Christians Spend Too Much Time Studying The Bible

Most Christians assume that immediately after Jesus died, rose from the dead and went back to heaven that a leather-bound copy of the Bible descended from the sky.

Complete with the 27 finalized books of the New Testament and Jesus’ words etched in red, this Bible was delivered to the church and has been studied in perpetuity by Christians around the world.

The reality is we didn’t have the New Testament in its complete form until 367 a.d. when Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria listed all 27 books of the New Testament for the first time.

That’s three centuries. 334 years to be exact.

Comparatively, that’s like Jesus showing up in the Jamestown colony when it had only 75 people in it, teaching, dying, raising from the dead, and then the Bible coming together in its final form this Thursday right before we head out to Applebees for lunch.

It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like to be a Christian without a Bible:

  • 100 years after Jesus left it appears that some churches had copies of the collected letters of Paul and a gospel or two, but that’s it.
  • Many had collections with books of debated authenticity that were later ferreted out.
  • No-one had a final New Testament like we have today.
  • Whatever copies existed remained in the possession of the local church leadership.
  • No-one, it appears, owned their own copy of the Bible for personal “Bible study” unless they were wealthy enough to pay the substantial cost to have it transcribed (see Luke 1:3-4).

Besides, with the high rate of illiteracy among the social groups represented among the rank and file of second and third century churches, having a personal copy of the Bible would have been useless anyway. Most Christians wouldn’t have been able to read it.

I bring all this up to make one simple point: the modern-day church places a ridiculous amount of emphasis on studying the Bible.

It’s obvious, from historical observation alone, that one can be a sold-out, fully devout, willing to die a martyr’s death follower of Jesus and spend next to no time practicing the spiritual discipline of Bible study.

Do we think it’s any coincidence that the period of the church’s greatest growth and expansion (33 – mid 300’s ad) occurred during the time when there wasn’t (1) a Bible in every Christian’s hand and (2) an obsessive preoccupation with Christians clustering to study it word by word, line by line, and page by page?

Most Christians today assume that to be a Christian means to have a personal relationship with the Bible instead of the risen Jesus.

To be consumed with it.

To obsess over its details.

To memorize curiously meaningless trivia about it.

To study its root words and the historical data underpinning every sentence, every chapter and every book.

But what if we’re totally missing the point?

What if one of the reasons we’re so spiritually dead and the church is abysmally failing at its mission is not because we study the Bible too little, but too much?

Instead of being out and about extending the works of the kingdom, Christians are wasting precious time excessively “studying the Bible” in groups and feeling quite content that if they’re practicing the “spiritual disciplines” at home that they’ve done their duty and can call it a day.

Who gives a crap if I never open my mouth and share my faith today? Or forgive those who mess me over? Or share my money with those in need? Or my house with the homeless?

All is good.

I read my Bible today.

What do you think? Do I have a point? Missing the point?

Brian loves helping Christians live thoughtful, courageous lives. He's a popular blogger, author, and pastor at Christ's Church of the Valley in the suburbs of Philadelphia.

  • http://community318.org Greg Stratton

    You definitely have a point. You’ve articulated, well, what I’ve been thinking for the past few years. Thanks for your clarity on this subject.

  • Jim Word

    Hi Brian,

    I understand the desire to see more action out of believers. I fashion my life to exemplify what God desires of me as much as I fashion my time to learn His desires too. My call has been to lead by example and bring along as many as possible who will join me. It is very challenging to get people out of their busy lives to serve Christ as well as what you pointed out, to get some out of their “fact” addiction to also serve Christ.

    I am trying to say I agree with a certain level of what you have observed in some believers but I believe you have mis-diagnosed the problem. I live in an area with 7 Bible colleges withing an hours drive of my front door. There are multiple well known mega churches as well as well known preachers/speakers and what I have found is an epidemic case of Bible ignorance amongst this culture. I believe the problem isn’t spending too much time in the Bible but too little time applying it. I don’t believe the pendulum swings one side Bible knowledge and the other service. They are a “both/and” rather than an “either/or.”

    I don’t want to get too wordy (though my last name implies that I already am) so I will say I believe there needs to be a passionate, regular search by believers to understand God’s word but it must be coupled with application and a passionate life of reaching out to others in love, truth and service.

  • http://www.abibleplace.com Diane Stortz

    Brian,

    This piece made me mad when I read it previously; it just makes me sad today.

    God’s words are our food. Don’t eat, lose health and vitality, die.

    Reading just to find something to “apply” is a lot of the problem. Read to know God, instead, and then it’s pretty hard not to start doing what he wants. This has been my experience anyway.

