Last week as I checked my email I noticed that I had been tagged in a post by one of my parishioners. The caption of the tag was: “Mike Galdamez, what do you think?” The blog post in question was by pastor Perry Noble of New Spring Church and was titled, “The Bible Isn’t Important” (at http://www.perrynoble.com posted 12/30/2014). Well, if that title does not grab the attention of a conservative evangelical pastor/theologian I’m not sure what will.
Since this Christian brother was asking me, his pastor, a question about this blog post, I felt obligated to provide a reasoned response. This is not an arbitrary issue to this brother, since he has family and friends who attend Noble’s church. I appreciate his desire to know biblically and theologically what he should think of this pastor’s comments. I am also affected by Noble’s ministry since I minister in the same area of the world and I too know several of his parishioners. With all of this as context, I will now proceed to provide some theological thoughts on his post.
First off, Noble’s post is an exposition of his ninth conviction in his previous blog, “Ten Convictions I Have About the Church.” This conviction is as follows: “9 – Community is more important than reading the Bible. (The early church didn’t have the Bible for the first 300 years of Christianity… but they did have one another.)” Now this provocative and “edgy” wording seems to be Noble’s attempt to relate to and communicate with a younger postmodern audience. This title, “The Bible Isn’t Important,” seems simply to be a ploy to get people’s attention, since he states in the post that he does in fact “love God’s Word.” Allow me to make a quick sidenote before I get on to the keynote of the article: As a pastor I think that Noble should be more interested in being clear and precise with his words rather than trying to be provocative. I will say no more about this issue, but will now move on to the heart of Noble’s post.
Here is the key thought Noble appeares to make as I understand it: The Christian community is vitally important to the people of God. With this I can heartily agree. I preach this regularly to my own flock, exhorting them to be actively involved in one another’s lives. That said, I do have some deep concerns with how he stated his conviction about community. They are as follows:
(1) Noble sets up an unbiblical competition between involvement in Christian fellowship and involvement in Bible reading. This presents a false dichotomy. For example he writes,
“However, even though I love God’s Word and have a passion to teach it in a way that makes it as real and as understandable as possible, I still say that community is more important than reading the Bible in a person’s life – especially if they are a new believer.”
My initial question is simply this, “Why does a pastor feel it necessary to place Christian community over against reading God’s Word?” Does he want his people to read the Bible less and get together with each other more? But here is another question, “What is the Christian community without the Word of God shaping that community?” Without the Christian Scriptures the community is no longer a “Christian” community. For example, the early Church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). That is, God’s community gathered for the express purpose to hear and receive the teaching of the apostles who were giving God’s people God’s revelation. During the book of Acts, the people of God had the Old Testament as their Scriptures along with the developing New Testament canon. I will come back to this thought in a moment, but let me move on to a second concern.
(2) Noble appears to misrepresent what the early church was like in order to make his point. He states,
“The early church did not have the Bible for the first 300 years. Sure, they had scrolls in places where they could go and hear it read out loud… but also remember that much of the ancient world could not read. It wasn’t like the early church all got out of bed in the morning, made some coffee and opened their study Bible for a quiet time.”
