Teaching the Bible in the Congregation, by Richard C. Detweiler

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Richard C. Detweiler§


→303# Paul’s counsel to Timothy suggests three functions for the teaching of the Bible: the salvational (or salvific) function, the nurture function, and the equipping function (2 Tim. 3:14-17).

A. The Salvational Function

The teaching of the Bible is not to be seen as an end in itself. The purpose of becoming “acquainted with the sacred writings” (RSV) is to provide the instruction necessary to enable persons to know how to respond to Jesus Christ by faith for salvation.

This may suggest a pre-conversion function of Bible teaching. In a broader sense, however, the salvific function is never outgrown since salvation is an ongoing process of “being saved” as well as a beginning encounter in which our life is regenerated to make possible the “working out” of our salvation. Our salvational teaching task then is not that we use the Bible only to lead persons to confess Christ as Savior and then go on from there to use the Scriptures as ethical instruction. The didache, rather, is rooted in the kerygma and needs to be taught in that perspective if it is to “make wise unto salvation” (KJV), rather than engender moralism and legalism.

Furthermore, the Bible is not only revealed content by which persons are instructed in the Gospel and enabled to know how to respond to salvation offered in Christ. It is also the medium of revelation by which the Word addresses us as personal encounter. We need not strain to distinguish between teaching the Bible as propositional truth that makes wise unto salvation and “truth as encounter” that vitalizes faith-response. The two are not antithetical, but dependent on each other for efficacy in the salvific function of Bible teaching.

It is helpful to remember that teaching, even teaching of the Bible, is a penultimate activity until it becomes cooperation with the teaching of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9-16), whereby only the salvational function can be realized. Otherwise, again, the teaching of Scripture becomes an end in itself rather →304 than instrumental to salvation.

Teaching is the telling of the biblical story and its meaning, in the faith that he of whom the story is told draws near and discloses himself so that in the telling and hearing an awareness of salvation occurs. Truth as revelational proposition becomes truth as encounter. Saving truth becomes truth as saving encounter, culminating in the response of saving faith.

B. The Nurture Function

The nurture function of Bible teaching is to enable “learning Christ” (Eph. 4:20), and growing up into Him in all things (Eph. 4:15). Teaching, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness are best viewed as the goal of development in right relation with God, or as Peter states it: “But grow in the grace and (experiential or relational) knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18a, NIV).

As the salvational function of Bible teaching is essential both in pre-conversion and post-conversion, so also the nurture function is essential for both periods of experience. “Becoming wise unto salvation” continues to be an integral dimension of growth into maturity, lest what has “begun in the Spirit” (gospel) be completed “in the flesh” (moralism). Conversely, instruction in righteousness is also integral to the salvational function of the Gospel, lest the Gospel become understood as cheap grace that only “looks to the cross” or “comes to the foot of it” rather than taking it up, making of salvation a forensic transaction.

The nurture function of teaching the Bible depends on our understanding of the relation of Law and Gospel, grace and discipleship, and righteousness as imputed, imparted, or relational. An oversimplified perspective may be that we teach the Bible not as truth alone, but as “the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:21), which means that to fulfill the nurture function, the Bible must always be taught in relation to what is and can be in Christ, actualized by the Holy Spirit.

As an illustration of the nurture function, it may be appropriate here to note the pre-conversion and post-conversion aspects of teaching the Bible in relation to the teaching of children. Our perception of the child with regard to our purpose in teaching →305 the Bible still needs clarification. The Foundation Series curriculum orients teaching the Bible to the concept that the Bible is the story of the People of God. That is theologically sound and pedagogically helpful. We need yet, however, to clarify more sharply the developmental location of the child within the movement of the People of God defined as the Christian congregation.

I have found it helpful to teachers, pastors and parents to perceive the child in three developmental stages, namely, the stage of innocence (infancy to 5 or 6 years), awareness (ages 7 to 11), and awakening (ages 12 to 18) , granting the ages to be approximate ranges rather than absolutes.