    I know you value God’s Word, so why tear it down at all? Too many others who don’t value it much are already doing that.

    • Brian Jones

      Diane, it’s because I place SUPREME importance on God’s word that I wrote this. No-one who knows me, has read anything I’ve written, or edited anything I’ve written :) doubts that.

      The issue to me is a grave lack of balance. Is reading/studying the Bible the point, or is doing the Bible the point? The answer is obvious.

      Of course it has to be studied, meditated upon, etc. But the goal of all of that is to understand how to correctly DO what is written (James 1:22).

      If we create church cultures that incessantly study, for instance, God’s love for the poor – i.e. people know difference scriptures, even a few Greek words, can point to the OT law and how the poor were cared for, etc., then we move on to how the early church cared for the poor, etc. – but at the end of that the teacher never stands up and says, “Okay, let’s pile in the van and go do this,” then we’ve failed.

      James 3:1 says, “Not many of you should be teachers because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”

      To me that’s not just teaching unsound doctrine, but also failing to “teach them to obey everything” Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:20).

      As with most things, it comes back to bringing people to the “radical middle.”

      • http://www.abibleplace.com Diane Stortz

        I know, Brian.

        It’s just that there are SO many voices now who don’t really value the word, who just want to debate it or dismiss it or both, but read it? Believe it? Nah, why do that? Just go do good like Jesus.

        But that’s not quite the whole gospel …

        And I know you’re not one of those voices. I just don’t like giving them any more ammunition. Sometimes writing for effect … has the wrong effect.

        • Brian Jones

          I see that and agree. Thanks Diane.

  • Sharon Dicken

    To me Jesus made it very simple, He told them, He showed them then He said “Go do it.” He led by example. He taught them sure, but He showed them how to care for those that had needs, and ate and drank with those that weren’t desirable. Since I have shifted my thinking to try to help those that need it, I feel closer to what God desires for us to do. I pray I don’t miss opportunities to help someone and in doing so share Jesus with them with my actions. Our former preacher of 25 years always told us to “preach the word daily, and if necessary use words.

  • http://www.carm.org Matt Slick

    Jesus, God in flesh, quoted scripture as did the apostles. We are told in God’s word to study his word (Ps 119:148). Perhaps people don’t study his word enough because they don’t believe it. If people did, they’d be evangelizing. They’d be sending out missionaries. They’d be sacrificing to help others. They’d be changing this country through prayer. Christians would not be the maligned group of posers that the media and society portray us as being. But… think… who would want us to not study our Bibles? Who would want us to spend less time with God’s word? Think! The more you study it, the more you are changed. I recommend that Mr. Jones study it more so that he promotes study of it — and the subsequent practice of what it says — instead of giving justifications to avoid it.

    • http://community318.org Greg Stratton

      Matt,

      I don’t think Brian is advocating the neglect of God’s word. Rather, he’s advocating us not obsessing so much on the study of the word that we neglect to do what it says. Your cheap remark about him studying more, does not garner respect. I don’t know Brian, but he has a BA from CCU and an MDiv from Princeton. I would say he is well studied in the word.

  • James Aldridge

    Pastor Brian,

    Interesting article and I am glad you took the time to place an emphasis on not just reading the Bible but actually doing what it says. This is very important in our 21st Century culture since we own so many Bibles in the Western world but our lives at times don’t match up. However, I felt the need to take exception with your point that that Bible did not reach its final form until Athanasius in 367 A.D. This is a misleading statement. All 27 books of the New Testament were completed and in circulation to the individual churches well before the close of the first century. Athanasius did publish a list of all 27 books that make up the New Testament canon in 367 A.D. However, he simply affirmed the canon. He did not create the canon. These books of the Bible already were being read aloud in individual assemblies and quoted extensively by the church fathers (Polycarp, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Justin, Origen, Tertullian, etc.) and were used for training, correction and discipleship purposes. The practice of hearing and having the Bible explained dates back to the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (5th Century B.C.E) in Old Testament times. Once the New Testament was written, the Christian believing community continued this practice on to modern times. Not everyone was literate, but they learned the Bible’s message orally so it wasn’t necessary to have a leather-bound 1611 KJV. But you make an excellent point about the spread of the gospel. Part of the reason why the gospel spread is because people had to share it orally with their friends and neighbors. Today, we want the easy way out and simply give people a Bible and say, “Read it and get saved.” Back then, you had to take the time to share and explain the Bible’s message and make disciples, much harder to do but worthwhile. Anyway, those are my thoughts. Great job and provocative articles as usual.

