It’s one of the most common questions I get when I talk with Christians who are struggling with what they believe. They’ve stumbled across some problem in the Bible or some issue raised by critical scholars and they don’t have an answer. Then they ask:
Why didn’t my pastor tell me about that?
Lurking behind this question is the concern that perhaps they haven’t been given the whole story. Perhaps their pastor (and the Christian church in general) has been holding things back so as not to upset their faith. Maybe all they’ve ever heard is one version—a sanitized, idealistic version—of what’s in the Bible.
And, this concern is often partly true. Of course, this doesn’t mean that most churches are intentionally hiding the difficult parts of the Bible. That may happen on rare occasion, but I don’t think that characterizes the average evangelical church.
But it does mean that many churches offer a rather light diet of Christian theology, teaching, and biblical instruction. And therefore the average church member—even after maybe twenty years—has only received a smattering of Christian teaching, most of which does not seriously probe the challenging aspects of the Christian faith.
This problem is particularly acute when it comes to Christian college students heading off to a secular university. Even though they may have grown up in a solid church, they often find themselves bombarded with ideas and concepts that they’ve never heard before. Stunned by the whole experience, they may stumble back to their home church and ask, “Why didn’t my pastor tell me about that?”
Of course, it is for this very reason that I wrote my recent book, Surviving Religion 101: Letters to a Christian Student on Keeping the Faith in College (Crossway, 2021). The goal of that book is to help college students think through these complex issues that perhaps they never heard about in their churches.
But there are other ways that we can help inoculate Christians against the “Why didn’t my pastor tell me about that?” phenomenon. One way is the intriguing new volume by Kristin Swenson: A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible (Oxford, 2021).
Her thesis is that the Bible is weird—much weirder than we tend to realize—and that such peculiarity needs to be faced rather that dismissed or ducked. The oddity of the Bible is part of its charm, and if we don’t reckon with it then we are not taking the Bible seriously. She writes:
Besides texts of lofty wisdom, inspiration, comfort and guidance, the Bible contains bewildering archaisms, inconsistencies, questionable ethics, and herky-jerky narrative style. Yet, those features barely get a passing glance these days. Some believers simply explain them away, while nonbelievers use them as a reason to dismiss the Bible entirely. This book looks squarely at what’s so weird . . . and in the process shows how those qualities can actually enrich one’s relationship, religious or not, to the text. (xiv)
Not surprisingly, Swenson goes well beyond just acknowledging that the Bible is often peculiar. She also argues it is deeply problematic, offensive, contradictory, and appears to approve of morally troubling behavior (genocide, slavery, misogyny, etc.). And I push back against such conclusions in my recent review of her book which is posted on The Gospel Coalition.
Even so, I still think evangelicals have something to learn from Swenson. It’s not enough to simply quote a selected Bible verses here and there, as it suits our needs. We must come to grips with the entirety of the Bible, even the difficult portions. And reading Swenson’s book will put those difficult portions squarely in our face.
So, here’s an idea. What if churches offered a small group study or a Sunday School class on Swenson’s book? Imagine believers reading the book, coming face-to-face with the myriad of critical complaints about the Bible, and then processing those beliefs within a church context led by a pastor? Wouldn’t that be better than those same believers being left to process these complaints in a university context, having never heard them before and with no one to guide them?
Of course, someone might object that such an exercise just needlessly upsets people with issues they don’t need to know about. Maybe it would be better if we just taught them the basics, without bothering them with the complicated parts.
But I would argue that is precisely the strategy that many churches have been employing up till now. And I am not sure how well it is working. Our churches may be filled with numbers, but are they filled with depth?
So, maybe it’s time to put aside the version of Christianity where every Sunday we present only a pre-packaged, cleaned-up, carefully-curated picture of the faith. Instead, maybe we should take church members back into the kitchen, so to speak, where the sausage is made.
Sure, it may not be as clean and tidy. But you might just find that it produces more chefs and less consumers.
Ryan Pope says
I encountered this in regard to Church history – I had really only been taught Church history from the time of Luther onward, with some Augustine thrown in.
Going back and wrestling with the beliefs of the earliest Christians was truly an eye-opening experience for me and resulted in us being confirmed in the Church.
Jeff Downs says
There is also this recent book, How (Not) to Read the Bible: Making Sense of the Anti-women, Anti-science, Pro-violence, Pro-slavery and Other Crazy-Sounding Parts of Scripture. Dan Kimball (Zondervan), and there are a few other like it. Kimball does not come from the reformation tradition, nevertheless, it is still in places. By the title, you can tell that he addresses modern criticisms of the Bible, mainly from internet atheists and their Memes.
