A New Year, a New…Bible Study
Fall is upon us, which means it is once again time for new classes, schedules, activities, and of course, Bible studies. While some studies may be regrouping, with a foundation already set, other studies may be brand new, with empty seats to fill. Some of those seats will be filled by eager souls, ready to dive deeper into their faith as an adult. Others will need a little encouragement. Either way getting the people there is only half the battle. Once everyone shows up, the real question begins to settle in for the leader—now what? How do I go about leading this study?
Leading a study can too often feel like being a summer camp counselor. There’s a lurking pressure to strike the balance of being relatable yet also being a responsible leader. On the one side of things, there’s the temptation to compromise, to water down either content or enthusiasm for the sake of winning over your peers. On the other side, there is the call to conviction—that quiet yet penetrating invitation that beckons us to be heroic saints in a world that has lost its way. What is the best way forward?
To help us navigate these waters, we will turn to one of the Church’s greatest saints and evangelists, Saint Paul. Paul never hesitated when choosing between compromise and conviction, and it was that very conviction for the Gospel that helped to advance the rapid spread of Christianity in the ancient world. When we think of the world of Paul and compare it to our own, there are some striking similarities—chiefly, they are both ages that do not know Jesus but need him more than ever. Therefore, as we set out like Paul to preach Light in a darkened world, let us pay close attention to how he chose to lead his peers and to answer the call to holiness.
Conviction: A Sign of Contradiction
In the age of Saint Paul, the city of Corinth was a hotbed of spiritual chaos and secularity (think of a modern-day New York or Los Angeles). Things were so bad there that the very name of the town became a common slang term meaning ‘to fornicate’ or, at least, to promote the act. It should be no surprise, then, that the early Church in Corinth had more than a few difficulties when they first set out to live distinctly Christian lives.
The Christians in Corinth found themselves divided against one another, quarreling amidst sexual scandals, participating in risqué liturgies. Sound familiar? This, among other things, prompted Saint Paul to write to them multiple times and the Church acknowledges two of those letters as inspired Scripture (i.e., 1 and 2 Corinthians). In these letters are endless riches that invite us into an encounter with God and the mystery of salvation; but for our purposes, I would like to draw our attention to the beginning chapters of 1 Corinthians to glean wisdom regarding how Saint Paul chose conviction over complacency in his leadership.
As their bishop and leader, it would have been easy for Paul to choose complacency. Slipping in some casual social reference or letting down his guard of virtue over a few shared pints might have earned their quick friendship. Alternatively, he could have bolstered his theological verbiage and won them over by impressing them with how smart he was concerning religious things. Yet instead of choosing either of these, let’s listen to how Paul decided to live among them:
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor 2:1-5)
Paul chose to allow the Cross of Christ to radiate through him to the Church in Corinth. He was so convicted of the Gospel of the Cross that watering it down for the sake of relatability was out of the question. To do so would inevitably strip the Gospel of its power and value. In the same stroke, Paul calls the Cross “the power of God and the wisdom of God” yet also “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23-24). He was not ashamed to be a stumbling block and a fool for the sake of the Gospel, because he knew that it was only in and through the power and paradox of the Cross that men and women find the fullness of wisdom, truth, and life.
To be like Paul, then, means to lay our fears of failure aside and to allow the power of the Cross to have its full effect in us. This does not mean that we become robotic mouthpieces of the Christian Gospel. Far from it. Elsewhere, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Paul was not a salesman with a cold script, but a co-laborer with his beloved Savior, living the abundant life that our Lord promises us when we yoke ourselves to him. This doesn’t mean that it will be easy; to be crucified with Christ will contradict every ‘gospel’ that the world offers: pleasure, power, fame, fortune, etc. But, as Paul reminds the Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor 1:27). Only by our being a sign of contradiction—by being crucified with Christ—can the world learn of the saving power of Christ Jesus and his scandalous love for us.