    • Brian Jones

      Thanks James. I appreciate your comments. And I agree that the early church did not create the canon, it only affirmed it. If I may, however, can I disagree with your main disagreement? :)

      “All 27 books of the New Testament were completed and in circulation to the individual churches well before the close of the first century.” Yes, they were completed and in circulation. But no, not together in one document and read by all churches and all Christians, right? It wasn’t until the mid second century that the issue of a canon even arose (i.e. the heretic Marcion’s list). And then they had to go through the process of ferreting out spurious gospels, ascertaining the authenticity of many of the books, etc.

      All told, it wasn’t until post 313ad that the church had the opportunity and means to widely circulate the NT as we have it today. But even then the average church-goer didn’t have a personal copy. F.F. Bruce has an excellent chapter on this process in chap. 3 of his book “The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?” which has been put into article form here: http://www.bible-researcher.com/bruce1.html.

      That said, I really appreciate you bringing up the concept of orality as a primary means for sharing the gospel. That has been, and will continue to be a major issue in our church planting efforts in NE India.

      • James Aldridge

        Yes that is correct. The need for a canon arose as a reaction against spurious gospels and false teachings attempting to creep into the church. Yes you are correct that the average church-goer didn’t have a personal copy as we have today. And we can thank the invention of the printing press for making personal book ownership accessible and more affordable, including the Bible. :)

  • Brian Sturtz

    I hear your issue and see it. I think something equal happened to the subject of heaven. We Christians pine to check out of “this world” (just look at the popularity of the Left Behind Book series). Whereas early Christians were seeking ways to bring heaven to earth (Rev. 21 and Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God) so many Christians today what to simply “go to heaven when they die”. I think something is true when it comes to Bible study. We seem to place the emphasis in the wrong place. Many people study the Bible. Some people learn the original languages in order to study the Bible. Others buy several versions of the Bible to aid their investigation. A few people study hermeneutics to safeguard their interpretation. Others just read and draw conclusions.
    Increasingly students of Scripture notice that few of us study the Bible while asking the question, “What does this passage say about God?” Other issues tend to push aside the discovery about God. Obstacles tend to get in the way.
    *We read Genesis 1 asking questions about the creation, but often we don’t look for what it says about the creator.
    *We read the Ten Commandments for moral direction, rather than seeking the moral director.
    *We look at the Sermon on the Mount seeking the point, rather than seeking its preacher.
    If we want to listen to God’s heartbeat, what better place to look than his book? Can you think of a simpler tool than to read a verse and ask, “What does this passage say about God?”
    Perhaps instead of calling it Bible study, we can start describing the same process as “listening to God’s heartbeat.”

  • Michael Kiesling

    Hello Brian,

    I think you hit the nail on the head! I wish more people would internalize this point of view. The world would be a better place.

    I wish you good luck in speading these words and thoughts, and this from a person who is a non believer.

    Best of lusck,

    Michael

  • http://www.blogtalkradio.com/talitha-kome Cherrilynn Bisbano

    Pastor, Thank you for this post. I was upset at the title at first. I do whole heartedly agree with you. My pastor once told me, Cherrilynn God would rather you obey 1 verse of the bible than memorize the entire book ” That stuck with me. I love the Word, its original language and memorizing it. However, I love it even more when our Savior uses the likes of me to encourage, teach and help someone. May we all put into practice what God has already taught us. He has given us the power to do it! Thanks again pastor

  • Carlo Blandeburgo

    Brian may I with all due respect to your historical perspective of the Bible, you left out a critical fact regarding the growth of Christianity in the 4th Century. Emperor Constantine in the mid fouth century made Christianity the official religion of Europe and as far east as Contantinople. But then I am sure you knew this when you wrote your article. Perhaps an oversight or confidence that few people would know this historical fact.

    • Brian Jones

      Carlo help me understand the point you’re making.

  • melissa parks

    I think you are missing the point. I agree that we can theologize too much about what is being said 1tim 1:4. But, if we don’t study the bible, how will we know what God expects from us or to be able to know if false doctrine is be taught. Just sitting and studying isn’t enough though. You must put your faith into action. James 1:22; James 2:20

  • Denise Watson

    2 Peter 1

    1 Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,
    To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:
    2 Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the KNOWLEDGE of God and of Jesus our Lord.
    3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our KNOWLEDGE of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us His very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
    5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, KNOWLEDGE; 6 and to KNOWLEDGE, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being INEFFECTIVE and UNPRODUCTIVE in your KNOWLEDGE of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Very Balanced.