Yes, Noble is correct that the early church did not have the Bible (consisting of 66 books) sitting in their homes. He is also correct to say that much of the ancient world could not read. But, here is the problem. Noble makes it sound like believers depended solely on the community and not on the Bible. This is simply not true. The church has always been built upon the Scriptures! The early church gathered so regularly for the express purpose of hearing and memorizing God’s Word (Acts 17:11; 1 Tim. 4:13). Noble makes it sound like early believers did not have a “quiet time,” but in fact they did have their quiet time because they were steeped in the Word of God. In fact the early Jewish Christians would have been so steeped in the Word of God that many had significant portions memorized. Just think of how much Scripture a Jewish girl named Mary knew in order to articulate something as biblically profound as the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Some biblical scholars highlight that she either quotes or alludes to passages found in Genesis, Deuteronomy, 1 and 2 Samuel, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah. The reason why a young peasant girl was able to compose such a richly biblical hymn of praise was because she had been saturated in the Scriptures from her infancy through hearing and memorizing it in her home and synagogue (Ps. 119:11). So even though Mary and other believers in the early church were not necessarily having morning devotions out of their own copy of the Old & New Testaments, they did have their minds so filled with memorized Scripture that they were able to meditate on it day and night (Ps. 1:1-3). The Apostle Paul’s young protege, Timothy, also had his mind filled with Scripture (“the sacred writings”) from his infancy as Paul mentions in 2 Timothy 3:14-15. So again, for Noble to say that the early Christians did not have Bibles and thus did not have “quiet times” is a misrepresentation of life in the early church. It does not matter that the early church did not “read” their own copies of the Bible; they did “hear” the Bible publicly read on a daily basis and also had such vast amounts memorized that they “meditated” upon it in their morning and evening devotions. If Noble wants to replace his parishioners’ personal Bible reading with the community, then he should advocate that the community of faith gather together each day to publicly read the Bible so that they can be bathed in the hearing of it and then memorize it so that while they are apart they will be able to rehearse it in their minds and mediate on the rich truths so that they will be “like a tree planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:2-3). Also, instead of downplaying Bible reading he ought to call his people to Bible saturation through individuals, families, and groups of believers immersing themselves continually in the Word.
(3) Noble mistakenly places community over Scripture as the foundation and builder of the church. But how does the building build itself? The church does not build itself; rather it is built by the Word of God. For Paul writes, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets…” (Eph 2:19-20a). Paul tells us here that God’s household is built on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets;” that is to say, the Christian community is built upon the inspired writings of the Old and New Testaments. Thus the church is built on the Word of God and not on the community of God. As Protestant Reformer John Calvin wrote, “Paul testifies that the church is ‘built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles’ (Eph. 2:20). If the teaching of the prophets and apostles is the foundation, this must have had authority before the church began to exist” (Calvin, Institutes, 1.7.2). God builds his community through His Word. This brings me back to my previous insight that the Christian community is only “Christian” because it is built upon and built by the Christian Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (1 Tim 3:14-15).
(4) Noble appears to misrepresent what the Bible says by not reading the Bible in context and not understanding the Bible’s storyline. He writes,
“Jesus did not hand His disciples a Bible and tell them to do their best. He invited them to follow Him, to do life with Him, and nearly every time He tried to explain the Scriptures to them they all scratched their heads in confusion because they didn’t get it. BUT…those same men launched a revolution that has impacted the world because of the community they had with Jesus and one another.”
Here Noble makes it sound like Jesus was wasting his time trying to explain the scriptures to his disciples since they just “didn’t get it.” He goes on to say that what really changed the disciples was community (i.e., by spending time with Jesus and each other). But this is simply not the case. The real reason for the change in the disciples was the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). In fact, Jesus told them that He must leave them so that the Holy Spirit could come to them (John 16:7). And when the Spirit arrived He guided them into truth and led them to pen the New Testament (John 16:7-15). These men did not, as Noble states, “launch a revolution” because of the community. Instead, Scripture tells us they were changed by the finished work of Christ as He poured out the Holy Spirit so that they finally did “get it” (i.e., they understood the Scriptures). It was the Spirit of God bringing the Word of God that changed the disciples. Noble needs to be more careful not to misread the Bible through his misunderstanding of the difference between the disciples under the Old Covenant without the indwelling Spirit and the New Covenant with the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:1-18).
(5) Noble wrongly downplays the importance of reading the Bible in the sanctification and perseverance of the believer. He writes,
“They [Christian friends] were, hands down, the biggest factor in why I did not walk away from Christ.”
