions (with the exception of Judaism) was that “texts at its very heart and soul.”

100 years after Jesus left it appears that some churches had copies of the collected letters of Paul and a gospel or two, but that’s it. Whatever copies existed remained in the possession of the local church leadership.

Jones paints a picture of scarce number of Christian texts and therefore scarce interaction with the scriptures. This is a fallacy. Even if Christians didn’t have personal texts to study this does not mean they didn’t have portions of the text to read. But Jones is not done with his privilege of modern culture against the poor first and second century Christians.

Besides, with the high rate of illiteracy among the social groups represented among the rank and file of second- and third-century churches, having a personal copy of the Bible would have been useless anyway. Most Christians wouldn’t have been able to read it.

So if they can’t read, they can’t study? Tell that to the synagogues all over Israel, pastor. The Christian church already had a model for studying the scriptures from its Jewish roots. Scriptures were read aloud and commented upon. A quote from Gamble (Books and Readers in the Early Church 1995) will suffice. Illiteracy “had little adverse effect on the ability of Christians generally to gain a close acquaintance with Christian literature.”  Jones’ assumption that just because early Christians were illiterate and texts were few that they didn’t place that much emphasis on studying the scriptures. There is a Greek word for this: baloney.

So why? Why stir Christendom up with this caricature of Church history. Jones isn’t trying to be insulting.

What if one of the reasons we’re so spiritually dead and the church is abysmally failing at its mission is not because we study the Bible too little, but too much?Instead of being out and about extending the works of the kingdom, Christians are wasting precious time excessively “studying the Bible” in groups and feeling quite content that if they’re practicing the “spiritual disciplines” at home that they’ve done their duty and can call it a day.

Oh if Brian Jones had started with this instead of giving us his amateur, ham-handed stroll through Church history. There are two claims here. One is naïve and the other has merit. First, the claim is that we spend to much time studying the bible instead of extending the works of the kingdom. We are wasting our time.

Jones means well I think. He seeks an explanation for the anemic spirituality of the Church today and he creates it with an assertion that we have a ridiculous preoccupation with Bible study. Jones has the same problem as the seminary drop out who gives up study because there are souls to save. Jones’ naïve assumption is that the only thing holding us back from changing the world is our preoccupation with Scripture study.

His second point has merit. No really. Hear me out. Christians, especially Evangelicals, do shrink Christian duty down to two requirements: Go to church and read the Bible. He’s right. When I became a Christian, discipleship instruction amounted to face forward on Sunday morning (and Wednesday and Sunday Night) and read your Bible. Maybe start in John. Maybe memorize some verses. I was told to pray but not told how to do so beyond “just talk to God.” When it came Bible study I had more invitations than I could count. When it came to how to pray in public, how to tame my lust, how to still my bouncing thoughts, how to give myself away other than sharing my faith, I’m sad to say my spiritual education let me down.

What about other traditional disciplines? Silence. Service. Secrecy. And those are just the S ones. I understand the importance of Bible study to prevent error and to preach, teach, and rebuke. But Christians should know about disciplining the body and mind that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 9:27. Moreover it would have helped to know that Christians for thousands of years had practiced these same spiritual disciplines. That cultivating habits of prayer, meditation, service, humility, charity, giving, etc. were not things I had to make up on my own. Other people would come along beside me and not just to help me study to the bible but to cultivate a disciplined life.

If only he had started with that. That was a good essay. A good word for us to think about. But of course that sort of word, wouldn’t get as many clicks and it wouldn’t have such a provocative headline.


A Ham-Handed Walk through Church History — 3 Comments

  1. Thanks Jonathan. I appreciated the mirror you present to “Churchleaders”.
    I have a lot of other thoughts but I would be writing an article if I wrote it all out.
    Some thoughts:
    Studying the scripture made me want to love by deed and how to love by deed. The more i read scripture the more clearly I see to love as Jesus loves. If anything, scripture reveals that i have lacked in both. It encourages me to act more on both. As I grow and mature i do. This is where praying for protection from the evil one also presents itself to the individual believer and the church.

    I don’t believe most of the church is spending to much time in scripture but probably not enough. However, I see many christians who have good deeds. Enough? Which of us do not love enough by word and deed because of what we know through scripture and which not enough because of what we do not know of scripture? I would say you presented the “Churchleader” author is as guilty as the rest of us.
    How true is it that most Christians spend to much time doing bible study? And how much bible study is happening when we are spending more time in books written by men and only referencing scripture to the book perspectives. For those pointing the scriptural finger ( isn’t “Churchleader” author making his case because of scripture?) are they using it to tear down or build up?

    Don’t let the left hand know what the right is doing. For those not in full-time missions in the field( the obvious deed workers) do we list our good works? Usually not. But, again, are we all doing enough and with right motives?

    Is our mission to change the world? Or is our mission to proclaim Christ in work and deed so that they may see and worship our Father in heaven? We impact the world but we do not change it.Changes in the world have occurred but we have not changed the world. The mission is to go and make disciples of all nations. We should love and work,both with proclaiming and deed . Jesus died for the world, some individuals come, one by one into the body of Christ. Jesus changes those individual into a new creations, building up the body, who work as ambassadors . He does not change the world of individuals and neither can we. He changes those who come into the light out of the world, we work towards those who might come. Our we doing enough scripture reading and enough working? Specifically, and first, among each others needs in the body of Christ. Do I help my brother in need enough whether work done by word and/or deed? Will they know us by our love for one another? ( and this whether the “they” in the world comes to Christ or not John 17:14 I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. 15 My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. 17 Sanctify them by[d] the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. )

    One of the greatest problems I see as I view writings and listening to Christians is that many speak as if to equal our mission as either needing to or failing against a mission to change the world. Could this be because of a lack of bible reading or not listening to what scripture is really saying? Maybe bad interpretation?

    If my mission as an individual christian is not mandated by God to save the world, then neither is it as the body. Each individual in the body has been given the same mandate of mission. Jesus mission was not to save each individual in the world, instead, he died for each individual that they may be saved. Those individuals and the earth they live on will someday be brought to full newness because
    Jesus died for the world.

    Matthew 16:25-27New International Version (NIV)

    25 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

    John 17

    Act 3:21 Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. 22 For Moses said, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. 23 Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from their people.

    Revelation 21:1-3New International Version (NIV)

    21 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.

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