The age of innocence which “cannot discern between the right and left hand” calls for teaching the Bible primarily as affirmation of God’s love, goodness and presence. The age of awareness experiences a relationship with God on a deeper level than innocence. It is characterized by the development of unease which, however, is not yet spiritual awakening to lostness as a state. Nevertheless, it calls for teaching the Bible not only as affirmation, but as interpretation of God’s love and goodness which introduces basic teachings on forgiveness of sins and the concept that rightness with God is the gift of forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ. Since the child in the age of awareness seeks assurance of being forgiven and in right relation with God, the teaching of the Bible is oriented to the assumptions: (a) that the child in the age of awareness is capable of a forgiveness-encounter with God which merits acceptance and affirmation as valid on his level, but (b) that the child’s awareness of a forgiveness-encounter is not yet of an awakened character (wise unto salvation) and is not regarded as conversion, but anticipates a further encounter and is led to expect the same.

The age of awakening represents awareness at a new level and of a different nature. It progressively recognizes cognitively and experientially (affectively) the state of lostness as one’s condition of separation from God. It calls for teaching the Bible not only as affirmation of God’s love and goodness, and interpretation of God’s love as offering the forgiveness of sins, but as confrontation with the Gospel as the call to a crisis turn from self-orientation to the following of →306 Christ as Lord (finding one’s life in Him). The teaching of the Bible in the awakening years is focused on clarifying the nature of believing response as a response to God’s grace not primarily as relief from guilt, but as confrontation with Christ as sin-bearer and Lord of life, whom to confess displaces self and yields to dependence on Him as God’s way, truth, and life. Teaching the Bible to children as a nurture function, therefore, is oriented progressively to affirmation, interpretation, and confrontation-response, all of which are essential as well to the salvational function. In other words, the nurture function is to enable responding to God both to and in salvation.

The crucial point in developing the illustration of nurture-teaching above is that the teaching of the Bible in the congregation is shaped largely by the presuppositions or assumptions that prevail as to whom we are teaching, and to what purpose. The nurture function of teaching the Bible has particularly to do with our theological perceptions. It is, in other words, a primary hermeneutical task to test and clarify the assumptions underlying our teaching of the Bible. We must reckon with the fact that the hermeneutic of Bible teaching in the congregation is largely determined by congregational conditioning. That means a, if not the, primary way both the salvational and nurture functions of teaching the Bible are effectively carried on is what we may call as above, “congregational conditioning”, that is, creating the overall assumptions by which biblical truth is perceived and how it is to be responded to.

The Bible teaching-learning process does not occur as a direct line from Bible to persons, but in relation to the conditioned context in which the teaching-learning takes place. The conditioning of the context is a basic dimension of the nurture function. Paul indicates this perspective in his statement, “...continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it...” (2 Tim. 2:14, RSV), which illustrates furthermore that the context of teaching-learning is largely relationships, and that the development of relationships has much to do with hermeneutical conditioning.

Robert R. Boehlke in his Theories of Learning in Christian Education (Westminster, 1962) projects a learning theory he calls “creation-engagement”:

→307 The concerns of Christian nurture are learned as God creates new selves through the engagement of persons with their field of relationships... (p. 288).

Nurture is enabling persons to conceptualize and actualize the meaning of their commitment to Jesus Christ in terms of family, school, vocational, personal, social, and world relationships. Boehlke’s explanation of what takes place is:

The dynamics of learning are operative as the learner is existentially motivated to engage and to restructure his field of relationships, and as these perceptual processes are utilized by the Holy Spirit to bring about encounter and response to Jesus Christ (p. 195).

The Bible is essential to providing the direction to that “restructuring of the field of relationships,” and is instrumental by the activity of the Holy Spirit to bring about the restructuring, which is called in the scriptures, growing up into Christ. Boehlke’s creation-engagement idea of learning is closely related to what Richards speaks of in relating nurture to socialization. (A Theology of Christian Education, Zondervan, 1975). From that approach, Richards derives the point “that the whole church teaches” (pp. 80, 81). The medium becomes a significant hermeneutic of the message and of its reception as well.

That leads us to a third function of teaching the Bible, namely, equipping. The question of effectiveness in congregational teaching is one of how we go about equipping the “whole church” to become a teaching, nurturing community that enables response to Christ and growth in Him, and the performing of ministry needed within and outside the Body.

