ALLOW ME TO SHARE one of the most important Bible study tips that I know.
Your preconceptions can lead you to misunderstand ANY passage of the Bible.
Think about that for a moment. ANY TIME you study your Bible, there is something already ingrained into your subconscious, which can cause you to misread what it says.
If you are a SMALL GROUP LEADER, it is vital that you know this going in since everyone in your group will have various preconceptions that may cloud their understanding of the Bible.
In this post, we’re going to break down Technique #1 – Pre-Existing Conditions in our series entitled 7 Life Changing Bible Study Techniques.
Technique #1 begins with the following affirmation…
You are not an objective reader of Scripture.
All of us approach the Bible with a set of spiritual preconceptions (some would say spiritual baggage) to help us make sense of what we read.
This is normal. We compare what we don’t know to what we know.
These preconceptions are the combined accumulation of your life experiences, education, culture, upbringing and spiritual history that have shaped you up to this point.
And guess what? These preconceptions very often cloud your understanding of the Bible. In some cases, you may already feel as if you know what the passage is saying and thus you may be less prone to listen to its message again.
These are the top 3 preconceptions we all possess. Each one has the potential to kill our understanding of certain Bible passages.
Most of us have experienced things in our life that have profoundly influenced our belief system.
These can be negative experiences such as the unexpected death of a loved one, a tragedy, business failure or child abuse. Or they can be positive experiences like getting married, having kids, going to college, or buying a home.
The Bible says that God is love, or that God is good, to take but two examples. But my experience may color that truth for me and cause me to doubt it.
Allow me to use a personal life experience to sharpen this point.
I became a Christian through a charismatic Foursquare Church in Los Angeles.
In that church, I personally witnessed people speaking in tongues and others interpreting tongues. I also experienced the supernatural gifts of prophecy, word of knowledge and healing (like those described in 1 Corinthians 12).
My time in that little charismatic church was life-transforming. This is to say, my life experiences helped to strongly shape my views about the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the church.
Thus, when I came to a passage which spoke about tongues or the gifts of prophecy, my mind was already made up about these topics. There was little anyone (including the Bible) could do or say to make me change it.
My preconceptions had locked me in. And that wasn’t a good thing. At the end of the day, I had to be willing to let my “truths” be transformed by the light of Scripture, properly understood and interpreted.
A second preconception that we possess has to do with our inherited spiritual tradition.
Many of your ideas, doctrines and beliefs about the Bible have likely been shaped by your present or past church communities. Think of the doctrinal debates that exist today:
The list of issues under debate could go on.
My point here is that your current or former church(es) may have already settled these issues for you. Perhaps you heard passionate teachings about these subjects with someone emphatically declaring, “the Bible says…” and then allow room for other interpretations.
Perhaps certain books on these subjects were passed around your church, with the right beliefs already written inside and decided for you.
Regardless of the source of these positions, the point again is that these have now become part of your own spiritual profile. These views are highly influential in your understanding of certain passages of the Bible. In other words, your preconceptions may cause you to read the Bible in a certain way.
A third interpretive bias has to do with your language and culture.
Our language betrays us because we think the words of the Bible mean what they mean in our culture. But often, they do not. Words like father, sin or Israel may have other meanings attached to them than what we normally understand in our language.
Or, these words may be very loaded for us. They are emotionally charged. They remind us of things we’d rather forget or they form part of our spiritual matrix of ideas about the world, the future, our responsibility to society and so forth.
In the same way, our culture defines for us how we should feel about work, money, marriage, women, careers, raising children, faith, or even dating.
We may even get these views from a sub-culture. Think of liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican to name a few. This is on top of our political views about government, immigration, taxation, health care, foreign policy and what not, which are formed or reinforced by the news outlets we frequent.
These views may be emotionally and psychologically strong making it very difficult for us to have an objective view if the Bible seems to be turning away from our preferred viewpoint.
To use but one small example…
The word “church” (ekklesia) in the New Testament may conjure up images of a building or worship center of some sort, with a pulpit front and center, a male senior pastor, forward-facing seats, an order of worship, choirs, carpet floors, stained glass windows, Sunday school classes, thin little wafers for communion and a host of other ideas.
But these images have very little connection, with the meaning of that word in the New Testament.
The word “church” in the New Testament is better translated as assembly or congregation. It would likely describe a small, intimate gathering, in someone’s house, with no strongly discernible leadership structure (many folks would probably be actively ministering to people).
Furthermore, the Lord’s supper would be an actual meal with enough wine flowing that some people by their abuse would be getting drunk (see 1 Corinthians 11:21 if you don’t believe me).
Thus even in this small example you can see that your cultural lens is always on and it is always translating what you read based on your own assumptions.
So there you have it.
We come to the Bible with a host of preconceptions that have the potential to hinder our ability to properly understand a particular text.
These include: our experience, our religious heritage and our culture and language.
This is not all bad news. Being aware of these predispositions is half the battle. If we recognize that they exist, we can try to keep their influence at bay as we seek to better understand God’s word.