At the start of one school year I asked my students how they felt about previous Bible courses. A few of their responses sounded off a warning alarm in my head. And the alarm came with this message: Bible class can turn students off to the Bible. Undoubtedly, there are a few causes for this negative feeling toward the Bible, but one that was mentioned was the way Bible class was taught.
Teaching Biblical Controversy
Let me suggest one thing, out of many things, Bible teachers can do to keep students from losing interest in the Bible: expose students to biblical controversy. There’s, of course, a healthy way to do that and an unhealthy way, but for now let me simply argue the point in general. High school students should be exposed to controversy in biblical interpretation for the following reasons:
- If they are taught to read the Bible closely, and they should be, high school students already see challenging areas of biblical interpretation. Although we may try, we can’t shield students from Bible difficulties.
- High school students want to wrestle with challenging questions. Whether we facilitate it or not, the wrestling match has already begun. Haven’t you noticed how effortlessly students can express their questions when given the chance? Even my elementary-age daughters know how to ask tough questions about the Bible. By ignoring the tough questions, we are boring the students. High school students are full of energy and confidence—except for when they’re falling asleep after lunch—so let them wrestle.
- High school students will face the tough questions in the future during college, hardships in life, encounters with others, etc. So by not exposing students to challenges, we’re not preparing them for their future.
- Bible teachers should be an example of honesty. Since Christian history stretches back two thousand years, we are the recipients of a vast library of opinions and those opinions are not always in harmony. We should be honest about differences in biblical interpretation because if we’re not honest, we’ll lose the students’ trust, and then we’ll lose their interest. Can we really hide things from high school students today anyway?
- Bible teachers should be an example of humility. We don’t have all the answers. And because we don’t know it all, we have to demonstrate humility by listening well to others.
- Bible teachers should be an example of courage. Why do some religious groups only teach one interpretation without even mentioning other interpretations? Or if they do mention other interpretations why do they do so only disparagingly? Fear. They don’t want to entertain the idea that they may be wrong. But what do Christians really have to be afraid of? Christians should be able to look directly at the evidence without flinching.
- Finally, Bible courses should expose homeschool students to biblical controversy because it may be the only opportunity those students have to really grapple with differences within the Christian tradition. Students who attend a traditional Christian school are usually exposed to others from various denominations, but homeschool students may lack that same exposure.
As you can see, my reasoning acknowledges that a lot of what students learn is caught rather than taught. Long after class is over and the material is forgotten, students will remember the example of their teachers. And that means students can only be exposed to biblical controversy in a healthy way under the guidance of mature and competent teachers. But if high school Bible teachers are immature and incompetent, what results can we expect? Two thoughts come quickly to mind. First, we run the risk of driving these students away from the faith. Second, and perhaps even worse, we run the risk that these students will remain in the church and act like their teachers.
Confident in the Gospel
I know some may fear exposing students to biblical controversy will only lead to confusion or agnosticism so let me be quick to add: Christians should always be confident in the gospel. We are confident that the gospel is the message of salvation for all people and that the good news is centered on Jesus Christ. But when we forget as Paul said that “now we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor.13:12), we stop listening, we ignore questions, we act arrogantly, and ultimately we turn students off to us and the Bible. So by all means teach the Bible but be careful how you do it.
[This post is part of my Guide for High School Bible Teachers.]