Teaching Adult Bible Classes: How to Survive 1 Corinthians

TeacherI get emails —

Jay, this year I’m teaching 1 Corinthians in one of our adult classes. And so I’ll get to address the thorny issues of divorce and remarriage and womens’ public role in the church. I’ve read your books on these subjects and you did a good job of crystalizing where my thoughts were headed after having studied, restudied, and re-restudied these issues over the years.

I’m an elder at a “mainstream” church, with a relatively small – but highly vocal – traditionalist minority. I intend to teach what I believe the Bible teaches on these touchy subjects (which is almost exactly the positions you set forth in your books), and it’s likely to create a firestorm.

I am a lawyer, but generally do a better job communicating in writing than I do orally. So, I thought I’d write a “position paper” on divorce and womens’ role and give it to the class several weeks before we hit chapters 7 and 14 so as to give folks a clear (and hopefully concise) picture of where I stand.

I’d like your input on whether you think this is a good idea. If you do (and even if you don’t), do you think I should offer to study these issues with the rest of the elders first, since virtually all of them are likely to disagree with my conclusions? And, if I study these issues with the elders and they “forbid” me from teaching my conclusions (which is likely), what advice do you have?

Thanks so much for taking time to respond, and for the time you’ve spent posting the results of your study on your blog. I read it almost daily, and have learned a great deal.

Every church and every class and every teacher is different. Obviously, there is no magic 1, 2, 3 formula. I can just tell you what I’d do and hopefully you can adapt it to your situation.

First principle: The only cure for a theologically divided church and/or eldership is the teaching of grace (empowered, of course, by God’s Holy Spirit). You can’t negotiate a solution. I’ve discussed this at the series Overseeing the Moderate Church and in the series Leading Change, and so I won’t repeat all that. If your co-elders see grace as you do, they shouldn’t forbid the teaching. Therefore, I figure they don’t. That’s the big problem here. And it’s a problem that will eventually destroy your congregation if not remedied.

Second principle: Even the elders are to be in submission to the eldership. I remember when I first taught the series on women that became Buried Talents and the series on divorce and remarriage that became But If You Do Marry … . I wasn’t an elder, and I was very glad. You see, by not being an elder, I didn’t have to contend with anyone thinking I was expressing the official position of the church … or that the church was about to appoint female elders or something. We just had a very controversial, interesting class. (And we had elders with the guts not to shut me down — one of the greatest blessings a church can have.)

Therefore, it’s critical that you make it clear you are speaking for yourself and not the eldership or the congregation. And it’s critical, I think, that you give them some warning. You see …

Third principle: Elders hate surprises. There’s a school of thought among some (youth ministers especially) that it’s better to seek forgiveness rather than permission. That’s how youth ministers get fired. And I wouldn’t do to my fellow elders what I wouldn’t want some staff member to do to me.

Now, once the elders are warned, you all can sort it out any of several ways. The best way, I think, would be for the other elders to sit in the class and respectfully participate in the discussion — and even disagree respectfully as need be. This way, they get to see the reactions of the members and hear the discussion — and the members get to see that the elders can disagree and still be loving and respectful toward each other — which I think is much better than pretending the elders agree on everything.

Again, it would be appropriate to make clear that these are your teachings and not theirs, so they don’t feel the need to defend them.

And it would be very important to communicate that the elders are nowhere near making any changes in practice or policy. Otherwise, some members may feel compelled to campaign to shut you down. No, we’re just having a dialogue … a conversation … to, as a community, study God’s word, and we know going in that there will be differing opinions, and there will be differing opinions when we’re done, and we’ll still all love and respect each other.

Fourth principle: You can’t understand women and divorce until you first understand grace. I woulld never attempt to cover either subject in a class where I’d not earlier covered grace and the Spirit thoroughly.

Since you’re still early in 1 Cor, I suggest you find a passage that lets you cover grace and the Spirit in depth. Chapters 1 – 4 are a great place to take it on, as the subject is unity and the Holy Spirit (which comes up again in chapters 12 – 13; you can’t avoid the topic). Is unity the result of cult-like agreement on everything? Or is there a better path to unity? (See the Amazing Grace series for lessons we used to teach a series of Bible classes on grace and the Spirit at my church. There are gobs of other materials as well on the site, but these are classroom tested.)

