Theology 101

The Church’s Secret: Biblical Illiteracy in the 21st Century

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Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.
Psalm 119:105 (KJV)


Motivational speaker Charles “Tremendous” Jones once quipped,

You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.

If this is true, then for Christians at least, which book is the most important? Which book has the most transformative power?  Most of us would undoubtedly answer, “the Bible.”

Yet, how important is God’s word in your everyday life? How often does it affect your decision-making process? Maybe a more important question is, do you really know what it says and do you believe it?

The Bible in Everyday Life

While most evangelical Christians agree that the Bible is their guide for faith and practice, we have to wonder why so many of us are getting lost? If the Bible is the powerful, life-giving, life-transforming, mind-renewing source of God and his revelation, why are God’s people becoming more and more biblically illiterate?

A 2013 LifeWay Research study asked regular protestant church attenders how often they read the Bible outside of church. While 19 percent answered “every day,” 18 percent said rarely/never. A quarter indicate they read the Bible a few times a week, and the rest answered “occasionally.” Interestingly, 90 percent of this same group said, “I desire to please and honor Jesus in all that I do.”

The Apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians,

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.  Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is (Eph. 5:15-17).

The original Greek text says, “walk circumspectly.” Circumspectly here means accurately, living our lives purposefully, carefully, according to God’s Word.

Again, Paul speaks to this idea in his letter to Timothy:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the faith and correcting error, for re-setting the direction of a man’s life and training him in good living. The scriptures are the comprehensive equipment of the man of God and fit him fully for all branches of his work (2 Tim. 3:16-17, J.B. Phillips New Testament).

Yet, this is where the struggle for many believers begins. More often than not, the world, our feelings, and/or our emotions direct us one way and God’s word another. What our culture deems acceptable and what God says is acceptable often conflict. So why would we abandon the most important tool God has given us to understand how to live out our lives?

While the answer to this question is complicated, let’s look at two important, connected factors: a significant increase in biblical illiteracy and a loss of biblical authority.

Biblical Illiteracy and Biblical Authority

While there are many surveys like the one mentioned earlier that demonstrate that, as a church, we are reading the Bible less, the bigger problem is that we do not see the broader context of what we are reading. We read one story here, a passage somewhere else, without understanding how all the different stories fit together into a unified whole.

It’s not just that we don’t know our Bible but that we have so fragmented, dissected, and compartmentalized the Bible that we have lost sight of its great overarching story. As a result, bits and pieces of the Bible are absorbed into the prevailing cultural story, which then supplants the authority of the Bible in shaping our lives.

Only the unified biblical narrative has the authority to help us withstand the countervailing humanist narrative currently shaping our culture. As Dr. Michael Goheen writes:

A fragmented Bible, then, can lead to a church that is unfaithful, syncretistically accommodated to the idolatry of its cultural story. Or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, a church without a comprehensive story to withstand the power of the cultural story will be ‘conformed to the world’ (Rom. 12:1-2).

This is exactly the trend we see in our churches today.

A unified approach to reading the Bible is essential if it is to have a positive impact on our lives. We don’t want to be the same people five years from now as a result of a disjointed read. Our goal is to be transformed.

God gave us his revealed word so that we might live and work in this world based on his design and desire in a way that glorifies him, serves the common good, and furthers his kingdom.

We need to use it…

Editor’s note: Check out one of IFWE’s small booklets All Things New: Rediscovering the Four-Chapter Gospel, which specifically addresses the concerns raised by this blog.  

Help reach more people with important biblical content like this blog! Donate to IFWE today. 

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  • Bruce Ross

    The evangelical church today needs to do a better job of training and supporting believers in this area. Not only in systematic Bible Study, but in the area of apologetics and sharing the Gospel with neighbors, co-workers and family members. Thanks for the article!

  • John Joseph Volk

    I may be wrong, but I see the division in the church and biblical illiteracy due to the lack of a standard English Bible. With the criticism against the King James Bible believers are confused by the plethora of versions and have just given up because of version exhaustion. The church did not have this problem with everyone standardized on the KJV for over 400 years. Just like liberals tampering with the public school system and graduating functionally illiterate students so the church is producing biblically illiterate saints.

  • PeterKushkowski

    Adding to this dilemma are the egalitarian pressures of our culture…

  • CoJoGo

    More than the problem of lacking biblical literacy, I see a major issue of authority. It would be great to follow scripture – if everyone could agree on how to interpret those words read. We say ‘unity in essentials’ but who is it that decides what is essential? We all read the same bible but one body says, for example, that baptism is essential for salvation, another says it is just a profession of faith. One says it’s leaves a mark on the very soul of man, another says it has absolutely no effect. One body says one can lose salvation, another says we who accept Christ are eternally secure. One says we must be slain in the Spirit, another says no spiritual gifts are necesssary for salvation.
    Relativism has entered the church to the extent most simply can’t be certain what to believe. If the same words can be read by a hundred Christians with different backgrounds and the Holy Spirit guides each one, isn’t the Holy Spirit a little fickle? There has to be absolute truth. Who’s got the authority to state what that is??

    • Hugh Whelchel

      You raise good questions. I believe that part of the answer is that we must become better students of the scripture. It is to be our ultimate guide to faith and life. Second, we need to look at how God has spoken to the church over the last 2000 years. Christians today may not know their Bibles very well, but they know less about church history and the writing of the church fathers. We can learn a lot about who we are supposed to be as believers by studying their successes and mistakes. You are right that there is a lot of confusion out there, but that is not the way it is supposed to be, that is not the work of the Holy Spirit, “For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (1 Cor 14:33). God wants us to understand his word and not be confused, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God” (James 1:5). It is my experience that while many believers will argue over secondary doctrine, in the primary things of importance we agree (see the Apostle’s Creed). Fortunately, our salvation is not based on whether or not our theology is right; if that were the case, we would all be in trouble. Instead, it is based on what was done for us by our Savior, a gift of pure grace. And all of those who have been believers from the days of the apostles to today have believed that…

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