Tag Archives: Scripture

The Bible is for Community

The various authors of the Bible wrote to groups of people. Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament to the entire congregation of Israel. In fact, the whole Old Testament was written for the people of Israel that they may know their history, their origins, their faith, and most importantly their God. The New Testament was largely written to whole churches. 

The Bible was Written for Community 

As Westerners who love our independence and individualism, we have a habit of reading the Bible as if it were written to individuals. This influences the way we interpret the text and limits our understanding of what God is saying through his word.

For much of church history, the people of God gathered together to hear the Scriptures read aloud. People could not read and study the Bible on their own at home because it was not easy to own a copy of the text. However, in the modern day, we take private Bible reading with our personal copy of the text for granted, as if it has been the norm throughout history.  

Praise God for the printing press! We can now immerse ourselves in the scripture on our own. However, other than gathering for a sermon or maybe a Bible discussion, we have largely forgotten that scripture is for a community, not just individuals. Because of this, we tend to interpret and apply the Bible through the lens of individualism. We struggle to see the community emphasis because of the blinders of our culture.

For example, 1 Corinthians 6:19 is commonly applied to refer to taking care of our physical bodies because they are temples of the Lord. However as is explained in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, we misunderstand the plurals in that passage. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Cor 6:19). You is plural, while temple is singular. The community of believers all together are the temple of God. While we must steward our physical bodies as gifts from the Lord, this passage speaks to how we should love the body of Christ. Rather Paul tells the Corinthian believers to care for and respect their local church body. Knowing this makes for very different applications from this passage. Rather than eating healthier or getting more sleep, it should lead us to reconcile with our brothers and sisters in Christ and care those who are hurting. 

We Need Community

In order to study the Bible well, we need community. I can study a passage for hours and then take part in a group discussion thinking I have really come to know this passage well. I’ll even have read several commentaries to get further insight. Then I sit in a group with a handful of other believers and without fail, at least one of them will point out something that leaves me speechless. I sit back thinking, “Wait! Has that been there the whole time? How did I miss that?” All of my hours of study were helpful and fruitful to both me and the group, but nothing could replace the gathered believers exploring and discussing the Word of God together. 

Christ said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” (Matthew 18:20 ESV) The Lord can and does give insight into his Word to individuals studying on their own, but there is a special synthesis that happens in the gathered body of believers. We learn from each other, but we also learn together from the Spirit of Christ among us. As Richards and O’Brien put it: “So why go to church? Why worship with a group? Because, in some way we may not fully understand, the Spirit indwells the group in a way the Spirit does not indwell the individual. We are all built together to become one, whole building: a single dwelling for his Spirit. Like it or not, we need each other” (Misreading Scripture, 109).

Unfortunately, we may have difficulty engaging the Bible as a community and studying together.When we get together for Bible study, often we float on the surface of the text rather than doing the hard work of mining the text as a community. Granted, the entire group must develop this skill. It takes practice and vulnerability with each other. But when we can successfully study together in order to develop a deeper understanding of the text, we get the joy of learning from perspectives other than our own.

Scripture Shapes Communities

Scripture was written to communities and intended to shape communities. A commonly quoted and much loved passage has a layer of meaning that is easily missed by Christians within individualistic cultures. Our cultural blinders keep us from seeing the full weight of the text, and we must work hard to take them off. 

The second person pronouns in Romans 12:2 are plural. English doesn’t have a formal second person pronoun, but we might read the verse as “Y’all do not be conformed to this world, but y’all be transformed by the renewal of the mind (singular), that by testing y’all may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

We read these as singular pronouns, but they were written to the church. Remember this letter was being read to the gathered body of believers. Imagine being in a gathering having this letter read to the group. You know it’s an important letter, and everyone is hanging on every word. Y’all have read through the bulk of the letter by now, and it’s all focused on the Gospel. Now it seems to have shifted. This is our response to the Gospel. 

