When President Donald Trump carried and held up his Bible at St. Johns Parish Church next door to the White House, the picture drew a lot of main stream media and social media criticism that the Bible was being used as a “prop.” This feigned public outrage in defense of the Bible’s reputation and status made me laugh. I have followed news reports and surveys of Christian spiritual formation and spiritual discipline practices for most of my adult life. They are generally reported by Barna Research, Lifeway, or occasionally other groups like Pew Research. One has only to talk to people regularly and watch how few actually bring their Bibles to church to recognize that most are not very engaged with Scripture with any degree of frequency or depth.
The Quoran in Islam, as a physical book, an object or icon of faith itself, is to be revered and worshipped and protected from desecration and dishonor. Faithful Muslims will kill “infidels” for disres,pecting a Quoran.
Christians do not hold the physical book itself in such iconic worshipful reverence. Rather, the texts within the physical book are respected and viewed as inspired and protected throughout its history. The Bible is understood as a means by which God’s Holy Spirit has spoken and still speaks to His people as they prayerfully read, contemplate, commit to memory, understand, and apply its wisdom that is discerned through knowledge of its principles, proclamations, prohibitions, promises, personalities, and parables.
As I have taught, discipled, and mentored in adult spiritual formation classes and recovery ministry over the years, I have observed three common “catchall” attitudes toward the Bible that greatly affect one’s reading and study of and engagement with it:
What is the role of the Bible in one’s faith?
A. An historical document that has been important in the past, but contains errors and worldviews that no longer relate to our culture. Not a document to look to for personal spiritual moral or ethical standards, but more of a general guideline that contains some valuable insights for humanity in general.
B. A worthy moral guide. Suitable for instruction by qualified teachers. This is an impersonal view. Such an approach considers scripture too difficult or cryptic to be personally useful except perhaps as a comfort in times of suffering
C. Authoritative Word of God- This approach considers the entire canon as a means by which the Holy Spirit teaches me as I seek God’s guidance in understanding and applying it to my life. This is a personal view that embraces the Scripture as authoritative and illuminating for the believer.
The “C” view, generally embraced by those who identify as traditional evangelical, “born-again” Christ-believers and followers, is actually a minority view among the larger cadre of those who self- identify with the Christian faith. By far, views “A” and “B” are more prevalent and can be observed in the degree of illiteracy about scripture among even regular church-goers.
While Bible sales are reportedly at an all-time high and reading may have increased with the fear, uncertainty and chaos of recent global and national events, I am reminded of the story of Philip and Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8:26-40:
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”5 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
The Ethiopian eunuch was a trusted servant, a high court official of the Candace, the queen of Ethiopia. He was in Israel to worship the Lord at the temple, which means he was probably a Jewish proselyte. On his trip home to Ethiopia, he had this life-changing encounter with Philip the evangelist.
The story is an excellent example of God’s role in evangelism. Philip, who was one of the seven original deacons, had just preached the gospel in Samaria (Acts 8:4–8). Philip was visited by an angel who told him to go a place in the desert. He didn’t question or argue, he just went and there in the desert he encountered the Ethiopian eunuch who was on his way back home from Jerusalem. The man was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah. Philip went over and as he got close he heard the eunuch reading from Isaiah out loud. When Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading, he replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” and he invited Philip to sit with him in the chariot. The man wondered whom the prophet was talking about, “himself or someone else?” Philip used this opportunity to engage with the man, explaining the passage as a prophecy about Jesus Christ, who meekly gave His life to save the world. He explained the gospel and the Ethiopian eunuch believed. When they came to some water by the side of the road, the eunuch asked to be baptized.
Surveys over the years have shown a low level of serious engagement with the Bible by nominal Christians. A Christianity Today article in 2012 documented that reality:
80% of Churchgoers Don’t Read Bible Daily, LifeWay Survey Suggests
Transformational Discipleship study reveals low level of “Bible engagement.” JEREMY WEBER SEPTEMBER 07, 2012 10:50 AM
In a fresh study of “Bible engagement, LifeWay Research surveyed more than 2,900 Protestant churchgoers and found that while 90 percent “desire to please and honor Jesus in all I do,” only 19 percent personally read the Bible every day.