C. The Equipping Function

Teaching the Bible has to do with thoroughly equipping persons for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17). This may be seen primarily as the task of adult education in the congregation. The equipping function has been the least effectively realized in congregational Bible teaching. That is because we have further need to: (a) associate our teaching of the Bible with the goal of mission, (b) become more clear on how the Bible is to be utilized for ministries other than preaching and teaching, (c) →308 relate the teaching of the Bible to the discernment and exercise of spiritual gifts for ministry, and (d) explore the potential of the congregational context as a viable context for training persons for ministry.

The salvational and nurture functions of teaching the Bible have in view the further goal of equipping for ministry. We have shied away from developing a mechanical system of Bible teaching used by some sects and cults whereby persons are prepared to anticipate questions and provide answers in establishing one’s own framework of faith and mastering a proficient pattern of communicating it to others.

But we have not yet developed an alternative whereby the congregation as a whole is adequately equipped for ministry and mission. Equipping for ministry as a distinct function of Bible teaching in the congregation has been called into question in favor of the view that “building a nurturing church assures a growing maturity which will naturally express itself in communication, and reproduction, of God’s life in others through the living communication of His Good News” (Richards, p. 122).

I believe we cannot assume as does the above quotation that the salvational and nurture functions of Bible teaching, if properly done, will inevitably and adequately result in ministry and mission apart from a more deliberate equipping. A major reason that Our Body ministry has not been maximized as one would expect in a brotherhood style of church, and that our mission, especially that of evangelism, has been lagging, is that we need not only to nurture persons, but equip them by and with the scriptures if they are to “hold forth the word of life” in various forms of ministry essential to nurture and mission. The area of teaching the Bible as training for ministry and mission may be the pioneering edge of our congregational endeavors to which we should be addressing our biblical education.


A. Effective Bible teaching in the congregation moves toward the goal of growth in understanding, while maintaining the integrity both of teachers and the congregation in the process.

Pastors and teachers trained in biblical studies frequently employ a hermeneutic approach different →309 from the hermeneutic assumptions by which many or most congregational members seek to understand the scriptures. In order to teach with integrity, pastors and teachers need to resolve the tension between enabling persona to develop more adequate textual and hermeneutical understandings while at the same time maintaining and undergirding the security of trust in the authority of the scriptures.

This may be attempted by: (a) using the descriptive vocabulary of the average congregational member in biblical study, but giving new conceptualizations to the meaning of the words, (b) explaining the principles of interpretation and then teaching how to employ them in reading and understanding the Bible, (c) actualizing the principles of interpretation in practice through enabling congregational members to exercise their gifts in Bible study and interpretation. The latter of the three options may best meet the objective of hermeneutic growth. It does not assume either the teacher(s) or members to be infallible interpreters, but respects and utilizes the gifts and integrity of both as essential to biblical understanding in the context of Holy Spirit operation.

The informed, reflective dimension of Bible interpretation contributed by the pastor-teachers needs interaction with the action-oriented approach of congregational members to become a Spirit-shaped hermeneutic fruitful to growth in understanding on the part of all. The key to growth in sound understanding of the Scriptures is not primarily teaching right principles of interpretation, but in the freeing and enabling of the spiritual gifts of teaching, wisdom, knowledge, discernment, and others that Christ has given to the Body to rightly handle the word of truth. That is the way the authority of the Bible becomes the authoritative Word in the congregation. Other biblical interpretation may be an imposed authority of the pastor-teacher or an imposed authority of an inadequately informed congregation.

Biblical scholarship represented by experienced pastors and teachers needs to be brought together with the insights and experience of members who move daily in the stream of life in the world of family, school, vocation, and community. Biblical interpretation cannot be done authentically alone in an ivory tower away from life, lest it become sterile and irrelevant. However, the knowledge and insights of pastors and →310 teachers are essential to maintain sound doctrine that otherwise becomes distorted and misled by members’ constant exposures to the mind and practices of the world and various streams of theological influence by popular writings, radio, and the like.

A beautiful example of combining the biblical-theological with the practical is seen in Peter’s warning about wresting the writings of his brother apostle Paul, which says Peter, are difficult but trustworthy and need to be received with his own simpler writings. The interpretations of either scholars or fishermen apart from each other are incomplete (2 Pet. 3:14-18).

