I grew up in a church that belonged to a denomination that was a little wacked. The doctrines of that movement are filled with errors, misinterpretations of Scripture, and legalism. Some of these errors are, admittedly, open-handed or secondary issues. But others are foundational to the Christian faith. For instance, the denomination I belonged to denied the existence of the Trinity! Instead, they embraced the ancient heresy of modalism. I don’t have time to go into that here (maybe someday).
The thing is, these false doctrines (even heresies) were the result of individualistic, isolated Bible study. When I say never study the Bible alone, I certainly don’t mean that you should never study by yourself. What I mean is that you should never study the Bible in isolation. You should always, always, always check your interpretation of a passage of Scripture with others you know and trust (i.e., a pastor, an elder, a deacon, a mature Christian friend). I would guess that much of the false teaching that exists today comes from isolated Bible study.
When I say never study the Bible alone, what I mean is that you should never study the Bible in isolation.
Here’s the deal, everyone comes to the Bible with certain ideas about life, God, truth, and spiritual matters already floating around in their head. When we read Scripture, we read it through these lenses and assume, oftentimes without even realizing it, that a verse or passage means something different than what it actually means. I know because I’ve done this many times! Most of the time, these differences are minor nuances of meaning, or perhaps we apply the message of the verse differently than it was intended to be applied in real life. Occasionally, these differences are major and can even approach heresy, such as denying the Trinity. If you are reading the Bible in isolation, you may never realize the cultural baggage and pre-understandings that you bring to Scripture when you study. If you read in isolation, you may come to a false conclusion, even heresy, and never be corrected in your view.
What you should always do is check your conclusions. Not every spirit is the Holy Spirit, and not every insight is from God. No single body of literature has been more scrutinized, studied, mulled over, discussed, debated, criticized, and taught than the Bible. There is no reason to study it in isolation and there is a wealth of knowledge and resources waiting to be tapped by seekers of truth and knowledge in God’s Word. How can you check your conclusions and insights? By avoiding isolation in your study. Study the Bible with a small group. Discuss your findings with your friends, your pastor(s), your elders, your deacons. Compare what you think the Bible is teaching with the footnotes in a good study Bible. Ask your pastor for a few good commentaries and compare your conclusions with what professionally trained biblical scholars who’ve devoted their entire lives to studying the history, cultural context, language, and meaning of Scripture have to say. In short, never study the Bible in isolation.
No single body of literature has been more scrutinized, studied, mulled over, discussed, debated, criticized, and taught than the Bible. There is no reason to study it in isolation.
Remember, the Bible wasn’t written to an individual (you), but to a people (us). It was meant to be read and discussed in the relational context of the community of God’s people. So, if you want to go out into the woods with nothing but your Bible and a notebook, by all means do so. But, when you come back, take what you wrote down and enter into dialogue with others about it. Be willing to submit your isolated opinions to the authority of your pastor(s) and/or elders. Be willing to admit you may have jumped to an incorrect conclusion after discovering more in a commentary or study Bible. In essence, have intellectual humility!
What are some things you’ve discovered as you studied the Bible for yourself? Have you ever thought something you later found out was incorrect? How do you involve community in your Bible study?