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!"