The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy
by Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. on May 1, 2017
Ignorance of the Bible isn’t just a problem in our culture. It’s a problem in the church, and it’s scandalous.
While America’s evangelical Christians are rightly concerned about the secular worldview’s rejection of biblical Christianity, we ought to give some urgent attention to a problem much closer to home—biblical illiteracy in the church. This scandalous problem is our own, and it’s up to us to fix it.
How bad is it? Researchers tell us that it’s worse than most could imagine.
Only half of all Christian adults can name the four gospels. Many Christians cannot identify more than two or three of the twelve disciples. According to data from the Pew Research Center, nearly half don’t even realize that the Golden Rule is not one of the Ten Commandments.
Multiple surveys reveal the problem in stark terms. Most Christians in the United States believe the Bible teaches, “God helps those who help themselves” (and some even believe this quote is a Bible verse). A series of Barna surveys shows that only 19% of “born again Christians” hold to the simplest elements of a basic biblical worldview.
We would not expect secularized Americans to be knowledgeable about the Bible. A Barna poll once indicated that at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc might be Noah’s wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that Billy Graham preached the Sermon on the Mount.
The larger scandal is biblical ignorance among Christians. Choose whichever statistic or survey you like, the general pattern is the same among professing Christians. America’s Christians know less and less about the Bible. It shows.
How can a generation be biblically shaped in its understanding of human sexuality when it believes Sodom and Gomorrah to be a married couple? No wonder our culture has so quickly embraced the normality of same-sex marriage. And it’s little wonder that Christians show a growing tendency to compromise on such issues.
Worse, many who identify themselves as Christians are similarly confused about the gospel itself. An individual who believes that “God helps those who help themselves” will find salvation by grace and justification by faith to be alien concepts.
Christians who lack biblical knowledge are the products of churches that place too little value on biblical knowledge. Paul’s words to Timothy are as valuable today as ever: “Give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine” (1 Timothy 4:13). Bible teaching now often accounts for only a diminishing fraction of the local congregation’s time and attention. And while the increasing emphasis on small group ministry has certainly increased opportunities for fellowship, many of these groups never get beyond superficial Bible study.
Youth ministries are asked to fix problems, provide entertainment, and keep kids busy. But how many local church youth programs actually substantially increase their Bible knowledge during the critical junior high and high school years?
Even the pulpit has been sidelined in many congregations. Preaching has taken a back seat to other concerns in corporate worship. The centrality of biblical preaching to the formation of disciples is lost, and Christian ignorance leads to Christian indolence and worse.
Recovery starts at home. Parents are to be the first and most important educators of their own children, diligently teaching them the Word of God (see Deuteronomy 6:4–9). Parents cannot pass their responsibility off to the congregation, no matter how faithful and biblical it may be. Even if they have had little training themselves, it is no excuse. God assigned parents this nonnegotiable responsibility, and children must see their Christian parents as teachers and fellow students of God’s Word. (Spiritual leadership is far more important than second jobs, second cars, and the many other distractions of modern life.)
Churches must recover the centrality and urgency of biblical teaching and preaching, and refuse to sideline the teaching ministry of the preacher. Pastors and churches too busy—or too distracted—to make biblical knowledge a central aim of ministry will produce believers who simply do not know enough to be faithful disciples. (Worse, they will fail to pass down a clear understanding of the gospel to the next generation sitting in the pews.)
We will not believe more than we know, and we will not live higher than our beliefs. The many fronts of Christian compromise in this generation can be directly traced to biblical illiteracy in the pews and the absence of biblical preaching and teaching in our homes and churches.
This generation of Christian parents and pastors must get deadly serious about the problem of biblical illiteracy, or a frighteningly large number of Americans—Christians included—will go on thinking that Sodom and Gomorrah lived happily ever after. Without a mature knowledge of God’s Word, how can churchgoers expect to make new disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19)?
88% of US adults say their household owns at least one Bible.
48% of US adults read the Bible less than 2 times per year.
45% of US adults believe the Bible teaches that God helps those who help themselves.
60% of Americans can’t name even five of the Ten Commandments.
From the most recent Barna statistics on these questions (2013–2015 polls)
This article originally appeared at AlbertMohler.com
Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has been recognized by Time andChristianity Today as a leader among American evangelicals. He hosts a daily podcast entitled The Briefing and writes a popular blog at albertmohler.com about cultural and theological issues.