Imagine how you would hear this passage differently in that context. Your whole spiritual life happens deeply embedded into community. All of your spiritual disciplines and spiritual growth happen with the people in the room with you now. You can’t imagine the Christian life apart from the Body. No one has ever asked you to. Now hear those plural “you”s: 

“This community should not be conformed to this world, but this community should be transformed by the renewal of the mind of this community, that by testing, this community may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Even modern day readers can get a hint of this understanding by reading verses 3-7. Paul immediately jumps into specifics of how spiritual gifts should be used within the church. He doesn’t transition to what Church life should look. He is already talking about it. 

For Christians within individualistic cultures, this reading of the passage might break a lot of our boxes. In an effort to understand what the Bible is saying, we need to make the effort to understand what the original audience would have heard. Their culture was very different from our own so the assumptions they brought to the text and the context within which they read it means that they understood it differently than we do. 

Should we still seek to be individually transformed by the renewing of our individual minds. Of course! We should pursue holiness in whatever way we can! However, the witness of Scripture seems to say that transformation happens not only—and maybe not even primarily—on the individual level but within the Body of Christ.

While we should still be jumping for joy that we can hold a copy of the Bible in our own hands (or phones), we need to remember to read and study within community. We need to challenge our individualist mindset and ask God how the passage we are reading should shape and form our community. If we fail to do this, we will miss part of what the Lord communicates to us through his word, thereby missing opportunities to obey and worship him.

Learning from my Emotions

I’ve been in numerous Bible Studies that seem more like collective naval gazing rather than studying scripture together. The focus of the conversation is how the participants feel about Scripture rather than the content of Scripture itself. However, the gap between discussing Scripture and discussing our feelings about Scripture is wide. In my experience, women’s Bible studies frequently fail to bridge that gap. 

I confess, I’ve been arrogant and dismissive toward a lot of Bible study groups that I’ve been a part of because of the emphasis on feelings. A more loving response would have been to try to draw the participants into a conversation about what the Scripture actually says. Instead, I sat in a silent tiffy and didn’t show up the next week. 

However, recently I’ve been learning the role that examining our feelings toward a passage can actually have when we’re studying the Bible. While it is not the whole of Bible study, it can have a small role. When I read the command to do everything without grumbling or dissent, I get a little annoyed. I like to grumble. It makes me feel better than other people. 

My annoyance reveals sin in my heart. Pressing into and examining that emotion helps me to face my sin so that I may repent of it. What about this annoys me? What potential effects of this command on my life am I recoiling from? For me, its that in order to not complain, I have to find constructive ways to communicate about problems. In other words, I can’t leave in a self-righteous tiff. 

In acknowledging what we feel, we give room for the scriptures to teach us. Emotions do have a role in studying the Scriptures, but it’s not always a pleasant process. And while I am not fond of admitting my sin to people, the times when I’ve opened up about my less than pretty emotional responses to Scripture have been good for my soul. 

However, we need to be able pair this emotional intelligence with a deepening understanding of scripture. As I keep reading the passage in Philippians, I see Paul talking about some really negative, difficult things: someone he loves almost dying, a church that he’s worried about, his own sorrows and hardships. He’s not complaining about them. But he’s also not ignoring them. Through this, I learn that “not complaining” doesn’t mean “never communicate things that are hard or wrong”. It means trust the Lord, deeply and fully, so that when you’re talking about difficult things, you do it in a way that reveals more about your faith in the Lord than the difficulty of your circumstance.

If you’ve been in church long, you’ve probably been around someone who does this in a way that seems like they are putting on a face. Or maybe you’ve been the person glossing over hardships with a veneer of faith in the Lord, never letting people see how much you’re really struggling. I have too. When I read Philippians 2:14, Paul challenges me toward a genuine rootedness in the Lord so that my faith in Him is seen in the struggle. 

