OK, so I've got a confession to make: I am smart and I’m not ashamed to admit it.
It is not the kind of thing I like to admit. Anyone who’s ever been accused of being smart has probably run into bullying on more than a few occasions growing up. As a kid, I learned very quickly that letting on to my higher-than-average scholastic aptitude was a quick way to make enemies. This was especially true growing up as a black kid in Compton’s public schools where I was often called a “nerd”, “oreo”, “sellout”, “traitor”, or “white boy”. In fact, I was more accustomed to being called “Steve Urkel” than by my real name (the fact that I had to wear thick, plastic Medi-Cal glasses since kindergarten made it all the more worse).
This treatment didn’t stop at the playground either. I was also bullied at church for years. This was mostly because I always tried to be the first to answer all of the questions in Sunday School. When it came time for the class to review what was learned, I was often handed the microphone to speak for the class. I really enjoyed learning about the bible and talking about what I learned. I was equally puzzled by the seeming lack of interest by others who were around me. Much of my trouble was admittedly due to my own ego, wanting to show others how smart I was about the Bible. I wasn’t very good at sports or games, so I didn’t have very much else to lean on other than piano playing. I thought at least my growing musical abilities would compensate for my social shortcomings since musicians were both cool and popular in the church.
As a self-proclaimed Bible nerd, I view scripture in a way that most people I know do not. I see the Bible as a fascinating, Holy Spirit inspired work of literary perfection that contains beauty and meaning in every written word. There is nothing about the Bible that isn’t worth reading, teaching, or discussing. I enjoy things like knowing the meaning of Hebrew and Greek words. I like studying the history of people and places in the Bible. Biblical hermeneutics and systematic theology are both fun and interesting. I use dictionaries, concordances, encyclopedias, lectures, sermons, interlinears, and a growing list of translations that help me to dig into the Bible on a molecular level. I am always surprised at how rich and relevant every biblical concept is to my life as a human being.
I thought that these were the kinds of things that many other Christians I knew would enjoy too, but I have rarely found that to be the case. Though my own lack of maturity and experience has led me to make mistakes in how I have used my bible knowledge, I have often felt out of place or marginalized for wanting to share in a deeper study of the Bible. There is a spirit of anti-intellectualism in the church that seems to reject the idea that a deep study of the bible is meaningful or important. There are many who share the attitude that most lay people shouldn’t care about using dictionaries or commentaries. Certain topics are ignored. Entire books of the Bible are never heard of in sermons (when’s the last time you heard a sermon from Joel or Jude?). Much of the Old Testament is treated as irrelevant. Scriptures are often used out of context or are used in a purely allegorical way to prove a point.
It is true that I have made a lot of mistakes in my use of Bible knowledge. I’ve preached a few “seminary” sermons — sermons that used too many big, doctrinal words and lofty concepts. I always feel really bad about those messages. I have also been known to ask some pretty deep questions during Bible studies and probably annoyed other people with my barrage of interruptions and comments (even though many were probably too nice to make a fuss). I’ve been guilty of trying to beat people down with scripture and getting nit-picky or critical about the things people would say about various scriptures. I have truly struggled with the pride that comes from growing in knowledge. And in spite of this, God’s grace has covered me so much that He has used me to speak His truths in spite of my inadequacies.
However, instead of finding the Priscilla’s and Aquila’s of the church who would be willing to “[explain] the way of God even more accurately” (Acts 18:26 NLT), I have often felt dismissed and told (in so many words) to go find people of my own kind, as though I should enroll in some exclusive community of Berean outsiders. I am generally perceived as argumentative and quarrelsome for wanting to discuss the difference in views regarding Calvanism vs Arminianism. I’ve been called arrogant for pointing out plagiarism in sermons. Questioning controversial practices like the sinner’s prayer or rebuking Satan has caused me to be labeled as judgmental. To others, I am no better than the people that Paul rebuked in 1 Timothy as wasting time on “myths and endless genealogies” (1 Timothy 1:4 NASB).
All of these experiences led me to become timid about speaking out and defending truth. I started to become quiet and spent much less time studying the bible than I used to. I focused on serving in the church and working in music ministry. I did my best to ignore error and overlook mistakes. Besides, who was I to judge the mistakes of others when I am young and untrained myself? Weren’t some people still growing and working hard in the church in spite of the heavily allegorical preaching and superficial interpretations of scripture? I had become resigned to the belief that I was never going to grow much in my knowledge of the scripture at the local black churches that I had been accustomed to, and I was just going to have to wait for a good opportunity to find another ministry (read “white church”) from which my unique needs could be met.
Then one day and out the blue, I came to the realization that I had departed so far from a living knowledge of God’s grace that I had not even seen the trail of destruction I had left in my wake. I felt like I ruined myself as a leader in my church, having made mistake after mistake in my dealings with others. When faced with the hardest trial of my life, I did not have the spiritual equipping that I needed to pass the test. I had bottled up so many of my feelings that I just exploded into a mess of hurt emotions.
Then it finally hit me. I was angry at myself for letting others convince me to abandon a high view of scripture in favor of just doing my job in the church and wearing my titles. Instead of giving myself more to praying and to the reading and studying of the Bible, I had lost my passion. I had abandoned my first love and my conscience had been sullied. There was no excuse — I was fully responsible for the sin in my own life and for the neglect that I had fostered.
I’m not saying that serving in the church was not useful— I’m just admitting that I used my service to neglect a very important spiritual gift. Because of grace, I was able to do much good through the encouragement and exhortation of music ministry and served with some amazing people. I’ve had the great opportunity to share my musical talents with many churches and choirs. I have also loved opportunities to get out into the community and share Christ and to visit nursing homes and hospitals. I don’t say these things to tout my accomplishments, but merely to make the point that God has used me to do amazing things even in spite of myself. Yet it is as the scriptures have said: “to obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22 NLT).
So today, I’m officially here to announce that this Bible nerd is back! I’m finally ready to embrace the fact that God has given me both brains and intellect to use for His glory. No longer will I accept the anti-intellectual sentiment that some Christians hold. I will seek to teach God’s Word in its fullness and to share that fullness with anyone who will listen. I have a renewed passion to confront error with truth, and to defend the right teaching of God’s Word.
In all of this, I know that I must remain committed to love, action, and gentleness. God does not want us to gain knowledge for knowledge’s sake — that just produces pride. Knowing God through the scriptures should produce a life marked by love for others, peacemaking, and holy living that can’t be criticized by those outside or inside the church. As Christians, we must remain faithful to the major things, and not let minor things that can’t be reasonably resolved by the clarity of scripture divide us.
The old me didn’t understand these things fully because I lacked an understanding of God’s grace. The new me flourishes in the reality that, even in spite of my ignorance, He still hasn’t given up on me. Certainly, the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. And that’s OK, because God will reveal everything in its proper time.
I want to share this final closing thought. I‘ve been studying 1 and 2 Timothy lately, listening and re-listening to the NLT audio version on the YouVersion bible app over 25 times so far. It has given me such great encouragement to identify with the young Pastor Timothy as Paul shared some fatherly advice. I wonder if this time in my life matches that of Timothy’s when Paul wrote to him these words:
“This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord.”
“Hold on to the pattern of wholesome teaching you learned from me — a pattern shaped by the faith and love that you have in Christ Jesus. Through the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us, carefully guard the precious truth that has been entrusted to you” (2 Timothy 1:6–8, 13–14 NLT)