Adult Bible Classes: What Should Be the Goal of Teaching?

From Gary Gutting, “Why Do I Teach?” in the New York Times Opinion Pages —

I’ve concluded that the goal of most college courses should not be knowledge but engaging in certain intellectual exercises.   For the last few years I’ve had the privilege of teaching a seminar to first-year Honors students in which we read a wide range of wonderful texts, from Plato and Thucydides to Calvino and Nabokov.  We have lively discussions that require a thorough knowledge of the text, and the students write excellent papers that give close readings of particular passages.  But the half-life of their detailed knowledge is probably far less than a year.  The goal of the course is simply that they have had close encounters with some great writing.

What’s the value of such encounters?  They make students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name.  They may not enjoy every book we read, but they enjoy some of them and learn that—and how—this sort of thing (Greek philosophy, modernist literature) can be enjoyable.  They may never again exploit the possibility, but it remains part of their lives, something that may start to bud again when they see a review of a new translation of Homer or a biography of T. S. Eliot, or when “Tartuffe” or “The Seagull” in playing at a local theater.

College education is a proliferation of such possibilities: the beauty of mathematical discovery, the thrill of scientific understanding, the fascination of historical narrative, the mystery of theological speculation. We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates. Knowledge, when it comes, is a later arrival, flaring up, when the time is right, from the sparks good teachers have implanted in their students’ souls.

What do you think? Should we apply his theory to adult Bible class?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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20 Responses to Adult Bible Classes: What Should Be the Goal of Teaching?

  1. The problem with this theory of teaching is that it pre-supposes a “thorough knowledge of the text” – a knowledge that I have too seldom found in the average Bible class in the average congregation. Where such knowledge exists, this is undoubtedly the best means of everyone (teacher or class-facilitator included) learning the most from a class session.

    I note that this New York Times writer indicates that though these were first year students he was teaching, they were honors students. Would that all of our students in Bible Classes in our congregations were “honors students” – but sadly, they are not. We cannot assume they know more than they do, or they will be hopelessly left behind and confused.

    On the other hand, the mere conveyance of knowledge should not be our aim, but rather the engagement of the students with the text in a way that will impact their lives. As some have said, the result of our classes should not be information but transformation.

  2. In my experience, the vast majority of Adult Bible classes do this. Little knowledge is imparted, quick, tell me the names of the Kings of Israel who reigned during the time of the prophet Elisha or list the cities Paul visited in his second missionary journey.

    Instead, the adult Bible class is a time when Christians gather to discuss the Bible among friends. The outcome is friends and, in this world of hate, jealousy, greed, and such, there is much good to be said about Christian friends encouraging and loving one another.

  3. Mark says:

    The whole idea of many is to teach the material so that the “correct” interpretation is propagated. OR the class serves to impart knowledge about Paul’s missionary journeys. I never understood why they were so important that they could be taught for years and all other topics ignored.

    I think many teachers/elders are scared of allowing a real debate or discussion since the topics that would likely come up are those which have one official opinion.

  4. David Himes says:

    For most students, the most a teacher can hope for is to plant a seed or an idea that will develop or be considered over time.

    Each student will deal with that seed or idea differently … their own individual way.

    The best teachers recognize that and encourage it

  5. Alabama John says:

    In the Bible, it is to get the class to look deeper than the verses. Get them to think about the time when it was written, where, and the people of that area and their lifestyles and beliefs it was written to.
    Hopefully that will cause the class to see the word written so long ago. in a much more personal way.

  6. One major difference, of course, is that the church isn’t planning around one semester only; the church is planning for a lifetime of training and learning.

    I do think, however, that we need to focus more on teaching critical thinking skills, especially as applied to Bible texts. Classes need to focus on deeper thinking than merely being able to recite the names of the apostles and name the five steps of salvation.

  7. Mark says:

    Alabama John,
    That would mean not taking the verses out of context. That would be scary. This is like the fact that Paul taught about God without quoting the law to a group who only knew Greek philosophy not the Torah. I just learned that and not from a cofC pulpit. Most of us who grew up cofC know that most verses were taken out of context. I often begged for an explanation of the to whom and why, basically the context. I was told to go study it on my own. Basically that just reinforced the idea that the sermon was there to prove points and convert people, not teach and make the bible relevant to modern people.

  8. Charles McLean says:

    I absolutely LOVE Gutting’s perspective and will save it for a number of folks I know. I am reminded that as recently as a couple hundred years ago, one did not pursue an education to learn a set of facts or -God forbid- the skills for a trade. One was educated to learn to think, and to be exposed to the world beyond his ken, and professional training was then invested only in those who had this essential foundation.