B. Effective Bible teaching is oriented to response and decision and therefore needs to be related to living issues confronting the congregation.

The dynamic of obedient discipleship was operative at the heart of the early Anabaptist approach to Bible as a hermeneutic community. As James Smart emphasizes, in his The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church (Westminster, 1970), the Bible is not a private book designed primarily for devotional reading, but a community book by which the church hears its marching orders. Bible teaching becomes academic and sterile or pietistically internalized and socially irrelevant when it is not oriented to the search for authority relative to decision. Ministerial leaders and congregational teachers need to interact with other members on issues involving biblical interpretation to gain experience in exercising the gifts of the Spirit together in order to discern the mind of Christ. It is in the process of wrestling with the meaning of the scriptures as related to a living issue calling for obedient response, that a congregation discovers its own hermeneutic most authentically. Therefore it is in the context of that process that teaching the Bible encounters its most crucial opportunity. That is not to minimize teaching that is preparatory to and anticipates issues or needs that are not yet or at the moment at hand. But even such preparatory teaching needs to be oriented to the concept that the knowing of the truth is ultimately decision.

Teaching the Bible in the context of living issues helps to unify the letter and spirit of Scripture. The unifying principle in the Anabaptist understanding of the relation of “letter and Spirit” →311 was their “theology of discipleship” existentially realized. When believers are committed to following Christ in obedience for decision-making the scriptural word is made fruitful by the Spirit as a “living letter in the heart” (Marpeck). The tension between the letter and the spirit of scripture is not resolved on the level of theory in a vacuum. The resolution takes place when the scriptures and the Spirit are received together in existential appropriation.

C. Bible teaching needs to enable the congregation in the process of mutual exhortation by which learning-to-obedience occurs.

Mutual study of the Scriptures was the key to Anabaptist growth. Harold Bender wrote that the beginnings of the movement in Switzerland and Holland were anchored in Bible study meetings (Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. I: “Bibelstunde”). John Howard Yoder and others have stressed that the right interpretation of Scripture was determined largely through discussion and debate within the fellowship of the congregation, in contrast to the more clerical hermeneutic approach of the Reformers. George Williams concurs that “the principle of inspired corporate interpretation of the Bible was the presupposition of much of the committed conversation (Gesprach) within Anabaptism and between Anabaptism and the magisterial Protestantism” (The Radical Reformation [Westminster, 1962], p. 289).

If understanding and appropriation of the Scriptures occur through mutual exhortation, the equipping and enabling of persons becomes a crucial aspect of teaching. The scholarly leadership of Grebel, Manz and others illustrates the enabling function, although Grebel’s tendency toward literalism may modify the point that his scholarship was “enabling.” The preparation of Bible concordances by Anabaptists in very early stages of the movement is another illustration of equipping.

Ministerial leaders and congregational teachers need to exercise their leadership roles and gifts as enablers. The patterns of utilizing gifts as outlined in Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 are those of the congregational teaching-learning process. The pastoral, teaching, and leadership-office gifts interacting with what may be termed the non-office gifts of wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, discernment, faith (a representative list only) provides a way of going about biblical study and interpretation for →312 understanding and decision that is both responsibly ordered and dynamically creative.

Teachers in our Sunday schools and in other teaching roles and settings should have opportunities to develop biblical and theological understandings that facilitate their becoming effective enablers of others. We have not given adequate attention to and therefore have not developed a viable hermeneutic community, i.e., a corporate teaching model.

Provisions for more in-depth biblical training such as teacher-disciple programs, Bible institutes and seminars, ministers and lay leader-teacher study weeks, teaching apostles and other means need development and implementation. We are not yet altogether outside some parallel to H. S. Bender’s description when he writes:

But it was in the Anabaptist movement, with its strong emphasis upon personal religious experience, adult baptism, and every-member participation in the life of the church, where no theological training was possible for the preachers and elders, who had to be chosen from the working laity, and where the emphasis upon brotherhood was strong in contrast to the state church with their clerical emphasis, that Bible study meetings were common (Mennonite Encyclopedia, “Bibelstunde”).

