One Sunday 15 years ago, several young families walked into the door of the church just before the start of the evening service. We rarely had visitors on Sunday evening, so their attendance was rather a surprise. After the service was over, I engaged one of the visitors, a young husband, in a bit of get-to-know-you banter. The man had little interest in chit-chat, immediately asking me several pointed theological questions. I did my best to answer the man’s questions, but I could tell that he didn’t approve of my answers.
Always the polite pastor, I told the disapproving man that I had a book that might prove helpful in answering his questions. The man curtly replied, I am not interested in reading a book. I just read the Bible and that is all I need. And with that, he said good night and his family walked out the door never to return.
Sadly, this kind of thinking is quite common in Evangelical churches, even among pastors. I know of one pastor who is proud of the fact that his study library consists of only a handful of books. In his mind, without any proper theological training, he is quite capable of properly interpreting the Bible. This pastor believes God, through the inner workings of the third part of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, teaches him everything he needs to know. In other words, he is an Evangelical version of the Pope. God speaks to him directly as he reads and studies the Bible. However, when church members profess the same, and those members’ interpretations of the Bible differ with his, why they are deemed to be wrong. If it is the Holy Spirit who teaches and guides Evangelicals, wouldn’t he be teaching each Christian the same thing? Yet, Evangelical churches are awash in competing theological beliefs, with each adherent believing that his interpretations is are right ones.
Years ago, I attended a preacher’s meeting (a gathering of pastors for fellowship and to hear preaching) in Lancaster, Ohio. One of the speakers, a rather obese man, even by fat man Bruce Gerencser standards, fashioned himself to be what he called a “Biblical” preacher. His sermon had no form or structure. He would read a verse, stop, and then say what God was “leading” him to say. As with the two previous illustrations, this preacher thought his personal interpretations of the Bible were the equivalent of God’s.
Many Evangelical pastors love to hide behind flowery theological sayings which are meant to convey the thought that their sermons are straight from God’s Office of Sermon Distribution. The truth is, their sermons are just their opinion of what the Bible says. That they refuse to read any others books but the Bible (and often read only one translation of the Bible) actually increases the likelihood that their interpretation is errant. These Bible-only people have, in effect, turned themselves into the final authorities on what God has said.
If I were still a Christian and looking for a church to attend, the first thing I would do is take a look at the pastor’s library. You can tell a lot about a man by the books he reads. If looking at a pastor’s library reveals a paucity of commentaries and language aids, you can be sure that man is not fit to teach others a religious text that is, by all accounts, a complex, difficult text to interpret and understand. Only in Evangelicalism is ignorance praised as a virtue. This thinking will, in the end, prove to be the death of Evangelicalism.