The Path to Transformation: The Mind
Continuing on this concept of the wisdom of the Cross, Saint Paul tells us that through the Cross we come to possess “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). Elsewhere, he says something similar in his letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom 12:2). It appears that by taking on the Cross of Christ we also gain the mind of Christ, and we are transformed in the process.
What does this mean to have the “mind” of Christ, and how does this affect how we ought to lead others in their spiritual lives? Two points will be worth some brief consideration here.
First, the mind is the battleground for the soul. In the C.S. Lewis classic, The Screwtape Letters, for example, note how Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood in discouraging Christians from learning how to pray: “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.” The mind is the very place where we are meant to know the very truths about God and self, and so allow ourselves to live according to those truths (via the will). Therefore, this is ground zero for the enemy to do everything he can to keep us from using it for its created purpose. Considering this, it becomes no wonder when we pause and recognize how noisy our culture is—attempting to distract and numb our minds at every possible turn. When we stop striving to inhabit the mind of Christ, we become inhabited by the mind of the world.
Second, we might ask: How, then, do we keep the mind of the Christ? Once again, through the character of the Cross. Here’s how Paul masterfully combines these two ideas, mind and cross, in his stunning Christ-hymn in Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)
It is by inhabiting the mind of the Cross—the voluntary giving of self—that we are lifted up and glorified. This, of course, is shown to us perfectly in the model and mission of Jesus. He emptied himself to the fullest extent, “even death on a cross.” But herein lies the wisdom of the Cross: it is through self-emptying that one can only find self-fulfillment. As the Second Vatican Council puts it: “man . . . cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et spes, §24).
How does this witness to the conviction of Saint Paul? Once again, it reveals his willingness to ‘step aside’ and allow the power of the gospel to take center stage in his life. Here Paul gives us one of the greatest keys to doing this: protecting your mind from the current age and forming it into the mind of Christ Jesus. Therefore, as you embark to lead others in an encounter with Jesus, do not hesitate to invite your peers into the holiness that the Cross demands, only let them see you model these things first.
Live Up To Your Potential
For fear that someone might read this and think: “Well that’s good and all for him, but I’m no Saint Paul. I can’t do what he did,” then Paul himself has some words of encouragement for you. Paul was aware of his gifts. He is forced to defend his charisms and apostleship many times in the New Testament, and the resume is impressive. But don’t let this convince you that Paul also thought that the job was his alone. To those very Corinthians with whom we began earlier, he also writes: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1). In other words, “All that you see me do, do yourselves as well!”
Likewise, in his second letter to the Bishop, Timothy, Paul encourages him: “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). Again, Paul is asking Timothy to take all that he has learned and observed in Paul and hand it on to the next generation. Although that call was addressed to Timothy, we now read it as Scripture, and therefore not only as an invitation from Paul to Timothy, but as a model for how we too pass on the faith. Like Timothy, we are called to take what we have received, and, with the same clarity and conviction, to pass it on to those who are also in need of receiving it.
Some Last Bible Study Advice
We return finally to the question with which we began: “How do I go about leading a Bible study?” We have learned from Saint Paul that the most effective and powerful thing any shepherd of souls can do is to imitate Christ and witness to others, particularly by inhabiting the mind and form of the Cross. No Bible study will ever be perfect. Pouring over the words of Scripture and growing in communal holiness is a lifelong journey and it will never be mastered this side of heaven. Additionally, Bible studies are always going to be led by humans, and humans are just that, human, and so prone to error. If you find yourself in such a study, take heart and have patience—Saint Paul was human, too.
But in the spirit of Saint Paul and the Holy Spirit who continually speaks to us through his writings, let us be reminded and encouraged in the power of the Cross to a dying culture. Do not get hung up on which study to lead or which prayer to pray. They will work themselves out in due time, important as those things may. Regardless of how your Bible study takes shape, allow it to take on the shape of the Cross, and ever inspire you toward conviction over complacency.