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3 Wrong Turns on the Bible Study Trail

So far in Common Sense Bible Study, we’ve laid down the ground rules for the series and detailed three important steps to take before you begin your Bible study. In this email, I want to introduce you to three categories of error that Bible students commonly wander into. Then I’ll expand a bit on the first category and give you some tips to stay on the right trail. In my next email, I’ll talk about the second category, and then wrap it all up in a third email.

I’m not a theologian, and I never attended seminary. Chances are good that, if you’re reading this, you didn’t either. I don’t want to bore you or scare you off with a bunch of technical terms for classifying heresies even if I could manage to use the words correctly. Instead, I’m going to use these categories to describe three very closely related kinds of errors:

  1. Distractions
  2. Secret clubs
  3. Sentimentality

Right away, I suspect you’ll have some idea of what these categories describe, and, no doubt, you can think of errors that fit none of them. You would be right, of course, but most of those kinds of ideas get into much rougher terrain than I intend to cover here. On the other hand, as we progress through the series, I think you’ll be surprised at how many very fancy and official sounding doctrines will fit.

Wrong Turn 1: Distractions

Joe: “This sign says the trail goes this way.”
Frank: “Look at these neat vines. The leaves are shaped like mittens.”
Joe: “It’s getting dark. Let’s follow the sign.”
Frank: “What if we get lost? We need to determine if these are edible.”

Looking at the foliage and the birds is great. Everybody should spend some time in nature and in the geekier aspects of Bible study. Who doesn’t like a good rabbit trail now and then? But when your goal is to get from point A to point B before the sun sets, progressing down the right path takes precedence over everything else.

The Bible is full of fascinating stuff. Sometimes I love to dig into obscure aspects of a passage–you should check out my growing list of chiasms–but it’s important to keep things in perspective. For example, whether Hobab (see Numbers 10:29) was Zipporah’s brother, uncle, or someone else could be an interesting topic to explore when you have some spare time one day, but whatever conclusion you reach doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The precise identity of Hobab will probably never have any impact on your personal salvation, your relationship with God, or your behavior at the office today, so don’t get too hung up about it.

Does it really matter all that much if John the Baptist was an Essene or whether every hair on your head has an actual, pronounceable name or not?

No matter how strongly you believe that Hobab is Zipporah’s half-brother by Jethro’s second wife, it’s about on the same level of importance as your favorite color. It’s a bad idea to build doctrine around speculation and obscure passages. Even logic is on unsteady ground if it isn’t supported by unambiguous Scripture.

Whenever you decide that a passage means something that isn’t supported by at least two other, more clear passages, ask yourself these two questions.

  1. Does this conclusion change your relationship with God in any significant way?
  2. Does this conclusion change your behavior in any significant way?

If the answer to both of these questions is no, then the next thing to do is relax and not take it too seriously. You might be right or you might be wrong. Either way, it’s mostly academic. Don’t argue about it with strangers on the Internet and don’t start a new religion called Hobabism. Those things are some of what Paul referred to as foolish controversies in Titus 3:9. Just make a note of it as an interesting aside and keep to the straight and narrow path.

We’ll talk about Wrong Turn #2 next time: Secret Clubs. Shhh!

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