There’s an article on For the Church, in which Dr. Andrew King tells students: “Don’t Take Your Greek or Hebrew Bible to Corporate Worship.”
There are a number of good points in the article, such as the note that if you are not comfortable with the languages, working on them during a sermon may be distracting. It is also important not to suggest to those who do not read the Bible in its original languages that they are less than you, or somehow unable to read and understand their Bibles. Be cautioned by the issues raised here. But I have a slightly different view.
When I was studying biblical languages as majors both for my undergraduate and MA degrees, I very quickly started carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church. Since I went well beyond the couple of semesters or the couple of years that many seminary students study, I became quite capable of following the scriptures in a sermon or in a Sunday School lesson with little difficulty.
During the time that I was a student this presented little difficulty. As far as I could tell, very few people ever noticed. I never became self-conscious about it. I didn’t really care to have people notice, but it was the way in which I enjoyed studying the Bible.
For me, it became a problem when I was working and teaching in churches, though I was not a pastor. I have written before about not using Greek and Hebrew as part of your sermon. I avoid using the biblical languages as an explanation for something I’m going to say in a sermon. The reason is that I don’t want to suggest that I, an individual student, have discovered something that nobody in all the many translations into the English language, have managed to convey. I have found that a good presentation of the context of the passage, linguistic, literary, historical, and cultural, can convey pretty much anything you need to convey.
So one of my reasons for no longer carrying my Greek and Hebrew Bibles to church was to avoid the suggestion that one must know the biblical languages in order to read and benefit from the Bible.
The second was that certain preachers who knew me would try to bring me into Greek or Hebrew comments by saying things like “as Henry would know.” It was annoying, drew attention away from the point the preacher was making, and highlighted me when I had no part in presenting the message.
So I stopped taking those Bibles to church. It seemed easier and less likely to cause trouble.
One experience with a very close friend and mentor who is a pastor (though now retired) set me thinking in different ways. I was sitting in a classroom in the church reading my Greek New Testament when he walked in.
He said, “I am so awed with the way you can read and understand those languages. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”
I thought for a minute and said (and I think this was the Holy Spirit helping me), “I’m just so awed by the way you can sit down with a couple and help them heal their marriage. I just can’t imagine doing it myself.”
Now you might think this is a good reason not to let people know I read Greek and Hebrew by carrying the Bibles with me, but I have come to see it in the opposite way.
We all have gifts. I personally believe that all gifts are spiritual when they are used as God calls us to use them. We shouldn’t privilege any gift over another. God has gifted me with the ability to read and make use of languages in my study. I’m not a specialist. I don’t work in this field, though I occasionally teach classes in church. But I’m not an academic. I stopped after my MA degree. Nonetheless, I can read substantial amounts of scripture, such as sitting down to read an entire book in a day or so.
This doesn’t make me a better person than anyone else. It doesn’t make me more spiritual. It doesn’t make me more intelligent. I have a gift that I’m called to use in service to God.
I have yet to find anyone in the church who is not gifted in some way. The pastor who was one of my mentors had quite a number of gifts that inspired a sense of awe in me. In all the years I knew him, I sometimes disagreed, but I never thought he was not using those gifts for God.
My wife has an extraordinary gift for organizing difficult tasks and getting different people to work together to accomplish them. I absolutely am unable to understand how she does it.
Reading biblical languages is not a greater gift than any other. It gives me certain options for study. It doesn’t make me better, nor does it mean I always have the right answer for a biblical question.
So what I do now is go out of my way to affirm everyone’s gifts, while going ahead and using what works best for me in study. I have had many excellent opportunities to affirm the gifts of others and how they apply to Bible study, church leadership, and ministry.
There is a danger of pride, but there is in anything we do. Our pride can come out it so many ways. There is also a danger of misleading, but you won’t have solved that by leaving your Greek or Hebrew Bible home.
But there is also a tendency of some to forget the benefits we all gain from those who engage in a scholarly study of the Bible, from those who study archaeology, to anthropology, business management, human relations, and yes, languages and linguistics.
You don’t need to hide your gift. Use it responsibly to build the body.
Oh, and yes, if it’s distracting you from the sermon leave it out. And don’t use it in preaching. Let it deepen your study and then preach in the appropriate language for your congregation.