A scan of Christian magazines indicates that conversational Bible Readings are convened in many parts of the United Kingdom and overseas. These are often well-attended and appreciated by many of the Lord's people. However, for a number of years conversational Bible Readings have become a declining feature in local assembly testimony. Such Bible Readings have fallen into disrepute in a number of assemblies for a variety of reasons. These include:
It has been suggested by some that Bible Readings are unscriptural, an occasion for the display of the flesh, spiritually unedifying and a source of strife. Some of these criticisms may be valid on occasions, but this article endorses the value of Bible Readings and advocates the need for an increased adoption of this method of Bible teaching in the local assembly.
The Importance of Teaching
There should be no dispute that God's people need to be taught. Elders within each assembly have a responsibility to ensure that there is regular, consistent, and systematic teaching of God's Word. Teaching in the assembly does not displace the need for personal study of God's Word, but the ministry meeting is vital. In Acts the early Church was assembled for teaching (11.26). It is sad when teaching meetings are convened and the saints do not attend. Regrettably, at times this is due to a lack of interest or to giving priority to other things.
Teaching includes doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness (2 Tim 3.16). Doctrine must be taught. Sadly, in some places the teaching of God's Word has been concentrated on exhortation. While this has a place, there is a need for a balanced spiritual diet. There is a need to encourage a deeper appreciation of God's Word and we should not reduce Scripture, as can be the tendency, to a set of trite alliterative headings.
The teaching set before the saints should be suited to the spiritual condition of those to be addressed. Piecemeal ministry is not always helpful. There are many occasions when the Holy Spirit gives a brother a word which is seasonable and helps and blesses souls, but there are also times when the Spirit guides the shepherds about suitable food for the flock.
A pre-requisite for teaching meetings is that there are teachers. Ephesians 4 shows us that public gifts are given to men, but also that men themselves may be given to the church as teachers. The principle to be observed is that teachers teach. In arranging speakers it should not be a question of filling the diary come what may. Elders need to regularly review the quality and range of ministry put before the saints.
The Value of Bible Readings
Bible teaching can take a number of forms. It may be in a ministry or teaching meeting (generally for the whole assembly), or in a Bible Class (often for young people but not necessarily or exclusively so), or by personal instruction (older sisters teaching the younger as in Titus 2.4). Teaching within the family is also important (Acts 18.26; 2 Tim 3.15). Within this range of approaches, conversation about Scripture is vital (see also Acts 8.30-35). Conversational Bible Readings are entirely consistent with Scripture. Acts 15.30-31 speaks of a multitude that read the Word and were exhorted from it. This should not simply be perceived as a reference to a ministry meeting. The implication from 1 Corinthians 14.35 may be that the men were to converse and ask questions about Scripture in the gatherings.
Conversational Bible Readings are beneficial for a number of reasons. They give opportunity to:
• Ensure that a systematic and broad based approach to Bible study is adopted;
• Establish the saints in the principles and truths of God's Word;
• Deal with subjects which are seldom or better not covered in a normal ministry address;
• Enable points of controversy and questions to be raised and dealt with;
• Provide for the development of local gift;
• Enable Scriptures to be taken up to address known local difficulties;
• Promote the study of Scripture by some who have neglected this exercise;
• Provide an opportunity for the spiritual resources of the assembly to be pooled for the gain of all.
Some of these advantages can be realised through other forms of Bible teaching, but the Bible Reading has a part to play. However, the benefits indicated above are based on the assumption that the Bible Reading is well conducted and wisely handled.
The Current Problem
It would be wrong to deny that many Bible Readings today are unprofitable. It is often apparent from the contributions made that the brethren have not studied in advance the portion to be discussed. Conversely, some, though unprepared, come determined to contribute. There is no waiting on the Spirit to lead, there is a lack of order while a brother says what he is determined to say, and contributions are not always at the most appropriate point in the meeting.
There is some validity in the criticisms that conversational Bible Readings can give rise to a display of the flesh and promote unhelpful contention or dogmatism. However, the answer to these problems is not to abandon Bible Readings but to ensure that they are conducted in a Scriptural and orderly way.
Principles to be Observed in Bible Readings
Scripture does not indicate a standard pattern for the conduct of these meetings. Each assembly will have its own arrangements and this will be influenced by the respective gift of each brother present.
However, a number of general principles may be of assistance.
1. The underlying principle is that prior prayer and study are essential. Where the brethren have prayerfully and carefully studied the passage before they come, then a profitable time is certain and the saints will be edified.
2. The second principle is that teachers teach. On this basis it should not be a requirement or expectation that all the brothers must take part. At the same time, we must not sanction an approach where only a selected few are deemed capable of offering help. Intelligent questions and comments, especially from young men, can often prompt a productive exchange or open up a subject in a new way.
In support of this principle, it is helpful for a teaching brother to conduct the meeting. This does not mean that others cannot open the passage. A young brother with evident or emerging gift may be invited to make some introductory remarks without then being expected to lead the rest of the meeting. The introduction should be clear and concise and should not give an exhaustive exposition of the passage which leaves little to discuss thereafter.
3. Bible Readings are fundamentally for the exposition of God's Word. A Scripture portion should therefore be studied preferably on a verse-by-verse basis. About 12-15 verses per meeting are generally suitable, depending on the content of the passage and the length of the meeting. Longer passages may be better dealt with in a more general way, possibly paragraph by paragraph, highlighting the key themes or lessons. The aim should be to get through the set passage, assuming it is a reasonable length, and accepting that not every word or verse will be exhausted. But discussion should not be rushed simply to get to the end of the passage irrespective of the value of contributions on the way.
One aim of a Bible Reading is to promote more detailed personal study among those who attend. If exposition is a priority then this will minimise the place for personal anecdotes. These only have relevance where they illustrate a truth being expounded. The Bible Reading is not the place to air longstanding grievances about the testimony in general or individuals specifically.
4. Bible Readings are not ministry meetings. This means that long and rambling contributions should be avoided. The Bible Reading is an opportunity for conversation between those who are spiritual about spiritual things.
5. Christian graces should be evident in the Bible Reading. No one brother has a monopoly of the truth. In this context, Christian graces include courtesy, forbearance, and an absence of dogmatism on issues legitimately open to different perspectives.
If Bible Readings are pursued in an orderly way then they will be of great benefit to the whole assembly, and they will be a source of helpful teaching and encouragement. Those who currently express concern about the place of conversational Bible study would do well to consider their own contribution in the light of the above.