Unchaining the Bible: Putting the Bible Back in the Pew
Journal of the Adventist Theological Society
Unchaining the Bible: Putting the Bible Back in the Pew
Roland J. Hill 0
0 Southwestern Adventist University
While teaching a summer New Testament class, I discovered to my dismay
the serious biblical illiteracy among college students. I was teaching in the first
epistles of John and simply referred to Nicodemus to make a point. Thinking the
reference to Nicodemus needed no further explanation, I continued the lecture.
“Who’s Nicodemus?” came the honest query of a puzzled student. Before I
could respond, another student chimed in, “Yeah, who is this Nicodemus?” I
was stunned. One student had graduated from one of our academies and the
other attended public school until college but had grown up in the church. How
could they be so uninformed about the Bible? Probably you have experienced
something similar in recent years. The biblical illiteracy among believers is
astounding. We see it in the Sabbath School. We see it in Bible discussions. We
see it in our academy and college classrooms. To me, this is clear evidence that
the Bible is no longer in the pew. Oh yes, the physical display of the Bible is
there. The book racks of our pews are filled with Bibles available for use during
the service, should there be some call to open them. But who is reading the
Bible? Who is studying the Bible? Who really cares about the Bible? If we are
honest, we must confess that the Bible has very little real meaning in the life of
most affluent Christians.
The spiritual lethargy and illiteracy that haunts our churches and schools
testifies to the modern-day chaining of the Word of God. Something has bound
the Word and is keeping it out of the pew. Uncovering and breaking the chains
that shackle Scripture, I believe, is the primary work of today’s Bible teachers.
We need to break the fetters that are holding believers back from the serious
study of God’s Word. Putting the Bible back in the pew is not just something
nice, but it is necessary. Revival and reformation will only come as we unchain
the Bible and get God’s people back into the diligent study of God’s Word.
Satan understands how powerful the Bible is in the pew and has worked
through the centuries to keep the Bible away from believers. It was his demonic
workings that brought on the darkest period of the Christian church.
Satan well knew that the Holy Scriptures would enable men to
discern his deceptions and withstand his power. It was by the word
that even the Savior of the world had resisted his attacks. At every
assault, Christ presented the shield of eternal truth, saying, ‘It is
written.’ To every suggestion of the adversary, He opposed the wisdom
and power of the word. In order for Satan to maintain his sway over
men, and establish the authority of the papal usurper, he must keep
them in ignorance of the Scriptures. The Bible would exalt God and
place finite men in their true position; therefore its sacred truths must
be concealed and suppressed. This logic was adopted by the Roman
Church. For hundreds of years the circulation of the Bible was
prohibited. The people were forbidden to read it or have it in their
houses, and unprincipled priests and prelates interpreted it teachings
to sustain their pretensions.1
Historians record that during the Dark Ages, in many instances the Bible
was chained to the walls of church libraries to keep it from the laity. The
chaining of the Bible during this dark period of Christianity resulted in the
widespread ignorance that characterized the people of that time.
Are we not experiencing a similar blight of blindness and biblical illiteracy
among believers today? Of course, there are no prohibitions against having the
Bible in the home or studying the Bible, but it is evident, as mentioned earlier,
that the Bible in the pew is rarely opened. It seems to me that there is a black
cloud over the Word in this so called age of enlightenment. I seem to hear the
rattling of chains in the distance. Could it be the sounds of the modern-day
chains that are keeping the Bible out of the pew?
Three Chains that Enslave
I believe the rattling that we hear in the distance are those chains that have
enslaved the people of God. In fact, I believe I have caught sight of three of
those chains: the chain of affluence, the chain of academia, and the chain of
apathy. Let’s consider each chain separately.
The Chain of Affluence. First, let’s look at the chain of affluence. There is
a liberating aspect to God’s Word. As believers search the Scriptures, many
experience both spiritual and financial freedom. The liberating message of the
Bible causes many to ascend the economic ladder, moving from the bottom rungs
to at least the middle rungs. But the very prosperity that becomes a testament of
the liberating power of God’s word ends up placing a person at the point of
thinking he doesn’t need God’s Word. The very gift of prosperity, which God
intends to bring freedom and endow His work, ends up enslaving.
God warned about the perils of prosperity.
1 E. G. White, The Great Controversy, 51.
When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Lord
your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware lest you
forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments and His
ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; lest,
when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses
and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and
your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then
your heart becomes proud, and you forget the Lord your God who
brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
As the chain of affluence tightens, the tendency to spend less and less time
with the Word becomes noticeable. Affluence gives rise to self-sufficiency and
self-sufficiency moves believers to trusting more in self than in Scripture.
