Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Women's Bible Studies-- All Fluff and No Substance?

I don't like going to Bible study.  There, I said it.  

I love studying the Bible.  I love getting together with fellow believers to examine, learn from, and apply God's word.  I love fellowshipping and praying for one another.  But when it's time to sign up for another "Women's Bible Study" at church, I sigh, I shake my head, I look for excuses, I hem and haw.  Sometimes I cave and go.  But other times, like this year, I just decide not to bother.

Why?  First of all, what is generally meant by "Bible study" is really "doing a workbook that references the Bible occasionally."  The times the Bible is referenced, it is often taken out of context and molded to fit the idea the author has formulated herself.  It's poor exegesis, which leads to incorrect application.  In addition to the workbook, "Bible study" involves watching a DVD where the author speaks to us, and through personal stories and a few more verses pulled in for good measure, we are supposed to feel warm and fuzzy.  If the author/speaker is really good, women may even get teared up.  

I'm not saying these studies aren't helpful; on the contrary, I'm sure many women are learning things that are, for the most part, true.   The sticky issues of exegesis could be easily corrected and discussed in the course of the group study.  What bothers me the most is that this is all many Christian women know-- how to study someone else's study about the Bible, rather than how to study the Bible itself.  As a result, I fear many women are missing out on the depth and riches of scripture because they are too afraid or just don't know how to get started without their well-dressed, dynamic female author/speaker to lead them on the journey.

(Two caveats here-- I'm not just referring to a particular female author/speaker, although some are worse than others in terms of poor exegesis and application.  I'm referring to the whole body of curriculum generally used for Women's Ministries in the U.S.  Also, I can't speak for men's Bible studies as to the quality or substance, though I'm assuming they can run into the same pitfalls as women's studies.  I will say, though, that at least at the churches I've been involved in, a much higher percentage of women participate in Bible studies than men do, so while it may have it's problems, at least women are making an effort to grow and learn.)

For a new believer, these studies can be a good way to ease into the practice of getting into God's word.  They can guide and explain scriptures and help someone process it.  But we shouldn't get stuck there.  We have to learn to read and think through scripture with the Holy Spirit as our guide.  Of course we often need outside help to clarify and explain scripture, and I am all for using commentaries, concordances, dictionaries, and other study aids.  We can't fully grasp scripture without understanding its original context and setting, and the average person doesn't know beans about the 1st century world, pre- or post-exilic Judaic culture, or what have you.  

Maybe that's part of the problem.  Most churches expect too little from its members as far as what they should know.  We all should be eager theologians, but often what we hear from the pulpit is, "I won't bore you with the theology here" as they glaze over a really significant point.  Women tend to shy away from theology often because it is seen as a "man's domain."  If women can't be pastors or elders (as in my denomination), then they are never challenged to attain that level of Biblical knowledge.  That is a terrible shame.

So we are stuck with frivolous fluff that has more to do with how we "feel" about a certain passage of scripture rather than what it says.  We rarely dive into a whole book of the Bible, or even an extended passage.  We can only think in bits and pieces.   (When we tried doing the book of Hebrews, the women did amazingly well thinking through difficult passages, but they voted at the end of the study that they didn't really like it and wanted to go back to the workbook/DVD format.  !!!!)   We rate the value of a study based on how many emotional nerves it hit; the more the author seems to be speaking to an area women can identify with, the more they feel they are "getting something out of it."  They don't realize they are feeding off of regurgitated blessings and insights from someone else rather than seeking it directly from scripture.

It wouldn't be fair to categorize all women's Bible studies this way, and I know several other women that feel my frustration about these types of studies.  But the vast majority eat them up like they are chocolate, scrapbooking, and chick-flicks all rolled into one (pardon the gross female stereotypes!).  Add to that the fact that the Christian publishing industry knows how to market these babies with amazing demographical precision.  I just feel like screaming, "There's so much more, gals, there's so much more!"



Dan Martin said...

As a man I'm not sure I should comment, Leesha, but you know that's never stopped me before...

Be aware that an awful lot of men's studies are no better. The difference is they'll have some former general or coach or captain of industry, making manly noises and talking about "leadership" with the same tangential reference to Scripture. If they really want to get personal they'll talk about men's sexual and pornography obsessions, and that'll get the men to tear up too.

