Is It 'Enough Just to Have the Scriptures'?
Don't We Also Need Wisdom and Understanding?
Recently an old friend of mine told me about an elderly spinster. Her claim is, “I Don't Care Much About These Preachers – As Long As I Can Sit Down and Read the Scriptures, I Understand As Much As I Need To!”
Initially, this sounds really great – after all, are there not an army of false ministers out there, and is not all of Protestantism based on “Sola Scriptura” (Scripture Alone)? Yet the following article must highlight certain inherent dangers in this approach, and these are dangers which we should at least be aware of.
As my article, Crisis in the Local Church, points out (link at the end of this article), the local church is currently going through a terrible crisis. There are ministers out there who – even after spending 25 years or so in Christian ministry – are questioning whether the current local church congregation system can continue as it has done in the past for much longer. That is another subject which I am not going to get into here (since I do it elsewhere), but one of the results of this worldwide crisis in Christian ministry (caused, in part, by the mushrooming of false and money-motivated “preachers”), is the new phenomenon of so-called “unchurched Christians” (although I think that the term 'unaffiliated Christians' is far better). There are thousands of truly committed believers out there who no longer go to church, or perhaps only go just a few times every year (but avoid local church membership). Many of these people now confine themselves to simple 'in-home' family Bible studies with family, or just a few friends. To be frank, I am sympathetic to these people, many of whom have been 'burnt' too many times by unbiblical or worldly pastors, or been hurt too many times by “fellow Christians” in large congregations.
I am not sure whether the elderly spinster mentioned to me by my friend is truly part of this movement or not, but I have many times heard people make such comments. They will say things like, 'As long as I have my Bible, that's all I need.' But, I have to say that the cults and sects are full of people who say things just like that! They tend to be full of people who have rejected, or who are disinterested in, doctrinal Christianity, they just love their Bibles. Truth is: Some of these people are very easily manipulated by false preachers, or by the cults and sects, and when that happens they find that they lack sufficient knowledge to tell truth from error because they are doctrinally untutored. Oh yes, they truly love their Bibles but they lack a strong foundation. The writer of Hebrews is critical of those who are not prepared to move forward in biblical understanding (Hebrews 5:11-6:3) as is the apostle Peter (2 Peter 3:18). To have a very private and insular approach to the Scriptures would appear to be at variance with the instruction to 'prove all things!' (1 Thess., 5:21). I am afraid that sheer experience should teach us that people like that sincere spinster are often incorrect when they say, 'As long as I have my Bible...'
A very good illustration of this can be found in Acts 8:26-35,
'Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him...” (Acts 8:26-31, NIV).
Well, I think that we know the rest. The Ethiopian had been reading Isaiah 53 which, as we know, is a clear prophecy of Christ, and Philip was able to explain and went on to tell him “the good news about Jesus.” (verse 35), and the man was subsequently baptized (verse 38).
But let us notice a few things here:
The Ethiopian did not feel that, 'as long as I have my Bible, it is enough.'
The Holy Spirit opened the Ethiopian's eyes through 'a teacher.'
The man held an important position under Queen Candace and was obviously intelligent, being able to understand Hebrew. He could certainly read and appreciate Scripture – but this was not enough. As the man himself said, “How can I (understand) unless someone explains to me?” That comment showed great humility and God will always work with people of humility. To be frank, I sometimes sense a little pride in people who insist that they do not need instruction on Holy Scripture feeling that, 'as long as I have my Bible, that's all I need.'
My friend decided to have a chat with the elderly spinster to see if she really knew the Scriptures. She could certainly cite some Scriptures accurately and state exactly where they could be found without even looking them up, but he soon became alarmed when noticing that the lady appeared to spend rather a lot of time in, and have a lot of particular interest in, the Old Testament, rather than the New. He patiently explained to her that – while the Old Testament is indeed important – it primarly represents the Old Covenant and that today Christians stand under the New Covenant. He attempted to show her that divine revelation is progressive, but he noticed that she was unhappy with this and she was also a bit suspicious about Paul the Apostle (“after all, he had persecuted the Church, you know!”). To cut a long story short, my friend concluded that since this sincere lady did not fully appreciate the differences between the Old and New Covenants and tended to actually have a preference for the Old Testament, she could be in serious danger of being enticed and subsequently manipulated by one of the cults. Yes, she knew Jesus but she had read a lot without any instruction, something which the Ethiopian knew was necessary. Truth is, that Ethiopian eunuch had too much wisdom and humility to say, 'As long as I have my Bible, thats all I need.'
In this age of countless false ministers, and numerous “ministries” which appear to have huge financial incomes (but which never stop asking for more money!) it is completely understandable that so many are wary about committing themselves to specific places of “Christian instruction” at all, but we should at least recognise that there are some dangers in this. After all, on divine authority, the apostles placed pastors, teachers, evangelists and deacons in the first century congregations. It is an entirely biblical principle that 'the flock needs to be fed, instructed and assisted.' Today, because of the presence of countless thousands of 'Christian ministers' all of whom claim to speak in Jesus' Name (even while frequently disagreeing with one another), we no longer have that same spiritual clarity which was present in the apostolic age (one might go further and suggest that the evidence is strong that the formerly Christianized world has now entered a post-evangelistic age). But the point is that none of us can now write a letter to the apostle Paul to ask him which is the most biblical church in our town! What we have is the completed Bible and we must evaluate things from that. We have to be like the Bereans who carefully examined the Scriptures to assess the teachings of those claiming to represent God (Acts 17:11). Yet - all too often - when we do evaluate in such a way, many of our towns and cities do not appear to have any congregation which would meet apostolic approval! Of course, we cannot and should not expect perfection but we must heed New Testament instructions to keep free from heresy. So - perhaps more than ever before - we should be praying,
“Father, guide us into your precious truth and always protect us from all error, especially spiritual error, because your enemies are all around and include many who claim to be your friends but are at work in making merchandise out of a distorted version of Your gospel! PLEASE LORD – keep us all on the straight and true path – that path which alone leads to Your kingdom!”
Robin A. Brace, 2006.
The Crisis in the Local Church