    I would love to see bible classes, both adult AND youth, focus more on this. Our usual focus on trying to inculcate facts into people gives us results like being able to quote proof texts, but not being able to reason out a Christ-like response to something NOT directly addressed in scripture– such as gambling or explicit movies. It leaves us being able to name the twelve apostles, but not to be able to effectively describe their functions in the church and community. We have taught bible class as one might teach a class in contract law: plenty of study of precedent and process and history, and how to drill into the law library and find case law to support our own arguments. But the Bible is not written this way.

    I think that there is a good reason that so much of the scripture is composed of biographs. That is, it is stories about the lives of people. It is not that Mephiboseth or Samson are men of lasting historic significance. It is their interactions with their circumstances and how this related to the heart and desires of God which make them significant. It matters not whether Gideon wound up with 300 men or 3000 men, but we often walk away with the fact stashed away and the larger point mislaid. Not because we don’t get the point, but because a spiritual precept is harder to quantify than a hard number. (Check out your “Bible Bowl” questions and see how many of the answers are really important things for the young Christian to know.)

    If our teaching was more focused on God himself and how he reveals himself in scripture, we could better apply that understanding to particular issues and decisions we face, rather than trying to build up a biblical Westlaw for future reference.

  9. Skip says:

    As a former university professor for 18 years and as a student and teacher in numerous Bible classes, I think that the modern CoC method of teaching is dysfunctional on a several levels. The goal of having church classes in my opinion is three things: 1) Learn about the nature of God and how to fall in love with him and his son, 2) Learn about his practical will for our lives (this goes way beyond learning doctrinal positions), 3) Learn how to put his will into practice by serving and loving others. The later would mean the class discusses how they loved and served people during the prior week.
    Pure academic Bible study, in my opinion, is practically worthless. I have known numerous “Christians” who can quote book chapter and verse but don’t know know the God they try to serve nor how to be close to others on a heart level.
    Years ago I had a summer fellowship with NASA and we attended a local CoC who spent the whole summer teaching on Bible trivia. The teacher would give pop quizzes about some of the most inane trivia and members of the class got so excited about the most useless information. The questions were like, “Who wore badger skin shoes in the Bible?” I was shocked at how they loved trivia but could not lovingly relate to anyone outside of the church walls. Until we change lives with Bible knowledge we are not teaching the right way.

  10. George Mearns says:

    I am frustrated by the shallowness of both Bible classes and sermons. We just go over the same old same old, afraid to be challenged or to challenged. There is a fear that if something different is taught, then we will somehow end up falling away. Jesus challenged the Pharisees view of the Sabbath at the end of Mark 2 and beginning of Mark 3. They decided to kill Him for that. There is so much richness in scripture; lament, who God is and how He responds, life and death, etc., yet we just have those who think all we need to do is teach the basics, something the Hebrew writer questioned. I have lead discussion classes that people were allow to present different ideas and views, to mull over scriptures, and to remain brothers and sisters in Christ. I think that we wonder why people are shallow and weak when all we have fed them has been milk and junk food. That’s my opinion.

  11. Alabama John says:

    And I’m sticking to it!!!! LOL

    We in arguing with each other sometimes forget we will be judged individually and not by a consensus of how many of those we know now, in our lifetime, as fellow Christians think just as we do.
    Reach out, push the COC envelope, you just might be right on a point or two and at least will be judged trying instead of being a follower of ever how the wind is blowing in your lifetime.
    Believe me, in my own lifetime how many ways the wind has changed in the COC on so many points that were soul condemning yesterday but not even mentioned today.
    It will be interesting to hear folks speaking in heaven of their worship and practices beliefs. In many cases we will be able to tell the dates they lived by their statements.

  12. Alabama John says:

    Same here!
    How I have asked for forgiveness for that, and interestingly, that is not how many of us are in our normal lives. Most of us are check it out folks and go with our instincts and do not follow blindly in the rest of our lives.
    I still do not understand why we did follow as we did for so long.

  13. ao says:

    Several comments are getting to the heart of the issue, I think. The NYT article talks about class as a place for discovery, learning new ways of thinking, and testing ideas. Every Sunday morning adult Bible class I’ve ever been in is about the opposite–defending what we already know, reinforcing established ways of thinking, and dismissing new ideas.

    Interestingly, in the times that the Sunday AM Bible class teacher has acknowledged this discrepancy, I’ve heard it often said that we have to be careful to defend what we already know and we have to avoid new ideas because visitors need to know what we believe and that we’re not confused about it.

    On a separate note, for colleges, I’m all for the whole “I teach critical thinking” pedagogy. But I hear that approach way more from humanities professors who have to justify why it’s a good career choice to become a history or philosophy major. And I agree with that justification, but employers don’t find it as persuasive. Law schools, business schools, engineering schools, and medical schools teach critical thinking, too, but they also teach you how to do something that requires a specific set of applied skills.

  14. JB Murphy says:

    Jay asked: “What do you think? Should we apply his theory to adult Bible class?”

    Let’s look at what the author wrote:
    -> “The goal of the course is simply that they have had close encounters with some great writing.”

    This is often done in Bible Study classes by doing character studies so we can relate to people like Moses, David and Paul who all lived in a different culture.

    The main issue I have is with the following:
    “We should judge teaching not by the amount of knowledge it passes on, but by the enduring excitement it generates.”

    The Bible class teacher in the local congregation is limited by a number of things, including the teaching venue, time, course arrangement (quarter system, etc.) and audience knowledge. The teacher should determine at the outset what the purpose of the class is, and that should drive his teaching methodology. No one wants a boring class, or a boring subject, and the teacher should make attempts to make subject matter more exciting or easier to digest.

    As to the author’s statement above, I don’t think it aligns with Deut. 6 and other OT passages regarding the purpose of instruction, nor with its NT counterparts. The teaching in a university and church congregation setting are two entirely different situations.

  15. JB Murphy says:

    George Mearns wrote:
    “I am frustrated by the shallowness of both Bible classes and sermons. We just go over the same old same old, afraid to be challenged or to challenged. There is a fear that if something different is taught, then we will somehow end up falling away.”

    Then volunteer to teach classes, this is the solution I came up with. Go so far as to even propose classes if your local congregation doesn’t follow some set curriculum. I found that I was able to teach classes on books that had not been taught in many years at the congregation simply because others were not interested. The books were Leviticus and Ezekiel.

  16. Grizz says:

    The big issue with the critical thinking approach is … it terrifies most of us. If we truly engage with God through the texts and through the contexts of our lives and our friends’ lives and the life of our community, the changes to many of our lives could be soul-shaking. It isn’t that we do not see the need, the absolute joy of personally engaging God and not just facts about others who engaged Him whole-heartedly, but rather that we doubt whether we and our families could survive such an exchange that would bring new perspective to so much of what we now struggle to maintain.

    This is life-altering stuff. And while we are accepting that change is a part of the experience of walking with God, it is somehow intimidating to give God a truly free hand with our lives. What will He do with me? How will it affect my relationships, particularly with those whom I love and hold most dear? Will it change where I live? Will it change all the things my closest friends and family think about me? I barely know how to tackle my current challenges. Can a person really live every moment of every day in tune with the Spirit of God and not lose everything we have worked so hard to achieve, to have, to build? I mean, we trust God for the eternal, but it seems so much more to trust Him for the everyday, almost like it is too petty – or as if it would be too taxing, too real. It is so much easier to keep the trust factor focused on some distant day…

    When we engage God this way, does it also mean we have to learn to give up the last bit of our masks we wear with one another? As a servant, what if I learn something that makes it hard for me to even like my closest brothers and sisters in the Lord? What if they feel the same way about me? Can they handle the weaknesses and failures I now hide? Am I ready to share and receive what this will bring my way?

    It is the unknown … the lack of familiarity sometimes … or the lack of confidence in ourselves that can take our eyes off the wonder of extended and intimately interwoven relationships with God and with our fellow believers that can intimidate. Fear is the product of our imaginations. Critically considering a real, in-depth walk together that could challenge our comfort zones can be stressing. Following through seems like something we expect of the spiritual leaders … and maybe not so much as we expect it of ourselves.

    So even when we are inspired and feel compelled, it seems as though the weight of all of our fears is caught up in taking the first step and refusing to look back. But God help us all to take a deep breath and resolve, “Here goes …”

  17. Jay Guin says:


    I think I come down somewhere in between.

    Yes, Bible classes absolutely should teach critical thinking skills.

    Yes, Bible classes absolutely should excite students with exposure to extraordinary literature.

    But those critical thinking skills aren’t going to do much good without some knowledge of what to think critically about. We need to know the over-arching narrative the scriptures. We need to know who Saul and David were and how God interacted with them. We need to know about Moses and the exodus. The history and the facts matter. (Although I have no idea who wore shoes of badger skin and haven’t bothered to look it up. Is that even a real fact?)

    Moreover, as great as it is to appreciate the Bible as extraordinary literature, the real goal is to encounter God through Jesus. The goal is to see through the words to the Author of the words and to meet that Being and to be transformed by that encounter. (I’m not the first to say that.)

    Therefore, I certainly agree that much traditional Bible teaching gets us nowhere near those goals. (I couldn’t name the kings of the Northern Kingdom if my soul depended on it — except for a few: Jeroboam, Omri, Jehu, and Ahab come to mind.)

    I think back to the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 wrestling with whether to bind circumcision on Gentiles. How many of our members — or elders or preachers — could repeat the theological process that led them to their conclusion?

    I think back to Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees and other Jewish groups who knew their OT down pat — and so understood Jesus at a level we can’t even imagine.

    And then I read through Romans 9 – 11, in which Paul repeatedly quotes from the Torah and the Prophets to make points that we totally miss because we don’t know enough about Torah and Prophets to follow his logic.

    And just how badly have we misunderstood God when we’ve misunderstood these kinds of passages?

    The solution is surely deeper Bible study, at least in part, but study of what kind? What sort of study prepares us to read the scriptures and to — over and over — have Aha! moments where we find ourselves drawn closer to God?

  18. Mark says:

    Part of the modern-day problem comes from people who use(d) the Bible as a weapon. In the past those people threatened anyone who did not completely agree with them with damnation. It was always amazing just what all torts led to damnation. The list rarely ever included violations of any of the 10 Commandments.

    Now some of us remember when an old person would be teaching Bible class and a younger person really did not agree and wanted to bring out a different opinion or different idea he or she was told not to because it would upset the old person. This resulted in a lot of people just turning off the idea of learning anything biblical and tuning out .

    Sadly in our Christian universities the Bible classes tended to teach a set of facts that when learned and repeated on the exam got one a good grade. Once the course was over the information was forgotten. About the only thing remembered from a course had to do with if the professor had made a snide comment about Catholics or Jews. This sadly led to people hearing only the one opinion of the professor. Disagreement with the professor’s opinion was generally acceptable only if one were willing to put his/her scholarship in jeopardy due to a poor grade.

    Now I am not sure if this idea originated in our seminaries or somewhere else. I can say that those Bible professors who went to the Jewish seminary, Hebrew Union College, were always much more open to hearing other opinions and teaching opinions in class. Perhaps this had to do with the number of ancient rabbis, namely Gamaliel, Maimonides, et al. who all had their own followers and schools (of thought). This could be compared to Calvin and Arminian. However, I never once heard in a Bible class the opinions and ideas of Augustine of Hippo, Calvin, Luther, Wesley, or any of the other church fathers.

    The problem with this is that I believe it carries over into church Bible classes a.k.a. Sunday school. Those who might have learned some Bible in a Christian University can’t yet get over the fact that they are permitted to speak freely. Some will not attend a Bible class because they’re scared it’s going to be just like University Bible class where there was one opinion and it was the official opinion and that was the only opinion and so they see no reason to go.

  19. Larry Cheek says:

    I attended 5 Baptist Seminary extension courses. The format was that whatever subject you were assigned, two books pertaining to the subject matter written by their chosen authors were purchased, and we read and studied their writings and were given tests and issued grades according to the matter in the books. Many times I encountered areas that were directly in conflict with information in the scriptures; questions that were on the tests when answered by the information in the books were also in conflict with the scriptures. I approached the instructor with some of the information and showed him my case, sometimes he even agreed that he could see the problem, but in order to pass the class the answer that you supplied must be what the authors of the tests had gleaned from the text book. I had several what I considered positive communications with instructors and other students about questionable areas. We had an agreement that as long as the answer that they were looking for was contained somewhere within my supplied answer they just ignored the answer that followed the scriptures, therefore many of the tests received multiple answers and I passed the courses. I finally told them if they ever began to study the scriptures rather then these writers’ books to let me know and I would probably attend more courses, I have never received a notification from them.

  20. Charles McLean says:

    Larry, your problem reminds me of something my dad confessed in getting his degrees in psychology. Some of the conclusions of the great psychological lights Dad believed were simply wrong. But this was the material on the exam. He said he became a master at using the phrase “according to…” in his essay answers, which let him explain Jung’s view, for example, without agreeing with it.

    I don’t know which books you read which you found objectionable, but disagreeing about something the Bible teaches– or which we believe it teaches– is not a phenomenon limited to a college course. At best, reading texts which you believe contradict scripture should be a mind-sharpening tool, allowing one to examine exactly how the author arrived at his conclusion and exactly where he went wrong in his understanding. This allows us to apply the same critical thinking skills to OUR OWN ideas and conclusions. We are all subject to the same pitfalls. This is a good way to develop the capacity to see the beam in our own eye.

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