Your comment about our churches not expecting enough from us is an important one. And tragically, the only counterpoint to this in most places is Piper/MacArthur-style "expository preaching" which goes verse-by-verse through a rigid systematic theology that fails to engage with the broad text, even as it claims to be the only really serious Bible study.

The notion that scripture might actually be something that collected believers can chew on, learn from, and even find new insights in, is a revolutionary idea. It's what got Anabaptists burned at the stake by both Catholics and Protestants in the Reformation era. But it's also (I believe), the model that generates the most dynamic discipleship. 'Course it's also really hard to do because it's really hard to find people to do it with...

Ruth said...

My son Dan referred me to your post, Leesha. The reason was soon obvious -- I have fussed about that for years. I had the great good fortune to have been introduced to a Living Lord by a group in college who were equally eager to learn the "real thing." Sadly, once out in the "real world", such companions were scarce to non-existant.
Having responded to a clear call to Biblical translation, I took as much Greek as I could get, along with linguistics, but was prevented from doing that in any "official" setting by not having the sponsorship of any group or hierarchy. I was increasingly frustrated with institutional churches who seem to assume that one must be approved by their "superiors" in order to participate in serious study or discussion. This is a problem in every denomination I have encountered. I was attracted to the beginnings of the Anabaptists and Brethren, who stated that they "acknowledge no superior but the Lord Jesus Christ, and no creed but the New Testament." Sadly, I have seldom found any of their descendents, spiritual or otherwise, who still hold that position. We have continued our search, for more than 50 years now, as well as efforts to fulfill that original calling.
You may enjoy looking at some of the results on the blog that Dan created for me this year, at I would love to have more conversation with you. May the Lord enable your messaage to spread!
Ruth Martin (Dan's mom)

E. A. Harvey said...

Dan, you know you are always welcome to comment, and I'm so glad you did. I figured men's ministries had the same issues. I read your description of men's studies to my husband, and he laughed and said, "Exactly!" It seems that we're all in the same boat of all fluff and no substance. So how do we counteract that? Not sure.

Your comment about "expository preaching" really got me thinking. I usually prefer expository preaching to topical preaching, but you're right-- there is a tendency to miss the forest for the trees when we stop looking at the overall message of scripture and trudge our way through every minute detail. I need to keep that in mind for my own study. I tend to be a dissector.

Ruth- I'm so glad you came by to comment! It always warms my heart to meet another woman who isn't satisfied with mediocre Bible teaching and is actually trying to do something about it! Good for you for pursuing Bible translation. (My Mom got her MDiv at a conservative seminary, and she was often the only female in her Greek, Hebrew, and preaching classes. It raised a lot of eyebrows but she carried on!)

I thank God for the internet-- it enables believers from all over the world to connect, share, challenge, and encourage each other. When I get frustrated that few women in my local church seem to want to "dig deep" into scripture, I'll remember that there are indeed many women out there who are doing just that! I will definitely visit your blog. Thanks, Ruth!

jaigner said...

Dan's comments are correct. Men's studies are similarly flawed.

From what I've seen, women's studies are generally even worse. Often fluffy, sentimental essay-like chapters that make vague, out of context references to Scripture.

Of course, these studies sell.

I wish we could get away from gender-specific studies. Actually, I think other distinctions, such as age and relationship status are similarly unhelpful. The Bible is above these distinctions.

That's just my opinion.

Connie said...

Thanks for saying it... and your reasons echo my own. It's been 30 years since I have really enjoyed a Women's Bible Study. And I could really start a rant about the Women's Circle at my church.
The embarrassing thing is that I am the pastor's wife... but I can't seem to guide women away from time wasting meetings and feel good "studies". The only truly nourishing Bible studies I have participated in lately have been with my husband.

Back in my Church On The Way days, we had wonderful, nourishing, substantial Bible studies in home groups all over the "Valley" around Los Angeles. But that was before all the Beth Moore type of spiritual models emerged. I really miss it. There must be something to your mention of marketing involved that is driving the women's spirituality machine, along with the Christian music machine... which must have led to the lower expectations all around.

I'm sure we could do an online Bible study that would be substantial, but it's pretty important to gather and grow with the people in your community, I guess.

Thanks for your honesty. If anyone can turn the tide, you can!

Scott said...

I am glad I found this blog. Your critics hit the center of many "Bible Studies" (not just women).