LifeWay also found that higher levels of Bible engagement were correlated to six actions:
1. Confessing wrongdoings to God and asking forgiveness.
2. Believing in Jesus Christ as the only way to heaven and the number of years one has believed this.
3. Making a decision to obey or follow God with an awareness that choosing to do so might be costly. (63% of churchgoers say they have at least once in the last six months.)
4. Praying for the spiritual status of people they know are not professing Christians.
5. Reading a book about increasing their spiritual growth. (61% of churchgoers say they have in the last year.)
6. Having been discipled or mentored one-on-one by a more spiritually mature Christian. (47% of churchgoers say they have been discipled …
A more recent 2017 survey revealed a similar sentimentalilty about one’s faith and the Bible, but not much in the way of serious engagement.
A 2018 Barna Research report produced in conjunction with The American Bible Society offered a more favorable perspective by spinning its statistics in a more positive direction than some other surveys have. Still the numbers speak for themselves:
“Adults who use the Bible daily account for 14 percent of the total adult population, followed by 13 percent who use it several times a week, 8 percent who do so once a week, 6 percent about once a month and 8 percent who use it three to four times a year.”
The article noted that numbers have changed little since 2011 and that the majority of readers are Boomers and Southerners and those in rural or city environments, rather than suburbanites. All parameters measured showed less than 50% of Americans as engaging with the Bible at all. And my own observation is that in such surveys, those professing to be Christians will tend to overstate their frequency and depth of Bible literacy and engagement. Though they may still consider it “significant” in forming their faith, it is generally through the interpretation of a pastor or teacher they follow rather than by personal Holy Spirit-led and small group accountable intensive study.
A 2014 Biblegateway.com summary of Bible reading surveys was not particularly rosy about the truth of Bible reader responses.
“Americans’ lack of reading the Bible belies their claim of it being their favorite. Wheaton College English professor Leland Ryken says, “There’s no reason for anyone to be surprised at the extent of biblical illiteracy in the general population. The Bible has been systematically excised from the curriculum in public education and from culture generally.” Ryken says biblical literacy “is only marginally better” in the United States than elsewhere.”
Like most traditional evangelical Christians, I am glad to see the Bible referenced in cultural contexts. I am not offended by anyone proclaiming that it is a touchstone for their faith and decision-making. I trust the work of God in guiding those who choose to engage with His Word in an earnest and regular manner, especially in the company of other evangelical believers who are seeking God’s will together in the name of Jesus Christ and trusting the guidance of His Holy Spirit with them.
So excuse me if I am not whipped into a offended tizzy by our President. I prefer to interpret it as a statement that he reads the Bible and seeks guidance through his personal prayerful reading and godly counsel of others who are doing the same.
For traditional evangelical Christians, we believe that God places leaders in their roles and uses them to accomplish God’s will- sometimes to bless and sometimes to discipline the nations. As I have often said to discipleship students, “God will use whatever circumstances and whomever He chooses. Sometimes as a good example. Sometimes as a horrible warning.” He will not usurp the freewill of people, but He will limit the damage of evil and He will turn the tables on it in ways that can bring about His will. That is God’s prerogative. Our responsibility is to pray for leaders to be open to the guiding of The Holy Spirit and trust that our loving and redemptive God will bring good out of even difficult circumstances caused by poor choices, ignorance, or deception by evil influences.
That trust in God and confidence in the long-term goodness of God’s redemptive plan for humanity which is revealed within and affirmed throughout the Bible is generally going to generate indignation and resistance from those who do not read and understand the Bible and Christian teaching. It does not challenge my faith or change my opinion in the least. Those who are offended and outraged by the Bible’s public presence generally are expressing a political agenda against the Christian faith or religious expression in general. It show disregard for the importance of faith in the lives of people or narrowly held religiosity, not personal spiritual maturity or appreciation of the Bible’s real power to bring peace and wisdom in the lives of those who do embrace the traditional evangelical view of the Bible.