It is admitted that the concept, “the whole church teaches,” runs the risk of operating with a good deal less than the equipping and commitment needed to make it work, and the even greater risk of being aborted by individualism and the “tyranny of the people.” But the still greater risk may be what Randolph Crump Miller calls “The Church of the Immaculate Perception” (Christian Nurture and the Church, Scribner’s, 1961), which says Miller, “runs so smoothly nothing ever happens” (p. 76). Whether the corporate model of congregational education becomes effective depends upon the equipping function of teaching.

This then may be the place to underscore the role of the seminary in the equipping function of teaching the Bible in the congregation. There are at least five potential ways for the seminary to contribute to this task: (a) by training pastor-teachers for congregational preaching-teaching ministries through developing both biblical competency and teaching-preaching effectiveness through supervised →313 experience in study and practice; (b) by providing continuing education opportunities for ministers, teachers and others through seminars and institutes both on and off campus; (c) by making faculty persons available for more extended teaching ministries in regional, conference, and congregation settings; (d) by encouraging faculty participation in studies and interaction with church leaders out of which teaching materials and hermeneutic directions are shaped and become resources for congregational teaching; and (e) by involvement of faculty members in local congregation teaching ministries whereby they experience operating as part of the hermeneutic community and are equipped further by that involvement to equip others.

D. Teaching the Bible in the congregation utilizes both formal and informal settings.

What has thus far been said implies church or church-related settings planned for teaching activity with deliberate design and purpose. We may maximize the Bible teaching potential in the congregation by recognizing the possibilities in settings that are not viewed primarily from a teaching perspective. In these contexts understandings of what the Bible says and means may be formed.

1. The “Worship Service”. In our tradition the gathered worship assembly is mostly educational in nature and function. Preaching is central. We do well to give more energy to expository preaching.

2. Ritual occasions. While the patterns of gathered worship constitute themselves as an educative ritual, the high-point rituals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are most expressional and educational. Baptism initiates into discipling; communion “remembers” and “anticipates.” Feetwashing intensifies and concretizes the awareness of brotherhood and servanthood.

3. Other church functions as Bible-teaching settings. A church council or similar meeting can become a most pertinent Bible-teaching setting: as, e.g., when the council discusses whether a “business” meeting should be held on Sunday morning since that time should be preserved for “worship;” when a council faces the question of what to do about an accumulated non-active list of members (occasioning discussion of the meaning of sin, grace, discipline, and the church as covenant-community); and when the council and congregation decides whether a “charismatic” group →314 might use the church facilities as their meeting place. Special interest group meetings, congregational retreats, wedding and funeral occasions, the home and family, are only select representative contexts in which the teaching of the Bible directly or indirectly can become part of the transformational dynamic shaping the church into the purposes of God.

The goal of the pastor-teacher should be to maximize learning in a variety of settings; he should not depend only upon the one-way flow pattern of the one leader (pastor-teacher) to the two hundred (congregation). Rather, as Lawrence O. Richards says:

…we need to realize in thinking of adult education that each of the strategy settings [1<—>1, 1—>200, 10 <—> 10, 200 <—> 200] has a value and a place in the total experience of adults. Traditionally the church relied on the 1-200...to transmit the faith.... the product of this “single strategy” approach to ministry has necessarily been an intellectualized faith, which has come to be experienced more as a “belief” than as a “life.” But this does not mean we should repudiate this strategy entirely...Instead it means we need to carefully define the function of the one-way strategy, develop it carefully to fulfill this function, and at the same time provide a balanced experience of learning by developing the other three strategy approaches as well (A Theology of Christian Education [Zondervan, 1975], p. 254).


The excitement of teaching the Bible in the congregation has been voiced well by J. Randall Nichols (quoting Clement Welsh): the sacred story intersecting with our story causes “a burst of light like a comet entering our atmosphere. The shock of its appearance is like the recurrence in daylight of an episode recalled from our dreams” (Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Winter, 1976).

Teaching the Bible in the congregation then mediates the divine presence; it is a transgenerational event in which the story of the People of God becomes again and again our story. The Word that caused the light to shine out of darkness addresses us today. Indeed, it can happen here!


§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 106-114. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.

# These numerical notations indicate the page breaks in the published book. When citing this essay, please cite the appropriate page number(s) in the published book.