Personal Relationship with God, Bible Study, and the Church
American culture has been shaped by rugged individualism. (Remember the Marlboro Man?) As a result, when we think of our spiritual lives we think in individualistic terms. And so we orient our involvement with others, the church, and even Bible study in terms of our own personal growth. If it helps or you think you need it, great. If it doesn’t help or you don’t feel the need for it, then its optional. But God never says or even implies that your personal relationship with him is a private relationship or even an independent relationship. Your relationship with God is always wrapped up with the church. This is why Paul writes in Romans 12:5,
we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
This comes in the context of being a member of the body with a unique gift and function, necessary for the functioning of the body as a whole. The end goal, you see, isn’t your personal relationship with God. It is the maturity of the whole body of Christ. As Paul writes in Ephesians 4:15–16,
we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
So how does the body grow? We often talk about attending to the ordinary means of grace: the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. When we think about these things, we must do so with respect to the body, rather than the individual. The sacraments can only be done in the context of the body, so that one is easy. But corporate prayer is also important. As is the Word.
When the reformers described the Word as a means of grace, they emphasized the preached Word. There is a reason for that. One might argue against this emphasis by pointing out that the written word is without error while preachers are not. And that’s true. Nonetheless, the written word is not always understood correctly. If everyone remained isolated in their Bible reading, there would be little consensus as to what it means. Some might argue that’s a good thing, that we can all learn from each other’s insights. While this might be true to some extent, there is a danger in it as well. There are right and wrong interpretations of the written word. How do you know who is right?
To answer that, let’s look again at Ephesians 4. In verses 11-14 we read,
he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
God established offices and ordained people to serve in those offices. Why? So that “we may no longer be…carried about by every wind of doctrine.” Without people ordained in these offices, that’s where we would be. Church history shows us time and again how people strayed in their interpretation of the Word and these wrong interpretations were exposed in church councils where these ordained officers met to work through them. Why is this important?
This is important when it comes to the way you do Bible Study. Personal Bible reading is a privilege. It isn’t something the average person historically has been able to do so you shouldn’t take it for granted. And yet, at the same time, you shouldn’t stay isolated in your reading waiting for the Holy Spirit to show you its true meaning. To stay isolated is to avoid what the Holy Spirit has ordained to guide you into its meaning (the ordained people in the above offices). The preached Word and your local pastor and elders are given to you for this purpose. When you read, trusted commentaries can also offer helpful guides. These were often written by men ordained for this purpose. So when you seek to study the Bible for yourself and are encouraged to not use any commentaries or other sources, be careful. It isn’t a bad idea to read the Bible and prayerfully consider its meaning without consulting any sources, at least initially. But once you’ve had time to make your observations and draw conclusions, it is important to check them against the trusted sources that God has ordained.
I have been in Bible studies with the approach that everyone read it independently, consider what God is saying to you, and then share that with each other. This is called the reader-response approach and it was popularized from a 19th century “neo-orthodox” view of the Word. While the proposer of such a theology had good intentions, it has led to disastrous outcomes with many of the mainstream churches departing from orthodoxy as a result. But this is a new topic and not within the scope of this article. (Feel free to ask me about it if you like.) In sum, it sounds good on the surface, but it is a bad approach.
So remember, your relationship with God might be personal but it is not private and it is not independent of the church. It is the church that is the bride of Christ, not individuals. And in the Old Testament the nation of Israel was blessed or cursed for their faithfulness or unfaithfulness as a whole, not as individuals. So your personal relationship with God is important for the sake of the Church body’s maturity, not the other way around. Remember that when it comes to the way you view the church, engage in Bible study, and approach life.
For the Kingdom,