The only way I can cultivate that trust in the Lord is to know him through his Word. And the only way I can cultivate that emotional intelligence that true vulnerability takes is to examine my emotions before the Lord. 

I Wrote a Lesson for Myself

Most of the time what we teach others is actually what we need to learn ourselves. I wrote a post right before Thanksgiving about slowing down and finding silence in order to focus on God’s word. I was feeling the rush of travel preparations and wrote a post as a meditation on finding God in the silence in the midst of our noisy world. I thought it was a good thought, but not ready to publish, so I published something else that week. I never could have guessed how much I would need to read it just a few weeks later.

From four weeks ago:

For an introvert, I don’t handle quiet well. When the podcasts turn off and my newsfeed darkens, the quiet inside my head grows deafening. As a stay at home mom lacking adult conversation for 40 hours a week, it can be tempting to use the crutch of a good podcast, or social media to feel connected to something outside of myself. But these paper thin props only gloss over the deep-seated need for connection.

I can only hear the need in the deafening silence.

But in the same silence, I can also hear my own anxiety. I still feel the anxiety in the middle of the noise, but it chokes me. In the quiet, I can offer it up to God as too big for me to hold. Then I can breath in the air of trust, knowing God is good and he is for me. I have trouble knowing this truth in the middle of the noise.

In the silence, I can focus. I can follow a train of thought and see where it goes. These rambling thoughts frequently lead to prayers I didn’t know needed to be prayed, or ideas better than anything on my to-do list.

In the quiet, when my thoughts aren’t bombarded with information, I am more myself and more in conversation with God.

This morning while my son napped, instead of hunting down a distraction, which is always tempting, I sat with a few pages of scripture, double spaced, 12 point font, lots of white space on the page for marking and arrow drawing. Armed with colored pens and coffee, I read and re-read. Then I re-read some more. I familiarized myself with the warp and weft of the chapter, its rhythms and patterns.

Peace settled into my soul along with the words on the page. The goodness of God was found in the stillness, in the focused train of thought dwelling on his Word. With the laptop in another room and the cellphone who knows where, I was able to train my mind on the the word of God. In that, I saw the goodness of God for this moment and this day, which would surge at me in the form of a toddler waking ravenous.

We’ll walk to the grocery store. He’ll eat from his stroller tray, drawing adoring looks from passersby. Then we’ll check items off a list and rush home for his afternoon nap. The next ten days will be a whirlwind of travel and friends and family. Silence will be taken over by plane engines and airport announcements and the greeting of old friends, long unseen. Squeals over little blue eyes and walking feet. GPS directions and car horns. Meals cooking, dominoes clinking and cousins playing.

Quietness of soul can be found again even in the midst of a happy holiday by resting in the God’s word. It’s warp and weft, it’s depths to plumb. The felt goodness of God in greetings and meals is anchored in his communicated goodness in Scripture. If only we can quiet our souls to hear.

Now after Thanksgiving, I need to pursue silence even more. But the pull toward noise to deafen my thoughts is even stronger.

The plan was to travel to see friends and family. We did, but the visit was not what we had hoped. Instead, my grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My spry, healthy, active Granny.

She died two weeks later.

I never knew cancer could be so sudden. This was not a slow fade to death. She was healthy with some unexplained itching. Then suddenly, she was gone.

If you’re wondering why I didn’t post last week, now you know. Words were hard.

Pursuing silence is harder now. Not the least because our household is sick with a seasonal yuckiness that makes toddlers miserable and toddler’s parents exhausted. And of course, clogged drains needs clearing, and another holiday needs preparing for. Life keeps going in the midst of grief.

Grief makes me want to run from stillness.

In the quiet, I cry for a grief too big for me to hold.

Yet in the same silence, I behold God big enough to hold my grief.

More than at most times, I need to make space to see that God is good, and he is for me. It is where I can know he holds grief. He holds anger at cancer. He holds a whole family under the weather in a week of grief.

