The church I attend is structured around Bible teaching. This is typical of many churches within the Protestant tradition and its multitude of denominations and nondenominations. I grew up in a Baptist church that also placed an emphasis on Bible teaching, but in a much different way than my current church. Those who visit my current church are typically struck by something we do that is very different than in most any other churches – though not all. That is, when the teaching is done a microphone is passed around for a few minutes and we all can ask questions of the teacher, and even challenge the teacher. Those who teach expect this and approach both their study and their teaching with this in mind.
Why do we do this?
Traditional Christianity (I’m making a huge generalization here) is based, in part, on not challenging those who teach the Bible and promote dogma. Baptist preachers are famous for their emphatic exhortations and claims on absolute, Bible thumping truth. Others with a little less thumping. In general pastors assume this hegemony to be acceptable, and even biblical, and may seek a life in ministry in part because of it. Even the apparently humblest of ministers can have large egos in their official positions. Regardless, if we (those in the pews or slightly padded interlocked chairs)) feel compelled to challenge the teaching then we need to move on to another denomination or start one of our own. Anyone who has disagreed with the pastor and then gone up to the pastor after the service, Bible in hand, to challenge the teaching, even with a humble spirit, is likely to get evasion or a cold stare. This kind of response may be just another example of human nature, but is also a great flaw in the church. There is an unspoken force within much of Christianity that is designed to suppress the questioning of dogma.
Christianity is a galaxy of related subcultures each with their own entrenchment of dogmas and an inability to welcome challenges in the name of seeking a clearer truth. But an openness to questioning received truth(s), dogmas, spiritual practices, and anything else that is claimed as “Christian” is critical for each of us and the church on the whole. Without such openness there can really be no faith because the inability to question leads to a closed loop that, in the name of establishing, actually precludes genuine belief. Faith requires more than merely saying yes to what one is told to say yes to.
However, and here is the clincher for all those who preach (and the rest of us as well), the pursuit of truth requires the ability, even the desire, to say, “but I might be wrong.” I have heard that in some seminaries would be pastors are exhorted to preach with confidence even if they are unsure of their own understanding. Many pastors preach with unflagging conviction passages that are hotly debated without addressing interpretive issues, and certainly without hinting their teaching is based on their current understanding – which could change with time and study. These pastors do, at the minimum, a great disservice to the church in my opinion.
We are all too finite to assume our understanding of the Bible is total. We have so much theological, cultural, and intellectual baggage we bring to reading the Bible that a lifetime could be spend merely working to set aside that baggage. I do not need a pastor to tell me what to think or what to believe. What I need is someone who is wise, is in pursuit of authentic faith, and has done their homework, to then come beside me and walk with me through the process of coming to my own understanding of who God is and what this life is all about. And to remind me that whatever the conclusions I come to I might be wrong.