Now wait! What about the ministry of the Holy Spirit who seals, grows, and keeps believers (i.e., the perseverance of the saints)? I don’t disagree that God uses other believers in our lives to keep us persevering and growing in Christ. However, He also uses supremely his Word. But in all of this, it is God’s power that keeps us as believers. Or again Noble states, “I’ve seen people dive back into destructive habits and relationships NOT because they could not find their Bible, but because they had no one in their lives who seemed to care.” Noble’s sarcasm in saying people could “NOT find their Bible” is his way of emphasizing his central point: The community is more important than being in the Word. The real problem is not that people can’t find their Bibles, it is because they choose to keep their Bibles closed and continue to live in their sin. The thing believers need more than anything else is to keep themselves in the Word (Ps. 119:11). It is the reading of, mediating on, and preaching of the Word of God that grows and keeps believers (John 17:17; Eph 5:26). Noble says that he has seen people walk away from Christ because they didn’t have the support of Christians, however I can say as a pastor I have watched people walk away who have had plenty of Christians in their lives, yet they desired their sin more than the Word. If these people would have chosen to put themselves under the authority of God’s Word they would not have walked away. But of course the main reason people walk away from God (which Noble does not mention) is that they were never truly born again through the living and abiding Word of God (1 John 2:19; 1 Peter 1:23).
(6) One final point, Noble seems to be arguing with a straw man (i.e., a man of his own making so that he can easily push him over). He mentions several times the problem with the church simply handing out Bibles without any life-on-life discipleship. For example, he uses his daughter to illustrate his point when he states, “If I would have taken her out to the middle of a field and set her down with a steak and said to her, ‘Here is a steak, it is food, eat it and you will live’ and then walked away I would have been arrested and been called cruel… yet in the church we call that very same thing (in many cases) ‘discipleship.'” Now, there are a number of problems with this statement. First off, who is advocating giving “steak” to a new born in Christ? I do not know of the “many cases” Noble is speaking of. The Bible tells us to give newborns in Christ the milk of the Word and then see them progress to meat (1 Peter 2:2; 1 Cor 3:2; Heb 5:12). The biblical model is to bring the Word into the new believer’s life first as milk and then as meat. The infant Christian grows by receiving the Word as food (Matt 4:4). As I stated above, Noble seems to set up a false dichotomy between community and Word. He sets himself up as the wise pastor calling for community while the “straw man” is the believer who advocates throwing Bibles at new believers. This type of dichotomy is not helpful. The community of faith only has power because of the power of God’s Word. The community of God is nothing without the Word of God. If I enter into relationships empty-handed, without the Word of God, then I have nothing to contribute to that relationship and there is no hope for Christian community. So which is the priority, the Word of God or the community of God? If Noble is going to make me choose, I will say that the Word must have priority because it brings the community of God into existence and nurtures that community to maturity (2 Tim 3:17-17; Rom 15:4; Psalm 19:7-11; 1 Peter 2:2). For it was by God’s Word that creation came into existence (Gen 1:3) and it is by His Word that a new creation takes place in the lives of believers (2 Cor 4:6). But instead Noble states, “But I still stand behind community being the most important aspect in the life of someone who wants to be a fully devoted follower of Jesus.”
In the end, I believe I know what Perry Noble is trying to do – he wants to show how important the Christian community is to the individual Christian. However, his blog is so incoherent and unsupported with Scripture that it could easily misguide some of Christ’s little sheep. Some might come away with the thought, “Well, maybe the Bible is not as important to my life as I was once told.” Why would any pastor risk putting any such thought in the minds of his sheep? Any man who calls himself a “pastor” (i.e., shepherd) must be above reproach and careful not to mislead any sheep (Mark 9:42-50). A blog that appears so misguided makes one wonder how Noble is leading so many of God’s sheep. A shepherd, a keeper of souls, must devote himself to the “sacred writings” so that he can see the community of faith grow up into Christ. For Paul’s advice to pastor Timothy is the same advice he gives to all pastors: “…devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. … Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:13, 16).
“I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word” (Psalm 119:15-16).