I found it amazing, when I was a Christian, how most didn’t read His Word. For example, when I disagreed with a fellow believer, instead of them sitting down and studying it out with me, most defaulted to their Preachers. Usually they would say things like “let me bring that up to my Pastor”. It boggled my mind, the unwillingness to be able to interact with God’s word first hand. Secondly, it concern me that a person would so easily surrender their responsibility to studying through God’s Word to another man. Granted, though that “man” might be a religious teacher, it did not make his words flawless. Even now that I have left Christianity, and have become more Torah centric, I find the same mindset amongst Torah believers. Admittedly, it is understandable that one would consult someone more steeped in scripture than themselves, but to make them your authority equates to making them your God. I had to dig into the Tanakh (Old Testament) to get a better understanding of where God is on this topic. Are we allowed to freely survey His Holy Writ, or do we become subservient to our religious leaders conceding that they have divine understanding and knowledge?
As a Christian, it appeared that the church had authority over God’s Word, or at least had the sanctioned understanding of His Word. Since most people are lemmings, this authority is seldom challenged. However, when it is challenged, Preachers can cherry pick verses like Hebrews 13:17 “…obey your leaders and submit to them…” using this as the crux of their authority. Yet, to context this verse we need to realize that unlike the Tanakh, the New Testament insisted on submission to civil authority: Mark 12:17, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Timothy 2:1-3, Titus 3:1,Hebrews 13:7, 1 Peter 2:13-14, 5:5 . For example, if the precepts of the New Testament were taught in Moses’ time, the Israelites would still be in Egypt and happily serving Pharaoh. So why do the New Testament and Tanakh have such polar opposite teachings? One reasons is that there may have been ulterior motives behind the New Testament and Christianity that benefitted the Roman Empire (see, Why Did Christianity Make Rome Look So Good?). For example, Roman leadership in the New Testament is painted in a positive light. This is amazing, since, historically speaking, Rome and Israel relationship was toxic, especially in the first century. Yet we have positive stories of the Roman Empire like the 3 separate tails of Roman Centurions mentioned in the New Testament (Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 7-10, 23:47, Acts 10).
Yes, the New Testament teachings can be both questionable and problematic. Nonetheless, what does the Tanakh say about the relationship of a teacher and self when studying His Word? The Tanakh is pretty clear that you are to study His Word directly; Deuteronomy 6:6-9, Joshua 1:8, Job 23:12, Psalm 1:2, 119:10-11, 15, 18. Also, if we examine Deuteronomy 6:6-7,
“These words, which I am ordering you today, are to be on your heart; and you are to teach them carefully to your children…
We can deduce that you are to first know His words, and then we are to teach it to others. Bare in mind, these are not special instructions for teachers but everyone’s responsibility. It also makes sense that you must have some book knowledge before you are taught. How else would you evaluate the credibility of the teacher? Understandably, to consult a subject matter expert when you get into disagreements makes sense, but it should not be your “go-to” answer without even opening up the bible.
A good way of understanding our relationship with God in learning His Word is by examining the era of Israel’s Judges. This was about 1375 BCE after the the death of Joshua. As Judges 21:25 says “In those days, there was no king in Israel, everyone did what was right in his eyes”. In this period Israel did not have a leader like Moses and Joshua or even a King. Instead, God led Israel and Judges enforced God’s laws (1). We should view our studying of the Tanakh the same way. We have a direct responsibility in reading and studying God’s Word without putting a person between us and God. Yet, there are people in our lives, like the Judges, that can guide us. As we read on from the book of Judges, we see that the time of the Judges ended in 1 Samuel 8, after about 325 years. In 1 Samuel 8:4-9 we see the Israelites wanting a King to rule over them. This parallels to how many followers perceive their relationship with God. They don’t want that “one-on-one” study with His Word. In truth, they want their religious leader to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to studying God’s Word, and then turn around and give their interpretation. In short, they want a King to tell them what to do instead of going to the source – God. Nevertheless, in 1 Samuel 8, when the people turned their backs on God wanting a king, God’s response was “…they have rejected Me from reigning over them” (1 Samuel 8:7). This is very sad, but the lesson here is that those that do not want to process God’s Word first hand, are no better than these disengaged Israelites.
In summation, the Tanakh tells us to process God’s Word first hand. If we do get to a “stuck-point” there should not be a problem getting an opinion from someone who may know more. But; at no point are we allowed to surrender our autonomy of God’s Word to another man. We must vet our teachers, not just for our own benefit, but for theirs (Leviticus 19:17).
- Arnold, Bill T.; Williamson, H. G. M. (2005). Dictionary of the Old Testament. Intervarsity Press, USA. p. 590.