Therefore, I wouldn’t invite the elders to hear my lessons on women and divorce. I’d invite them to come in and participate in the lessons on grace. Get that handled, and you’re well on your way. And take whatever time it takes.

The next point isn’t a principle. It’s just my experience. When I taught my classes on MDR and on women, I waited until the end to pass out the books. I actually went home after each class and typed up the lesson I’d just taught (backwards, I know, but it works for me), and I turned the lessons into a book — adding supplemental material along the way. You can never teach as much as you prepare for.

For me, it’s less threatening to the class to start with the oral presentation. They can ask questions. Some people need to hear it several times or said in a certain way. When it’s written down, it looks like a position paper handed down from on high — especially coming from an elder.

And so my approach has been to teach and then hand out the notes, saying that I realize many people remained unconvinced or would like the chance to re-study the material to see if they really do agree with me. This way it comes across as: here’s what I think, study it, and see if you agree. (Some people come from dysfunctional churches and so have trouble with the idea that an elder might teach from a position of hermeneutical humility. They need to hear it more than once: “This is just what I think. You don’t have to agree, but please study it and let me know what you think.”)

I know of elderships that have spent lots of time and money studying a difficult issue for months before presenting it to the church. When they’re done, they have 50 hours invested in it, and then they expect the church to jump on board after a series of three 20-minute sermons. I think that’s a bad approach.

I believe in congregational hermeneutics. I want my doctrinal theories tested by anyone I can find to help — my wife, my fellow elders, my fellow Bible teachers — even thousands of internet readers. I think it’s just healthy for the elders to sit in a class with the adults and say: we’re studying this together. Tell us what you think and we’ll do the same.

(And given that your eldership seems to be more representative of the vocal minority than the rest, they’d be wise to proceed this way. An eldership without the support of the majority is in trouble.)

May God bless your teaching — and let me know what I can do to help. Call me if you wish.

Jay

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14 Responses

  1. I taught 1 Corinthians early last year, in a church where there is diversity of thought on those controversial subjects. I taught what I believe on those subjects — but also taught that others disagree. I told the church that they would undoubtedly find other congregations that teach differently on those subjects, and that they should be ok with that. The class led to lots of side discussions, which I would characterize as respectful and peaceful.

    In the end I think it was healthy to bring these discussions out in the open. I didn’t look at the class as an opportunity to settle the questions once and for all. Rather, I looked at it as an opportunity to demonstrate integrity in how we approach controversial passages, and an opportunity to wrestle with topics that we usually avoid.

  2. I’m teaching the book of 1 Cor. now in a congregation that would be characterized as “mainstream”. In this group we have many more conservative members with a few who would be on the more progressive side of the scale. 1 Cor. lends itself to a lot of interesting discussions and we’ve had our share. I found the key is patience. I teach a few concepts that our folks haven’t heard much about…but they are liking the discussions…for the most part.

    I think Jay was right on when he said that “elders hate surprises” when it comes to matters like this. It would be a good step and a sign of respect to let the other elders know where you are going and it is also important to make it clear that you are not speaking for the eldership.

    Concerning writing a “position paper”…I wouldn’t. I’ve had bad experiences with things like that in the past. However, that might be due to the fact that I stink at writing “position papers.” 🙂 What is great about all of this is that you are giving lots of thought and prayer to this class and it will be a blessing to those who are wanting to grow!

  3. Good response Jay. Packed with wisdom on how to avoid some things that might very well occur.
    I wish I had your advice during my early years in preaching. I would have been able to avoid alot of problems.
    Again…. this is good advice for any teacher.
    All the best,
    Jack

  4. I like the idea of giving a heads up of some kind in regards to your class on chs. 7 and 14. Just as much as elders hate surprises, I’m sure vocal traditional conservatives hate surprises as well. A positions paper may work but only if, as Jay said, you make it clear that this is your position and not the position of the elders….unless it is their position.

    Also may want to talk to your fellow elders about it as well. Perhaps it may be easier if you have a non-elder who shares your views, teach the class on that day to avoid any potential “hoo-ha.” Although, some people may just hoo and ha regardless of what you do.

    Or you could always be creative and have a debate between both sides of the issue and let the class decide for themselves (actually I really like that idea, so that both sides can be presented and you can’t be accused of forcing your opinion down someone’s throat).

