Have you ever been in a Bible study when someone starts to share about what they think the text is saying, and internally your brain is screaming “WRONG.”
Or have you been on the other side, sitting quietly because you’re too shy or intimidated to share your thoughts with such fiery, convicted, outspoken Christians? Better just sit in silence and allow the “know-it-alls” to have their say first, right?
There’s a lot of room between the extremes of being the theology police and swearing an oath of small group silence, but they’re both easy categories to end up in.
As the leader of a Bible study, navigating group dynamics is tricky. We idealize and long for those golden moments where everyone is in agreement and seems to follow through on the desired application. We can be so anxious for these moments that we rush the conversation process. “Okay we all agree, perfect! Moving on…”
The reality is, there are going to be moments of disagreement in a Bible study. How do you navigate that as the person who is sharing, listening, or leading? The heart of disagreement often stems from the question: “What does the text say?” Interestingly, it can say many things, and this is where it can seem confusing.
In good Bible study let’s not agree to disagree – let’s instead differentiate between intent and impact.
Intent vs. Impact
We need to determine the difference between author intent, “What is the author trying to say?” and the impact that the text has on the reader, “What is the Holy Spirit saying to me?” Often we miss or skip figuring out the author intent and end up fighting over personal impact of the words.
Should the author intent be the same as the impact? Well, let’s see.
In good Bible study, we need to determine the intention of the author. What is the writer trying to say to their audience? Jen Wilkin, a Bible study teacher, describes this process as comprehension. Others refer to this step as observation. In order to understand a biblical text more clearly and gain perspective, Wilkin suggests asking five questions: Who wrote it? When was it written? To whom was it written? In what style was it written? Why was it written?
As we determine the authorial intent, we can answer: What is the author saying to their audience? It’s also critical to ask, “What am I reading?” Is it a narrative story? Prophecy? Wisdom literature? A historical account? A gospel account of Jesus’ life? One of Paul’s letters? What words are used, and how (repetitions, comparisons, contrasts)? What is the flow of thought? This forms the framework for how we come to the text and comprehend what it’s communicating.
Next, we aim to discern what the text means – this is interpretation. Two tools can help in determining meaning: the first is cross-referencing (allowing other Scripture to interpret Scripture), and then paraphrasing (writing it in your own words).
Finally we can then ask, “Is there a timeless principle or truth that applies to today?” Application seeks to answer: How does this text change me? We can assess if the passage teaches us truths about God, if it changes our view of ourselves, and if we should do something in response. We shouldn’t jump straight to application without first doing the other work, otherwise we will miss important truths and craft what we want from the text instead of what God intends from the text.
As we examine the authorial intent, figuring out what the writer is trying to say to the readers of the time, we can ask ourselves, “How is God speaking to me through this text?” Interestingly over time and at different moments, this can change.
This is often where we start with Bible study, and yet we should be careful not to. To help us figure out how God may be speaking to us through his word, we need to know and understand what he’s trying to say to the intended audience. That needs to be our scriptural authority and where we are grounded.
But personal impact is well, impactful. How God speaks to us as individuals through his word is meaningful and often miraculous. He reveals insight, truth, application, and meaning. It can lead us to make important decisions, turn from sin, repent, and strive for holiness. Yet personal impact should stem directly from author intent – they need to be connected and in line with the rest of Scripture. Otherwise we’re taking things out of context and claiming, “This is what God told me” even if it directly contradicts what God does say in the Bible.
Let’s agree to disagree on the right things. The Holy Spirit has an amazing ability to speak through God’s word in different ways to different people. The same verse can have a very different impact on two different people. Not only is that ok, it’s beautiful. However, we must never forget the importance of biblical context. Strive together to learn and figure out author intent. That never changes, and it’s where life transformation begins.
Related Resources for further study: