For many years I loved Jesus, loved the Scriptures, affirmed the importance of community . . . and yet still basically approached my Christianity as a solo sport. Now, I never consciously thought, I love Jesus but not the church. It was more subtle, more like, I love Jesus but don’t really need the church. If my Christian life was a meal, the church was a side dish: a nice addition but entirely optional.
I wish someone had gently pointed me to the Bible I loved and showed me the breathtaking vision it casts for the Christian life—and how stunted mine was by comparison. (I’m sure people did, actually, but I was just too blind, or unwilling, to see it.)
Christianity is not a solo sport, thankfully. It is a community project, a team effort.
Wisdom Is Collective
None of us opens God’s Word in a vacuum. We are complex individuals who come to the Scriptures with suitcases of experiences and intuitions, beliefs and biases. There is no such thing as a “neutral” reading of any book—especially one that makes all-encompassing claims over our lives.
In addition, we are all wired differently. While some are inclined to read the Bible more academically, others are apt to read it more devotionally (these aren’t mutually exclusive, though; they should go together). In the world of sports, we sometimes hear of a particular athlete who is the “complete package.” She can do it all, people say. When it comes to understanding and applying Scripture, however, no one lives up to that description. It’s imperative, therefore, that we approach Scripture alongside others, in the context of a diverse community—otherwise our experiences will limit us, our preferences will govern us, and our biases will blind us.
Approach Scripture alongside others, in the context of a diverse community—otherwise our experiences will limit us, our preferences will govern us, and our biases will blind us.
It’s so easy to impose our pet agendas on God’s Word without realizing it. For example, I might read it only in light of some personal situation I have experienced or look for it to confirm my previously held positions. We desperately need other Christians—ideally those who are different from us—to function in our lives as both barrier-setters and barrier-removers, simultaneously keeping us from reading wrongly and freeing us to read wisely.
The earliest Christians didn’t waste any time before rallying together around God’s Word. Luke summarizes the rhythm of their lives: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). In today’s highly individualistic society, it’s so easy to try to devote yourself to the apostles’ teaching—that is, to Scripture—apart from any meaningful fellowship. Of course it’s very important to regularly read your Bible alone. But the early church set an example that is crucial for us to apply: fellowship with others anchored in God’s Word and prayer. In fact, this is precisely what Paul tells the Colossians:
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. (Col. 3:16)
It’s a bit unfortunate that our English Bibles don’t say “y’all,” since the word “you” in Scripture is pluralized the vast majority of the time. One typical example is this challenge to all those in the Colossian church to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,” which presumes the members aren’t a bunch of spiritual silos. They’re doing life together, as a body.
Did you know that even Peter—rock of the church and apostle of the risen Christ—gravely misunderstood his Bible and needed someone else to correct him (Gal. 2:11–21)? If Peter wasn’t above misreading God’s Word, we’re not either.
Or consider Apollos, whom Luke describes as “a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24). He knew and taught his Bible well. And yet even he needed two others, Priscilla and Aquila, who took him aside and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). Again, if Apollos wasn’t above misreading God’s Word, neither are we.
Pastors Are Gifts
While godly peers in your life are an important means of Christian growth, be sure to recognize your crucial need for godly pastors, as well. Spiritual leaders are gifts from God for your spiritual good (Eph. 4:11–14). God’s design for the church includes pastors and elders who are meant, among other things, to help you better understand and apply his Word. If you belong to a church where that’s not happening, find a new one. Thabiti Anyabwile puts it pointedly: “If you don’t need your Bible at church, then the Bible says you don’t need that church.”
Pastors are also charged by God to help protect you from all sorts of heresy, damaging doctrine, and any corruption to the pure gospel. Among the qualifications for an elder, Paul writes: “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9).
God’s design is for pastors and elders to help you better grasp and apply his Word. If you belong to a church where that’s not happening, find a new one.
So, friend, prioritize finding a healthy, Bible-saturated, gospel-centered church. And once you find it, join it. Commit. Submit your life to the oversight of its leaders and to the care and accountability of its members. God loves you deeply, and this is the pattern he set in motion with the early church to secure your spiritual health.
Text a Friend
Some of the richest, most profitable times of Bible reading in my life occurred while sitting across the table from my friend Dave. Every Thursday night in college, after our campus-ministry meeting, we would go to the local IHOP restaurant and study books of the Bible together. At this moment, I’m looking at an old Bible with notes and coffee stains from those times. We journeyed phrase by phrase through Genesis and Proverbs, Hebrews and John. (Song of Solomon would have been awkward.) Dave and I experienced the joy of discovery, savoring words that spoke to each of us individually and both of us together.
So here’s my challenge for you: no matter what your schedule is like or what stage of life you’re in, don’t let the first week of 2021 go by without inviting another believer to meet with you regularly to read God’s Word. That’s it—nothing fancy. I can promise you it’ll be a recurring feast. Just remember to lay off the cheese puffs.
This excerpt is adapted from Matt Smethurst’s book Before You Open Your Bible: Nine Heart Postures for Approaching God’s Word (10Publishing, 2019). Take part in TGC’s 2021 Read the Bible initiative.