The Chain of Academia. Then there is the chain of academia. Whether
intentional or unintentional, we pastors, teachers, and administrators have
communicated to students that studying about the Bible is more important than
studying the Bible. We have conveyed to students that reason is higher than
inspiration. We have transmitted to our students the concept that the laity will
never mature in the Word. We have spoken loudly, “You will always need a
scholar.” One former professor stated it this way, “the teacher must always be
the teacher and the student, the student.” Our constant references to what the
scholars say elevates mere men as the ultimate authority. Therefore, students
feel as if they cannot do serious Bible study without the support of scholars. We
have allowed church members to think that real Bible study is reserved for
scholars only. E.G. White makes this statement: “The Bible was not written for
the scholar alone; on the contrary, it was designed for the common people.”2
I believe the following incident highlights this intellectual chain. Shortly
after beginning my teaching career I attended my first theological society
meetings. While meeting other participants, I was confronted about my credentials to
teach New Testament on the college level. I was asked, “What subjects do you
teach?” I sheepishly replied, “I teach New Testament and Applied Theology.”
“And what degree do you have?” my scholar interrogator retorted. I admitted
that I had only a Doctor of Ministry degree. His intimidating reply still rings in
my ears, “I thought they only allowed Ph.D.s to teach New Testament at the
college level.” The message was clear— only scholars can really understand the
This chain of academic intimidation is used not only in the classroom but in
the pulpit. We preachers show off our academic acrobatics in the pulpit,
dazzling the saints, causing them to say as they leave the church, “Our pastor is
smart. He’s deep. I will never understand the Bible like him.” This academic
intimidation becomes an excuse for many to stop studying their Bibles. I cannot
imagine that God is pleased with the sounds of the academic chains in our
class2 E. G. White, Steps to Christ, 89.
rooms or pulpits. I believe we need to break the chain of academia. We need to
help our students become not only students of the Word but teachers of the
The Chain of Apathy. Finally, we must consider the chain of apathy.
Perhaps of all the chains this one enslaves the greatest number of believers. Many
have ambivalent feelings about the Bible. They know it is a good book, even
God’s Word, but they struggle with its relevance for today. There is a
listlessness about the sacred things in general and the Holy Scriptures in specific. The
old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt,” may be a reason for the chain of
apathy that chokes so many of today’s Christians. With so many Bibles accessible
to believers, maybe we have just taken the Bible for granted. Whatever the case,
there is so little emotional attachment to the Scriptures that now many believers
don’t even feel bad for not reading and studying them. Jesus admonished those
fettered with the chain of apathy, “I know your works and what you are doing;
you are neither cold or hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you
are lukewarm (apathetic) and neither cold or hot, I will spew you out of my
mouth” (Rev. 3:15, 16).
Apathy is a sad spiritual state. It numbs believers, leaving them unaware of
their true spiritual condition. This state of limbo keeps them from hearing the
rattle of the chains that restrict their Bible study. We Bible teachers have a
mammoth job to do. Isaiah summarizes our work as purveyors of God’s Word as
this: “To open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon,
and those who sit in darkness from the prison.” (Isaiah 42:7) The clarion call is
for teachers who will break the chains, loosen the shackles, and set believers
free in the Word of God.
Three Effective Chain Breakers
Who best can break the chains and put the Bible back in the pew? I believe
that we teachers have the greatest opportunity to loose the fetters from believers.
I believe we have the greatest chance of inspiring students to become serious
searchers after truth. My belief is based on what I consider to be Paul’s
hierarchical list of Spiritual Gifts.
In his first list of spiritual gifts, I Corinthians 12:28, teachers rank number
three. But in Paul’s second spiritual gifts list, Ephesians 4:11, teachers move to
the number five position. Observe though, that whether teachers rank third or
fifth, they are listed with the spiritual gifts that may be considered as having the
greatest importance to the growth and development of the church.
Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers are all crucial to the
well being of God’s church. It is interesting, though, that in this list of leading
spiritual gifts, all include some aspect of teaching. All are called to be purveyors
of God’s word. Therefore, I believe that we teachers, whether pastor, college
professor, academy Bible teacher, or administrator, must take the lead in
breaking the chains that hinder God’s people from spending time in the Word. The
spiritual gift of teaching carries with it the special work of equipping and
building believers. Our work builds Bible students. Our work equips believers. Our
spiritual gift, more than any other gift, does more, when guided by God’s spirit,
to lead people into the study of the Word. Therefore, we must be ever mindful of
the seriousness of the work we do, for either we will help in breaking the chains
or we will assist in tightening them.
