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The problem with personal Bible reading

Let me be clear from the start: I think personal Bible reading is of inestimable value. In fact, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, we should be all the more aware of the immense privilege it is to pick up the Bible for ourselves, read and engage with it in our own language, and hear God speak to us personally. That’s something that many pre-Reformation brothers and sisters could scarcely imagine.

Surely they’d be cheering for us to take full advantage of this privilege.

But I wonder if they’d ever think—as outlandish as this sounds—that we’d taken personal Bible reading too far?

As with people of all ages, we are a product of the culture we live in. In his (intimidatingly large) book A Secular Age, Charles Taylor defines our culture as “the age of authenticity”, an age that’s fuelled by:

…the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.1

By nature of needing to find “one’s own” way, the culture of our time has of course given rise to individualism. And so, in this age of authenticity, for something to have meaning, to be helpful in me realizing my humanity, it often needs to be done alone.

I think Taylor is exactly right in his observations. And I think this has a direct bearing on—among many other things—how we view our personal Bible reading. Very often, it leads to this line of (subconscious) thinking: Because what is done individually has most authentic meaning, the most significant and helpful thing I can do to realize my spiritual growth is prioritize my own Bible reading and prayer. In fact, such is the significance of me having my own one-on-one time with God that sitting under God’s word alongside my fellow believers is less valuable than my own individual engagement with the Bible.

I see it in myself, when I feel more guilty about missing my own quiet times than I do about missing Bible study, or when I feel I need to have my own personal quiet time before going to College chapel for me really to have ticked my ‘daily time in the word’ box (which incidentally reveals my tendency towards legalism). I see it in others too—for example, some students training for ministry choose to miss a weekly Christian gathering in order to make time for their own Bible reading and prayer. In their busy weeks, they wouldn’t otherwise have uninterrupted time for this important activity, and that is what they choose to prioritize.

But I think it’s a mistake to see personal Bible reading as the crux on which our sanctification hangs. In falling prey to the age of authenticity in this area, we fail to see two key truths: 

  1. We work out our true identity in Christ as part of God’s family of believers, and it’s in this corporate context that God intends for us to be sanctified. The biblical expectation is that it’s in the context of the local church that we will grow as we sit under the word of God together (cf. Col 3:16). God gives us each other to help us in our Christian growth (cf. Jas 5:16) and by neglecting this gift we not only deprive ourselves of opportunity to learn from others in the Lord, we also miss out on being an encouragement to others by our presence, words and actions.
  2. When God’s word is read or spoken, it will always do its work, regardless of the context—God’s word is not truly effective only when we engage with it individually. To believe otherwise is to underestimate the power of the word of God. It will never return to him having not accomplished the purpose he set out for it (cf. Isa 55:11). Paul doesn’t say that God’s word is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness only if we read it in the context of our private devotional time. Have confidence that, whether we’re fed individually or corporately, God’s word is more than able to do its work in us.

Let me say it again: personal Bible reading is a good and right thing. And, unlike in Reformation times, most of us today only gather once or twice a week to be fed from God’s word in a corporate setting. So by necessity we do need to feed ourselves regularly from God’s word—and a helpful way to do that is in our own private study of the Bible.

But let’s never fall into the trap of thinking that because it’s done on individual terms personal Bible reading is therefore the most authentic, meaningful and ultimately helpful thing for our spiritual growth. Would our prioritisation of personal Bible study be foreign to our brothers and sisters of a bygone age, not just because they could never have dreamed of such unhindered access to these precious words, but because they would never have dreamed of divorcing the study of God’s word from the fellowship of believers? Of seeing personal study as more important than savouring God’s truths in the company of their family in the Lord?

While of course we want to avoid being overly prescriptive, maybe one way to get this balance right is by encouraging personal Bible reading in our churches but according to a church-wide Bible reading schedule—perhaps even a schedule selected to specifically complement the sermon series. This way God’s people are reading the Bible for themselves daily, but very much as part of an activity of the local church.

We can’t, nor would I want to, deny the importance of personal Bible reading in our current age. It’s crucial. And nor would I want an argument like this to allow myself or others to wiggle my way out of thinking that I still need to do it. But in our individualistic culture, let’s not believe the lie that what is most valuable is done alone, for in doing so we undervalue the good gift of our family in the Lord and underestimate the immense power of God’s good word.

  1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 2007, p. 475.