I think the very way the question is phrased is the problem. People need to pick up their Bibles and actually read them… That and ask the difficult questions. You should never be just looking at a Pastor for all the answers to your questions. They’re there to guide/facilitate, but ultimately you need to work out your salvation and make it personal. Sounds more like someone who grew up Christian and is finally getting out into the real world. At some point those of us who grew up in a Christian family have to question everything and make our own decisions.
The sad reality is that a lot of what you hear in Church is watered down and in evangelical churches is seeker friendly, but as Paul said we need to move into meat and stop drinking milk.
Jim Pemberton says
I’ve thought a lot about this. I’m not a pastor, but I am involved in my church’s ministry, both in the church building, in the surrounding community, and abroad. I have a Masters of theology and love to minister. My church has been blessed with a strong teaching ministry, a staff that’s heavily invested in that ministry, and a congregation who embraces it. We are the church where pastors retire to and we have as many people in the congregation who have been to seminary. I also know that we are the exception and not the rule.
We are coming fully into a post-Christian culture in the US. The problem with a Christian culture is cultural Christianity where people go to church and go through all the motions and rites without understanding the meaning. People don’t tolerate difficult teaching in this environment and pastors have been wont to keep it watered down for fear of losing congregants or for fear of being ousted by the real leaders of the church. A couple of decades ago in another church, I recall an issue being brought up and a congregant honestly asking the pastor, “What do we believe about that?” Faith informed by deep theology was nonexistent. People relied on the pastor to tell them what to believe without understanding why to believe it or how it applies to their faith. There was no internalization of the deeper things of God. We have an opportunity now to change the trend since the culture is changing, but we need to be mindful of what people need in the faith.
Today we are still fighting a strong strain of anti-intellectualism, even in the church, and we haven’t been fighting it very well. We can use ministries featuring celebrity teachers and preachers, but it needs to be normalized among the local congregations. The culture no longer makes people feel satisfied to be in church and too many churches are relying on rock bands, smoke machines, and robo-pastors to bring people in to hear well-presented shallow messages. Stylistic features of pop churches aren’t necessarily bad in them themselves, but they should never be a substitute for spiritually and intellectually challenging biblical teaching and admonition.
Gustavo Rodríguez says
Muchas veces nos dedicamos a lo que no entendemos y dejamos lo básico del cristianismo, la oración y aplicar lo que ya sabemos, los frutos del Espíritu Santo, y Dios mismo nos va dar luz para conocerlo más profundamente
Robin G Jordan says
Maybe expecting one person–the pastor–to do all the teaching is an unrealistic expectation. If a church’s goal is a biblically and theological literate congregation then it needs more than a single teacher and more than one method of teaching. This is some years ago but a pastor of my acquaintance recruited, equipped, and commissioned members of the congregation to share the burden of teaching the congregation. The church had a library and a bookstore. The pastor recommended certain books to the congregation and encouraged the members of the congregation to read them. Small groups were organized for that purpose as well as for Bible study. There was a concerted effort to raise the level of biblical and theological literacy of the congregation. Too many churches go about raising the biblical and theological literacy level of their congregations in a haphazard manner. Seminaries can help them adopt a more systematic approach. Trinity School for Ministry at one time produced resource material for churches for that purpose and I was trained in the use of the material at a workshop that I attended in Austin, Texas and certified as a “tutor” for church groups studying the material. The Anglican Church in Singapore produced what was called the Singapore Curriculum which it used to train licensed lay readers, cell group leaders, and cell group members. I have in my library a curriculum for cell groups that a South African church produced. Churches can do a better job of raising their congregation’s biblical and theological literacy levels. I am a senior scholar at my local state university and serve as an ad hoc spiritual advisor to students and staff. I am well aware of the challenges young people face at university.
While I agree with comments that individual believers and congregations have the responsibility to deepen our understanding of the Bible and theology, I do think there is a lack of pastor-scholars in our time: people who can not only respond to scholarly challenges to Christian faith as scholars in their own right, but also write with a view to pastoral care.
For example, when a skeptical scholar like Dr. Ehrman writes a book, “Misquoting Jesus”, which has challenged, if not shaken, the faith of many, I would hope to see a point-by-point book-length response from an evangelical perspective, something that would give readers a more complete picture of consensus and debate in textual criticism. But nobody has stepped up to the plate.
Some times I wish God would raise up people like Origen and Augustine today. Some of the greatest works of these Church Fathers, e.g., Against Celsus and City of God, were written in response to serious challenges to the Christian faith, and upon requests from fellow Christians who had turned to their learned brethren for desperate help.
Someone in cyberspace says
I find an emergent version of this where verses on sexuali immorality are being preached heteronormatively.