  5. Jay, your advice is excellent.
    Alan, you shocked me. Instead of strong, bold words, I am pleased on the moderation. To remind the class that we do not have to settle this matter but discuss, is great.
    I always promote discussion in class. Got to honor all ideas offered, like Paul in Athens (Rm 17) “I see you are very religious….” If he said ‘you stupid idol worshipers’ it would kill the flow. If conservatives and progressives ideas are both honored, then it’s us together rather than warfare.
    Try to sum with what is God saying? Don’t make this to decide which view is the one. Usually each one of us is a little off mark, and together we understand God better. Sometimes this falls in place like the Spirit is taking over, and sometimes its like here are some options.
    Hope the Spirit is with all your class, and like Jay, I rewrite my lesson after class.

  6. “When they’re done (the Elders), they have 50 hours invested in it, and then they expect the church to jump on board after a series of three 20-minute sermons. I think that’s a bad approach.”

    I have seen this several times. I have seen it work well Z E R O times. I have met few people who realize the change that occurs over time of studying something. The key is the time. Once they “get it” over six months, they expect others to “get it” in one hour. This is an odd but often occurring characteristic of people.

  7. I agree with Jay’s recommendation of timing on a “position paper” if any. Were I to receive one in advance of the study, it would feel like a mandate, especially from an elder.

    A paper afterwards which summarized what was taught as well as what was discussed – that I would see as very helpful.

  8. I would recommend refraining from putting anything in writing — except perhaps a bibliography and scriptural references.

    Few of us has the writing skill that Jay and others demonstrate. And putting material on paper that is poorly written or less than thoroughly prepared often reduces the likelihood of movement.

    It also leaves the impression that ones point of view is fixed.

    Certainly, some have such skill, but I’m not one of them. I’d rather have someone in my class trying to remember what I said, as opposed to having something in writing which may not fully capture all the nuances of what I believe.

    After all, most of us were not “inspired” by the Spirit in our writing.

    If any of us is that good at writing & reasoning, people would pay us more for what we write!!

  9. It also leaves the impression that ones point of view is fixed.

    I agree. I’d go even farther: I think putting it in writing has a tendency to make your beliefs become more “fixed.” It’s harder to change your position as you learn new things, if you’ve staked out a position in a paper previously.

  10. There is a lot of good advise in the column. I would add that it is very helpful to write out…to articulate in writing what you think. It allows you to stand back and look at your thoughts. Poor judgment and badly written arguments can become glaringly obvious. OF course, I don’t always recognize them. I’m sure some will agree. And, sometime excellent thoughts will come to you that will slip through your fingers if you don’t write them down.

    You don’ t have to hand out what youv’e written..

    But if you are like me, the things you hear don’t stay with you. I cannot study well unless the material is written down. If it’s written I can analyze it and absorb it. I may really like what I’m hearing…but it won’t stay with me.

    If your write it down you will hear from those who love you less . . . and also from those who agree with you.

    It’s a Catch 22 situation.

  11. The Moddy Blues “Nights in White Satin” contains the line “letters I’ve written, never meaning to send”. The combined comments above put position papers in this class. It maybe the best advice I’ve read in a long time; write to get your thoughts clear, but don’t pass it out.

  12. I knew a guy who questioned traditional CoC doctrines in classes and on paper and ended up being kicked out of every “traditional” coc in that city. He was withdrawn from and vilified. The people are fearful. Fearful people are angry people. Many don’t want to be changed or even be presented with possible change. Way too scary for those who believe how good they are at church gets them to heaven.

  13. Kris,

    I understand. This is why it’s so important to teach grace and the Spirit before taking on MDR and role of women —

    * You can’t reach sound conclusions in those areas beginning with legalistic assumptions. Grace gives the foundation for better conclusions.

    * If the class sees making a mistake as damning, their minds will be closed. Good news will be understood as bad news.

    * Grace means they’ll be less likely to run you out even if they disagree!

  14. Jay, I got distracted and hit submit before I was done. 🙂 I was going to say that I agree with you about grace. It has to be the cornerstone of teaching the Christ story. Prayer helps a whole bunch too. It led me out of the darkness.

    Keep up the good work.

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