Demystify the Tools. What can we do to break the chain of affluence, the
chain of academia, the chain of apathy and put the Bible back in the pew? I
believe that there are three ways we can break these chains. First, we can
demystify the tools of Bible study.
In recent years, there has developed the concept that certain tools hold the
key to the complete understanding of the Bible. We, especially in the academic
community, have made believers feel that without the facility of the original
languages, archeological studies, and systemic theology one can never become a
serious student of Scripture. We are often guilty of mystical knowledge of the
kind Paul confronted in Corinth. In Corinth, there were Greeks who believed
that there was a secret body of knowledge only available to an elite group. Do
we consider ourselves an elite group? Are we what W.E.B. Du Bois called the
“Talented Tenth”? When it comes to Bible study there are no elite groups. No
one group has a corner on the market of Bible study. Paul settled the question of
elitism by writing, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not
many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; But God
has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has
chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the
base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are
not, that He might nullify the things that are that no man should boast before
God” (I Corinthians 1:26-29).
This is not to question the value and importance of the tools. They are of
great help to the sincere searcher after truth. But there is nothing magical or
mysterious about the tools. The tools in and of themselves do not insure a proper
revelation and interpretation of God’s word. Let’s demystify the tools! Why
can’t we teach Greek to our local elders? Why aren’t we developing curriculums
in the language of laymen that cover hermeneutics, archeology, and systematic
theology? Why do we chain these tools to the walls of our educational
institutions? Stripping away the mystery that surrounds the tools will encourage more
believers to make use of these helpful instruments in their own Bible study.
Humanize the Teacher. The second way we can shatter the chains is by
humanizing the teacher. We need to make sure that students don’t deify us. It is
easy for students to place us in a god-like position. We can become more than
mere men to them. We are scholars, authorities, gods. Instead of mining the ore
of truth for themselves, we allow our students watch us dig out precious jewels
from the Scripture for them. I can tell you from experience how wonderful it
feels when people come to me for answers about the deep issues of the Bible
and leave feeling they have heard the voice of God, even though I know it was
simply my professional opinion. What an ego boost to have a class eating out of
my hand as I dazzle them with my understanding of the Pauline epistles. I can
tell you how it feels when I am admired for my scholarly explanation of the
But if we are going to shatter the chains of affluence, academia, and apathy,
if we are working to put the Bible back in the pew, we must constantly remind
our students that we are mere men. We must say, like Paul and Barnabus, “Men,
why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you”
(Acts 14:15). We must be heard echoing the words of Paul, “But we have this
treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of
God and not from ourselves” (I Corinthians 4:7). Students should leave our
presence convinced that if God can reveal truth to the teacher, He can reveal
truth to them.
Helping the student see us as human beings also means letting the student
into our hearts—becoming transparent. It’s letting the student see our struggles
and sometimes insecurity about the Word. But above all, we teachers must be a
living testimony of the power of the Word. The Bible must first be real to us
before we can make it real to our students. Have we been transformed by the
Word? Is the Word of God a living force in our lives? As students observe how
Bible study has impacted our lives, they are more likely to follow our example
in personal Bible study. The student must see us as “living epistles.” Their
excitement about Bible study will be in direct proportion to the effect of the Word
on our lives.
Lift Up the True Interpreter. Finally, we can crush the chains and put the
Bible back in the pew by uplifting the True Interpreter of Scripture. Before Jesus
ascended to His Father, He left this promise, “But when He, the Spirit of truth,
comes, He will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). We pastors, teachers, and
administrators must uphold the Holy Spirit as the True Interpreter of Scripture.
We must be convinced, and convince our students, that only the Spirit of God
knows the mind of God. Therefore, we must teach our students to lean on God’s
Spirit for a true and complete understanding of the Word.
Our degrees and teaching experience are only parts of the interpretive
equation. We must keep in mind that understanding the Bible is the work of God’s
Spirit. Paraphrasing Zechariah 4:6, “not by Greek, nor by Hebrew, nor by
scholarship, but by My Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.” The study of the Bible is
unlike the study of any other subject. Mrs. White, explaining this point, wrote,
“We should not engage in the study of the Bible with that self-reliance with
which so many enter the domains of science, but with a prayerful dependence
upon God and a sincere desire to learn His will. The Holy Spirit alone can cause
us to feel the importance of those things easy to be understood, or prevent us
from wresting truths difficult of comprehension.”3 If Bible study was simply
about obtaining information, then there would be no need for spiritual insights.
