Biblical Illiteracy: the Church Epidemic

Today’s church is malnourished. Christians are biblically illiterate and theologically shallow, which has led to the tragic consequence of mass de-conversion. If we cannot explain the power of the gospel as it is revealed in the Bible, why would we expect anything different?

-Jeremiah Johnston, “Unanswered”

Epidemic (noun): a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.

For most Christians, the relationship between faith and knowledge is as polarizing as any issue in their life. It’s as divided as Republican and Democrat. They will either gravitate toward one or the other, but almost never have a healthy balance of both.

Now, to be clear, all Christians have a degree of faith, since that is the foundation of the Christian life. And yes, I could say that to a certain degree, all Christians have knowledge. However, for any Christian, I believe they are lacking in either one of these two areas, if not both. From what I have observed, growing up in the church, I believe there is clearly a much greater lack of knowledge than of faith.

This lack of knowledge of the Christian faith can be attributed to one major issue that is present in the church today – biblical illiteracy. Many of us don’t have the first clue what the Bible actually says. Or, if we know the Scriptures, we know just enough to be dangerous. Not dangerous to the world. Dangerous to the Church. Jeremiah Johnston, a professor at Houston Baptist University says this in his book Unanswered: Lasting Truth for Trending Questions, “What troubles me is that in the whole history of the church, the twenty-first century has some of the most educated people ever sitting in its pews, yet they are also the most unengaged and biblically illiterate. It is not only ignorance of the Bible that concerns me; it is also the frequent misrepresentation of it.”

The irony of this reality would almost be funny if it were not such a serious issue. Statistically, the 21st century Church is the most educated and resourced church in all of history. On average, Americans will spend 2.5 billion dollars on Bibles each year. The Bible itself is by far the best-selling book in human history. Yet, by holding a conversation with the common church member, you get the sense that it’s not even being read.

Every year, the American Bible Society publishes a report called “State of the Bible.” Their 2015 study reveals just how illiterate most Christians are when it comes to what the Bible teaches:

  1. Nearly 50% of American Christians say they are “too busy” to read the Bible
  2. Only 1 in 4 Americans could correctly identify that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32) is the only statement found in the Bible out of four possible options
  3. Over one-third of Americans believe the phrase “God works in mysterious ways” is a Bible verse
  4. Only 1 out of 7 adults say they read the Bible daily
  5.  Just 12% of adults would consider themselves highly knowledgeable of the Bible

Now, after reading those statistics, take into consideration that the average American household contains 4.4 Bibles (usually between 3 and 10). Then consider the fact that the average American family is only made up of 3.16 people! On average, an American home has more Bibles than it does people, yet most people have no clue what it says.

We are seeing the effects of this lack of enthusiasm for biblical knowledge right before our very eyes. In the same ABS study, it was found that the Millennials, the largest generation in American history and the generation that I myself belong to, is the most likely to have a skeptical attitude towards the Bible and Christianity; 33% of millennials say they never read the Bible.

Why would they be skeptical? Well, it would certainly be for a number of reasons. Church members and Christians are almost certainly going to point the finger at the sinful world, the fallen society, and the corrupt culture that we live in. But how about looking at ourselves for a second? What if one of the reasons that young people are skeptical toward the Bible is that the people they know that claim to follow the Bible don’t have a clear understanding of what the Bible says. They have questions about life, but no Christian they know has an answer because, unless they know a believer in the 12% of the last statistic, the Christians around don’t have knowledgeable experience with the book they say is so important.

We are seeing the effects of Biblical illiteracy in, and because of, much of the preaching that is present today. If you read my first two blogs, you noticed that I wrote about churches that did not value doctrine and promoted and encouraged “simple” sermons and teaching. (If you haven’t, I would encourage you to read my very first post about the Down Grade Controversy, because that is exactly what is happening today.) While “simple” sounds great at first, it has had a horrible result for many Christians today. The simple preaching style and easy, self-help, step-by-step sermon series have conditioned the people in those churches to think that reading the Bible in its entirety and having vast knowledge of what it says is not important. (Again, I am not against “simple” altogether. For clarification, read my second post.) So, not only are we experiencing an epidemic of biblical illiteracy of among those in the pews, but it is also in many of our pulpits.

As Christians, we claim to have the inspired and inerrant Word of God (although even that’s come into question, too). But yet, even though we say we have the very words of God, given to us by the Holy Spirit working through 40 different authors over a period of 1,500 years, we have little or no time and little or no respect for it. Seriously, Christians in America have unlimited access to the Word of God, to read the very words of God, but they’re “too busy.” And they’ll give plenty more excuses on top of that one. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s the truth. It’s nothing but an excuse. And I can only think of two reasons why you would find an excuse to not read the words of God. Either you do not respect what God has to say, or you are afraid of what He has to say.

So once again, I challenge you. God gave you a mind. Use it! Peter, who was an uneducated fisherman, knew the value of having knowledge of the Scriptures. He says in 2 Peter 1:3-9, “His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness. By these He has given us very great and precious promises, so that through them you may share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world because of evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The person who lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten the cleansing from his past sins.”

What has Peter told us about knowledge? It is a gift from God. God has given knowledge, and has given us our minds, so that we can supplement our faith with knowledge, among these other qualities. By doing this, we are able to live godly lives “through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” Our knowledge must be present and increasing. If not, Peter says we will be useless and unfruitful Christians. That should scare us.

The numbers are in, and they aren’t pretty. To put it bluntly, they say that too many Christians are useless to the faith. Do you find that discouraging? Does that break your heart? I hope that it does. But I hope that challenges you to want to be useful. I hope you want to be used by God. So I challenge you: be prepared to be used, and start by reading your Bible. Consistently.

If you are a new believer, do not be discouraged. It takes time to learn Scripture, but it is worth the time it takes. And if you have been a Christian for many years now, I would say examine yourself. How knowledgeable of the Bible are you now compared to where you were a year ago? Two years ago? When you first became a Christian? If you see progress, praise God and then strive for more. If you do not, pray that the Lord would give you a desire to know Him and to know His Word. We do not strive for perfection, for that is impossible this side of heaven. But we do strive for progress.

“Therefore, dear friends, since you know this in advance, be on your guard, so that you are not led away by the error of lawless people and fall from your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen.” (2 Peter 3:17-18)


One thought on “Biblical Illiteracy: the Church Epidemic

  1. Very well written Clayton. I remember as a. Child growing up in the Catholic church. My grandmother revered the Bible but we were not allowed to touch it let alone read it. It was too special a book to be messed with. My hrandmother loved Jesus and she taught me too love Him too. But Not because I read His truth in scripture. It was for fear of going to Hell if I didn’t. I read my Bible as much as I can. I believe that knowledge is power and God will give us that if seek Him. I also believe that we are responsible for defending what we believe. Going to Hell (as my grandmother put it) is not an answer. We must be knowledgeable if we intend to defend our belief in Jesus Christ. In fact it is our responsibility. In 1Peter 3:15 we are told , “but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
    Nice post.


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