A plea for clear Bible teaching

A plea for clear Bible teaching

Good Bible teaching has to be clear and easy to understand. That’s always true, whoever the teaching is for. You need to be clear when explaining something to small children, and you need to be clear when teaching theological students. Yet, too often, I come across Bible teaching that is unnecessarily complicated! A little thought in presentation will make a massive difference in how much your hearers understand and retain.

Clarity is not the same as ‘dumbing down’ and avoiding difficult concepts. When a Bible teacher is clear, they are saying things in a way that is understandable to their hearers. It is more than possible to explain difficult things in simple terms.

Teaching the Bible is not about making yourself look intelligent

When someone finishes hearing Bible teaching, we don’t want them to be impressed and praise the speaker for being so good at what they do. The aim is not to elevate the speaker but to elevate God. Adding a lot of Greek and Hebrew into sermons might make someone sound scholarly, but it rarely helps those who listen to understand better. By all means, do the background work in Greek and Hebrew, but be careful in how you express what you learn. If you don’t need to include it and can explain it using different English translations, for example, do that.

At theological college, one thing that really annoyed me was when journal article writers kept untranslated German in their papers. They are sending the message: ‘if you don’t read German, you are not as intelligent as me and have no place reading this article’. Don’t do that to your hearers!

Jargon is always a mistake

Every specialty has its own jargon, and Christianity is no exception. Yet we expect there to be new Christians and non-Christians present when we teach. Using words like ‘justification’ or ‘eschatology’ will wash over most people if not explained more simply. Saying that we are ‘declared to stand innocent before God’ is better, or to talk about the ‘study of the end times’.

Don’t assume people know the Bible

It would be great if most people were taught the Bible as children, but at least where I live, that is not true. Most people don’t know the stories in Judges and could not put the events of conquest and exile in the right historical context. If your argument rests on some other part of the Bible, explain it, don’t assume it.

Stop flipping around everywhere in the Bible

I know Bible teachers want to show that the point in their passage is consistent with the rest of the Bible. This noble aim leads the congregation to flip around, not having time to absorb the context of any passage as they try to find things. It is confusing. Ideally, stick to the one passage, or limit the passages to a few. If you don’t need to flip around to make your point, don’t!

Be aware of your context

Good Bible teaching doesn’t just explain the Bible passage well; it explains it well to the specific audience who are hearing it. You need to think about who you are speaking to. Those speaking to only university students can speak about exam stress and job prospects and the latest music, because the whole audience is impacted by those things. In my cross-cultural context, I need to be aware of the fact that most of my congregation have English as a second language. I strive to avoid idioms which are very difficult for English learners to grasp. I cannot use illustrations that require a lot of cultural understanding, like cricket or political history. What is easy for you to understand might not be easy for your audience.

Clearly gospel and not works

Clarity of Bible teaching must end up teaching grace and not works. The Bible is a book about Jesus! If we clearly express what God expects of people in the Bible, but we don’t show how wonderful Jesus is, we have clearly expressed the wrong thing.

Think of the bigger picture

In Romans 10, Paul has this wonderful chain of logic:

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:13-15 ESV)

Maybe we could add at the end of v14: “And how are they to hear if the person preaching is too complicated?” If we want people to be saved, they need to hear and understand the gospel. We need to make every effort that we are not only speaking the gospel; we need to make sure we are speaking the gospel clearly, in a way everyone listening can understand.