Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Too Many Opinions

Over the years I have heard the comment that small group Bible studies were events where each member of the group “shared his ignorance” with the other members. This has gotten a defensive reaction from me because I did not think it was true. That is why I thought I was defensive. Probably the real reason I was defensive was because it was true, or true enough, to warrant a reaction.

The person who attacks small group studies as “sharing ignorance” is a person who wants a teacher. However we have a problem with this. Teachers also have been known to “share ignorance” or false teaching with students. Having a teacher is no guarantee of getting true Bible teaching.

In Acts 17:11, Luke speaks of the people at Berea as having “a more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.” The people were commended because they did not receive the teaching from the teacher as absolute. They examined the Scriptures for their final authority.

When people in a small group share ignorance with each other, it is because they are sharing opinions, many of which previously came from a teacher. The small group is not to share opinions but to examine the Scriptures. When we learn how to examine the Scriptures, we will be able to judge the teaching of teachers and the opinions of people.

Perhaps your group has this problem. When there are many opinions, there is always a lively discussion. Sometimes there are several discussions going on at once, in which case it is probably too lively!

You may not think this is a problem, for participation is good and is sometimes difficult to get. But participation is only a means to the end. The ultimate object of group Bible study discussion is to:

1. Learn the content of the chapter.
2. Make personal application of the content.
3. Motivate people to read the Bible daily.

An opinion discussion does not necessarily accomplish any of these three objectives—in some cases it may make it all but impossible to realize these goals.

A personal opinion is based upon a personal experience, a previous prejudice, an arbitrary opinion or guess, or a previous doctrinal position. Strictly speaking these are not valid means of Bible study, nor are they legitimate in the discussion.

Opinions are generally encouraged by a leader who wants to get the silence broken. He starts out by saying, “What do you think verse one means?” It works! In a matter of seconds a discussion is going, with everybody giving his opinion on the meaning of verse one. However we do not want everyone’s opinion on verse one. In fact we do not want anyone’s opinion.

How are we going to have a discussion without individual opinions? First, we can limit the number of opinions by refusing to ask the participants what they think verse one means. Second, we can ask questions which do not allow for differences of opinion, such as, “What does verse one say?” Someone may answer by simply reading verse one over again. This is not bad; it can be the beginning of content study.

Questions can be more specific: “What is the subject of the first sentence?” “List the people mentioned in the chapter.” “What does the chapter teach about obedience?” “Are there any imperatives in the chapter?” These and many other “what” questions will keep everyone’s eyes on the text, searching the Scripture.

The discussion will not be so excited: egos will not be involved. People will find out what the chapter says.

To ask for the meaning is to ask for an interpretation. Unless the grammar is unclear or definitions are not understood, an interpretation is not valid. If grammar and definitions are understood, then we can read a sentence and understand what it means, for it means what it says.

If you speak French and I speak English, we will need an interpreter in order to converse. We would authorize the interpreter only to translate French grammar into English grammar and French words into English words having the same definition. He would not be allowed to throw in his own opinions or his own ideas of what you really wanted to say. That would not be honest.

If you and I both speak English, we do not need an interpreter. If a mutual friend decides we do need one and volunteers, he can only twist and inhibit the conversation. Each time I complete a sentence, he would say, “Joe, Jim means this…” With your reply, he would say, “Jim, Joe means this…” After three sentences, we would both ask him to leave the room.

We have a similar situation in Bible study. We have English Bible s and we understand English. If we do not understand what it says because the grammar is unclear, we can read form an English version which brings the grammar up to date. If the definition of a word is not clear, we can use another English translation or look up the word in a dictionary. Once we understand what it says, we need no further interpretation.

We can illustrate the point further. If I said to you, “Joe, go jump over the Missouri River,” you might have several reactions:

1. I understand what he said, and apparently, he isn’t kidding. If he were kidding, he would probably say, “Jump in,” not “Jump over.” (That is your prerogative; you neither have to believe nor obey, but you do understand.)

2. I understand what he said, but he is not over me in authority, so I do not have to jump over the Missouri. (This is also an honest, consistent answer.)

3. I understand what he said. Since I believe he is over me in authority, and since I do not know how to jump over the Missouri River, I will take jumping lessons and learn how!

4. I understand Jim to say, “Joe, go jump over the Missouri River.” But since I do not know how, he could not possibly mean, “Jump over the Missouri.” He must mean, “Jump off the front porch.” (This last is not honest. It is adding interpretation to a sentence which is already understood, and it definitely changes the meaning. It interprets according to the previous experience of the individual, conforming the originator’s sentence to the capability of the individual.)

It may be the originator will not be believed or obeyed. But nevertheless, the hearer should conform his understanding to the originator’s words. If I do not mean what I say, there is no possible way of knowing what I do mean. Your ability or inability to carry out my command has no bearing on what I mean.


(To Be Continued...)

1 comment:

Tim said...

Mr. Wilson, thank you for this post. It is often true that Bible studies are nothing more than opinion airing contests. Such is the case with the one I am currently in, and I am often at fault. My lack of the knowledge of scripture after having been a Christian for 20 years apalling. I have just sent an email to my Bible study group, to set up a time to do a study in which all we do is read through large portions of scripture.