Monday, June 16, 2008

The Itching Ears We Love

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

I recently came back from a seminar that reminded me, in an ironic way, of Paul’s solemn charge and warning to Timothy: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage-- with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. (2 Timothy 4:1-4; Scripture citations are from the NIV unless otherwise indicated)

The seminar was called REVEAL. It was sponsored by the Willow Creek Association to explain their research based on the spiritual life survey that has been taken by 118,000 people in 420 congregations. When provided with a broad “list of benefits a church could provide” and asked to rank them in terms of importance the highest ranking benefit was “Help me understand the Bible in depth.” When asked a different question about what they wanted most from the weekend service of their church the top choice was for a service that “Incorporates relevant Bible teaching to help me with everyday life.” The third choice (out of many) was for a service that “Incorporates frequent use of Scripture” and the fourth choice was for a service that “Provides in-depth study of the Bible” (REVEAL: On the Road 2008, © WCA 2008). Three out of four of the top priorities for the worship service had to do with engaging Scripture. The ears of the people in these churches are itching for the Word of God!

In some cases it is preachers rather than the listeners who may be most tempted to think the church needs a different diet. Pastors are sometimes tempted to think careful or in-depth Bible teaching was something that an earlier generation would tolerate but that those attending church today would balk at it and want less blatantly religious teaching. The truth is that there have been too many cases of churches or Sunday School classes where in-depth Bible teaching was given but there was no life transformation to go along with it. The Bible can be and sometimes has been taught for the sake of knowledge alone (or a view of spirituality that views knowledge as being equal to spirituality), and that does not build up the church or its members. But that should not lead anyone to conclude that life change must come about some other way and not through knowledge of the Scriptures. While spiritual growth requires much more than a knowledge and understanding of Scripture (and more than private spiritual disciplines), solid spiritual growth and health will not be sustained without such a foundation. It seems the sheep understand the diet they need even if their shepherds are not always so clear about it.

The first article of the Gordon-Conwell Mission Statement reads “To encourage students to become knowledgeable of God's inerrant Word, competent in its interpretation, proclamation and application in the contemporary world.” The rationale given is as follows: “Because the teaching of God's Word is indispensable to the well-being and vitality of God's people, the Seminary has a fundamental responsibility to encourage in students a love for Scripture. The Seminary is to teach exegetical skills by which they will be able to apply Scripture effectively.” In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul exhorts Timothy to “Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately” (NET). Later he points out that the teaching of Scripture is essential if God’s people are to be “thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). It is the holy Scriptures “which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 15).

We do not believe in providing in-depth understanding of Scripture merely for the sake of intellectual curiosity, but for the essential contribution it makes, by the work of God’s grace and God’s Spirit, to our continuing transformation - the transformation of our heart, soul, mind and strength. Unsurprisingly, the REVEAL research confirms the crucial role of Scripture engagement in spiritual growth. Cally Parkinson, the co-author of REVEAL who led our seminar, told us that their research shows that exposure to (reading/study of and reflection on) Scripture, both privately and in worship, was by far the most significant and catalytic factor in people’s advancement through the stages of spiritual growth.

I am grateful to God to be serving on the faculty of a seminary that has a wonderful heritage of maintaining the highest possible standards in training Christian leaders to be careful and faithful interpreters of God’s Word. It is a heritage that, by God’s grace, we are committed to maintaining and building upon. We must (and do) teach our students much more than that, but we will never settle for anything less.

It is encouraging to hear (and to be able to spread the news) that the people in our pews long to have the Word of God read, taught and preached to them. They long to grasp its message more fully that its message might grasp their lives more completely. This is a case where pastors would do well to listen to the flock and rededicate themselves to providing them with a solid diet of clear, life-transforming biblical teaching and preaching. By the grace of God this is what the ears of our people are itching for! If we are to preach the Word even when people’s ears itch for other things instead, how much more should we be eager to do so when that is what they crave for both spiritual milk and spiritual meat? Paul tells Timothy to “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2). I thank God for every preacher who is prepared to preach the Word when it is “out of season” (as we all must be) but rejoice in the news that, as a matter of fact, it is “in season” (at least as far as those surveyed are concerned)!

May God continue to multiply the numbers of those whose ears itch for the clear and undiluted preaching of his Word. Those are the itching ears we love! And may God continue to raise up faithful shepherds who will feed their flock the diet it needs to grow up “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

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