In the past month, I learned that two more Christian leaders whom I know have either tarnished or destroyed their ministries. Neither was a friend, in the full sense, yet I’ve been friendly with both men and respected their talents and the fruit of their labors.
Once again, I wonder: How could a man who studied and knew Scripture and taught it faithfully to others, brazenly violate its most basic principle of love and self-control? Even as I ask the question, I know I’m liable to self-destructive sin too. Everyone needs Paul’s admonition: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). Self-aware leaders know that we can violate principles we thought we knew.
But how can we repent quickly and keep from hardening ourselves to God’s voice as he calls us back to himself?
Leaders stumble for many reasons, and while I could argue that a zealous seminarian has little in common with a vain or depressed middle-aged leader, there is at least one common thread: My peers and my students can both stop reading the Bible as we should.
Technical and Devotional
A new Christian’s Scripture reading tends to be naïve and devotional. New disciples devour Scripture, underlining word after word in their new Bibles. We often feel that God is speaking directly to us in every word.
After a few years, a budding leader’s reading becomes sophisticated and devotional. We still feel that God speaks to us in the text, but as we learn basic principles of interpretation, we increasingly give our attention to Scripture’s literary, cultural, and historical contexts. We own and use Bible dictionaries and commentaries. We know the translation strategies of competing Bible versions and begin to use that knowledge to get at the original text.
Most future church leaders go to seminary, where we become technical readers. We read Greek and Hebrew and consult scholarly sources. We respect the distance between our world and that of Scripture. Zeal to describe biblical history and theology grows. As we pursue what the word originally meant, we are tempted to neglect what it means today, to us.
When students become interns at a local church they remember that study should edify the church. We continue to read technically, but now we share our findings with others. We become technical-functional readers. Our reading may still be detached, personally speaking, but we store and organize our discoveries so we can offer them to others. While this phase may help us rediscover the proper use of Scripture, we may still be professional readers. We can present God’s truth to others, while blocking his word to us.
Student and pastors need, therefore, to become technical, devotional readers. Here every exegetical skill remains, yet we also read like children, letting the word speak to our hearts again. We can find what Paul Ricoeur called a “second naiveté.” We are both technically astute and spiritually receptive. Our study lets us to explain and apply God’s Word to the church and to ourselves. Then we hear God’s Word, so it does its work in us once again, so we purify our hearts, cleanse our hands, and walk in the ways of the Lord.