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Ministers need a system to read the Bible

Reflections on a survey of Baptist ministers and their Bible-reading habits. By Paul Beasley-Murray

Bible unsplash

Earlier this year I sent out a survey to ministers serving churches belonging to the Baptist Union of Great Britain in which amongst other things I asked them: “What scheme(s) are you currently using for your reading of the Bible?”.  I received the following answers from 175 ministers:

  • The Lectionary – 13 per cent

  • Printed Bible reading notes – 19 per cent

  • Online Bible notes/devotional thoughts – 19 per cent

  • Reading through a Bible book with a commentary – 19 per cent

  • Reading through a Bible book without a commentary or notes – 36 per cent

  • I don’t have a regular pattern of reading – 19 per cent

The more mathematically aware readers of this will see that the figures suggest that a few ministers are using more than one scheme.

To my surprise, almost one fifth of ministers (19 per cent) said that they have no regular pattern of reading the Bible.  The survey was anonymous in the sense that it was impossible for me to know the identity of the respondents –  this was to encourage honesty in the responses made. Nonetheless, I wonder whether the actual percentage of ministers not having a regular pattern for reading the Bible was actually higher.

Nonetheless, even 19 per cent is a deeply concerning statistic. Indeed, I would say that it reflects a travesty of their calling. Ministers in their ordination vows commit themselves to the daily discipline of a ‘rule of life’, of which the systematic reading of Scripture is central. Discipline in the Christian life – let alone in a minister’s life – is not optional.  As Henri Nouwen has written: A spiritual life without discipline is impossible. Discipline is the other side of discipleship."

In this regard the words of Paul to Timothy, a young pastor, are as relevant as ever to today’s pastors: “Train yourself in godliness” (1 Timothy 4.7), or as Peterson puts it in his paraphrase: “Exercise daily in God – no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever.” (The Message). This need for spiritual fitness follows on from Paul’s description of a good servant of Christ Jesus as one who is “nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound teaching you have followed” (1 Tim 4.6).

The lives of God’s servants need to be rooted in God’s Word, for “disciplined meditation on Scripture is indispensable to Christian health, and indeed to growth in godliness” (John Stott).  Only so ministry be exercised with integrity. Or as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “I cannot expound the Scripture for others if I do not let it speak daily to me. I will misuse the Word in my office as a preacher if I do not meditate upon it in prayer."

Some of the other responses to the question should probably also arouse concern.

How challenging are the on-line Bible notes or devotional thoughts used by almost a fifth of ministers? What kind of printed Bible reading notes are being used by almost another fifth of ministers? What is the balance between the amount of Scripture and the amount of comment? Some popular Bible reading schemes amount little more to a verse or two or Scripture followed by a paragraph or more of ‘devotional’ comment. This is ‘thin gruel’ for any Christian, let alone for ministers.  Ministers need to steep themselves in the Word of God.

How stretched are those who are reading through a Bible book with a commentary? The reality is that there are commentaries and commentaries. In this respect it was interesting to discover that a third of those using a commentary said they were using the light-weight …For Everyone series, which are full of personal anecdotes.

How systematic are the slightly over a third of ministers (36 per cent) who read through a Bible book without a commentary or notes? Indeed, how systematic are those ministers (19 per cent) who read through a Bible book with a commentary? It is all too easy to focus simply on one’s favourite books or passages of Scripture. There is much to be said for a formal disciplined structure for reading the Scriptures as also for prayer.

Should we be concerned that only 13 per cent of ministers enjoy a rich and balanced diet of Scripture? For me this is the great advantage of using a lectionary for personal Bible reading: it provides daily readings from the Old and New Testaments, and also from the Psalms. What’s more, the lectionary does not over-face me in terms of the amount of Scripture I read – compared to say, the Robert Murray McCheyne system, which involves reading the whole of the Old Testament once a year, and the whole of the New Testament twice a year.  I have time ‘chew over’ what God is saying to me.

Reading Scripture is a basic spiritual discipline. I find it significant that in John’s Gospel when Jesus talks about the need to ‘abide in him’, he at the same time speaks of allowing his words to ‘abide in us’ (see John 15.7). Only in this way can ministry be fruitful. True, Jesus didn’t have Scripture reading in mind – but there is surely an underlying principle. 

The Revd Dr Paul Beasley-Murray retired from full-time stipendiary ministry in 2014. His reflections on a 43-year career in ministry are available in a four volume guide called Living out the Call

Paul writes a weekly blog to which people are welcome to subscribe by entering their email address on his web-site www.paulbeasleymurray.com. He can be contacted at paulbeasleymurray@gmail.com. This article first appeared on his blog and is republished with permission.

Aaron Burden
Baptist Times, 06/07/2017
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