Jesus wants women to be theologically minded and grounded in the Scriptures. That's why he commended Mary, who sat "at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching" (Luke 10:39), while Martha served Jesus and his disciples. Instead of applauding Martha for her service, Jesus approved Mary for choosing "the good portion, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:42). Mary chose the one thing that is still necessary today. Women who are students of the Bible, serious about studying it and hearing it taught, choose the good portion, the one thing that is necessary.
Women's Bible studies can help us get serious about the Scriptures. They spur us on to stay in God's Word and think deeply about what it means and how it applies to our lives. But, just as Martha became "distracted with much serving" (Luke 10:40) and neglected sitting at Jesus' feet, we women can become distracted and lose focus—even when we gather together for Bible study. Here are seven common mistakes we tend to make.
1. We lose sight of the goal.
The goal of a Bible study should be . . . to study the Bible. I know that point seems obvious, but we can get sidetracked by so many other good things. Bible study is not a social club, a counseling session, or a place to meet "felt needs." Fellowship, counseling, and meeting needs are often the choice fruits of a good Bible study as women get to know one another and are shaped by the Word. But these fruits should never overcome the goal of studying the Scriptures together.
If you keep your goal in mind, you will keep focused on the Scriptures. Tangents will threaten to take you down a rabbit trail, but you will guide them back to the solid ground of the Word. Wrong answers will be offered, but you will arrive at the truth. Real needs will arise, and you'll be surprised how they are met with Scripture. At the end of an hour or two women will be built up and equipped with the Word.
2. We allow wrong answers.
Since "all Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:17), every word is true. Each passage of Scripture was written by a man "carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Pet 1:21), who intended for his readers to understand the meaning of the passage. So Bible study is using our minds in reliance on the Holy Spirit to understand the meaning the author intended. We can then apply that meaning to our hearts and lives.
I remember sitting in one Bible study where the leader compassionately announced, "Not only are there no stupid questions here, there are no wrong answers." Her goal, of course, was to put women at ease and promote uninhibited discussion. She rightly wanted the women who didn't know much about the Scriptures to feel comfortable expressing their opinions. However, in the process she jettisoned the objective truth of the Bible. In fact, there are right and wrong interpretations. Group Bible study is a place where we search together for the right interpretations—the truth of the passage.
As the leader of a Bible study, you certainly don't need to be a lioness ready to pounce on wrong answers. Someone else in the group may give the right answer, and you can simply affirm it. Or maybe the issue is so small it doesn't need to be addressed directly. You can just direct attention back to the verse at hand without comment. At the same time, we shouldn't be afraid of correcting wrong answers. We should be prepared to gently give biblical reasons why some answers are wrong.
3. We rely on the wrong materials.
The primary text required for a Bible study is . . . a Bible. This statement is also obvious, but it is one of which we should continually remind ourselves. There is nothing inadequate about getting together for a discussion through a book of the Bible with just a Bible. Study guides can help, but not all study guides are created equal.
The psalmist does call the Scriptures sweeter than honey, but you don't want a study guide that gives women a taste for candy that will leave them malnourished rather than giving them a satisfying meal. Many video Bible studies give more heat than light. John Piper has some powerful book studies with video. Nancy Guthrie and Tim Keller have put out excellent gospel-centered Bible studies with video components. The Gospel Coalition, partnering with Lifeway, plans to release two such studies at their upcoming women's conference. However, an undiscerning diet of video can neglect to teach women how to study the Bible for themselves and leave them thinking they need a dramatic speaker to make the Bible interesting and relevant to their lives.
The best study guides help women dig deeper into the Scriptures without spoon-feeding them answers before they have a chance to think for themselves. They are centered on God and cause women to know him better. They explain verses in context and encourage women to keep the big picture of the gospel in mind. The right guide will lead women to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teaching. The fruit will be a deeper knowledge of the Savior that causes women to trust him more in their daily lives.