    “Christians Spend Too Much Time Studying The Bible” is a great hook, but it seems to me by the reply posts you hooked all the fish that have studying the Word of God in balance.

    • Chakka

      So what do you say about autistic people who can’t read?

  • Tim Babb

    Brian, what I see in churches is the time spent reading everything BUT the Bible. I wonder how the early church survived without Francis Schaeffer, Tony Campolo,Rick Warren, Brennan Manning, and yes,even C.S.Lewis. It’s almost to the point of author worship and none of them “God- breathed” a word. Or maybe it’s just me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/digitalattorney Jon-Paul Raymond

    “It’s obvious, from historical observation alone, that one can be a sold-out, fully devout, willing to die a martyr’s death follower of Jesus and spend next to no time practicing the spiritual discipline of Bible study. – Brian Jones”

    False. In direct opposition to what you assert, I say that the Gospel teaches us many things that only a truly “sold-out, fully devout, willing to die a martyr’s death follower of Jesus” would practice and live. For instance:

    (1 Timothy 6:8-11) But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.

    We are told to disassociate ourselves with worldly wealth. Jesus first confirmed this:

    (Matthew 19:23-24) Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

    Yet many supposed Christians follow false theologies even after having heard the Gospel for many years and try to mix the striving for earthly wealth, with the Gospel. The two have never been mutually compatible. You cannot see people starving, and be rich. It’s impossible to have a heart for people suffering around you while you have a million dollars sitting in the bank. Period.

    So what you say is false. Bible study is essential to our knowledge of the expectations our God has placed on us that are called; as Bible study is essential to the Christians growth in the knowledge of the faith.

    (2 Timothy 2:15) Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

    BUT

    (James 1:22) become doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

    • http://www.facebook.com/digitalattorney Jon-Paul Raymond

      And if anyone wonders whether or not I’m a hypocrite, the answer is no. My wife and I give to people in need, children and adults, almost daily.

      God bless,
      Jon-Paul Raymond & Elorie Jo-anah Raymond

      P.S. And no, we’re not rich.

  • http://shaungroves.com Shaun Groves

    It’s a false dichotomy implied here that we must choose between spending time with Jesus and studying the bible. There’s good reason for both.

    The reason more study of the bible is required for us than someone in the 4th Century is that there is a greater gulf between our culture and language and theirs. We can choose to do a bit of work sometimes that they didn’t have to do to understand what on earth is really being communicated to us, by whom and for what purpose.

    Then you have the limitations of English. I’m teaching on “justice” this Sunday at our church (I’m just a volunteer teacher). But justice in our language is giving bad people what they deserve. If I teach that I won’t be teaching biblical justice which is amore bout God’s deliverance. I discovered that when I studied the words in Greek and Hebrew translated as “justice” in English bibles today.

    And by understanding that I get a glimpse at what’s important to Jesus. I get a peak at his character and purpose – not just what he meant when he said those things written down in the bible. Understanding is good for relationship.

    If I want a relationship with God who came to earth as a middle eastern Jewish rabbi two thousand years ago to fulfill ancient promises and escort us into a long-awaited eternity – well, it sure helps me know Him better to understand Judaism, his time period, his culture, those promises, that eternity.

    I don’t have to choose between studying a book about Jesus or a relationship with Jesus ago more than I have to choose between reading e-mails from a friend or having a relationship with him. And if those e-mails are in another language and just don’t make sense to me it’s OK – it’s NECESSARY at times – to ask my friend to help me understand. He might tell me to study.

  • David Knoecklein

    Question. Is it really about study? or is it about what are lives are really in pusuit of? Truth: Every movie/ sitcom coming out of Hollywood/Burbank et al is expressly designed to move us to go out and buy. How does the simple common person compete with that day after day compendium blitz on the consciousness?. Scripture? Christian conversation?

  • angel

    I also agree with Melissa…To me God’s Word is just that…God’s Word. It is his words to us and I consider it a personal love letter to me. It is alive and I am always eager to hear what he has to say. It lights me afire. When people go to the Word with a wordly perspective and with wrong motivations then it simply becomes nothing more than a book and a dry one too. How can we get to know God without spending meaningful time in the Word. We have no problem watching television for an hour but an hour in the bible could be a chore when your focus is not to get to know the Lord with all the intensity that you extend in other areas. I’ m not advocating not doing the Lord’s work but when your relationship with God is stable then everything else falls into place and one of the ways to strengthen that relationship is through his word.

