“Are you an evangelical Christian?” a woman asked me recently. “It depends on what you mean by ‘evangelical,’” I replied. (Being “evangelical” has to do with the meaning and purpose of the Bible’s good news in my life, actually.)
I was formed in a Christian tradition that declared its reason for being in the good news of the gospel, grounded in holy scripture, church tradition and confessed in the ecumenical creeds. I’m aware that many who claim to be evangelical Christians would not describe themselves in that way.
Being an evangelical Christian means that I take the Bible and its message seriously, but not literally. It means I consider Bible-centredness to be fundamental to the life and crucial to the vitality of local congregations. It provides the basis for Christian proclamation through word and deed.
That’s the reason why I have been involved in facilitating the study of the holy scriptures in my local congregation for the past 15 years. It is also why I would encourage all Christians to be doing the same.
For many months of the year, I share the scriptures weekly with 10 or 12 others. During the past decade and a half, we have studied most of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments. I have never experienced so extensive and meaningful an engagement with the Bible as I’m having right now.
Over the years, I have learned some things about Bible study groups and want to share some of those discoveries with you.
Mature Bible study is crucial to the life of a congregation. Many people think that they are not experienced enough to engage in this and tend to shy away from such groups. Some may feel there are higher priorities for involvement in a local church. While I accept that different folk have different needs and preferences, I also believe that the existence of a local group devoted to serious study of the scriptures helps to keep an entire congregation focused on the essentials. Worship, fellowship and a commitment to social justice can function alongside a study of the sourcebook undergirding everything we do as a faithful community.
Activity and choice are what often defines a “successful” congregation in the minds of many North American Christians. I concur that what we do and the options we offer are certainly important, but these are secular, not spiritual, values.
Many have told me that they need to be “doing” the gospel. So they are engaged in many wonderful acts of charity and social justice. My response to such people is “Blessings upon your efforts.” The gospel has a strong “doing” incentive. But it also has a strong “being” element. Healthy Christians and their communities are both hearers and doers of the word (James 1:22–24 TEV). Struggling with the meaning of the Bible through study is at the core of what is essential to who we are.
A solid grounding in the scriptures protects us from dangerous beliefs and behaviours. Such perils have plagued the church from its beginnings. Many of the letters of the New Testament address problems related to being “carried away by every wind of doctrine” (Ephesians 4:14 RSV). We grow into Christian maturity by naming and learning to avoid the errors of the past.
Bible study supports my personal growth in the essentials of the faith. It defines me an “evangelical” Christian—centred on good news. How wonderful to share my life with other evangelical Christians, too!