Here in Buccleuch we are getting ready to re-start our ‘small-groups’ with what I hope is a fresh appreciation for the part they play in our ongoing spiritual growth as a church. As elders and deacons we have been working through the Vine Project which calls on the church to make Word-based discipleship fundamental to our identity and our approach to life together.
At the same time, I have been reading a collection of essays by J.I. Packer entitled Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life, in which many of the same convictions are to be found.
If you are cautious about attending or joining a Bible study group in your local church for any number of personal cultural or social reasons, let me encourage you to think through what Packer argues for. And if you are in a group and sometimes find yourself asking ‘why bother?’ then I hope it will be a positive encouragement to stick with it!
How does God give understanding of the Bible?
Packer’s essay entitled Give me understanding: The approach to biblical interpretation has as its starting-point the recognition that Christians are to be those who follow the lead of Jesus and the apostles in treating the Bible as inspired by God, entirely true, and therefore the final authority for what we believe and how we live.
That being the case, gathering together as Christians to receive God’s message of truth for life is a means for us submitting to God’s authority.
Later in his essay, Packer answers the question ‘how does God give understanding?’ by referring to Ephesians 3:16-19 where Paul prays that “out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide, and long, and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fulness of God.”
God gives understanding of his Word and will to us through the Holy Spirit, and through the Christian community. It is this second element that is particularly important to consider in small-group Bible studies.
God gives understanding through Christian community
To use the language of Colossians 3:16, for the word of Christ to dwell in us richly, for it to go down deep and appear beautiful and true to us, we are to be sharing and receiving from the message of Christianity found in the Bible so that wisdom is produced. Faith – and that includes our Bible reading and application – is not a solitary pursuit, but is practiced in community.
Packer appropriately concludes from his study of the New Testament:
The main means of learning from God is to hear his message preached and to involve oneself in the give-and-take of Christian fellowship in exploring the contents of Holy Scripture.
What are some of the benefits of small groups for our understanding of the Bible?
For Packer there are 3:
1. We are delivered from being tied to our own thoughts – all of us will have theological blind spots and hobbyhorses, and so studying with others will help keep our spiritual balance.
2. We are delivered from being tied to our own time – Packer includes in the learning alongside others the practice of reading the classics of theological writing so as to be rescued from what C.S. Lewis describes as ‘chronological snobbery’
3. We are delivered from being tied to our own heritage – we are all children of tradition, and tradition has the effect both of giving us life and narrowing our viewpoint. Learning to discuss the Bible respectfully with people who may not always share your tradition and understanding can be viewed as a threat. Better to see it as an opportunity to gain what is good from the experience of others.
So the next time someone invites you to a Bible study, or you feel the pull of a night on the couch rather than join your regular small-group Bible study, perhaps these thoughts will encourage you along.