But searching the scripture is about receiving the breath of God. It’s about being
resuscitated daily by Christ, the Living Word.
Scripture as God’s Breath. I discovered something a couple years ago
while studying God’s Word that fastened in my mind the importance of daily
Bible study. The Holy Spirit brought together for me three texts—Genesis 2:7, II
Timothy 3:16, and Hebrews 4:12—which solidified for me the vivifying result
of searching the Scriptures.
Genesis 2:7 explains how we received life: “ Then the Lord God formed
man of the dust from the ground, and breath into his nostrils the breath of life,
and man became a living soul.” Hebrews 4:12 explains that the word of God is
not an inanimate object but a living entity: “For the word of God is living and
active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division
of soul and spirit, of both joints and morrow, and able to judge the thoughts and
intentions of the heart.” Paul then explains how the Word became a living entity:
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for
correction, for training in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16). The Greek word for
inspired is theopnuesto which literally means “God-breathed.”
The Scripture became a living entity because God breathed into it life.
Therefore all who read and study God’s word become recipients of the breath of
God. I like to think of it this way: every time we study the Scriptures, God is
breathing new life into us. What an exciting thought! As we apply ourselves to
the word, God’s Spirit bends over us and breathes new life into us. That’s why
we teachers must break the chains. We must help students to get under the
oxygen mask of God’s Word so that they may be revived by the oxygen of the
Spirit. We cannot resuscitate them. Only the Spirit of God can give life to the
My wife and I do ministry every weekend across North America, and it is
clear to us that the Bible is not in the pew and in many instances not even in the
pulpit. We have witnessed, first hand, churches that have very little life. We
have seen members who seem not to have the joy of the Lord nor the certain
hope of salvation. But I believe the nebulous feeling about salvation can be
remedied to a large degree by getting the church back into serious Bible study. I
believe that two things will come about when the chains are broken and the
Bible is put back in the pew.
First, many will discover a certain hope of salvation. The uncertainty of
salvation is a menacing problem among many Adventists. We pastors, teachers,
and administrators have done an excellent job of indoctrinating members, but we
3 The Great Controversy, 599.
have not done as good a job leading people to Christ and helping them to
become diligent students of His Word. As we loose the chains and lead them into
personal Bible study, they will find the Christ of Scripture.
God speaks to us in His Word. Here we have in clearer lines the
revelation of His character, of His dealings with men, and the great
work of redemption. Here is open before us the history of patriarchs
and prophets and other holy men of old. They were men ‘subject to
like passions as we are.’ We see how they struggled through
discouagements like our own, how they fell under temptations as we
have done, and yet took heart again and conquered through the grace
of God: and beholding, we are encouraged in striving after
righteousness. As we read of the precious experiences granted them, of the
light and love and blessing it was theirs to enjoy, and of the work
they wrought through the grace given them, the spirit that inspired
them kindles a flame of holy emulation in our hearts, and a desire to
be like them in character—like them to walk with God. 4
Believers will then be convinced that there is nothing we can do to save
ourselves. They will understand that the Christ of Scripture saves us solely by
His grace. They will see the fruitlessness of attempting to work their way to
heaven and will then throw themselves in the arms of Christ, trusting Him for
their complete salvation. Then joy will fill their lives. They will testify of the
certainty of their salvation in their work and in their witness. We pastors,
teachers, and administrators will not have to spoon feed them the Word, but they will
eat goodly helpings daily because they will see Bible study as life.
And finally, as we put the Bible back in the pew, there will be revival and
reformation. History testifies that once the chains of biblical illiteracy were
broken during the Dark Ages and the people received the word, revival and
reformation took place. I believe that this same divine phenomena will take place
again as the Bible once again becomes meaningful to the rank and file of the
church. Serious Bible study always revitalizes church members, and
revitalization brings change. People who study the Word not only experience
transformation in their life but start calling for change in the world around them—they
want reformation. So we’d better get ready, because when we loose God’s
people in the Word, change will come. Freeing people in the Scriptures forces them
to question the status quo. Breaking the chains is a call for reformation.
I want revival. I want reformation. What about you? Let’s break the chains
of affluence, academia, and apathy. Let’s put the Bible back in the pew.