He holds the gentle memory of my son playing peekaboo with his great-grandmother and the grief which now colors it. He holds the knowledge that my little boy won’t remember his great-grandmother delighting in him through the pain of her fatal diagnosis.

In meditating on God through his word, I get to know his peace even in the silence.

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What I Learned about Being a Proverbs 31 Woman

I went to a small, private Christian college for a year and lived in the dorm because they made me, so I heard one phrase like a broken record: “I want to be a Proverbs 31 wife”. Usually this statement was followed with some details about staying home and raising a bunch of kids and not working because it’s better for the family, and how could any mom who loves her children send them to the hell-hole that is daycare!

The young woman sharing these thoughts with me didn’t always (usually) have a boyfriend. I thought, “That seems cool, but my mom’s a programmer and as far as I know, my brother and I aren’t ax murderers.”

Being 19 and unable to handle conflict, I wouldn’t say anything. Also the fact that I never really read Proverbs 31 didn’t help in the stating an alternate opinion department. I knew I couldn’t live up to it, so it was too much of a guilt trip to read, so I avoided it. Again with not being able to handle conflict.

New Clarity

It wasn’t until I learned in a literature class (at one of those godless state universities) about the idea of a type character that I was able to read Proverbs 31, or anything else in Proverbs, without the crushing weight of guilt.

Once I had the idea of a literary type in my head, it was so obvious that Proverbs 31 is not describing any single woman, or what any single woman should be, but a type of woman: hardworking, kind, capable, honorable, loving, peaceful. No woman will ever live up to the full description. And we don’t have to. She’s an idealized example.

If I don’t “let my lamp go out at night”, i.e. stay up late working, and also “wake up while it is yet night”, I will not “have the teaching of kindness on my lips”. No amount of coffee could fix the crankiness that would emanate from me.

So with that freedom in mind, let’s take a look at a few verses in Proverbs 31.

“She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.” (v 13)

“She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar.” (v 14)

“She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” (v 16)

“She perceives that her merchandise is profitable” (v 18)

“She puts her hands to the distaff and her hands hold the spindle” (v 19)

“She makes linen garments and sell them; she delivers sashes to the merchant.” (v 24)

Work to do

This woman works, y’all. She’s making stuff and selling it. She’s buying real estate and using it to produce for her family. She knows that her merchandise is worth money. She’s got a diversified portfolio. And she’s not discounting the value of her work. Instead she’s selling it for a profit.

Now some of these verses are arguably about the work she does directly for the household, but she’s clearly making things for sale as well.

“Yes but all of these things can be done at home. She’s not going to an office for 8 or 9 hours a day.”

Let’s have a little history lesson.

A Unfamiliar Pattern of Work

The economy of the Ancient Near East (or Western Asia, if we’re not being Eurocentric) was different than today’s. People didn’t clock in at jobs and receive a salary for being a warm body that looked busy. That particular annoyance came with the Industrial Revolution.

Instead, people produced something of worth, then sold it. Or they transported things for someone who made something. Or produced food for their own family from the land. There were other types of work, but that was the bulk.

The woman described in Proverbs 31 was engaged in the economy of the time. She was earning by producing goods and managing her assets well.

Was she still the primary caregiver for her children? Maybe. We can’t tell from the passage. But we do know she was fully engaged in the economy.

Principles to Apply

By understanding the idea of a type character, and by thinking about the verses in the context in which they were written, we can understand the principles Proverbs is getting at and apply them to our lives and our context.

A Proverbs 31 woman works hard, manages large and small assets for the benefit of her family, engages in the economy, and knows that the work she does has value.

You can live out these principles whether you are a stay at home mom, a CEO, or a teacher. Whatever your day in and day out employment, you can do work that economically benefits your family.

In our context, this may mean a 9-5 job, which brings it own challenges when raising a family. But Proverbs 31 — far from restricting women in employment choices — gives you some of the guiding principles you need to make a decision regarding the work you do.