    Psalm 19 verse 7  to 9

    The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul, the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple, the statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart, the commandment of the Lord is pure, engligtening the eyes…..

    The list is endless…how can we not focus on something so crucial in these times when there is so much disbelief around?

  • Bill Altman

    Brian, great post.  For a long time, I felt guilty that I had never read the Bible through cover to cover.  Then I did it.  And I can’t say that the experience, for me, was particularly positive.  Many days, I found myself reading just so I could check off that day’s list of chapters.  And when you get behind more than a few days, ugh.  It’s the marathon reading session.

    Years later, I attempted it again using the simple method of journaling described by Wayne Cordeiro.  That was a better experience.  But I’m not sure I’ll do it again.

    Another thing to consider is that before the advent of the printing press and the mass production of inexpensive Bibles, most people couldn’t do anything like daily the Bible reading that is the center point of how most of us think about “daily devotions”.

  • http://twitter.com/Alexander_ThGr8 Andy Alexander

    I had to read this through a couple times to make sure it was not a parody. Now that I have come to the conclusion that you are being serious, I have just one question: ARE YOU SERIOUS?!

    • http://www.BrianJones.com/ Brian Jones

      As a heart attack.

  • Krussell

    Let’s not devalue knowing the Word, but raise the value of obeying the Word. The Word is living and active. If you don’t act on it, it will cease to live in you!

    • http://www.BrianJones.com/ Brian Jones

      Good point.

  • Lone Sheep

    Interestingly enough, the reason I left the faith is because I read the Bible cover to cover, memorized large parts of it, and did historical research about it. The sheer number of contradictions, the appeal to authority as an excuse for regional murder/slavery/theft (much of the septuagint), lack of early sources for Jesus claiming he was God, and Paul having a completely different agenda from Jesus were all reasons that I stopped believing.

    The difference between what I was told the Bible is (inerrant word of God), and what it appears to be (loosely aligned, heavily edited collection of writings used for religious purposes) is so great I wonder how anyone can study it and not see it for what it is.

    I still think the teachings of Jesus are good to follow, but much of the rest of it (including almost everything Paul says) is not worth paying any mind. Christians would do well to follow the teachings of Jesus and leave the rest of it alone.

  • Mike Stubbs

    I think what you’re getting at here is 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. However, I think we need to be studying the Word for reasons such as 1 Peter 3:15 and Joshua 1:8-9. I did enjoy the read though.

    • http://www.BrianJones.com/ Brian Jones

      Mike that’s an excellent way of putting it.

  • Chakka

    I heartily agree with your point, having spent the last 20 years in a bible based evangelical church. Most bible teaching ties people up into gazing up lovingly at the ones that are so clever, know their bible and can teach us poor ignorants the secrets of God. I believe in a God that speaks our language through films, books, other people, a tree… you name it. I trust the Holy Spirit to do His job in guiding me!

  • Clark Bunch

    The first century Christians did not have a complete New Testament but we are richly blessed to possess such a thing. In a time when most people were illiterate, Jewish believers in the first century would meet in the temple or synagogues daily to listen to the Hebrew scriptures being read. It was Jesus’ habit to pray and attend the synagogues reading on a daily basis.

    Our calling is to be Christ-like. His words and actions are recorded in the scripture. In Colossians 1 he is “the image of the invisible God” and in Hebrews 1 “the exact imprint of his nature.” To find out what God is like all we need to do is look at and listen to Jesus; we do that by reading the Bible. If we actually learn anything from our study of the Bible we will be “doers of the Word and not hearers only” as commanded in James 5:22. I think the vast numbers of people, including Christians, that never read the Bible is a much greater problem than people reading it too much – if that’s even a thing.

    • http://www.BrianJones.com/ Brian Jones

      I can see that.

  • Mike Elliott

    Maybe I have been living in a cave but I don’t know a single Christian believes the Bible descended from Heaven as a completed form right after Jesus ascended. I also believe that it is crucial to know what is in the Bible. If for no other reason than to learn from the mistakes of others, which there are quite a few in there, or else we are doomed to repeat those mistakes. I agree that you can’t just call it a day after teaching the Bible in the home. That’s where you start is by teaching those values in the home. If the home is not in order, how can you extend those values beyond your four walls. You can’t ignore your family while helping others. As far as your line, “Who gives a crap?” Those people whose lives you touched care, and God cares. If you are doing it to please everyone else, you are doing it for the wrong reason. Learned that in a Bible study, “Colossians 3:23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” I remind myself of it daily and try to keep a positive attitude in my daily walk and spreading my faith to others.