At a 1970s concert at the Sydney Opera House (yes, I am old enough to have been there), Noel Paul Stookey—about to launch into generational favourites ‘Puff the magic dragon’ and ‘Blowing in the wind’—spoke about how everyone loves to hum along as soon as he starts to play those tunes. After a pregnant pause he begged, “Please don’t!”
Some leaders are a bit like that with questions in Bible study groups. Many of us just can’t help ourselves; we want to trot out all our answers to all the questions. After all, we have heard the answers, or possibly even thought them up at some stage. And the more theological preparation we have, the more we feel the necessity to help people out of their misery by immediately responding to every little question or concern they may have.
Here are 19 reasons why you should bite your tongue and not answer questions during your Swedish Bible study group meeting. (If you have more reasons we’d love to hear them!):
- The Bible teaches us how to read it. As we search it for answers, the Bible teaches us which answers are important and which are not. Ultimately, the Bible inductively teaches us which questions to ask.
- Seeking answers motivates people to do further investigative Bible reading. If they hear other people’s queries, their curiosity is broadened. This is why the correct answer to all questions is “Keep reading your Bible, carefully, to find the answer”.
- It avoids being sidetracked from the text and going off on tangents.
- It stops the sharing of ignorances.
- It keeps the group agile and motivated.
- It avoids arguments over answers; everyone has to listen rather than pontificate.
- It stops ‘old hands’ preachifying at newcomers.
- It allows non-Christians and Christians to participate equally without fear of looking ignorant. All are challenged to seek God's answers.
- It allows people who don't know all the answers to lead Bible study groups. That way we can multiply Bible study groups and further evangelization and disciple-making.If we seriously want to evangelize high schoolers and young workers, and just about any significant population group you can think of in the world, we need to avoid gate-keeping God and his word, and encourage people to open the Scriptures with their friends and peers.
- If we model investigation rather than answers, that will set the norm for our group members as they go on to start new groups.
- It affirms our confidence in the greater authority of Scripture over that of the human authority of the teacher or preacher.
- It respects different theological persuasions but keeps the Bible as authoritative.
- It motivates attentive listening to good Bible teaching on the passage.
- It teaches Bible readers to be patient as they seek God's answers to their questions. Better to maintain a perspective of “we need to keep exploring this question” than to jump in with a premature answer.
- People tend to learn best when they search for and find their own answers.
- It allows groups to read together over social media without conversations becoming complicated and untenable.
- Not answering questions in the meeting allows plenty of room for personal follow up, as well as offering natural conversation starters after the meeting itself. The issues arising provide an agenda for ongoing personal discipleship, and clarity regarding group training needs in how to read the Bible.
- It is great to model humility before the Scriptures, and not feel the need to solve all the problems or answer all the questions.
- It avoids people holding your answers against you. If they have a problem with the text of scripture, it helps them be aware that their issue is with God and his word, rather than with mere Christians.
Tommy (his real name), joined a group using the Swedish Bible Study method on mobile phones (using WhatsApp). He came up with some great questions on Galatians 2:1-10:
In verse 2 when it comes to explaining the gospel to the leaders of Jerusalem, does it refer to Peter, John and James? If it is not them, then why did the apostles not take it upon themselves to explain the gospel to these leaders? Why does Paul tell this anecdote to the Galatians? What would it have meant to them to know about this meeting between leaders among the Gentiles and the Apostles? Would it be to express union in Christ in the faith shared between Jews and Gentiles? Would it have been to get in tune with what each one preached separately? Maybe it's all this or maybe it's just because they wanted to see themselves as part of the fellowship that Paul talks about verse 9.
He found a further answer to his question in the following passage the very next day, in Galatians 2:11-21:
I think now I know why he told them the anecdote: to get to verses 17-21 in which he says that it is Jesus Christ who lives in us and not we ourselves. There should be no discord among Christians because Jesus is the one who lives in all.
God had our questions in mind when the Scriptures were inspired. Like Tommy, we need to search so we can find.
It’s hard not to answer the questions, but not doing so may be a valuable step to helping people learn how to read the Bible for themselves, and so build their confidence in reading it with others.
If that urge to answer starts to well up inside you, please don’t!