4. We neglect the gospel.
The fact that Jesus Christ died for sinners makes all the difference in the world and in our daily lives. It is the reason we gather to study the Bible, yet we can meet week after week and forget that we are sinners who can only please God by his grace. The gospel is the foundation for every good work of the Christian, and it is our hope whenever we sin. Since Christ fulfills the Law, Prophets, and Psalms (Luke 24:44), we can find him on every page of Scripture. If we're digging for the meaning of the text, God's gracious work in Christ will shine through. Believers will be encouraged to live in light of gospel truths, and unbelievers will be challenged to repent and believe.
5. We elevate method over meaning.
I'm a huge fan of inductive Bible study in which we ask observation, interpretation, and then application questions to draw out the meaning of a text and put it into practice. (I've written two such studies specifically for women available through Cruciform Press.) However, if the method of Bible study becomes more important than finding the meaning of the text, you can wind up batting around answers to questions, or just observing a lot of facts about a passage, while never arriving at any conclusions about the true meaning of the text. This process leaves some women frustrated and others unaware that there is any meaning to Scripture at all.
Observation of the passage should always lead us clearly to the meaning of the text. The point of Bible study is finding out what the author originally intended to convey. Then we can apply it personally to our lives.
6. We jump to application.
One of the most important things to prevent in a women's Bible study is applying the Scripture without first understanding the meaning of the passage. One commonly misused passage is in John 6. A boy generously gives his five loaves and two fish to Jesus, who then multiplies them to feed 5,000 men plus women and children. Too often, the moral of the story is, "Give Jesus whatever little bit you have, and he will multiply it!" But the real point of John 6 is so much bigger and more glorious! Jesus multiplied the bread and fish as a sign to show, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst" (John 6:35). The application is not to give Jesus bread but rather to eat bread, his body; in other words, trust in Christ and have life!
When we neglect the true meaning of a passage and attempt to apply it to our lives, we end up not really applying Scripture at all. Scripture loses its power to renew our minds and transform us and instead becomes a quick fix to an easier life. When we don't dig in and think hard to find the meaning of a text, we end up trivializing it and become man-centered in our application rather than having our eyes opened to the greatness of God. We must work hard to find the true meaning of texts and then think through how they apply to our lives.
7. We divorce study from the church.
Not all Bible study is church-based. Outreach-oriented Bible studies in a neighborhood, school, or workplace can bear much fruit. However, if you want to see exponential spiritual growth in women, keep your Bible study under the authority of a local church. Women in a local church sit under the same preaching of God's Word, so they are already becoming united in their theology. When a difficult question arises they come at it from the same foundation and can check their conclusions with pastors and elders. Those elders also provide oversight and advice about materials and leadership, as they care for women's souls. In addition to individual spiritual growth, a church-based women's Bible study builds up the entire church as women know one another intimately and form lasting bonds of friendship.
At the United Christian Church of Dubai, I have the privilege of studying the Bible with women from Africa, the Middle East, India, Europe, Australia, East Asia, and North and South America. We come from a wide variety of cultures and religious backgrounds. We speak with varying accents and don't have the same colored skin. We come to the Scriptures with different views on politics, parenting, and many other secondary issues. Our differences have caused us to dig deeper for universal truth in the Word of God to apply to our varying stages of life and circumstances. We have found it to be true that when women in a local church gather to study the Scriptures together, it promotes unity and ignites spiritual growth.
Studying the Bible together is a great joy! Mary, who sat at Jesus' feet, chose the good portion described in Psalm 16: "The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. . . . You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Psalm 16:5, 11). Mary desired the fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore found in Jesus. Two thousand years later, Jesus is still the source of joy. There is great reward in sitting at his feet and learning from him. When women put distractions aside and pursue Christ in his Word together, they choose the good portion. They become more theologically minded and grounded in the Scriptures as they are enriched and unified along the way.
Editors' note: The Gospel Coalition 2014 Women's Conference features nine workshops on theology, Bible competency, and how to teach other women the Scriptures. Teachers include Don Carson, Kathleen Nielson, and Paige Brown. Check out the complete list of workshops and register to join us June 27 to 29 in Orlando.